The New Inquisition - Irrational Rationalism and the
Citadel of Science by Robert Anton Wilson
(Phoenix, Arizona: Falcon Press, 1987. Paperback, 240pp, $9.95)
reviewed by Robert Sheaffer
(an earlier version of this review appeared in The Skeptical Inquirer, Fall 1989, Vol. 14, no. 1.)
(Web version published February, 2000)
There is a "New Inquisition" loose in the land, says Robert Anton Wilson, co-author of the Illuminatus trilogy, author of Cosmic Trigger, Schroedinger's Cat, and many other works. He is a witty man who has a virtual cult following, almost like that of a rock star. The group allegedly suppressing dissent to preserve its orthodoxy is what Wilson calls "the Citadel" of science, by which he means what some people call the "military-industrial complex". He depicts this as an unholy alliance of scientists and government-sponsored defense firms, universities and laboratories, whose job it is to devise more efficient ways to murder people. The doctrine of these closed-minded and wicked people he calls "fundamentalist materialism." And the inquisitors doing the dirty work of this sinister group are those names you see on the inside cover of this magazine, for to Wilson CSICOP represents the very head of materialist wickedness, the apex of the sinister pyramid. "One does not have to be a dogmatic Marxist to ... wonder if the priests of the Citadel have a vested economic interest in supporting the axioms of their employers and of imperialist-materialist philosophy in general." Wilson sees the scientific world-view as a form of Western "mental imperialism," a means by which selfish and greedy white males oppress women and non-Western peoples. (Try convincing the people of modern-day Japan, Taiwan, or Singapore that science is an arbitrary expression of a Western world-view!)
Conspiratorial thinking comes naturally to Robert Anton Wilson, probably the world's leading yarn-spinner about vast, global- scale conspiracies. Elsewhere he has suggested halfway in jest - although apparently only halfway - that a sinister conspiratorial organization such as the secret Illuminati really might be controlling the unfolding of history. If it is not the Illuminati, then it may be the bankers of the Vatican and/or the Knights of Malta, some of whom may have had something to do with the assassination of John Kennedy, or the sudden death of Pope John Paul I. While some people see history as driven by technological developments, and others by economic forces or social classes, Wilson sees a conspirator hiding behind every Bush (who is, of course, a Trilateralist).
Do not mistake Wilson for a Marxist. He poses as an anarcho-libertarian, although of a very weird kind. (How many libertarians promote the idea of a "Guaranteed Annual Wage," or have lived on welfare?) Indeed, it is this very weirdness that so delights his fans. Wilson practices what he calls "guerrilla ontology," a technique similar to that of Charles Fort, peppering the reader with an unending stream of bizarre and outrageous but highly entertaining claims, some of which are plausible, while others are so bizarre that you would have to throw out much of your brain to make room for them. Wilson announces quite candidly that not everything he says is to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, he leaves the reader to guess which parts are, and which are not. One suspects that he has not answered that question fully himself, and that anyone who attempted to pin him down about it would be denounced as humorless. He regales us with tales of Fortean Fafrotskies (things that allegedly fall from the skies), and a yarn about a man who thought he was a dog, which was taken from a tabloid rag whose current headline reads "SPACE SHUTTLE WAS INVADED BY ALIENS." Should you catch Wilson in an embarrassing howler, he just laughs at you, hinting that the part you object to was not supposed to be taken seriously. Apparently Wilson operates on the principle that all claims should be treated as equals, whether prosaic or bizarre, and that only the dogmatic discriminate against something merely because it makes no sense. If you doubt literal rains of frogs, or sightings of a centaur, it is only because you are blinded by the conventions of your "reality tunnel." Tune in, turn on, and believe all manner of things; you might even see a "man with warty green skin and pointy ears, dancing," as Wilson did on the day following one of his "trips" on peyote .
