Against Anton-Wilsonism

Back when I was in college, I loved stuff by Robert Anton Wilson. In case you’re not familiar with him, he was a writer and occultist who recorded all sorts of interesting things from mystical traditions all over the world. It would be as nothing for him to relate something of Crowley’s to an old Sufi parable which was really a metaphor for something the Buddha said about quantum physics.

Although he is most famous for his fiction books like Illuminatus, he also wrote a lot of non-fiction. On the one hand, it was the ultimate insight porn, with a new seemingly-revelatory epigram from a new tradition on every page. On the other, it was filled with very vague nod-and-a-wink promises that if you genuinely understood it you would break into a new level of understanding in which you would stand taller, have a more melodious voice, and finally be able to get that one cute girl/guy to pay attention to you. It was seductive and I was successfully seduced by it.

This is in no way a complaint against mysticism. I think it’s quite possible that there are forms of mysticism which successfully fulfill the promises Wilson made both in terms of insight-into-reality and improved-life-success. Meditation probably does. Yoga (the real type, not the contort-your-body-for-exercise type) might. If your goals are simple, you can certainly get some quick mental rearrangement (not necessarily of the positive variety) by doing drugs, or improve your social presence through something like the Alexander Technique, both of which seem in the spirit of Anton-Wilsonism.

Better I should compare it to my interest in physics as a high schooler. This interest took the following form: I would read Scientific American articles about bosons, then go around saying “Did you know there are several types of bosons, with mass of such-and-such?” Maybe I would vaguely long to go to CERN and see the Large Hadron Collider (a wish I eventually fulfilled). I read some biographies of famous physicists and I could point out the position in the sky of several leading black hole candidates.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; it was a better use of my high school days than taking drugs or watching reality shows. But the problem is I thought I was Learning Science. I had this idea that Science was great and admirable, and that people who knew Science could predict eclipses and split the atom, and I was going to be one of those people, and all I had to do was read a few more Stephen Hawking books and then when I became an adult I could receive my Certificate of Scienciness and start splitting atoms. But that wasn’t remotely how it works and although I could charitably be said to be learning about science this has very little in common with learning science.

(this is why I get a twinge of worry about how vocal identification with Science has become a badge of honor in geek culture, by the way)

There are certain fields where it’s really obvious to everyone that learning about the field is different from learning the field. There are probably historians of music who have never picked up an instrument, and they don’t fancy themselves musicians. And political scientists don’t delude themselves into thinking they would make great politicians.

Mysticism is not one of these fields (rationality isn’t either, but that’s a different blog article). Because so much of mysticism revolves around the idea of the gnosis, a specific kind of knowledge, it’s easy to mistake knowledge of mysticism for the knowledge that mysticism tries to produce. This means Robert Anton Wilson and his ilk can cause at least three different types of failure.

First, as I mentioned before, they provide a false sense of reward. If you are actually enlightened, it’s pretty hard to demonstrate this to someone short of shooting them with a chi bolt from your third eye. On the other hand, if you’re knowledgeable about mysticism, it’s really easy to demonstrate this. I would talk to my mysticism-interested friends, and we’d be like “Oh, this reminds me of something the third Zen patriarch said about this subject”, and then we’d feel all cool and mystically advanced. And just as slacktivism sates your desire to do good without requiring any hard work, so this sates the desire to associate with the neat cause of mysticism without requiring any hard work beyond reading lots of books, which for a certain kind of person is the sort of thing they’d do anyway. So this sort of scholarship trades off against actual results.

Second, they encourage you to think in terms of conspiracy. Quick, what do Buddhism and the Illuminati have in common? Okay, fine, nothing. So how come they’re both part of Anton Wilson’s repertoire? My guess is that mystics say weird things all the time like “Ultimate holy reality is emptiness” or “Spend a while thinking about the sound of one hand clapping”, and people view this as a sort of puzzle. Like mystical traditions are jealous guardians of some kind of secret knowledge, and they’ve let slip a couple of clues, and it’s our Da Vinci Code-esque job to piece together what this secret knowledge is and pierce through the conspiracy. Which I think, despite the fact that many ancient mystery cults did jealously guard secret knowledge, is totally the wrong way of looking at things.

