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The New Inquisition Paperback – June 1, 1991
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"There remains, of course, Scientific Method (SM), the alleged source of the certitude of those I call the New Idolators. SM is a mixture of SD (sense data: usually aided by instruments to refine the senses) with the old Greek PR. Unfortunately, while SM is powerfully effective, and seems to most of us the best method yet devised by mankind, it is made up of two elements which we have already seen are fallible - SD (sense data) and PR (pure reason) can both deceive us. Again: two fallibilities do not add up to one infallibility. Scientific generalizations which have lasted a long time have a high probability, perhaps the highest probability of any generalizations, but it is only Idolatry which claims none of them will ever again have to be revised or rejected. Too many have been revised or rejected in this century alone.
Certitude is seized by some minds, not because there is any philosophical justification for it, but because such minds have an emotional need for certitude."
The main point of the book is how science fell prey to Fundamentalist Materialism or the New Idolatry, as Wilson calls it. This is basically the failure to adhere to the scientific principle of empirical testing and remain model agnostic. What this means is that scientists begin to pay more heed to pet theories, ego, career, and popular paradigms than to actual data, and let honest, open inquiry fall by the wayside. He uses data from a wide variety of sources, including hard science and some fairly fringe areas.
He challenges the status quo and argues quite convincingly that science has followed much the same path as religion in this regard, even to the point of calling dissenters "heretics."
Wilson's ability to shake entrenched notions and cause one to entertain new thoughts is quite singular, and I consider him one of the most important writers and thinkers in Amercia today. I highly recommend this and his other works.
Although the stories he mentions are very interesting, and his main thesis about Fundamentalist Materialism as a position and state of mind resonated with me, I found myself rolling my eyes pretty often.
He leans heavily on reductionist devices, constantly referencing "TUUR" - The Ubiquitous Unscrupulous Reporter and other similar Wilson-isms. Although I get his point, that these sorts of "explanations" for seemingly supernatural events exist more to assuage doubt and ignore challenges to Fundamentalist Materialism (as opposed to being legitimate investigative skepticism, the position he supports), I felt like he didn't really address the arguments given by disbelievers. As usual, he takes refuge in his defense of I'm-telling-you-weird-things-but-I-don't-actually-believe-them-so-don't-blame-me-if-they're-hoaxes-or-bullshit and allows himself to get lazy and rattle off headline after headline, making little attempt to cull the credible events from the less credible.
Good for some entertainment, and it certainly got me thinking like all his books do, but overall less impressive and convincing than his other work.
Wait. Actually, you are now realizing that I am up to something else entirely. What I really am trying to do is shock your reality-tunnel, much as I might bang on a galvanized pipe with a wrench to stun the rats which live inside . You have figured out that this entire message is a contrivance: I perform detailed and ritualistic incantations on a magical device which by some arcane alchemy can form shapes on a screen attached to your magical device that you interpret as words which have metaphorical connotations in your mind and from which you decide that you understand what I am trying to communicate. And I thought I could pull the wool over your eyes! I thought I could actually get through to you! You really know that what I did actually didn't really happen, it only appeared to.
That's what reading The New Inquisition is like. Wilson spends a lot of time relating what seem like fringe news reports and ideas (Today in Duluth it rained frogs, for example, or Sheldrake's ideas on morphogenic fields) in order to "bring to full consciousness the kind of half-conscious decisions which determine, for each of us, which thoughts are `thinkable' and which are `unthinkable' . . . I am asking you to observe in yourself the strength and immediacy of the impulse to deny at once."
Wilson is doing this because he wishes for us to realize "that we might all become startlingly sane, or at least much less stupid, if we tried, even occasionally, to look dispassionately and without prejudice at precisely those events which do not seem to fit our own favorite reality-tunnel or tunnels." This leads us to the approach which he believes makes the most sense: model-agnosticism. "There is an alternative which appears more reasonable to some of us; namely to avoid the `leap of faith' and remain agnostic about all methods, although willing to learn from them in an open-minded way. . . . When the experts cannot agree and even seem to misunderstand each other at times--agnosticism is not only scientifically more appropriate, and more in line with that virtue of humility which most sages and philosophers have urged, but a matter of simple honesty with oneself. . . .Experiments only entitle us to say, at a date, that one kind of model seems more useful that another kind of model. To go beyond that and believe in a model remains an act of faith . . ."
