VALIS “Vast Acting Living Intelligence System”: The Invasion of Philip K. Dick’s Mind

This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 8 No 4 (August 2014)

In an interview with English journalist Charles Platt in 1979, the American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick claimed that in the spring of 1974 his mind was taken over by something he described as a “transcendentally rational mind.” Dick added that up until that point he felt as if he had “been insane all of my life and suddenly I had become sane.” What could he have meant by such a strange comment? Was it simply writer’s imagination or was it something of significance? Dick certainly thought so.

Philip K. Dick (1928-1982) is considered by many to be one of the greatest American writers of the second half of the twentieth century. This was recognised by fellow author Ursula LeGuin when she called him our “home grown Borges” in reference to the works of the great Argentinian writer.

But Philip K. Dick was more than just a writer; he was a philosopher who described in his short stories and novels a view of the world brought about from his own experiences. In the final few years of his all-too-short career he wrote a series of semi-autobiographical novels describing his encounter with this entity that invaded his consciousness. The most famous of these novels is VALIS but in many ways the one that most closely follows Dick’s actual encounter is his posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth, recently made into an intriguing movie of the same title written, produced and directed by Los Angeles based John Alan Simon.

There is strong evidence that the entity Phil was later to call VALIS, “Vast Acting Living Intelligence System,” had been with him for most of his life, only made more manifest through a series of neurological facilitators (both natural and artificial) that affected Dick in the early 1970s. 

From a very early age there was something distinctly odd about Philip K. Dick. He was a quiet, somewhat introverted child, recovering from the loss of his twin sister Jane, who died soon after they were born in a cold Chicago December in 1928, and the subsequent abandonment of his father a few years later. As he grew older he was clearly highly intelligent but with certain neurological and psychological problems that caused him difficulties at school. These issues tended to come to the surface during periods of stress such as exams. The young Phil would suffer from vertigo attacks together with strong feelings of disassociation from the physical world. He once described the sensation as like viewing the world through the wrong end of a telescope. It was in one crucial physics exam that something very peculiar took place.

In an interview with his friend Greg Rickman recorded in October 1981, Dick described how the exam was not going at all well:

I sat for almost two hours staring at the page and my college entrance depended on getting that test right. It was the final test… I didn’t understand the principle. I didn’t even remember the principle let alone know how to apply it. I prayed and prayed and prayed and prayed and then this voice clicked in and said… “the principle is really very simple.” And then it went on and stated the principle and it explained how it was applied… I got (the test) back with an “A.”1

Dick believed this “entity” was some form of “guide” that was to become a permanent fixture in his life, lying dormant for years but involving itself in his life and in times of great crisis. In another interview Rickman asked Dick if the voice had ever returned. The writer described that although he regularly sensed its presence its verbal comments were very rare. Dick cited one particularly odd manifestation that took place in the late 1960s. 

He described how he had been watching a TV programme about the Galapagos turtles. The fight for survival of one particular female turtle had really upset him. After laying her eggs she had turned in the wrong direction and instead of going towards the sea she crawled inland. Soon the heat brought about extreme dehydration. She was dying. As she began to fade her legs were still seen to be moving. The film had been edited to give the impression that the dying turtle was imagining she was back in the ocean. He went to bed with this tragic image in his mind. He woke up in the night to hear the same voice that he had heard many years before during his physics exam. It explained to him that the turtle actually believed she was in the water:

I was just terribly amazed and dumbfounded to hear that voice again. It wasn’t my own voice because one of the sentences the voice said was “And she shall see the sea” and I would not use the two words “see” and “sea” in the same sentence. It tends to do that, use word choices I don’t use. One time it used the expression “a very poisonous poison” which I would not use.2

Dick was intrigued by the source of this “voice.” It was clearly located within his brain and yet it used terminology and word structures that were alien to him. Indeed, it was clear from his childhood exam experience that this being knew things he did not know. 

By the late 1970s Dick discovered a possible answer to this mystery. At that time he had encountered the theories of Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes. A few years before, in 1976, Jaynes had written a highly influential book entitled The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Jaynes suggested the brains of ancient human beings may have been “bicameral.” By “bicameral” Jaynes meant that the twin hemispheres of our ancestors brains were isolated from each other. Whereas modern humans understand that the “inner narrative” we all use to decide upon our actions is all part of a singular “self,” the ancients did not. They heard the “inner voice” and identified it with the voice of the gods. Jaynes then argued that at around 1000 BCE the two hemispheres somehow merged into a unitary consciousness of the sort experienced today. He was of the opinion that certain neurological conditions such as schizophrenia are a throwback to this earlier dual state of consciousness. In this way he attempted to explain how certain individuals hear voices which give instructions, criticise or assist on a regular basis.