Instead of mystics talking about one hand clapping, let’s go back to my physics example. Physicists also frequently emit bizarre and puzzling statements like “Faster objects have more mass than slower objects”, or “Time and space are really just aspects of a more generalized spacetime.” If you try to understand these statements – really understand them on a gut level – by watching Carl Sagan specials, you will fail. One hypothesis here is that Carl Sagan is part of a conspiracy, where he will tantalizingly tell you a few pieces of the clues but guards the really juicy bits for himself, and you need to piece together the real thing using Sagan, 12th-century alchemical texts, the Windows source code, and a pattern of moles on Neil Tyson DeGrasse’s left cheek. Another hypothesis is that this is the sort of thing which no amount of learning about science will be able to illuminate, but which is relatively straightforward once you learn science and can solve the equations that describe them – and that this knowledge cannot be translated into terms people who haven’t learned science can understand in any way more satisfying than the old “Well, imagine a really taut sheet with some objects upon it…”

Third and most important, they promote dabbling, which is fatal. “Why limit yourself to one tradition when you can take insights from all the different traditions and invent your own tradition that combines the best wisdom of them all as well as your own special touch?”

Well, because until you know at least a little of what you’re doing, you don’t know how to do it. This is a form of Chesterton’s Fence, except that instead of a fence in a field it’s like a twelve-dimensional pulsing image in an unexplored region of Dimension Q’qaar and you have no idea what it is or what it does or where you’re going. Oooh, I know, let’s remove the part of Daoism where you don’t drink whiskey and hire hookers every night! That won’t change the underlying state of mental peace at all.

This brings up the related issue of Schelling fences: once you let yourself change things, do you really trust yourself to remove only the chaff and not the parts that are annoying or hard or inconvenient? Yes, 3000 year old forms of practice are inconvenient and laden with superstitious baggage, but Bringing Buddhism To The West was like the state pastime of California for several interesting decades back in the mid-20th century. Surely you could latch onto one of the adaptations created then instead of trying to invent your own?

But the most pernicious issue here is that – at least if my college age self is typical – you will end up spending so much time refining and polishing and admiring your new collection of spiritual beliefs that you never actually bother putting them into practice – or if you do, you will change them every few weeks and never get the solid consistent base you need to be good at them.

If I get into mysticism again – and I think I should, it seems like one of the highest-value areas for me – I am going to force myself not to read any books about mysticism except extremely sparse how-to instruction manuals. One at a time. Without even so much as glancing at Step Eight before I’ve finished Step Seven.

36 thoughts on “Against Anton-Wilsonism

  1. Dave

    I think you’re being a bit too hard on Wilson. He was a joker and a tinkerer, and an enemy of orthodoxy. I think we have to forgive the tinkering, at least, because no matter how strictly you try to follow traditional practice, the fact that your background is so different from that of traditional practitioners means that inevitably your experience will be different. Might as well go eclectic, unless you know for a fact that one strict orthodoxy is far superior to all others.
    I plan to post a more lengthy comment on my blog.

  2. Hagbard Celine

    The chairman of the Central Military Committee of the Illuminated People’s Republic of Discordia today issued a statement affirming that the Less Wrong conceptual imperialists and their lapdog “Scott Alexander” will bitterly rue the day they set out to challenge the might of the IPRD. Their foolish effrontery knows no limits, but the Discordian masses, steadfastly holding to the line of Timothylearyist-Antonwilsonist thought, will deliver a merciless crushing response.

  3. monolith94

    Reading this, I get the impression that you might find Burroughs’ “The Western Lands” interesting as a read.

  4. SuperReward

    What do you make of Philosophy then Scott? Reading a book on the history of Philosophy would engage you with the basic ideas, and would allow you to do a very simplistic kind of philosophy. Do you think that’s problematic?

