From his writings, I knew Robert Anton Wilson was a brilliant man, witty and savvy, a bold dreamer and an intellectual provocateur who challenged many of my own ideas — and thus someone who would be worth hearing. But I almost walked out during his recent talk in Chapel Hill. He seemed arrogant, quick to make fun of other people. He also seemed too adoring of such futuristic ideas as personal immortality (literal immortality through conquering death) and mass migration to outer space (millions of “colonists” leaving the planet to live in high-tech bubble cities orbiting Earth).
I got to see a different side of him during our interview the next day; he was far less strident, and seemed humbler, more kind. I found that I didn’t have to agree with all his thinking to share his excitement about higher consciousness and the next stage of our evolutionary journey. I appreciated his willingness to be the gadfly who challenges not only conventional but unconventional thinking, who risks irritating everyone in the service of truth. As someone familiar with Wilson’s work wrote, “He is arrogant at first, in an attempt to wake up his audience. But soon he has them eating out of his hand, as he simmers down to a bemused and delightful happiness with his very mercurial and bright mind at work. It sure has me dumbfounded at how he does it all so well, and over such a varied landscape of cognitive delight, without being boring or getting bored.”
As a philosopher and writer, Wilson has been keenly interested in consciousness-expansion, most passionately his own. In such books as The Cosmic Trigger and Prometheus Rising, he describes his own research with mind-expanding drugs, meditation, ESP, and magic. With his encyclopedic mind and mischievous sense of humor, Wilson attempts to correlate his inner, subjective experiences with the objective world of science. He seems as comfortable expounding on modern physics (his three-volume Schrödinger’s Cat is a comedy about quantum theory!) as in holding forth on more esoteric subjects — say, the Jewish mystical teachings known as cabala; or how the collective unconscious can be described mathematically; or the messages he’s received from entities residing on a planet near the double-star Sirius. His best-known work, the Illuminatus trilogy, documents the facts and legends about the Bavarian Illuminati, an alleged secret order believed by some conspiracy theorists to rule the world. At the conclusion of his research, Wilson said, “I no longer disbelieve in the Illuminati, but I don’t believe in them, either.” Not surprisingly, he’s also written several books of science fiction.
Among his less fanciful (and to me more absorbing) themes are that traditional linguistic habits — in religion, philosophy and politics — literally function as brainwashing devices, turning humans into programmed machines; that many of our so-called problems don’t exist, but are created by our habit of either/or thinking; that humanity, once it learns to change its mechanical habits, will evolve to a higher evolutionary order, and enjoy an unimaginably richer inner life.
Wilson is convinced that within the next decade or so, scientists will learn to retard dramatically or halt completely the biological process of aging, thus allowing people to live hundreds of years, if not forever. Death itself is a choice, he insists; having programmed ourselves that the body must die, we can reprogram ourselves to eliminate death. (When Wilson’s teenage daughter was brutally murdered in 1976, during a holdup in a store where she worked after school, he arranged to have her brain cryonically preserved — frozen — in the hope that scientists would one day be able to bring her back to life. He has written, “However you calculate the odds on cryonic preservation and whatever way you estimate scientific advances, you come out with a chance above zero. Burial or cremation gives you a chance of exactly zero.”)
Born fifty-five years ago into a working-class Irish Catholic family in Brooklyn, “during the brutal bottom of the Great Depression,” Wilson is a former editor of Playboy magazine. He edited The Playboy Forum and wrote the italicized replies in which the Playboy position is stated — “straight, old-fashioned mind-your-own-business John Stuart Mill libertarianism, and since that is my philosophy as well as Hugh Hefner’s, I enjoyed the work immensely.” He now lives in Ireland, and supports himself with his writing and lecturing.
He was in the U.S. this winter for a lecture tour. Our conversation began with a humorous aside he made before I turned on the tape recorder, about the cosmic significance of the year of his birth.
SUN: Earlier, you were talking about the significance of the year 1932. You said Hitler and Roosevelt came to power that year, and the atom was split, and it was also the year you happened to be born.
WILSON: It was a very significant year. Bucky Fuller said it was the year life on earth changed permanently. The world obviously needed me. That’s going to sound like megalomania in print, without my grin attached to it.
SUN: Well, we’ll attach your grin.
WILSON: This is just romantic speculation. I’m not serious about any of it.
SUN: Isn’t all speculation romantic?
