Robert Anton Wilson on Scepticism and Solipsism
[This piece is a sequel to “The Compleat Skeptic.” “Skepticism and
Solipsism” was published in New Libertarian Weekly 100, Nov. 27,
1977. Thanks to Jesse Walker and Mike Gathers. The Mgt.]
In my last column, I pointed out that both the impeccable logic of David Hume and the experimental evidence anyone can discover through daily meditation for only a month of so, demonstrate that all we know directly is a stream of sensations. The theories that there is an “ego” experiencing this stream, and an “outside” world provoking it, are inferential, unproven and (if we are strict about applying Occam’s principle of parsimony) should be rejected as illegitimate.
The main objections to this solipsistic theory are (a) it contradicts “common sense” — i.e., the body of hominid (or primate) prejudice that is so widespread that only philosophers, mathematicians, physicists and other eccentrics ever contradict it; (b) it leads, if logically followed, to a course of behavior or non-behavior rather similar to the psychosis known as catatonia (but who is to say that the catatonics aren’t the only ones who have figured out the sensible way to react to that highly agitated predicament of matter called “life”?) and (c) there’s no way to argue with people who hold this belief (since you are, to them, only another temporary sensation that will pass like all the others), so to hell with them. This alternative is also known as “throwing the case out of court,” which philosophers have, by and large, also done with the problem if the infinite regress.
Well, since I am not a philosopher by profession — only a heckler of philosophers, like Socrates — I don’t have to answer questions, only raise them. Asking annoying questions, after all, is a profession in its own right, and has been widely followed, not just by Socrates, but many teachers in the Sufi and Zen traditions. We Discordians call it guerrilla ontology.
I have experienced, many times, both the dissolution of the ego (known as dhyana in the trade) and the dissolution of the “outside world” (known as Samadhi in the trade.) They are both most interesting experiences, and I urge them upon one and all, as philosophically Illuminating, invigorating, healthy, hilarious, and a great tonic for the nerves, glands and the organism as a whole. I also know enough of modern neurology to realize that there is good scientific evidence that the ego is, indeed, a discontinuous (quantum) sequence, rather than a fixed and static entity. I find from Planck, Bohr, Wheeler, Sarfatti and Bell, among many other physicists I could mention, ample evidence that the physical universe is also a discontinuous, quantum light show rather than a block-like Thing.
These discoveries in neurology and physics have been popularized by Buckminster Fuller in his memorable aphorisms, “I seem to be a verb,” and “The Universe is a verb.” An internal dance of neurons: an external dance of quarks: world without end. Amen. Sir James Jeans said that to the physics of the 1930s the universe seemed less like a great machine, and more, like a great thought. To the physics of today, it seems more like a great Acid Trip.
In this Heracleitian flux, Doubt becomes not a philosophical choice but a necessary habit. As Hagbard Celine once said, “Those who have seen the Great Vision” (the dance of Shiva-energy) “look at everything else twice.” There seems to be no way out of the silk-lined womb of solipsism.
Aleister Crowley got into this trap in 1905 — after seven years of ceremonial magick, five years of yoga and the simultaneous attempt to maintain a philosophical attitude of Scientific Materialism while undergoing these mutations in neurology. He found that he couldn’t believe anything anymore and feared for six months that he was going mad. He came out of it when his horse fell off a mountain, 40 feet, nearly killing him.
Zen teachers, when they recognize that a student has arrived at this womb-like solipsistic stage, hit him, with a wooden staff, hard, on the right shoulder, which sends most striking sensations to damned near every nerve in the body.
After such Shock Therapy, one does not return to the naive objectivity of the ordinary fool or the Randroid. One realizes that there is some sort of Self (although everything one has learned about it is probably false) and some sort of Objective Reality (although everything one has learned about it is also probably false.)
One realizes that life is not a tragedy (as pessimists claim) or a comedy (as optimists assert) or a kind of Moral police court (as theologians would have it) but rather more in the nature of a game, a gamble, a multiple-choice Intelligence Test.
And then …
But that must be reserved for my next column.