Psychology for Anarchists

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 – – 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!

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9 responses to “Psychology for Anarchists

  1. The rock example is very sloppy thinking. “light” and “heavy” are relative and, in the example, subjective. Light or heavy relative to what? In each case in fact objectivity can be achieved; the strongman can agree that the rock is a heavy lift for a small child, the child can agree that it is a light weight to the strongman. And both can agree that it has a mass of 1kg, the cardinal (objective) measure. Both can observe the same scales as the rock is placed upon them.

    There is an objective world out there. Our perceptions and characterisations of it are personal and subjective. Sometimes the spread of difference of opinion is narrow, other times very broad. People can be mistaken, confused or deluded. Hence Popper’s programme which attempts to give us a way of finding the best agreement, in a sense, as to the objective world beyond our subjective perceptions.

    But clearly A is A, even if we differ as to what we think A is.

  2. Paul Marks

    Yes A is A – Aristotelian thinking is correct in such matters.

    Also saying a particular theory of psychology (actually A is A is not psychology it is philosophy) is “for anarchists” is odd.

    Either a theory is true or it is not true (for “anarchists” or for anyone else).

  3. Jeriko One

    As the article states, ideology is just one’s personal preferences (or more likely groupthink) being projected like a fashion statement – in fact where there is lots of disagreement, it is usually due to personal prejudices being invoked rather than the scientific method being put into practice… But as Ian suggests, there is also an objective world out there. Drop rock on head and IS hurts. Not a mental construct – but you may have to have your skull reconstructed.

  4. We don’t even really “know” we are here. It could all be a dream or a hologram. (As Don Rickles once said in his speech to Dean Martin at a dinner in the singer’s honour “This is a fabulous place, a fabulous dinner and a fabulous night Dean. You would love it if you knew you were here.”). I admit we have to deal with things as they seem to be and they are fairly consistent in their “seeming”. But the certainty held in the word “know” is far too strong.

  5. christopherkeene

    What do you think about the TTIP?

  6. Liam Pickering

    1) Constant scepticism has a steep price: constant unease, anxiety, and lack of confidence; plus a susceptibility to unethical quacks (if you’re not really sure of anything, you’re ripe for manipulation – read the Dr. Ferris scenes in Atlas Shrugged).
    2) If everything is relative, if everything is opinion, how can we be sure RAW is right?
    3) There are things we can know (I know I’m alive), and things which we can’t know for sure (tho we may think we know them, they usually turn out to be beliefs only – I think I know men landed on the moon, but I may be wrong). Perhaps wisdom is, as the old prayer has it, to know the difference between the two. To say that, because some things are not ultimately knowable, therefore ALL knowledge is by definition suspect, is to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It also flies in the face of common sense: if a rock falls on your head, you know it hurts. And if you like ice-cream, you know you like it.

  7. In my experience it is people of great certainty who end up in quack movements. The progressivists and marxists and post-marxists, greens, feminists, therapy cultists etc etc, never allow a glimmer of uncertainty to distract them.

  8. Paul Marks

    You mean they are not tortured by doubts Nick? How happy they must be – but then happiness is over rated.

    Some things we can be sure of (even if we are sitting in an “Experience Machine” and are, in fact, a tentacle thing on the planet Mongo) – A is A, 1+1+2. (and so on).

    Economics is not “fashion”- not real economics (not the BS they teach in the universities) – one can reason (from first principles – which are logically true) that such things as minimum wage laws and rent control are mistaken (even if we are tentacle things on the Planet Mongo) regardless of “race” or “historical stage” . Ethics is not “fashion” either – but that is a lot harder a subject.

    I have not read the book (so I can not judge it) – but I hope it does not really say that right and wrong are just arbitrary preferences (because that is horse manure). And it is utterly useless (for “anarchists” and everyone else)

    Bored now.

  9. Gerry Spoons