Saturday, January 9, 2010

Prometheus Rising

Some people are synthesisers of ideas. They take notions from all over the place and work them into a coherent picture, or something close to it. Robert Anton Wilson’s Prometheus Rising is the work of such a synthesiser, and one not afraid to openly consult occult perspectives in building a picture of us and our of place in the world.

Which is not as silly as it seems, since whatever else they do, occultists build pictures of us and our place in the world. For good and ill. The career of Hitler makes more sense once one realises his perceptive use of occult images and ideas to build his political movement. And Wilson has no problem saying 95% of what occultists write is rubbish (p.220).

There is nothing, as far as I am aware, particularly original in the details of Prometheus Rising, the originality lies more in the taking ideas from all over and pointing out their resonances. Wilson is trying to reconcile mysticism with neuroscience.

Trouble is, it is hard for a layperson to judge how well he covers the neuroscience. Though his understanding of psychological, occult and mystical systems does seem to be sound: and he does produce a schema that ties a lot of such systems into identifiable patterns.

I found Wilson’s cheery optimism (indeed, over-optimism) very engaging. Given his notions of emerging human potential, the writers of Stargate and Stargate: Atlantis with their notions of ascension may have read Wilson. (Or they may be role-players.)

And, like Camille Paglia, the Archwizard and the Wizard of Footscray, Wilson wants to rescue the good 1960s from (to use Wilson’s language) the dogmatic Rationalists who hi-jacked it. He also has the elementary sense to see that the Marxist “cure” is worse than the capitalist disease (p.55), which puts him way ahead of many putatively clever folk.
Wilson shows a genial open-mindedness that is quite refreshing, though he does have some trendy lapses. For example, the “age of Aquarius” generation did not end the Vietnam War (p.117), the Hanoi regime’s military victory did. While the military-industrial complex does not consume 72% of US tax dollars (p.139). In 1960, Defense outlays were (pdf) 9.3% of US GDP and 52% of federal outlays, in 1980 4.9% and 28% respectively, in 2006 4% and 20% respectively. And Federal outlays do not including state and local taxes – $US1trn in taxes in 2004 (pdf), compared to US federal revenues (pdf) that year of $US1.9trn. There are also some irritating lapses into people who agree with me politically are more advanced rhetoric.

On the other hand, his attack on Rationalists (Pp 104, 174) is amusing.

Wilson starts off with the notion that what the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves: i.e. that something believed in strongly enough will be “proved” to the satisfaction of the believer. But he talks as if, in so satisfying themselves, they do so prove. This sad modern tendency to waddle between patterns of belief and actual epistemic success is vastly irritating. The perennial problem of epistemic success words (refuted, proved, disproved … etc) is that they imply that this is what has actually been done (i.e. is objectively so) but can also be used to refer to the belief that is what has actually been done (is subjectively so) or, worse, to wander back and forth between the two usages as Wilson does. The last is more or less inevitable with the subjective use because the words inherently have the objective implication – that’s why they are success words. (And I have no patience for "they actually change the world" claims since as such claims simply cannot be maintained consistently.)

On the other hand, Wilson's point that people box themselves into Reality tunnels as he calls them has merit. And his various suggested psychological exercises at the end of each chapter would certainly encourage mental openness.

Does Wilson tap into how things are in any deep way? Not convinced. Still, it is a fun and thought-provoking (and above all cheery) read: he does provide a schema for seeing underlying similarities in a lot of psychological and occult systems. And I have a soft spot for folk who are prepared to think boldly.

It also occurs to me that if you take his and the book’s initials you get RAW PR. Which would no doubt amuse him.

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