  5. im

    At least for science, thinking of a way to engineer something may provide a test for what you really know.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Here I’m thinking mostly of meditation, which I think has a high chance of being right – some of the weaker claims have been supported by various studies, and there’s overwhelming anecdotal evidence from practitioners.

      It claims to be able to make you a better person in a variety of ways – happier, more agenty, kinder, and more likeable – with a small amount of effort (an hour a day for a couple of years if you do it right is what I heard). Given my distrust of almost all traditional self-help, this is permanent stat boosts which I can’t gain any other way and which are important for my career, my social life, and for any other big projects I choose to do (and which have good externalities for society).

      But more important, I really really want to understand the fundamental nature of reality and thought (one of the reasons I’m into cognitive science/psychiatry so much) and meditation promises to be able to do that in a way nothing else can. To have not gotten around to it seems sort of like a betrayal of everything I say I’m interested in and think is important.

      1. Anonymous

        just wondering, why have you not gotten around to it? the benefits are immediate, as in, meditate for ten minutes right now and there is a good chance you will feel a little more relaxed afterwards. and if you meditate for fifteen minutes every day this week you’ll feel pretty nice. of course, the really really great benefits take lots of time and effort and unpleasant experiences to reach, but it’s not as if you have to endure a present loss for a future gain. i would say it’s like exercise in this respect. except you don’t need to go get a gym membership, you just need to move to a different spot in the house.

        (i’ve been meditating for a month, believe this post as much or as little as you want to)

        1. Misha

          The benefits have never been immediate for me, and exercise seems like the perfect example to show how it’s not. When you start exercising it’s just painful and difficult and boring. You don’t feel good doing the first 3 pushups of your climb to being able to do a hundred. Any time I’ve tried to take 10 minutes to medidate I just got bored, not tranquil.

        2. Anonymous

          i guess your mileage might vary on this one, but a lot of people who are starting to exercise report that “just getting yourself out there” feels great, as long as you aren’t expecting yourself to be able to bench press 300 lbs on your first day at the gym.

          for me, i think part of it is just that the fact that i’m doing something to improve myself makes me feel good. plus exercise and meditation both have physiological effects, i think.

        3. Scott Alexander Post author

          Haven’t gotten around to it because of personal weakness and tendency to let the practice trail off the past few times I’ve tried it. Going to start again and try to do better soon.

        4. Anonymous

          i really hope you do, by the way!! im a huge fan of your writings and i’m sure i would be absolutely enthralled by anything you wrote about meditation. and if you start meditating regularly, meditation will be on your mind, so you’ll more likely than not have something to say. hopefully d:

        5. endoself

          of course, the really really great benefits take lots of time and effort and unpleasant experiences to reach, but it’s not as if you have to endure a present loss for a future gain.

          I assume you are referring to Vipassana meditation and the Dark Night, which is associated with Vipassana in particular. What evidence do you have that there is a future gain for those who practice Vipassana? From what I’ve heard, it seems like intentionally giving yourself a mental illness and then fixing it. I think I’ve even heard some practitioners explicitly describe it as that, but they said that it was worth it. For more of where I’m coming from, see muflax on Vipassana; he does it and warns that it is not what many people want. I’m interested in what makes people think it’s a good idea, since I’ve mostly only heard the other side.

        6. Anonymous

          it only sounds like that if you’re extremely skeptical of any anecdotal evidence of positive mental states, and extremely willing to assume that any anecdotal evidence of a negative mental state is “mental illness”. you basically need to take the most pessimistic interpretation of the literature possible to come to that conclusion. :\

  6. Mary

    The Illuminati? Well, whose version of them? I’m sure we could find something in common between the Illuminated ones and the Enlightened ones if we tried, and selected carefully.

    Even if you dismiss their common use of light for knowledge as the common usage of mankind.

  7. Fnord

    I feel the deep need to point out that my nom-de-internet is not a deep endorsement of Robert Anton Wilson and more along the lines of a joke about internet anonymity, just like the people who make plays on the word “anonymous”, but with more group-affiliation-signaling.

