I’m currently re-reading – for the umpteenth time, I might add – the great (and, sadly, late) Robert Anton Wilson’s first Cosmic Trigger book. While the title might seem a tad hokey and dated (it was written in 1977), the book itself remains fiendishly clever, gleefully provocative and side-splittingly funny. Like most of RAWs oeuvre, it contains such a generous mindbending-idea-to-page ratio that he makes most other writers, philosophers and social commentators seem cognitively tight-fisted by comparison.
Anyway, a particular passage jumped out at me today. Let me share it with you:
Everybody nowadays thinks they must have an “opinion” on everything, whether they know anything about it or not. Unfortunately, few people know the difference between an opinion and a proof. Worse yet, most have no knowledge at all about the difference between a merely legal proof, a logical or verbal proof, a proof in the soft sciences like psychology, and a proof in the hard physical-mathematical sciences. They are full of opinions, but they have little ability to distinguish the relative degree of proof upholding all these various opinions.
We say “seeing is believing”, but actually, as Santayana pointed out, we are all much better at believing than at seeing. In fact, we are seeing what we believe nearly all the time and only occasionally seeing what we can’t believe.
RAW was very good at codifying, clarifying and articulating the thoughts (and, sometimes, the intellectual prejudices) that many of us have from time to time. What he says here may seem fairly self-evident, at least conceptually.
He also, however, had a mischievous gift for planting in his readers’ heads nasty little neuro-linguistic cluster bombs with time-delay fuses. In the example cited above, we all encounter people/groups/institutions who seemingly can’t distinguish between an “opinion” and a “proof” (let alone make a distinction between the different types of proof…) every time we pick up a newspaper, listen to a politician or subject ourselves to the BBC News website’s Have Your Say page. What’s not so easy, of course, is detecting this sort of thing in your own group, tribe or self.
That includes myself, of course.