The 1990 (or so) interview with Robert Anton Wilson on KBOO FM, Portland, Oregon
Cliff Walker: Hi, my name is Cliff Walker. Welcome to KBOO, Robert!
Robert Anton Wilson: It’s great to be here.
Walker: Robert is the author of the Illuminatus! trilogy, Schrödinger’s Cat, Masks of the Illuminati, and the most recent series, The Historical Illuminatus Chronicles— those are the novels. Some of my favorite non-fiction: Sex and Drugs, Cosmic Trigger, Prometheus Rising, and the brand new one, Quantum Psychology. What is Quantum Psychology about?
Wilson: Quantum Psychology is about the fact that we can never know reality the way we know our models of reality.
Walker: So what are some of the ideas you are trying to share in this book?
Wilson: Chiefly, that the paradoxes in quantum mechanics don’t just exist in quantum mechanics. They exist in every area of knowledge. Modern art has gotten to be very relativistic, just like modern physics. We’re even getting relativistic films, these days. Total Recall, with Schwarzenegger, is about a man that doesn’t know which memories are real and which are implanted. And there’s a new movie, Jacob’s Ladder, which has a similar theme. These are very similar to the themes of my novels, curiously enough!
The world is moving into a new era in which we’re beginning to realize every instrument creates a different reality-tunnel. Every brain is a different instrument. The instruments we make, to do science, turn out to have the same limitations as the instrument we started with — which is our own brain. Every instrument reveals a partial reality: a yardstick doesn’t tell you the temperature; a Geiger counter doesn’t tell you the weather. Every instrument has its limitations. Every brain has its limitations — except the brains of the Pope, and, er, the Ayatollah, and George Bush, and the members of C.S.I.C.O.P.
Wilson: But all the rest of us are stuck with relativity.
Walker: Okay. So, we’re moving from thinking that we know what reality is, to … [gestures for Wilson to complete the sentence]
Wilson: All we can say now is we got a model that seems to work — for the present. It probably won’t work in another ten years; the lifetime of models is getting shorter.
Walker: Why is this?
Wilson: Because of the information explosion: information is doubling faster all the time. It took from the time of Jesus to the time of Leonardo for one doubling of knowledge. The next doubling of knowledge was completed before the American Revolution, the next one by 1900, the next one by 1950, the next one by 1960. You see how [it keeps] moving faster? Now knowledge is doubling every eighteen months.
With all these new bits, bytes, blips of information, no model can last long because models only include the bytes of information that were available when the model was made. As new bytes of information come in it gets harder and harder to adjust our old models to include the new blips and beeps of information, so we’ve got to make new models.
Walker: What kinds of models don’t change?
Wilson: The models that don’t change are religious models because they’re defined so that they can’t be tested. Some people find great comfort in this, but I don’t find any comfort at all in a model that cannot be tested.
Walker: This book [Quantum Psychology], along with Prometheus Rising, contains exercises for the readers to do. What is the purpose of the exercises?
Wilson: I don’t think the modern, scientific viewpoints I expound can be understood easily. So I put in exercises with the thought that if the reader does the exercises, he or she will get to learn, er, understand the principles better — or will go crazy. One or the other.
Walker: Or at least understand some of the problems involved?
Wilson: Or at least understand the problems. Yes.
Walker: How is semantics influential in how we see and how we act?
Wilson: We can only think certain thoughts because of the kind of language we use. If we get a thought that doesn’t fit into language we’re apt to think we’re having a mystical experience — unless we know where we got the drugs — but otherwise, we’re inclined to think it’s a mystical experience if it doesn’t fit into language. Therefore, language delimits us.
Walker: Give me some examples.
Wilson: Well, in our language, er, there’s a natural tendency built into the Indo-European family of languages to divide things into “either-ors,” probably because we have two hands. Nobody realizes the influence on human philosophy — up in the highest levels — of the fact that 50,000 years ago children started playing the game of grabbing a rock, putting their hands behind their back, and then holding their hands out and saying, “Guess which hand I’ve got the rock in?” There’s only two possible choices, there. It’s gotta be in the right hand or the left hand. We’ve been so conditioned by that in the last 50,000 years that we think everything has a right and a left, or a true and a false. It’s a terrible shock to us discover something which the Orient discovered 2,500 years ago, or more, which modern science has just discovered in this century; namely, that most of the universe consists of maybes. There are very few things that we can hammer down into definite yeses or nos.
