Archive for September, 2011

Heinlein’s story Waldo is endlessly fascinating but also endlessly frustrating, because it is so self-contradictory. It starts off as a sharply delineated roadmap of the shift from reason to chaos — but then abruptly turns on its heels and attempts to stuff chaos back into the box of scientific materialism. And there’s no obvious reason why.

The story presents us with two very different representatives of higher knowledge. One is the ancient hex doctor, Gramps Schneider, who still holds by the assumptions of the reason vision and apparently regards the Other World as a literal spirit realm. The other is the mad Dr. Rambeau, who embraces chaos and sees the universe as a place of total uncertainty where anything can happen.

Waldo, in contrast, has absolutely no awareness of higher knowledge and believes only in scientific materialism.. He dismisses Rambeau as unhinged but is willing to give credence to Schneider’s statements — at least to the extent that he can redefine them in his own materialistic terms.

He therefore starts by assuming that “everything Schneider had to say was coldly factual and enlightened, rather than allegorical and superstitious.” This leads him to the conclusion that Schneider must be describing an alternate universe, “a literal, physical ‘Other World’ … even though he had not used conventional scientific phraseology.” And on that basis, Waldo develops a theory in which both occultism and Fortean anomalies can be plausibly explained “from the standpoint of a coextensive additional continuum.”

A similar argument can be found in many SF stories of the period where superstitious native beliefs are shown to have a rational scientific foundation. In this case, however, Heinlein leaves the reader with a not-so-subtle implication that Gramps Schneider is the person of genuine knowledge and Waldo the hapless native trapped in an overly-limited frame of reference.

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I’ve kept feeling that I got off course at the end of the previous entry when I suggested that in the 1940’s the focus of transcendence shifted decisively from matter to mind. That’s not exactly untrue, but it’s a considerable oversimplification — so I think I need to backtrack a bit and start over.

Just before I went astray, I was saying that the primary task of any inner experience-based vision is to reconcile our intimations of higher reality with our experience of ordinary reality — which in practice means formulating those intimations in a way that is compatible with the most recent science-based vision.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, science was understood in terms of a philosophy of strict materialism, and the physical universe was believed to consist solely of atoms hurtling through empty space. This mechanistic universe didn’t allow much room for transcendence, but that didn’t matter as long as it could be viewed as a clockwork mechanism designed according to a pattern in the Mind of God.

It was only when the reason vision failed, and with it the divine guarantee of higher purpose, that the uncompromising nature of scientific materialism became an intolerable burden. Suddenly it seemed that the physical universe was merely a vast but hollow machine and that the human mind — no longer a microcosm of the Mind of God — was a cosmic orphan, staring helplessly into the void.

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The account that the mad inventor in Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost” gives of himself may provide the most obvious way to make sense of the story’s wacky events, but we don’t necessarily have to take his assertions at face value. If we focus instead on the experiences of the “normal” Shorty McCabe, a very different picture emerges.

From Shorty’s point of view, the weirdness starts while he is sitting in a boring college class in the year 1943, listening to his philosophy professor drone on about the difference between impossible and unpossible and keeping his mind occupied by thinking up nonsense phrases and watching a blue bottle fly buzz around the room.

Suddenly the fly zooms down from the ceiling, passing an inch in front of Shorty’s nose, and vanishes into thin air. Shorty stretches his hand out to where he last saw it — and his fingers vanish from sight as well. So he tosses a few paper clips to determine the size and shape of this hole into nothingness, then stands up, takes a step forward, and finds himself in “blackness.”

At that moment, someone sneezes.

It’s the mad inventor, of course. He acts annoyed, telling Shorty, “You’ve got no business here,” but eventually he softens up and explains that Shorty is still in the same classroom, only now in the year 1948. He encourages Shorty to grope around in the darkness, and Shorty’s hand encounters “something soft that felt like hair.” He tugs on it and it jerks away.

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