Human Beings are Not an Engineering Problem
On the re-publication of Robert Anton Wilson’s ‘The New Inquisition’

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 7 July 2021

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Robert Anton Wilson lived on the frontlines of the war for our reality. Like a latter-day Socrates by way of Paul Krassner, he was a revolutionary philosopher satirist who sought to preserve the wiggle room between human beings and our underlying assumptions about the world. Facts are fewer and far between than we have been led to believe. Death may be certain, but certainty is itself a kind of death.

I first met Bob after my very first book reading — more of a talk, really — at the Capitola Book Cafe. He was, of course, one of my psychedelic heroes, and by then he was already struggling with the painful onset of post-polio syndrome. Watching him endure a hard metal folding chair the front row all to hear me speak was both gratifying and humbling.

When I was done signing copies, he asked if I had time to come over for a beer. Imagine that. So we walked around the corner to his garden apartment condo, and I sat with Bob and his wife Arlen talking about James Joyce, psychedelics, space migration, and my own expertise, this new place called cyberspace. Our conversation was great, and yes it should have been taped. But what made it so remarkable was not the content we shared, but the context in which it took place.

This was enough: This sacred ritual of sitting together, just being together, and co-processing the sensory data we had accumulated over our respective lifetimes. Comparing notes and conclusions. Sharing our questions and unresolved dilemmas. Delighting in our respective paradoxes, and relating them across our various disciplines. What I saw in fractal geometry, Bob saw in Celtic quantum theory, and Arlen saw in Ancient Egyptian mythology. Where I was wrestling against early efforts to make the Internet addictive, Bob was working on the manipulative applications of neurolinguistic programming, and so on.

But what made Bob different, was that he eschewed authority — not just in others, like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman did — but in himself. They say not to ever meet your heroes or you’ll be disillusioned. Bob was the exception to this rule. Meeting Bob was like meeting your long lost uncle. He was casual, friendly, self-effacing, open-minded, and mentally flexible. He simply refused to be placed on a pedestal, or to lord his wisdom or stature over anyone else. I knew this as his personality.

On re-reading his recently republished 1987 masterwork The New Inquisition, however (for which I was asked to write a foreword) I’ve come to realize this wasn’t just Bob’s temperament, but his philosophy of science. For Bob, nothing was sacred and nothing was set in stone — except maybe the idea that fundamentalism is a dangerous dead end.

Like Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, Robert Anton Wilson’s The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science seeks to rescue science from fundamentalist materialism, and the rest of us from the broader implications of this approach. It is at once a philosophical treatise and an act of cognitive defiance.

He is arguing against the widespread commitment of the scientific community to promote rationalism over all other forms of logic and experience. Yes, rationalism and materialism are great for explaining how the momentum of one billiard ball can impact another. But the conclusions we can draw from what Aristotle would call “efficient cause” are limited. Local. Sometimes, even, temporary. There is more going on here than can be explained by pure rationalism — from psychic phenomena and synchronicities to morphogenetic fields and even love. As materialist science entrenches itself as the only valid way to process our perceptions and experience, we risk losing access to the myriad reality tunnels that have characterized human experience and understanding since the first people thunk the first thoughts.

What Bob couldn’t have known back in the Reagan Era when he wrote the book, was how the digital media environment would exacerbate the primacy of materialism — to everyone’s detriment. Back in the Renaissance, Francis Bacon, the father of empirical reasoning, announced that materialist science would allow man to “take nature by the forelock, hold her down, and submit her to our will.” He used a rape metaphor to describe the benefits of rational thinking. This is not a way of understanding nature, but forcing nature to conform to the model. As Korzybski and Wilson both liked to remind us, “the map is not the territory.” For Bacon and many engineers who followed, this means changing the territory to become more like the map.

Indeed, fundamentally materialist science is about quantifying everything. If you can’t measure something and assign a metric, it may as well not exist. Homeopathic medicine, human rapport, and the humanities themselves would fall into this category. Their benefits, even their very existence, cannot be acknowledged because there’s no instrument capable of quantifying them. That was bad enough.

But in a digital age — and I’m convinced this is why Bob was interested in my own work — everything must be quantized. Things must not only be measurable, but they must be resolved to the nearest appropriate integer. Reality, auto-tuned to the nearest quantized gradient. Not only is the map the territory, but the map is now divided into discrete units. You can be at 49 latitude, or 50 latitude, but nowhere in-between. One or zero. Yes or No. Right or wrong.

Reality is weirder than this. All you need to do is walk in nature, have sex, talk to a cat, or watch a David Lynch movie to understand there is more going on here than can be described by the standardized metrics of science or the sampling rates of digital recording devices. There’s information between the lines and off the map. Things happen that violate the laws, challenge our long-held assumptions, and suggest that reality is not what it seems.

Bob’s message is more important right now than it was when he wrote it. Our digital fundamentalists see human beings as an engineering problem to be solved. Behaviors and thoughts that do not conform to our algorithmically generated profiles are to be eliminated, and humans shepherded into the reality tunnels that obey the laws of rationality alone. We are right now being programmed by the very fundamental materialists about which he was warning us.

As neoliberals, nationalists, and fundamentalists of all stripes attempt to lock down our reality, the work of Robert Anton Wilson can serve as both a weapon and a shield. His logic, examples, and humor pierce holes in the hermetically sealed cognitive reality into which we remaining humans are being herded by the technocracy’s non-player characters. Yet they also protect us against reflexively adopting equally absurd positions of paranoia and conspiracy theory.

It is not too late to challenge the authoritarians, retrieve the weird, and break free to the wider potential of human experiences as well as a greater set of compelling explanations for them.

We can still join those who have chosen to subvert reality, and become a part of the greater conspiracy.