WILSON: Some speculation seems to be more practical. Of course, that depends on what you think of as practical. If you’re interested in decreasing the amount of suffering on the planet, some speculation is more practical. You can ask, “Why should we decrease suffering? Suffering may teach people to be more spiritual.” Then you’ve got a different definition of what’s practical.
I’m in favor of abolishing poverty and illness and death. I’m profoundly anti-mystical in spite of my superstitious tendencies. I’m really in total, bitter opposition to “official” mysticism, which says we should accept the cycle, go with the flow, and just let the big wheel keep on turning. I’m all for stopping the wheel and starting our own wheel moving in a different direction.
SUN: When you say you’re against mysticism, what exactly do you mean?
WILSON: I’m talking about the kind of mysticism which is nothing but transcendental masturbation, which magnifies a preoccupation with the personal self to the exclusion of what I consider to be practical considerations, which are not practical at all to the mystic.
SUN: Are you talking about all mystics?
WILSON: I think some mystics would agree with me.
SUN: Would Christ?
WILSON: I think Christ would be on my side. That’s a terribly egotistical thing to say. It’s much more modest and tactful to say, “I’m on Jesus’ side.”
SUN: Would Buddha?
WILSON: That depends on which Buddha. You read the Buddhist scriptures and there seem to be many Buddhas. I had a long tussle with one Buddha in 1970. I was performing certain rituals of cabalistic magic so that I could contact specific entities. This is sort of like Shirley MacLaine’s channeling, except I don’t take it quite as literally as she does. But I used certain rituals to tune in to the Buddha, which may be tuning in to the Buddha within me — as George Burns said, he had to find the God within himself before he could play God in a movie. And I had quite a tussle with Buddha about his idea of the endless cycle of eternal recurrence versus my basic Western belief in progress. And I decided that one of us was wrong.
SUN: Can’t you hold both of these seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time?
WILSON: I don’t know if I can hold them at the same time. I think I can, but it’s easier to hold them at different times.
SUN: You said last night that conventional ways of thinking are mechanical, because we’ve been brainwashed. Would you elaborate on that?
WILSON: The quickest and most efficient way to get brainwashed is to get born. Human society will immediately start brainwashing you; it’s what’s known as our responsibility to our young.
We have to get brainwashed in order to survive. You can’t live comfortably in Ohio, for example, if you’re not brainwashed into a Republican, agricultural, Protestant reality tunnel. And you can’t live comfortably in Russia if you’re not brainwashed into a Marxist, materialist, industrialist, anti-Western reality tunnel. You can’t live in any human society without being brainwashed into it. Of course, the essence of growing up, true growing up, is to un-brainwash yourself and learn that your society’s reality is not the only possible reality.
Most of history has been very slow-moving. Now we’re in a period of higher acceleration and we’ve got to learn to adjust to the constant impingement of alien realities. I think the conservative backlash, the fundamentalist backlash, is a result of the anxiety produced by alien realities. People who are comfortable as white, Protestant, small-town chauvinists become uncomfortable when they feel the alien signals coming in from New York and Los Angeles and from all around the world. These signals create disorientation and confusion and lead inevitably to a resurgence of the older values. The American Indians, when they felt their culture falling apart under the impact of white culture, tried to reassert their traditional values with the Ghost Dance; the mystique was that if you wore a certain shirt you’d be invulnerable to bullets. A lot of fundamentalism and UFO cults have the same dynamic. It’s deliberate absurdity grasped as a last hope before the alien reality overwhelms you completely. I think in order to survive we’d better learn to accept the alien realities, to move among them gracefully.
SUN: Which reality tunnels feel forbiddingly alien to you?
WILSON: Tim Leary has a wonderful saying about that. He says, “Open the door to every reality tunnel and if you see there’s nobody in there but cannibals, close that door and move on.” Now, the person you think of as a cannibal may think of himself as a higher form of life. You never know for sure. But there are some things that seem so crazy to me I refuse to get into them.
SUN: Such as?
WILSON: The Nazi reality, the Jim Jones reality, the Manson reality, the Ayatollah Khomeini reality, the U.S. State Department reality, the pre-Gorbachev Moscow reality. All of them seem psychotic to me. They’re very dangerous to the people in them and to anyone who happens to walk by.
