The Robert Anton Wilson series concludes.
Raw Feed (2004): Cosmic Trigger III: My Life After Death, Robert Anton Wilson, 1995, 2004.
This book was as thought provoking and informative as its predecessor and used the same mélange of philosophy, observation, science, and autobiography (though less of that this time).
Here one of the central organizing idea is the championing of multivariant logic (which I was interested to learn predates fuzzy logic and goes back to at least John von Neumann) over true/false Aristotelian logic.
I see a couple of problems with this championing — not the first time I’ve seen this idea proposed, one of the developers of fuzzy logic technology wrote similar silly missionary tracts on its political value though Wilson does delve into the area of politics as deeply here — of multilogic. First, how do you assign value to the values between true and false though, of course, Wilson would argue the same about the values of true and false themselves and, second, in the realm of law and administration, multivalue logic has many problems and little value (though you could argue pardons are a form of multivariant logic in criminal justice).
Other ideas are the Holy Blood, Holy Grail/Priory of Sion conspiracy, the realness of fakes (as in art forgeries) and the fakeness of genuine (fiat money) as exemplified by the Orson Welles’ film F For Fake (Wilson is a fan of Welles), and the value of General Semantics in reorganizing our thinking into realizing there are many mental maps which have different amounts of utility given the context, a context, Wilson argues, that is often culturally induced.
Adherence to E-Prime in writing accounts for Wilson’s fast, effective prose dealing with complicated matters, and General Semantics probably has some useful utility in reminding us of the cognitive traps we can fall in though some of it is banal truth albeit truth that we need reminding of.
Wilson devotes a whole chapter that is somewhat convincing in showing Carl Sagan to being a sloppy, unfair hack in denouncing Immanuel Velikovsky. Even noted astronomer Robert Jastrow notes Velikovsky seems to have understood gravity more than Sagan. He even goes some ways to convincing me that Wilhelm Reich was unfairly libeled. Certainly, I would be against burning his books, which did happen after he was arrested, even if they were crank science. (Though Wilson is somewhat guilty of assuming that just because a person has done good scientific work in a number of areas means that work they were attacked for was valid.)
He does make some valid points about how some professional skeptics engage in bad thinking and name calling and are dogmatic. He is right to point out that science sometimes simply doesn’t even try to confirm outrageous new theories. However, I think there are reasons for that apart from scientific conservatism (a good thing) and government coercion and even fear of not gaining tenure. Time and money are limited. Why waste both disproving a pretty likely false theory? It won’t add to knowledge or your reputation.
Wilson defends Shakespeare against his modern detractors though he, typically for Wilson, refuses to endorse Harold Bloom’s idea that he is the greatest writer ever and only say that he appears to be so given his current mixture of literary knowledge and ignorance. He rightly point out that Shakespeare’s detractors simply hate him because of his race and sex and haven’t shown any heirs to his title.
Wilson seems to largely ignore the question of utility in his philosophy. He talks about it when discussing scientific theories of physics that contradict the world of our senses. He states we all see reality through different masks, masks determined by a variety of factors including culture and biology, and that different masks work in different contexts.
I don’t quite buy that. We certainly all use masks and these paradigms shape what we see and what we ignore. However, some paradigms, particularly the liberal Western ones of science and reason and democracy seem to work best not only in manipulating nature and increasing wealth but in creating the world most people want to live in. They are not perfect, but they are the best models so far.
Like all multiculturalists he has to answer the question about why his mask of justice, near anarchical government, sexual and gender tolerance and freedom, open inquiry, are any better than someone else’s mask. At best, I suspect he can just say that tradition allows the most adoption of other masks. Again, though, that’s a utilitarian argument.
One could also flip the argument around and say that seeing conflict and enemies is sometimes, given the right context, necessary to defend that use of multiple masks. Here we have the old problem of liberalism sometimes being blind and weak in facing its enemies, of being too tolerant. Again, though, Wilson always makes you think, especially when you disagree, and he is a clear and engaging author.
More reviews of nonfiction work are listed in the Review Index.