I am the Rationalist
by Collin Simonsen
For Jorges Luis Borges. Inspired by William James
I, Hector Bothma, am The Rationalist among my colleagues. I am the Skeptic, the Cynic, and the Feverish Empiricist. Along my walls and stacked in corners are book after book of science, philosophy and history; but an overly represented subject are those books debunking the spiritual, the mystical, the UFOlogical, the cryptic and the creationistic. My department is philosophy but my subject is everything I can get my hands on.
One late night found me delving into a pile of books searching for a response to one of my critics, David Stewart, who had the audacity to argue that I am not really a rationalist but a rationalissimo, as he put it. In other words, rationality is only the buzz word I use to defend my belief in those things that are popular with other rationalissmos ("definition: intellectuals who think that mockery is the greatest logical argument" he says); and that if I really believed in the scientific method then I would have no trouble applying it to things like telepathy, design detection (whatever that means), and so called "remote viewing."
I scorned at all this, though I indulged his letter because we were childhood friends, and as he pointed out in his letter, I owed him a favor. Apparently the only favor he asked of me was that I read the entirety of his letter and think about it. So I did.
But none of it elicited from me anything greater than eye-rolling and emphatic pe-shaw!'s until I got to the second half of his letter when he began arguing that some of the modern scientific ideas, methods, and theories were (or seem at first glance to be) irrational, and if they were proposed newly today, I would scoff at them as I do at UFO theories et. al. My curiosity was piqued as he continued.
"Take math, for example," he elaborated. "It is probably considered the most rational field of study of all. And yet, mathematicians regularly make use of what they call 'imaginary numbers.' You know what I mean, the square root of negative 1 for example. Mathematicians regularly use i [the notation for √-1] in their equations but it is the very essence of imagination." I was stuck for a moment, but countered him (in my mind) that while mathematicians use it, they package it up in a container and destroy its irrationality later when they can square both sides of the equation and come up with something like X=-1. So they use it only as a black box containing an irrationality that they don't know how to deal with, until they get to a point where they can deal with it. Case closed.
But his next arguments were more difficult for me to do away with. He asked me if it is rational that matter itself could be influenced by our mere observation of it. I didn't quite follow him there; was he talking about the old "if a tree falls in a forest and there's no one around does it make a sound" thing? Apparently not, or not exactly. As he educated me, and I figured out by reference to one of my long neglected books on physics, an electron does not fully come into existence until it is measured, or something to that effect. I didn't totally understand him but he gave the following analogy that apparently is famous among physicists: if you had a cat in a box and you could not see whether or not it was alive or dead. Also imagine that there was a gun that would fire at the cat when a connected device that measured a subatomic particle's position told it when the particle had reached a certain point. Since the subatomic particle is literally neither here nor there but both, then the cat is both dead and alive at the same time.
The famous scientist who first expressed the cat analogy was actually criticizing that particular interpretation of quantum mechanics when he said, "the entire system would express this by having in it the living and dead cat (pardon the expression) mixed or smeared out in equal parts."
He continued by asking me whether I really accepted that light is really a wave and at the same time a particle and did I know that string theory (the pretty girl at the ball among cosmologists) is completely anti-empirical. I didn't understand all that he was saying, but I am sure that he must be misunderstanding the very intelligent, reputable, and distinguished scientists that clearly were smarter than him.
Or so I thought then, before the events that transpired later that night.
I delved into the few physics books that I have. I could have googled it or something, but I am also very anti-google, wikipedia, and other brain-drains of the modern age. I discovered that old Dave was right about most he of the things he said. The last paragraph of his letter stung the most:
"I don't offer these examples, my friend Hector, to say they are wrong or even irrational, but that if these theories and ideas were presented to the public today, people like you would shout them down as anti-scientific because they do not fit into the rationalistic, deterministic, and hyper-ordered world-view that you subscribe to. And that is what led you to your most dishonorable act and the motivation for this letter."
He never did tell me what that dishonorable act was, but I knew what he was talking about.
I was left brooding, knowing that he was at least partially right, yet I yearned to excuse myself, and to find out why he was wrong. After all, neither of us were physicists or mathematicians. My gut instinct is (and has always been) to trust the scientific establishment. They are the guardians of the reasonable world, standing between our beloved homes and religious desolation. And so I quarantined that part of my mind that contained my friend's letter, compartmentalized the quarantine, put on my overcoat and hat, and left my office.