What makes any reality tunnel nefarious is the belief that it’s the only reality and that all other realities are the devil in some sense. The U.S. State Department never talks about the devil, although Reagan does occasionally, but the U.S. State Department believes that any competing reality is a Communist plot. Living in Europe, I’ve seen how absurd that is. They’re not all Communist plots. That’s as silly as the fundamentalist idea that everything you don’t like is the devil’s work, from card-playing and dancing to Ouiji boards and Buddhist meditation. The State Department is precisely that silly. In Western Europe, for example, a worker can’t be fired without prolonged hearings, negotiations between the union and the owners of the company, and if you do get fired you generally get a very generous severance pay. You can’t throw a worker out on the street with two weeks pay like they do in this country. It’s considered barbaric. You try to tell Americans about that and they’ve been so brainwashed they think, my God, this is a Communist agent trying to seduce us into Russian ways. But every Western country has it except the U.S., just as they have socialized medicine. I’m delighted to live in a country that has socialized medicine. My wife was in the hospital recently, for quite a while, and she made a nice recovery, but if that had happened in the U.S. I’d be in debt for the next seven years. I don’t know how Americans have the courage to go on living under such a system.
SUN: How can one be graceful, as you put it, when encountering these kinds of realities?
WILSON: You can’t be graceful with this kind of thing. At first you’re scared silly and you’re likely to get angry, and you might even find yourself marching around with a sign saying, “Close down this reality tunnel; it’s dangerous to children and other growing things.” And then the believers come charging out and start exercising their clubs on your head. They might even throw you in jail. If you make trouble for the Manson reality, you might find yourself dead in the middle of the desert.
It’s very easy to startle and infuriate people of primitive tribes by not taking their totems and taboos seriously. So one has to learn not only how to deliver oneself from brainwashing, but how not to be offensive to those who are still brainwashed. You have to find ways of opposition that are more subtle.
SUN: Is that something you’ve learned?
WILSON: It’s something I’m still working on. I often do give offense.
SUN: You’ve written that people should have some type of psychotherapy before exploring the “higher circuits.” What has been your experience with therapy?
WILSON: I’ve been in psychotherapy four times. Twice in my twenties and twice in my forties. I’ve also been in a lot of encounter-type groups. I’m agnostic about them all. They all work sometimes and none of them work all the time. It’s certainly not a science comparable to chemistry.
SUN: You’ve been quite outspoken, in your writings and in your talk last night, about your use of mind-altering drugs. Would you say you’ve gotten more out of drugs than out of therapy?
WILSON: Yes. But it’s hard to say. Everything is synergistic. Today is the result of everything that’s happened in my life. I think the study of general semantics did as much for me as psychotherapy did. But psychotherapy probably helped the general semantics. If somebody doing Buddhist meditation today had been in Freudian psychoanalysis twenty years ago, and had been at several encounter groups, then they’re doing a different type of Buddhist meditation than someone who’s never had that experience. But just because something seems to have done you more good than something else doesn’t mean it’s better than the other thing; the other experience might have created the ground work for the newer one to be effective. So I’m not saying one thing is better than another, except for cults. I have a strong antipathy toward all consciousness-altering work that’s based on the guru principle and isolation from the mainstream of society. I think introverted mystical trips tend to make you paranoid.
SUN: What do you mean by introverted?
WILSON: I mean socially introverted: groups that isolate themselves and accept one messianic leader. The messianic leader tends to develop a swollen ego and it leads inevitably to various kinds of paranoia and the group then acquires the paranoia, like a contagious disease. Jonestown is an extreme example, but Rajneesh was moving in that general direction, too. Rajneesh was getting more paranoid and those around him were getting more paranoid. Paranoia is an inflammation of the ego. It starts out as delusions of grandeur and it gradually turns into the idea that something is opposing your omnipotence. What is it? It must be evil. That’s what happens to cults.
SUN: Is there any way to keep that from happening?
WILSON: It depends on the master not going nutty, not getting trapped by the adulation of the disciples, and it depends on the common sense of the disciples, which they tend to lose at some stage of the relationship. I think the guru business is even more dangerous than psychiatry. Psychiatrists have the highest suicide rate of any profession, but gurus probably have a higher self-destruct rate on a more subtle level.
I’m really in total, bitter opposition to “official” mysticism, which says we should accept the cycle, go with the flow, and just let the big wheel keep on turning. I’m all for stopping the wheel and starting our own wheel moving in a different direction.
SUN: Why do you think this country has been so inviting to teachers and gurus from the East?