The surprising thing about a such a wild and woolly book by a free-shooting author is that there is actually quite a sophisticated understanding of philosophy behind it. Wilson has gone far beyond the freshman-level philosophy many authors employ to create a veneer of wisdom, who pull in few over-used and largely irrelevant quotes. Wilson reveals a knowledge of many philosophers, but most especially of Nietzsche. In this book of 240 pages I counted 31 separate references, direct or implicit, to Nietzsche or Nietzschean thought. (There is, alas, no index.) Wilson displays an excellent knowledge of Nietzsche, and not of the caricature of Nietzsche popularly imagined to embody a supreme wickedness, but of Nietzsche the serious epistemologist. Wilson has clearly stumbled on the little-known twentieth-century shortcut for being proclaimed a genius: drink deeply from the fountain of Nietzsche, and spew back some portion of it, in a form vastly easier to understand. Among the others making this same discovery were Sigmund Freud, H.L. Mencken, Ortega y Gassett, Eric Hoffer, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ayn Rand.
Wilson expounds the Nietzschean notion of the inexhaustible richness of reality, with the accompanying impossibility of ever reducing it to any single observational paradigm. He also employs the Nietzschean notion of language as "metaphor," whose roots he quite plausibly traces to Emerson. This poses, of course, a formidable difficulty to anyone who might want to claim absolute and certain knowledge of the "nature of things" based on observations, a claim he imagines CSICOP and other skeptics to make. Wilson stresses the need for continual Nietzschean "self-overcoming" of one's own limitations and prejudices. He repeats Nietzsche's pronouncements of the need for continual skepticism of accepted ideas, and of the dangers of blind belief.
Another philosopher Wilson brings in to support his position is David Hume. He correctly relates Hume's demonstration of the impossibility of ever arriving at certain knowledge of causality from observations of objects in the physical world. Again, he imagines that CSICOP is claiming absolute and certain knowledge of cause and effect, that professional philosophers like Paul Kurtz, Anthony Flew, Paul Edwards, and Sydney Hook were unaware of Hume's critique, and that a few well-known quotes from Hume will stop CSICOP dead in its tracks. Wilson sails on, blissfully unaware that his beloved David Hume wrote what is probably the most devastating work of hard-nosed debunking in the entire history of philosophy. Hume's essay "Of Miracles" urges that all claims of alleged paranormal occurrences be viewed with the maximum possible suspicion. Hume observes that since "the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena," therefore "no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish; and even in that case there is a mutual destruction of arguments." Thus while Wilson thinks that Hume's critique of empirical certainty should lead us to welcome with open arms any and all yarns about miraculous events, Hume himself thought that it implied one should toss out the window all claims of the miraculous that are supported by testimony alone.
A similar irony occurs when Wilson confronts the thought of the noted physicist John Archibald Wheeler, whose "multiple universe" interpretation of quantum mechanics seems to Wilson to make psychic happenings and "non-local connections" a virtual certainty. What Wilson either doesn't know, or doesn't tell us if he does, is that Wheeler himself vehemently disagrees. Wheeler termed parapsychology "a pretentious pseudoscience" that was given undeserved recognition by the AAAS during the 1960s "decade of permissiveness" . Wheeler publicly called for the Parapsychological Association to be ousted from the AAAS unless it could come up with a repeatable experiment within one year. Similarly, Wilson discusses physicist Murray Gell-Mann, the Nobel laureate and CSICOP fellow, whose theory of quarks Wilson tries to link in with psychic twaddle. Once again, Wilson seems not to know that Gell-Mann has sharply criticized the very argument he is making, insisting that quantum mechanical theory is not compatible with alleged "psychic effects" . It is really quite funny how Wilson keeps trying to enlist the most hardened skeptical scientists and philosophers as allies in his crusade for crackpottery.
James "The Amazing" Randi, as depicted by Wilson, is a pig-headed man who keeps his head buried in the sand. Each time Randi hears talk of something that "shouldn't" be, he just waves his arms and shouts to his followers that "it can't be," and they, like the blind fools they are, believe him. Wilson's insipid analysis of the Randi-Geller-SRI matter, in its entirety, is this: "See especially the interminable diatribes of CSICOP's James Randi against Drs. Puthoff and Targ, physicists of Stanford Research Institute (Palo Alto [actually Menlo Park]) who allowed Uri Geller into their laboratory and then reported that which Mr. Randi, who was not there, knows passionately could not have happened." This not only grossly misrepresents Randi's methodology, but proves beyond a shadow of doubt that Wilson knows nothing about Randi's investigations of Geller. If Wilson, before writing this diatribe, had bothered to read, or even peruse, Randi's books Flim Flam or The Truth About Uri Geller, he would have known how Randi had dogged Geller's trail over a period of years, and how Geller's hoaxing was gradually revealed, despite Targ and Puthoff's inexcusable refusal to cooperate with other investigators. But "guerrilla ontologists" do not share our bourgeois prejudice for getting facts straight before writing them; like all terrorists, the intention is to destroy, not to build (although in this case the target is not people, but knowledge).