You can reduce everything to yeses or nos if you’re sitting in an armchair discussing abstract philosophy, but when you’re dealing with the real world, it’s very hard to force things into the yeses and the nos. The people who are very good at forcing them into yeses and nos are totalitarian governments, and they do it be shooting everybody who sees the maybes, or finding some other ways to shut them up: locking them up for life or something like that.
You’ll find most religions that are based on the yes-no thing have a distinct tendency to go to war whenever they get the opportunity. Jonathan Swift said, “We’ve got enough religion to hate each other but not enough to love each other.” The history of Christianity has been the history of continuous warfare over yeses and nos by people who can’t conceive that the universe contains mostly maybes.
Walker: The New Inquisition: persecution of scientific inquiry. What prompted you to write this book?
Wilson: I began to notice that there are atheistic religions as well as theistic religions. Of course, Buddhism is an atheistic religion that has been around for a long time, but Buddhism has got the Oriental, relativistic attitude built into it. In the Western World, the atheistic religions have the same intolerance as the theistic religions of the Western World.
As a mater of fact, from the eighteenth century to the present, there has been a steady decline of theistic religions as reasons for people murdering one another and a increase in atheistic religions as an excuse for people murdering one another. In the Near East, they’re still killing each other over the old theistic religions: the Jews are killing the Arabs, the Arabs are killing the Jews, the Christians are killing both Arabs and Jews, and so on, and this has been going on forever in the Mid-East. This is their metier: religious fanaticism.
But atheistic religions have pretty much the same structure — in the Western World, anyway — the same dogmatic structure. Marxism is very similar to fundamentalist Protestantism: they know the truth; they don’t care how many people they have to kill till they get their “truth” established. Objectivism is very similar, that’s another atheistic religion. I’ve always believed Ayn Rand was really the Grand Duchess Anastasia. I think that one in West Virginia is a fake. Ayn Rand acted a hell of a lot more like a Romanov than that woman in West Virginia. And I think after the Bolsheviks killed her family and she escaped, she decided she would found another atheistic religion to compete with Communism, and that’s how Objectivism got created.
And then there’s the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims Of the Paranormal, or C.S.I.C.O.P. [pronounced sci-cop]. That is one of the most dogmatic, fanatical, and crusading of the atheistic religions around now. That’s what inspired me to write The New Inquisition. It’s an examination of atheistic religions as a phenomenon in the modern world.
Walker: What are some of the — er — If the new, atheistic fundamentalism is merely becoming a replacement for the old theistic fundamentalism, then what are some of the alternatives that you offer?
Wilson: Well I think we’d all be a lot better off if we adopted more Oriental attitudes. I’m not saying we should become Orientals or accept a lot of Oriental superstition or anything like that, but there are ideas well established in the Orient that we could learn from. The general attitude of Taoism and Buddhism is that wherever you are in space-time, that’s your reality. It’s not anybody else’s reality and there’s no sense trying to sell it to anybody else, or force it on them. Most Zen koans actually come down to the fact — the answer to the koan is found by speaking from where you are, rather than trying to find an abstract general answer.
Walker: [attempting to pronounce “Schrödinger”] Schrödinger’s Cat? Schrödinger’s Cat?
Wilson: Schrodinger’s Cat.
Walker: Schrodinger’s Cat. You utilized quantum physics and other sciences to frame this book. How did you use this? what techniques did you use? and explain some of the, er, things about that book.
Wilson: Well, Schrödinger’s Cat an attempt to write a new kind of science fiction. New Scientist magazine, I’m happy to say, called it the most scientific of all science-fiction novels, which really pleased me very much. It pleased me so much I quote it every chance I can.
What I was trying to do with Schrödinger’s Cat: Instead of going as far out as I could in my imagination, I tried to follow where modern physics is going (what are the main lines of interpretation of the universe in modern physics?) and just write about a universe that fits modern physics. And that is so mind-blowing it seems crazier than anything a science-fiction writer could invent. As a matter of fact, a lot of it does sound like science fiction.
