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2007-12-10 1:04 a.m.

everything in this title is false OR concerning reality tunnels

I just finished reading Prometheus Rising, by Robert Anton Wilson. It was recommended to me by a friend some time ago, and I just got around to reading it. It was very thought-provoking and I'm very glad I read it. I was particularly fond of chapters 9 and 10, "Mind Washing and Brain Programming" and "How to Brain-Wash Friends and Robotize People."

My favorite of his ideas are summed up by "what the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves" and "the map is not the territory." He notes that it is easy to see that these things apply to the reality tunnels of others, less easy to see that they apply to our own.

I find it rather ironic that Wilson starts off the book with concepts like this, and then spends the majority of it describing a very specific map, the Eight Circuits of Consciousness, a map for which I'd say the evidence is spotty at best (and which was actually Timothy Leary's creation; a lot of the stuff in this book seems to come ultimately from Leary). The first four circuits, at least, seem plausible. I'm not sure they actually exist per se, but I think that as conceptual models they are not totally inaccurate in their predictive power. They're useful. As for the last four, well... In my judgment the evidence for the existence of such "circuits" is inconclusive, at best.

And that intellectual hypocrisy is probably what bothers me the most about the book. He says, "The only sensible goal, then, is to try to build a reality-tunnel for next week that is bigger, funnier, sexier, more optimistic and generally less boring than any previous reality tunnel." This seems to me to be a New-Age restatement of one of the classic defenses of religious faith: "Why does it matter what I believe, as long as it makes me happy?" Anyone who knows me very well should know that I think it matters a great deal. In order to maximize our understanding of the world, our ability to predict it and change it for the better, we must constantly reexamine our reality tunnels and modify or discard them when necessary. Just picking the reality tunnel that you find most comforting or exciting is extraordinarily dangerous. Anytime you go around trying to solve problems based on a reality tunnel that is based on what makes you happy and not on the actual evidence, you stand a very good chance of instituting a cure that is worse than the disease. History (including recent history) is full of examples of this.

To take Wilson as an example... He states his beliefs in his book (which was originally published in 1983 and last revised in 1997), such as "the average Man or Woman of 1997 will be as obsolete in 2007 as the medieval serf is now" and "life extension techniques and intelligence raising drugs will be discovered in this decade, and will be widely available by 2010." He says (referring to himself in the third person for rhetorical reasons that make sense in context) that he "does not expect immortality to be achieved until the middle of next century- but he expects life-extension drugs will keep him around until then. [He] expects most of humanity will have migrated off Earth into space cities by 2028. [These ideas are] the reality tunnel that keeps him happy, creative, busy and full of zest for life."

That's all well and good, but what about the fact that he was totally wrong? Right now the goal of NASA is just to get a few people back to the moon by 2020. Is the majority of humanity going to follow within eight years? I don't think so. In fact I personally think even that may be optimistic given the way our access to energy resources is expected to go in the coming years, and I tend to agree with Steve Weinberg in saying that manned space flight at this point is really just a glorified pissing contest between nations and that the huge physical and intellectual resources it consumes could and should be much better applied towards other, more pressing problems (I wonder if you can guess which ones I mean? Here's a hint.). Maybe at some point in the future, once we've got reliable and abundant energy supplies, that will be worth doing, but for now I have to wonder why we're still trying to prove to everyone that the rocket in our pants is still bigger than the ones the other countries have in their pants, as all the while the whole world starts to smell of smoke.

And we're closing in on 2010 fast now, and it doesn't look like any significant life-extension or intelligence-raising drugs will be available by then. Wilson, unfortunately, will not be around to achieve immortality, because he died in January of this year. The book is kind of depressing when read in that light. So much for the reality tunnel that kept him happy, creative, busy, and full of zest for life...

So, you just can't make up any old reality you like and then pin all your hopes and dreams on it. You have to judge things based on evidence, and where the evidence is inconclusive, you have to withhold judgment. And that's the thing main thing I think Wilson missed, in this book, at least- the immense power and value of doubt.

I recognize that my reality tunnel may be wrong, and that large swaths of it may be completely irrational. But having gone through the process of throwing away one reality tunnel and slowly and carefully building a new one, I feel like I have a relatively good understanding of the problems involved, and I'm confident that my reality tunnel is based on reliable evidence and logic to the extent that I am capable of judging such things. My reality tunnel involves withholding final judgment on a great many things and a commitment to always being ready to discard old ideas when new evidence arises. I don't need all the answers right now, or ever, as long the evidence remains unclear (which it always will, to some greater or lesser extent). In the words of Tyler Durden, "I say never be complete!" In the words of Lao Tzu, "To follow the Way is not to need fulfillment. Unfulfilled, one may live on needing no renewal."

