Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Krugman's Foundation

This Newsweek article about Nobel Prize-winning economist and NY Times columnist Paul Krugman contained an interesting biographical detail:
Krugman says he found himself in the science fiction of Isaac Asimov, especially the "Foundation" series—"It was nerds saving civilization, quants who had a theory of society, people writing equations on a blackboard, saying, 'See, unless you follow this formula, the empire will fail and be followed by a thousand years of barbarism'."

His Yale was "not George Bush's Yale," he says—no boola-boola, no frats or secret societies, rather "drinking coffee in the Economics Department lounge." Social science, he says, offered the promise of what he dreamed of in science fiction—"the beauty of pushing a button to solve problems. Sometimes there really are simple solutions: you really can have a grand idea."

This struck me because I read Asimov's original three foundation novels several times when I was in high school, yet the one thing that always really bothered me about the books was the idea that Hari Seldon and his psychohistorians could calculate out with precision everything that would happen for centuries. And even granted this determinist vision, it bothered me even more that the one great unpredictable factor was the character named The Mule, whom Seldon's equations could not predict the actions of because the Mule was a mutant and thus inherently a creature of randomness rather than predictability. The absurd premise and the absurd exception to it gnawed at me, though the great virtue of the books is that they are among the small number of science fiction books with the sort of grant historical sweep which a devotee of history cannot help but enjoy.

It's interesting to me that it was precisely the element of Foundation which I always disliked which attracted Krugman. And perhaps allows me to claim that my political aversion to the idea of the centralized technocratic view of politics is a philosophy that runs fairly deep.

6 comments:

Fredrick said...

I,too, was put off by what troubled you in Asimov's Foundation trilogy. But here is where it gets interesting: I find myself much, much closer to Krugman in his social and political philosophy than I do to you. Could it be that, hidden deep in your "religion" lies the same drive for control and predictability that you find repugnant in Asimov? If so, then I suspect it's because you side with divine control over secular. Me? I try to keep my distance from both. Fredrick

Darwin said...

But here is where it gets interesting: I find myself much, much closer to Krugman in his social and political philosophy than I do to you. Could it be that, hidden deep in your "religion" lies the same drive for control and predictability that you find repugnant in Asimov? If so, then I suspect it's because you side with divine control over secular.I would argue these are different types of authority/control.

The plot element in the Foundation novels (and to the extent that we can discern it from there, Krugman's idea of how the world worlds) is highly deterministic. Indeed, I'd say it pretty much denies free will existing at all if you thought about it to a great extent.

Religious authority as I would see it is more a statement about how one is meant to act and how the world works at a moral level -- but we all retain free will and the world is in that sense far more unpredictable than a strictly deterministic one.

I would say that a Catholic worldview actually gives the individual more control, but tells him how to use it. While a materialist/determinist one does not grant that real freedom exists, but on the other hand provides the "freedom" of not telling you what to do.

Kevin Jones said...

Did you ever see the rumor that Asimov's "Foundation" was translated into Arabic as "al-Qaeda" and may have inspired Bin Laden?

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2002/aug/24/alqaida.sciencefictionfantasyandhorrorSupposedly Asimov's influence on Japan's Aum Shinrikyo cult which launched the subway sarin attacks is proved.

Some people sure like the idea that history is something which can be managed, predicted and manipulated by engineered events.

Joseph said...

If only he had been a fan of The End of Eternity instead...

Brandon said...

I think a better handing of the 'social prediction' genre than Asimov's was the (more recent) In the Country of the Blind, by Michael Flynn, because it at least takes the trouble to handle the ethical issues involved.

Mike Flynn said...

Why, thank you kindly, Brandon.