Model Agnosticism vs. A New Idolatry: A Critique of Robert Anton Wilson's The New Inquisition

"It seems to me that existence--at this point I have doubts about 'the' 'universe' -- is a lot like a Rorschach ink-blot. Everybody looks at it and sees their own favorite reality- tunnel."1 Robert Anton Wilson's book, The New Inquisition, addresses the issue of these belief systems. He feels that modern science, at least "the establishment" of modern science, is blinded by it's own reality tunnel. But is he right?

The New Inquisition deals to a certain degree with the philosophy of science. Robert Anton Wilson heavily criticizes the state of the scientific establishment today. He finds his main point of contention in their dogmatic reliance upon already established ideas when judging new work. One of his targets is the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, CSICOP. He claims that they don't give a fair hearing to anyone they don't already agree with. He also feels that the reliance on the military-industrial complex for funding maintains the status quo. Wilson asserts that instead of this dogmatic attitude scientists should employ skepticism, or a sort of agnostic principle, when confronted with new ideas.

According to Wilson science these days worships the Idol of Materialism. He calls their underlying belief "Fundamental Materialism" and likens it to religious fundamentalism. Wilson would prefer a principle which "refuses total belief or total denial and regards models as tools to be used only and always where appropriate and replaced (by other models) only and always where not appropriate."2 Throughout the text Wilson introduces new terms or abbreviations (such as TUUR -- "The Ubiquitous Unscrupulous Reporter or MS -- "Mad Scientist"). One of the more useful is "sombunall" which is short for "some-but-not-all."3 In an extreme case: "Imagine a debate about UFOs in which both sides could generalize as much as they wished about sombunall sightings but there was no linguistic form to generalize about all such sightings."4 People can't assert anything as emphatically if they can't generalize.

Wilson spends a great deal of time trying to precisely delineate many of the assumptions made when discussing, or researching, science. He sprinkles the text with instances of "paranormal" incidents and other ideas which fall outside of the bounds of normal science. For example "21 March 1922 Boston Transcript -- a snow reported in the Alps -- nothing odd about that-- but this snow was accompanied by a fall, or an appearance of a fall, of caterpillars and huge ants along with the snow."5 He doesn't try to assert any explanation for these occurrences and doesn't ask the reader to "believe" them. He states that he wants readers to observe their own reactions. These reactions can say a lot about the bases of thought, both conscious and subconscious, of the reader. Which scientific, as well as social, beliefs one holds fundamental can affect how one reacts to the world. These beliefs are in the language of Thomas Kuhn the paradigm one operates with. These paradigms are by necessity generalizations, and one of Wilson's pet peeves seems to be generalization. He comments that "Some generalizations are probably much more accurate than others . . .But these generalizations remain in the area of probability."6 Many people tend to make generalizations and then forget that that is really what they are doing. They get so caught up in their models that they start to think that the models are reality, not simply a rough description of reality.

Reviews of The New Inquisition bring up several points that are not obvious to the casual reader. While reviewers comment that parts of his reasoning and warnings about dogmatism are useful, they also warn of some of his downfalls. Mr. Siano and Jim Lippard point out numerous faults in Wilson's scholarship, faulty information and etc. "It's a habit of Wilson's; when he writes about people he doesn't like, he paraphrases them rather than quoting them directly. Not very ethical, that."7 He filters their words through his reality tunnel before giving them to the reader and expecting the reader to be impartial. "In fact, the attitude that Wilson finds laudable . . is exhibited more often by CSICOP than by Wilson himself. . . Sheaffer puts it this way: 'Wilson writes a book attacking an organization whose publication he has not read, accusing it of the 'crime' of criticizing what it does not understand, while himself having no comprehension of what that organization is really like . . '"8 Lippard looked up some of Wilson's sources, especially many of those for the "paranormal" instances that Wilson dispersed through the text, and found a large number of them to be only partially accurate. Many of them were quoted second-hand and some were just plain wrong. "One should be wary, however, of taking seriously any of Wilson's explanations for the phenomena he describes--and this is consistent with the 'principle of agnosticism' Wilson puts forth."9 These faults bring into doubt the validity of Wilson's claims. The reviewers don't find fault with the whole premise though. "Truth is sometimes a slippery target, as we all know, and much of Wilson's work is devoted to showing how slippery it is--or doubting whether it exists or not. In this regard, Wilson's book is worthwhile in its cautions against dogmatism and claiming certainty about one's knowledge."10 The more important, however, parts of the book are those discussing the philosophy, not the individual examples.

