Psychohistory

Foundation

Psychohistory [sahy-koh-his-tuh-ree] is a fictional science in Isaac Asimov’s ‘Foundation’ universe which combines history, sociology, and mathematical statistics to make general predictions about the future behavior of very large groups of people. It was first introduced in the five short stories (1942–1944) which would later be collected as the 1951 novel ‘Foundation.’

Psychohistory depends on the idea that, while one cannot foresee the actions of a particular individual, the laws of statistics as applied to large groups of people could predict the general flow of future events. Asimov used the analogy of a gas: an observer has great difficulty in predicting the motion of a single molecule in a gas, but can predict the mass action of the gas to a high level of accuracy (physicists know this as the Kinetic theory). Asimov applied this concept to the population of his fictional Galactic Empire, which numbered a quintillion.

The character responsible for the science’s creation, Hari Seldon, established two axioms: that the population whose behavior was modeled should be sufficiently large; and that the population should remain in ignorance of the results of the application of psychohistorical analyses. There is a third underlying axiom of Psychohistory, which is trivial and thus not stated by Seldon in his Plan: that Human Beings are the only sentient intelligence in the Galaxy.

Asimov presents the Prime Radiant, a device designed by Hari Seldon as storing the psychohistorical equations showing the future development of humanity. The device projects the equations onto walls in some unexplained manner, but it does not cast shadows, thus allowing workers easy interaction. Control operates through the power of the mind, allowing the user to zoom in to details of the equations, and to change them. One can make annotations, but by convention all amendments remain anonymous. A student destined for speakerhood has to present an amendment to the plan. Five different boards then check the mathematics rigorously. Students have to defend their proposals against concerted and merciless attacks. After two years the change gets reviewed again. If after the second examination it still passes muster the contribution becomes part of the Seldon Plan.

The Radiant, as well as being interactive, employs a type of color-coding to equations within itself for ready comprehension by Psychohistorians. ‘Seldon Black’ are the original Seldon Plan equations developed by Seldon during the first four decades of his work at the University of Streeling, and define ‘Seldon Crises,’ the Plan’s duration, and the eventuation of the Second Galactic Empire. ‘Speaker Red’ are additions to the plan by Speakers (Senior Mentalic Psychohistorians of the Second Foundation) since the time of Seldon. ‘Deviation Blue’ are observed deviations away from Psychohistorical projections with a deviation in excess of 1.5 standard deviation of predicted outcomes. The ‘Era of Deviations,’ at the rise of the Mule (a powerful antagonist), produced deviations in the Seldon Plan in excess of .5 through 10 sigmas, and the resolution of this period required a full century of labor on the part of the Second Foundation to return the Galaxy to the Plan. Other colors have been imagined by fans, and mentioned by Asimov, such as: ‘Notation Green,’ additions of pertinent scientific papers appended to findings– and ‘Projection Purple,’ Useful for determining limits on future Speaker Red equations, using projections of events with regard to a very sketchy but still monumental Seldon Black scheme. A tool of the first three generations of Psychohistorians after Seldon, and by the 5th Century of the Plan a teaching tool at most.

In his later career, Asimov described some historical (pre-Seldon) origins of psychohistory. In ‘The Robots of Dawn’ (1983), which takes place thousands of years before ‘Foundation’ (1951), he describes roboticist Han Fastolfe’s attempts to create the science based on careful observation of others, particularly of his daughter Vasilia. ‘Prelude to Foundation’ (1988) suggests that one of Fastolfe’s robots, R. Daneel Olivaw, manipulated Seldon into practical application of this science.

The fact that Seldon established a Second Foundation of mental-science adepts to oversee his Seldon Plan might suggest that even Seldon himself had doubts about the ultimate ability of a purely mathematical approach to predicting historical processes, and that he recognized that the development of psychic skills, such as those used by the Mule, had the ability to invalidate the assumptions underlying his models, though he did not (and could not) predict the appearance of the Mule himself. The Seldon methodology might therefore only work at a certain level of species-development, and would over time become less useful.

Psychohistory has one basic, underlying limitation which Asimov postulated for the first time on literally the last page of the final book in the ‘Foundation’ series: psychohistory only functions in a galaxy populated only by humans. In Asimov’s Foundation series, humans form the only sentient race that developed in the entire Milky Way Galaxy. Seldon developed psychohistory to predict the actions of large groups of humans. Even robots technically fall under the umbrella of psychohistory, because humans built them, and they thus represent more or less a human ‘action,’ or at least, possess a thought-framework similar enough to that of their human creators that psychohistory can predict their actions. However, psychohistory cannot predict the actions of a sentient alien race; their psychology may differ so much from that of humans that normal psychohistory cannot understand or predict their actions.

