R. A. Wilson’s Quantum Psychology – a critique

In Quantum Psychology, Robert Anton Wilson extrapolates quantum theory basics to metaphysical musings. Well, I don’t think he saw them as metaphysical. It’s a wandering trek from a reasonable survey of quantum mechanics through odd theories of something he calls Transactional Psychology, peppered liberally with his strong dislike of the Catholic religion and the skeptics of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal…now Committee for Skeptical Inquiry and certain contributors to the CSI, ultimately arriving at his new quantum psychology.

I do think Wilson makes some good points in this book, but he also makes some very bad ones and fails to catch his own transgressions against the rules he is trying to promote. In his “Fore-Words”, he notes, among many other things, that “we […], quickly and unconsciously, ‘fit’ the data to our pre-existing axioms, or game-rules, of our culture (or our sub-culture).” I agree. His summary of pragmatism – “the best we can say of any theory consists of ‘Well, this idea seems to work, at least for the time being.’” – is spot on. Where I think he falls short is his rendering of quantum theory. I would argue that quantum “rules” do not apply to a macro level any more than Newtonian and Einsteinian “rules” apply on a quantum level. And certainly not to something as variable as psychology. Yes, given the statistical nature of quantum physics one might think they pair up well, but Wilson invents a quantum consciousness to explain non-local pairing of actions virtually anyone in the world would term coincidence.

For the quantum theory part of this book, the rewording of the complex concepts reflects well on Wilson’s journalist skills. His biases and smugness unfortunately detract.

Wilson is a fan of Bohr’s “Copenhagen Interpretation”, digging right into it in Chapter Two. He notes

The Copenhagen Interpretation then means, not that there “is” no “deep reality”, but that scientific method can never experimentally locate or demonstrate a “deep reality” that explains all other relative (instrumental) “realities”.

Maybe we cannot know “any” reality, but I think we can know “most” of a reality insofar as it is apparent to us. If the alternatives, theoretical or perhaps practical, are impossible for us to perceive, then aren’t they really irrelevant on a macroscopic scale? And he offers “In short, we can know what our instruments and brains tell us (but we cannot know if our instruments and brains have reported accurately until other researchers duplicate our work… )” I agree completely. But, the principles of convergence of data, corroboration of observations,… statistical majorities… mean that we can know most of what we observe is the best model for what we observe.

A few pages later, he hints at things to come:

You create your own model of reality, or you create your own reality-tunnel (to borrow a phrase from the brilliant, if much maligned, Dr. Timothy Leary), or (as they say in sociology) you create your own gloss of the “realities” you encounter.

Emphasis Wilson’s. (You’ll see a lot on Wilson’s favorites in his writings. Not a problem, but one will observe that those favorites number among those considered fringe.)

Chapter Three opens with a shocker: “By the way, I have no academic qualifications to write about Quantum Mechanics at all, but this has not prevented me from discussing the subject quite cheerfully in four previous books.” Okay, maybe not so shocking. He does a good job summarizing the concepts. But in this chapter he introduces his thesis taking the opposite position that “dares to disagree with [the] accepted wisdom” that “quantum uncertainty only applies to the sub-atomic world and that ordinary affairs ‘we still live in a Newtonian universe’” Where I agreed with his comment on observations and measurements, on this I couldn’t disagree with him more, as I’ve already indicated. Save for a statistically insignificant theoretical portion, our “ordinary affairs” are conducted in a Newtonian universe. We have to work very hard to confirm the Einsteinian relativistic models, and even harder to observe possible confirmations of quantum physics. In very nearly everything, the Newtonian model still works. It is “close enough.”

Wilson plays a lot with words. Stuff I call philosophical BS. “Is that a chair? Not a chair? Probably a chair.” He cites alligators in NY sewers and UFO sightings as challenges “premature certitudes of Dogmatic Believers and Dogmatic Deniers” claiming

…those who know the most about neuroscience display the greatest agnosticism about these critters and also have the greatest unwillingness to judge them

Where does that come from? I don’t think Wilson asked the right question. It shouldn’t be “can these things be true?”, but “why do people think these things are true?”

He spends a lot of time arguing circularly that the universe only exists in our heads which are contained within the universe we perceive. Page 55 rambles in a semantic sleight of hand, proving that we are our own grandparents (not really that example, but that’s the concept.) He then regresses into an exercise of infinite regression and circular logic in trying to identify how we can perceive that we perceive with “but wait, there’s more” just around the corner.

