RAW solipsism – part 2

Previously* on RAW solipsism: Robert Anton Wilson sometimes encountered the view that his relativistic approach implied (or led to) solipsism. He responded that he wasn’t a solipsist, but that solipsism (of a kind) seemed irrefutable. He described solipsism as a “trap”, but also as “the minimal truth”. And he offered the Zen joke that if it’s all in your head, you must be pretty big-headed!  *See part 1.

Why dwell on solipsism at all, when it seems absurd, conventionally-speaking (and perhaps even nihilistic and adolescent – the kind of thing you might expect from some “red pill” folks when they’re taking a break from defending the Fluorescent Führer on social media)?

Well, firstly, RAW took it seriously enough to address at length – both as something his own approach got mistaken for, and as an interpretation of – or reaction towards – quantum physics (more on that below). And secondly, if you apply model agnosticism thoroughly enough that you question the belief in an “external” “objective” “reality” that exists independently of any experience of it, then you’re likely to bump up against an idea of solipsism in some form. And if you don’t, you could see that as an indication you haven’t questioned thoroughly enough!

Neo- vs Cartesian (solipsism)

In understanding RAW’s comments, it might help to distinguish older, pre-quantum notions of solipsism from a more modern, “sophisticated” take (let’s call this latter version neo-solipsism). The old notion (as reflected in its etymology) seems burdened with implicit dualities: self vs other, inside vs outside (of a mind), etc.

For example, Cartesian assumptions about the nature of mind lead to solipsism in the sense that we have no direct access to the minds of others. The existence of others thus seems a mere claim from spurious inference – Descartes theorized that we could never be sure about anything external to the mind. (Solipsism, recall, is conventionally framed as the view that only oneself exists).

This gives a sort of self-centred, “proprietary” flavour to solipsism, since the view of the mind that we inherit from the Cartesian era is based on a geometrical, mechanical “container” metaphor – ie mind/soul as an unextended non-physical substance inside a machine-like container. “Me” inside; unknowable others outside. “My” mind; “my” experience alone.

This inside/outside bifurcation implies a separate, localized “centre of experience”. And I guess that’s probably how most of us picture our minds. It lends a kind of absurdity and anxiety to the notion of solipsism, because the “outside” reality that’s been expelled by strict solipsist logic comes back to haunt you via assumptions implicit in that conception of mind as “your” own little contained empire of experience.

Or to put it another way, the solipsist who harbours Cartesian assumptions deletes “external reality” as an unparsimonious product of inference, while keeping those inferences when it comes to conceiving mind/self as a “thinking thing” separate from others.

Descartes, incidentally, bypassed the problem of solipsism by appealing to faith in a God who wouldn’t deceive us in that way.

Neo-solipsism

‘[Niels] Bohr filled in the hole by saying the collapse of the state vector exists only in our minds … Bohr was not a solipsist; he didn’t claim the state vector was only in his mind. But his theory does seem, at least to his critics, to imply a kind of group solipsism…’
– Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminati Papers, p96

I’m not sure what Bob meant here by “group solipsism”, since a group of minds seems to present as much of a problem for the notion of solipsism as an individual mind does. But what if we entertain the idea of a solipsism in which we expel not only the belief in an independent “objective” reality, but also the concepts and implicit assumptions that derive from such belief – including separate individual minds viewed as metaphorical containers of thoughts and experiences.

Then we can assume no minds, no selves, no separate centres of experience, no “inside” or “outside”, no “real” vs “illusory” (etc) with which to classify experience. This neo-solipsism sounds more like the kind of thing RAW described in his 1977 article, Skepticism and Solipsism (which I discussed in part 1):

‘…all we know directly is a stream of sensations. The theories that there is an “ego” experiencing this stream, and an “outside” world provoking it, are inferential, unproven and (if we are strict about applying Occam’s principle of parsimony) should be rejected as illegitimate.’
– Robert Anton Wilson, Skepticism and Solipsism

Quantum theory & solipsism

In describing what quantum physics seems to “mean”, commentary from physicists (and others) has been divided broadly along two lines:

1. Statements about the nature and/or behaviour of the reified, abstract thing known as “reality” or “the universe”, including whether it exists/behaves as singular, multiple or not at all.