WILSON: In some ways the U.S. is the culmination of Western civilization and carries the exciting aspects of Western civilization to a very high level. There are more civil liberties in the U.S. in our worst times than there have been throughout the Orient in any period of history. There’s more creativity and individual freedom here than there’s ever been anywhere. And all the worst things in the Western world also culminate here through imperialism; the over-emphasis on linear, analytical thinking; the adulation of technology in a rather mindless, phallic, narcissistic way. “Oh look, mine is bigger than yours.” The Empire State Building is a symbol of that aspect of the technological mind. And that’s why rockets are designed the way they are. Arthur Clarke has pointed out, on scientific grounds, that there are much better shapes for interplanetary vehicles.
The U.S. is not only politically imperialistic, but mentally imperialistic. We know what’s right and wrong, what’s good for everybody else on the planet; they’re all our inferiors, and it’s our job to straighten them out. If they don’t want to be straightened out, well, we’ll have to discipline them.
As the culmination of the Western psyche, the U.S. has now reached the point where it’s falling apart. It’s desperately trying to become more human by integrating everything it left out before — all the Oriental elements. Interestingly, Japan is doing the same thing in the other direction. More than any other country in the Orient, the Japanese realized that they could learn something from the Western world. And they’ve been magnificent at learning everything they could without giving up being Japanese.
SUN: I’d like to consider your idea that we can reprogram ourselves. Just how changeable are we? How much have you changed?
WILSON: I am the last person in the world to be able to form an objective opinion about that. Self-evaluation is very tricky. It’s easy to go into either depression or megalomania. Instead of thinking how much have I accomplished, I prefer to think about what I can do this week to be a little less dumb than I was last week.
One of my favorite quotes is from T.S. Eliot: “Humility is endless.” When I was in my forties I began to realize how stupid I was in my thirties, when I thought I was already an adult. And now that I’m in my fifties I can see how stupid I was in my forties. I suspect when I’m in my sixties I’ll look back and see that I’m still pretty stupid right now. Humility is realism. It’s the recognition of how dumb we all are and how hard it is to wake up for even a few minutes, to have even a few lucid interludes in a week.
My other favorite quote has exactly the opposite emphasis. It’s from John Lilly: “In the province of the mind, what is believed to be true is true, or becomes true, within limits to be learned by experience and experiment. These limits are further beliefs to be transcended. In the province of the mind there are no limits.”
Basically, I believe in the cosmic schmuck principle, which is that we’re all cosmic schmucks. If you don’t wake up once a month and notice you’ve been a schmuck lately, you’re going to go on being a schmuck indefinitely. But if you wake up once a month and say, “Oh my God, I’ve been a schmuck,” then you’re still developing as a reprogrammer. And to the extent that’s happening, there are no limits. We don’t know what the limits of the human mind are. All we know are the artificial limits that we’ve been creating through our history. And when we start taking them off we have no idea how far the human mind can go. To me it’s tremendously exciting to see how far I can go, while remembering I’m still a cosmic schmuck.
I think the guru business is even more dangerous than psychiatry. Psychiatrists have the highest suicide rate of any profession, but gurus probably have a higher self-destruct rate on a more subtle level.
SUN: Can you give me an example of how you’ve brought to bear any of the techniques you’ve explored over the years on some particular problem or grief in your own life?
WILSON: The hardest thing in my life was the death of my daughter. But one thing my work has done is to make me realize that everybody has some grief in his or her life. Not the same grief, but some kind of tragedy. There’s no way to get through this life without it. And so the death, the terrible tragedy, has added to my patience: when I start getting angry at people, I realize there’s no sense wishing ill on them because they’ve had tremendous pain or they’re going to have it. I don’t need to wish it on them. That tends to add a great deal to my patience and forgiveness and forbearance. Also, when it’s hard to understand people’s behavior, I remember that if I knew every terrible thing that ever happened to them, it would be pretty easy to understand why they’re being so unreasonable.
Empathy is what you might call a side effect of this work. Some of the most vulgar parts of the occult tradition have peculiar values. A lot of things that I used to think were plain silly, I can now see have value, like divination. I used to wonder why people would want to pry into their future. What good is such knowledge? All it does is give you more anxieties and confusions. If you see something in the future, then the next question is whether you can change it. That gets you into all sorts of metaphysical problems. But what’s valuable about divination is what it does for the diviner. It increases sympathy and empathy for others. In reading people, you’re reading a tremendous amount of suffering, and a tremendous amount of injustice and unhappiness. And it takes you out of your ego and it leads you right back to the true path, which is an identification with others.
SUN: From what you’re saying, I get a different sense of your respect for suffering than I did last night. It seemed to me that some of your comments about suffering were flippant. “We’ve suffered enough,” you said. “Let’s go out and enjoy ourselves.” Maybe you could talk a bit about what you meant by that.
