FOUNDATION TRILOGY – Isaac Asimov (1951-’53)

Foundation first edition cover high res (David Kyle, Gnome, 1951)Foundation and Empire (Asimov, first cover, damaged)Second Foundation (Asimov, first cover, Binkley)

For about a decade I didn’t read any fiction. About 14 years ago a friend recommended me Anathem by Neil Stephenson, and I’ve been back at reading fiction since. Some Culture novels by Banks followed, and I became enamored with science fiction as genre. So I dove into its canon, and the Foundation series became the first thing I read after I gobbled up Iain M. Banks. It became one of my favorite series, even liking book 4 and 5 from 1982 and ’86 most – back then because of their scientific-mystical all-is-one slant.

I read some more of Isaac Asimov too: I, Robot (1950), Caves of Steel (1954), The End of Eternity (1955), The Gods Themselves (1972), and the godawful Foundation prequels – Prelude to Foundation (1988) and Forward the Foundation (1993).

And now, after my rereads of the entire Dune series, and Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, the time felt right to reread and review Foundation, Foundation and Empire and Second Foundation. At first I wanted to do one book at a time, but when I finished Foundation, it was obvious that these books are better reviewed as a whole, as they are a sole collection of short stories and novellas first published in Astounding Science-Fiction, from 1942 to 1950, under the auspices of editor John W. Campbell. Only the very first chapter, “The Psychohistorians”, was written for the publication of the first book itself.

I read the splendid Everyman’s Library edition – a hardback with an excellent 15-page introduction by Michael Dirda that’s isn’t expensive nonetheless. That introduction guided my reading a bit, and I’ll get back to it a few times.

First, a warning: I’ll have to let down recurring readers expecting a long analysis like those of the Dune books or The Book of the New Sun. This post won’t be 5,000 or 10,000 words – only 2,300. I simply don’t have that much to add to all that has been written on this seminal work, considered a “watershed” in literary history by many. Dirda quotes SF editor Donald Wollheim: “Stories published before Foundation belong to the old line, the stories published published after belong to ‘modern’ science fiction.”

Before my actual reread, I thought this post might turn into a big examination about how Asimov deals with free will in the books, not dissimilar to my post on LOTR. It turns out that there just isn’t that much to discuss, but I’ll spend a few paragraphs on it nonetheless, as it is the crux of the series.

Did I think this trilogy has become way outdated, and did I enjoy my reread? To answer that and more, let’s get back to Dirda – three times.

Foundation (first Avon printing, Punchatz)Foundation and Empire (Asimov, Punchatz)Second Foundation (Asimov, Punchatz)


For starters, that remark about Foundation being a watershed. I’m simply in no position to validate that claim. I haven’t read that much SF from the 1940s or before. But it seems plausible that Asimov really was the first to tell a story about a galactic empire, nearly 50,000 years into the future. Stapledon’s Last and First Men from 1930 obviously spans much more time, but that’s more a philosophical work, not something packed with plot & intrigue. If I consider most stuff I read from the 1950s, there’s indeed a certain scope missing compared to Asimov’s story – a story that’s give or take a decade older.

It’s kind of ironic that Asimov took The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire written by Edward Gibbon in the late 18th century as a blueprint for his political structure. A clever move, as the effect is a certain recognizable realism, even if planet Earth isn’t remembered anymore in this future history.


The second thing I’d like to highlight from Michael Dirda’s introduction has to do with free will and determinism.

In particular, the series explores the place of individual initiative: How free are we in our actions? Does one person make a difference? If so, how much and in what way? Like any good writer, Asimov never gives simple answer. Even the noble Seldon Plan itself is made problematic, for there are hints that the envisioned Second Empire might turn out to be as nightmarish as Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

I think Dirda’s questions are misguided, confusing individual actions and individuals making choices with freedom – as is done so often in the debates surrounding free will, and possibly something Asimov himself was confused by as well. Either way, it is very clear Asimov has written a book about a deterministic universe, and that deterministic universe is clearly the basic idea underlying Hari Seldon’s ‘psychohistory’ as well – indeed, the foundation of the series. I collected all the relevant quotes during my reading, but I’ll use just a few to make my point.

