Saturday, April 27, 2013

My Debt to Robert Anton Wilson

I decided that Wilson's thinking had enough influence on me that I owe him a mention here on the blog. I enjoyed Wilson's sense of humor and imagination, but as an author of fiction he was nothing special. Maybe he wasn't so special as a writer of nonfiction either, but I encountered him and his unusual epistemological attitude at a fortuitous moment in my life. My subsequent exposures to experiences and orthodoxies have all been colored to some degree by Wilson's peculiar brand of gullible skepticism and suspicion toward orthodoxy. There are other authors who can offer a variety of this attitude, and I've probably collected a few. Perhaps I even had a predisposition toward this friendly skepticism/crude Bayesianism before I encountered Wilson, but he made me conscious of the issue before anyone else did. This seems important to me.
I'm not sure whether I would recommend his books to anyone at this point or not. I love him, but he has plenty of baggage. I'm tempted to think that one good article (or blog post) could encapsulate perfectly what Wilson gave me. But on the other hand, if he'd just written a brief article on epistemology, I would never have read it, and even if I had, maybe the rhetorical effect would have been less.
I scratched together some notes and began googling to try to figure out whether Wilson mentioned Bayesianism in his books or articles. My skill with google may not be sufficient to the task, but I can't find any evidence that he did. Plenty of other people mention Wilson and Bayes, though, including this reasonably pleasant article on Bayesian probability: Wilson is mentioned briefly in one of the comments.
Another blog post criticizes Wilson as possessing/transmitting knowledge *about* mysticism rather than possessing mystical knowledge, and claiming that he was a "dabbler". It's true that Wilson was eclectic, an empirical and practical tinkerer interested in field stripping the human mind and seeing if he could hack it. Some of his nonfiction included exercises he seemed to think would give results (I was never patient or empirical enough to actually try them), though maybe this isn't the sort of mystical knowledge that the poster intended. Wilson considered mysticism to be a primitive form of psychology, so from his standpoint there is no problem.
I do wish I knew which of his works would be most appropriate as a "gentle introduction" to Wilson. "Illuminatus!" I think was his most well-known book, but having reread book 1 fairly recently, I don't think it fits the bill. (Though that was my introduction, that book by itself did not have much impact on me, as I just concentrated on the jokes my first time through. The second time I could see some of the philosophy peeking through, but it was a bit too subtle for this purpose.) I spent some time dredging through YouTube videos, but I think they mostly would make him seem a bit nutty to someone not familiar with his sense of humor. So it's a problem, I have not solved it. Suggestions in the comments?

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