Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Ruminations on the life work of Hari Seldon

I've been fascinated my whole life by attempts to predict the future of human societies. It started as a childhood love for science fiction, which led me to Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. In those books, a mathematical genius named Hari Seldon (for whom this blog is named) develops the science of "psychohistory" -- computer algorithms capable of accurately predicting the future course of a galaxy-spanning society inhabited by trillions of sentient beings.

My fascination with societal forecasting continued in graduate school, with long pondering of dense academic tomes on quantitative forecasting techniques in economics and political science. Plus the qualitative, humanities-based literary-esque methods of scholar policy wonks like George Frost Kennan. The quantitative models were almost entirely useless for anything beyond trivial purposes. I remember sitting at a conference in which a quantitative modeler enthused about his computer simulations predicting that unregulated markets would distribute resources unequally. Gosh, really? In contrast, the famously non-quantitative George Kennan accurately predicted, more or less, the collapse of the Soviet Union four decades before the fact.

My interest in such things continued after voluntary departure from academia, into my current existence as a low-paid clerical drone thrall in post-Cold War dystopian late capitalist America.  The major influence over my thinking since then has been the science fiction of Kim Stanley Robinson. Robinson, who holds a PhD in English, combines deep understanding of the humanities, including history, with in-depth research into quantitative sciences and cutting edge technology. I once interviewed him for two hours at a coffee shop in Davis, California, and later got to hang out with him at a very cool party populated by famous science fiction authors. One day I might summon the courage to write it all up. But never mind that for now.

Robinson's dual use of "the two cultures" -- science and the humanities -- is rare among literary types and humanities professors, who are generally too stupid or lazy to bother acquiring much expertise in anything other than the dessicated, math-free prose of their own tiny sub-field. Which annually produces completely meaningless and soon forgotten pieces of writing that are read by a grand worldwide total of perhaps 50 people.

On the other hand, science and engineering types typically lack the subtle thinking and adequate qualitative knowledge of history and political-economy necessary to think about human societies in sophisticated terms. So instead they think about politics and society as akin to equations in thermodynamics -- so simple and clear that the resulting descriptions and prescriptions bear no relationship to observable reality. Consider the vast outpouring of simple-minded Ayn Rand libertarianism churned out by so many science fiction authors with PhDs in the natural sciences or engineering. It's all embarrassingly facile tripe, to say nothing of morally abhorrent (let's create private markets to sell rivers and babies and harvested organs, yay!).

I lack a degree in a quantitative discipline to go with my master's in history, but I've at least made an effort to learn some of the language of the quantitative fields. Done some coursework in algebra, calculus, chemistry, biology, and computer science, plus lots of spare reading of scientific work directed at reasonably not-stupid lay people. It can be done.

And it all comes in handy, both sides of the quantitative/qualitative coin, when trying to think about human societies as systems. They are real, physical entities, made up of multiple, interacting parts, which in turn seem to be governed by regularities or patterns. "Laws" or "rules" would be too strong a term. Human societies display recurring trends, recognizable sequences of change. But none of it can really be quantified. No matter what the economists or computer scientists say. The computer program Sim City is an amazing creation, based on 100% quantitative algorithms processed on a microchip. But Sim City doesn't do prediction. The algorithms are useful for producing behavior on a computer screen that is strongly reminiscent of phenomena seen in real life: the organic growth and development over time of a concentrated urban settlement full of human animals. But the algorithms that produce the simulated behavior don't correspond in a precise, one-to-one fashion, to rules exactly governing rigorously discrete objects in physical reality.

That precise, one-to-one correspondence does prevail, to an extraordinary degree, in the most fundamental physical sciences. Sub-atomic particles, molecular chemistry, and bodies in motion really do obey exact rules that our mathematical equations can describe exactly. Or at least to such a high degree of precision that any lack of exactness is usually trivial for everyday purposes. In Sim City, the equations in the computer program are useful approximations. They are to a real city what a paint stroke is to the Mona Lisa's face. In physics, the equations are the face. For all practical purposes, anyway.

The mysteriously exact correspondence between equations from the human brain and the rules of nature is one of the greatest puzzles ever encountered by our species. The mysterious correspondence is the reason the natural sciences work so well. For some, it also strongly suggests the existence of an intelligence responsible for the creation and functioning of all that exists.

In any case, the correspondence is the only thing that allows us to make pronouncements, with some authority, on how physical phenomena will unfold in the future. In simpler language, our ability to uncover the rules of reality allows us to make predictions about that reality. In the natural sciences, this effort has been extraordinarily successful. This is true even in exploring systems that don't allow precise prediction of a future course of events -- nonlinear systems like fluids and ecosystems, or the fundamentally chance-based actions of quantum particles. In these cases, we can still precisely quantify and anticipate the boundaries of possibility or the nature of uncertainty.