In Chapter Six (“The Flight From Reason & The Cult of Instruments”), Wilson talks about feedback loops of “increasingly subtle instruments” needed to tell us “where and when the Universe failed to agree with our Logic or our math.” But he hangs his argument refuting measurement and observation (two hands, hot & cold water, then together in one tepid bowl) without the explanation for the observation. It’s clear (to a scientist) that the self-correcting logic and measurement tandem work well to establish and refine models and theories. I recognize he’s arguing against Pure Reason, but I don’t think it’s a valid argument.

Wilson does note “the axioms (game rules) that seem natural or undeniable in one tribe or culture do not seem at all natural and are often denied in other cultures.” Excellent point. Rules are relative.

Chapter Seven (“Strange Loops & the Infinite Regress”) wraps up part One with speculation and the beginnings of deviation from – my assessment – sound science. Wilson in a single question without follow-up asks the reader if J.W.Dunne’s infinite regress of consciousnesses in time is expected. A little digging reveals Dunne believed he experienced precognitive dreams containing “past & future events”. So parapsychology is finally introduced (one should obviously expect so from a book titled “Quantum Psychology”.) I wonder if Dunne ever considered how his “knowledge” of the alleged future events affected the outcome of those events. Wilson cites coincidence as “inescapably link[ing] Quantum Mechanics with daily-life psychology or ordinary kitchen-sink consciousness.” He even posits “[a]t this point some readers may want to bail out or throw the book away” – but I persevered.

Wilson dismissed a thermodynamic probability that air being evenly distributed in a space is not 100% – he dismisses the insignificant as negligible yet cries about how do we know anything for sure?

I have called the ideas herein Quantum Psychology because the consequences of Relativity, Uncertainty and Indeterminacy have literally earth-shaking implications for our daily lives, our “mental health,” our relations with other humans, and even our deepest social problems and our relations with the rest of the Earth and the Cosmos itself. As Count Alfred Korzybski noted in the 1930s, if all people learned to think in the non-Aristotelian manner of quantum mechanics, the world would change so radically that most of what we call “stupidity” and even a great deal of what we consider “insanity” might disappear, and the “intractable” problems of war, poverty and injustice would suddenly seem a great deal closer to solution.

Why “literally earth-shaking”? And the italicized  is a rather bold statement – and without support. That is, Wilson provides none.

In the next chapter on quantum logic, Wilson talks about a coin flip and asks what state the coin is in before it hits the floor. He’s trying to set the Schrodinger’s Cat stage, but I’ll argue it doesn’t matter what state the coin is in – we’re only concerned with (we only measure) the end state. Now, if the intent of the experiment is to identify a state during the flip, then the conditions of the observation are poorly defined. It’s a misleading scenario, and one of many to follow. In the yes/no/maybe of John Von Neumann’s logic, Wilson says the coin during the flip is maybe. But is that even useful?

Wilson states that people ignore the quantum maybe because they haven’t heard of quantum logic or Transactional psychology. I submit maybe they ignore it because “maybe“ doesn’t always apply. Has nothing to do with quantum logic or Transactional psychology.

In Chapter Eleven (“What Equals the Universe?”), Wilson’s true colors start to show. He recounts (what he thinks) how the “pious Roman Catholics”, “pious Russian Communists”, disciples of Ayn Rand would answer the question the chapter’s title asks. And then…

However, aside from Catholics, Marxists, Objectivists and a few other dingbat groups like the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal or the Hard Shell Baptists, most of us, in this technological age, have at least a dim awareness that no coordination of words, however skillfully orchestrated, quite equals the whole universe.

Whoa. “other dingbat groups”? So Catholics, Marxists and Objectivists are dingbats? Not a good way to make your point, sir. And of course, CSICOP is lumped in there, because Wilson hates the organization. And any skeptical group like CSICOP that pans Wilson’s pet pseudo-sciences is necessarily dingbat.

He plays with semantics with an absurd train of thought about what does the word “water” mean and how the word does not only equate to a single experience but it cannot encompass all possible experiences. Um, okay. Who thinks it does? We’d have a Chinese alphabet of words – it’s bad enough how many are already in our languages. There is no one size fits all, and it is silly to think there could be, thus the argument is pointless. We use words to represent concepts. We need not know the mass and arrangements of the quarks that make up the sub-atomic particles that in turn make up the atoms that form the molecules that are water. That which we know as water is water, regardless of state. The rose is a rose argument. But I’m leading the conclusion Wilson is working toward….

