RAW quote: a grandiose delusion

“Belief in the traditional sense, or certitude, or dogma, amounts to the grandiose delusion, 'My current model' -- or grid, or map, or reality-tunnel -- 'contains the whole universe and will never need to be revised.' In terms of the history of science and knowledge in general, this appears absurd and arrogant to me, and I am perpetually astonished that so many people still manage to live with such a medieval attitude.”
― Robert Anton Wilson, Cosmic Trigger



  1. I am perpetually astonished that so many people agree with quotes like this one in relation to other people never bothering to question whether it applies to themselves.  

    Anyway, thanks for all the posts from RAW.

  2. The behavior described in the above quote is basic human nature. We are belief machines. We’re also very good pattern recognizers and selective rememberers.

  3. It’s only a grandiose delusion until you want to do something useful like cure disease, fly a rocket ship or calculate with a computer. Then, all of a sudden, traditional sense, rationality, is extremely powerful.

    Rationality is not a religious dogma or belief. It is the means by which we fix facts about the world. Without it nothing around you could exist. Without it you would be completely lost and eternally confused.

    If one’s model contains the whole universe then it is useless as a model to you. A map whose scale is the same as it’s subject is not a map.

    1. I’m not sure I see your point.  I would give you these examples where dogma was at least mildly deluded, I’m sure there’s thousands.  Central dogma of life was at one point DNA->RNA->protein.   Investigation of RNA viruses and prions  showed exceptions to that pattern.  It used to be dogma that all enzymes were protein.  I was actually taught that in freshman bio, only to be untaught the next year when small nuclear riboproteins were better elucidated.  Riboproteins may well have been the very first  enzymes and may be the ancestors of all of us.  In terms of curing disease, germ theory was initially against dogma, the germ theory of ulcer was recently against dogma, HRT as SOP for older women was dogma for many years before it was discovered it shouldn’t be SOP.  Aspects of quantum mechanics was famously against Einstein’s dogma, but were later proved true.  

      1. My point is that science is not dogmatic. It is not a religion with an orthodoxy the way religions have them. It *feels* dogmatic to people who view truth as emanating from authority. But that isn’t what truth is.

        The examples you give are not those of dogma, they’re pretty much the opposite of that. It was never dogma that all enzymes are protein or that hormone replacement therapy should be recommended for older women. These were merely consensus opinion based on the beast available evidence at the time and were changed when there was good reason to do so. That’s not dogmatism or orthodoxy.

        What I take Anton to be doing here is making a plea for irrationality. Which I don’t think is as wonderful as he perhaps thinks. It might be good for a creative artist to be irrational, maybe emotive would be a better term, but I don’t get the feeling he’s only talking about artistic expression.

        1. Not all religious belief is dogmatic, either.  For example, a Christian might reason, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, that God doesn’t want women to speak in church.   But this belief isn’t necessarily dogmatic, and the Christian could be persuaded to drop that belief after being shown weaknesses in his reasoning.  This happens with some frequency.

          I think a similar thing happens regarding prayer. New Christians sometimes believe, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible, that everything they pray for will come true. Then when that doesn’t happen, the modify their theology based on empirical evidence. (This isn’t quite as intellectually dishonest as you might imagine. A lot of parts of the Bible admit more than one interpretation, and that effect is compounded when the reader hasn’t had a lot of education in history and in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic.)

          1. “Christian might reason, based on a certain interpretation of the Bible”

            But that interpretation is itself dogma. Calvinists are not free to interpret scripture in ways that conflict with their established orthodox interpretation. That’s what dogmatism just *is*. It sets up road blocks to thought saying “go no further”.

            That is the opposite of what science does. It purposely breaks dogma to further our knowledge. Consensus opinion does develop,  nothing can travel faster than light is one, but if you can prove that neutrinos break that “law” then go ahead (but you’d better be able to prove it).

            “This isn’t quite as intellectually dishonest as you might imagine.”

            It is interesting that you think empiricism is intellectually dishonest. I don’t. I think the proper conclusion to reach is that if one’s god doesn’t respond to prayer then that god likely doesn’t exist and you need a new concept.

          2. I suspect there are Calvinists who accept Calvinism conditionally, not dogmatically.  For example, if they eventually decided that its refusal of free will was unacceptably at odds with human’s being morally accountable, they might switch to Armenianism (did I get that right?)  My main point is that even if Calvinism insists on holding certain views by definition, I don’t think all Christians consider it a requirement of dogma to buy into Calvinism.

            As far as empiricism: The reason I brought that up is that some people (a subset of fundamentalists?) seem to believe that whatever interpretation of scripture that come up with upon their first reading of it, is the one and only interpretation intended by God.  One might consider that a kind of dogmatism (depending on your definition).  I was anticipating someone from that camp responding to my post when I wrote that.

        2. While the core nature of reality doesn’t change, science, the understanding of it, is carried out by humans, and as long as it is a human enterprise it may fall prey to human foibles, including the establishment of dogmas.  I would say that prevailing scientific and especially prevailing medical opinion is often unmistakable from dogma.  
          It does note Crick later decried the use of the word “dogma”
            It’s not uncommon for radical new thoughts, including quantum mechanics, Marshalls ulcer work to be regarded  as “heresy”.    I believe Anton is saying to challenge one’s own assumptions, which all scientists should do. 

