Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Compleat Skeptic by RAW

[This is another of Robert Anton Wilson's columns for "New Libertarian Weekly." It is from the Nov. 20, 1977 issue, No. 99. Thanks to Mike Gathers and Jesse Walker for making this available to me. -- The Mgt.]

The Compleat Skeptic by Robert Anton Wilson

I have said what I have said; I have not said what I have not said.
                                                                     -- Count Alfred Korzybski

In NLW 93, John Walker of Washington, D.C., takes exception to one of my columns on the grounds that if I were truly as skeptical as I claim to be, I would be totally incapable of dealing at all with the objective world.

Well, I've heard that complaint before, and I expect to hear it again (and again, and again ... )

Before proceeding to reply to Mr. Walker, let me quote (for those with less-than-photographic memories) Walker's last paragraph, to wit, "Skepticism is a lovely game, after all, only so long as we ignore it long enough to deal with the outside world. Which, after all, Mr. Wilson spends a lot of time at, usually succeeding rather effectively, I believe."

I maintain that I deal with the "outside" world (outside what?) (the only world I know of is inside my brain) "rather effectively" not in spite of being a philosophical skeptic, but because of it.

I also maintain that people who are perpetually muddled, baffled, frustrated, angry, resentful and act as general nuisances and bring-downs in social life are that way, and cause themselves to continue being that way, only because they lack philosophical skepticism.

What mad Discordian paradox am I attempting to sell to NLW's long-suffering readers this time? Am I stoned again, or merely having you on, as the English say?

Well, let's go back a bit to  the word skepticism itself. In the first place, it's Mr. Walker's label for my position, not mine. I always prefer to describe my philosophical stance as "neurological relativism." While I admit that this has much in common with ordinary philosophical skepticism in the tradition of David Hume or the Logical Positivists, the relationship, as in biology, is one of inheritance, not of perfect identity. Genealogically, Hume began English Empiricism and  German Idealism which incestuously begat such diverse progeny as Bradley, Bertrand Russell, Logical Positivism and, eventually, American Zen, the Third Force in Psychology (the Human Potential Movement) the psychedelic revolution, and the counter-culture aspect of modern libertarianism ("doing your own thing" etc.)

Meanwhile, in the sciences, Einstein begat Schrodinger who begat Bohr and Bell and Sarfatti and Walker and non-local quantum theory in general, as well as such cousins as relativistic Cultural Anthropology, General Semantics, modern neurology, computer theory, Dr. John Lilly, Dr. Timothy Leary and me. We are a long way beyond Hume now, although standing on his shoulders.

Hume pointed out that all we can know (directly) is a stream of sensations. Even the hypothesis that there is a block-like entity, the Ego or "me," observing or experiencing this stream of sensations, is inferential, not directly known. Every philosopher since Hume has tried to refute this, not very successfully, because it happens to be true. Any human being of experimental rather than purely philosophical temperament can confirm Hume within about one month by practicing standard Zen meditation for one half hour twice a day.

"This is truth. This is truth. This is truth," as Aleister Crowley intoned sonorously in his most gloomy book. Yes: this is truth: the stream of sensations is all that is given directly. All else is inference.

But is this all of the truth? Does skepticism lead directly to solipsism?

Not quite. There is an old Zen story which is worth recalling at this point in our argument. A monk, after long meditation, perceived the facts noted above. In great excitement, he rushed to tell his roshi (Zen teacher), "I have it! I have it! That rock there is inside my head!"

"You must have a very big head," said the Teacher, "to hold a rock that size."

Ah, but my space is running out. I will leave Mr. Walker, and all the rest of you, hanging on that ontological cliff until my next column.

Just remember: I have said what I have said; I have not said what I have not said.

-- Robert Anton Wilson

(The follow up column will be posted shortly -- The Mgt.)


Eric Wagner said...

Great stuff as usual, oh Seer of Cleveland. Only five days until Pynchonmas.

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