WILSON: I do think we’ve suffered enough, and I don’t believe the future is determined. I don’t like prophets who predict massive suffering for the human race. I think that’s just activating the latent masochism of people. I reject totally the idea that we deserve to suffer. In a relative universe you create meaning by making choices, and I’ve chosen to believe that suffering can be decreased steadily. So I’m against suffering. I know it has value; it can teach you important lessons. But I think there’s too much of it. I don’t think Africa has to starve to make the planet more spiritual. I don’t think we have to have a nuclear war to cure us of war. I think we can cure ourselves before we go through that hell.
SUN: Is the cure on a social or an individual level?
WILSON: I think it has to involve both. There has to be a cure on the level of individual perception before anything else can happen, but if it’s only on the level of individual perception, it’s not a cure at all. It makes one person a little happier, but it hasn’t changed the basic problem. It’s not enough to change my perceptions; I know I can do that. But I’m also aware that while I’m having a high time changing my perceptions, there are people starving to death. I would enjoy my creativity a lot more if I didn’t have to be reminded that those people are starving. I’d rather do something to get them fed than try to pretend they’re not there.
SUN: Another comment you made last night was about technology. You seemed to suggest that better technology would make a better world. When someone challenged that idea, you put him down. You said the new age suspicion of technology was something you wouldn’t indulge.
WILSON: To some extent I challenge ideas because they have become such cliches that it’s time to startle myself and my audience by challenging them. I think the most reactionary force on the planet is the conditioned neurological reflex. The more we drift into repetitive mental processes, the more we lose our humanity. So I challenge the idea that our scientific knowledge has outstripped our wisdom. I haven’t quite convinced myself that it contains no truth, but it is an overstatement. When you look at history, you find that we’ve become a lot more merciful as individuals. There’s a paradox in that governments are becoming a lot more destructive, but ordinary individuals nowadays are much more compassionate than they were even a century ago. We have developed more delicate, more ethical sensibilities. We’re not burning witches anymore. People don’t blind children or break their legs to make them more effective as beggars, which was a common practice in all the great civilizations of the past. They don’t send children down in the coal mines in Wales anymore.
SUN: So notwithstanding the despoliation of the environment. . . .
WILSON: The despoliation of the environment in the twentieth century is not nearly as atrocious as it was in the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. Our rivers are not nearly as filthy as the Thames was in the nineteenth century. No, the world has not grown more polluted. We’ve grown more sensitive, both aesthetically and scientifically. Our senses and our instruments are telling us more about the pollution we’re creating, but we’re not creating more pollution. We’re learning — we really are. In the left-wing ecological propaganda there’s a quite legitimate impatience. They want us to learn faster. I just want to tell them not to get too excited. They should realize we are learning. It would make them more effective public speakers too, if they stopped laying guilt trips on everybody.
SUN: What else is it about so-called new age philosophy that you object to?
WILSON: So much of what is called the new age is really old age; it’s stuff from the medieval age or the neolithic or the paleolithic. To me, learning the lessons of the Orient is tremendously important. But I don’t think that should stop us from going ahead and learning the new things. Modern art is an absorption of African and Polynesian and Oriental elements and yet, at the same time, a steady progression into new things that Africa and Polynesia and the Orient never had. I think the new age should be an incorporation of the neglected cultures that the West has excluded. It should also be an exploration into new areas. But so much of the new age is really very reactionary, very afraid of getting out of its own little reality, very afraid of anything new. That’s the paradox: the new age is afraid of anything new!
SUN: Such as?
WILSON: Such as space migration, life extension, mind-altering machinery. I remember talking about machines that alter brain waves and somebody said, “You’ll find out in three years that it creates epileptic fits as a side effect.” That may be true. There are always dangers in exploration. But the mind set that says, “We know it’s going to have a bad side effect” is profoundly reactionary, especially since there’s no evidence of such side effects yet.
Basically, I believe in the cosmic schmuck principle, which is that we’re all cosmic schmucks. If you don’t wake up once a month and notice you’ve been a schmuck lately, you’re going to go on being a schmuck indefinitely.
SUN: Many people — not just so-called new age types — have been critical of space colonies. Lewis Mumford said, “Space colonies are technological disguises for infantile fantasies.”
