Alexei Panshin's Abyss of Wonder

Reading Heinlein Subjectively
     by Alexei and Cory Panshin


We are born possessing three means of knowledge about the universe and ourselves within the universe. These means are instinct, intuition and intelligence.

Intelligence is the ability to learn new details about the universe. In simpler animals, intelligence is altogether missing. In more complex animals, intelligence is a highly limited quality. It is, of course, more highly-developed intelligence that seems to distinguish humanity from other animals.

However, not only human intelligence, but the very capacity for intelligence is not fully developed at birth. The new-born human infant must rely for his knowledge on instinct and intuition. In contrast to intelligence, these older and more established means -- the legacy of man's long evolutionary history -- are fully developed at birth, as they are in lesser animals.

Instinct is a form of knowledge that is built into living beings. The goal of instinct is self-preservation -- the maintenance of the integrity of the individual being against the corrosive and homogenizing effects of entropy. To instinct, the individual -- the Self -- is primary. To instinct, the Other -- the rest of the universe -- is secondary to the Self.

Instinct is selfish and divisive. It promotes the good of the individual, or, at most wide-ranging, the species, at the cost of all else that exists. But instinct is necessary to the survival of individuals and species. It prompts frogs to snag flying insects. It drives new-born kittens to seek their mother's nipples. It sends chickens that have never seen a hawk running for cover at their first glimpse of a flying shadow. It urges young salmon to seek the sea, and then to return to the streams of their birth to spawn.

Intuition, the other and more basic form of in-born knowledge, offsets the selfishness and special interest of instinct. To instinct, the individual is primary, and the universe secondary. By contrast, intuition is a knowledge that informs us that the universe as a whole is primary, and that individual beings within that universe are secondary.

Intuition yields a sense of the underlying unity and harmony of the universe. As we are taught in school with diagrams of food- chains, with charts of nitrogen cycles, with tables of atoms, we are all made of common stuff. The individual matrix that is a tree or a human being may remain continuously in existence for an extended period of time while interchangeable atoms fill that matrix for a shorter time and are then replaced.

Our basis of action in this world of multiplicity is intelligent self-interest. We try to maximize that which we categorize as good and minimize that which we categorize as bad.

Fact and multiplicity, we conclude, are subject to rules. The world of multiplicity includes human society, which is based on rules. We find there are rules for talking and walking and interacting and forming friendships and going to school and establishing opinions and growing up and living our daily lives.

These rules tell us how we are "properly" to order the multiplicity we find ourselves surrounded by. The rules tell us how to maximize the good and minimize the bad. We do our best to follow the rules. We bargain and game-play our way through the universe of multiplicity.

There are, of course, problems inherent in game-playing. There are situations where we don't know the rules, or where different sets of rules conflict. However, the universe of multiplicity is distinctly less trying than the previous universe of instinct and intuition. A child may have temporary difficulties learning new sets of rules when he goes off to school or moves to a new neighborhood, but the rules, once learned, will continue to serve him. He does not have to cope with an ambivalent unity, both benign and hostile, which insists on being accepted as a whole. That is, as children, we can deal with the universe of multiplicity without having to reconcile its contradictions through love.

As we grow, the universe of instinct and intuition is consciously forgotten. But it is not gone from our minds entirely. It is merely repressed, banished to the unconscious.

Sometimes, however, without ever being clearly and explicitly remembered, our earliest experiences well up into consciousness and color our perceptions of situations. There are times when we may have vague, nostalgic intimations of a lost dream-world from which we were forcibly exiled. As we grow up, for instance, we may recall our childhood as a time of purity and joy which has somehow ended, and regret our lost innocence -- without, of course, being able to specifically remember what made it all so wonderful. Or we may discover a perfect Golden Age somewhere in human history -- Eden, Augustinian Rome, pioneer America -- which was destroyed by a Fall from Grace.

Or we may fear the Demonic as a still-present menace lurking just beyond perception to snatch us up if we lose our grip on the factual universe -- that is, if we try to evade the rules. This fear is the source of irrational behavior which alters and interferes with logical rational self-interest. As children, if our family relationships suggest it, we may perceive our mother as the Other, and our father as the Demonic who tore us away from the nurturing breast. We may be warned by our parents that if we are not good the Bogey-man will get us. We may bully or be bullied -- that is, we may interact with irrational aggressiveness or irrational timidity with what we take to be symbols of the Demonic. The Nazi misperception of the Jews as the Demonic, the cause of the Fall that was Germany's defeat in World War I, most certainly caused them to act against their rational self-interest.

So it is that for the most part we live wholeheartedly in the world of facts and rules and society. But sometimes an event or a set of circumstances may remind us of something we think we may once have known in some other time and place -- joys beyond telling and dreads beyond endurance.

The capacity of intelligence continues to grow until about the age of fourteen. We become able to handle more and more facts in an ever more sophisticated manner. But by fourteen we have become as adept in the manipulation of facts as we will ever be.

