RAW Week: "Some of this stuff might be bullshit," by Peter Bebergal

"My function is to raise the possibility, 'Hey, you know, some of this stuff might be bullshit.'" -- Robert Anton Wilson

201201241605I like to think of myself as a believing skeptic, someone who relishes in the ideas, the imagery, the arguments, the theories, and the literature of the occult and the paranormal, but accepts little of it as valid in a phenomenal sense. I love that small publishers such as Ouroboros Press and Fulgar Limited put out beautiful magical texts and that many current underground and avant garde musicians incorporate occult ideas into their work. But beyond its power as a method for art and imaging, I recognize much of the occult as woo. On the other hand, I accept that the human imagination is something magical, and very powerful and that we know little about human consciousness except how malleable it really is. It's a precarious position, however, and I often need to remind myself of smarter, more articulate thinkers who shared these views.

So it is with great respect and admiration that I celebrate the life of Robert Anton Wilson during this memorial week by remembering that he was the great believing skeptic, someone for whom the collection and curating of all that is weird was his life's work, who reminded us always to question everything, while recognizing that we should never stop exploring. I sure wish RAW was alive today, especially at a time when there is something like a real Occult Revival going on, from the psychedelic explorers who see 2012 as a great trans formative event, to the huge increase in the membership of organization like the O.T.O. and Freemasonry, and by extension a whole load of conspiracy theories. RAW warned against any idea, group, or person that claims knowledge of the "Real" Universe, echoing Umberto Eco who wrote in Foucault's Pendulum we should be mindful of turning metaphysics in mechanics.

In an essay for the Journal of Cognitive Liberties, Wilson explained how it is through self-hypnosis that we create these "Real" universes, and because they are so beautifully and perfectly solipsistically rendered, we are, sadly, often incapable of having any critical, or agnostic relationship to these models. Sometimes, through meditation or the use of certain, *ahem*, psychoactive substances, we can get to what Buddhism describes as an observer state. We can see the "Real" as merely a kind of consciousness that we have deeply inherited. Wilson writes, "In the 'Real' Universe we are re-active mechanists; in the experienced world, we are creators, and The "Real" Universe is just another of our creations -- a dangerous one, with a tendency to hypnotize us."

It's troubling when the counterculture, often the only voices that rise against fundamentalism of all stripes, succumbs to the same kind of mechanistic thinking. The apocalyptic tenor that is part of the psychedelic subculture's obsession with 2012, for example, starts to sound like those evangelical Christians who use a convoluted kind of gematria to come up with specific dates and times for the rapture. Things like 2012 have the potential to function as useful metaphors for describing the need for cultural and economic transformations. When these ideas become "Real" they are incapable of producing any real call to change, or any kind of art or expression that really matters. Wilson writes, "Once again, it appears that the materialist model of mechanical consciousness covers some but not all experience, and it excludes precisely that part of experience which makes us human, esthetic, moral and responsible beings."

Agnosticism, even more than atheism or theism, is, for RAW, the authentic ethical position.



  1. Science provides all the magic I need. I mean, gravity. How the hell does that work?

    I call it “repeatable magic”. It’s much more useful that the unrepeatable magic of the occult crowd.

    1. Exactly. I always wanted to be a wizard when I grew up. So I became a mathematician.

      Still not grown-up, though. I hope.

    2. Assumably, all things being equal, people who don’t get all the magic they need from science are welcome to look for it in the occult, or where-ever.  It would seem to be a matter of differing personality types and tastes, rather than some kind of contest between different “crowds” for which one can boast of being the true creed or prism through which to view the world.

  2. You do yourself a disservice by conflating the unknown aspects of human consciousness with occult and paranormal phenomenon. One is a very important area of human experimentation and understanding and one is a pile of crapola exploited by charlatans and thieves.

    Oh, I hope there’s no need to point out which is which.

    1. On the other hand, the occult and paranormal phenomena are most likely the result of the unknown aspects of human consciousness, rather than any “supernatural” cause.

      1. any particular reason they could not be the result of the known aspects of human consciousness?

      2. any particular reason they could not be the result of the known aspects of human consciousness?

    2. The problem is the confusion between means and ends. Certain types of essentially textual non-sense, spoken or written, are a means of reversing the process through which we initially construct meaning from meaninglessness, or one meaning from many possible meanings. The problem is to access the unconscious and problems of language, sexual and economic reproduction – to go beyond our own particular language and culture where all languages and cultures become possible.
      Unfortunately the need for meaning means you may get stuck in an apparently meaningful universe where the logical non-sense becomes reality as to go further could result in real sickness such as schizophrenia.

  3. Agnosticism is not some middle ground between theism and atheism. Agnosticism has to do with whether you think somethink is knowable. Whether you belive, disbelieve, or have an absence of belief is a seperate matter.

  4. The crucial point is that there is nothing you can say about so-called “objective reality”, because (by definition) it is beyond observation. Your observations are always relative to your situation. Because you can’t say anything or even speculate about “objective reality”, as a concept it is incoherent, that is to say meaningless. Even a statement like “Well, there must be something there!” is incoherent.

    Truth is a matter of agreement between observers. It’s a property that applies to statements made in a logical system like a language. Agreement comes about by comparing observations by means of logic.

    So what if two people agree on something ridiculous, like the moon being made of green cheese? Their evidence is extremely weak and their logic is faulty. What this means is just that you can ignore them. You’re under no obligation to take that view into account, and you’re perfectly justified in saying that it isn’t true. The two people will disagree with you. That’s the end of the matter.

