All in His Mind

on August 15, 2011

Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore were not the only SF writers of the early 40’s who were eager to reinterpret higher knowledge in terms compatible with the chaos vision. The story that immediately followed “The Proud Robot” in the October 1943 issue of Astounding — Fredric Brown’s “Paradox Lost” — was an even more bizarre exploration of chaos and higher reality.

I briefly mentioned “Paradox Lost” a couple of years ago, when I was first discussing the chaos vision. Its central figure is a mad scientist — driven mad, he says, by dwelling on time travel paradoxes — who has invented an imaginary time machine in which he travels to the past to hunt dinosaurs with slingshots. But in addition to the general wackiness of the story, there is a serious philosophical underpinning.

“Matter is a concept of consciousness,” the madman patiently explains to the viewpoint character, Shorty McCabe, whom he has lured out of a boring college lecture and hauled along with him to the Jurassic. “Now there is a normal concept of matter, which you share, and a whole flock of abnormal ones. The abnormal ones sort of get together.”

“I don’t quite understand,” Shorty replies. “You mean that you have a secret society of . . . uh . . . lunatics, who . . . uh . . . live in a different world, as it were?”

“Not as it were,” the little man answers, “but as it weren’t. And it isn’t a secret society, or anything organized that way. It just is. 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. I’m not really here, either.”

Brown no doubt intended for his readers to be as confused as Shorty by this explanation, but it actually makes a great deal of sense as an outline of the relationship between higher reality and ordinary reality. It says that higher reality is to be found solely in the mind and not in any sort of spirit world. And yet this mental realm is not restricted to the individual consciousness. Shorty’s adventure is taking place inside the mad inventor’s mind, and the entire society of lunatics appears to inhabit a single non-material reality. What’s more, this mental reality both underlies physical reality and can act upon it in seemingly impossible ways.

To the best of my knowledge, nobody prior to Brown had conceived of higher reality in quite this way, but it is possible to identify two main sources for his ideas. One is Lewis Carroll, whose influence on Brown was extensive — Brown even titled one of his mystery novels Night of the Jabberwock. And the other is the Anglo-Irish philosopher Bishop George Berkeley.

As I noted a few entries back, early 18th century Hermeticists typically equated higher reality with the Mind of God, which they saw as a kind of blueprint for the construction of the material world. They also believed that as we refine our knowledge of Nature, our ideas of things grow increasingly closer to the divine originals — which was what they meant by enlightenment.

Bishop Berkeley shared this concept in part, but he appears to have found it unnecessarily complex. Arguing that we can have direct knowledge only of the ideas in our minds and never of things in themselves, he concluded that there is no reason to assume that objects have any material existence at all. It seemed to him instead that we must derive our ideas of things not from examination of the material world but directly from the Mind of God.

A lesser man might have been disconcerted by this conclusion, but for Berkeley being an idea in the Mind of God was reality enough. “That the things I see with my eyes and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question,” he wrote. “The only thing whose existence we deny is that which philosophers call Matter or corporeal substance. And in doing of this there is no damage done to the rest of mankind, who, I dare say, will never miss it.”

Berkeley clearly loved tweaking the pretensions of philosophers as much as Charles Fort enjoyed going after those of dogmatic scientists.

Berkeley’s “immaterialism” was intended in part as a defense against the rising power of scientific materialism, but he was also a believer in the reason vision and felt a need to distinguish our ideas of things which “really exist” from the “chimeras” of dream and imagination. He therefore argued that real ideas come from God and can be identified by their regularity and adherence to the Laws of Nature, while chimerical ideas are unreal and exist only in our minds.

Later philosophers might acknowledge Berkeley to the extent of arguing with his conclusions, but no one appears to have embraced those conclusions and carried them a step further until Lewis Carroll. In Alice in Wonderland, and even more explicitly in Through the Looking-Glass, Carroll projected a dream-world where nothing has physical substance and everything is sustained solely by the mind of the dreamer.

Carroll, however, differed from Berkeley in that he had rejected the reason vision in favor of chaos. His dream worlds are also nonsense worlds, and there is no Mind of God to guarantee the superior reality of certain ideas over others. Everything is shifting and evanescent, and it is impossible to distinguish real things from the chimeras of our imagination.

This is spelled out with almost mathematical precision when Alice is introduced to the Unicorn and he reacts to her with utter astonishment:

“What — is — this?” he said at last.

“This is a child!” Haigha replied eagerly . . .

“I always thought they were fabulous monsters!” said the Unicorn. “Is it alive?”

“It can talk,” said Haigha solemnly.

The Unicorn looked dreamily at Alice, and said “Talk, child.”

Alice could not help her lips curling up into a smile as she began: “Do you know, I always thought Unicorns were fabulous monsters, too! I never saw one alive before!”

“Well, now that we have seen each other,” said the Unicorn, “if you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you. Is that a bargain?”

“Yes, if you like,” said Alice.

But in this looking-glass world, the problem is not merely that a chimerical being like the Unicorn is every bit as real as a little girl. Alice’s own reality is called into question when Tweedledum and Tweedledee inform her that she is only a “thing” in the Red King’s dream:

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he’s dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you’d be? … You’d be nowhere. Why, you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!” . . .

Alice couldn’t help saying, “Hush! You’ll be waking him, I’m afraid, if you make so much noise.”

“Well, it’s no use your talking about waking him,” said Tweedledum, “when you’re only one of the things in his dream. You know very well you’re not real.”

“I am real!” said Alice, and began to cry.

This assault on her reality disturbs Alice so much that she is still brooding about it when she awakens and tries to explain the problem to her kitten.

“Now, Kitty, let’s consider who it was that dreamed it all,” she begins. “You see, Kitty, it must have been either me or the Red King. He was part of my dream, of course — but then I was part of his dream, too! Was it the Red King, Kitty?”

Kitty, being only a kitten, has no answer, and the book ends with the unresolved question, “Which do you think it was?”

But the true answer has to be that it was both. The Unicorn made that point very clear when he said to Alice, “If you’ll believe in me, I’ll believe in you.” Or as Bob Dylan would put it a century later, “You can be in my dream if I can be in yours.”

In a universe of chaos, there is no assurance that material objects are real, no guarantee that even our concepts of material objects are real, and no certainty that we ourselves are real. Everything is floating, ungrounded in anything outside our own minds, and all that holds existence together is the collective bargain we strike to believe in one another.

And that is pretty much the situation of Brown’s “Paradox Lost” — except that Brown has made a couple of significant additions. One is that, unlike Alice, his lunatics are not wandering idly through their collaborative dream but are the masters of its paradoxes and logical loops. And the other is that, since they live in both universes at once, they have no need to “awaken” to ordinary reality but can use their mastery of the dream-world to bend everyday reality to their desires.

The line of thought that informs “Paradox Lost” has been enormously influential on more recent SF. It is the basis for many of the stories of Phil Dick, particularly those like The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in which characters find themselves trapped in other characters’ minds. Neo and his associates in The Matrix are also the direct heirs of Brown’s reality-bending lunatics.

But there is another way of looking at “Paradox Lost” that is, if anything, even stranger and deeper — and that will be the subject of the next entry.


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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