The New Inquistion

Robert Anton Wilson is an engaging author, and he has some things to say we can all learn from. It's undeniably true that we are shaped by our reality tunnels, and that it's helpful to try to see from other reality tunnels. However this book makes it clear that Wilson is no scientist, that he does not really understand science (of either the classical or quantum variety), and that he is often attacking not science but rather a straw man of his own devising. Wilson has little to no conception of the intricacies of the scientific method, and he frequently misunderstands the scientific results.

For example, Wilson is very excited by Bell's theorem and its experimental verification. Without going into too many details here, Bell's theorem seems to indicate non-local connections between certain quantum systems. To a physicist, and to Bell and the experimenters who've verified the theorem, non-locality has a precisely defined meaning. In essence it means that information is being transmitted between two points faster than the speed of light. This is indeed a problem in physics, and an area of active research.

However, Wilson does not seem to understand this. He takes non-locality in a more prosaic sense that simply means communication between two spatially separated points. He thinks this might be a basis for ESP. However none of the evidence he gives for ESP indicates that ESP, even if it does exist, is a non-local phenomena in the relativistic sense. He seems to think that simply because ESP might involve communication between people in different places, it's non-local. By that standard, radio and telephones are non-local. For ESP to be truly non-local (and for Bell's theorem to have anything to do with it) ESP would have to happen faster than the speed of light. Wilson provides no evidence for this.

There are other examples. Like most popular writers he completely misunderstands the true nature and mystery of the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics. But his looseness with the term "non-local" is the worst.

Wilson's understanding of the scientific method is equally weak, perhaps weaker. Science does posit the existence of an objective, external reality. This can be denied, and science can't refute this position, but in practice few people deny this. Once the existence of an objective, external reality is posited science has proven itself through experience to be the best means of understanding this objective reality.

Scientists do know their limits. They do not, as a general rule, attempt to scientifically define morality, ethics, or many non-objective assertions about God. Ask any working scientist what he or she doesn't know. You'll get an impressively long list. Scientists are quite aware of the limits of their knowledge. They spend their careers trying to expand those limits.

Science gets us beyond the narrow categories imposed by geography and culture. In fact it's the only way we know to produce truth that applies to more than one reality tunnel. Newton's laws are as true (or as false) for a Dane in Copenhagen as they are for a aborigine in Australia. Although the choices of what to study and the uses to which science is put may be socially conditioned, the ultimate results of the experiments are not. Communist scientists doing the same experiments get the same results as capitalist ones. Male scientists get the same results as female scientists. European scientists get the same results as Oriental or African scientists. Edward Teller and Robert Oppenheimer argued about whether they should build the hydrogen bomb; they argued quite vehemently in fact. However, they did not argue about whether it could be built. Whether it should be built is a matter of politics and morals. That it was possible to build is a matter of science that Oppenheimer and Teller could not disagree on despite their very different reality tunnels.

When scientists don't get the same results, science provides the means to check everyone's results to see who's right and who's wrong (or, more properly, to what extent different results are partially right and partially wrong). Independent verification and reproduction of results is at the foundation of the scientific method. In fact it's precisely the ability of science to police itself and correct its mistakes that makes it unique in human endeavors. Wilson uses some classic scientific mistakes as an argument against science. That scientists are human and often wrong is not, however, what's interesting and important about science. It's that scientists, sometimes over a long period of time but more or less inevitably, find and correct their mistakes and move forward. Certainly there were scientists who said that humankind would never go to the moon, as Wilson points out. However, once men did in fact go to the moon they changed their minds. (Most of them changed their minds well before the actual moon landing.) Philosophers are still arguing the same points argued by Socrates more than two millenia ago. Scientists are not still arguing the same points of Aristotle. Science has moved forward. Most other fields have not.

In fact I think Wilson makes my point for me, quite forcefully in his final chapter. According to Wilson, discussing humans in general and the models they use in their reality tunnels, "If the models do not fit very well, they do not revise them but grow angry at the world--at experience--for being recalcitrant." This is certainly true of many, many people in many aspects of their lives. But there is exactly one class of people who commonly and repeatedly revise their models to fit the observed facts, rather than the other way around. This class is scientists. Every practicing scientist can cite many examples where they've had to throw out cherished theories in the face of contradictory evidence. In some pathological cases, a particular scientist is unwilling to throw away a theory despite overwhelming, contrary evidence. But even in these cases, the community of scientists will throw out the theory themselves. If willingness to abandon models in the face of contrary evidence is the mark of an enlightened human being, scientists are the most enlightened beings on the planet.