Dick suggested to Rickman this may have been the source of his lifelong “partner,” a subliminal and much wiser version of himself located in his right hemisphere:

I have that. I have that right hemisphere intuition thing occur. Unless you know what it is it does seem like psychic power. That’s the way the right hemisphere works. It’s got to work like that…. And it seems as if it knows the future. What it sees is in the way of a pattern, and part of a pattern is still yet to come. It is actually seeing part of a pattern that is not fully emerged. It can tell from the section it has what the total pattern will be like. It can fill in the missing part.3

His comment here is of significance. He is suggesting this life-long partner has “psychic power” and that it uses these powers to assist its less able associate located in the left hemisphere. The question that has to be answered is how can something located within the brain have access to information not available via the everyday senses? A clue may lie in another very curious incident that Dick described in a 1977 interview with journalist Richard Lupoff. This is worth quoting in full:

Back at the time I was starting to write science fiction, I was asleep one night and I woke up and there was a figure standing at the edge of the bed, looking down at me. I grunted in amazement and all of a sudden my wife woke up and started screaming because she could see it too. She started screaming, but I recognised it and I started reassuring her, saying that it was me that was there and not to be afraid. Within the last two years – let’s say that was in 1951 – I’ve dreamed almost every night that I was back in that house, and I have a strong feeling that back then in 1951 or ’52 that I saw my future self, who had somehow, in some way we don’t understand – I wouldn’t call it occult – passed backward during one of my dreams now of that house, going back there and seeing myself again. So there really are some strange things…4

What Dick is suggesting here is that his future self was able to go back in time and experience from another location in space an earlier life-incident. Note there are two viewpoints here. Dick’s older self does not re-live the experience from the viewpoint of his younger self. He sees it as an outside observer. This suggests either a very strange time-slip or else that in some profound way part of Phillip K. Dick could view from the present incidents from his own past. What if the consciousness existing in Dick’s older right hemisphere perceives the whole of his life from a vantage point outside of linear time and as such it can travel anywhere within the author’s time-line? If this was the case then from its vantage point it is totally precognitive. It knows the outcome of every decision that its linear-time existing partner will make.

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This suggests a stunning explanation: that the guiding voice may have been Dick’s own future self guiding from the future. That the author had on-going access to information known to his future self is evidenced from the way in which Dick frequently claimed that his fictional plot-lines came from his future experiences. He cited a handful of quite startling “future experiences” that turned up in his earlier fictional writings. For example, here Phil describes how an incident in his book Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said actually came to pass many years later:

In 1970 I wrote a novel called Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. One of the characters is a nineteen-year-old girl named Kathy. Her husband’s name is Jack. Kathy appears to work for the criminal underground, but later, as we read deeper into the novel, we discover that actually she is working for the police. She has a relationship going on with a police inspector. The character is pure fiction. Or at least I thought it was. Anyhow, on Christmas Day of 1970, I met a girl named Kathy – this was after I had finished the novel, you understand. She was nineteen years old. Her boyfriend was named Jack. I soon learned that Kathy was a drug dealer. I spent months trying to get her to give up dealing drugs; I kept warning her again and again that she would get caught. Then, one evening as we were entering a restaurant together, Kathy stopped short and said, “I can’t go in.” Seated in the restaurant was a police inspector whom I knew. “I have to tell you the truth,” Kathy said. “I have a relationship with him.” Certainly, these are odd coincidences. Perhaps I have precognition.5

Is it possible that in writing Flow My Tears Dick incorporated subliminal “future memories” into his work of fiction? As we know, most writers use visualisation techniques in which they allow their subconscious to take the story where it needs to go. Could it be that Phil simply accessed the “memories” of his own non-dominant hemisphere? There was a second incident in Dick’s life in which he found himself experiencing in real life an event he described in Flow My Tears.

In the book one of the characters, Felix Buckman, meets a black stranger at an all-night gas station. Buckman is in a very emotional state as he has just heard that his sister had died. The stranger and Buckman make an emotional link. Buckman then walks away, only to return and hug the man a few minutes later. Four years after writing the novel Phil found himself helping out a stranger in an all-night gas station when he was overcome with a powerful déjà vu sensation:

Suddenly I realised that this was the scene in my novel – the novel written eight years before. The all-night gas station was exactly as I had envisioned it in my inner eye when I wrote the scene – the glaring white light, the pump jockey – and now I saw something which I had not seen before. The stranger who I was helping was black. We drove back to his stalled car with the gas, shook hands, and then I returned to my apartment building. I never saw him again. He could not pay me back because I had not told him which of the many apartments was mine or what my name was. I was terribly shaken up by this experience. I had literally lived out a scene completely as it had appeared in my novel.6

