Saturday, November 24, 2012

Foundation, Dune, and Laplace's Demon


The Invigoration of a Philosophic Issue in Science Fiction:  How Laplace’s Demon Finds a Stage in the Foundation and Dune Trilogies

by Paul Levinson

Note: this brief essay was published in 2009 on Google's Knol system, which was shut down a few months ago.  

Most educated people acknowledge - grudgingly, or happily, or somewhere in between - that science fiction is a very useful source of information about science.    So the proposition that a work of science fiction can be valuable in helping to teach children or adults about science is, I think, a rather easy proposition to prove. 

What I am going to be discussing in this essay is something a little different, and it stems from my experience over decades of reading and thinking about science fiction - which has convinced me that science fiction is also a great source of material to teach people about philosophy.  And actually this is a point of view I have had for decades.  I began thinking about it when I first read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy - that would have been in the late 1950s - and then in the late 1960s when I began reading Frank Herbert’s Dune series.   And so, what I’ll be discussing in this essay is  how those two great classic science fiction series in particular can help us better understand a very profound philosophic problem. 

I would say that there are probably hundreds - even thousands – of philosophic problems that science fiction can help us understand.    But for the purposes of this essay, I am going to confine my discussion to just one philosophic problem. It is a very rich and deep philosophic problem and it concerns the role and nature of knowledge in our lives.  This is something Plato wrote about in his discussion of the “Meno” paradox, in which Plato said that in order to know something we have to already know it - how could we know that what we have is knowledge if we did not already possess some basis to make that judgment, that is, if we did not already have some knowledge of that area?  Philosophers have been thinking about such questions about the role of past and present and future knowledge for millennia, but here I want to focus on an issue that a mathematician by the name of Pierre-Simon Laplace considered a few centuries ago. He asked a hypothetical question:  if  a super intellect, call it Laplace’s Demon,  had sufficient knowledge of everything that was going on in the Universe at a particular time, could it then predict everything that would happen afterwards?  In other words, if we had sufficient knowledge of initial conditions, could we then predict everything that would happen thereafter?  Laplace’s answer was yes.

Now I think most people would acknowledge that it is impossible even in science fiction to have a situation in which we have complete knowledge of everything presently in the Universe, or even in our world.  But in the two great series of novels that I mentioned – Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series and Frank Herbert’s Dune series – the proposition of what we can know and do in the future, given some valid knowledge of that future in our present, is given brilliant, riveting, and instructive exposition.  

Let us start with the Foundation trilogy. First of all, the Foundation trilogy comes from a series of shorter works of fiction that were published in Astounding Magazine in the 1940s, with the final piece published in 1950.  Asimov credited Astounding editor John Campbell with encouraging him to develop the stories, including suggesting important elements of the plot. The stories were collected into the Foundation trilogy, published by Gnome Press in the early 1950s. The trilogy has been reprinted many times, and Asimov later went beyond the original trilogy with some additional novels in the 1980s.  I am going to confine myself in this essay to the original trilogy: Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation.   

In those stories, Asimov sets out a proposition: a mathematician by the name of Hari Seldon is able to devise mathematical equations which summarize the important events in human life and society that are occurring at the time.  And having posited these “psychohistorical” equations, Asimov wants to investigate the extent to which Seldon and his successors can predict the future on the basis of these equations.  What makes the story wonderful fiction is it seems at first that the future can be predicted.  There are a series of developments in which the evidence at the time, a hundred or more years after the creation of the equations, seems to be going against what the equations are predicting - but at the end of each of those stories it turns out that the equations put people in just the right place at the right time, so Seldon’s original equations did indeed predict the future, and predict it successfully.  The equations are so good that they allow the heroes of these stories, the First Foundation,  to survive against overwhelming military odds.  As long as they are in the right place, at the right time, as projected by Seldon’s original equations, nothing can harm them.

But then things begin to go wrong.  A mutation arises – “The Mule” – who, as a result of being a mutation, has not been accounted for in Seldon’s equations.  (In his 1980s, novels, Asimov suggested that The Mule might have been an android – I prefer the original biological mutation genesis.)   The Mule is Asimov’s first indication that the future cannot be infallibly predicted.   And the episodes involving The Mule make for some of most exciting parts of the Foundation saga.

