Many people praise Isaac Asimov’s 1940s Foundation trilogy, now adapted to the screen and serialized beginning last month on Apple TV+, as the greatest science fiction series of novels ever. But the speculative science in this fiction is not physical science but social science. Rather than imagining the ways in which natural science discoveries or engineering innovations would affect the fabric of human life, Foundation speculates on the historical effects of the discovery of mathematically rigorous and predictive social science. The Foundation universe is thoroughly human. There are no aliens or robots. True, there are spaceships, holograms, and pod computers; but they behave like ships and televisions. The politics of the Galactic Empire are Byzantine, but the topography is mid-century midtown Manhattan.
Good science fiction starts with a “What if?” question. The Foundation trilogy’s assumption is the invention of a rigorous super-social science, “psychohistory,” that can probabilistically predict history and, thus, become the basis for planning, engineering, and changing history’s future course. The plot rests on an Enlightenment dream of reason: A “Newton-like” human scientist discovers the probabilistic universal laws that govern human nature. Application of the laws can predict history and provide a theoretical basis for scientifically planned and engineered history.
Asimov sets his plot in a declining, Roman-like Galactic Empire. A social scientist of the future, Hari Seldon, invents psychohistory, which predicts the decline and fall of the Empire. Seldon proposes arresting the decline by compiling a Galactic encyclopedia of all knowledge: The Empire would exile the Foundation of the apocalyptic Encyclopédistes to Terminus, a desolate planet on the rim of the galaxy, to work on the project.
We then follow the unfolding plan through subsequent centuries of galactic history.
This vision of social-scientific history and a consequently rational social order flourished in Enlightenment France, most explicitly through the influence of Henri de Saint-Simon and the movement that followed him. Subsequently, Auguste Comte invented the word “sociology” to describe historical social science; he envisioned a technocracy of social engineers who would predict and plan history. Comte’s English friend, John Stuart Mill, the founder of Liberalism, wrote his book Logic to elaborate on the methods of this social science of the future.
By the 1940s, when Asimov wrote Foundation, Saint-Simonian ideas were most familiar through Marxism. By the 1930s and 1940s, social engineering and central planning were all the rage, whether practiced by Keynesian technocrats or totalitarian bureaucrats. Stalin considered himself an engineer of human souls, the central planner and implementer of “scientistic socialism.” Even today, the Chinese Communist Party leadership is made up mostly of engineers.
While Asimov was writing Foundation, Friedrich Hayek and, following him, Karl Popper articulated the opposing position, denying that social science could discover the laws of history and use them to predict, plan, or engineer history. Hayek and Popper amalgamated what they considered scientistic ideas with their opposites, the Neo-Kantian distinction of the historical from the theoretical sciences as focused on individuating descriptions of events, and labeled the incoherent result historicism.
Asimov was no Marxist. Though born in the Soviet Union in 1920, he immigrated to New York with his parents when he was three. The Asimovs owned candy stores, mostly in Brooklyn. They destined their prodigious son to become a doctor, but Columbia University denied him admission to Medical School, allowing him to pursue a PhD in chemistry instead. While Asimov was a graduate student—with an intermission working during World War II at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, a job arranged for him by fellow author Robert Heinlein—he wrote Foundation as a series of stories for Astounding Science Fiction. He was in his twenties.
There are no Marxist themes in the Foundation trilogy, no galactic revolutionaries or space proletarians. Asimov’s plot combines Arnold Toynbee’s philosophy of history with Gibbon’s version of the history of the Roman Empire, sprinkled with Enlightenment ideas, the Encyclopedia, Comtean positivism, and a religion of science.
The Foundation trilogy can be read as a series of thought experiments in the philosophies of history and the social sciences. A classic argument against the possibility of historical predictions is their reflexivity: Known predictions influence behavior and may become self-refuting. Asimov therefore stipulated that psychohistorical predictions and historical plans would remain secret. People in his stories act spontaneously, to further their interests; they nevertheless play their parts in a grand plan they do not know. Hegel’s “cunning of reason” uses Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” to bring about Fukuyama’s “end of history.”
While Popper claimed that historicism is false because its prophecies are unconditional, Hari Seldon’s predictions in Foundation are spectacularly conditional: Each chapter depicts a historical crisis that is resolved when a recorded hologram of Seldon, the now-long-dead historical central planner, appears, affirms that everything is proceeding according to plan, and provides the applicable probability. When the plan goes awry, though, because of historical changes wrought by a powerful genetic mutant, the prediction in Seldon’s recorded hologram is spectacularly refuted: Indeed, the Foundation is occupied by the mutant’s attacking forces.