Dick wrote Flow My Tears in the early 1970s, a period in his life in which he had become fascinated by the workings of the two hemispheres of the brain. As we have already seen, Dick had been intrigued by the work of Julian Jaynes. He had also become aware of the surgical operations of Roger Sperry, a neurosurgeon based at the Californian Institute of Technology. Sperry and his associate Michael Gazzaniga had operated on the brains of individuals with severe epilepsy. It was believed that by cutting the communication channels between the two hemispheres of the brain they could stop seizures spreading across the whole brain. In their initial aim they succeeded, the patients showed a marked improvement. But there were intriguing side-effects including the bizarre observation that the patients had become dual personalities. In effect, Sperry and Gazzaniga had created a neurological situation similar to Jaynes’ bicameralism. Dick was fascinated by the implications of these operations and wondered if his own “inner voice” could be explained by this outcome.

In early March 1974 Dick read an article in the popular science magazine Psychology Today that suggested he could check out his suspicions regarding his own mental duality. The author of the article Harvey Ross described how the condition of a young boy with severe schizophrenically-induced visions was improved by the introduction of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet supplemented by a cocktail of vitamins. Ross gave the recipe for the cocktail and included in it the instructions that 500 mg of vitamin C should be taken in the first month with an increase to 1,000 mg for the second month onwards. Ross argued that the large dose of vitamins brings about a marked improvement in the firing of brain cells (neurons) which, in turn, facilitates the synchronisation of the two hemispheres of the brain.7

As such Dick was very excited by this discovery. This was a way for him to cure himself of his own “bicameralism,” reconnect the two hemispheres of his brain, and finally open up direct, rather than arbitrary, communication with the part of him that had identified itself as being his “Tutelary Spirit.” As the cocktail of vitamins were all water soluble and easily available from any pharmacist, Dick decided he would try this himself. He was already aware of the developments in neurology suggesting that the right and left hemispheres of the brain function independently and that most “normal” people only use their “dominant” hemisphere. For Phil it was logical to conclude that by using Ross’s recipe human consciousness could be raised onto another level of awareness:

It occurred to me that maybe in a normal person with normal, which is to say, average synchronisation, it might cause firing to take place so efficiently that both hemispheres of the brain might come on together.8

He then goes on to describe how, after taking the dose, he found that his two hemispheres did, indeed, “came on together” as he termed it. According to one of his biographers, Lawrence Sutin, Dick actually got the recipe wrong and ending up taking seven grams more vitamin C than he should have.9

This “coming together” may have facilitated the most intriguing part of Dick’s life; a series of events that took place in February and March 1974 that he was later to describe as being his “theophany.” His use of wording here is quite precise. “Theophany” is Greek for “the appearance of God” and this is exactly what Phil believed took place over that period. It seems that the overdose of vitamin C, mixed with a cocktail of pain killers that he was taking to relieve the symptoms of an impacted wisdom tooth, may have allowed his mysterious partner to become far more immanent in his life. He called this entity “AI,” “Firebright,” Zebra, “Sophia,” Shekinah, finally settling on “Vast Acting Living Intelligence System” (VALIS). This being became very active in Phil’s life. It organised his accounts, told him to sack his agent and even had him buy clippers to trim his somewhat unruly nose hair! 

So what was the source of this “transcendentally rational mind”? Was it really a manifestation of God that Phil believed it to be? Was it simply a misunderstood “inner dialogue” suggesting that Phil was experiencing a form of schizophrenia? An intriguing suggestion made by, among others, astrophysicist Bernard Haisch, anthropologist Martin W. Ball and comedian Bill Hicks is that we are all God and that under certain circumstances we all can access elements of the “mind of god.”

Phillip K. Dick was of a similar opinion. In his personal journal, now published under the title of The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick, Dick makes the following comment: 

we ourselves are units of God’s (the total organism’s) memory system? Suppose, for some of us at least, that (called, I think, witnessing) is our prime purpose? We are (parts of) his memory? 

Dick once described himself as a “acosmic pan-entheist.” He defined this as being somebody who doesn’t believe the universe exists in itself but is an extension of God in space and time. For Phil, God exists outside of space and time and extends himself into space-time.

In his novel VALIS he described this as being a “concealed god” who takes on the likeness of “sticks and trees and beer cans in gutters,” later adding that God subsequently becomes “debris no longer noticed.” In the Exegesis he went further: “Premise: things are inside out… Therefore the right place to look for the almighty is, e.g., in the trash in the alley.”

In this model, what exactly is “God”? It is clear Dick was not describing the Western concept of a personal deity but more the Eastern idea of an impersonal life-force that permeates everything. Recent work by researchers such as Vlatko Vedral,10 Tom Campbell11 Nick Bostrom, and Frank Tipler12 suggests the great mystery of the mind-matter split can be explained if that at a more fundamental level everything is simply mathematical information. 