Fortunately for the good guys, it turns out that, at the very beginning, Hari Seldon/Isaac Asimov set up a special group of people who not only understood the import of the equations but were able to revise them as time progressed.  In fact, prior to the appearance of The Mule,  the First Foundation leaders really understand very little of the equations.  They just know that they have to get out of the way of events in history to let them happen as the equations predict.  But the second, more sophisticated group – the Second Foundation – has a “meta”-position in the saga. They are, in effect, Hari Seldon’s insurance policy, in case blindly following the equations does not work out the way the equations predict – which is exactly what happened with the unexpected appearance of The Mule.

And this, I think, brings home an extremely important point in the philosophy of knowledge, and its value in predicting the future.  The fact that human intervention is required, even in a situation in which equations seem to predict what is going to happen – human intervention to insure that those things happen – shows that there is no such thing as perfectly predicting the future.  Even accepting the premise that we could have a mathematics so sophisticated that it could encompass all human activities and therefore permit us to perfectly  predict the future – even with such a Laplace’s Demon realized - Asimov is saying in his Foundation trilogy that there is still an irreducibly open-ended quality to the future.  Which means that Laplace’s Demon is crucially less than a perfect prognosticator.

We might think of this as an open versus a closed system – an open Universe versus a closed Universe. This kind of territory is addressed not only in philosophy but in systems theory. 

But in a philosophy classroom, if you want to teach students to at least begin thinking about this particular kind of problem – if we have sufficient knowledge can we predict the future? – there is no better way than having them read the Foundation trilogy.  Like all great fiction, it puts abstract ideas into a setting that commands your emotional allegiance.

Now, Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy – also started under John Campbell’s tutelage, and published as a series of novels beginning in the 1960s – is really a very different kind of story.  There are no equations in that universe – that is, no equations that enable people to predict the future.  What moves events in Dune are people who have the power to see the future - in particular, the hero of the original Dune trilogy, Paul Atreides, who becomes Muad’dib, whose combination of genetic make-up and exposure to a powerful spice, a certain kind of drug, gives him the capacity to see the future.  And so we once again have the question: if someone has the ability to see the future – this time not through devising and understanding of mathematical equations, but as the result of some kind of metaphysical, drug-related, genetically-based conditions – can that person be successful? Can he triumph over his enemies, right the wrongs in his world, and find personal happiness and satisfaction?

And once again, the answer in the Dune trilogy is similar to the answer in the Foundation trilogy, because at first Muad’dib does well with his ability to predict the future. He is able to foresee what his enemies may do and take appropriate actions to make sure those things do not happen.   But what then begins to happen, inevitably, is he not only sees certain things in the future not to his liking, but begins to see that if he tries to prevent those things from happening he will cause other bad things to occur.  And in the end, he is actually destroyed by his ability to foresee the future. He loves a woman by the name of Chani, and she is captured by one of the bad-guy groups, and they offer to give her back to him, and he loves her very much but he can foresee in the future that if he takes her back she in effect will be someone that he cannot rely on – she will not be the person that he previously loved, even though she seems, for all intents and purposes, to be that person.  And so Paul Muad’dib decides not to take Chani back – to let her die - and as a result, he winds up tearing himself apart. He is caught between the rock of his love for her and the hard place of his capacity to see the future. He wants with all of his soul to take her back but he can foresee that she is not going to be what she was.  Neither solution – taking her back or not taking her back – is acceptable.  So he walks off into the desert, a broken man.  Another victim of the capacity to have knowledge of the future.  A capacity which, in Dune, is almost a curse.

So what the Foundation saga does on a mass-societal level, the Dune stories do in a personal dimension.  But as for the philosophic question of what value does knowledge of the future have? – once again, in the Dune series, the answer provided is: it does not give you the ability to necessarily succeed.  Because whatever you might see in the future can put you in an untenable situation in the present where there is no way that you can succeed.

For people, then, who are interested in philosophic questions – students, teachers, everyone -  I  would  recommend the Foundation and Dune novels as vivid introductions to one of our most profound philosophic problems.   And they are more than introductions.  They are stages upon which this problem is acted out, upon which the ironies and paradoxes of predicting of the future are invested in dramatic characterizations which give them a compelling, almost flesh-and-blood appeal.

We can read, with great profit, Plato and Laplace and other philosophers on these and related subjects – which come under the headings of epistemology and cosmology, the nature of the Universe, and to what extent can it be determined.  But the science fictional setting gives us something unique.  As we come to identify with the characters and enjoy the stories, we internalize the philosophic issues in a way that makes them a permanent part of our thinking.  I became a philosopher, without realizing it, and wrestled with Laplace’s Demon the day that I first started reading the Foundation trilogy – when I was twelve years old. And the trilogy has never left me.

See also postcard from Isaac Asimov to me, 1979

podcast of this essay




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