Book Review: Prometheus Rising by Robert Anton Wilson

tl;dr: The eight-circuit model of consciousness: survival, emotions, reason, society/reproduction, body connection, imprint selection, connecting to life, and connecting to everything. If this all sounds like some New Age bullshit to you, then you might want to try some of the exercizes at the back of each chapter, e.g., “Try living a whole week with the program: ‘Everybody likes me and tries to help me achieve all my goals.'” Watch how your expectation shapes reality.

The framework of Prometheus Rising is Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness. In Robert Anton Wilson’s (RAW) telling, most people are robots that are dominated by one of the first four circuits of consciousness. They are ruled either by survival and comfort, their emotions, reason or the drive to reproduce and shape society.

Within circuits of consciousness, there are largely random imprints that shape their expression. For example, people that were enculturated as children and now belong to one of the top four religions – whether Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, or Buddhist – are often going to have a default emotional and rational style shaped by their religion. Or, people that grow up in circumstances of poverty or during a time like the Great Depression are going to have a greater focus on survival than people that didn’t. Other examples could include how our first sexual experience or relationship tends to define what turns us on or mate selection later in life. Similarly, our home life as a child tends to shape whether we want to recreate it or its opposite as adults.

He suggests that humanity is on the cusp of breaking free of the constraints of the space-time continuum. Scientific breakthroughs making immortality possible and enable the exploration and colonizing of interstellar space are going to radically change our mental models. And, this change in constraints is going to require reprogramming our minds to higher levels of consciousness, beyond the first four.

The fifth level of consciousness is a freedom from the compulsions of the first four circuits, where they are recognized as largely random imprints. In this state, we reconnect with our bodies. Freed from the demands of our imprints, we generally experience a sense of well-being.

The six level of consciousness, according to RAW, enables us to reprogram our random imprints. We are free to recognize the influence of our early poverty and decide that wealth and power, which both aid survival, isn’t as important to us. Or, we can decide to break with the model of relationships we have seen throughout our lives, and we can choose new imprints, e.g., to be polyamorous or bisexual. For rationalists, there is the opportunity to come to terms with how limited the tool of rationality is and how frequently it is used in the service of our drives for survival, for our emotions and for our social needs.

The seventh level of consciousness is to tap into our being at the DNA-level, where we come to terms with how we as individuals fit into the grand sweep of human history and how we fit into larger schemes of life on this planet and in the universe. Carl Jung’s collective unconscious, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-Soul, the Hindu atman, the Rastafarian I-and-I, the Baul Moner Manush (the person of the heart), the Quaker Light Within, and so forth seem like shades of this idea of how we connect with other humans, other sentient beings and the divine spirit of Life to transcend ourselves.

The eighth level of consciousness is to tap into the quantum entanglement of everything with everything else. It transcends the limitations of mere life and connects all to all.

Throughout the book, RAW’s primary project is not to lay out this framework clearly as I have done here, much of which is filtered through my own mind and not using examples from his book. His project seems to be primarily opening people up to the possibility of taking these ideas seriously. At the end of each chapter, he has a series of “exercizes”, which seem to be chosen primarily to give people practice in seeing the limitations in their worldview and in changing it.

This points to a key insight. It is impossible to tell people anything. You can talk about reality-tunnels and discuss theoretical frameworks like the eight-circuit model of consciousness, but it is difficult to make these ideas real. Ultimately, people have trouble accepting different worldviews than their own or that their outlook on life might be largely random and/or limited.

Most of us are getting on with the business of survival. We are subject to the vagaries of our emotions. We pretend that our rationality isn’t largely just rationalizations. And, we are subject to the demands of instinct, such as when biological clocks drive us to reproduce. Acknowledging these facts is difficult for most of us.

But, this fact is precisely why a book like Prometheus Rising can be so useful. There are other worlds, other ways of being. But, if we are only interested in the world we are in and the way we are, we are unable to see them. The expectations of the world shape us, and we, in turn, shape the world with our expectations. The central idea of this book is: Isn’t it worth the effort to change our expectations and get into a mental space where we are in control and can transcend our circumstances and our personal history?

Life Doesn’t Evolve in a Tomb

Yesterday’s clarity is today’s stupidity.

-Ikkyu Sojun

Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development provides a useful framework for thinking about individual evolution and the common pattern most human beings follow. It shows that as life progresses, we are dealing with the essential and different questions at different stages of life: What kind of world is it? Do I have agency? What should I do? Can I do it well? What role can I play in larger society? Can I love someone, and will they love me? Can I love many people and help them to develop their capabilities? Can I pass on the unique knowledge I have acquired from my life experience?

This model shows that we are always evolving and developing. We never reach a point where we have nothing left to learn or do.

But, there are other models. For example, half of Timothy Leary’s eight-circuit model of consciousness is focused on potentials. The first four levels deal with the business of life, as Erikson’s does: feeding and sustaining ourselves, interacting with our environment, codifying knowledge and reproducing. The second four levels attempt to change or transcend our individual experience.

One reframes our perspective from a focus on utility and survival to another value, such as beauty, efficiency or novelty. Another seeks to reprogram our worldview, since many of the answers to the questions of life can and should be revisited, particularly since our answers are formed in the context of a moment and contexts change.

There is also trying to see ourselves in the larger span of time. Where does human life and our lives figure in scales of millennia, eras or eons, and how does the human species fit into the tapestry of life? Finally, how do we connect with everything in the universe, frozen rocks to burning suns? Are we all made of stars?

Leary’s eight models of consciousness adds something to Erikson, making it clear that there are no permanent answer to the questions of life. The questions of life need to be answered on an ongoing basis, year to year and moment to moment. And, it invites us to an ongoing project of trying to expand our vision and awareness. The world looks different to a baby staring out from a crib than it does to the professional athlete, CEO or from the hospital bed. We contain multitudes, and clinging to a single identity is like picking a tomb to live in. Safe and dead.