Wilson frequently targets Martin Gardner, well-known scientist and member of CSICOP.

Mr. Gardner has an infallible method of recognizing real science and of recognizing pseudo-science. Real science is what agrees with his Idol and pseudo-science is what challenges that Idol. Colin Wilson has written, 'I wish I could be as sure of anything as Martin Gardner is of everything.' Not all the Popes of the 20th Century collectively have dared to issue as many absolute dogmas as Mr. Gardner.. . . 11
Gardner has written extensively on the subject of the paranormal. He, in contrast to what Wilson seems to think, declares it impossible to exactly define "pseudo-science." One viewpoint, that of John Casti, states that the Hallmarks of pseudo-science are: anachronistic thinking, seeking mysteries, appeals to myth, a non-rigorous approach to evident, irrefutable claims, spurious similarities, explanation by scenario, research by literary interpretation, and a refusal to revise.12 Gardner realizes that what may seem to be the work of a crackpot may turn out in the long run to be correct, however "we must not forget that for every outcast theory raised to respectability by a scientific revolution there were thousands of crazy theories that permanently bit the dust."13 In order for his writing to have focus, he must pick a position and argue from that point of view, whether or not it will, in the long run, turn out to be correct. The reader, as always, has the freedom to decide for himself whether to accept Gardner's analysis or not. However, although he may make pronouncements regarding the validity of various theories, Mr. Gardner does realize the impermanence of his ideas. "It goes without saying that some of my harsh judgements could be proved wrong by future science."14 Gardner seems rather sure of himself but at least he realizes the possibility his infallibility (unlike the pope who he was compared with earlier.)

Gardner and Wilson discuss many of the same people on the fringes of normal science and often come to different conclusions. One such example comes with the description of Dr. Immanuel Velikovsky. He made many predictions about the solar system and its evolution. For example, he predicted that Jupiter emits radio waves, which have been found.15 He formulated a catastrophe model of the solar system's development. But, as Wilson points out, it was not Velikovsky's conclusions but his methods which "pushed the panic button of the Fundamentalists."16 Part of his methodology was to examine the myths of the ancient civilizations and suggest that they may contain truth. According the Casti, this should be considered pseudo-science. This method does not exactly follow the scientific method, but may actually provide some clues as to what happened in the past. Gardner recognizes some of these claims to be valid, but points out that Velikovsky was using this theory to attempt to validate the bible. "According to Velikovsky, it was the stopping (or slowing) of the earth's spin which caused the Red Sea to divide precisely at the time Moses stretched out his hand . . . There was a momentary two-month retreat of the comet, then it returned just in time to provide the thunder, lightning, smoke, earthquakes, and trumpet blasts that accompanied the giving of the commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai."17 That seems to be pushing it even for the fundamentalist Christians! Gardner's critique of Velikovsky's method exclaims that "Legends are difficult to date, and almost any imaginable type of nature miracle is likely to turn up somewhere in the varied folklore of a culture. All one has to do is comb the literature of mythology carefully, copy down the appropriate tales, and ignore the others."18 This is one of those cases in which Wilson brings up an instance, the attempted suppression of Velikovsky's work, to try to prove that the establishment is intolerant, yet he presents the evidence in a matter that is unfairly self- supporting, and not exactly a scientific endeavor as he makes it appear.

The case of Wilhelm Reich can be illuminating to observe from both sides also. Reich "discovered" a new type of energy called orgone. Gardner writes that "According to Reich it is a non-electro-magnetic force which permeates all of nature. It is the elan vital or life force. . .It is blue in color." He continues saying the Reich believes that this blue color causes the sky and oceans to be blue. 19 Gardner responds to Reich with:

Disciples of Reich frequently defend him by saying, "Granted that his biological work is highly suspect, you'll have to admit he's made great contributions to the field of mental therapy." This may be true. But if has somewhat the same plausibility as a statement like the following: "Granted that Professor Ludwig von Hoofenmeister errs in his theory that stars are holes in an opaque sphere surrounding the earth, you'll have to admit he has made magnificent discoveries in his study of cosmic rays."20
Wilson, on the other hand, presents Reich in a favorable light, bringing up only instances of his work that seem more "reasonable." He recounts the burning of Reich's books in the 50's by the US government, portraying him as unjustly criticized. While burning books is definitely negatively extreme, Wilson's description of Reich leaves out many serious difficulties with his position. Wilson later writes, "I am not particularly interested, here, in how much of Reich was right or wrong. I present the Reich case as one illustration of how the current Idol, the orthodoxy of biological materialism, maintains itself."21 While Wilson's support of the underdogs in many of these situations should be commended, he seems to ignore that in order for science to progress a critical look needs to be taken at new theories, in order to determine if they can better fit the facts than existing theories.