I’ll start with a quote from Second Foundation, that basically lays down a reductionist view of reality:

Psychohistory had been the development of mental science, the mathematicization thereof, rather, which had finally succeeded. Through the development of the mathematics necessary to understand the facts of neural physiology and the electro-chemistry of the nervous system, which themselves had to be, had to be, traced down to nuclear forces, it first became possible to truly develop psychology. And through the generalization of psychological knowledge from the individual to the group, sociology was also mathematicized.

Whether or not Asimov believed pyschohistory would be ever really possible is beside the point – in his writing here it seems that he did believe in the general underlying principle, which is something else than its feasibility.

There are lots of quotes wherein characters are clearly described as determined.

Bail Channis was young, and Bail Channis was Unconverted. That is, in plainer language, his emotional makeup had been unadjusted by the Mule. It remained exactly as it had been formed by the original shape of its heredity and the subsequent modifications of his environment.

or

[they] excused themselves delicately by declaring that they had merely followed the dictates of their judgement and their conscience

It is of note that also the Mule, the character that symbolizes the wild, unpredictable factor, is determined. It’s important to recognize that unpredictability operates on another level (the epistemic) than determinism (the ontological level), and as such you can’t reduce them to each other. That’s also the reason chaos theory and quantum effects aren’t solid arguments by themselves against determinism.

Anyhow, back to the Mule. It is explicitly stated that he is determined by his glands (his meagerness), his genes (having mental powers, being sterile) and his social surroundings (being an outcast), and so the Mule as well is played by his own emotions. All this is recognized both by the people of the Second Foundation, as by the Mule himself.

“Your emotions are, of course,” said the First Speaker, “only the children of your background and are not to be condemned – merely changed. (…)”

&

“I have no sorrow for what I did in my necessity. (…)”

Some characters do grapple with all these confusing notions however, and Asimov has characters stress multiple times that psychohistory doesn’t work on the individual level.

“You mean that this art of his predicts that I would attack the Foundation and lose such and such a battle for such and such a reason? You are trying to say that I am a silly robot following a predetermined course into destruction.” “No,” replied the old patrician, sharply. “I have already said that the science had nothing to do with individual actions. It is the vaster background that has been foreseen.” [Bell Riose]

&

“But they have their weakness. Their work is statistical and only the mass action of humanity is truly inevitable. Now how I play a part, as an individual, in the foreseen course of history, I don’t know. Perhaps I have no definite part, since the Plan leaves individuals to indeterminancy and freewill. But I am important and they – they, you understand – may at least have calculated my probable reaction. So I distrust my impulses, my desires, my probable reactions.” [Dr. Toran Darell in conversation with Pelleas Anthor]

I think it is important to distinguish between what the science of psychohistory can’t do – predict the future on an individual level because of enormous biological & social complexity – and between claiming that, because their actions can’t be predicted on the individual level, individuals have free will and are not determined. (Again: there is a difference between epistemology and ontology.)

Time and time again in the novels, Asimov describes characters (and planets & cultures) that are clearly determined. Fully in line with the basic idea of the first quote in this section, not once is there a character doing something in full, undetermined freedom, not in the slightest.

It is not because some characters claim they have free will – which by the way is a very realistic thing to portray as a writer, given this powerful idea of free will that most humans experience – that the books advocate humans having it. And so, when in the final pages of the final book, Jole Turbor, one of the conspirators, thinks “Galaxy! When can a man know he is not a puppet? How can a man know he is not a puppet?”, Asimov makes it the central question of the book, even though he doesn’t answer it directly.

The text however, doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation: it shows that humans – like everything else above the quantum level – are determined by causal chains that are for a very, very large part beyond their own control. People in chains are not free.

The question whether an individual can have an impact on society – of course they can, just look at the Mule, or, even better, Hari Seldon himself – is simply not relevant to the question of determinism: some individuals  – determined by nature and nurture – do indeed impact society at large.

It’s ironic that the trilogy’s larger story arc was improvised. Asimov didn’t have any idea what the Second Foundation would be or do when he put it in as some kind of back-up at the very beginning, and the character of the Mule was inserted because of advice Campbell had given, to break the pattern of Seldon’s predictable happy endings to each successive crisis. One could say the overall story wasn’t predetermined by Asimov, true, but that would not be an argument pro free will or contra determinism, it is just a matter of timing, and at best an argument pro the complexity of human creativity.