    Which probably means you have a good point.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I love Robert Anton Wilson as an author for the same reason I love Carl Sagan as a science personality. This post was in no way meant to say he was a bad author, role model, or source of fascinating ideas.

  8. Sarah

    Wow, you read RAW so differently than I did!

    I never identified as a “mystic” or interested in “mysticism.” No sirree. And I still have negative affect around Buddhism.

    But it turns out that a few things in the RAW oeuvre are descriptions of real experiences. I haven’t had most of them, but I have hugged a friend through one of them. There are things the brain can do under the right stimulus, and some of them are beautiful and terrible, and there are enough commonalities in people’s wiring that it’s not always wrong to talk about “stages” or “jhanas” or give a name to certain categories of experience and say “don’t freak out, many people have been *exactly here* before you.”

    I’m still agnostic as to whether any of those things make your life better on net, but I’m inclined to think at least sometimes they do.

    Learning our way around the brain seems really important. (And hey, you’re a psychiatrist, this is kind of in your job description!) But…seriously, I wouldn’t mess around with thinking of it as “mystical,” I’d just try to be empirical about it.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I use the word “mysticism” pretty much as a value-neutral word to point out exactly this cluster of things. It sounds like you have some strong feelings against it, which I can understand, but I’m not sure there’s a better definition for “mysticism” or a better word to describe this cluster.

  9. BenSix

    I love Anton Wilson’s writings but the agnosticism that he promoted can become a dogma itself. One can grow too comfortable in answering truth claims with “maybe”, and avoid the difficult business of working out whether it would be more appropriate to say “yes” or “no”.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I reread some of Robert Anton Wilson a year or so ago, and it all just looked like “Look at me, I don’t understand Bayesian probability, I’m going to pretend that 1% chance of truth is equivalent to 99% chance of truth and totally drive off an epistemological cliff!”

      1. michael vassar

        What cliffs?
        Seems to me he did pretty well in distinguishing truth claims.
        I mean, I don’t really understand Bayesian probability either, in terms of multi-level hierarchical models etc, which I think is needed to really make Causality work, so we’re both stuck with pre-technical solutions to Hume’s problem of induction, but I know a bit more than he did, so I can see ‘reality tunnels’ as probably being equivalent to parametrizations, sets of nodes in an acyclic causal graph.
        Still, he knew enough to endorse empiricism and to focus on map/territory distinctions, which gets you pretty far compared to the typical LWer.

      2. St. Rev

        What Michael Vassar said.

        It’s fair to criticize Wilson for not grasping Bayes’ theorem, though my impression is that Bayesianism has only risen to prominence among schools of null-A logics in the last 10-20-odd years, and most of RAW’s important work was done in the 70s and 80s. (It would be fairer to criticize him for garbling Shannon!) But he was quite good at applying Korzybski, and your 99%-1% characterization is unfair. What RAW did say explicitly, in various contexts, was that he rated likelihood of propositions on a scale of 1 to 9, and if he found himself at 0 or 10 he’d look for a counterargument until he reached 1 or 9 again. RAW didn’t have our analytic foundation for probabilistic thinking, but he wasn’t a nihilist and it’s absurd to say so.

        On the matter of mysticism and dabbling, I again think your characterization is unfair, and conflates several distinct things RAW was trying to accomplish. Part of his program was anti-authoritarian–demystifying mysticism, as it were, was deliberate; given what we knew then and know now about the potential secrecy to allow initiatory orders to devolve into highly abusive cliques, this seems like a sane and important goal to me. At the same time, he was clear that there were things one could only learn, or was probably better off learning, in a formal order or teaching relationship–e.g. yoga techniques, ritual magick in the Western tradition, Masonry. In general, I think his point was that there was no True Path and no guaranteed safe place to stand when pursuing these things, and sometimes they came to you regardless of what club you were or weren’t in, not that any of it was safe or easy.

        1. David Chapman

          Bayesianism was already a full-fledged cult by about 1985. It had infected a few AI folks by then (via Judea Pearl, presumably).