In our adolescent years, with our full intellectual command and whatever facts we have accumulated, we review the situation in which we find ourselves. We try to relate ourselves to the universe by separating the essential from the contingent. We try to decide for ourselves in the course of endless bull sessions and in private rumination what is real and what is not.

We have two major problems to settle. One is the problem of society. Are the rules and games of society mere accident or are they necessary? Are they creations of the human mind, subject to doubt and change, or are they real and absolute? The other is the problem of evil. Is evil a fact of existence or is it a mere seeming? Both these problems are the inheritance of our instincts. It is instinct that informs us of the Demonic. And it is instinct that first sets us to bargaining and gameplaying to maximize our self-interest. The question for the adolescent is whether or not there is a basis in the world of multiplicity -- a factual basis -- for our conviction that evil and society have essential existence.

The adolescent may decide to believe in one or both or neither. We might call those who decide that both evil and society are real "conservatives." Those who believe in society, but not evil, we might call "liberals." Those who believe in evil, but not society, we might call "nihilists." And those who believe in neither evil nor society we might call subjective "anarchists."

Human childhood -- the period of care and protection by family or society -- extends through the adolescent years. This, like the immaturity of other higher animals, is a period of flexible growth -- though far more extended than for any other animal.

At the end of childhood, we leave our shelter and face the universe with our own developed resources, as ones who are responsible for our own direction, goals and fate. We have been educated. Our intellect has been developed. We have, that is, a sense of the objective interrelations of the universe around us. And we have, as well, a developed subjective position -- conservative, liberal, nihilist or anarchist -- which suggests how we and the universe are related.

It is only now that our mature development begins. While it does seem to be our highly-developed intelligence that separates humanity from the lesser animals, the true separation between humanity and other animals is not in intelligence alone, but rather in the human ability to evolve in quantum leaps as mature adults.

Children, with their constant looking forward to "when I grow up," have an appreciation of the fact that the real business of being human begins with adulthood. For the child, life is one long postponement until he is an adult.

And then the true business of life for human beings does begin. The first quantum leap that we are called upon to make is the leap from childhood to adulthood. From the child's point of view, this jump looks impossible. And in fact it is -- for a child. To complete the jump successfully, the child must reject his former limited self, stake his life on a new identity, and remake himself in larger scale.

The child is essentially a selfish being. He is a Self in a world of multiplicity. In repressing the Demonic as an infant, he has cut himself off from the Other, from love, and from Oneness. As a child, he has been sufficient unto himself. If he could remain a protected, childish Self, he would not grow, he would not change on reaching maturity.

Instead, however, he is thrust into the universe to make his way. And it is then that he discovers that his childish Self is insufficient, no matter what he may have thought in his ignorance. In order to deal with the universe, he must expand his Self.

This is only possible by incorporating some part of the universe into the Self. And that sort of incorporation is possible only through a recognition of the Other, a confrontation with the Demonic, and a binding of Self and Other through love into a Oneness. The result is a new and larger Self who is capable of separation from parents, of employment in an adult occupation, of marriage -- in short, of all those responsibilities and independences that the childhood Self is incapable of.

The recognition of the Other, confrontation with the Demonic, and the binding of Self and Other through love into a Oneness is a subjective process. From the objective point of view, the late adolescent may seem to fumble, to wander in circles, to lie around in a stupor, to strike off in blind directions, and to be unable to explain himself. And then suddenly "to find himself." That is, to make a commitment -- or decision to love which he thereafter pursues. And about time, too.

But it is not only in the leap from childhood to adulthood that we undertake the subjective adventure that leads past the Demonic to Oneness, the result of which is personal evolution, the expansion of Self. At various moments in our adult lives, we are certain to be faced with circumstances that the resources of our present Self are inadequate to deal with. We find that our conscious dedications are cut too small. We are not large enough persons to deal with the crises we face.

If we are to surmount these crises, we must personally evolve. We must exchange our old limited Self with our particular problems for a new larger Self that is larger than the problems that confront us. And the means is love, the linkage of Self and Other as One. Are these crises biologically rooted? Though they may differ in their individual details from one person to another and may be re- solved in very different outward terms, they seem to happen to most of us at the same times of life. There is the crisis of the late adolescent striving to be an adult. There is another crisis at about the age of 26 to 28, and yet another in the early thirties, say age 32 to 35. Again, we find life asking us to redefine ourselves in the later forties, and further crises follow. Each is a potential quantum leap.

It is the successful subjective monomythic journey within oneself to re-contact the wellsprings of intuition that, for example, befits a man who was once an unsuccessful hat salesman to become a more than usually competent President of the United States. It is precisely the subjective quest that is the stuff of science fiction stories and other fantasies.

Or—in Heinlein's words:

A story of the sort I want to write is still further limited to this recipe: a man finds himself in circumstances which create a problem for him. In coping with this problem, the man is changed in some fashion inside himself. The story is over when the inner change is complete -- the external incidents may go on indefinitely.

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