Quantum Psychology, by Robert Anton Wilson

I saw this book while looking around on Amazon for books related to Korzybski’s Science and Sanity (much like how I found Hayakawa’s book). I picked it up because I’ve read two of Wilson’s sci-fi trilogies, the Illuminatus trilogy and the Schrodinger’s Trilogy. I liked them, but they were very weird, so I was surprised to find out that his works would be referenced next to serious academic works like Hayakawa and Korzybski.

It turns out that Wilson calls himself a Transactional Psychologist, which he says “holds that we do not passively receive data from the universe but actively “create” the form in which we interpret the data as fast as we receive it. In short, we do not re-act to information but experience transactions with information…derived from our gambles as our brain makes models of the ocean of new signals it receives every second.” In this book, he’s basically trying to take a layman’s impression of quantum mechanics and apply it to psychology, with varying degrees of success. The most interesting correlation was the idea of the observer-created universe. In quantum mechanics, when doing an experiment, there is no “result” until the experimenter makes a measurement or an observation. Until that time, the experimental system exists in a state of superposition, and the waveform does not collapse. This sounds spooky and non-intuitive, as has been illustrated by Schrodinger’s thought experiment with his infamous cat.

Wilson takes this idea and several of Korzybski’s ideas to try to develop the theory that the entire universe is observer-created. And there’s a lot of merit to that idea. Two people observing the same event will often tell two completely different accounts, depending on their backgrounds and their predispositions. This comes up often in our judicial system where eyewitness accounts are incredibly unreliable. Wilson’s example: “A cop clubs a man on the street. Observer A sees Law and Order performing their necessary function of restraining the violent with counter-violence. Observer B sees that the cop has white skin and the man hit has black skin, and draws somewhat different conclusions. Observer C arrived earlier and noted that the man pointed a gun at the cop before being clubbed. Observer D hears the cop saying “Stay away from my wife” and has a fourth view of the “meaning” of the situation. Etc.”

He also delves into several of the same issues as Hayakawa’s book, such as the perils of confusing our mental maps and symbols with reality, and the dangers of saying something “is” something else. In fact, Wilson recommends using a modification of English called E-Prime, where “is” doesn’t exist, instead using “appears” or “is observed as”. For instance, the wave-particle duality issue of physics goes away by using E-Prime – instead of “The photon is a wave” or “The photon is a particle”, we have “The photon behaves as a wave when constrained by certain instruments” and “The photon appears as a particle when constrained by other instruments.” The wave-particle “paradox” is due to our language and preconceptions because we “know” that a photon can’t be two things at the same time. By saying it has to be one or the other, we get confused. But the “paradox” is the result of our trying to impose our Aristotelian classification system onto the world, rather than accepting what the world is telling us. It’s not an either-or world – what we see depends on how we choose to observe the world.

Wilson ridicules the whole idea of “is”-ness. When we say something “is” something, we are contending that the object has some sort of ineffable, eternal quality about it that Wilson calls “spooks” (after Max Stirner) or “semantic noise”. As before, he uses the ideas of quantum mechanics to demonstrate that everything is always changing, and the question of what something “is” at any moment is ultimately undefinable, due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the distributed nature of probability waveforms.

From there, he departs into some much stranger ideas, including the idea that faith healing may be related to the dispersion of neurotransmitters through the body, and the possibility of non-local phenomena related to the non-local correlations demonstrated by the EPR paradox and the Paris Aspect experiment. He concludes by hoping for “a HEAD Revolution – Hedonic Engineering And Development” where “the neurosomatic healings and neurosomatic “highs” (yogic or chemical ecstasies) found intuitively or accidentlaly in the past will then give way to a precise technology of staying High and living Well.”

All in all, I liked a lot of what Wilson had to say. But I think his application of quantum mechanics to psychology was seriously flawed. He makes the mistake of doing what he criticizes, by taking language and treating it as reality. The language of quantum mechanics is linear algebra. Not English. I took quantum mechanics at three levels on my way through my physics career, and the math is gorgeous. After they introduced the linear algebra notation (instead of the horribly clunky integral notation originally used), the equations just fell out so beautifully. They are wonderfully predictive and useful, as evidenced by the omnipresence of semiconductor technology in the modern world. However, despite having been fairly adept with those equations, I still couldn’t tell you what they “mean” or how to interpret those results in an intuitive sense. The equations are the equations. The math is the math. Trying to apply them to systems other than subatomic particles, even as an aid for intuitive understanding, is using an inappropriate tool, like trying to use a hammer for measuring distances.

By the same token, any description of quantum mechanics that happens in English is automatically imprecise and inaccurate. So to take those descriptions and treat them as reality and draw conclusions from them is a flawed process (Wilson admits that he has never taken a physics course and is going purely on descriptions). I think that many of the conclusions that Wilson draws are interesting and possibly useful, but not because of their derivation from quantum mechanics. They are (or, I should say, they appear as, to properly use E-Prime) interesting and useful in their application to human relation and our daily lives. And, as Wilson says (and I agree), utility should be the judge of ideas and systems, not some ineffable essence.