The majority — well, not necessarily the majority, but a growing minority (especially among the younger physicists), believes it makes as much sense to say there are infinite universes as it does to say there is one universe. The equations of quantum mechanics can be interpreted either way. Either out of an infinite number of possibilities, the universe, every second, collapses into one — which is the reality we’re living in; or, it doesn’t collapse: all the probabilities happen at the same time in different parts of super-space.
Both interpretations make equally much sense: they both fit the equations, they both fit the experiments, and there is nothing in science fiction wilder than this “parallel world.” I mean, the parallel-world idea literally implies that I am here, in this universe, but in the universe next door, the car I came in (which had a slight flat tire) went off the road and I got killed and didn’t do this show. Now that’s the Schrödinger’s Cat paradox: Schrödinger demonstrated that, in quantum theory, you can say a cat is dead and the cat is alive, and both can be true at the same time — even though that contradicts ordinary logic.
Just the same way the cat can be dead and alive, I’m dead and alive. It gives you a certain Buddhist detachment from things to think that you’re dead and alive at the same time. You can’t get too worried when you start thinking of it that way. [laughs]
Other interpretations of quantum mechanics are even weirder. Bell’s theorem, a very important — the most important discovery in quantum mechanics in the last thirty or forty years. Bell’s theorem says two particles, once in contact, continue to be mathematically correlated no matter how far apart they move in space — or in time; which implies that if I take a measurement of two rays of light, and one is coming from a star and took 15 million years to get here, and the other is coming from a candle across the room, because those particles are correlated, they remain correlated no matter which way you look in time. So I’m affecting that star 15 million years ago.
Walker: [interjects] And this fits the mathematical equations?
Wilson: This fits the equations of quantum mechanics. It has led to a sort of general interest in monistic philosophies among physicists — monistic philosophies being those that say there is no separation in the universe, we’ve just created separations in our minds through our habit of analysis — all of which is very much like what any New-Ager will tell you, “Hey, man! It’s all one!” Well, that is one interpretation of quantum mechanics: you can’t separate anything. It’s called non-locality. You can’t separate anything in space or in time.
Walker: What do you love about James Joyce?
Wilson: [long pause] Jamison’s Whiskey.
[starts laughing] No. Other things, er —
Wilson: Every time I go to Zurich I buy a bottle of Jamison’s and go out to Joyce’s grave with some friends, and we each have a drink and then we pour the rest of it on — well, maybe we have two drinks — well, sometimes three — er, well, maybe four [laughs], on rare occasions, we drink most of the bottle we originally bought for the occasion, and then we pour a drop or two (or whatever is left) on the grave for Jim. He was a great fan of Jamison’s.
No. What I love about Joyce (besides introducing me to Jamison’s and Guinness Extra Stout — the two greatest products that ever came out of Dublin) is he wrote the first relativistic novel, Ulysses. Ulysses seems to me the only realistic novel of the twentieth century, because it’s the only novel that contains at least a hundred different interpretations of itself, within itself. Therefore it’s contemporary with quantum mechanics and Godel’s proof in mathematics and Cubist painting and movies like Citizen Kane, where you get five versions of the same story; Joyce anticipated all of modern science, modern philosophy, and modern art. And he was very funny, too, like most Irish writers.
Walker: Why do you think he was censored? Why do you think they banned his books?
Wilson: [very long pause; then, stumbling angrily for words] Well, that’s — er — I — I uh — How can you explain that!? It’s like Bob Geldof, the rock star who did Band-Aid and Live-Aid. He was interviewed by the Irish Times, in Dublin, and they asked him, “Don’t you think your use of improper language detracts from the noble causes that you are espousing?” And he said [Wilson starts speaking with an Irish brogue], “I don’t know what tha fook improper language is!” Waal, Joyce didn’t know what tha fook improper language is either [loses the brogue], and neither do I. I think it’s some kind of crazy superstition dating back to the stone age. There is no improper language for a writer. What’s proper depends on what kind of scene you’re writing.