This should tick you off:

Meditate on the difference between the two sentences following, and note how coding (typographical convention) helps us distinguish the two meanings:
1. Water is not a word.
2. “Water” is a word.
Got it? No, you probably haven’t. Not yet. You only think you’ve got it. ..

Arrogant twit. (I used a much less refined term in my notes. Bad me.)

A couple of the devices I noticed Wilson using are pronouncements without cites and name drops without lead ins. Page 149, he says of different personalities when drunk or sober, “[t]hus, most people have noted that something that happened to them while drunk appears totally forgotten, until they get intoxicated again…” Most people? I would challenge that, but of course, there are no references for the statement and Mr. Wilson is no longer available. And that observation appears to be a summary of a “Dr. Rossi” who had something to say about separate personalities. I looked up “Dr. Rossi”, found an Ernest Lawrence Rossi whose bio/profile fit the Wilson model (hypnosis) but didn’t have much to follow up on. Oh, LSD makes another appearance in the same paragraph.

He deteriorates miserably with

E.g., if raised Catholic, they seldom become agnostics or zetetics; rather, they will move, like iron filings drawn by a magnet to dogmatic atheism, or even a crusading atheist “religion” like Marxism, Objectivism or CSICOP.

Agnosticism and atheism are not mutually exclusive, one can ascribe to both. And religion in quotes doesn’t save you, Mr. Wilson – that’s immature. The ubiquitous direct dig at CSICOP is funny, because Wilson’s favorite CSICOP target, Martin Gardner, was a theist, not an atheist.

As a trained psychologist (from a university without accreditation that no longer exists) I am surprised that on page 151, Wilson implies that disturbed or unhappy “imprints” may account for opiate addictions. “May”? Is that like “alleged”? Where is the basis for that pronouncement? And has he no understanding at all as to how opiates affect the nervous system? “May” starts showing up a lot at this point in the story. He suggests a “Winner Script” (attitude?) as contributing to longevity and “may” account for Bertrand Russell writing at 99, George Burns working at 100. That “may” sidesteps other explanations such as different genetics. Benjamin Franklin appears (from the records) to have enjoyed life immensely, yet died younger than both Burns and Russell. Of course one can find instances to support the “may” conclusion, but if one counted all those that don’t as well, the “may” may well turn out to be an aberration. That’s manipulating the data and not scientific at all.

His explanation of drunks using phrases relating to the exit of the alimentary canal (“Up yours, buddy,”) as stemming from “toilet training and mammalians habits of using excretions as territorial fight-or-flight signals” is so bizarre at to be comical.

I guess Wilson was not privy to knowledge of animal intelligence as he states that language as a “time-binding function of symbolism gives humans problem-solving capacities impossible to most other animals (except, perhaps, cetaceans).” Or ravens, chimps, bonobos, elephants, octopuses, many other species of birds, etc.

But later on the same page 154, Wilson makes an observation that is dead on: “Most Americans seem quite happy in a mixed 19th Century Capitalist and 13th Century Christian universe,…”

My notes in the margins start getting longer at this point. He says electrons in quantum mechanics have a different essence each time we measure them and equates that to us jumping from different information systems. Electrons don’t have different “essences” unless he is saying that our readings change the actual electron. The information we know about an electron changes, but the “essence” doesn’t and the correlation is misleading, as humans use different information systems to process our perceptions. The logical fallacies mount up.

His biases accelerate, assigning absolutes to James Randi – as in Randi insisting on a fraud existing – in assessing an illogical thought experiment: non-locality effects illustrates by a billiard table without players and with no outside force, one ball suddenly turns clockwise and another turns counterclockwise. Of course Randi would cry foul…for the example cited…but I’ve never seen/heard/read Randi commenting on quantum mechanics. One of the problems of quantum concepts is trying to imagine physical corollaries to the theoretical and in this case, the billiard ball example not only doesn’t work, it can’t work. Has anyone ever made a claim of quantum non-locality applicability to billiard balls? In that respect, Randi would be right. On a sub-atomic level? Even Randi would not make that judgment as it would be unanswerable without the math and extremely special instrumentation. And for whatever reason, Wilson really didn’t like Catholics, or the Catholic religion. One can’t even try to use the “thinly veiled” argument – he is outright denigrating.

