In my second year of college, I bought a copy of Robert Anton Wilson's Cosmic Trigger at a New Age bookstore in downtown Santa Cruz.
It had a naked space goddess on the cover, and threatened to reveal the "Final Secret of the Illuminati." I read it in one sitting, and when I closed the book, I'd not only learned said group's final secret, I felt like I was one of the inner circle.
I immediately loaned it out, and watched it circulate among about a dozen people before vanishing into the Santa Cruz synchronicity vortex. Everyone I talked to had about the same experience.
Cosmic Trigger—a record of one man's journey into inner space—has been doing that, consistently, since its first publication in 1977. It's the Little Red Book for futurist mutants.
A Cosmic Trigger WARNING ON THE DOOR TO CHAPEL PERILOUS
Here's how it started: In 1962, 30-year-old Robert Anton Wilson was working as an assistant sales manager in Yellow Springs, Ohio, with a wife and four young children, when he decided to eat some peyote. As a hard-headed rationalist, Wilson was in for a rough ride: The cactus shredded his narrowband understanding of existence and his place in the universe.
Wilson walked straight through the now-opened doors of perception and into a decade and a half of exhaustive experimentation with willed brain change—encapsulating research into LSD, Aleister Crowley's Magick, Count Alfred Korzybski's General Semantics, Dr. John Lilly's sensory deprivation tank, conspiracy theories, Sufism, Buckminster Fuller, UFOs, Gurdjieff, Zen Buddhism and a lot more.
A collaborative partnership with Timothy Leary and a five-year stint as an associate editor at Playboy provided more fuel for Wilson's voyage, which culminated in the publication of Cosmic Trigger. The book is his first-person record of fucking with the settings of his own mind—all while maintaining a healthy degree of skepticism and empiricist rigor, as an antidote to the muddled thinking that blights the territory he was scouting.
Wilson's experiments convinced him that humanity's limitations are largely self-imposed, that "reality is always plural and mutable," and that if we were to just take off our conditioned blinkers of superstition and ideology, we could unlock our dormant Promethean intelligence, overcome our tribal conflicts and get our species off the planet. Cosmic Trigger ends far from Wilson's early rural peyote trips, with a vision of mankind colonizing the stars.
A recent flu afforded me the chance to re-read Cosmic Trigger, thirteen years after I first found it as a student. Those thirteen years had been occupied with my own stress-test of reality, including many of the avenues Wilson had explored, much of which I recorded in the books I published in my 20s. It was also a time in which I'd watched the utopian future promised by Wilson, Leary, Douglas Rushkoff, Ken Wilber and others utterly crash and burn. 9/11 seemed to kill the Star Trek-style future all the smart nerds had been working on, instead spawning a new dark age of religious fundamentalism and illiterate barbarism typified by Bush Jr. and the newly reactionary, compassionless, cocaine-fuelled hipster "counterculture" that sprouted up under his rule—followed by the Great Sleep of the socially progressive but rights-and-privacy-decimating, Facebook-hypnotized Obama years.
It was with the lingering weight of this decade-plus of disappointment that I expected to return to Cosmic Trigger and find that it had all been bongthink—but what I discovered instead was that most of Wilson and Leary's utopian predictions actually seem well on their way to coming true, if a bit later than the two men expected.
RAW was right.
SMI²LE—a phrase coined by Tim Leary in the 1970s—stands for Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, Life Extension, and was his recipe for a working future.
RAW focused much of Cosmic Trigger on the SMI²LE formula, predicting that by the end of the 20th century humanity would be living in off-world O'Neill colonies, with greatly enhanced cognitive ability and lifespans extended by centuries or even indefinitely.
None of these predictions came true within Leary or Wilson's lifetimes—both men died, without any immortality pill in sight, in a post-Challenger era in which the US space program had wilted, and humanity was acting stupider than ever.
But 2014 is a different story. Although the same old "let's party like it's 1099" Crusader script keeps getting remade over and over, with better special effects each time, we're also starting to actually see some of the SMI²LE future show up.
Both Leary and Wilson strongly believed that humanity's destiny was post-terrestrial, and came to consider psychedelics and consciousness alteration as a kind of prepping for weightlessness—ways to prepare for outer space by exploring inner space.
RAW, in particular, saw a kind of logos of humanity's interstellar aspirations embodied in Jack Parsons, the legendary co-founder of Jet Propulsion Labs in Pasadena, who spent his days launching rockets and his nights excelling as a student of Aleister Crowley's occult system, hosting drug-fuelled orgies, conducting magical rituals, writing anarchist polemics and encouraging young science fiction writers like Ray Bradbury (and, unfortunately, L. Ron Hubbard, who later took Parsons for everything he had). Parsons blew himself up in 1952, at the age of 37, in a lab accident; his primary contributions to the world were the creation of JPL and the invention of solid-state rocket fuel, which was instrumental in getting the US to the moon.
For Parsons, like Leary and Wilson, there was no difference between pushing inner space boundaries and outer space frontiers—they were simply the Next Steps, ones that Parsons felt religious and political authority stood directly in the way of, an Inquisition just like the one that murdered fellow-traveler Giordiano Bruno in 1600 for suggesting that the stars were distant suns. Bruno, we must remember, was just as steeped in the occult as young Parsons—as were other scientific giants like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and many, many more.
