Review of “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

Policymakers, aka “social scientists,” tend to have a simplified framework for understanding man. We live in an era in which one understanding, homo economicus, is steadily being replaced by another, homo statisticus. If the church of homo statisticus has a patron saint, it’s probably the Hari Seldon that emerges in this book.

The defining feature of homo statisticus is that he is entirely predictable. To put it more precisely, no individual person’s actions are predictable. Nevertheless, if you get a lot of people together all their actions are precisely predictable. That’s the theory anyway.

Like earlier simplified frameworks for understanding man, this one has a lot of validity . . . and lots of limitations. For example, no one can say what products I am going to buy today. However, retailers have cut costs dramatically because they know, with a high degree of precision, how many of a certain product will be sold in a given store in a given location during a given period of time.

The life insurance industry is build on this sort of predictability as well.

More ominously, election results can be precisely predicted. (Though one can’t help but wonder what would happen if the candidate who had only a 9.4% chance of winning the election actually won.)

Other predictions, don’t necessarily work out as well. In 2006, it wasn’t hard to find an economist to tell you that there was no way more a small percentage of homeowners could default on their mortgages in any given year. Lots of these sorts of predictions work surprisingly well . . . until they don’t.

Stepping off my soapbox, this book opens with the Galactic Empire in collapse. Seldon’s statistical science “knows” that this collapse will happen in 500 years and will be followed by a 30,000-year dark age.

We believe Seldon is compiling an encyclopedia, the Encyclopedia Galactica, to preserve human knowledge in hopes of shortening the dark age for as long as possible.

However, we soon learn that the encyclopedia is a pretense to allow Seldon to create a new colony on Terminus (a planet at the outer edge of Imperial control). This colony will get a head start on founding a Second Galactic Empire. The rapid rise of an alternative and powerful force will radically shorten the oncoming dark age.

The rest of the events of the book deal with the colony on Terminus as its power gradually expands into neighboring areas. Seldon returns in holograms at various points to reveal that everyone on the colony has been acting exactly as he’d predicted (down to precise days).

The colony expands its power via superior scientific knowledge and its religion – scientism.

My feelings here are a bit torn. On one hand, Seldon’s goal is noble. The decline of imperial power will be chaotic and ugly and another powerful entity is likely necessary to minimize the resulting chaos. On the other hand, I find Seldon’s “knowledge” preposterous. The idea that he can predict precise events at precise times and in precise locations over centuries and millennia is too absurd to swallow.

The Hari Seldon of the previous books was a noble soul, scrambling to save the knowledge of civilization while it crumbled around him. The Hari Seldon of this book is different . . . he’s now sure that he must save civilization – and he’ll play the probabilities to do so, after all, he knows. To the extent that you believe in homo statisticus, you’ll find this later Seldon inspiring. To the extent that you don’t believe that precise predictions about all of humanity are predictable over thousands of years, you’ll find Seldon creepy.

I must confess to being in the latter camp.

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12 Responses to Review of “Foundation” by Isaac Asimov

  1. Federico says:

    An interesting idea, which I didn’t appreciate when I was 15, is that the most consequential decisions a person can take are at “crisis points”.

    One person or a small group can make scarcely any difference most of the time. But in special circumstances—e.g. Russia during the Great War, and Germany in the 1920s—I believe that events vary a lot depending on the choices of a few people.

    Reading the history of these two periods, I get no sense that Soviet communism and Nazism were inevitable. Far from it. Lenin and Hitler were a couple of boors, who would be laughed out of any serious discussion forum. They and the very primitive movements they led could have been thwarted.

    I don’t think the important part of psychohistory is extremely accurate prediction; that is just the plot device. Asimov’s significant message is that Heldon planned just for the crises, because these are the points at which a handful of contingent good decisions (which psychohistory allows him to control) can really sway events.

    On re-reading a little bit of Foundation, I also realised that Asimov has pretty bad prose. But like Rush, I don’t care about the lack of finesse. The man had integrity.

    • spandrell says:

      It does lack style, but it’s *extremely* easy to read. I’m not a native English speaker and I finished the whole Foundation series in a week.
      I was 18 of course. Foundation does require a tad of naivete to enjoy.

      • Federico says:

        I like art that has a wide bandwidth. It has to have high frequencies (profundity) and low frequencies (things that excite my limbic system). I’d say the same of society in general (e.g. I wish I lived in Twin Peaks, where everything banal is elevated and made aesthetic.)