WILSON: Mumford talks about infantile fantasies; I think he’s being childish. It’s not an infantile fantasy to think of getting solar energy from outer space to solve the energy problems of this planet. It may or may not be the best solution. That can be argued on a level of practical things — how much do you get with the dollars you put into it, how long will it take to get the return, is it better than solar power collectors on the planet? Those are practical things about which we can disagree. But the idea of getting a lot of solar energy on a planet which is running out of fossil fuels is not an infantile fantasy. Mumford just hasn’t thought about the idea. He’s had a conditioned reaction. It’s outside his reality, so he wants to banish it, like a Marxist says “bourgeois” when he wants to banish a thought, and a fundamentalist says “satanic.” There’s nothing infantile about the idea of a new frontier. The opening of the Americas to Europe, whatever tragedy it was for the native Americans, unleashed tremendous creative energies which had a feedback effect in Europe. They probably never would have had democracy in France and England if the New World hadn’t opened up and the U.S. hadn’t created an arena in which new, utopian social ideas could be tried out. It’s how we got the Bill of Rights and everything that’s good about this country. And that fed back to Europe. And I think space colonization will feed back radical ideas to the earth in the same way. I don’t think that’s an infantile fantasy.
SUN: Ken Kesey said, “A lot of people want to get into space who never got into the earth.”
WILSON: That’s probably true. A lot of people do things for the wrong reasons. But how far do you have to get into the earth to satisfy Kesey? I was a farmer for two years in Ohio and one year in northern California. Does Kesey say I’ve got to go back and do three more years of farming before I have the right to support space colonies? Fuck you, Kesey! I don’t tell him what he should do. He can stay on his bloody farm in Oregon. I’m not trying to drag him into space.
SUN: Perhaps the most common criticism of space colonies is that more technology is not going to create a better existence for us unless there’s a corresponding improvement in our moral character and sense of purpose. We heard that nuclear energy was going to take care of our problems, too.
WILSON: Nuclear plants are very unwise, very unsafe, very nefarious technology. Space colonization is much wiser, safer, and more beneficial. To tell all the reasons would take volumes. But I don’t see that they can be compared just because they’re both technology. That’s almost a kind of racism. That’s like saying Joe Louis must be as bad as Idi Amin because they’re both black. There’s something wrong with that kind of thinking. I can see distinctions between Joe Louis and Idi Amin and I can see distinctions between space colonies and nuclear plants.
So much of the new age is really very reactionary, very afraid of getting out of its own little reality, very afraid of anything new. That’s the paradox: the new age is afraid of anything new!
SUN: So you object to any generalizations about technology.
WILSON: I would say it’s below the conditioned reflex level. It’s on the level of tropism. It doesn’t constitute thought at all. Mark Twain compared anti-Semites to a cat who sat on a hot stove and never sat on a hot stove again. And anti-Semites said, “Well, that wasn’t stupid.” Twain said, “Yes it was, the cat never sat on a cold stove either.”
SUN: But certainly you’re aware of a kind of indiscriminate faith in technology in this society, a faith that ignores deeper human values, and thus creates more suffering.
WILSON: I don’t have an indiscriminate faith in technology but I don’t have an indiscriminate prejudice against it, either. I think we should regard each technology on its own merit. The problem is when you’ve got a lot of money invested in something and it starts turning out to have bad side effects, it’s the natural human tendency to try to conceal the data or pretend it doesn’t exist. This is known as neurosis in the individual, and in the corporation it’s known as conspiracy. But it’s a natural human trait, and it’s something we should all be aware of and terrified of. I think it’s terrible that so much money is invested in things that are debatable, because once the money is invested, the data is going to be warped. The fact that Chernobyl happened in the Soviet Union shows that just converting to a socialist system won’t solve that problem; the Soviet Union is as much in hock as anybody. They had a terrible accident back in the Fifties, which they concealed because they had to show a return on the investment. They’ve gotten themselves into the same nuclear dead end as the U.S.
SUN: Another of the technologies you’re enthusiastic about is life extension. Now, I can understand your wish to eliminate poverty and other kinds of needless suffering. But do you really think we can abolish death?
WILSON: I believe we’re at a point of ushering in a new stage of human evolution — and I think this can only be done by a continuation of the ego. In spite of everything the mystics say, the universe did not make a mistake when it created the ego. What’s needed is for the ego to be more susceptible to non-ego levels of awareness. Then you can create something which never existed before, and reach levels of awareness the human race has never achieved. I think it’s worth striving for.
SUN: It’s odd to hear someone so passionately defend the ego.