Yes, I have provisionally taken on something like scientific materialism as my basic lens for viewing the world, because this is the approach to reality that I think is least likely put things on the map that aren't really there, which I think is of the utmost importance.

I try not to be dogmatic about it, though. I've heard tell of many things that don't fit well into my current scientific worldview. I have no significant personal experience with these things, however, and the evidences and implications of these things are inconclusive and frequently contradictory. So I withhold judgment. I don't put them on the map, but I leave blank areas where they might potentially be. Honestly, I would love to have an experience that is totally inexplicable in the context of my current scientific materialist worldview. But I haven't yet. I've thought about trying have a spoon bending party or something (I've tried to do it on my own a few times, but no luck), or least getting a subscription to the Fortean Times . The default position will always be skepticism, however. (Incidentally, in one of the early chapters of Prometheus Rising, Wilson suggests visualizing a quarter in your head and convincing yourself that you will find one the next time you are outside. He seems to imply that if you do this, you will start finding quarters everywhere. Well, it's been almost a month now, and I ain't found anything but a few pennies. I had WTF do it, too, just in case my skepticism is poisoning my own ability to do it (a common riposte of believers of all stripes), but she hasn't found anything either.)

I don't think Wilson was totally wrong, though. I do agree that knowledge seems to be increasing exponentially, and I even think ethics have improved quite a bit (though whether that will keep pace with technology, I'm not so sure). He says, "He or she who stands still in a moving, racing, accelerating age, moves backwards." Hear hear! And I do actually expect longevity enhancing drugs will be on the market within my lifetime, assuming society doesn't collapse in the meantime. A really cool paper came out just recently about the discovery of a single gene that seems to mediate the majority of aging effects in cells. Repressing that gene in the skin of old mice made their skin turn young again. This stuff is still quite a ways from becoming a drug that humans might use, but it's gotten a lot more research attention recently. I don't think intelligence enhancing drugs are at all inconceivable in the forseeable future, either. And I think human migration into space will happen sooner or later, if we can achieve and maintain the amounts of energy required.

But futurists have a long history of being laughably off the mark, so best not to be too specific or sound too sure of yourself, and definitely best not to get your hopes up too much (especially about the prospect of immortality, which I'm not sure would be all that great for the individual or for society, anyway, but that's another entry (or possibly a novel, though Bruce Sterling kind of addressed that in Holy Fire)). My ultimate thoughts on the book could actually be summed up nicely by the quote that first introduced me to the name of Robert Anton Wilson: "If you think you know what the hell is going on, you're probably full of shit."

One thing I like about the Taoist and Zen reality tunnels (or parts of them, at least) is that they are flexible and adaptable to changing evidence and to completely changing your mind about things. You might say that, in theory, the goal of those spiritual practices is to better enable you to change whenever new evidence comes along, and even to be more or less happy throughout the whole process. (In practice, however, Zen, at least, has often been a strong conservative force for maintaining the status quo in East Asia, but that is also another entry.) "I will accept reality as it is, however it may actually be or become, and my happiness and sense of peace will not be dependent upon the particular reality that I perceive." I'd like that to be my reality tunnel.

Or how about this:

everybody's cheerful
cheerful as if at a party
or climbing a tower in springtime
and here i sit unmoved
clueless like a child
a baby too young to smile

forlorn forlorn
like a homeless person
most people have plenty
i'm the one that's poor
a fool right through

ignorant ignorant
most people are so bright
i'm the one that's dull
most people are so keen
i don't have the answers
oh i'm desolate at sea
adrift without harbor

everybody has something to do
i'm the clumsy one out of place
i'm the different one
for my food
is the milk of the mother

That's Chapter 20 of the Tao Te Ching, Le Guin version, by the way. One of my favorites. Some related thoughts can be found here and pretty much everywhere else in this blog-thing, now that I think of it. I imagine I'll keep coming back to these ideas for a long time as I continue to reconsider them.

Oh, I've started reading the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. At last, Narnia for atheists! And I would never even have known about it if not for the movie. Which I have not yet seen. I think I'll wait till Christmas and have my family come along.

In passing, did you know that there is a very well characterized gene in fruit flies that determines their sexual orientation and when mutant results in gay/lesbian flies? Very interesting.

like melting ice,