A final thing from Dirda was his remark about Sherlock Holmes. “Hari Seldon is virtually an avatar of an all-knowing Sherlock Holmes”. Dirda continues by writing “Each individual story’s protagonist is also a kind of detective, faced with a mystery or complicated problem” and “The astute reader soon realizes that almost nobody in the series is quite what he or she appears to be, and that everyone is either playing a port or being unconsciously manipulated.”

These three sentences guided my rereading experience, because they turned out to be very true indeed. It is also what provides the basic joy of these books, aside from the awe evoked by things like the planet Trantor in the first chapter or the fictional mathematics in the third book.

The Foundation trilogy basically is about smart people outsmarting other smart people, and that scratches a particular itch, at least for this very reader. And so, yes, when Dirda writes that it’s “essentially an ideas-based conversation novel”, he is right again, and basically talking about that same itch. It’s also what draws a decent chunk of science fiction fandom to SF: aside the adventures & awe, it’s a genre of ideas first and foremost.

There’s no denying these novels have some weaknesses: because of the serial origin story, they are a tad too repetitive, and Asimov should have edited those instances out. And, yes, indeed, there aren’t that many female characters. But it also needs pointing out Bayta Darrell is a strong character and a heroine, and Arkady Darrell plays a prominent, independent role – even if she turns out to be determined too, like everybody else.

I have read complaints about the prose, but I do think it does the job just fine. I’ve have read much, much worse. The same goes for characterization: indeed, the novel is primarily about ideas, not people, and so this criticism seems a bit of the mark. It might not be to everybody’s taste, sure, but it’s a bit like complaining a margarita pizza doesn’t have a lot of ingredients. To Asimov’s defense, I think that both Hari Seldon and the Mule are towering, larger than life, original and compelling characters – there aren’t that many characters in fiction I remembered so vividly 10 years down the line. The Mule is an icon. Also on the character front, I have read much, much worse – in titles published much, much more recently.

Specifically for my reread, I have to admit the mystery of both the Mule and the location of the Second Foundation were a whole lot less compelling, but I had forgotten the specific details, and those were still puzzling, and Asimov’s plotting intricate enough to keep my mind occupied.

So by all means, it is not a perfect read. But there’s mystery and the exotic, lots of twists, and solid detective-ish parts. Asimov also keeps things varied, e.g. by making a failure – general Bel Riose – one of the central characters in the middle book, as opposed to the infallible Salvor Hardin before.

And maybe most important, Asimov’s basic idea remains fundamental to human existence. As such, the trilogy confirms a suspicion that I have long held: what underlies big parts of literature is the way we relate to us being determined.

Is it a coincidence that 3 of speculative fiction most central texts – this trilogy, The Lord of the Rings and Dune – can be easily read in that light? I don’t think so. More so, as I have tried to argue in their reviews, these books first and foremost show that human beings are indeed “formed by the original shape of its heredity and the subsequent modifications of his environment”.



Someday I will reread Foundation’s Edge (1982) and Foundation and Earth (1986). Given Asimov’s spotty track record, I don’t expect a lot anymore from those. Will Asimov manage to impress me again with his mysticism, now that I’m more than a decade older? Could very well be, given my reaction to the Krasznahorkai I recently read. I also wonder if Asimov will have changed his outlook on determinism more than 30 years down the line.

As a final judgement: I don’t think I will ever reread this trilogy. In that respect it is different from Dune, a book I plan to reread at least one more time. And I won’t list the trilogy anymore among my favorite science fiction titles like I once did, but I did enjoy rereading it, and there is no denying it was and remains seminal in my own adventures exploring fiction.

Foundation-_Panther_-Foss_-1973_Foundation-and-Empire-_Panther_-Foss_-1973_Second-Foundation-_Panther_-Foss_-1973_


Consult the author index for my other reviews, or my favorite lists.

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34 responses to “FOUNDATION TRILOGY – Isaac Asimov (1951-’53)

  1. We enjoyed watching Netflix’s (?) version of Foundation recently, but it’s been MANY years since I read the books, and MANY things seemed different from my memories.