          Every couple years I’d say “damn, I must be missing something—I’d better check again to see if there is any there, there!” but there wasn’t.

          When I’d point out that there was no there, there, people back then would start talking about Dempster-Shafer theory. Does anyone still do that, or is it ancient history now?

    1. Dave

      LW as in less wrong? Wilson was trying to recapitulate Bayesianism. He had a peculiar interest in low probability hypotheses with some fringie new-agey adherents who thought these hypotheses were “The Truth (TM)” but Wilson remained fascinated but agnostic. So I would say interest in Wilson’s epistemological stance makes one an excellent candidate for interest in the ideas of LW and techniques being promulgated by CFAR. I’m not sure it would go the other way so much, as Wilson can sound a bit nutty.

      Can you think of any contemporary authors of fiction with a comparable philosophical bent that might steer people toward LW? Other than the obvious?

  10. michael vassar

    All great thinkers are dabblers.
    I’m not actually sure that studying physics in terms of Feynman’s weird connections wouldn’t work excellently. Likewise, it’s my impression that if one does learn about science just right, and one learns a moderate amount of science, one can actually make sense of a lot of the science that one just learned about.
    thinking ‘how do I know that’ a lot leads one to develop habits of scientific skepticism, which, when actually applied to most ‘common knowledge’, such as ‘this dish-cleanser is new and improved so I should buy them’ or ‘it’s good to vote’ or ‘this country was founded as a Christian Nation like they say on Fox’ or the like, point one towards conspiracy theories (if you are a member of an organized religion, or you get your news from Fox, or to some extent, the mainstream press, you are living in The Matrix produce by a fairly elaborate though not very centralized conspiracy).
    if you don’t know about mysticism, how do you decide what mystical paths to pursue or how to do so.

  11. muflax

    (Sees title.) Wait he’s gonna reject RAW – has he gone mad?! (Reads article.) Oh yeah, huh, good point.

    While I think you’re possibly underestimating the depth of That One Skill RAW has (not believing his thoughts), I completely agree with you about the importance of avoiding the failure mode of reading only popularizations instead of developing actual skills. PopSci that focuses primarily on conclusions instead of methods make this so much worse and only creates insight addicts. I now categorically ignore any presentation not written by and for the engineering branch of whatever field I’m interested in (and limiting myself to as few fields as possible, but monkey mind, amirite?)

    (Political side-note: This is also my main criticism of the internet Reaction. They are primarily contrarian fanboys, not insightful contrarians themselves, and seem to have no interest in fixing this.)

    I’m also not sure how much the conspiracy failure mode applies to RAW himself, instead of potheads many of the people he influenced. A lot of fields are highly incestuous, and especially modern mysticism, despite its claim of ancient lineage, quite often goes back to 3 dudes who all read the same books, so conspiracy-structure seems to me fairly common in *fields*, but not the *content* of fields. So if you want to trace the development of physics, then following Feynman through all his weird connections will be useful, but I think we both agree that *studying* physics that way, i.e. in terms of social networks instead of equations, is a Bad Idea.

    (I’m also amused how mystic literature for mystics tends to promise How To Become A God And Hang Out With Demons And Stuff and mystic literature for non-mystics is mostly How To Slightly Increase Your Chance Of Getting Laid, so it’s not even obvious to me which extreme would even *be* the real content one would study. Is the enlightened master the closet schizophrenic or the ineffectual psychoanalyst?)

    1. Multiheaded

      (Political side-note: This is also my main criticism of the internet Reaction. They are primarily contrarian fanboys, not insightful contrarians themselves, and seem to have no interest in fixing this.)

      Some are insightful contrarians, but no amount of insight can compensate for such awful, romanticized, self-absorbed epistemic habits.

      1. im

        That’s part of what distinguishes my ‘reconstruction’: self-awareness about romanticism.

    2. Sarah

      Oh man. This so hard.

      [btw, are you much of a correspondent? I think I want to ask you about some stuff.]

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