While I work on some new review, I’m continuing with the Robert Anton Wilson series.
Raw Feed (2004): Cosmic Trigger: The Final Secret of the Illuminati, Robert Anton Wilson, 1977.
This book provided some interesting autobiographical material on Wilson. I note confirmation of my theory that engineers seemed to be attracted to outré ideas more than scientists by the fact that Wilson started out training to be an electrical engineer before switching to mathematics (which may explain why he has such a good grasp of quantum physics).
He admits to being of an analytical mind and fascinated by puzzles. I would say, in his case, the analytical mind likes to create puzzles where none exist as well as solve them. In his mind, pattern seeking behavior is in overdrive, and that accounts for the sometimes delightful and interesting connections he makes between the occult and/or (a favorite connector of Wilson who eschews binary logic) science and/or conspiracy theories as well as his seeming encyclopedia knowledge of the occult and conspiracy theories.
I came away with more and less respect for Wilson.
Wilson, at least the Wilson writing in years after this book came out, struck me as something of a radical skeptic — willing to entertain most notions, unwilling to firmly believe or disbelieve any. He lives in the perennial world of maybe.
To be sure, there is some of that here. Wilson, like many occultists and pseudoscientists, carefully notes he doesn’t fall for just any idea, that self-delusion and hoaxing exist, but he doesn’t note that too often or often enough.
I found it interesting that he claims that Aleister Crowley tried to bring a scientific method to his occult studies — to believe nothing except by proof and to keep careful notes. However, the Crowley Wilson describes seems to have neglected the importance of controlled experiments, alternate explanations, and replicability. Science is more than just hypothesizing and keeping records.
Wilson too easily falls into the common pseudoscientist’s habit of citing one alleged paranormal event as proof of another. For instance, he uncritically accepts the validity of Kirlian photography (as evidence of auras around humans — this book came out at the height of the Kirlian photography craze) and cattle mutilations.
He also too easily dismisses skeptics by implying that they unreasonably imply UFO contacted and other experiencers of the paranormal are lying. The more frequent explanations that skeptics give is sincere misperception and later embroidering and conflating of accounts and events.
On the other hand, Wilson does point out the common themes of several occult principles and experiences. Even if you explain these as hallucinations and perceiving bogus patterns in reality, there is a mystery worth investigating here. Why do the same archetypes and themes show up again and again? What is it in the human brain that makes these themes common and appealing?
Of course, scientists are operating using the same brain as mystics so it’s not surprising that people like Timothy Leary and the quantum mystics-physicists cited here should try, like Fludd and other medieval occultists, to unify everything into systems, systems of spirit and science, occult and reason.
The material on Leary and his work was interesting. (Wilson was a friend of Leary’s and wrote several books with him, and Leary wrote an introduction for the book.) Leary comes across initially as a serious scientist who got sidetracked into the systematizing obsession noted above (but, then, scientists are supposed to systematize). Wilson describes Leary’s charm and likeability. (Even G. Gordon Liddy, one time prosecutor of Leary and then lecture buddy, noted that Leary was a charming, likeable, nice guy but that he wouldn’t take any food or drink offered by him. The latter is unfair if Wilson is correct in stating that Leary was strictly against giving drugs to people unaware.)
The problem was Leary, like psychologists in the era before magnetic resonance imaging and the other biopsychiatric tools of the last fifteen years, was grappling with a difficult subject without adequate tools. He fell back to the predictable position psychologists usually do in that position: trying to explain the brain and consciousness using contemporary technology, here computers and computer programming and logic circuits (there is also traces of the notion of RNA memory).
Putting aside the notion of terrestrial life being seeded by alien intelligences, Leary’s notion of human evolution has a couple of problems.
First and foremost, it assumes that there is a purpose to human evolution instead of all evolution, including human, simply being the selection of a species members to survive best in the environment the species currently finds itself in. Second, there seems to be a Lamarckian feel to it with, if I understood Leary correctly, DNA being rewritten via experiences.
To be fair to Leary, his ideas have a kernel of truth in them. The human brain is altered by experiences of all kind, drugs, including neurotransmitters, do affect the quality of consciousness, environment does influence the expression of genes even if it doesn’t delete or add genes.
I read with interest the success of Leary using LSD and other psychedelic drugs in a controlled program of psychotherapy. I think that research should have continued (providing there was ethical guidance for playing around with the brain chemistry of experimental subjects) in this field and that psychedelic drugs shouldn’t have become taboo in any circumstance. I believe I’ve recently read of modern research confirming that LSD did have some therapeutic value. I also find credible Leary’s claim that LSD could be used if the context, setting, and consent of the patient were controlled. I suspect that most horrible experiences of people on acid were the result of those not being controlled.
I was reminded of Philip K. Dick’s claim that he would give people contemplating taking LSD a Rorschach test first to see if they would have a bad trip. I was also reminded of the lethal effects on the unwitting CIA employee who was given LSD. Certainly, I have personally known people who have taken LSD and had good, harmless experiences, and I have no reason to disbelieve them though I’ve never been tempted myself.
I did find Wilson’s account of the brutal death of his daughter and confirmation of the rumor that he had her cryonically suspended interesting.
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