    It will have to be content to be on the ‘maybe’ list for rereading some day if and when I have more energy, or have stopped writing, but I DID read a lot of SF – classical or golden age – and stopped when it became experimental mush (OMNI magazine drove me crazy), so I can’t predict the future, but I do know I have been influenced by that SF reading past.

    I still need story, characters I can identify with, and all the other things that make reading enjoyable, can’t stand Gaiman or Mieville (what I’ve read), and am probably too old if there are actually any ideas for humans in the current speculative fiction. Too many books! If there is a Heaven, it will have a fully-stocked library and movie theater, and maybe I can catch up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m not really interested in the Netflix series, just as I’m not interested in the GOT prequel or the Rings of Power. I’ve seen two episodes from those last two, and and just all seems so superficial, with unrealistic dialogue and a slow pace. I’ve basically lost my fate in screen adaptations of books like these. Money seems to matter more than artistic concerns, especially for these epic, big titles, and as a result you get a kind of washed down product that is designed to appeals to as many people as possible.

      OMNI magazine is unknown to me, will look into that a bit.

      I thought Gaiman’s American Gods to be quite alright, and Mieville’s Embassytown was okay, if marred by linguistic troubles, and The City & The City was even excellent, but I don’t have a lot of interest in reading their other titles. Too many other books indeed, and their output seems driven by gimmickery, even though I admit I could be wrong there.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just personal preference; I did try them, and they are not my thing. I thought AG had a good start, and then it went sideways. Those authors are both popular and win awards – which has kept me from reading more recent SF, even before I started writing seriously. There are fashions in SFF as in anything.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Indeed. I have to say most popular, recent SF doesn’t appeal to me. What I’ve read (often prizewinning stuff) was too much product, often very generic, while it was praised by others as original, like A Memory Called Empire of Arkady Martine.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for including the various covers. That was neat to see.

    I can totally understand moving these off of a “favorite” list once you’ve matured. They have limitations, and that’s not a bad thing, but it can’t be ignored either.

    I will say, what you experienced is why I avoid introductions by jackasses (and everyone who writes an introduction is a jackass by nature of being willing to write it). I don’t want my opinions and thoughts shaped by somebody else. I experienced that with Dracula and it ruined the entire book for me and I still haven’t recovered. So maybe next you read something, skip the propaganda until you’ve made up your own mind? πŸ˜‰
    Ha! I have a feeling you would have ended up thinking the way you did anyway, so no real loss I guess, hahahahaa.

    Glad you didn’t hate it this time around. That’s always a possibility with re-reads :-/

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    • The question is what is mature, I must have been 30 already when I first read them. πŸ™‚ But I sure have matured as a reader of speculative fiction since, I’ve must read around 300 additional speculative fiction titles since my first reading. That puts things in perspective indeed.

      Re: introductions, I have no problem reading those, especially not in books I’ve already read. They often provide a few interesting angles for a review. But I can seen other people wanting to go without additional bias. (What happened with Dracula btw?)

      I agree there’s a certain hybris involved in writing an introduction for fiction like this, but then again, it isn’t as different from blogging & reviewing. πŸ™‚ I guess my main beef with introductions is that they usually aren’t critical enough.

      As for hate: I only reread books I really, really enjoyed the first time around, so chances are slim I’d hate any of my rereads. My next reread will either by Excession by Banks, Anathem by Stephenson or Frankenstein.

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      • * gazes into navel *
        “Maturity is when you realize you truly are not mature and can accept it”
        ~Suphi 458, The Book of Bookstooge

        The intro I read for dracula exclusively focused on the “hidden sexual themes” and made everything in the novel to be about sex.

        The difference between intros and blogging/reviews is that I am not trying to make everyone else who reads my reviews think the same way as me. Maybe other bloggers do that, but most of the intros I’ve read all seem to be in the vein of “not only is this what I think, but it is the ONLY way to think about this book”. Like waving a red flag in front of a bull, sigh.