Oh but I forgot to add one detail. At the time it did not seem important. While I was at my desk, closing my last book, I got a very sudden headache and felt cold and dizzy. The feeling soon passed and I proceeded, as I said, to get up and leave the office.
It was 9:04 when I walked out the door. It was Christmas Eve and the crisp air lifted my spirits. I looked into the sky and saw more stars than I usually do outside my old office and breathed in the fresh air. What a day to be alive! And not because it was Christmas season. I didn't believe in it of course, but oh! what a winter!
I often walked home because my house is only a mile from the University. This night, however, when I came to the fork in the path I stopped. The path to the left took me home, to the right was the path into the sleepy town (which tonight would probably not be sleepy, but festive). I chose to go to the right on a whim. It would be nice to stop into town and see what kind of activities were going on. Although they would probably mostly be religious slop, I bet I could still have a good time. I could get home after that, adding only another mile to my trip.
So I took a detour to the right and as I passed a long row of condo's on my left with a row of poplar trees on my right, I saw a struggling couple further up the path. It looked like the typical boyfriend got drunk and wants more than he deserves from his little friend. I ran forward feeling a tad heroic, but not angry until I saw that his little friend was none other than my daughter Michelle struggling to keep his hands at bay. When the young stripling saw me, I was surprised to see that his eyes were not afraid or drunk but as furious as my own. His anger seemed to grow as I came near and my resolve almost faltered until I remembered just who it was he was groping.
"What the hell do you think you're doing!" I yelled.
"You!" he yelled back, as if he knew me from Adam.
"Let go of my daughter!" I insisted. He let go of her, took an appraisal of contemptuous regard in my direction, and ran in the toward of the university.
"Are you okay?" I asked Michelle.
"Yeah, I think so . . . " she said. "I sprained my ankle and he was insisting to carry me to Dr. Jones's place."
"Oh. So he wasn't trying to . . . eh . . . Who was that anyway?"
"David Stewart Jr."
"What?!?" I exclaimed. The coincidence seemed utterly impossible to accept. The same night that his father was intellectually attacking me, his son was physically attacking my beautiful daughter. Or so I had thought.
Just then someone came running up the street to us. It was Miss Jenkins, our maid. Between breaths she exclaimed, "Professor Bothma, someone has broken into your house."
"Good Lord! Miss Jenkins, you help Michelle to Dr. Jones's place and I'll go investigate."
But before I began, my darling daughter pointed behind me and said, "What's that?"
As I turned to look in the direction of the university where she was pointing, the clock tower's bell struck on the half hour and I saw a red tinted cloud drifting up from the university.
"Isn't that your building that's on fire dad?" Michelle asked.
As a child I read all of the books in the library that I could find that were about heroes, knights, wizards and enchanted lands. In those books occasionally a character would vanish in one location, and appear in another. Or else someone would travel in time to an earlier age. I often wondered what it would be like for the person who was vanishing and reappearing. Indeed, it was often described in a way that made you think that, from the character's perspective, it wasn't he or she that was vanishing, but the rest of the world was melting away. I felt that way as I watched the cloud of smoke rising from my building and the smoke, surreally, came closer and closer to me, enveloped me, and I lost consciousness. I slowly came awake and I was back in my office putting on my hat. I rubbed my head and shook off the feeling of nausea and chill.
As I thought about what had just happened, the memories of what had occurred already that night faded. I just couldn't grasp it, and by the time I would have become worried, it was so far gone from my brain that I lost the reason for trying to hold onto it. I was thoroughly implanted in this new world, with my hat, in my office and in my desire to go home to bed I forgot all about previously leaving the office, the struggle I broke up, and the burning of my building. It is strange, I remember it now, but then it was like a dream you forget 5 minutes after you wake up. I looked down at my watch and noticed that I was leaving at 9:04 pm December 24th.
I approached the fork in the road and had the same thoughts as before, but for some reason going to the town seemed less pleasant to me than before, or so I must assume. So I went left on the straightest route to my house. The walk took me over a short wooded hill, with little traffic and few lights. At the top of the hill I looked up and saw the beautiful stars and thought how surreal it was that some of those stars burnt out thousand of years ago, and that other stars were born that we can't see yet because their light hasn't reached us. How strange that we live in their past.
Down at the bottom of the hill was a small neighborhood and after passing a few houses I stopped in front of the grey picket fence in front of my own. At the front door, as I was just about to insert the key, I heard a small crash above and realized that someone was in my house. I opened the door as quickly as possible and ran inside. When one enters my house, one sees stairs; the set to the left lead upstairs and the set to the right lead to the basement. I leapt upstairs and in the moonlit darkness I saw a figure, his back to me, lifting up the cushion of my arm chair. He turned, having heard me I presume, and his face was terrified. But it quickly turned to anger.
