Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson – Book Review

Prometheus Rising is an ambitious attempt to synthesize many different of models of reality and examines how we can transcend our current limitations. Wilson has a great talent for bringing together a plethora of viewpoints from the psychology of Freud, Jung and Timothy Leary to Christian Science, UFO believers, Kabbalah, mystics such as G.I. Gurdjieff and Aleister Crowley, Nietzsche’s philosophy, James Joyce’s literature, several different yoga disciplines and the principles of Neuro-linguistic Programming.

Two major themes running through the book are the idea that “the map is not the territory” and “whatever the Thinker thinks, the Prover proves,” (The former from semanticist Alfred Korzybski, the latter from rebirthing therapist Leonard Orr). Wilson reminds the reader with the former quote that we see the world through the models we create to understand it and we must be wary that we do not mistake these models for reality.

The second idea is that ‘the thinker’ in a person’s mind, can think about almost anything, from a reality where the world is hollow, a reality where humans are immortal or ‘a gaseous vertebrate of astronomical heft (“GOD”)’ exists. One example Wilson uses as evidence that the prover proves what the thinker is thinking, is a religious believer going to Lourdes in the hope of a cure for his lumbago and his mind conspiring with his body to make this a reality (via the placebo effect).

Although some of Wilson’s science is dated (understandably as the first edition of the book was written in 1983) and some may have a problem with some of the ideas he promulgates not being falsifiable, this almost seems irrelevant, like a tongue-in-cheek challenge by Wilson, forcing the reader to question how their current reality tunnel contrasts with the others presented and why. Many of the disciplines mentioned from Neuro-linguistic programming to Christian Science are seen as pseudo-science by scientific orthodoxy, so the scientifically-minded reader will be challenged as they see through to the real message of this book.

The majority of the book focuses on Wilson linking information to the model of the consciousness which he describes as ‘the best map I know at present’, the ‘Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness’, formulated by one of the architects of 1960’s psychedelic revolution, Dr Timothy Leary. The first four circuits, Wilson says, are the ‘antique’, robotic circuits present in all humans and keep us in a continuous loop of thinking and behaviours.

The first circuit, named the Oral Bio-Survival Circuit is ‘imprinted by the first mothering object and conditioned by subsequent nourishment or threat’. He describes that the imprint a person takes on the circuit decides the degree to which they move towards safe-spaces or away from threats. The most rapid response occurs in this circuit, Wilson says, using the example of a family dog automatically changing its posture and barking at the sound of an intruder. Narcissism is one of the phenomena associated with this circuit. Imprints on this circuit can be altered with physical activities such as yoga and martial arts.

The second circuit, name the Anal Emotional-Territorial Circuit, is imprinted when a toddler ‘rises up and… begins to struggle for power within the family structure’. Drawing heavily on Freud, Wilson describes how humans use this circuit to demonstrate their ego (“Ego is simply the mammalian recognition of one’s status in the pack”) and describes how the language used in this circuit is related to Freud’s ‘Anal Stage’ and is concerned with power politics and marking one’s territory (with excretions, whether chimpanzee’s throwing fecal matter or humans with ink).

Wilson provides exercizes at the end of every chapter to help the reader get a better idea of the how the circuit works. In this chapter the first exercize is ‘whenever you meet a young male or female, ask yourself consciously, “If it came to hand-to-hand combat, could I beat him/her?” with the aim of determining how much of your behaviour comes from unconsciously answering that question. Emotional and territorial behaviour are two of the phenomena associated here.

The third circuit described by Wilson is the Time-Binding Semantic Circuit, which he notes is generally called ‘the mind’. This circuit involves symbols and classifying things according to the local reality tunnel. This circuit has a much longer reach in terms of time, for example, symbols can be passed on over long time periods, e.g. the music of Beethoven or the ideas of the Buddha. Wilson points out here, that when we say someone has a good mind we generally mean they ‘have a good mouth’ and use the semantic circuit well. He also describes later in the book how people labelled geniuses are those who are able to take their experiences and insights on ‘higher circuits’ and transmit them to others via third circuit symbols and reality maps. A person on this circuit, Wilson says, will try and reason away a problem.

The final of the ‘old’ circuits is the Moral Socio-Sexual Circuit, which Wilson says, which is imprinted by a persons first experience of orgasm and tribal taboos. This circuit is involved in the perception of right and wrong and how a person conducts themself morally. Someone who is currently on this circuit will try and impose a moral response to a challenge.

Because different people will be on different circuits at different times, Wilson says, this makes communication difficult, as the reality on one circuit will probably make little sense to someone on another.

Wilson then moves onto the four ‘higher’ circuits, which he suggest are possibilities which can be unlocked by various methods. Where as the first four circuits will only continue the current trends in humanity, he says, the higher circuits will lead to the evolution of humanity and a previously unthought of paradigm of existence.