Wilson keeps tripping himself time and again over the simplest matters, and not only in this book. Given the superficial level of his research and his apparent refusal on principle to verify any facts before they are published, his writings turn into a wonderland of witty erudition mixed with elephantine blundering. While his books are beyond any doubt marvelously entertaining, they are strewn with "factoids": statements that appear to be reliable, but are really anything but. In one very revealing example, Wilson quotes from a Skeptical Inquirer article by Professor Mario Bunge in which Bunge says, "Likewise telepathy may be a fact after all- though not clairvoyance, precognition, or psychokinesis, all of which conflict with basic physical laws." The first difficulty is that Wilson gets the name of the author wrong, not once but many times: poor Bunge is pummeled throughout the book under the name of "Professor Munge." Wilson's comment on this passage is, "Leaving aside Prof. Munge's odd tolerance about telepathy - Black Heresy to get printed in that journal! - note well what his sentence says and what it implies. It seems to me that it implies that he already knows all the laws of the universe, or all the important ones, and that is what I mean by a huge and audacious faith."
It is a pity that Wilson did not read the article immediately following this one, by Professor Stephen Toulmin, who disagrees sharply with Bunge. Toulmin's article is summarized, "The task of demarcating between the real sciences and pseudoscience has had a long and complex history. That history should induce a certain modesty." In it, Toulmin emphasizes the difficulty of distinguishing between science and pseudoscience, and warns against hasty judgments. But such "heresy" couldn't possibly be published in The Skeptical Inquirer, Wilson would insist, because that would make CISCOP a "Liberal Materialist" organization, a kind of which he would approve. But since CSICOP is run by evil and bigoted "Fundamentalist Materialists," therefore articles like Toulmin's must not exist. The articles by Bunge and Toulmin are both derived from talks given at the 1983 CISCOP conference, and during his talk Toulmin hurled some extremely sharp verbal barbs at Bunge, who had preceeded him. It is a good thing that Wilson did not attend this conference, or listen to the tapes of it before writing his critique. The old gent might suffer apoplexy to learn that his so-called "Inquisition" not only permits wide-ranging discussion and dissent, but actively seeks out divergent scholarly opinions to invigorate its proceedings!
It occurs to me that if Wilson had actually read the issue of Skeptical Inquirer in which Bunge's article appeared , he probably would have gotten the author's name right. He might even have turned to the article immediately following it, and realized that authors published in SI do not automatically agree with each other like robots in lock-step, although the existence of diversity among rationalists being so far outside Wilson's "reality tunnel," by his own hypothesis he would fail to recognize it even if he did. Thus, Wilson writes a book attacking an organization whose publication he has scarcely read, accusing it of the "crime" of criticizing what it does not understand, while himself having absolutely no comprehension of what that organization is really like, or of the diversity of opinion it encompasses. CSICOP as described by Wilson bears absolutely no resemblance to the CSICOP I have known for twenty years.
Of my book The UFO Verdict, Wilson says: "Mr. Robert Sheaffer of CSICOP has recently written a book called The UFO Verdict. I have not read it and therefore do not presume to criticize it, but I cannot help noticing the classic Fundamentalism of the title. A muddle-head like myself cannot even put together a plausible UFO theory yet (not even to my own satisfaction), but Mr. Schaeffer has a verdict." (Note that my name is spelled two different ways in the same paragraph, a fate also suffered on a different page by a Mr. "Cattlin" or "Gattlin". At least "Prof. Munge" has his name misspelled consistently throughout.) Wilson deduces, before ever having met me, or even reading my book, that I am suffering from "the Right Man syndrome," the inability to even consider the possibility that I might be wrong. He cites a sociologist's paper Report on the Violent Male, and goes on to describe the circumstances in which Right Men like me become violent. (Perhaps if we are forced to eat quiche?) CSICOP, he infers, is filled with Right Men like that, who fight "as dirty as possible." You can imagine how relieved I was to learn that "not all Right Men become criminals." Here we can clearly see the Wilsonian methodology in action: grab a tiny piece of a fact, or something that resembles one, and puff it up and stretch it mightily until it begs for mercy. Accuse those you disagree with of being wicked and violent persons. If anyone objects to this procedure, vehemently accuse them of hidebound dogmatism, and dump a dozen more factoids on their head.
