I recently finished the Hilaritas Press edition of The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science by Robert Anton Wilson -- the first time I had read the book -- and I gave it four stars on Goodreads. (Three and a half stars would be a little closer to my opinion, but Goodreads doesn’t permit that much nuance.)
That’s not quite the five stars I would give to many books by Wilson, but it’s still a pretty good rating.. It’s not a perfect book. I have some criticisms I will get to. But the good portions are very good.
I was worried about reading the book and had actually avoided reading it. I feared I wouldn’t like it at all. Supergee’s comments capture what I was worried about when he writes, “To me this is RAW’s worst book: hectoring, clanking with pig irony, unselective in its examples, giving aid & comfort to those who say that when Dr. Fauci discusses viruses, that’s just his eddication talking.” (Arthur does conclude, “But it finishes with a marvelous discussion of how we perceive.”) So I figured I may as well wait for the Hilaritas edition.
So I did, and I bought it when it came out, and I enjoyed it. New Inquisition is filled with many insightful comments. As many commenters on this blog have mentioned, the first chapter and last chapter are very good.
The book is full of fine passages such as this one:
If we recognize some validity in these observations and try to “wake” ourselves from the hypnotic trance of modeltheism -- if we try to recall, moment by moment, in an ordinary day that The “Real” Universe is only a model we have created and that existential living cannot be compressed into any model -- we enter a new kind of consciousness. What Blake called “Single Vision” begins to expand into multiple vision -- into conscious bet-making. The person then “sees abysses everywhere,” in Nietzche’s deliberately startling metaphor. (Blake says it more soothingly when he speaks of perceiving “infinity in a grain of sand.”) (From Chapter 8).
Here’s another startling passage, a prescient description of today’s media landscape, written long before it took shape. In a section where Wilson describes how people would rather reinforce their own reality tunnels rather than listen to competing ideas, he writes,
“ … most of us are annoyed frequently by the daily newspaper. ‘News’ or alleged news that we don’t want to read gets printed; heathenish or heretical opinions appear on the letters pace, and sometimes in the columnists; politicians (of the opposite camp, of course) tell the most outrageous lies, which also get printed. With modern computer technology, all of this can soon be avoided. Just fill out a simple questionnaire and mail it in. The computer will print a slightly different version of that day’s paper for each reader, and your Personalized copy will come to you in the morning containing absolutely nothing but what you want to know … “ (From Chapter 7)
This passage, which could have been written no later than 1986, when the book was first published, is a good description of where we live now in 2020. With politics replacing religion as people’s main reality tunnel, the country is largely divided between people who worship what they are told by Fox News and Rush, or people who drink from the fountain of MSNBC and CNN. It’s also easy to use social networks to reinforce what you already believe. Wilson could not foresee the exact technology, but he knew how most people would react to a plethora of information.
So what’s not to like?
Well, I could have done without the pages and pages of Fortean phenomena, rains of frogs and that sort of thing. Other than the fact that it goes on so long that it feels like padding, I worried about the sourcing. One item quotes, without apparent irony, the Weekly World News.
Another passage highlights an account, allegedly from the Dec. 8, 1931 New York Times, about a deckhand on the steamship Brechsee who suddenly had a four-inch-long bloody gash on his forehead. Wilson brags it came from the “usually scrupulous New York Times,” which seems fair, particularly in comparison to the Weekly World News.
But I happen to have a digital subscription to the Times, which is searchable. And a search for “Brechsee” turns up only one story, dating to 1941, which mentions it being sunk by a mine in World War II. Using the search terms “gash” and “deckhand” for that specific date didn’t work, either.
Maybe the search function at the Times’ website doesn’t always work well. But I wonder how many of the other citations I could trust.
I also couldn’t get behind attacking the main target of Wilson’s book, CSICOP. I was never convinced that CSICOP or the people associated with it, such as Carl Sagan, were worth all of Wilson’s angst. I remained convinced that your average DEA agent was much worse than any of the people Wilson was picking on. (CSICOP stands for “Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.” The group is now known as “The Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.”)
The old Inquisition resulted in very serious consequences, such as executions (including burning at the stake) and confiscations of property. The investigations often included the use of torture.
So, what does the “new” inquisition do? Well, apparently they write mean book reviews and critical articles, and they complain in public about “pseudoscience.” That’s about it. It doesn’t really sound like much in comparison to Twitter mobs, much less the Inquisition of old Europe.
Wilson does give examples in his book of genuine repression. But all of his examples involve government repression.
For example, Wilson discusses the burning of Wilhelm Reich’s books, but admits it was carried out by “the scientists and bureaucrats working for the U.S. government.” He even admits that Martin Gardner “expresses repugnance at the burning of Reich’s works.”
Similarly, Wilson brings up Timothy Leary getting 37 years of imprisonment for one marijuana cigarette. Of course, that’s totally appalling, but Leary wasn’t convicted and imprisoned by Martin Gardner and Carl Sagan. (Sagan, the supposed Grand Inquisitor, was in fact a big marijuana fan and wrote that "The illegality of cannabis is outrageous, an impediment to full utilization of a drug which helps produce the serenity and insight, sensitivity and fellowship so desperately needed in this increasingly mad and dangerous world.")
Sagan’s reply to The New Inquisition (quoted on Wikipedia) is worth reprinting: “"Wilson... describes skeptics as a 'new inquisition.' But to my knowledge no skeptic compels belief. Indeed, on most TV documentaries and talk shows, skeptics get short shrift and almost no air time. All that's happening is that some doctrines and methods are being criticized-at the worst, ridiculed-in magazines like The Skeptical Inquirer with circulations of a few tens of thousands. New Agers are not much, as in earlier times, being called up before criminal tribunals, nor whipped for having visions, and they are certainly not being burned at the stake. Why fear a little criticism? Aren't they interested to see how their beliefs hold up against the best counterarguments skeptics can muster?"
See also this review, which spotted numerous mistakes, such as misspellings of names quietly corrected in the Hilaritas Press edition. It is written by Jim Lippard, who actually is interested in Discordianism and also is a RAW fan. (He wrote once he “greatly enjoyed” Robert Anton Wilson’s work and owns most of it.) But criticized Wilson’s scholarship in The New Inquisition and found plenty of problems when he checked out the sources for some of the Fortean incidents Wilson cites.
So, three and a half stars. But the good parts of the book are really good and it’s a book I can recommend every Wilson fan should purchase and read.