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Social Science Fiction and the Quest for a New Morality

Apple TV’s Foundation series and the novels it is based on raises serious questions about the interface of science and religion. There is indeed a conflict between the two, but not where we expect it.

Foundation, Apple’s TV adaptation of the epic science fiction series written by Issac Asimov, has begun streaming. The trailers promise an exciting narrative and a visual spectacle with action, intrigue, and big-name actors. Asimov’s original trilogy work was arguably the first of what we call modern science fiction. He imagined galactic empires of millions of worlds and a capital city that encompassed an entire planet 30 years before Star Wars put these same ideas on the big screen. In the Foundation universe, starships can travel faster than light, and an emperor rules with draconian efficiency, feeding a festering rebellion. While these tropes have become common or even cliche in our day, it was Asimov, writing in his West Philadelphia apartment in the evenings after his shifts at the US Navy shipyards, who brought them into our imaginative possibilities.

The Foundation series was and is revolutionary beyond imagining the possibility of a human civilization galactic in scope. Firstly, the books do not follow a typical set of characters, rather, the series spans thousands of years. It is a civilizational narrative, a big picture story. Secondly and most importantly, Asimov’s fictional science was not an extrapolation of what we now call the “hard sciences” of physics, chemistry, or biology. A typical science fiction narrative relies on some new kind of technology or even the presence of an alien race to create a world for the characters to express their narrative. While the setting included laser guns and hyperspace, Asimov dreamed up a huge breakthrough of the soft sciences as his paradigm-shifting plot driver. He called it “psychohistory” and for the first time, we collectively considered what social sciences could be if we let our imagination run wild.

I warn against a desire to master our ultimate fate through our own efforts at social engineering.

Psychohistory is a mathematical model that purports to be able to predict with precision the flow of human events. It is undeniably a black box, yet we don’t know how the first main character we meet and inventor of psychohistory, Hari Seldon, was able to deduce a mathematical model of human civilization nor do we need to know this information in the same way we do not need to know how a lightsaber works to enjoy a duel of telekinetic warriors. In other words, we don’t know what variables Seldon used, nor what the math actually looked like. Regardless, the model predicts an oncoming civilizational decline and disaster for the people of his universe. Seldon is no pundit, he is a forecaster, a mathematical prophet. His power is his proofs.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot that isn’t revealed in the trailers for the show or on the back cover of the first novel. (While the TV show has garnered mixed reviews, I do recommend Asimov’s original book series, which is excellent). However, we must ask ourselves what kind of world we would live in if we could predict and manipulate the forces of human decline and advancement with the same precision that we predict the movement of planets or manipulate electricity. With such a model we could input plans or policies and project exactly how they would turn out. We could solve hunger, racism, discrimination of every kind, and even come up with the perfect college football playoff system. Many of these goals are, on some level, part of the aspirational project of many disciplines of academic study including developmental economics, critical theory, and psychology. This is unsurprising since Asimov was not the first to think of the possibilities of a mathematical model of human civilization. That honor goes to the French philosopher duo of Henri Saint-Simon and Auguste Comte.

Writing in the secular post-revolution France, Saint-Simon and his student Auguste Comte (who is now recognized as the father of sociology) argued that society needed a new moral foundation to replace the role once performed by organized religion. Saint-Simon proposed a new state-based political structure based on Newtonian physics of all things. This new structure would consist of committees of artists and scientists who would use the newly discovered principles of science to govern the population and educate them on the laws of nature and the need for progress. Saint-Simon’s student and collaborator Auguste Comte described this new science as “social physics.”

Now that the human mind has grasped celestial and terrestrial physics, mechanical and chemical; organic physics, both vegetable, and animal, there remains one science, to fill up the series of sciences of observation, Social physics. This is what men have now most need of: and this it is the principal aim of the present work to establish.

Note the naive confidence in the presumed complete nature of the hard sciences. In a post-Newtonian world, it would be easy to assume that there would be no more great scientific breakthroughs. Saint-Simeon and Comte could not imagine that Darwin or Einstein would come along and ask us to re-think everything.