Many crocodile tears are shed over the fate of poor old Dr. Wilhelm Reich, the bizarre neo-Freudian psychologist who believed he had discovered "Orgone energy", the hidden cosmic energy of the orgasm, which makes the sky blue. Wilson tries to convince the reader that Reich was arrested by agents of the Citadel because of his scientific and political "heresy," and his books suppressed. He blames skeptic Martin Gardner for leading the "propaganda war against Reich." Wilson thinks that the burden of proof is upon any skeptic who questions Reich's bizarre experiments: until Martin Gardner repeats these same experiments, he has no grounds to doubt them. What Wilson won't tell you is that Reich was arrested because he was a cancer quack, who was defrauding sufferers by pretending to cure cancer and other diseases through "orgone energy" therapy. The government rightfully takes a dim view of those who exploit sick people by selling them fraudulent "cures." It is true that the court, upon Reich's conviction, destroyed an inventory of his books when his assets were seized. However, Reich's works were not, and are not, suppressed or banned: "New Age" bookstores are filled with them. Wilson rides a similar hobby-horse about the alleged persecuation and silencing of Immanuel Velikovsky: "the Citadel didn't burn his books, but they tried." What the reader, once again, will never find out from Wilson is Velikovsky's "persecution" consisted of nothing more than a group of scholars boycotting the once-respected scholarly publisher that had compromised itself by publishing Velikovsky's pseudo-scientific work.
Wilson admits directing "much wicked sarcasm" at CSICOP for its defense of "the Citadel." There is one major element of Nietzschean thought that Wilson unfortunately does not seem to understand. Nietzsche warned against an attitude he called ressentiment, which he defined as a habitual, spiteful revengefulness against persons or institutions that are influential or successful. For all Wilson's erudition in Nietzsche, it is odd that he does not recognized the ressentiment in his own rage against the power and prestige scientists have earned by their accomplishments. More philosophy for Wilson to ponder: Kierkegaard wrote, "envy will hasten to his dark corner whence he will summon his even more hideous cousin, malicious glee." The New Inquisition is a book filled with "malicious glee." The so- called "heretics" Wilson seeks to defend within it are not worthy of the now-honored title "heretic." The heretics of old were prosecuted because they dared speak out freely against inflexible orthodoxies. Today's so-called "heretics" unquestionably have that freedom: everyone concedes this, and they can be found exercising this freedom, every day of the year. What Wilson and others actually seek for today's so-called "heretics" is not freedom of speech, which they already have, but exemption from critical examination of dubious claims. As long as I still have my freedom of speech, I intend to see that they do not get it.
Thus, the poisoned arrows of The New Inquisition widely miss their mark because Wilson doesn't really know where his target is. This superficial critique, envenomed by envy and personal attacks, and written in great haste, will delight those whose minds, like Wilson's, are inflexibly made up and who love seeing the 'bad guys' take a licking. But to the thoughtful person, who does not see the world in Wilsonian conspiratorial terms, this book contains no useful critique of CSICOP or of Materialism, "Fundamentalist" or otherwise. I would love to see Randi and Wilson match wits publicly, perhaps at some future CSICOP conference. While both men are justly famed for their ability to dazzle audiences, I fully expect that Wilson would end up with egg on his face, embarrassed by the shallowness of his knowledge of those he attacks. Wilson does not even realize that the "Liberal Materialism" of which he claims to approve - to pronounce judgment only after investigation - has been the policy of those he brands "Fundamentalist Materialists," for as long as CISCOP has existed. For that reason, The New Inquisition, despite all its thunder and lightning, is worthless as a thoughtful critique of the skeptical movement.
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