          1. If that is what he’s saying then I don’t disagree with him. But it’s my understanding that he advocates a belief that all scientific knowledge is dogma (and therefore arbitrary), not just individuals misapplying it. That it is not possible to say *anything* about the universe with certainty. I think that’s wrong.

          2. I can’t seem to reply to noen.

            Why do you believe it’s possible to say something about the universe with certainty? There’s probability, but then we’re mangling the concept of ‘certainty’.

            Also, your original comment:
            ” until you want to do something useful”
            Isn’t the very act of thinking something ‘useful’ an act of rather irrational opinion? What’s ‘useful’? Are we talking on one man’s scale, humanity’s scale, an ant colony’s scale?

            The only reason Rationalism even happened is because people like Newton and Leibniz were trying to find the ‘monad’ which inevitably lead to ‘proving’ God (I’m sure you know the story, it’s way more metaphysical than that). It’s pretty much the same idea now, except people call it the “Theory of Everything”.

            Fact is, science currently works wonders for us, and allows us to pretend that we can be objective. So when we go to work figuring out how to do ‘useful’ things, like split the atom, remember we’re doing it for a purely subjective reason. Whether that reason it for war, or entertainment, to make more food, or to get laid, humans aren’t really using science for anything they wouldn’t have tried to figure out using some other method. I mean, yes, it’s ‘better’ to have the club which is weighted correctly as to deliver the maximum force to an enemy’s skull, but we figured that without data charts.

            Science reveres Nature and our perceived laws of nature. It’s a useful tool, but remember the saying about what everything looks like to a hammer? That’s where the dogma comes in. That’s what he’s talking about.

            I support the sciences, because I find them fascinating. I do think we have a deeper understanding of our perception of the world around us because of them, but I don’t believe everything can be solved, and I believe the concepts of ‘objectivity’ and ‘Truth’ actually harm the process, where as pragmatic ‘truth’, the answer that fits the needs, is all we ever get.

        3. There are almost certainly facts that are considered certain today that will be considered wrong in the future.
          Indeed, science as a philosophy is hesitant to say anything is certain and all scientific knowledge is provisional until a new explanation comes along that better suits the data. Of course this includes methods of collecting, measuring and qualifying data as well.

          Science is a tool of understanding for humans and is thus open to all of the pitfalls that entails. Kuhn’s paradigm theory is an interesting take on why science doesn’t ‘progress’ in the way we might assume if it was the objective discipline many claim it to be.

          RAW’s point is important outside of the philosopher’s study as well. While certainty is indeed useful and essential to operate in the world, absolute certainty can breed the kind of ‘I’m right and you’re wrong’ thinking  that leads to persecution and war. 

          This is not to say that we need to choose irrationality instead of rationality. Indeed, this is the kind of fact/non-fact false dichotomy that many so-called rationalists and sceptics use as an argument to belittle the kinds of thinkers that actually push forward human knowledge (as well as the quacks!). John Gray has argued that this dichotomous understanding of the world is actually descended from Christian ontology: good vs evil, God vs Satan, civilised vs barbarian, Christian vs Pagan, fact vs non-fact.

          So, while science is never sure and always open (in theory), we should still use our ‘paradigm that best fits the facts as we understand them right now’ to inform our actions, but we should also be aware of how provisional and ultimately uncertain these paradigms are.

          In my opinion it isn’t irrationality that stymies scientific progress and evidence based policies, it’s money and power. I believe that asbestosis was first diagnosed in the 1920s, yet they were still mining asbestos in Australia in the 1980s and Canada still is. The virtuous Canadians sell it to India for cheap building supplies for the poor and powerless.

          1. “There are almost certainly facts that are considered certain today that will be considered wrong in the future.”

            Are you certain of that? How do you know that facts today could be wrong tomorrow? Do you believe that it is possible we will someday discover the Earth does *not* really revolve around the sun?

            “Kuhn’s paradigm theory is an interesting take on why science doesn’t ‘progress’ in the way we might assume if it was the objective discipline many claim it to be.”

            This is simply false. Thomas Kuhn did *not* believe there is no such thing as objective scientific knowledge. And we can easily see why such a claim is incoherent. Because if facts are subjective then there can be no such thing as knowledge at all. For something to be subjective means that it is up to me whether or not it is true. So I could just say that the Earth is flat and the sun and planets embedded in a crystal sphere that revolves around it.

            “This is not to say that we need to choose irrationality instead of rationality.”

            Well yeah that’s exactly what it means. Because if everything is relative then there is nothing we can say about anything, at all. Relativism is incoherent and self contradictory.

            “Indeed, this is the kind of fact/non-fact false dichotomy that many so-called rationalists and sceptics use as an argument to belittle the kinds of thinkers that actually push forward human knowledge”

            No it isn’t. We belittle charlatans, con artists and fools. Nor is the distinction between facts and non-facts false. The Earth revolves around the sun. That is a fact of which we can be absolutely certain. It has always revolved around the sun even when people did not think so. Why? Because it is a matter of objective fact that it does and that fact is independent of our wishes and desires.

            “So, while science is never sure and always open (in theory)”

            Science is certain and open. But facts are not mathematical truths if that is what you mean. 2 + 2 = 4 in all possible worlds but the speed of light may not be. That doesn’t change the objective fact that light travels at the speed it does in this world and that we can *know* it and *know* it is true.

  4. I’m sure that with enough business savvy and carefully masking his condecending attitudes, RAW could have made millions in the pop philosophy market, ala scientology.
    And maybe it still could be made.

Comments are closed.