Chaos Mark I and Chaos Mark II

on September 18, 2011

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.

This profound gap between mind and matter was the great existential dilemma of the early 20th century. To many people, it seemed that matter was all that existed and mind was an illusion. Or perhaps matter and mind were both real but were mutually hostile — an assumption reflected in any number of stories about alien invaders and killer robots. Or, just possibly, it was mind that was ultimately real and matter the illusion.

None of these conclusions was completely satisfactory, but they were the only alternatives as long as the premises of scientific materialism remained unquestioned. It would only be within the framework of a newer scientifically-based vision — holism — that it would become possible to view consciousness as an emergent property of matter and both as complementary aspects of an evolutionary universe.

By the 1940’s, a small number of writers were starting to shift away from materialism and towards holism, but that reorientation would not be fully achieved until the 1960’s. Meanwhile the devotees of chaos were forced to express their intimations of higher truth using the language and assumptions of scientific materialism — and the results could be very strange indeed.

The new perception of the universe they were groping towards seemed to violate all ordinary expectations of cause-and-effect. It eluded any attempt at rational understanding and demanded instead a mode of thinking that might be described as wacky or screwy and that could be mastered only by someone who was mad, intoxicated, hallucinating, or lost in dream.

And if making sense of chaos was difficult for Fredric Brown or Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, the challenge was even greater for writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein who still gave their primary allegiance to scientific materialism.

As a result, we can see two very different approaches towards chaos crystallizing in the early 40’s. In what might be called Chaos Mark I, the premises of scientific materialism remained fundamental and chaos was an unsettling anomaly in a basically mechanistic universe. The adherents of Chaos Mark II, on the other hand, not only put chaos first but were starting to associate it with the more fluid and interactive assumptions of holism.

Heinlein was in many ways the epitome of Chaos Mark I. In his Future History, the world was ruled by those who could work a sliderule, but even in his more speculative stories he would do no more than toy with chaos before backing off from its full implications.

Heinlein’s ambivalent attitude towards chaos was most fully on display in the short novel Waldo (Astounding, Aug 1942), which begins with an eruption of strangeness into a near-future society not unlike those in the Future History, but far more orderly and well-regulated.

In this world, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle has been overturned and physics reduced to “an exact science.” But somehow, inexplicably, the system of broadcast power on which society depends is failing and aircars are tumbling out of the sky.

The conventional scientists employed by North American Power-Air don’t understand what is going on and neither does Waldo Farthingwaite-Jones, the grotesquely fat, invalid genius to whom the corporation appeals for help. The only person who does have a clue is an elderly Pennsylvania hex doctor, who has managed to make one of the aircars fly again by what can only be described as magic.

By devising this elaborate thought-experiment, Heinlein has presented the reader with a textbook case of pure chaos intruding on a world of rigid scientific causality — and he proceeds to offer three different reactions to the situation.

One of the corporate scientists, who believes in “an inexorably ordered cosmos, ruled by unvarying law,” manages to duplicate what Gramps Schneider has done to the aircar — but only at the cost of his sanity. “Hens will crow and cocks will lay,” he raves. “You are here and I am there. Or maybe not. Nothing is certain. Nothing, nothing, NOTHING is certain! Around and around the little ball goes, and where it stops nobody knows.”

Not surprisingly, the authorities strap Dr. Rambeau to a stretcher and haul him off to the loony bin — but he mysteriously vanishes en route, leaving the straps still buckled, and that is the last we see of him. Perhaps Heinlein felt that his continued presence would have pushed the story too far in the direction of unregulated chaos.

Gramps Schneider, in contrast, is entirely at ease with his own powers. He calmly tells Waldo, “One of the ancients said that everything either is, or is not. That is less than true, for a thing can both be and not be. With practice one can see it both ways. Sometimes a thing which is for this world is a thing which is not for the Other World. Which is important, since we live in the Other World. . . . The mind — not the brain, but the mind — is in the Other World, and reaches this world through the body. That is one true way of looking at it, though there are others.”

Rambeau and Schneider in combination would seem to have provided the inspiration for Fredric Brown’s mad inventor, who explains to Shorty McCabe, “We project into two universes, in a manner of speaking. One is normal; our bodies are born there, and of course, they stay there. … But we have another existence, in our minds. That’s where I am, and that’s where you are at the moment, in my mind.”

There are a couple of significant differences, however, between “Paradox Lost” and “Waldo.” One is that for Gramps Schneider, the Other World appears to operate much like an old-fashioned spirit realm, while for Brown’s madman the human mind does not merely reside in the Other World — it *is* the other world.

But an even greater difference is that in Heinlein’s story, Waldo has the last word — and he is no lover of chaos. He therefore decides to take what he has learned of magic and turn it into a new type of science, with different laws but no less certain and predictable. He visualizes the Other World as a power source, “about the size and shape of an ostrich egg, but nevertheless a whole universe,” and concludes that the best use of this power is to keep ordinary reality humming along exactly as usual:

Waldo was not emotionally wedded to Absolute Order as Rambeau had been; he was in no danger of becoming mentally unbalanced through a failure of his basic conceptions; nevertheless, consarn it, it was convenient for things to work the way one expected them to. On order and natural law was based predictability; without predictability it was impossible to live. Clocks should run evenly; water should boil when heat is applied to it; food should nourish, not poison. … Chaos was insupportable–it could not be lived with.

Suppose Chaos were king and the order we thought we detected in the world about us a mere phantasm of the imagination; where would that lead us? In that case, Waldo decided, it was entirely possible that a ten pound weight did fall ten times as fast as a one-pound weight until the day the audacious Galileo decided in his mind that it was not so. … Perhaps the very stars were held firm in their courses by the unvarying faith of the astronomers. Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos — by Mind! …

The world varied according to the way one looked at it. In that case, thought Waldo, he knew how he wanted to look at it. He cast his vote for order and predictability!

He would set the style. He would impress his own concept of the Other World on the cosmos!

And, strangely enough, Waldo’s vote seems to be the only one that counts. The outbreak of uncertainty that has “let magic loose in the world” comes to an end. The aircars fly again, Waldo heals his physical infirmities and becomes a popular personality, and everything goes back to normal.

But real chaos, of course, cannot simply be stuffed back in a box. Gramps Schneider knows that, and so does Dr. Rambeau — wherever he is. And out here in what passes as the real world, the magic that was loosed seventy years ago has gradually crept through our culture, until now we are ruled by chaos as much as by science.

(Note: The discussion of Waldo is largely adapted from a more extended consideration in our book, The World Beyond the Hill.)


A listing of all my posts on higher knowledge can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

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