There are some good points to this book. Wilson does point out many interesting Fortean phenomena, and having read it you must ask yourself exactly why these occur. It is undeniable that people have for millenia seen lights in the sky that are currently called UFOs. (It is very deniable that these lights are aliens from outer space.) Why? It is undeniable that people report strange things falling from the sky. Why? These are topics worthy of investigation, but the investigation shouldn't necessarily be aimed at a paranormal or extra-scientific answer. There is much we don't understand about the human mind, how it works, and how it hallucinates. It is extremely likely that these phenomena are caused by that very large part of the brain we don't yet understand. It is even more likely that some of these phenomena are hallucinations, some are fakes, some are made from whole cloth by Wilson's "Ubiquitous Unscrupulous Reporter", and some are unidentified or improperly identified natural phenomena.

For example, some of Wilson's stories about stones and ice falling from the sky may be the results of unidentified volcanic activity that geology hasn't yet discovered. Others may be the results of local teenaged pranksters with a catapult. (This idea occurred to me when I read Wilson's account of a nine inch shell of World War II vintage falling in Lakewood California in 1984. I've known more than one socially dysfunctional, suburban misfit whose idea of a good time was building old weaponry and firing it off in random directions.) The reports of fish, frogs, and other organic material falling are harder to explain, though Wilson does cite one report that makes you wonder whether these things really fell from the sky. A fish fall was reported in the Newham section of London. However, when the person who wrote about this incident in the Fortean Times, being more than usually careful, made his own investigation he couldn't find anyone who had actually seen the fish fall. There were plenty of fish on the ground, but no evidence or eyewitness reports about how they got there.

There are a couple of even more suggestive stories about Indian fakirs who did the classic rope trick in front of audiences who all swore up and down that they saw what they saw. However in these cases the trick was also filmed, and the film showed nothing of the sort. Clearly the human mind is capable of seeing things that simply aren't present in the objective world. How, when, and why the mind does this is a question worthy of scientific investigation. Explaining them as external phenomena probably isn't.

Of course in saying this I'm relegating myself to Wilson's "Fundamentalist Materialist" category. However I think there's a crucial point to be made about so-called fundamental materialism that Wilson misses. We all have limited time and resources. Scientists are no different in this respect. we have to make intelligent choices about what we will and will not spend our time and resources on. Is it really smart to spend our time and resources studying phenomena like ESP and space aliens where we're not even at the point of asking how they work but whether they exist at all?

The problem with many of the phenomena that Wilson cites as evidence of scientists closed-mindedness is that, even if the phenomena exist, they are extremely rare and hard to pin down. Scientists would love to examine a bigfoot or a Loch Ness Monster, but until someone catches one and brings it to a lab for study, there's not that much they can do. And some scientists have spent quite a significant amount of money going out to look for these creatures. So far they've come back empty-handed. Should they really waste more of their lives looking for them? Or should they admit that these creatures probably don't exist, and get on with other work?

Once again, I do think Wilson has some important points to make about reality tunnels and how they affect our view of the world. And he does suggest some promising areas for psychological and neurological research. However, he consistently and repeatedly gets the science so horribly wrong that you need to be very careful when approaching this book. I'd recommend reading Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World as a companion to this book. It discusses many of the same issues, but Sagan is a true scientist who understands both what science really believes and how science is really done. Wilson has some not so complimentary things to say about Sagan in this book, but those were said before Sagan published The Demon Haunted World. Sagan refers to Wilson and The New Inquisition in The Demon Haunted World. In many ways The Demon Haunted World is a response to The New Inquisition and others of its ilk. I'd be curious to know whether Wilson has revised his opinion of Sagan after reading The Demon Haunted World.

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Copyright 1997, 2005 Elliotte Rusty Harold
Last Modified May 10, 2005