Books and Code · A Miscellany

Many Dimensions, by Charles Williams (A Review)

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Having already read the two Charles Williams books that bracket Many Dimensions chronologically–_War in Heaven_ and The Place of the Lion–I can see how this book sits along a continuum between them in terms of their ideas and the quality of the writing. As such, I rate Dimensions as a solid 3.5 stars. The Stone of Suleiman is a more coherent plot device than his Graal but still suffers from some consistency problems due to its physical nature that Williams’ avoids entirely in Lion by discarding the notion of a holy object altogether.

Many Dimensions is a misleading title. Despite a few musings about what is now known as the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, this novel isn’t about many dimensions at all. Instead, it is concerned with the four dimensions we all are aware of–space and time–and what the Law (capital L) that governs them is truly like. We might refer to this as the “Law of Nature,” but (for reasons I will discuss below) Williams prefers the term “Organic Law.” What exactly he means by this is often unclear, but it quickly transcends the legal context in which it is introduced (a main character is a judge who is writing a book on the evolution of human law over time) to apply to the metaphysical questions raised by the Stone.

Organic Law and the Stone

Here’s what we can glean from the text about Organic Law:

“[L]aw as a growing and developing habit of the human mind, with its corollary of the distinction between organic consciousness expressed in law and inorganic rules imposed from without” (42).

“[H]e defined law provisionally as ‘the formal expression of communal self-knowledge’ and had an excursus comparing the variations in law with the variations in poetic diction from age to age” (152)

“Arglay said […] the law of cause and effect isn’t really understood. Since whatever you do is bound to be justified, justification is produced.” (153)

[citing Bracton] “where the will rules and not the law is no king” (214) … “What did you do if you had decided to believe in God? […] you gave up your will to His.” (215)

[describing Arglay’s work] “attempting to formulate once more by the intellect the actions of men” (254)

The idea of legal norms being determined by the “poetic diction” of their age is a notion that appears to be borrowed from Owen Barfield’s books History in English Words and Poetic Diction. Both were published prior to Dimensions (1926 and 1928 respectively) and also introduce some of Barfield’s ideas about the evolution of consciousness that are fully fleshed out in his later work Saving the Appearances (1957). (I have only read History so far and so my understanding of Barfield’s later ideas may be incomplete or inaccurate.) In History, Barfield argues that the transition from organic to inorganic (ie. derived from consciousness or not) can be seen in the language used to describe the concept of the “laws of Nature.”:

The ‘laws of Nature’ were conceived of by those who first spoke of them as present commands of God. It is noticeable that we still speak of Nature ‘obeying’ these laws, though we really think of them now rather as abstract principles–logical deductions of our own which we have arrived at by observation and experiment. (148-149)

For Barfield, this idea began as an organic one–the laws sprung from God’s will–and even the modern “inorganic” version is nevertheless an organic product of modern human minds. Barfield’s formulation begs the question: which is the cause and which is the effect? Did inorganic physical laws give rise to consciousness or does organic consciousness give rise to inorganic physical laws?

Regardless of whether the borrowing is intentional or accidental, Williams beats Barfield to the punchline with this book. In the world of Many Dimensions, the existence of the Stone demonstrates that consciousness governs Nature. The Stone itself contradicts physical law and these powers can be controlled by the will of its possessor. It is also shown to have a will of its own to which the truly pious should fully submit themselves.

Organic Law and Economics

As a formulation of “the actions of men” Organic Law is also an attempt at economics–the discipline that economist Ludwig von Mises called a science of human action. In this light, the idea that economic law changes over time depending on the varying self-knowledge of the human participants is a Marxist view that Mises rejected as incoherent. Mises argued that the premise that man employs means to the fulfillment of definite ends within the constraints of finite resources remains true.

However, Williams’ world contains the Stone of Suleimann–a source of infinite means. In Misesian terms it cannot be an economic good because it is not scarce: the Stone can be infinitely replicated. Nevertheless, all the business men in Williams’ story fail to realize these economic implications. (Perhaps they are all Keynesians!) The most foolish (Montague) expect to turn the Stone into a commodity to be sold. The less foolish (Sheldrake, et al) yet persist in thinking its use could be limited. The Stone is the ultimate example of Shumpeter’s creative destruction. It threatens not only to overturn the economic status quo as Sheldrake fears, but economics itself. A world in which everyone possesses a Stone has no limits of space or time or subjective valuation (since everyone can read minds) or possibly even material resources (it is unclear how much control over inanimate matter one has). Williams invites us to imagine a world in which human action would become impossible if Barfield’s premises are correct, but fails to conclude that they must therefore be wrong. Instead, Williams prefers the ridiculous scenario of a material world governed by consciousness that requires an abject disavowal of one’s consciousness. This conclusion would be enough to make me think that Williams was not intending to comment on economics if not for the disproportionate amount of time he spends discussing the economic implications of the Stone’s use.

I have to conclude that Williams simply had an overly narrow view of economic thought as greedy and materialistic. To be fair, many people think this. Sadly this is wrong. Economics is built on voluntary trade for mutual benefit and their is only one character who understands this: the Mayor of Rich. Knowing the healing powers of the Stone (which make no sense, by the way) which can be used without diminishing anyone in the process, he sees the moral imperative to use it to heal people. Williams tries to claim this use is morally equivalent to creative destruction but this is false; an unemployed union truck driver can find a new job in a non-travel industry if the Stone proliferates, but a blind man has no recourse to sight otherwise. Furthermore, any physical damage done by the creative destruction wrought by the Stone could immediately be healed by the Stone. Williams offers no cogent defense for denying the Stone to people it could heal. That is simply not something the “good guys” are the slightest bit concerned about. They are too busy worrying over the supposed blasphemy of dividing a Unity which upon division remains a Unity regardless to care about cancer patients. The only answer for the suffering that Williams has is that they should just resign themselves to being screwed over by the Unity. It is 1,000x more obscene to hoard the means to alleviate suffering on the grounds of piety.

As an ironic demonstration of why Barfieldian ideas and their theological implications are an attractive just-so story that is nevertheless wrong, this book really nails it. Unfortunately though, Williams is deadly serious.