2. Statements at least “one step removed” (as it were) from claims of type 1 – eg claims about the models, metaphors, semantics, etc, that we’ve constructed (including the mathematical theory and the reports of quantum experiments).

Solipsistic interpretations of quantum theory form a subset of type 1. RAW provides several examples of commentators who have reacted as if aspects of quantum theory imply something like solipsism: John Gribbin is quoted as writing that the Copenhagen view means “nothing is real”; Dr Nick Herbert is cited as insisting the Copenhagen Interpretation ‘amounts to “Christian Science,” since he takes it as denying that there is a real universe.’; Dr N. David Mermin is quoted as writing “The moon is demonstrably not there when nobody is looking”, from an article on quantum physics; Dr Fred Wolfe, seems, to RAW, to lean towards a solipsistic “nothing is real” take in his Making the Quantum Leap. (Examples taken from RAW’s The New Inquisition, chapter four).

RAW’s own take on quantum physics seems to have evolved from partly type 1 speculations to largely type 2 statements. For example, in The Illuminati Papers (an early example):

‘The trouble with the Copenhagen solution is that, however much Niels Bohr and his defenders may deny it, this path ultimately leads to the conclusion that everything we think we know is only a construct of our own brains.’
– Robert Anton Wilson, The Illuminati Papers, p97

Then, over a decade later, in Quantum Psychology, Bob writes the following:

‘The Copenhagen interpretation, for instance, seems much more economical than EWG [the multiverse model] — as I have presented it. However, all too often physicists have presented it, not in E-Prime but in standard English, including the “is” of identity. When stated with the “is of identity” the Copenhagen view always seems to say that we literally create the physical universe by observing it — a position previously espoused only by Bishop Berkeley, and easily caricatured as solipsism.’
– RAW, Quantum Psychology ( p156 in 1990 edition)

When commenting on Dr David Mermin’s claim that “the moon is demonstrably not there when nobody is looking”, RAW writes (again in Quantum Psychology):

‘…the moon does not appear in our observed universe until somebody looks, but I do not assert we can make meaningful assertions about either existence or non-existence in “the real universe” and can only make meaningful utterances after somebody looks at the observed universe.’
– RAW, Quantum Psychology ( p162 in 1990 edition)

And in Natural Law (p60), RAW offers this lucid passage:

So, one answer to the question posed in part 1 – of why RAW’s most radically relativistic and sceptical approaches (eg towards the notion of “external reality”) don’t quite lead to solipsism – could be that he tends to frame statements in a way that avoids assuming pre-existing dualities such as subject/object, inside/outside and existence/non-existence (etc). Solipsism – at least in its older versions – seems to implicitly require such binaries as absolutes, even when it appears to negate one side.

Eschatological Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism

This is a fictional notion from Robert Heinlein’s books, notably The Number of The Beast – which leads me to an anecdote. It’s a long time since I read Heinlein’s work, but I think “Eschatological Pantheistic Multiple-Ego Solipsism” appeared as a tongue-in-cheek phrase, loosely referring to the idea that anything – or anyone – imagined by the author of fiction exists somewhere in the Multiverse.

I recall being immersed in the fictional universe of The Number of The Beast, which I was reading in some old paperback version (years before the internet, Kindles, etc). I suddenly saw my name* in the text – I was a character in the story! – and practically jumped out of my chair in shock.

* My name isn’t that common, and this had never happened before, or since. A second look revealed that the character was named “Brian Bean” (not Dean, after all). As I read on, I remember thinking there were some spooky parallels between the Bean character and myself.

3 thoughts on “RAW solipsism – part 2

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  1. Interesting piece, as I’ve never seen this connection between quantum mechanics and solipsism before. And it’s good to put a name to the blog, it was something of a mystery. I take it that you’re the same Brian D. who did the Anxiety Culture project?

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    1. Ah, thanks. Yes, you don’t often see the connection, although some of the more philosophically minded physicists have mentioned it (as with Wigner quote). RAW seemed the commentator who was most explicit about it.

      And yes, that’s me! Although it’s never been much of a mystery, and I’m happy for people to identify me as the writer of the blog.

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