Wilson advocates the use of language terms that are specifically vague. He coins terms like Sombunall, for some, but not all. We can never know all of something. He would have us talk of models in a way that said such-and-such can be usefully described as this-and-that. Otherwise we will become hypnotized, as we are every day, that what we believe is the only way things actually are and anything contrary to that point-of-view is either dead wrong or a fraud. Among the examples of mass hallucination he gives are things like religious stigmata and advertising. How else can you be convinced to spend 50 cents or more on a can containing fizzy colored flavored water? And even more to buy the even better fizzy non-colored and non-flavored water like Perrier.
My first breakout group at Facilitator Training got much mirth out of some of Wilson's ideas: Reality Tunnel, Toll $1; `OJ did it' is only relative to context; I woke up on the wrong side of my reality-tunnel; its just the light at the end of the reality-tunnel, and so forth. It reminded me of the Far Side cartoon of a female paramecium yelling at her fat slob of a couch potato husband paramecium, "Stimulus, response, stimulus, response, don't you ever THINK?" But there is a lot to be said for regularly suspending judgment--to argue with someone else's experience is a waste of time because it is reality to them.
Some of my favorite quotes from the book:
*"I am convinced that it is impossible to refute materialism--or idealism, or mentalism--or Theism--or pantheism--or any of the other hardy perennials of philosophy. All these reality-tunnels or models have had advocates in every age, and still have advocates, and will almost certainly continue to have advocates, because none of them can be conclusively proven or disproven . . .my objection is that Fundamentalism stops thought, whereas model-agnosticism encourages us to think further and look more deeply."
*"Our experiments of today can reach back billions of years to literally create the past including the Big Bang. . . We are wrong to think of the past as having a definite existence `out there' and that the Big Bang has been/is being created by our acts of measurement now."
*"I am merely suggesting . . . that Universe is a bit more complicated than anybody's models; and that using several reality-tunnels may show a great many interesting correlations and details and exciting and beautiful aspects that we will never see if we look always and only through one monstrous reality-tunnel which we have made into an Idol."
*"A physical anthropologist, after conducting many examinations of Canadians, concluded that the average Canadian has one testicle. There was no mistake in the statistical methods used. How is this possible?"
*"Fundamentalism--whether it invokes God or Laws--is a way of soothing the nervous, of soothing and pacifying."
*"Try an experiment that I have often performed. Go to a party, tell the people you are a writer, and say you are writing a book on `paranormal' or anomalistic events. Ask if the people present have ever had such experiences. Unless there is a Fundamentalist Materialist present to forcibly repress the relaxed conversational mood by hostile mockery or sarcasm, the most ordinary people will tell the most astounding tales."
*"It is the Fundamentalism in any group, or any individual, that causes me alarm; and nobody's Fundamentalism alarms me as much as my own, whenever I spot a bit of it skulking around in the back rooms of my skull."
*"Civil liberties are profoundly counter-intuitive. It takes an effort of imagination and good will to remember that those we despise deserve the same legal rights as those who agree with us."
*"Most primates mark their territories with excretions; domesticated primates mark their territories with ink excretions on paper (treaties, land titles, etc.). From the biological perspective, every national border in Europe, for instance, marks a place where two rival gangs of domesticated primates fought until exhausted and then left a territorial mark."
*"It is an Indio-European coding convention that a verb must have a substantive noun before it--that an action must be attributed to some allegedly isolated and allegedly reified Actor."
My only actual gripe with Wilson is that he kept beating me over the head with examples that supported his point long after I got his point. He also likes Using Capitals to name things, but he is usually trying to fix the capitalized thing as an Object in your Mind.