John C. Lilly, biocomputers and the difficulty of studying consciousness

It is my firm believe that the experience of higher states of consciousness is necessary for survival of the human raze.
― John C. Lilly, The center

John C. Lilly wrote the books The Center of the Cyclone and Programming & Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer and is the father of the term bio-computing.

Many of the things he explored in his life are entry points to areas where science hasn’t reached yet. But here is the thing, the deeper you go into researching Lilly, the more bizarre the story gets, the more he disregards the scientific method and the more esoteric it all becomes. In any case, Lilly introduced some very interesting concepts that are all that more relevant today than ever and we should take his ideas as inspiration, not as a dogma.


Lilly proposed that the brain is a huge biocomputer, of certain universal quality that can run many series of programs, that come loaded with programs but can run many different kind of them.

All human beings, all persons who reach adulthood in the world today are programmed biocomputers. No one of us can escape our own nature as programmable entities. Literally, each of us may be our programs, nothing more, nothing less.

—John C. Lilly, Simulations of God: A Science of Belief, in preparation, 1972.


One of the most important consequences of the idea of the brain as a computer is metaprogramming. This universal biocomputer has—theoretically—full control over the programs it runs and can alter said programming itself.

To avoid the necessity of repeating learning to learn, symbols, metaphors, models each time, I symbolize the underlying idea in these operations as metaprogramming. Metaprogramming appears at a critical cortical size — the cerebral computer must have a large enough number of interconnected circuits of sufficient quality for the operations of metaprogramming to exist in that biocomputer.

Essentially, metaprogramming is an operation in which a central control system controls hundreds of thousands of programs operating in parallel simultaneously. This operation in 1972 is not yet done in man-made computers — metaprogramming is done outside the big solid-state computers by the human programmers, or more properly, the human metaprogrammers. All choices and assignments of what the solid-state computers do, how they operate, what goes into them are still human biocomputer choices. Eventually, we may construct a metaprogramming computer, and turn these choices over to it.

—John C. Lilly, Simulations of God: A Science of Belief, in preparation, 1972.

Consciousness, ego and many minds

Lilly explains that the ego, the thing we call self is a high-level program that runs all the subroutines of the brain.

As out of several hundreds of thousands of the substrate programs comes an adaptable changing set of thousands of meta-programs, so out of the metaprograms as substrate comes something else — the controller, the steersman, the programmer in the biocomputer, the self-metaprogrammer. In a well-organized biocomputer, there is at least one such critical control meta-program labeled I for acting on other metaprograms and labeled me when acted upon by other metaprograms. I say at least one advisedly. Most of us have several controllers, selves, self-meta-programs which divide control among them, either in time parallel or in time series in sequences of control. [O]ne path for self development is to centralize control of one’s biocomputer in one self-metaprogrammer, making the others into conscious executives subordinate to the single administrator, the single superconscient self-metaprogrammer. With appropriate methods, this centralizing of control, the elementary unification operation, is a realizable state for many, if not all biocomputers.

—John C. Lilly, Simulations of God: A Science of Belief, in preparation, 1972.

Rejecting the study of consciousness

“Being driven to a set of assumptions because one is afraid of another set and their consequences is the most passionate and nonobjective kind of philosophy.”
― John C. Lilly

I suspect that one of the things that turn off most people interested in the studies of the mind and consciousness is the lack of rigor from most intellectuals in the field. I’m afraid Lilly fell in that trap as well. Sharing his learnings becomes meaningless when those teachings are entirely subjective. I propose looking at the teachings of Lilly, Leary, and others simply as sources of inspiration for more meticulous studies.

I appreciate anybody who dedicates their life to exploring the questions that science is not focused on or can’t find an explanation for. We need to be cautious, and approach the research in a methodological way, and apply the scientific method. Will we ever get to an absolute truth when talking about subjetive states of consciousness? I don’t know, but at least I hope we will be able to find a framework to study the mind that is reliable.

“In the province of the mind, what one believes to be true is true or becomes true, within certain limits to be found experientially and experimentally. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the mind, there are no limits.”
― John C. Lilly

Final words

“My philosophy: Don’t get caught with a fixed philosophy, a set of safe beliefs, a particular way of life.

Experiment! With life, with love.

Run an exploration of the real and the true degrees of freedom of life, of love, of the human condition, inside self and in one’s style of life.

Move! Into new spaces beyond one’s present concepts of possible/probable/certain real spaces.

Far vaster than I now know are the innermost/outermost realities.

Far more interesting than I now feel are the deeps of the space, the beyond within, the infinite without.

Love and loving are basic.

Hostility is redundant.

Fear is non-sense.

“Death” is a myth.

I am I.”
― John C. Lilly


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