WILSON: I work on the assumption that evolution doesn’t make mistakes. So the creation of the ego is not a mistake. The ego is responsible for memory and learning and the integration of knowledge and wisdom in a unique way. It’s responsible for most of art and science. We wouldn’t have Beethoven’s Ninth if Beethoven hadn’t been an egomaniac. A great deal of scientific work is motivated by egotistical competition. The ego has been responsible for a great deal that, to me, is admirable. What’s wrong with the ego is that it tends to blot out other possible modes of consciousness. It becomes compulsive. My hypothesis is that once this compulsiveness is broken and the ego is flooded with trans-ego levels of consciousness, the ego mutates and becomes something else and can have a very important function in the future. Especially if it lives long enough. The evolutionary potentials of the human race haven’t been discovered yet. We’ve been at a very primitive level, fighting for our survival for most of our existence. And fighting one another for survival.
SUN: When we die, do you think individual consciousness dies, too?
WILSON: I’m inclined to think the ego dies when the body dies. What survives is not the ego.
SUN: But something survives.
SUN: Is that something diminished when we die? Or is it perhaps enhanced?
WILSON: It probably is enhanced, but I think we can get all the advantages of death without dying.
WILSON: With certain alterations of consciousness.
SUN: Can you be more specific?
WILSON: Certain types of yoga will produce a state beyond life and death, beyond consciousness and unconsciousness, and I think the chemical and electronic methods of inducing this are almost here. It will be possible in a few years to take a death pill and live through the death experience. I’m not talking about a poison, I’m talking about a pill that simulates death. You’ll find out exactly what death is like and come back and say, “Oh, now I know what death is.”
SUN: You said last night that someday you might achieve immortality by having your consciousness encoded on a silicon chip. Is that something you seriously view as the fulfillment of your individual destiny?
WILSON: That’s not exactly my idea. Someone wrote a book suggesting that the purpose of human consciousness is to create a superior form of consciousness. He says our function is to create immortal computers that will live forever and travel all over the universe and do all the things we can’t do as mere protoplasm. Reading this, I thought that it might also be possible to transfer our consciousness into silicon. I don’t know how, but I have a hunch it’s possible.
I can be specific about this, in terms of David Bohm’s theory of implicate orders, which suggests that everything is an explicate unfolding of something that exists on an implicate level before it unfolds. When I speak to you on the telephone, my words come out on the explicate level as sound waves. The telephone translates them to the implicate level of electrical impulses. When they get to the receiver, it translates them back to the explicate order of sound waves, so you hear sound waves. Behind every explicate order, there’s an implicate order, and according to Bohm, that implicate order probably has another implicate order behind that.
We wouldn’t have Beethoven’s Ninth if Beethoven hadn’t been an egomaniac. A great deal of scientific work is motivated by egotistical competition. The ego has been responsible for a great deal that, to me, is admirable.
SUN: So, the implicate order of conversation would be thought, wouldn’t it?
WILSON: That’s right. And the implicate order of a computer game is the software. And the implicate order of software is the mind of the software designer, and so on. I think we can get to the implicate order of consciousness and explicate it. The consciousness explicated as my protoplasm can also be explicated as a silicon chip.
SUN: But is the implicate order of your consciousness physically bound?
WILSON: No, it’s non-local. But just as it seems to be physically bound to my body, it can seem to be physically bound to a silicon chip, even though it’s essentially implicate and non-local. Information is not physical at all. DNA seems to be a physical manifestation of an information system. So I think of consciousness as non-local information, which only appears to be localized. Out-of-body experiences, to me, are not out-of-body experiences. It’s a mistake to think consciousness is localized in the body. Out-of-body experience is just perfectly normal functioning. It doesn’t happen ordinarily because we’ve been conditioned to think consciousness is in the body.
SUN: Then why the emphasis on extending the body and the individual ego?
WILSON: My interest in life extension has to do with exploration and fun, and, beyond that, experiencing the higher levels of what the universe is all about. I don’t think the universe is a steady state. I think it’s an evolving, self-organizing system. And reaching higher levels of awareness is, I think, what the universe is working toward. We’re one of its tools for achieving higher levels of awareness. I think some of them we can achieve only by prolonging the local manifestation of non-local consciousness.
SUN: In one of your books, you write about giving up the use of the word “I” for a week.
