by Chad Nelson
Psychology for Anarchists
Robert Anton Wilson’s 203-page mindbender, Quantum Psychology: How Your Brain Software Programs You and Your World, is more than meets the eye. The subtitle suggests a self-help book, and it appears to be just that in many respects. But twenty pages in, one realizes that there is no labeling this one. It is a psychedelic mix of pop-science, psychology, philosophy and politics all rolled into one. And if that doesn’t sound crazy enough, the book comes with exercises at the end of each chapter to be performed as part of a group-read. Wilson tells the reader throughout the book that he or she will gain much more from it if the exercises are actually performed. One of Wilson’s fan sites – www.rawillumination.net – joins readers together to discuss the exercises in a chat forum and, surprisingly, most are completely appropriate for remote participation.
Quantum Psychology is divided into five sections. The sections begin with an analysis of how the brain actively filters information pulled from the external world, and Wilson’s attempt to get us to “step outside our minds” to acknowledge this subjective process. As the book moves on, physiological and psychological systems (the body’s hardware and software) are explored, and a detailed discussion of the intricate “feedback loop” connecting the two morphs into a discussion of how you can actually reprogram them. Much of the material is Wilson’s extension of Dr. Timothy Leary’s Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness, which is a kind of trippy roadmap of the brain and all of its component parts.
As the reader works through each section, the connection between them becomes apparent. The common thread that runs throughout each section is this: Your brain perceives the world in ways that are unique to you, and many times, that perception is filtered, consciously or unconsciously, through an ideological lens. Wilson urges readers to attempt to view the world with the understanding that this lens exists, and that nobody else’s “reality-tunnel” is filtered through an identical lens. Much of the world’s conflict, Wilson says, stems from people disagreeing over whose perceived reality-tunnel is the correct one. Once one is aware of his or her own special gloss on the world, communication with others becomes more meaningful.
This seemingly simple lesson is one that anarchists and libertarians alike should be sympathetic to. In another of the author’s writings, he states that liberty is all about “not laying your trip on anyone else.” This is Wilson’s way of saying that imposing your own unique lens on someone else, no matter how benevolent or obviously correct doing so may seem, is bound to fail, since everyone is already equipped with their own imprinted lens. Trying to force yours over somebody else’s causes problems for both the imposer and the imposed upon, with neither understanding wherefrom the conflict arises.
One of the main targets which Wilson is continually critical of is Aristotelian certainty – the famous “A is A” view of the world. Wilson calls this “isness”, and asks readers to reformulate their thinking, writing, and speech so as to stop branding things with false-certitude.* For example, Wilson would counsel that instead of the statement, “the leaves on the tree are green,” a more appropriate statement would be, “from my point of view, the leaves on the tree appear green.” That may sound weird and unnecessarily pedantic, but Wilson extends the importance of such careful avoidance of “isness” to everyday interactions with others. Avoiding “isness” should not only help you avoid the debate with your wife over whether “the blinds are really green or turquoise”, but may also help further dialogue between people who disagree whether “the fetus is a person” or whether “al-Qaeda is irrational because they claim Allah commanded them do it.” At the very least, avoiding “isness” can provide clarity in communication, and highlight the numerous assumptions and opinions that are generally presented as fact in most writing and conversation.
In a simple group exercise, Wilson instructs readers to pass around a rock, with each participant attempting to describe the essence of the rock. The inevitable outcome of the exercise is that no single participant will fully agree on what the rock “is.” To one participant, a small child, the rock might be described as heavy, while to the body-builder, it seems light. Any attempt to capture all that the rock “is” becomes an exercise in futility. Not only are each person’s statements relative, but each descriptor applied to the rock begs ten more underlying questions.
Applying “Isness” to things also condemns them to an eternally unchanging state. For a long time, Wilson explains, scientists were baffled by the paradox of whether light “is a particle or a wave”. By simply removing “isness”, no paradox exists, as light can be both a particle and a wave, depending on the instrument used to view it. For those who think this semantic trickery only has value in the scientific community, please read the book. You will probably find yourself quite surprised.
The rock lesson, like many of the other exercises, is also designed to show the reader that “the map is not the territory.” In other words, whatever mental construct or set you have created to help you understand the rock will ultimately be different from someone else’s set, and especially different from the rock itself.
Wilson refers to his system in various places in the book as “model agnosticism”. Attempting to pigeonhole the world into any one rigid belief system or model must necessarily fail, as new information constantly updates and amends one’s perception of the world. Model agnosticism, one begins to feel, can be a healthy and informed way to approach life. At its most basic, model agnosticism can be viewed as constant skepticism.
Whatever one thinks of Wilson’s scientific credentials, Quantum Psychology is sure to be thought-provoking, maddening, at times mind-altering, and a great exercise in taking off one’s ideological blinders to attempt to see the world a bit more clearly and from the point of view of others. At the very least, the reader gets a nice lay-primer on some extremely complex scientific concepts. And for those who enjoy Wilson’s novels, Quantum Psychology provides a nice window into some of the more abstract ideas contained in them.
Disclaimer: This article contains a lot of the very “isness” that Wilson counsels against. Practicing the language of english-prime (or e-prime), which eliminates “isness”, appears to require a great deal of practice!