The end of the series offered two possibilities: Sentient races actually very rarely develop, such that only humans evolved in the Milky Way Galaxy, and in most other galaxies, it appears probable (given this assumption) that only one sentient race would develop. However, statistically two or more alien races might evolve in the same galaxy, leading them into inevitable conflict. The fighting in this other galaxy would only end when one race emerged the victor, and after the prolonged conflict with other races, would have developed an aggressive and expansionist mindset. In contrast, humans had never encountered another sentient species in the Milky Way Galaxy, so they never felt greatly compelled to expand to other galaxies, but instead to fight other humans over control of the Milky Way. Eventually, such an aggressive alien race would expand from galaxy to galaxy, and eventually try to invade the Milky Way Galaxy. Or, through genetic engineering, subsets of humanity could alter themselves so significantly from baseline humans that they could for all intents and purposes be considered ‘aliens.’ Specifically exemplifying this theory we find Asimov’s Solarians: humans evolved from an old Spacer world who had genetically modified themselves into hermaphrodites with telekinetic mental powers.

In 1987, Asimov gave an interview to Terry Gross on her National Public Radio program, ‘Fresh Air.’ In it, Gross asked him about psychohistory. ‘Gross: ‘What did you have in mind when you coined the term and the concept?’ / Asimov: ‘Well, I wanted to write a short story about the fall of the Galactic Empire. I had just finished reading the ‘Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’ [for] the second time, and I thought I might as well adapt it on a much larger scale to the Galactic Empire and get a story out of it. And my editor John Campbell was much taken with the idea, and said he didn’t want it wasted on a short story. He wanted an open-ended series so it lasts forever, perhaps. And so I started doing that. In order to keep the story going from story to story, I was essentially writing future history, and I had to make it sufficiently different from modern history to give it that science fictional touch. And so I assumed that the time would come when there would be a science in which things could be predicted on a probabilistic or statistical basis.’ / Gross: ‘Do you think that would be good if there really was such a science?’ Asimov: ‘Well, I can’t help but think it would be good, except that in my stories, I always have opposing views. In other words, people argue all possible… all possible… ways of looking at psychohistory and deciding whether it is good or bad. So you can’t really tell. I happen to feel sort of on the optimistic side. I think if we can somehow get across some of the problems that face us now, humanity has a glorious future, and that if we could use the tenets of psychohistory to guide ourselves we might avoid a great many troubles. But on the other hand, it might create troubles. It’s impossible to tell in advance.”

Polymath Adolphe Quetelet developed in the 19th century what he called ‘social physics.’ Quetelet studied the statistical laws underlying the behavior of what he called ‘average man.’ Some individuals and groups, inspired by Asimov’s psychohistory, seriously explore the possibility of a working psychohistory not unlike the one imagined by Asimov — a statistical study of history that could help in the formulation of some ‘theory of history’ and perhaps become a tool of historical prediction. Complexity theory, an offshoot of chaos mathematics theory, explored by American theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman in his books ‘At Home in the Universe’ and ‘Redefining the Sacred’ cover the concept of statistical modeling of sociological evolutions. The concept was also explored in ‘Order Out of Chaos’ by Belgian Nobel Laureate Ilya Prigogine.

Another theory that has similarities to Psychohistory is ‘Generational Dynamics’ proposed by author John J. Xenakis, where he proposes, ‘Generational Dynamics is a historical methodology that analyzes historical events through the flow of generations, and uses the analysis to forecast future events by comparing today’s generational attitudes to those of the past.’ Essentially, generations immediately after a major crisis event (stock market crash, civil war, world war) will be unwilling to live through such events again and will be risk-averse. Generations after them may well be aware of previous crisis events, but will be more risk-tolerant, as they have not been exposed to the crisis themselves. Xenakis states that this allows one to predict future crisis events by analyzing the current generation’s outlooks.

Another theory in this vein is Peter Turchin’s ‘WAR AND PEACE AND WAR: The Life Cycles of Imperial Nations.’ His science is called cliodynamics (etymologically from Clio, Muse of history, and dynamics, the study of temporally varying processes), a new multidisciplinary area of research focused at mathematical modeling of historical dynamics. Technology entrepreneurs Nathan Eagle and Alex Pentland (among others) have developed useful techniques for predicting human behavior through statistical analysis of smartphone data. At the 67th science-fiction world convention in Montreal, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate in Economics, mentioned Hari Seldon, as his inspiration to study Economics because it’s the ‘closest thing to Psychohistory.’

Some literary critics have described Asimov’s psychohistory as a reformulation, either for better or worse, of Karl Marx’s theory of history (historical materialism), though Asimov denied any direct influence. Arguably, Asimov’s psychohistory departs significantly from Marx’s general theory of history based on modes of production (as distinct from Marx’s model of the capitalist economy, where ‘natural laws’ work themselves out with ‘iron necessity’) in that psychohistory is predictive (if only in the sense of involving precisely stated probabilities), and in that psychohistory is extrapolated from individual psychology and even from physics. Psychohistory also has echoes of modernization theory and of work in the social sciences that by the 1960s would lead to attempts at large-scale social prediction and control such as Project Camelot (a canceled social science research project of the US Army in 1964 to assess the causes of conflict between national groups, to anticipate social breakdown, and provide eventual solutions). The proposal caused much controversy among social scientists, many of whom voiced concerns that such a study was in conflict with their professional ethics.

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