The Wisdom of Robert Anton Wilson: A Tonic for the Internet Age

Robert Anton Wilson

On October 23rd, the London Fortean Society celebrated "The Late Great Robert Anton Wilson" at the Horse Hospital in London. featuring lectures by our good friend John Higgs as well as Daisy Eris Campbell. John's well-presented talk, in which he riffs on RAW's thoughts about belief and reality, has been uploaded to YouTube and I heartily recommend it - in fact, I wish everyone on Earth would hear what John is talking about, because it's such a key aspect of the ways in which we fool ourselves (often to the detriment of others). I've embedded the talk below (John's talk is just over half an hour, followed by about 15 minutes of questions and money burning...literally), and after it I've pulled out a short quote from John's talk that resonated strongly with me (also, to whomever produced the video, I enjoyed the easter egg!):

The reason why I think Bob is important, and Bob is different, I think it can be summed up in a principle he talks about called the 'cosmic shmuck' principle, and it goes like this. If you wake up in the morning and you do not realise that you are a cosmic shmuck, you will remain a cosmic shmuck. But if you wake up in the morning and you think 'oh god, I'm a cosmic shmuck', you'll be very embarrassed [and] you'll want to be less of a cosmic shmuck; you'll try to be less of a cosmic shmuck; and slowly, over time, you'll become less of a cosmic shmuck.

And the fact that the underlying principle of Robert Anton Wilson's philosophy is "I know I'm wrong, I want to be less wrong", is very different to now, our current internet culture, where the underlying philosophy is "I'm right, and I want you to know that". And if you go onto any internet discussion, or debate, or things like that, you find people declaring certainties loudly, people with very fixed positions that they can express in 140 characters, that they hunker down and defend, and don't listen to anything else, and attempt to drown out all the others. That's so different to Robert Anton Wilson: he believed – hang on, the word believe is difficult with Bob – he thought that what you believed imprisoned you, he thought convictions create convicts.

His philosophy can be called 'multiple-model agnosticism'. That's not just agnosticism about God, that's agnosticism about everything...

There's a key core point [to Bob's philosophy], this phrase 'reality tunnel', that's at the heart of all Bob's thinking, so I think it's worth defining for you. A reality tunnel is the model of reality that you build in your head. It's not reality, it's what you think reality is. Just as Korzybski said, "the map is not the territory"; as Alan Watts said, "the menu is not the meal"; in the same way, your reality tunnel is not reality. It's a model you personally built over your entire life, based on your experiences, your memories, your senses, your prejudices, your culture, and to a large and surprising degree, language. And that's fine, that's normal, we need models. We need models to understand what's going on around us, to predict what's going to happen next. But a model is, by definition, a simplified version of something. It may look roughly the same, and it gives you a good idea of things, but there are going to be places where it lacks the detail, or it's just wrong or it's different. And when your reality tunnel doesn't map reality, then you are wrong. And the fact that we use these things means that we will always be wrong.

You can read more of John's thoughts on these topics in his fantastic books, The Brandy of the Damned, and The First Church on the Moon (both fiction), as well as The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds (non-fiction, even though it might seem more fictional than the first two).

Update: Here's part two of the event, Daisy Eris Campbell's discussion of her own links to Robert Anton Wilson - not least her conception backstage at her father Ken Campbell's epic stage adaptation of RAW's Illuminatus! - as well as her own upcoming adaptation of Cosmic Trigger (NSFW language warning):

My sincere thanks to the organizers of the event, and those who took the time to upload the video to YouTube - fantastic for people like me who would have loved to have attended in person.