Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five And Breakfast Of Champions

3523 words - 14 pages

Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions

Who would have ever thought the way a radioactive particle decays would relate to whether or not we have bad attitudes towards life? Who would have ever suspected that the structure of space-time would be so closely linked to whether or not we would marry rich wives? And who indeed would have ever expected that the properties of light might affect whether or not we go on homicidal rampages? Perhaps Kurt Vonnegut did. Could it be possible that a writer known more for his pictures of assholes than his knowledge of advanced physics actually centered some of the deepest concepts in his works on the philosophical implications of general relativity and quantum mechanics? Two of his greatest novels, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions, both seem to hint at the relationship between modern physics and an idea philosophers call determinism. Vonnegut readers might well scratch their heads and flip through their copies of these books, searching the stories of the fragmented life of a war veteran and the deranged antics of a mad car salesman for a chapter on the Schrödinger wave equation they may have skipped. I freely admit that their search will be in vain, and that no truly concrete proof exists that Vonnegut based the ideas in these books on the latest discoveries of science. But I also contend that the parallels between Vonnegut’s work and advanced physics are a little too perfect to be a series of very lucky accidents. From this perspective, it seems likely that Vonnegut used ideas based on physics to support the idea of determinism in Slaughterhouse-Five and destroy it in Breakfast of Champions.

But perhaps before arguing about the ways Vonnegut supports and fights determinism, it would be useful to set down exactly what determinism is. The form of determinism with which this paper is concerned is sometimes called scientific determinism. The logic behind it runs something like this: a person’s personality and immediate environment determine his actions. A combination of his genes and upbringing determine his personality. Thus, a person has no real choice in the way he acts (Rachels 104-6). In fact, his entire life – every action he would ever take – was inevitable from the day he was born. His genes are obviously not likely to change, and his upbringing is in the hands of his parents and the community in which he grows. And of course, the way they raise him depends upon their personalities, which depend upon their upbringings, which depend upon their parents’ personalities, which depend upon… Needless to say, one can follow this chain all the way back through human and pre-human history, and the result is a lot more than a headache. Indeed, it is nothing less than a vision of “the whole universe as one great deterministic system” (Rachels 102). Think of it as the break at the beginning of a pool game – from the moment the pool player’s stick hits...

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