In this light, Parsons looks less like a mutant and more like a stalwart upholder of the Western intellectual project. Parsons' seemingly disparate interests in space travel, Magick, drugs, sexual adventurism and science fiction, I will suggest, are really the same impulse—a pushing at the edges of reality. Parsons, like so many brilliant scientists and shamans before him, simply saw the edge of human endeavor and decided to shove it. This is the same spectrum of adventure that Leary and RAW consciously inherited, expressing the forward momentum of evolution as SMI²LE.
What Jack Parsons began, Elon Musk may well end; he's now promising to put humans on Mars in a decade. The dream is not dead—it has, if anything, simply outgrown the American government. Space is for all—and while European Union, Chinese or Virgin Galactic bases on Mars may not fit with 1960s American patriotic fervor, what matters is that mankind gets off the rock.
As Earth closes in on its estimated carrying capacity of 10 billion humans (and that's only if we all live at developing world standards), space migration is the only palatable solution to the population and environmental crises. If we want to survive as a species, all forward momentum must go into space.
Leary and Wilson spent much of their lives attempting to increase their intelligence, largely by torching their fixed models with entheogens. When used correctly, psychedelics can undoubtedly spark quantum leaps in cognition, wisdom and insight—and thanks to pioneering research from groups like MAPS, entheogenic substances are gaining broader acceptance for clinical trials, especially for use in treating PTSD and addiction. Recent data has even shown that psilocybin mushrooms may encourage the birth of new neurons. Leary, who was pursuing similar research at Millbrook before he was shut down, would have been proud.
While a perfect intelligence enhancer hasn't yet been found, the Internet is awash with close candidates—particularly the racetam family of nootropics and the eurogic drug Modafinil, which allows for long periods of wakefulness without the eroding effects of amphetamines. (The side effects, however, are unknown.)
And then there's the Luciferian ability of the Internet itself—which Leary tirelessly proselytized for in his last days—to create memetic hive minds that can exercise levels of intelligence beyond the capacity of the network's individual nodes, for good or ill. Wikipedia, Twitter and Reddit are all prime examples—as is 4Chan. The Web's acceleration of collective intelligence is hard to overestimate. Of course, a new Internet waits in the wings, and virtual reality, augmented reality and the Internet of Things will soon make the Web look parochial. Following on from there, the beginnings of matter reassembly, first via 3D printing and later by nanotechnology, may well make literal the alchemists' dream of erasing the gap between matter and spirit, by making the material world immediately and infinitely malleable by the whims of the human imagination.
I remain convinced that the metaphors of the occult, of the psychedelic experience and of inherited wisdom like the Tibetan Book of the Dead will be our only real guides for dealing with such a world.
The Immortalist project keeps chugging along, having blossomed into transhumanism—a world now awash with venture capital and military contracts, which increasingly looks like either weapons R&D or a health care plan 99.9% of the population won't be able to afford.
On the life extension front specifically, we now have a vast array of promising leads into slowing the aging process, including caloric restriction, supplementation, hormone therapy, insulin growth factor restriction, stem cell therapy, therapeutic cloning, gene therapy and life extension drugs like Rapamycin and Metformin. Ray Kurzweil has stated that nanotechnology may make aging reversal possible by 2030 (around the same time as some experts' predictions of Mars settlement). It remains to be seen how quickly these technologies will progress, and how available they will be to the general population.
Reality, ironically, can be crushing for people like Robert Anton Wilson. You keep peeling back your sense of the possible, dutifully scrubbing off the limitations of your model of the world, through psychedelics, spiritual practice, therapy, bodywork. Pretty soon you realize that nobody really has anything figured out, and that the whole damn thing is up for grabs—that, as RAW said, reality is what you can get away with.
You see that people are staring at the flickering shadows on the wall of Plato's cave. Religion, politics, media, social expectations, even language itself—it's all conditioning. And you see that all you have to do is turn around, away from the shadowplay you've been trained to see as reality, and you get to see the infinity of the universe, the night sky of billions upon billions of stars, distant galaxies, superclusters beckoning you to the galactic game of which the admission price is admitting you know nothing.
Jack Parsons expressed it so perfectly in his letters to Marjorie Cameron, his spiritual consort:
"You bawl and weep to give up the ego, the greasy penny that you have been greedily clutching in your dirty little paw, and, behold, when you do it, it buys you a ticket to the greatest show on earth, with ice cream and cake free for ever."
But how heartbreaking it is to see all of that, as RAW did, and then turn back to witness humanity asleep in front of their televisions, murdering each other over ancient and incoherent books, tearing each other limb from limb over gender or race or class or what so-and-so said on Twitter instead of uniting as a whole. How heartbreaking it is to return to the zoo after seeing the stars.
Reading Cosmic Trigger again, I could only wish that Wilson had lived to see his utopian vision begin to come true, rather than exiting Earth in the final stretch of the Bush years. But like all great wizards and mentors, RAW left us in our darkest hour—not to abandon us, but because it was time for us to put what he had taught us to use, and bail our own asses out of the fire.