Wilson's analysis of Bell's Theorem appears, to my limited knowledge of the subject, to be a little more straight-forward. He describes Bell's Theorem and describes some of the evidence:

Out of seven experiments, five have vindicated Bell, while the experiments themselves, under criticism, have successively been more and more exquisitely subtle. A defect in the apparatus should destroy evidence of correlation; it is very hard to imagine--try to imagine it--what a series of incredible defects it would take to somehow cumulatively produce a false correlation where there was none in actuality. 22
Not unexpectedly, Wilson continues to apply this apparent result to the paranormal. "Any kind of non-local monism or interconnectedness does somewhat strengthen the case for the "paranormal" insofar as it makes thinkable or possible those trans-time and trans-space linkages which Fundamentalism has declared unthinkable and impossible."23 He makes the predictable guess about what the superposition of the Big Bang theory and Bell's theorem would do to our ideas of causation. This example actually uses an idea within the bounds of normal science to try to justify a fringe outlook. This seems to be more the approach that should be undertaken if Wilson's "Agnosticism" is to be applied to science. Fringe ideas, instead of being ignored, should be approached with the idea that there may be a way to make them compatible with the rest of science.

Gardner and Wilson also disagree on the value of orthodoxy. Whereas Wilson seems to find it undesirable in almost all instances, Gardner thinks that "a certain degree of dogma--of pig-headed orthodoxy--is both necessary and desirable for the health of science. It forces the scientist with a novel view to mass considerable evidence before his theory can be seriously entertained. If this situation did not exist, science would be reduced to shambles by having to examine every new-fangled notion that came along."24 This view seems fairly compatible with that of Kuhn (see below). Although it makes it harder for new ideas to gain acceptance, when they do they're more likely to stay in favor than simply disappear again. This creates a more stable basis of thought so that scientists have some common understanding to work from. Wilson's approach of examining every datum individually may be ideal in theory, however such a large amount of scientific data is collected these days that no one person could ever even make a dent in trying to examine it all. Science as we know it would not exist if one could not make generalizations. No workable theories would exist. Gardner finds opposition to new ideas understandable, not contemptible as Wilson does. "Here and there, of course--especially among older scientists who, like everyone else, have a natural tendency to become set in their opinions--one may occasionally meet with irrational prejudice against a new point of view. You cannot blame a scientist for unconsciously resisting a theory which may, in some cases, render his entire life's work obsolete."25 Wilson seems to think that most of the scientific community's resistance to new ideas is n attempt to persecute those who don't agree (recall Casti's listing of paranoia . . ). Most scientists are probably just trying to support their own theories.

Thomas Kuhn's work on scientific revolutions is relevant when looking at Wilson's ideas. Kuhn postulates that "science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions." 26 Rather, the cumulative set of standard beliefs at a certain time comprise the "paradigm" of the era and these paradigms instead of gradually changing are violently overthrown. These revolutions are always characterized similarly:

[They] necessitated the community's rejection of one time-honored scientific theory in favor of another incompatible with it. Each produced a consequent shift in the problems available for scientific scrutiny and in the standards by which the professions determined what should count as an admissible problem or as a legitimate problem-solution. And each transformed the scientific imagination in ways that we shall ultimately need to describe as a transformation of the world within which scientific work was done. 27
These paradigms are the standard background from which science can operate. Without them science would not proceed as it does. "[N]ormal-scientific research is directed to the articulation of those phenomena and theories that the paradigm already supplies."28 However this research does eventually uncover things that don't fit with the paradigm. By this method new ideas develop. "Discovery commences with the awareness of anomaly, i.e., with the recognition that nature has somehow violated the paradigm-induced expectations that govern normal science."29 One of Kuhn's major points is that paradigms are never rejected until a likely candidate for replacement exists. Wilson's view does not reconcile entirely with that of Kuhn. That changes that Wilson advocates scientists should make in their thinking would make them, under Kuhn's definition, no longer scientists. Wilson supports using theories only under limited circumstances with the knowledge that they only have restricted validity. Wilson's idea of science is very non-traditional:
.. .Scientific Method (SM) [is] 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 [pure reason]. 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. . . Again: two fallibilities do not add up to one infallibility. Scientific generalizations which have lasted a long time have 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. 30
Wilson seems to be generalizing himself. It seems that scientists, while adhering to a particular theory, in many cases do so only because it allows them to continue working. Even though none of the theories identically match reality, some are close enough that accurate predictions can be made from them. However Wilson is correct in saying that people should be open to new ideas. If everyone adhered to old ideas entirely, nothing would ever change, but entirely rejecting old ideas is not the solution either.