    There’s no point saying “I’m objectively right that the Moon isn’t made of green cheese”, because unless you define “objective” in terms of strength of evidence, the concept itself is flawed. You aren’t really understanding what you are doing when you make a truth-claim.

    Although it’s all rather unsatisfying, this is the only path to getting philosophy of truth compatible with relativity and quantum physics.

    The actual science of consciousness has no more problems than any other branch of science. It can try to explain why your consciousness changes when you take mushrooms, for example. The idea that there is something “inexplicable” about the “subjective experience” of consciousness and that this causes problems for science again is down to not understanding the nature of truth-claims, the nature of “explanation”. Wittgenstein’s “Philosophical Investigations” is a must read on this topic.

    1. The problem of scientific understanding of consciousness is an interesting one. I look at it as more of a challenge than a problem. We really are in the medieval age of understanding of the brain, with our best tools being MRIs that serve as mere meters of activity, rather than following the actual neuron traffic.

    2. There’s no point saying “I’m objectively right that the Moon isn’t made of green cheese”, because unless you define “objective” in terms of strength of evidence,[…]

      sorry, but i thought that was precisely the usual definition of “objective” in this context? as in “an ever changing but optimistically ever improving set of evidence that supports a particular truth claim”?

      1. No, it tends to mean “true independent of observation”

        “of, relating to, or being an object, phenomenon, or condition in the realm of sensible experience independent of individual thought and perceptible by all observers : having reality independent of the mind”
        — Merriam Webster

        “not dependent on the mind for existence; actual”
        — Oxford

    3. Agree with everything except this:

      Even a statement like “Well, there must be something there!” is incoherent.

      It’s entirely coherent.  You know you can’t fly under your own power, I know I can’t fly under my own power, and we’re both reasonably sure that the reason is the same in both cases.  Two observers can certainly see the world in different ways and come to different conclusions as a result.  This happens all the time but the fact that we’re able to talk about these things and to occasionally even convince one another to shift or change our perspectives indicates that there’s a great deal of common ground — there’s a shared language even if it’s only a subset of each individual’s whole language.

      The premise that there’s a shared world informing this shared language is in no way incoherent.  Now, it can’t be objectively demonstrated that there is such a real world — I agree with you there.  And we don’t have direct access to this world, I agree with that as well.  But coherency has nothing to do with the capacity for objective demonstration otherwise nothing at all would be coherent since nothing at all has ever been objectively demonstrated (for all the reasons you point out).

      1. What are we talking about? We can’t say. What’s the counterfactual? There isn’t one.

        The issue is the way language works, what it’s capable of. “Something there” is a statement expressed in English. The subject is not only undefined but undefinable, so the statement is meaningless.

        1. We can posit the existence of an objective, external reality without being able to objectively demonstrate its existence.  We’re doing this right now by the very act of having this conversation.  If there’s no “real world” who are you even talking to?

          You should look into linguistics and especially how previously un-translated languages are deciphered.  Every act of human communication is evidence that either:
          1) There is an objective external world
          2) I am a brain in a vat
          If you still don’t grok then have fun in your vat.

          Edit: What are we talking about? The existence of an objective, external reality (obviously). What’s the counterfactual? Solipsism.

          1. Who am I talking to? Who’s asking? I’m talking to you. I’m not in a vat, I’m in my living room.

            “You should look into linguistics and especially how previously un-translated languages are deciphered. ”

            You’re talking about Quine and indeterminacy of translation? It doesn’t change the argument.

            The point is the meaninglessness of the term “objective external world”. That doesn’t mean everything is internal, it just means the concept is useless. “Internal” gets thrown out with it, necessarily.

          2. You’ve said absolutely nothing to convince me of what you’re claiming.  You just keep repeating it over and over like that constitutes an argument.  It’s incredibly boring. 

            And it’s bizarre.  It’s like some mutant hybrid of Berkeleyan idealism and Bertrand Russell-style positivism.  I’d urge you, as would RAW, to consider the notion that you might be wrong.

          3. Put it this way. We both agree Barack Obama is President of the United States. All the evidence we can find and share accords logically with the definitions of those words and the logic of the grammar of the sentence in English.

            Now, you apparently want to go beyond this and state “It is objectively true that Barack Obama is President of the United States”, in some way. Not talking about evidence and agreement, but something more than that.

            But what can this really mean? What exactly is being designated by the name “Barack Obama” and the descriptor “POTUS”? Tell me without reference to any form  of evidence, because we’ve gone beyond that. We aren’t talking about observation, we’re talking about something absolute that’s independent of observation. I don’t think you can do it.

            I’m sure the objection will be that you are not talking about any specific proposition, but rather merely the fact that agreement is possible between observers, that there is such a thing as probability. Obviously that is true, in the same way it’s true Obama is POTUS.

            What I’ve been saying is that the phrase “there is an objective world”, as a statement in language, alluding to a “something” that is separate from any observation, is incoherent, meaningless. You can’t talk about a “something” that you can’t say anything about. This is a statement about how language works, about the nature of representation.

            You took this to mean that I am a solipsist, but that is false. I’m just a relativist. I recognize limits to language. This is a Wittgensteinian position that’s well in accord with modern science.

            I admit I hadn’t heard of Wilson before I started visiting Boing Boing, but I hadn’t realized from the above article, and others over the last couple of weeks, that he was a champion of talking about things as “objectively true”. That was not the impression I got from the essay “Creative Agnosticism” which the author links to.

            Now that I realize that I’ve bored you, and you’ve insulted me, I’ll leave this conversation.

    4. This is the only way to make philosophy of truth compatible with relativity and quantum physics.

      It could be more a problem of grammatical and lexical coding.

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