Knowledge of the laws of history does not imply the power to engineer it any more than changing history requires psychohistory. There are roughly three modes of historical change: linear, non-linear, and overdetermined. Mid-century central planning was all big and linear: To win a world war or industrialize a nation, central planners conscripted societies. Non-linear “black swan” small factors have oversized effects; for want of a nail a kingdom may be lost. But it is difficult if not impossible to predict, let alone plan their effects. Nobody could know which butterfly in the Amazon would cause a hurricane in Texas or which baby born in 1889 would grow to be a mass murderer. Other sets of conditions overdetermine their likely outcomes. For example, conditions for “the rise of the West” such as the separation of church from state and the institution of private property, overdetermined economic growth through many alternative paths.
Seldon’s psychohistorical plan is founded on overdetermined initial conditions. The galactic best and brightest, the Diderot and d'Alembert of outer space, are exiled to a distant planet with no natural resources. The combination of the need for resources with the capacity for advanced science and technology overdetermines a course of imperial expansion.
But even the best-laid probabilistic plans will inevitably veer off-course, and the chances of deviation compound with each throw of the historical dice. Recognizing this fact, Seldon creates another, secret foundation of psychohistorians and historical engineers who know the plan and are responsible for keeping history on track. But their methods are linear and demonstrate a failure of Asimov’s imagination: He pulled a parapsychological rabbit out of the psychohistorical hat. Asimov had to endow the secret historical engineers with powers of telepathy and mind control that can turn otherwise autonomous historical actors into marionettes. Thus, historical engineering is presented as, literally, unimaginable.
While Asimov was writing, totalitarian central planners attempted to crack the twisted timber of humanity into a linear course, through the construction of planned utopias. Instead of a second, secret foundation, they had the secret police to force their linear historical plan on recalcitrant humanity. But an organization with the power to change history linearly cannot be prevented from using its powers for its own ends. This is another science fiction scenario, where the Golem or Frankenstein turns on its creator—except that it is not science fiction but historical fact.
Long-term historical predictions are difficult because historical systems are open, complex, and sometimes non-linear. Human history is open to interactions with the natural environment. In comparison with astronomical systems, society is a complex as well as open. History includes non-linear junctures where minute variations generate huge differences. This is true even in Asimov’s universe. Hari Seldon, the founder of psychohistory, is a non-linear cause: He can shape history and reduce its galactic “dark ages” from 30,000 years to a mere millennium. The biological mutant created by Asimov is another non-linear cause in the plot. In a later short story, titled, “Spell my name with an S,” Asimov imagines a non-linear scenario in which a Slavic-American scientist changes one letter in his name—and thus averts a nuclear war.
Many social scientific theories are too ideal to be applicable to concrete, complex reality, much less to predict historical events. Policymakers and historians may interpret social theories to make them precise and useful, but each interpretation applies exclusively to a single case. If such singular interpretations try to expand their scope beyond a unique case, they accumulate anomalies and require the addition of ad hoc hypotheses to explain them away. The history of Marxism is filled with such conceptual somersaults.
Asimov forces us to consider whether history is too messy, complex, non-linear, and open to permit prediction, or whether the shortcomings of the social sciences lie in the theories, institutions, and traditions that produce them and the limited resources devoted to research in history and the social sciences.
When Asimov wrote the Foundation trilogy, the average longevity in the United States was about sixty. Since then, longevity increased by a third. A man has landed on the moon. The information revolution has taken place. Yet, just as when Asimov was writing Foundation, we remain mired in the aftershocks of an economic recession; a resulting wave of self-destructive political passions, extremism, and populism; social and political irrationality spewed by people from vaccine resisters to QAnon believers; and general bewilderment about how exactly to extricate ourselves from the mess. As a species, we do not understand, let alone control, our own irrationalities. One may speculate that if we had invested in medicine and physical science only what we have invested in the social sciences and history, our average longevity would have remained at sixty—and these words would have been typed on a manual typewriter.
In a later series of stories, from the 1950s and 1960s, Asimov imagines a supercomputer that rules by algorithm. This prediction of his has already come to pass, albeit in the private rather than public sector. Predictive algorithms get us to click and buy stuff rather than conditionally predict or preempt recessions and wars. They home in on, and exploit, our lack of self-understanding. It is tempting to speculate with Asimov on whether a “social sciences NASA,” a “Second Foundation,” could help us pre-empt some self-inflicted policy blunders—or whether it would be yet another Golem that would turn on its creators.
Aviezer Tucker is author of Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (2004) and Democracy against Liberalism (2020), and editor of The Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of History and Historiography (2008).
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