Kuhn and Wilson do seem to agree to some extent about theories. Kuhn states that paradigms are never overturned until there's something to replace them. He doesn't state exactly why. Wilson explains this as a comfort factor. "You see? Even a new and unfamiliar model sometimes feels better than no model at all."31 Kuhn doesn't delve into the social or emotional resistance against new ideas. He leaves it simply as a matter of normal science needing a paradigm to operate. Wilson seems to agree that this is the normal approach of science. He just doesn't find this to be positive.

On a first reading, The New Inquisition either seems really reasonable or ridiculous. If the reader goes into it with Wilson's skeptical attitude, not expecting to believe it all but not rejecting it all outright, a lot can be learned about his everyday assumptions. Perhaps if people could use this technique when first encountering any new or unusual ideas, more diverse theories could easily be incorporated into existing one with less of a tendency for fundamentalism. His sense of wonder about topics not often considered by many is one of the most instructive parts of his work, "That is my heresy; that is why I cannot buy into fundamentalism. I wonder a bit."32 The many unusual instances seem somewhat shocking but if the reader stops to consider that even one of them might be true some progress has been made toward breaking down their preconceived notions of what the world is like. Outside of science, application of this method could eliminate much of the hatred of the world. But would it work within science?

Wilson's book needs to be reread, critically. While his notions of a liberal-minded scientific community seem idyllic at first glance, there are many inherent problems with his plan. He seems to have too little understanding about how science operates to make some of the claims he does. Finding out that some of his information was faulty is a bit unsettling. Trying occasionally to forget some of their normal assumptions and build from other ideas could be useful for scientists to develop new theories, but a lot of science is not about finding new theories but rather about developing the already existing ones. By working to take more accurate measurements, scientists can realize whether or not their current theories actually mesh with experimental evidence. Without this step it would be pointless to try to come up with new theories because no one would ever be forced to chose between theories and so many theories would pile up that they would be useless.

Perhaps a new approach to science needs to be fashioned. One that would incorporate Wilson's openmindedness along with a more- or-less stable paradigm and a bit of Gardner's stubbornness. Maybe that way real progress would be make toward understanding the world in which in we live.


  1. Robert Anton Wilson. The New Inquisition pg 218
  2. Wilson, pg i.
  3. Wilson, pg 25.
  4. Wilson, pg 26.
  5. Wilson, pg 89.
  6. Wilson, pg 5.
  7. Brian Siano, "An Appraisal of Robert Anton Wilson's The New Inquisition'
  8. Siano.
  9. Jim Lippart. "The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science," pg 6.
  10. Siano.
  11. Wilson, pg 39.
  12. John L. Casti. Paradigms Lost pg 57-79.
  13. Martin Gardner, Science: Good, Bad and Bogus. pg xiii
  14. Garder. Science pv xvi
  15. Wilson, pg 69.
  16. Wilson, pg 70.
  17. Gardner, Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science. pg 29.
  18. Gardner.Fads. pg 31.
  19. Gardner. Fads. pg 253.
  20. Gardner. Science, pg 10.
  21. Wilson, pg 43.
  22. Wilson, pg 112.
  23. Wilson, pg 118.
  24. Gardner. Fads, pg 11.
  25. Gardner, Fads, pg 10.
  26. Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, pg 2.
  27. Siano
  28. Kuhn, pg 6.
  29. Kuhn, pg 24.
  30. Kuhn, pg 52-53
  31. Wilson, pg 6
  32. Wilson, pg 156.
  33. Wilson, pg 54.

Cited Sources

Casti, John L. Paradigms Lost. New York: Avon Books, 1989.

Gardner, Martin. Fades & Fallacies in the Name of Science. New York: Dover, 1957.

Gardner, Martin. Science: Good, Bad and Bogus Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1981.

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions2nd ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lippard, James. "The New Inquisition: Irrational Rationalism and the Citadel of Science". The Phoenix Skeptics News March/April 1988, pg 2-6.

Siano, Brian, "An Appraisal of Robert Anton Wilson's The New Inquisition"as received via personal correspondence

Wilson, Robert Anton. The New Inquisition. Scottsdale, AZ: New Falcon Publications, 1991.

December 14, 1993.
 [Kristin Buxton]  [discordia