        A teenage reader won’t notice the lack of high frequencies in Foundation, and will be enthralled by the low frequencies. He will mistake the mid-range frequencies, about civilisation, warfare and history, for profundity.

        I have high tolerance for this type of art. That’s partly because I’m a state-schooled philistine and bogan, but also because (it seems to me) a lot of highly regarded art lacks low frequencies.

        Incidentally, what is your native language? I’m always embarrassed by how bad Englishmen (including myself) are at speaking other languages, compared to foreigners who often speak fluent English. Case in point: Eric Cantona spoke English with a French accent. Joey Barton…speaks English with a French accent.

  2. spandrell says:

    I also have developed a higher taste since those days, and probably wouldn’t enjoy Foundation if I re-read it now. But I’ll make my kids read it when they’re in high school. At least the boys.

    I’m a language professional, and I wouldn’t say that foreigners intrinsically speak better English than the other way around. It’s just that the motivation to learn English is several orders of magnitude greater than any other language. Most people with a little talent will end up learning English some way or another. English speakers with a talent for foreign languages end up learning weird languages as a hobby. Like Elphicic or Klingon.
    As a medium of communication English is good enough for anyone. All other languages are badges of tribal membership. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    FWIW England has produced extremely talented linguists over the centuries. But for the common man the motivation just isn’t there.

  3. [...] came across this review of Foundation in my blogroll and remembered that I did one of these a while [...]

  4. Carl says:

    I made the mistake of reading the first Foundation novel after exposure to Moldbug. Everything about psychohistory rings incredibly false. I suppose the story might be enjoyable if you suspend belief, or if you are naive Nobel Prize winner. I could barely make myself finish the book and there is no way in hell I will ever read the numerous sequels.

    Understanding that the core assumptions of our society are complete nonsense makes it frustrating to read most science fiction. It only makes sense that a genre of fiction that is by definition forward looking has progressive premises.

  5. rightsaidfred says:

    Let us also realize that the Foundation series was written during a time of “hard” science themes moving into the social sciences. Asimov was interested in Behaviorism and the whole B.F. Skinner thing of engineering a better society through the application of the scientific rigor that gave us all the advancements in physics etc.

    One of Skinner’s lines went something like, “someday we will be able to guide the path of a person’s behavior with the same exactness we guide a spacecrafts path to the moon.” I always figured Asimov picked up on this type of thinking and expanded it into his Foundation series.

    Nowadays we have Chaos theory telling us that the time span for some predictions are vanishingly short.

  6. NZT says:

    This reminds me of Tolstoy’s essays scattered throughout War and Peace about the individual’s ability (or lack thereof) to predict and shape history. Those sections are admittedly kind of rambling and inconclusive, but T seemed to have an admirably deep appreciation for how difficult the question is. Yes, French history would probably have been dramatically different had Napoleon fallen of his horse and broke his neck on his way back to France in 1799, but he still never would have been able to seize power in the first place without a great many circumstances outside his control breaking just the right way. You can’t really separate the extent to which individuals shape and are shaped by events.

    Nassim Taleb has also written lots of great stuff distinguishing between fields where probability analysis is useful for predictions (casino games, natural disasters), and fields where it’s not only unhelpful but potentially very harmful (central economic planning).

    Lastly, every time I see the word “Policymakers” I remember Moldbug referring to it as Orwellian. He’s absolutely right, I just never noticed it before.

  7. c0linsmith says:

    My take on Foundation is that it is a pity that it was written before the popularization of chaos theory–but that came decades later. Before that happened, it was “obvious” that as computers got more powerful, they would get more precise, and then more capable of discerning the nature and timing of effects that would follow in the future from the finer observation of initial conditions. Such a plot element was part of the Lensman series too, if memory serves.

    Now we know better; but we can still forgive Foundation for not being Moldbuggian.

    Oh snap, on finer reading of the comments rightsaidfred beat me to this observation handily. But I’ll post it anyway since I do think that it’s the key to understanding Foundation today. One the one hand, Asimov foresaw that advances in civilization’s ability to execute large scale computations would be important, but he couldn’t see exactly how. Seldon acts the way he would if it worked the other way. Half point.

    • Foseti says:

      I think there’s something to this. The books that were written after this but that come before this one in chronology, are quite unobjectionable on these points.

  8. […] start deriving.  First, we must determine how our employee consumers, rational, utility-maximizing homo-economicus, will choose to allocate their budgets towards TP and FS.  The simplest way to solve this kind of […]

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