        My vote is Frankenstein. I don’t like the other 2 authors πŸ˜€

        Liked by 1 person

        • I think I was aware of the supposed sex in Dracula before I even opened the book, amongst other things because of Coppola’s movie. I didn’t finish the book, found it boring. Maybe I was too young, I was about 20, but I did finished (and loved) Frankenstein at that time. Either way, I have no intention of revisiting Stoker’s book.

          Agreed on introductions often having a too authoritative vibe. I wonder if that’s what publishers explicitly ask when they commission those pieces.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting take on the trilogy with the focus on determinism. I hadn’t thought about it in that light. I liked these books but thought them very dated. They are better than the 1980s novels, that’s for sure. I’m also intrigued by a lot of similarities between Foundation and Dune.

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    • Yeah the Golden Path is not dissimilar to the Seldon Plan, and both books deal with a long term galactic empire. Dirda talks about it too a bit in the introduction. The funny thing is I’ve only seen talk about in one direction: Foundation must have influenced Dune, not the other way around. In all I’ve read about Herbert & Dune, I’ve never come across a mention of the fact that Herbert would have been influenced by Foundation. It seems you only come across lots of talk about Star Wars being a Dune rip off. So in that respect, Foundation must have influenced Star Wars too πŸ™‚

      I agree that the trilogy’s age shows, but I had expected it a whole lot more. All and all, probably because of Asimov’s direct style, they retain a certain freshness too.

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  4. God, I worshipped at the altar of Asimov for a while, and Foundation was such an important work in my own reading of SF. Then I read Foundation and Empire and…something changed. The deterministic nature of the story, as you highlight above, struck me as weirdly depressing, and I honestly never found the will to read either Second Foundation or any of the others in the series. There’s essentially a positive message at the heart of it — “Ey, don’t worry about it, everything’s gonna work out no matter what” — but it struck me as rather less than edifying.

    Maybe I was overthinking it, who knows? When I finally take an extended break from mystery fiction, I should really revisit these.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s interesting. I don’t think determinism is depressing at all, because it sets us free morally.

      Why not mix by the way, and throw in some other stuff during your exploration of mystery fiction. I’ve found that reading some other stuff than speculative fiction occasionally keep the flames burning & the engines churning.

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      • Yeah, I’d like to mix more, but I’m not a fast reader and, since I’ve foolishly set up the expectation of blogging three times a week, any time not spent reading for my blog is often difficult to make up.

        But, yeah, the ideal would be to genre-slip, which would be more likely to keep everything fresh. Plus the dusty, non-mystery of my TBR would finally get addressed.
        Hopefully I’ll win the lottery and be able to quite work and make this happen!

        Liked by 1 person

        • *Quit* work, I mean. Of course.

          Liked by 1 person

        • If you can post 3 times a week, you’re not a slow reader in my book.

          As long as the blog doesn’t become a drag for you, keep on trucking, but such a schedule wouldn’t work out for me. I’ve been posting about once a week the last two months, and it has been ages since I’ve posted so much. I don’t think I’ll be able to keep that up. Not that I put any pressure on myself either way anymore, it just flows as flows, and that works best for me. I used to expect myself to read/post 1 book a week, but I’m glad I abandonned that – or better, had to abandon that.

          (I should be working right now.)

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  5. Yeah, can’t say I liked the Foundation trilogy too much – I guess I read it too late in my reading journey and I was painfully conscious of the plodding, ungraceful writing, laboured plot, and general feeling of a simplistic, clockwork universe. The psychohistory was for me one of the main offputting traits of Asimov’s concept πŸ˜‰
    I agree that many most culturally important books deal with the notion of fate, which you would translate into determinism – but IMO most of the modern ones show fate as something that can be conquered, altered, remade. It’s mostly the European myths that show inevitability of fate – Greek and Norse, predominantly, building the emotional impact of tragedy on the notion of an unwinnable battle of an individual against fate πŸ˜‰

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, that’s a very interesting comment. You could indeed reframe it as fate, or, as some protestants do, predestination.

      Could you give a couple of examples of modern books that show fate/determinism can be conquered? This is something that calls for PhD research! If only I were 20 years younger!

