The Maddest Scientist [Trenchant Edges]

Help! I'm trape- Estimated reading time: 6 minutes, 44 seconds. Contains 1347 words

Welcome back to the Trenchant Edges, we’re wrapping up this Barf Forth Apocalyptica phase of the newsletter this month with a wider selection of topics than usual.

Trenchant as in digging deep and edges as in maps and as in cutting commentary.

Today we’re going to take a peek at someone who’s embodied the line between fringe and mainstream better than maybe anyone in the last hundred years. A professional scientist who got a staggering amount of institutional support for mad science.

The real deal, as far as these things go.

Of everyone in the “First psychedelic renaissance” (IE: White Americans notice psychedelics for the second time), he’s maybe the best embodiment of the promises, challenges, contradictions, and fatal risks of going hard into psychedelic exploration.

And he had a punishingly difficult but amazing Sega Genesis game based on him.

That’s enough teasing. I’m talking about John C Lilly.

Oh, and you can still book a time to talk with me via zoom.

Physician, Thrill Thyself

A few years ago I ran a bracket on one of my facebook pages. The first competition was between Terence McKenna and John Lilly.

And since I always like to compare my past writings with my current thoughts this will be a fun place to start:

“PSYCHEDELIC THUNDERDOME DAY 1: Terence McKenna vs John C Lilly.

Two titans of the field. The rashpunk bard who gave voice to the content of the psychedelic experience versus maybe the most radical scientist of the last hundred years. Both steeped deep in contradictions inherent in extensive self experimentation and attempting to map a rational grid on inherently arational things.

Terence is probably best known for his Timewave Zero program, novelty theory, the stoned ape theory of human revolution, and promoting the notion of a apocalyptic 2012 event. But while his pretentious towards scholarship never managed to overturn any established paradigms in the fields he wanted them to, his ability to describe psychedelic experiences and relate their contents to a wide range of subjects is probably unmatched. I could write all day about the big fish and little fish he caught or spun yarn about and all those in his wake. My favorite of his books? True Hallucinations, which mainlines a modern fairytale into any reader willing to take the time to visit it.

While Terence's was ultimately a kind of orator who worked towards a kind of scientific art useful to challenge assumptions about the nature of reality, John C Lilly was a scientist who constantly pushed for the edge of whatever field earned his interest of the moment.

Probably best known for his pioneering work with dolphins and the invention of the isolation float tank, Lilly wrote a dozen books ranging from the quasi-self help, neuroscience, and memoir. As well as maybe doing more ketamine than he should have. I'd like to wax poetic about more of his writing and contributions but I've only read two of his books, The Centre of the Cyclone and Programming and Metaprogramming the Human Biocomputer, which are both fantastic.

Both men have had wide impact on popular culture. From helping kickstart the 2012 movement to having a mess of comic books with ideas lifted from him, particularly by the writer Warren Ellis, to Lilly's legitimizing the study of nonhuman intelligence, the video game Ecco the dolphin, and several movies based on him or his work they've both impacted much more than you might initially think.”

You can see the rest of the bracket here. Spoilers: Terence Mckenna won, though it was closer than I realized and Maria Sabina, who met him in the finals, could have taken it.

Looking back, I feel like I didn’t give Dr. Lilly (he was a MD) really enough credit in this.

While he was certainly a mad lad, he’d often shoot for the kind of rigor you’d hope for from a scientist and a staggering amount of self-experimentation. Modern medical research looks at this with great suspicion, but in a world with so many medical frauds happy to try out their ideas on anyone else first there’s a kind of nobility in being willing to take the plunge yourself.

Dude was prolific about the fields he studied and made contributions in biophysics, neurophysiology, electronics, computer science, and neuroanatomy.

Lilly is probably most famous for his work in interspecies communication between humans and Dolphins. Which went in some… interesting directions.

That’s my euphemism for giving Dolphins LSD and sometimes masturbating them.

I’d like to say more here but I haven’t read his book about the experiments but I’ve got some ethics suspicions going on here and I’m far from the first to question that. But he was also instrumental in helping create the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Like Terence Mckenna, Lilly’s psychedelic explorations lead him towards an understanding of somewhat non-physical intelligences.

One of these was a hierarchy of cosmic entities called the Earth Coincidence Control Office, or uh, ECCO.

Yes, someone at Sega took this idea and turned it into a dolphin game about accidentally releasing an alien invasion and having to go back in time to fight it… as a dolphin.

It’s literally a classic.

Anyway, Lilly’s ECCO comes with a set of rules you can accept to be affected by its training program.

  1. You must know/assume/simulate our existence in E.C.C.O.

  2. You must be willing to accept our responsibility for control of your coincidences.

  3. You must exert your best capabilities for your survival programs and your own development as an advancing/advanced member of E.C.C.O.'s earthside corps of controlled coincidence workers. You are expected to use your best intelligence in this service.

  4. You are expected to expect the unexpected every minute, every hour of every day and of every night.

  5. You must be able to maintain conscious/thinking/reasoning no matter what events we arrange to happen to you. Some of these events will seem cataclysmic/catastrophic/overwhelming: remember stay aware, no matter what happens/apparently happens to you.

  6. You are in our training program for life: there is no escape from it. We (not you) control the long-term coincidences; you (not we) control the shorter-term coincidences by your own efforts.

  7. Your major mission on earth is to discover/create that which we do to control the long-term coincidence patterns: you are being trained on Earth to do this job.

  8. When your mission on planet Earth is completed, you will no longer be required to remain/return there.

  9. Remember the motto passed to us (from G.C.C. via S.S.C.U.): "Cosmic Love is absolutely Ruthless and Highly Indifferent: it teaches its lessons whether you like/dislike them or not."

And if that kinda sounds like self-inducing schizophrenia… boy it sure does.

DEEP shades of Philip K Dick’s VALIS here.

Which sounds like it’s time for my favorite of Dick’s quotes from that very book:

“What he did not know then is that it is sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane.”

Big mood, there, Horselover.

Anyway, let me know if you want more John Lilly. I think he’s a guy who deserves at least as deep treatment as we’ve given Terence Mckenna. Arguably much more.

The Downside of Obsession

OK, so here’s where I’ve got to admit some defeat.

I remember Lilly’s ketamine addiction being integral to his 2001 death but haven’t been able to find sources to confirm that.

Maybe I’m misremembering it.

Anyway, I’ve spent a half-hour digging and am not finding anything.

So I’m gonna call it for today ‘cause I’ve got a mess that needs done by noon.

Will have to research this more and follow up.

Wrapping Up

So that’s a fun intro to John C Lilly.

Let me know if you want to hear more about him. Unlike Dennis McKenna and Sasha Shulgin, he wasn’t able to keep his professional standing up enough to make up for his wild ideas, which makes things somewhat tragic.


  1. What do you make of so many people in the 70s having the same kind of satellite intelligence controlling human lives experience? They don’t all line up quite in a row, but there’s definitely a nontrivial overlap.

  2. What do you think of Lilly?

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