In his book Decoding Reality, quantum physicist Vedral presents support for such a belief. In effect, the universe and everything in it is a huge “computer” program containing the en-coded information of everything that has happened and can happen. This “program” exists outside of space-time (as space-time itself is part of the program). In a quotation that could have been taken from Dick’s Exegesis, French mathematician Alain Connes, made the following observation:

It is humility, finally, that forces me to admit that the mathematical world exists independently of the manner in which we apprehend it, that it isn’t localised in time and space. But the manner in which we apprehend it is subject to rules very similar to those of biology. The evaluation of our perception of mathematical reality causes a new sense to develop, which gives us access to a reality that is neither visual nor auditory, but something else altogether.13

As we are all elements of the program, it is logical to conclude that under certain circumstances we may be able to perceive information within the program. This information (or in-formation as it was termed by another great scientist-philosopher, David Bohm) is analogous to the digitised data found encoded within the reflective surface of a DVD. The DVD contains ALL the information of the respective movie, video game or whatever linear narrative it has been created to re-create. But the linear nature only exists from the viewpoint of the observer. In actuality, all the information exists in a single location, in this case the DVD itself. Many years ago Philip K. Dick made a similar analogy using the technology of his time, a long-playing gramophone record. The information system that the physical universe is based:

…contains in it as a simultaneous plane or extension everything which was, just as the grooves on an LP contain the part of the music which has already been played; they don’t disappear after the stylus tracks them. A phonograph record is, actually, a long helical spiral, and can be represented entirely in a plane geometry sort of way: in space, although I suppose you can talk about the stylus accumulating the music as it goes along.14

Does this explain the origin of Dick’s “transcendentally rational mind”? Was he actually accessing the information field from which everything that we perceive is constructed? Or was it simply that he had taken too many mind-altering substances?

Whatever the case, Philip K. Dick’s encounter with the noetic will continue to fascinate, beguile and intrigue all who encounter them, and, in doing so, will be the source of debate and discussion for many years to come. I hope this article may have made its own small contribution to these discussions.

The film adaption of Philip K. Dick’s novel Radio Free Albemuth was released in June 2014. The film is written, directed, and produced by John Alan Simon and stars Alanis Morissette in a lead role.
This article was published in New Dawn Special Issue Vol 8 No 4.
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1. Gregg Rickman, To The High Castle Philip K Dick: A Life 1928-1962, Fragments West, 1989, 140 
2. Gregg Rickman, Philip K. Dick: The Last Testament, Fragments West, 1985, 23
3. Ibid., 19
4. Richard A. Lupoff, ‘A Conversation with Philip K Dick’, Science Fiction Eye, Vol. 1, No. 2, August 1987, 45-54
5. Philip K. Dick, ‘How To Build A Universe That Doesn’t Fall Apart Two Days Later’, 1978,
6. Ibid.
7. Harvey M. Ross, ‘Orthomolecular Psychiatry: Vitamin Pills for Schizophrenics’, Psychology Today, April 1974
8. Philip K. Dick, The Exegesis of Philip K Dick, Hachette Littlehampton, Locations 990-991, Kindle Edition
9. Lawrence Sutin, Divine Invasions – A Life of Philip K Dick, Orion Books, 2006, 212
10. Vlatko Vedral, Decoding Reality – The Universe as Quantum Information, Oxford University Press, 2012
11. Tom Campbell, My Big Toe: A Trilogy Unifying Philosophy, Physics, and Metaphysics, Lightening Strike Books, 2007
12. Frank J. Tipler, The Physics of Immortality, MacMillan, 1994
13 Alain Connes & Jean-Pierre Changeux, Random Thoughts About Mind, Matter and Mathematics, Princeton University Press, 1995
14. Philip K. Dick, ‘Man, Android and Machine’ (1975), From The Shifting Realities of Philip K. Dick: Selected Literary and Philosophical Writings edited by Lawrence Sutin

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About the Author

Anthony Peake is the author of bestselling titles The Out-of-Body Experience and The Infinite Mindfield. He is a member of the International Association for the Study of Dreams, The Scientific & Medical Network and the Society for Psychical Research. In January 2011 he was offered, and accepted, a research fellowship at the Giordano Bruno Global Shift University. In August 2011 he was listed as one of the 200 'Visionaries' for the 21st century. He has been interviewed in, or written articles for, many magazines, including Kindred Spirit, Mindscape, Odyssey, New Dawn, PKD Otaku and Paranormal. His work was also featured in the Fortean Times Paranormal Handbook.

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