There isn’t much in the way of preamble when it comes to the Placeholder Theory, since its creation by Konrad Schreiber is the main point of the novel. To understand it, you have to know the context—so pay special attention to the spoiler alert below if you haven’t had a chance to read the book yet.
The only thing I want to say up-front is this—I was seriously tempted to follow the convention of the novel and wait for “The Science of Placeholder, Pt. 11” to discuss the Placeholder Theory, but the number 11 felt overused. Yeah, it’s an important magickal number, and it’s also highly significant in M-Theory (it’s the number of dimensions needed to unify all variations of Superstring Theory into one model). But enough’s enough. Enjoy the post where it is.
(Spoiler Alert! The rest of this post discusses technical details of Placeholder’s plot and primary characters.)
The Placeholder Theory:
While Konrad set out to unify physics and mysticism under one simultaneously qualitative and quantitative system, I just want to say up-front that I’m fully aware that the very idea is a fallacy. And even Konrad, in his own special way, acknowledges this with the BS equation that caps the “theory” off. An actual scientific theory, to be accepted as a theory and not simply random speculation, has to be entirely quantitative, and most importantly, your results have to be reproducible. As soon as you start talking about ‘qualitative theories,’ you’re entering the world of (bad) philosophy and metaphysics.
So clearly, there are a few problems right away with “the Placeholder Theory.” Konrad identified his 11 postulates as a theory without having it peer-reviewed or reproduced: problem. No matter how complex the math, when you start using quantitative reasoning to represent qualitative ideas, you are spinning up a monstrous effrontery to the scientific method: problem. When you have to purposely misuse said quantitative reasoning to make your qualitative ideas fit into a pseudo-mathematical model, then you are also insulting the very foundation of logic: problem. If you feel that you have to force your qualitative ideas into said pseudo-mathematical model to make the premises seem rational and logically derived, there is obviously something wrong with those premises to begin with: problem. Lastly, if you come up with your premises by way of random ‘inspiration,’ and stick to them blindly even when what little experimental data you do manage to drag up obviously contradicts them, then you’re not a scientist, you’re a fraud: big BIG problem. And yes, Konrad is guilty of them all.
This is extremely important to remember: I did this all on purpose, to illustrate some interesting points about human nature, as well as to drive home just how far Konrad fell from genius and sanity (but the specific psychoanalysis of Konrad Schreiber will be detailed in its own post). And yeah, there’s a deeper mystical message in there too: keep science and philosophy separate, don’t try to find meaning in the Universe, just accept it for what it is, for what you can explicitly measure; but most interesting is the idea within the converse—turn that perspective on yourself. Don’t think you can escape the Void by turning your back on it, like Konrad, because it will always catch up with you.
There are some other interesting sides to “The Placeholder Theory”; from the Notice at the front of the book, you may have realized that the subversive publishers of The “Placeholder” Report in my future history identify a state-sanctioned cult supposedly dedicated to the work of Konrad Schreiber, including such activities as the public worship of his image and pilgrimages to the landing site of the SFS Fulgora crew on Vega b, with the original inflatable surface habitations serving as a shrine and memorial to “the Sixteen Martyrs.” In other words, somebody in the already corrupt and obviously evil military government decided to take the work of Konrad Schreiber and turn it into a religion.
If you’ve already read Placeholder all the way through to the end, or you’re well into Sec. X-A.2 at the least, you should have a pretty good idea at just why this is so effed up. Konrad is first and foremost a psychopathic killer, so why would anyone sane be sick enough to base a religion on his pre-suicidal ramblings? Well, that’s an interesting question actually, and one that happens to have consequences for religion in general. Every once in a while, a particular psychopath and his ramblings just so happen to make enough sense to enough people to start a movement; as the murmuring whispers throughout the people, those in power often have a simple choice to make, that is an extension of the consistent dilemma of power (to try and keep it)—to suppress the movement with brute force, or to accept it in a clearly redefined form that stops it from being subversive. It’s a numbers game, really—if the majority of any given sample population are more likely to turn against those in power in favour of the new movement, then those in power need to adopt a non-subversive version of the movement to survive and maintain their power. But if it curries little enough favour amongst the population to safely allow them to crush it with violence, they most certainly will if they feel the ideology is dangerous to them. Of course, both approaches come with certain dangers. If as a person of power you too readily jump on any new movement that comes your way, then you’re perceived as a weak, floppy, weaselly, fish-handed ruler who’s trying far too hard to please the people (and by so doing, failing miserably). And of course, if you stick too firmly to your principles when something the people feel is better comes along, you’re considered a tyrant. Social change is inevitable, but it’s the responsibility of those in power to know when the right time for a change is, if they intend to stay in power.
A good historical example is the founding of the Roman Catholic Church (as it exists now). It goes without saying that its origins are suspicious at best… especially how they claim a direct line of authority from a person who didn’t historically exist. The Roman Empire was crumbling from within, riots and civil unrest were spreading throughout, the state Emperor cult was seen as a farce, and it’s very unlikely that many people still believed in the old Roman gods (although they certainly found it strange when the Christians refused to participate in public pagan festivals—they said all the same things about the early Christians that Catholics would later accuse neo-pagans and satanists of. ha!). Politically, socially, religiously, Rome was on its knees. And then somehow, Emperor Constantine found a solution. He realized that Christianity—the radical Jewish sect that was spreading like wildfire throughout his Empire that happened to also be one of the main reasons for the decline of Rome, and also conveniently the very sect that he had spent most of his rule actively suppressing through the most vicious forms of persecution available—could be commandeered. Of course, he had tried to destroy it first, as several of his Imperial predecessors, but that had proved fruitless. The people wanted Christianity, and they were going to get it no matter what it cost. Well, they got it alright, but not before Emperor Constantine had it thoroughly revised to acknowledge the divine authority of Rome.
