In July of 1973 the grandmaster of science-fiction writers, Robert A. Heinlein, granted me a rare interview. The full interview is in my book The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana, and an audio version will be released through Sound of Liberty/ARTC.

Here’s a little of what we talked about. — JNS

Robert A. Heinlein with J. Neil Schulman. Photo by Julius Schulman. Copyright (c) 1973, 1999 by J. Neil Schulman. All rights reserved.
Robert A. Heinlein with J. Neil Schulman.
Photo by Julius Schulman.
Copyright © 1973, 1999 J. Neil Schulman.
Copyright © 2010 The J. Neil Schulman Living Trust.
All rights reserved.

SCHULMAN: Do you believe time travel is possible or is it merely a fictional device?

HEINLEIN: There is no basis for belief or non-belief in this question, Neil. We don’t have any data from which to work. There is at present no satisfactory theory of time. We haven’t the slightest idea of how you might get your teeth into the fabric of time—whatever it is. Time travel, as of now, comes under the head of fantasy, inasmuch as it requires one to postulate something about which we know nothing. I do not regard time travel as either impossible or possible. I have no opinion about its possibility or impossibility because we have no data on which to make a judgment. But it makes an excellent device for telling stories, particularly stories that speculate about the condition of mankind and his future, and so forth and so on; it’s been used almost entirely for that purpose, including A Connecticut Yankee In KIng Arthur’s Court which is very largely a social and political pamphlet expressed in story form, to go back to a time-travel story of the last century and one which doesn’t even use a time machine—it just postulates it. And the same thing is true, of course, of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine and his When The Sleeper Wakes. In both cases he was using a time-travel device in order to permit him to speculate about the human condition.

HEINLEIN: “I’d like to know more about your theory that ‘no matter how individualistic you feel, you are really only part of an evolutionary organism.'”

SCHULMAN: Did I quote you correctly on that?

HEINLEIN: You’ve placed a little emphasis in there: “really only a part of.” What i believe I said—the book is across the room and I’m not going to dig it out—was that “you are part of an evolutionary organism” not “really only a part of.” Difference in emphasis, do you follow me?


HEINLEIN: Just as you are J. Neil Schulman and you are also part of the population of an area known as New York City. But it isn’t a case of J. Neil Schulman being “really only a part of” New York City. You are J. Neil Schulman and you also happen to be one of that population group called by that name. Now, there is a matter of emphasis here. You say, “Can you prove this?” Well, I can’t prove that you are “really only a part of” but I observe that you are only a part of. No emphasis on it, we simply observe it. You have parents. You have at least the potentiality of offspring. I assume that you go along more or less at least with evolutionary theory.

SCHULMAN: To a certain extent.

HEINLEIN: …Yes. We simply observe that we are part of this continuing process.

SCHULMAN: Now, I think what I was asking here was the more philosophical question…in other words, I can see that I have parents and come from an evolutionary chain.


SCHULMAN: But the phrase “evolutionary organism” seems to suggest that you have one being with central control or something…or at least some central plan.

HEINLEIN: I don’t mean to imply that. Evolutionists differ in their notions as to whether or not there is any central plan or whether the whole matter is automatic, or what it may be. All I really meant is that although we feel as if we were discrete individuals, if you consider it in terms of four dimensions with time as the fourth dimension, you are part of a branch…a branching deal, with an actual physical connection going back into the past and physical connection extending into the future until such a time as it’s chopped off. If you have no children then it’s chopped off at that point. I have no children myself, however I’m not dead yet, either. I think, however, you are more interested in a later part here: “if so but we retain free will, why should we place the welfare of the whole organism above ourselves?” The question as to whether or not you place the welfare of your species—your race—above yourself is a matter for you to settle with yourself and for me to settle with me.

SCHULMAN: On what basis?

HEINLEIN: [Quoting question] “If you say it’s something you can’t justify on a purely rational basis, then what other basis is there to justify it?” That’s what you’re getting at; you’re trying to make it as either/or here between rational and irrational.

SCHULMAN: Well…rational and nonrational in any case.

HEINLEIN: All right. [Long pause] Uh, I’m trying to phrase this clearly. And you say this last question leads up to this next one: “Is there ever any justification to accept something on faith? How can you prove this since by doing so you are inherently rejecting reason as final arbiter?” Now, there are a lot of implications in your question, a lot oh hidden assumptions in your question.

SCHULMAN: I suppose so.

HEINLEIN: Yes, indeed. All the way through this I can see that you regard yourself as a rationalist and you regard reason as the final arbiter on anything.

SCHULMAN: Well, I’m basically starting out with Ayn Rand’s Objectivist epistemology.

HEINLEIN: Well, I’m not going to comment on Miss Rand’s epistemology; I have notions of my own. Have you read anything by Alfred Korzybski?

SCHULMAN: No, I’m familiar with his work only through your own; you’ve mentioned him quite a few times.

HEINLEIN: Only through my own. You haven’t read Science and Sanity, for example?

SCHULMAN: No, I haven’t.

HEINLEIN: And you’re not familiar with his epistemological approach?

SCHULMAN: Only what you yourself have mentioned.

HEINLEIN: Let me invert these questions a bit. If you’ve read Stranger in a Strange Land, you’ve probably gathered what I think of faith. I do not regard faith as a basis on which to believe or disbelieve anything. On the other hand, Neil, there are many things—practically all of the important questions of philosophy—are not subject to final answers purely by reason. In my opinion, they are not subject to final answers simply by reason. This has been gone into a considerable extent by philosophers in the past, and there’s even a term—a technical term—for that called “noumena” as opposed to “phenomena.” Phenomena are things that you can grasp through your physical senses or through measurements made with your physical senses through instruments and so forth and so in other words, phenomena are things that we can know about the physical universe. Noumena translates as the unknowable things. The unknowable things: What is the purpose of the universe? Why are you here on this earth? What should a man do with his life? All of those wide open, generalized, unlimited “whys.” There are all noumena, and consequently they are not subject—consequently by definition—these things are not subject to final answers simply by reason. My own attitude on that is shown a bit in several places in this last book [Time Enough For Love] in which Lazarus Long indicates that he hasn’t been able to find any purpose to the universe any more significant than gametes using zygotes to create mare gametes. He expresses it that way in one place, then he turns it over, turns it upside down, and expresses it another way to the effect that as far as he knows, there’s no more important purpose to the universe than making a baby with the help of a woman you love. And yet obviously neither of these things are answers; they are just expressions of what Lazarus Long happens to like. Now, do you happen to like chocolate malted milks?

SCHULMAN: Uh, yes.

HEINLEIN: Now, do you like them better than strawberry malted milks?

SCHULMAN: Yeah, I would say so.

HEINLEIN: Can you justify that by reason?

SCHULMAN: No, I would say that it’s a purely subjective judgment.

HEINLEIN: That’s right. That is correct. It doesn’t involve faith and it doesn’t involve reason.

SCHULMAN: But I’m using internal data; there is data which I am acting upon.

HEINLEIN: That’s right. The internal data tells you that you like it better…but it doesn’t tell you why. This applies also to a great many things about the universe: it’s your own internal, subjective evaluation of it, not any final answers given by reason or rationality.

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