The "Foundation" of my beliefs

Today the App.net1 social network, of which I'm one of the remaining members, held a "Theme Monday" in which everyone was invited to change their avatar to a novel. For me, there could be only one choice.

Foundation, by Isaac Asimov, came immediately to mind. I first read it when I was eleven years old, and it taught me a worldview that has stayed with me until the present day. It's probably the most formative book I ever read.

For those who aren't familiar with it, Foundation takes place tens of thousands of years in the future, at a time when humanity has expanded to fill the galaxy. The Galactic Empire that they founded (not to be confused with the evil Galactic Empire of the Star Wars universe) is in its last throes, in a period of decay and disintegration. The hero of the book, Hari Seldon, is what is called a "psychohistorian" -- a mathematician who has worked out that the actions of individuals may be unpredictable, but the actions of large groups of people are very predictable indeed. Given the vast population of an inhabited galaxy, considerable accuracy of prediction is possible.

His calculations indicate that the Empire will soon fall, and that there will be an interregnum of 30,000 years until the conditions are right for the formation of a second empire. However, he works out that by isolating a small group of people out on the far edges of the galaxy, safely tucked away and dedicated to keeping the light of knowledge alive, the period of the dark ages may be reduced to a single millennium. He uses the pretext of establishing a foundation dedicated to creating an "Encyclopedia Galactica" to preserve the collected knowledge of humanity to convince the government of the Empire to give him a remote world on which to settle a chosen nucleus of people. The books that follow tell their story, as the rest of the galaxy falls into ignorance and superstition.

Foundation taught me to believe in the power of knowledge and science to make the world a better place. That's something that I still believe in, and something that is all too often forgotten as the world lately seems to be devolving into a smaller, more insular, more superstitious place. While I still think that religion can be a positive force, all too often it's used as a pretext for hate, violence, and fear, or as a tool for controlling others. Indeed, in Foundation itself, there is a point at which an invented religion, which cloaks scientific technology in religious terminology, is used quite effectively by the people of the small, under-defended Foundation as a means of defense, and as a tool to maintain control of those on the worlds around them.

Foundation also taught me that there are better ways of resolving issues than through violence. Possibly my favorite literary quote of all time comes from a character named Salvor Hardin, the mayor of Terminus (the world on which the Foundation is established): "Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent." Time and again, the biggest and most important victories in the book are won not by those who merely have the guns, but by those whose knowledge and wisdom allows them to prevail. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Foundation taught me that when religion and science disagree--when the world isn't the way that you'd like it to be, when the thing you've always believed in says one thing and the evidence says another--that you have to be clear-eyed and acknowledge what really is. There's a point in the book at which a character emerges who was not predicted--who by his very nature could not have been predicted--in Seldon's plan, and by this point belief in the Plan has become a form of secular religion for the people of the Foundation. In order to effectively deal with him, the Foundation must deviate from the previously-sacred Plan. This, too, is an important lesson to learn. Maybe the most important.

That's why, when I look around me today, and I see people retreating into religious certainties when the evidence says something quite different--whether that be about same-sex attraction, economic principles, or (ahem) what the Pyramids were used for in ancient Egypt, I am sad. And angry. And determined that I will not be part of it. Religion can be a valuable tool for good works, but when it's used to hurt people, or to promote a blind ignorance, its value has been lost, and we're better off without it.

Asimov eventually tied in the Foundation trilogy (Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation) with his robot novels, creating a vast future history of the galaxy, writing further books in the series and in the process bringing his famous Three Laws of Robotics to Seldon's psychohistory. Above all, it was a hopeful and positive view of what humanity could become.

I'm proud to say I believe in his vision. Hope for the future is not yet lost. But its realization will depend on the things we say, do, and act upon today and every day going forward, and on who we choose to stand with.

I stand with Isaac.

  1. My blog software used to generate a link here, but as of this writing (April 2019) the site to which I referred no longer exists, and the owners have sold the domain to another company, which is using it for something completely different. Sic transit gloria mundi, I suppose.