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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