Epiphanies and Cascading System Failures

American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick (whose work inspired “Blade Runner”) got a bit crazy as he aged. He often believed that some small incident or accidentally seen image had radically altered his mind. While Dick may have been on his way to mental instability, there is nothing wrong with the concept of a seemingly insignificant “something” causing massive changes in the mind. The unconscious mind definitely works on associative principles, which means a small change in input can bring about a huge change in outcome, just the situation Dick foresaw and both feared and felt in awe of. In Dick’s case, the fear fed a growing sense of paranoia and spawned conspiracy theories featuring him as the target. The numinous awe convinced him he was getting messages from God.

Philip K. Dick

American science fiction writer Philip K. Dick fell victim to a mental cascading system failure and mistook it for an epiphany. (Photo: Wikipedia)

This idea of a small input radically altering the mind is akin to “cascading system failure.” We are talking about how some things ramify on a large scale. You may remember Data’s use of the term in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode, the one where he builds an experimental android “daughter” who subsequently becomes too emotional and “dies.” In the case of a system failure, we are describing a negative outcome from the extensive ramification. We could say that Philip K. Dick’s bizarre “2-3-74″ (February-March-1974) visions provoked a mental cascading system failure. After the collapse of his sanity, he turned out a one-million word, 8000-page journal called his “Exegesis.” It took this immense quantity of text to “explain” what had happened in just a few incidents.

If the ramification is positive, then we have an epiphany, a moment of sudden understanding or great revelation where abruptly we see how all the bits fit together. In these cases, what started the ramification process has turned out to be a key piece of information needed to link together a large set of previously acquired ideas. Christians, who used the word to indicate a sudden conversion to the faith, first described the epiphany experience. The connection between mainstream religion and epiphany sometimes deludes people such as Dick into believing their mind-altering experiences are positive and life enhancing when in fact they are negative and life degrading.

A cascade system failure is the opposite of an epiphany. It is a sort of negative epiphany. A negative epiphany is psychological trauma. For example, a life setback that prompts the sudden realization that you are not the splendid false persona you thought yourself to be can start a devastating ramification process that ends in a serious nervous breakdown.

It is important to observe that the authentic self, the unique set of emotionally important ideas that define who we are, and which is the origin of our genuine will, can survive a cascading system failure or an epiphany. Lunatics sometimes do regain their sanity, sufferers of nervous breakdowns can pull themselves together, and the religious will often see the real light and escape from the benighted clutches of their abrupt conversions. All of these recoveries are the result of the (often-troubled) emergence into conscious awareness of the constant authentic healing self.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

6 thoughts on “Epiphanies and Cascading System Failures”

  1. You put the rationalist argument as well as ever. Thomas (she said, smugly and still irrational). This experience of Philip K Dick is touched on in Colin Wilson’s ‘Beyond the Occult’ (the views of which I largely share).

  2. We all believe what we want to believe, Lucinda, and we all have our (often-complicated) reasons for choosing a particular set of beliefs. The important thing is to make sure you have tapped into your authentic self and are not just making arbitrary decisions with your conscious mind. That said, I do think it wise to apply correctives where possible. (As outlined in my earlier post, “Filter the Junk from Your Experience.”) Getting too far away from reality can work strongly against you in the end. Philip K. Dick is a case in point. I hope you don’t believe his “experiences” made him happy. He became a deeply troubled man living a lifestyle not unlike that of drug addicts and alcoholics. He was seriously mentally ill. This is why I studied him.

    I feel I’m fortunate in that I genuinely like to experience the world as it verifiably is. As a young emotionally disturbed man, I read many occult books, but found that I could not believe any of them. Christianity got a long look, as did Buddhism and Taoism, but I rejected them all. My choice was the Western scientific paradigm with the qualifier that you must always be aware that scientists are human and make mistakes. I enjoy reality and read a lot of non-fiction for that very reason. Accuracy matters to me because it is effective and allows me to keep expanding my understanding of the world around me. Wisdom is a great comfort. Irrational beliefs (until they turn on you) are mere superstition or entertainment.

  3. Hello, again, Thomas. No indeed, poor Philip K Dick’s experiences made him wretched. I found no one belief system adequate in isolation, I think they all have insights but haven’t found any adequate by itself. That is why I find Colin Wilson’s book so impressive; also, he doesn’t shy away from a belief in the dark aspects of the unknown, lol, there speaks the Gothic writer.

  4. You make a great point about one belief system being inadequate in isolation. I rejected Buddhism and Taoism, but I have adopted ideas from these beliefs either directly through my own reading or by way of Jung who was deeply influenced by both.

  5. Samuel Beckett said of Jung that he “couldn’t cure a fly of neurosis.” Ian McGilchrist has recently solved the Axiom of Maria without referring to it (the only way to do it I’d argue) in his book “The Master and His Emissary: the Making of the Western Mind.” I highly recommend it. The left hemisphere re-presents. The left hemisphere’s hubris means it wants to totally conceptualise lived experience. The Axiom of Maria is an attempt to complete this project 1) right hemisphere 2) left hemisphere 3) unity of the two preceding terms. All empty concepts. There is no bringing them together in a representative world. They find unity in the real reverberative world. Romanticism is good. Metaphor is what brings us back from abstract representative cascading psychological failures.

  6. Isaac, I am a manic-depressive – what in modern parlance they call a “bipolar one” – and have spent many years in some pretty rugged psychotherapy. In my case, it was contemporary cognitive behaviour therapy (legalized psychological warfare, if you ask me!), but I paralleled the professional therapy with a deep immersion in Jung’s analytical psychology accessing the ideas through Jung’s own writings and the interpretive work of the German-Swiss author Hermann Hesse.

    I can say with complete honesty that I found Jung immensely useful, especially in that his approach allowed me to conceptualize my own situation in a positive manner. I did not have to classify myself as a broken down half-mad loser, but could instead see myself as an intrepid psychological explorer on the rocky road to full individuation and a very different way of relating to the world. I integrated Jung’s work with that of creativity researchers, added some philosophy, took due note of the human need for some kind of spirituality, and worked the whole thing into a personal philosophy of life. This blog presents both the struggle and the results.

    You mention the Axiom of Maria, an old alchemical concept. As Jung realized, alchemy makes a useful psychological metaphor, one that I have employed myself in more than one blog post. Its utility stems from the role model provided by the long-term thinking and dedication of those pre-chemistry practitioners and from the notion of steady refinement. However, there is no need to unite the conscious and unconscious minds. It is only necessary that the conscious ego understand the proper role of the unconscious and raise from it all those things that by rights should be conscious.

    I will leave the question of romanticism’s “goodness” for my reply to your comment on “Romanticism’s Claim on Individuality.”

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