Foundation’s Foundation

A few entries back, I wrote about the Foundation series. Its premise rests on the (imaginary) science of psychohistory, which allows its practitioners, twelve thousand years in the future, to predict the course of human history in aggregate over billions of people and thousands of years. The books are exciting but also implausible, since so many critical plot events turn on the actions of individual people. That psychohistory could predict so well the decisions one person (not a logical automaton, a real person) is hard to believe. (It also makes the books a little more awesome, the way any powerful force does in sci-fi and fantasy.)

I happen to be re-reading Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a thrilling fictional account of communism (and why it went wrong) from the inside. I recently came across a curious paragraph. In it, the protagonist is trying to imagine what’s going in the brain, the “gray whorls”, of his country’s leader, known as No. 1.

What went on in the inflated gray whorls? One knew everything about the far-away nebulae, but nothing about the whorls. That was probably the reason that history was more of an oracle than a science. Perhaps later, much later, it would be taught by means of tables of statistics, supplemented by such anatomical sections. The teacher would draw on the blackboard an algebraic formula representing the conditions of life of the masses of a particular nation at a particular period: “Here, citizens, you see the objective factors which conditioned the historical process.” And, pointing with his ruler to a gray foggy landscape between the second and third lobe of No. 1’s brain: “Now here you see the subjective reflection of these factors. It was this which in the second quarter of the twentieth century led to the triumph of the totalitarian principle in the Easy of Europe.” Until this stage was reached, politics would remain bloody dilettantism, mere superstition and black magic…

Well now. Foundation was written between 1942 and 1950; Darkness at Noon was published in 1941. For all we know, Asimov got his idea from Darkness.

But Koestler goes further: in this single mocking paragraph, he neatly introduces the concept of psychohistory before Asimov and simultaneously exposes its essential absurdity, that the course of human history could be predicted merely by “objective factors” – which, in Asimov’s books, do not attempt to account for the particular vagaries of No. 1’s brain, but instead only broadly cover its expected behavior, and yet provide astoundingly robust results. (It takes a mutant to get the psychohistorians off their game.)

Where would the US be today – militarily and fiscally, for starters — if Gore had been elected selected President instead of Bush? Koestler’s tongue-in-cheek examination gets it right: even in democracies, so much depends on the gray whorls of a single individual. (Of course, whether that individual is Dubya himself, or instead Anthony Kennedy, the Supreme Court justice who swung Bush v. Gore 5-4 in his favor, is debatable. Maybe it was inevitable after all. Aughhhhhh.)

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3 Responses to Foundation’s Foundation

  1. Bill says:

    It’s interesting that you brought this up. I’d never thought about the connection before.

    However, I don’t think these ideas came from Koestler. He was just showing the bizarre conclusions that they produce. I think Marx, and maybe Hegel before him, originated the idea that we can understand history at a scientific level, make rough predictions about it, and improve our society as a result. I think that this is really the philosophical basis of socialism. It was seen as a new, more logical way to understand history as a conflict between classes (although Hegel just described it as a more general conflict between forces). This is “the dialectic”: thesis, antithesis, and then synthesis. As I understand it, Marx believed that the thesis was labor, the antithesis was the ruling class, and the synthesis was supposed to come after a communist revolution (or something like that). When Marxism originated, I think people found it very exciting that we could find underlying structure in history and then use this structure to predict and improve the future.

    Eventually, I think Lenin and Stalin evolved these ideas somehow. Basically, the people who were supposed to lead the revolution were the ones who most fully understood dialectical materialism, and thus who could best predict the future. This leads to a weird situation where, having gained power, you can preserve it practically forever: because once you lead the country, you create the future yourself. Thus, you’re the best predictor of it, and thus the best dialectical materialist.

    As an aside, reading Darkness at Noon led me to realize why show trials were necessary. To Western eyes, they seem preposterous: a trial with obviously fabricated evidence and confessions from tortured men. But to a dialectical materialist, the point isn’t to convince the public that the convicted was actually a traitor. It’s only necessary to show that he was caught by the state. Because that shows that he failed to predict the future (if he had, he would have somehow avoided his own trial), and thus he did not understand the dialectic. And this alone deserved punishment.

    I should say that I have an extraordinarily poor understanding of this material, based on high-school history and one or two books (mostly Koestler’s). So everything is probably wrong. But it’s interesting. I liked Koestler’s book because it slapped all this into an exciting, readable novel. It never occurred to me that The Foundation is pretty much the same thing, from a different perspective.

    • aj says:

      You realize that this level of discourse is ill-suited for the internet, right? I was expecting more of a “your dumb” kind of response.

      Anyway, interesting, and shows how little I know about Communism (or history in general).

      An open question still is how Asimov got his idea. It would be surprising if he didn’t know of the information you posted, since he was born in Bolshevik Russia, was a smart guy, and had to be aware of Marxism’s general principles. At the same time, from what little I’ve been able to gather on the internet, he was definitely not a fan of Communism — and yet, the heroes of his book subscribe to (some of) those very principles from which Communism seems to have been derived.

  2. Franziska says:

    //இதற க என ன அர த தம ? இத உங கள அகர த ய ல அன ப ன வ ர த த ய ?என ன ட ய ஒர பத வ அல லத ப ன ன ட டம வத ய ர ய வத த க க எழ தப பட ட இர ப பத க ச ல ல ம ட ய ம ?இத என ன ந க க வ க க ஒர க ரணம வத ச ல ல ம ட ய ம ?//That is why, you come under the category of ‘Cowards’.A cougraeous TP should use boldly all such words that are used against Arul here. Against Christians, against Muslims, against all anti brahmins. Dondu Ragavan keeps blogs for them to use gutter Tamil.A true TP should hate Muslims and Christians and their religions and their Gods, Prophets etc. Like a Jihadi believes if he kills kafirs, he can sit at the feet of Allah, a true TP believes that Siva, Murugan, Pillaiyaar will bless them, only if they open a blog to abuse Islam and Christianity, or give hyperlink to such blogs in Dondu Ragavan’s blog.If you use fair and decent language against him / them, when Arul or they criticise your caste, you are a coward. You are a pesudo TP or a pesudo Hindu. Go and lick the feet of muslims and christians.But you wont deserve to be called a coward if and when you have to use abusive lanuguage to your rival who has already used abusive language against you. That is justified on ethical grounds.