Perhaps the intellectual leap we need to discuss is the change in the role of the scientist. Under Saint-Simon’s system, the ideal role of the scientist was to shape the social environment of individuals and not the other way around. The social environment was to be manipulated in deliberate manners to bring about desired outcomes among the general population based on scientific principles. This new philosophy was revolutionary because it ignored behavior as the driving force of human destiny and instead refocused on the forces that underlie and explain social behaviors. Thus by using the scientific tools provided by the Age of Enlightenment, mankind could generate the true set of morals to guide the people of Earth away from destruction and towards a more enlightened way of being. The parallels between Saint-Simon and Asimov’s character are indeed striking. Asimov’s character Hari Seldon went as far as to call his new psychohistory a religion, arguing “It is the chief characteristic of the religion of science that it works.”

An important implication for this proposal is that science, and thereby moral legitimacy would be a political question. Comte summarized:

Politics, therefore, to sum up in two words, is the science of production, that is, the science which has for its object the order of things most favorable to all sorts of production.

Before moving on, let’s address the absurdity of both Seldon’s fictional discovery and Saint-Simon’s fantasizing. How could we find the hidden causal laws that determine the destiny of human civilization when we still have trouble with the basic laws of physics? The entire premise of social physics is that the causal natural laws governing the natural world are mirrored in human behavior and so without an understanding of these laws our dream of finding them in ourselves is also lost. Yet we still don’t know what gives particles mass, what time is, or if there is life on other planets.

The critic of social sciences Allan Horowitz argues that even if we knew these fundamental laws of human nature and the societies we form, we would still stumble. His observation is that knowing scientific laws does not promise that they will be applied properly. Or in other words, knowing the exactitude of the physics and biology of motion does not promise you can keep up with an Olympic sprinter. Horowitz summarized, “Hence the struggle for a good society can never be reduced to the search for pure science. To think otherwise is to encourage the heresy of scientific thinking.” 

It is my opinion that science and religion, when done properly, are fundamentally not in conflict. However, if we describe science as a replacement for religion and the foundation for a new morality, that puts the two in a collision course and in fierce competition for the same turf. In recent years, it has become painfully obvious that theoretical physicists and astronomers have little conflict with religious doctrines; it is in the social sciences where scholarship and religion generate the most acute public conflict.

But what is the danger or hubris associated with using science to generate moral values? Fictional psychohistory or modern attempts to create a very real Social Physics are intrinsically making human conjecture, observation, and theory the foundation for morality. For people who profess faith in a deity, our sense of morality is revealed and an expression of God’s will. We also shudder at the many atrocities in history committed by those with political power in the name of progress, scientific truth, or other euphemisms for “favorable production.”

Fortunately, we have the spiritual physics contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which will provide a path to salvation with a precision we could call mathematical.

I want to be sure I do not offend my many social scientist friends who use social science to understand ourselves and inspire good in many spheres of our world. What I warn against is a desire to master our ultimate fate through our own efforts at social engineering. We must be wary of trying to follow the self-aggrandizing teachings of Korihor while believing we are helping people. We must find a way to help and serve people while keeping our eye single to God’s glory and not as a symbol of our own achievement.

The biggest problem with the ultimate social physics is that its sights are far too low. The ultimate fate of a world run by psychohistory or social physics is a materialistic paradise without any thought to our ultimate salvation. Fortunately, we have the spiritual physics contained in the Gospel of Jesus Christ which will provide a path to salvation with a precision we would call mathematical. We even use the mathematical term, infinite, to describe God’s love for us and the redeeming power of Christ’s Atonement. The ultimate variables and forces that govern our lives are our eternal identity and the unseen unmeasurable light that fills the universe encouraging us to do good and come home. Our morals come from prophetic revelation and the Light of Christ that calls all of us to do good.

There will be no real-life psychohistory or social physics in the manner dreamed of by Asimov, Comte, and Saint-Simon. If we were to do so we would have to lose our humanity and become subjects of cause and effect without agency or the power to determine our own fate. The universe would be a cold vast expanse with no meaning and functioning in entirely predictable ways. Fortunately, the universe is immensely surprising and so are we.

About the author

Spencer Yamada

Spencer is an Entrepreneur and PhD candidate in Instructional Psychology and Technology at Brigham Young University. His research is on Hermeneutic Phenomenology and moral development. A native of New York City, Spencer has worked at the Wheatley Institution at BYU and enjoys playing ice hockey and the great outdoors in his spare time.
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