Fine, that’s a gross over-simplification that certainly paid in accuracy for the sake of brevity—if you care about the details and complexities, there are many decent, unbiased presentations of the history of Catholicism (but the Wikipedia articles on Constantine I and the Catholic Church aren’t amongst them, just to warn you now). The only point I’m making that ultimately matters is that Catholicism is a very particular kind of fraud—the same kind of fraud as the Placeholder Cult is to the writings of Konrad Schreiber.
That being said, I’m obviously drawing another parallel between the fictional Konrad Schreiber and the mythical Jesus of Nazareth—at best, they were both ‘off their meds’ and showing it.
Alright, fine, I’m inviting criticism by comparing my fictional psychopathic killer astronaut to a wandering hippie of antiquity. Joseph Smith, jr., the so-called prophet and founder of Mormonism may be a little closer to Konrad—who knows what Joseph Smith was thinking in the early days as an illiterate, lazy, gold-digging Upstate New York farm-boy; one thing is for certain, he didn’t write the Book of Mormon by himself (but that’s a discussion for another post). Anyway, the best examples are contemporary. Take a look around at all the wild apocalyptic suicide cults and doomsday soothsayers. It’s spooky how many people honestly believe the world is going to end within the next two years. The basis for all of these ideologies are definitively on the side of delusion, yet somehow they suck people in—people who are otherwise not nearly that stupid yet nevertheless get sucked in by their need to believe in something, anything, so that they don’t have to face the one horrific truth about themselves: that in their hearts, the virtual core of their being, they are an empty and meaningless void.
Other than the Placeholder Theory itself, the central running theme of Placeholder is The Void. It is both a spatial non-dimension and a metaphor for the true nature of conscious beings like us humans—you might call it the Nihilist State, or when it is hidden behind horror and non-acceptance, an Existential Crisis. Under the name of “ABSU,” it is also a central theme of Phoeronism (and yes, what this very blog is named after).
Now, everyone goes through an ‘existential crisis’ eventually (although many people don’t experience it at all until lying on their deathbeds, so to speak). Typically, existential crises are used as an excuse to turn to religion by individuals who have given up all hope in themselves; they may not even be weak people, per se, but they no longer believe they can make it through life without some kind of help. Why that help often takes the form of a religious calling is a mystery to me, but eh, “there’s no accounting for taste.” What’s interesting to me is how few people simply accept the Void for what it is, and embrace it. After all, what is meaning? As I said in my post, The History of Placeholder and the SPQS Universe, the signifier and the signified are really the same thing, what we consider to be meaning and representation are arbitrary abstractions we’ve come to accept, but there is no reality to them. Thoughts themselves are just associations—actually, “water feels wet, so anything that feels wet is like water” seems like a really simple association, right? Well, it’s not. Nobody even knows the exact amount of ultimately meaningless mental associations of sense and observation we had to make to even get to that simple of a conclusion. It just keeps going and going, until ultimately, all words and thoughts are representations of all other words and thoughts. We maintain our sanity and our ability to communicate by ignoring the infinite meaninglessness of associative understanding: we assume, incorrectly, that the core conceptualizations of our languages are ‘facts.’ The real problem comes from the misrepresentation of the word ‘facts,’ though. In every day usage, it is equated with ‘self-apparent truth’ or ‘undeniable self-representative evidence.’ The fact of the matter is, ‘facts’ are just trivia, inconsequential pieces of information that nobody in the public forum has bothered to contradict; but that doesn’t make them true. There’s only one ‘truth’ that everyone experiences eventually—the meaninglessness of the universe and their own existence. Everything else is just fluff caught in the web of associations that form our perception and understanding of ourselves and the world.
Back to Placeholder—Konrad almost makes it to this realization, but doesn’t quite pull through, doesn’t really accept and embrace the Void. You may notice, for example, his hallucination/vision of the Temple of the True Self. If you explore that as a meditation after finishing the book, you’ll realize that Konrad got no further than the first of the eleven gates; and his last hallucination/vision before death makes you wonder if he even passed through that one. Yet, he clearly adapted the Placeholder Theory on that vision. He stood on the threshold, peered in, got a brief glimpse of what lay at the end, and considered that enough. My point, therefore, is that even if the Placeholder Theory wasn’t a (purposely) fallacious jumble of psychonautics, zen buddhism, and theoretical physics, it was guaranteed to fail from the beginning, because Konrad Schreiber didn’t see the process he started through to the end. And that’s also why humanity keeps failing, keeps getting sucked into ridiculous and delusional nonsense posing as religious truth.
I created the Placeholder Theory to be a mirror held up to the world. It is a particular kind of fallacious jumble, designed in the same style as many other religious ideas that should make any rational person question the sanity of the creator—but you have to wonder, what will people see in it? Will they see the world, will they see people they know? Or will they just see the Void laughing back at them as they stop frozen in horror at the black truth of their own reflection?
— the Phoeron