"Where is it!" he said.
"Where is what? Get out of my house!"
He didn't respond. Instead he sprinted toward the window and jumped to out to the ground below. It was a short jump and he was off, running in the direction of the University. The town clock tower's bell struck the half hour and I saw another figure approaching my house. I ran out to meet Miss. Jenkins in the yard.
"Mr. Bothma, come quick."
"What is it?" I stammered.
"It's your daughter, I've taken her to Dr. Jones with a sprained ankle. We had the help of that lovely Stewart boy. Oh my!" She stopped and pointed toward the university. I turned to where she was pointing and saw a plume of red-tinged smoke drifting toward the sky.
"I think there must be a fire at the university," I said as I felt a familiar pain the back of my head, a chill and nausea as my world went black with the smoke of the fire enveloping me.
I was putting on my hat, shaking away that feeling of dÃƒÂ©jÃƒ vu as some kind of dream or memory or feeling slipped away like a snake in a river. I let the room warm me from my strange and sudden chill. The quick headache came and went again so fast. I shivered into my overcoat and left my dusty, book-filled office. I looked at my watch. It was 9:04. I began walking home and was lost in the thoughts of that letter that my old friend had sent me when I stopped at a familiar fork in the road. I took a step to the right and stopped. Then left, but I stopped yet again. It was as if some kind of psychological force was preventing me from going either way. I suddenly had the inscrutable desire to return to my office.
I felt compelled, like a ghost was pushing me along my way, to get back as soon as I could, to my dark office. I had no rational reason for doing so, but I can tell you that my physical senses seemed to tell me "return."
At the door of my office I hesitated. What would be in there besides my dark room and a conviction that I must be losing my mind?
I slowly opened the door, and as I did so I realized that I hadn't locked it. I was surprised to see a faint flicker of candle light. In the whispering shadows was the form of a man, who seemed to be manhandling my books in the most indecent way. Those books were like my children and he seemed to violate them.
"I demand to know what is going on here!" I cried. The figure turned calmly, unnaturally. He didn't seem surprised to see me.
"Here, Hector, I have the proof I've been looking for." The Phantom said, holding a small book in one hand, and a candlestick in the other.
"Who are you and what are you talking about." I said.
"Don't you remember?" He said with creepy confidence. "I was there at your house, I am there now with your daughter?" As he spoke the dÃƒÂ©jÃƒ vu feeling returned and I seemed to remember a dream of a memory or something, and I spoke instinctively, unreasonably, "You won't find it!"
"But I've already found it." He said holding up the book. It was my diary, where I include my most private thoughts and where I plan my most cunning assaults on my tiresome colleagues.
"That's private. No one will believe it."
"Nobody needs to believe me. The burden of proof rests on those who assert, not those who deny. Besides, I've already gotten my revenge on you."
"What do you mean?"
"Come, look behind this desk." I walked behind to where he was pointing and looked down at the ground. There was a body there, a man, oozing blood on the floor, his face down.
David Jr. said. "I am not the ghost." He then threw the candle he was holding onto a stack of books. The dry pages caught fire immediately. I rushed and tried to pat them out. My efforts had no effect. David Jr. climbed out a window.
"Stop!" I shouted. "Don't leave me here!" He looked back and smiled holding my diary, the key to his father's exoneration. I sat down on the floor at the smoke began to envelop me when I heard a banging on the doors.
"Mr. Bothma! Are you in there?" She opened the door. I tried to stop her, but she couldn't seem to see me. My voice was dry and taught; I couldn't make a sound.
"Your daughter fell down the stairs at your house and sprained her ankle! Mr. Bothma, your daughter . . . thought she saw a ghost and fell . . . Is that smoke?"
Story Copyright © 2008 by Collin Simonsen. All rights reserved.
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About the author
Collin Simonsen was born in Salt Lake City. He has Danish ancestors but doesn't speak any Danish. He does know how to say 'the cat lays an egg in the kitchen' in Malagasy. Long story. He now lives in Moscow, Idaho, a small town 3 hundred miles east of Seattle. The locals pronounce it 'Moss Coe' not 'Ma's Cow.' Collin doesn't know how they pronounce it in Russia. He has a wife, Theresa, and a daughter, Jeanette. They are the greatest joy in his life.