Walker: What influence has Carl Jung had on you?
Wilson: Carl Jung got me interested in synchronicity, or maybe synchronicity led me to Carl Jung. I’m nor sure of the exact causal order. Somehow, er, noticing, er, that recording my dreams, I found they were tied in with coincidences that happened in my waking life. And there was no school of psychology that even came close to explaining that except Jung, Jungian psychology, so I started reading a great deal of Jung.
Walker: Okay [looks at the clock] we can take some calls, [recites station phone number], if you’d like to ask a question.
Wilson: And if nobody calls, I’ll talk more about Dublin.
Walker: Okay, talk about Dublin. Six years. [to producer] Do we have a call? [no call] Okay, talk about Dublin! You spent six years there?
Wilson: Yes. Gee, there’s so much to say about Dublin, now — I look at the clock — how can I? Oh, I’ll talk about County Kerry instead.
County Kerry has a six-foot-tall white rabbit called the Pookah, and this rabbit hangs around pubs late at night. When people get thrown out of the pubs at 10:30 (which is when they close), the Pookah waits and grabs one of them on his way home and drags him off into an alternative reality, where all the laws of science are reversed, time and space are all mixed up. It’s very much like one of my novels — although I like this new movie, Jacob’s Ladder. And you spend thousands and thousands of years over there — millenniums — and you meet Finn MacCool and all the ancient Irish heroes: the Wizard of Oz, Luke Skywalker, Shiva, Krishna, the Devas — all these figures.
When the Pookah gets tired of playing with you and lets you go, you’re back on the road and it’s only a few minutes after you left the pub — because the Pookah can reverse time, stretch time, condense it, anything like that. The Pookah is not limited by time.
Of course, the probability of encountering the Pookah is said by Dublin’s cynics to be directly proportional to the number of pints of Guinness Stout you had in the pub that night.
Wilson: I heard a Kerry farmer interviewed on Irish Radio, … and they asked him, “Do you believe in the Pookah yourself?”
And he said [using an Irish brogue], “That I do not! and I doubt much that he believes in me either!”
And I think that is the perfect introduction to Irish logic. Irish logic makes a lot more sense to me than Aristotelian logic.
Walker: Tonight you’re going to be lecturing at the First Congregational Church, 1126 South West Park. The lecture is called “Sex, Drugs, and Rock and Roll.” A little about that?
Wilson: Sex and drugs and rock and roll. The Pope came to Ireland and they gave a speech in Phoenix Park and all he talked about was sex and drugs and rock and roll. And the world’s full of — where Amnesty [International] comes out every year with reports on torture and death squads and other abominations going on all over the world, where a hundred-thousand people are starving every day — here’s this guy, all he’s worried about is sex and drugs and rock and roll. And I thought, “This man’s gotta be a saint: he’s living in another world. He knows nothing about this world.”
So I got interested in sex and drugs and rock and roll, as topics. Why do they arouse so much anxiety? And then I met a beautiful lady in Berlin, and she said something that really resonated in my mind. She said, “I came to Berlin looking for love and success, but I decided to settle for sex and drugs and rock and roll.”
And I thought, “Gee, that’s an interesting thought on the modern world.” [laughs] And tonight’s talk is about my reflections on sex and drugs and rock and roll, or as the ancient Greeks used to say, “Venus and Dionysus and Apollo” — three powerful divinities that have been suppressed too long.
Walker: Okay, now tomorrow, at the Northwest Service Center at 10:00 A.M. — oh, the lecture, by the way, is from 7:30 to 9:00 — and tomorrow, at the Northwest Service Center from 10:00 to 7:00 there is a workshop: “Sexual Evolution, or How to Tell Your Friends from the Apes.” Some final words on that?
Wilson: Well, telling your friends from the apes isn’t all that easy. I’ve seen chimpanzees who I was able to communicate with and who could communicate with me in ways that made a lot more sense than any conversation I’ve ever had with a congressman.
Walker: Okay. My name’s Cliff Walker, we’ve been speaking with author, psychologist Robert Anton Wilson. Thanks for coming in and talking with us.
Wilson: Oh, it’s always great to come back to Portland. You’ve got great grass up here!