Asimov’s Foundation and the Science of History

There are some books that are eye-openers. They hold the promise of a good read and then they end up being so much more.

My previous blog post was on the topic of historical science in science fiction. The books that made me realize the possibilities, and relevance, of connecting the two were those included in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation-trilogy where the science of psychohistory plays a vital part.

Isaac Asimov (1920–1992) was born in Russia and moved to the United States at the age of three. He pursued a career of a university professor of biochemistry while he simultaneously was a highly prolific science fiction author. Asimov created the Three Laws of Robotics and in 1966 received the Hugo Award for best all-time science fiction series for Foundation.

The plot in the Foundation-trilogy centers around so-called Seldon Crises. A Seldon Crisis is a crisis in society which has been mathematically predicted by Hari Seldon within a scientific discipline called psychohistory. Asimov’s psychohistory is not the same thing as can be found in historical biographies written from a psychoanalytic perspective, utilizing methodologies and theories as brought forward by Sigmund Freud (1856–1939). Instead, Asimov defines psychohistory as follows.

Psychohistory dealt not with man, but man-masses. It was the science of mobs; mobs in their billions. It could forecast reactions to stimuli with something of the accuracy that a lesser science could bring to the forecast of a billiard ball. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Foundation and Empire (2010) p. 205)

Also:

Psychohistory was the quintessence of sociology; it was the science of human behavior reduced to mathematical equations. [—] The individual human being is unpredictable, but the reaction of human mobs, Seldon found, could be treated statistically. The larger the mob, the greater the accuracy that could be achieved. (Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy: Second Foundation (2010) p. 411)

What these quotes demonstrate is that psychohistory in Foundation is quantitative methodology and historical determinism taken to its extreme. Let me explain.

To explain certain developments in society, historical science uses what is called quantitative methods, most often in the form of statistics. When doing so, the main subject of historical research, the human being, is reduced to a number that can be used in mathematical calculations. By using statistics the historian can explain patterns of, for example, mortality and nativity and how these patterns changed throughout history. The peak of quantitative methods within historical science came in the 1970s and 1980s when seemingly everything could be explained through statistics. For example, the role played by the development of the US Postal Service in the emergence of towns and cities in North America during the 18th century was explained through the use of quantitative methods.

Historical determinism means that history is set on a predetermined course that was decided at the outset of the development of human society. This determined course of development cannot be changed. For example, Marxism, created by Karl Marx (1818–1883), is a historically based theory which is deterministic. According to Marxism, society develops in predictable stages where the slave societies of Rome and Greece by necessity were replaced by the feudalism of the Middle Ages which by necessity was replaced by industrial capitalism of the modern era which by necessity will be replaced by the dictatorship of the proletariat, in other words Communism. That a parallel can be drawn between Marxism and Seldon Crises is not a coincidence. Asimov took the totalitarian ideologies of his time – Communism, Fascism, and Nazism – and extrapolated them into space.

Asimov’s psychohistory also leads one to think of the theory of structures, which divides human actions in two categories: subject versus object, with emphasis on object. In psychohistory, it is not the individual human being, the subject, that is of interest but the masses of human beings. When human beings are referred to as masses, all the individuals that constitute the human masses become objects. Objects lack free will and their behavior can be predicted by analyzing the structures that uphold human society.

What is interesting about Asimov’s psychohistory and its mathematically predicted Seldon Crises, is that it indicates that time is both linear and absolute. History can only develop in one direction, namely forward. And there is only one chronology that is possible, namely a clock ticking from one Seldon Crisis to the next. Asimov wrote the first Foundation short-story in 1941. By that time the Theory of Relativity was established among scholars and the ideas of a linear and absolute time, which had permeated the natural sciences for centuries, had been abandoned.

After he had finished writing Foundation, Asimov continued to keep an eye on history and how human beings related to it. This fact can be demonstrated by a quote from his book And the Gods Themselves…

[…] there are no happy endings in history, only crisis points that pass.
(Asimov, The Gods Themselves ([1972] 1990) p. 292)


In the word’s of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

Sources:
Isaac Asimov, Foundation Foundation and Empire Second Foundation
(Everyman’s Library, 2010).
Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves (Doubleday/Bantam Books, 1990).
Anthony Giddens, The Constitution of Society. Outline of the Theory of Structuration (University of California Press, 1984).
Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (Bantam Books, 1998).
Allan R. Pred, Urban Growth and the Circulation of Information. The United States System of Cities, 1790–1840 (Harvard University Press, 1973).

Note:
This post has also been published at Suvudu Universe.

Advertisements

Historical Science in Science Fiction

Say the phrase “science fiction”. What do you see? I would bet an image of the Universe has appeared in your mind. The science of science fiction is most often associated with the natural sciences – physics, chemistry, medicine, biology. The fiction of science fiction seeks to answer the seemingly eternal question of what it means to be a human being. However, the natural sciences do not primarily exist to answer the question posed by science fiction. The science that exists to answer the question of what it means to be a human being is historical science.

Historical science is an academic discipline dedicated to the study of human activity. The aim of historical science is to answer the question of why human society is organized the way it is and what role human beings, as groups or as individuals, have played in the historical process. Historical science does this by applying theories and historical methodology to written documents produced by human beings who lived in the past. The theories applied by historians are taken from a vast array of sciences. The most interesting application of a theory to an historical process, that I have come across, is the application of the theory of relativity to the creation of a feminist movement in post-communist Eastern Europe.

Historical science thrives on investigating and interpreting civilizations that are alien to us. Although these civilizations once existed on Earth, because they existed in the past their culture, laws, language, morals and ethics can be far removed from ours. My field of expertise is urban history in Europe and North America. To be able to understand how and why cities appeared in Europe more than 2,000 years ago, I have to step outside of myself in the 21st century and wrap my head around the civilization that existed at that time. As I have stated previously on this blog, this mind exercise is equivalent to time travel. Once the temporal destination has been reached, I then have to learn how to interpret a civilization different from my own. Truly, it is as if I am stepping out of a TARDIS.

Historical science offers a way to answer the question of what it means to be a human being. For example:

Historical science asks the question why past societies differ from ours.

Historical science asks why our way of interpreting our surroundings is different from the interpretations prevalent many centuries ago.

Historical science asks the question what it is to be woman or a man. The views have differed through the centuries and are not necessarily the way we choose to categorize gender today.

Historical science asks the question what is a criminal act. The value of human life has differed throughout the ages and the compensation for loss of life is not necessarily what we today would consider sufficient.

Historical science asks the question what is knowledge. It investigates on what basis we know what we claim to know. It points out that change in knowledge is not necessarily equivalent to progress.

In my work as an historian, I am an inter-disciplinarian. If an academic discipline different from my own can help me in my historical argument, I do not hesitate to utilize the results of that discipline. This is especially helpful when researching cities the way I do. Cities as objects of study are by nature interdisciplinary. By integrating the results of several different disciplines, such as archaeology, geography, oceanography, physics, and economics, I have come to appreciate the value that the interdisciplinary method adds to an argument.

Classic science fiction takes place in space. And so it should continue to do. However, in my opinion, by adding historical science to the sciences of science fiction, there is much to be gained.

In the words of my friend, the Australian, I shall return.

This post can also be read at Suvudu Universe (8/1/13):
http://universe.suvudu.com/post/historical-science-in-science-fiction