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.