The Holistic Neurosomatic Circuit is the fifth circuit described by Wilson and is involved in mind-body feedback loops. Faith healing, holistic medicine and yoga are some of the methods which he says can shift consciousness into this circuit – as well as cannabis use. The body is able in the fifth circuit, to exert control over illnesses which results in a person who accesses this circuit being able to self-heal more effectively. “The robotized rationalist fears and resents Circuit V rapture and its holistic intuitive faculties,” says Wilson and “hastily mutters this is merely subjective”. Wilson concedes (talking about a quote by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science) that to “the ordinary scientifically-educated reader’, some of the ideas from here onwards might sound like ‘metaphysical gibberish’,” an idea which I think could also apply to rest of the circuits described in the book.

The Collective Neurogenetic Circuit is the sixth circuit described by Wilson as ‘mystical and mind-shattering’. Wilson suggests that accessing this circuit is communicating ‘with the evolutionary architect that designed your body’, i.e. DNA. He also suggests that James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis and Jung’s idea of the collective unconscious are related to this circuit.

The seventh circuit described is the Meta-programming circuit, which is based around the idea that we can reprogram the lower circuits and that different reality tunnels can be consciously chosen. Wilson describes the miracles which were witnessed near Fatima, Spain in 1917 to demonstrate the power of the mind in creating realities. 70,000 people reported that they had seen a globe as big and bright as the sun plunge towards the earth with flashes of light and heavenly perfume permeating the air.

Wilson continues in relation to the above – ‘Nietzsche once said “We are all greater artists than we realize.” It is a function of the above record (and this book as a whole) to make that obscure joke totally clear to every reader’.

Wilson himself is certainly artistic in linking his information to ideas as outlandish as passages from Jame Joyce’s Finnegans Wake – discussing God in relation to the second circuit, “The terrifying father-God… He is the villain of the ‘goddinpotty’ (garden party) – the trickster-god who set the baited trap in the Garden of Eden; the ego internalized in toilet-training (potty); the god of thunder and wrath (god-in).”

He quotes Dr John Lilly, pioneer of isolation tank, in addressing the power of the mind. “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.”

Again Wilson says ‘if this begins to sound like nonsense, that is inevitable at this level.. it happens in both linguistics and mathematics, because it happens in consciousness itself; language and math are just models of consciousness’.

The Non-Local Quantum Circuit is the final circuit described, the idea that every particle in the universe is linked and in a faster-than-light communication and what this could mean for consciousness. Wilson uses Bell’s Theorem as evidence for this circuit.

Wilson concludes the book with call to action with the positive message that humans can evolve and the limits can be surpassed if we can break out of the lower circuits and onto the higher ones, eventually expanding consciousness to transcend even death. He uses a zen story to illustrate how we have convinced ourselves that we cannot break free from our robotic paradigm – a monk who had failed to achieve enlightenment was told by his master to think of nothing but an ox. For days and weeks he meditated on and visualized the ox. When the master came to his room he asked the monk to come out of his room and the monk replied, “I can’t get out – my horns won’t fit through the door.”

Critics will have an easy-time bashing this work. The Freudian approach has been largely sidelined in the world of psychology and psychiatry, people reading too literally will likely see some of the content as pseudoscience. Some may question the utility of the Eight-Circuit Model of Consciousness. It is easy to dismiss much of the more controversial content as ‘metaphysical gibberish’ in Wilson’s terminology.

To do this however, is to miss the point of the book. Wilson, as a self-described ‘guerrilla ontologist’, it appears, is writing the book from the point of view of the Jungian archetyal ‘Trickster’. He constantly presents information which inspires a questioning of what we know to be true, all the while telling the reader to question even him (quoting Crowley’s “Don’t believe me”) and Korzybski’s idea that “Whatever you say it is, it isn’t,” – the idea that our third-circuit semantic maps and models are not the territory. Wilson notes that as Buddha perceived, all that you ‘know’ is made up of thoughts, the answer to the the Zen koan, “Who is the divine being, who makes the grass green?”

There is so much more in Prometheus Rising that I cannot cover in this short review. Wilson talks about subjects as diverse as brainwashing techniques (which he examines through the lens of breaking an individual down and reimprinting via the Eight-Circuit model), to the ‘magic computer’ within our brains which we can feed meta-programming instructions and why there can never be a perfect condition of national security, even in a paranoid police state.

Robert Anton Wilson was a fascinating personality and Prometheus Rising is just a small part of his work, the rest of which I recommend for further perusal. Another interesting thing about him was that he was a proponent of the language ‘E-Prime’ a version of the English language that excludes all forms of the verb to be. E-Prime prevents people making ‘is’ statements and helps in promoting Wilson’s mission, which also runs throughout Prometheus Rising; “to try to get people into a state of generalized agnosticism, not agnosticism about God alone but agnosticism about everything.”

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