WILSON: The first couple of days it was uncomfortable, embarrassing, and humiliating. It forces you to a recognition of how egotistical normal consciousness is, and gives you a very uncomfortable sense of the narrowness and the provincialism of your views. From the third day on, you get increasingly detached from your egotistical view and you’re likely to get back into it only at moments of exhilaration when you’re thinking, “Hey, this works! I’ve just abolished my ego!”
SUN: What are the most valuable lessons you’ve learned from all your years of consciousness research, and from all your years of living?
WILSON: You’ve got to learn how to cry. And you can’t teach that to anybody in words. Once you’ve learned how to cry, the next valuable thing is to remember that regardless of what’s happening to you, it would be just as bad if it were happening to somebody else. Instead of being personally indignant, be impersonally indignant that things like this should be happening to human beings at all! You can never understand fully the role of suffering in human existence, but you can ask yourself what you are going to do about it. Are you going to spend the rest of your life in self-pity and despair, or are you going to try to turn the tragedy into good energy? I think that’s what the Great Work means in alchemy — to take everything that comes in and, before you send it on, to turn it into good energy. Now that’s not easy, but it’s the most intelligent goal you can set for yourself.
SUN: What does the word God mean to you?
WILSON: It’s a word I don’t use often. God and the Devil are metaphors I can use on occasion, and maybe they’re necessary metaphors on some level. But I suspect the more profound truths do not require the use of either word. I think we can do quite well with words like the Tao, or yin and yang, or more general and less anthropoid concepts. I find it hilarious that so many people in the twentieth century still pray to a God who is like a Bronze Age Oriental despot. Their idea that the universe was created by somebody like that is childish to the extreme. That God couldn’t even create a microbe. He would get as far as the gene and fuck it up, and then drown the nearest town to express his vexation.
We’re at a point of ushering in a new stage of human evolution — and I think this can only be done by a continuation of the ego. In spite of everything the mystics say, the universe did not make a mistake when it created the ego.
SUN: How about a God that’s understood in terms of unconditional love?
WILSON: Well, that’s different. I don’t think you should call that God because it leads to confusion. “God” is pretty much the creation of the people who believe in the guy sitting on the clouds throwing lightning bolts at kids who jack off. They might as well be left with the word since they’ve got the monopoly on it, and using the word just gets you confused with them.
SUN: What do you do to stay healthy?
WILSON: Laugh a lot. Keep the cosmic schmuck principle in mind. Travel a lot because that has a rejuvenating effect; new environments force you into a childish state of mind and recreate your youth. Take a lot of vitamin C and E. And experiment with a lot of consciousness-altering techniques.
SUN: Which include drugs?
WILSON: Drugs, computer software, brain-altering machinery, yoga, pranayama, and occasionally I still experiment with cabalistic magic — which is endlessly fascinating because I am repeatedly forced to change my opinion of what I am doing while I’m doing it. Cabalistic magic is the greatest Jewish joke ever invented. All I know is that it works. Why it works is beyond a mind as simple as mine. Half the time I think it’s a tricky way of releasing latent potentials in your own brain. And half the time I think I’m turning on to a network of adepts who are helping me — a network that spans space and time in a way that totally transcends materialist maps of the universe. And whenever I’m inclined to believe one of these theories, it seems I find more data to incline me toward the other theory.
SUN: Are there things you studiously avoid?
WILSON: I try to refrain from holding grudges. I do rituals of forgiveness every week. I think that’s very helpful to both mind and body. It isn’t easy. Buddha, Christ, all those guys preached forgiveness, but it isn’t easy. It’s easy to pretend to forgive, but you find you’re still carrying grudges in the back of your head. And that does you no good whatsoever. So the thing to do is to pull them around to the front of your head and work on getting rid of them. So I do rituals of forgiveness every week. What else? Taking myself too seriously. That’s a terrible temptation, especially when I’m on a lecture tour and people ask me questions as if they think I know the answers, and it’s very hard not to start thinking maybe I do know the answers.
SUN: Would you say something about the ritual of forgiveness?
WILSON: I visualize a circle around me of people who have hurt me in the past as well as more recently, and I see a rope running from me to each of them, and the rope is the bad energy they gave me as well as my conditioned animal desire to send it back to them and which is keeping me locked to them. Then I systematically cut the ropes one by one so that I’m not tied to them anymore. And I tell the people to go in peace and that I wish them no harm. That’s the essence of the ritual. As I say, it’s not easy. Some people are back week after week because I find I haven’t forgiven them no matter how many times I’ve done the ritual. That’s another meaning of “humility is endless” — when you find out how hard a simple thing like forgiveness can be.