In the social sciences, essentially none of this is possible. We've never found a better method of anticipating the future of human societies than the literary approach of George Kennan and Kim Stanley Robinson. They think about what a society is, what are its parts, what are some of the rules of thumb for its possible behaviors, and then they speculate on which way the whole mess might go, for some defined period of time. Months, decades, centuries. Kennan wrote about the future decades of the obscene Marxist-Leninist monstrosity administered from the Kremlin. Robinson writes of possible post-capitalist societies in the coming centuries or in histories that never were.

Both of these men, in essence, are running simulations on the world's most sophisticated computer -- the human brain. It's the only real method we have of doing societal prediction. And the only one we are likely to have, for as long as our species exists. As I've written elsewhere, human societies can't be quantified in the way that physical systems can. That's because, ultimately, human behavior rests in the mysterious phenomenon known as "consciousness." The ultimate something in our minds that makes us aware of ourselves and our existence, giving us the ability to envision, assess, and choose different courses of action.

We know, beyond any reasonable doubt -- I emphasize any -- that this capacity rests in the physical substance of our brain. Not, as most spiritual belief systems would have it, in something non-physical. Chop out a part of the brain, human being turns to vegetable. Or imagines his wife is a hat. Therefore, consciousness equals brain. End of story. Consciousness comes from our brain, period. At the same time, though, we have no idea how billions of interacting neurons, ganglia, axons, neurotransmitters and such add up, collectively, to "I." There's too much working too fast at too tiny a level for quantification. We can't attach numbers to how the mind works at its most basic level. And, odds are, we never will. In this case, something physical can also be inherently non-quantifiable.

To put it more poetically, there is such a thing as the human soul. Not a supernatural entity that constitutes the real me and continues after I'm dead. When I'm dead, my soul is annihilated along with my brain. It is physical, therefore mortal. But the soul remains a mystery eternal, beyond final understanding, even so.

This limits our ability to predict our future, but still enables us to try. In hopes of finding wisdom, somehow, to make this life better than it is now. It's not much, but it's all we have.


  1. Great post. Now I'm gonna have to go read the rest of the Foundation books... as well as some more KSR.

    I often find myself defending science fiction to those who haven't tasted it... or who have only sampled some of its fouler fruits. My standard argument is that science fiction is the experimental laboratory of fiction, in which the author is allowed to define the conditions of the experiment and then run it on a carefully selected set of subjects to see what happens. The space ships, time machines, aliens, robots, flying cars and portable telephones are just tools employed to facilitate the readers' ability to embrace the experimental realm. The heart of the story, the purpose of science fiction, is in the design of the experiment and its conditions.

    This is the biggest reason that I've never attempted to write any SF. I have no doubt that I'd be able to generate convincing characters and furnish my fictional environment with an adequate level of texture, but I have yet to come up with an idea for an experiment that hasn't already been executed by some far better (and already published) writer.

    (wait... what? you're telling me that portable telephones actually exist? this constant annoyance that plagues every hour of my waking life isn't some horrific hallucination that I've acquired as a result of reading too much SF?)

  2. I totally agree with your definition of science fiction as a laboratory experiment.

    I would extend the definition by saying that the experiment specifically alters one or more of the rules of the reality we know, in order to test the possible consequences. E.g., what if faster than light travel were perfected? What if someone built a time machine? What if JFK had survived the assassination attempt in Dallas? Conventional fiction doesn't allow for the rules of reality to be altered in this way; science fiction does.

    But of course, one can easily be drawn into the quagmire of debating what sort of rules changes are allowed in science fiction, as opposed to fantasy. SF changes of the rules, in general, are supposed to be scientifically plausible, however unlikely. Rules changes in fantasy are supposed to be impossible even in principle, however interesting they may be.

    So SF deals in time travel and robots and psychohistory, fantasy deals with magical incantations, unicorns, and men from Krypton wearing spandex suits, leaping tall buildings in a single bound. Or stupendously beautiful women from Paradise Island in skimpy spandex, twirling magic lassos and deflecting bullets with bracelets and... what was I saying again?

    Ahem. SF and fantasy each have their place.

    I sympathize with your trepidation about actually writing SF. Yeah, all the great ideas have been done, and all have been done very well by at least a few writers. On the other hand, there's something to be said for writing down your own stuff anyway. Hard to say it's better or worse than something else if it isn't acutally extracted from the brain and put into print.

    I had fun writing my two December posts on a near-future Albuquerque convulsed by peak oil. Not technically science fiction, but still speculation on the future. It was worthwhile for me to put down a scenario on paper, forced to think through how my vague ideas and assumptions might play out in a real place.

    Oh, well. Now back to being a clerical drone thrall. In the here and now. No rules changes allowed.