There are too many more problems with his train of thought to continue. But in addition to the ones noted above, I also liked other wonderful points Wilson sprinkled throughout:

  • “That rush for fictitious certainties explains most of the Ideologies and damned near all the Religions on the planet, I think.”
  • “Please remember that we deal always with probabilities, not certitudes, …” (But while this is a good point, I have to add that he never addresses that some things are so probable as to be certain – i.e. dropping a rock from a height above the ground will result in it falling due to gravity – regardless of whether gravity is a force or a warping of space-time, it will fall)
  • “I do not believe any model equals the universe, or universes, but I think alternative models will continue to proliferate because the data of modern science has grown so complex that many models will cover it.” (Many models will cover most of parts of it.)
  • (In a footnote on page 196) “Under the Reagan administration, Colonel Oliver North drew up the FEMA plan, allowing the President to suspend the Bill of Rights at whim. Similar plans appear whenever conservatives gain power anywhere.”

11 responses to “R. A. Wilson’s Quantum Psychology – a critique

  1. I don’t have time to give the full comment that I will get to later. But I feel compelled to throw out immediately that I agree with most of your critiques of wilson’s work, I guess I just found more humor and merit to the things we seem to both agree on his good points. But what I really wanted to say real fast is that I 100 percent agree with wilson’s disdain for the church. The organization has a long history of human rights violations that their humanitarian efforts don’t forgive.

  2. Sometimes wilson does get ahead of himself when critiquing CSICOP. it is probably the one thing I disagree with him on. though I disagree with something I think you have misinteprated or at least, that I interpreted differently (maybe wilson wasn’t clear on it) But I never thought he claimed that actual quantum activity affects psycholgy, just that the epistemology of quantum theory has affected our certainty of even modeling macro objects (and yes measurment does affect the thing being measured, that is simple quantum theory). if you want a person who claims that brain processes are based on quantum effects read Penrose.

    “Maybe we cannot know “any” reality, but I think we can know “most” of a reality insofar as it is apparent to us” is that not wilson’s point?

    • A demonstrated for 300 years, Newtonian mechanics works well for most macro models as Einsteinian mechanics models well for relativistic speeds but both fail at the quantum level. I happen to think that trying to apply quantum concepts to macro scales is as absurd as trying to make Newtonian or even Einsteinian theories work for quantum phenomena. I don’t agree that measurement affects things being measured when those things are on a Newtonian scale (or relativistic, for that matter). My observation and measurement of the planet Jupiter’s orbit has no effect on the orbit. Now, the energy it takes to measure something on an atomic level and lower in on order with the energy of that being measured, so certainly would have an effect. [Note: I actually haven’t read my original critique is quite a while and just now having re-read it, see that I used these arguments up there.]

      Brains and minds and bodies exist in a Newtonian world. Assuming quantum interactions happen as they do (with pairs popping in and out of existence all the time), the scale is too small to affect the macro existence of everything else. Penrose and Hameroff have serious pedigrees…they’re just on the fringe right now and I, without their credentials or education, think they’re just grasping at straws. Tiny, quantum influenced microtube straws, but still straws.

      I actually took away from Wilson’s writings that we couldn’t know any reality. I hold the position that as you state, we can know most of reality…at least as far as we can affect it, or it can effect us.

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  9. There may be one piece you missed in this otherwise excellent review. To read Wilson and understand him, you have to understand that he is coming, not from a position of psychology or science, but from what he called Guerrilla Ontology. As he freely admits time and again, his writings are intentionally a mix of information and bullshit, with the intent that the reader applies Wilson’s ‘agnostic’ view, even to Wilson. After all, ‘Bullshit makes the flowers grow, and that is beautiful” – Principia Discordia

  10. Thanks for the comment. I didn’t miss that piece. I read The New Inquisition at the same time and saw in there and other sources (interviews, other writings) how vitriolic, vindictive and unbalanced he was toward skeptics and anyone who didn’t swallow his work unchallenged …even aiming his dislike (hatred?) for some unknown reason at people like Martin Gardner, with whom he had no interaction at all. Now Gardner did write a pointed debunking of one of Wilson’s favorites, Wilhelm Reich. Gardner was amused in an interview once –

    and when I [interviewer Howard Schneider] had asked a question and mentioned Gardner’s name, Wilson had drubbed him with some snarlingly bilious remarks. “He hates me!” Gardner exclaimed, but he seemed more upset that I had to endure Wilson’s bad manners than with his petulant comments.

    “snarlingly bilious remarks” seemed typical for RAW, and incongruous with a position that he mixed information with bullshit. If it were the latter, why be upset? Be amused that someone else took you seriously! And if the former, then he should have known that there would be logical criticism of unsubstantiated “information”.

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