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.


  • And then you realise that the stream of input must be coming from somewhere (i.e. it must be caused by something) and that something is reality, which is therefore an objective fact within the context of the mind experiencing it. That is, there must be somethign out there.

    Now it may be that the stream of sensations is a big lie. Maybe I live in the 23rd century, and I am actually inside a machine that feeds me this reality like a video game; maybe I wanted to experience what it was like to live in 2014 for instance. But still, the only reality- in that context- that I can understand or explore is the “virtual” one, so any inferences or statements I make about it are valid in that context. In this reality context, there is objective truth, even if that is all a fabrication in some metacontext.

    So, not a problem then. Just carry on, learning about the world, doing one’s best to sort the objective (in this context) from the subjective, and if I suddenly wake up in the 23rd century, so be it.

    Regardless, there are objective charcteristics of the “reality” which causes the stream of consciousness. Some are more doubtful and harder to be sure of than others. That’s the fun of being alive.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Ian, watch out, me lad. You’re sounding more and more like an Objectivist. Oh, nowhere near enough to get you into any trouble, but still– 😉

    “Fun,” is it? Yeah, like a horse with a burr under his saddle and a pebble in his shoe. Like a speechless parrot, or a Friday-night town with nobody out. But as for Objective Reality, why in the world would any sensible Brain in a Vat want to know what it’s like to live in 2014! Now 1960, say, that was a VERY good year. I wouldn’t at all mind re-visiting ’59-60.

    All by way of saying, Well said! And basically I agree with you. Although while in theory we could be anything that’s capable of believing it’s we — one then must say that if we believe in Mr. Occam’s Mysterious Razor, the simplest explanation would seem to be that we IS we, see? *grin*

  • Well, exploring reality is a kind of fun surely, Julie? Sometimes I envy people in the future who will have all the answers to questions I ask but cannot answer. But then I wonder if they will envy us, because we had questions to spend our lives puzzling over.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Of course it’s fun, Ian. But I do have to keep up my chops as a disillusioned curmudgeoness, no?

    I don’t think that even should our individual Better Selves take over running each of us and we survive eternally (as a species), we will ever have all the answers. And god help us, how awful it would be if the sciences really did establish some sort of complete, coherent theory of their various fundamentals (especially physics, of course).

  • Pingback: RAW solipsism – part 1 – RAW semantics

  • Pingback: RAW solipsism – part 2 – RAW semantics

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