      And would you say non-European myths are significantly different in this respect? I’m not well versed in the matter.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I can already see the title, “The clash of luck and fate in Western culture since ancient times” πŸ˜€

        I feel like maybe that’s what’s missing in the deterministic worldview – the chaos. People tend to like to find explanations for their success in themselves, and for their failures – outside themselves. Luck is something more commonly assigned to others πŸ˜‰ I think partly because the concept of luck is based on the chaotic unpredictability of reality and accepts that it is not predestined. You can try “Thinking, fast and slow” by Kahneman to see some economic arguments for this – it’s a book that has a very good first half πŸ˜‰

        As for the literature, I think it depends how wide or how narrowly you’d like to cast your net. For example, Pratchett deals a lot with the trope of fate/determinism in Discworld novels, particularly the trope of The Chosen One. But it could be argued that many “from rags to riches” stories follow that “fight against determined future” reasoning, as do many biographies. I’d still argue Tolkien is anti-deterministic, or at least non-deterministic in the way he moves the plot forward, as the chance of succeeding in the destruction of One Ring is very small and ultimately dependent on a host of unrelated factors – but that would be non-determinism above the individual level, or at least not universally on individual level. But, thb, I’d start with New Testament and history of Jesus, and the lies we tell ourselves to absolve ourselves from guilt πŸ˜‰

        As for non-European myths, I’m refraining from making decisive statements about them because my knowledge of them is very incomplete. I can only say that my understanding of the non-Western mythologies leads me to an assumption that fate and determinism are perceived somewhat differently than in the West mostly because of a difference in the approach to individualism/collectivism and the role of an individual in general.

        Anyway, that is a very interesting topic, indeed. I’d probably approach it from the psychological/anthropological angle, so my conclusions would be most likely different than yours – plenty of discussions to be had! πŸ˜‰

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        • Very true about luck & failure, but chaos is not the absence of causality, it is just a form of very, very complex causality. As such, luck is no argument against determinism. I know I introduced the term predestination myself here, but is a bit of loaded term that muddles things. I think it’s more clear to speak simply about causal chains. But either way, unpredictability isn’t really an argument against ‘predestination’/determinism, for the same reasons I expressed in my reply to Aonghus Fallon.

          As for Tolkien: I’ve just checked, and we didn’t continue our discussion from 2 years ago. If you have the time, it would be cool to take it up again (It’s here: https://wp.me/p1tcLv-6TL πŸ™‚ )

          I agree lots of literature is about fighting against fate, rags to riches, etc. But I would say that if you look closely to the texts, one would see that most writers will actually write about causal chains nonetheless – and that’s perfectly understandable, it is our reality. That’s basically what Tolkien did too: saying he was writing about free will, but in reality (probably without himself realizing it) writing a story about people that were causaly determined. The fact wether a determining factor is or isn’t above the individual level doesn’t seem very relevant. If such a factor influences an individual, it’s not above his or her level really, and so not unrelated. And again, chances are more about epistemics than about causality: expressing things in terms of chances is a way of talking about reality, not reality itself.

          Jesus is an interesting example: the entire New Testament is written in a way to prove that his coming was predicted by the Old Testament.

          I think there are just as many causal chains in psychology/anthropology (or even way more) than there are in lets say biology, so I’m not sure conclusions would differ that much depending the angle.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Man, that’s a long discussion we’re going to have here πŸ˜‰

            I still haven’t read the books you recommended on the topic, so my take will be probably somewhat limited to the cultural/socio-psychological angle.

            Firstly, I cannot shake the feeling that determinism is just another story we tell ourselves. It absolves people of guilt, responsibility, and satiates the need for reason, for the origin cause of everything. The Primum Movens comes to mind πŸ˜›

            I’d argue that this my argument above is reinforced by the fact that you’re looking for determinism in the chaotic and nearly infinite environment of our reality. Agree, some actions have very simple origin; but most cannot be traced to one, or even less than infinite, origin points. In this infinity of crossing causes can we not find space for agency? Obviously, I’m skipping plenty of steps in this reasoning, and I haven’t finished polishing my approach to the question of determinism (as I remember, we couldn’t entirely agree to the definition of that term ;))

            As for Jesus, that’s exactly what I was aiming for – the post-factum causality and determinism of both Testaments is (consciously or not) aimed at absolving the believers of collective guilt – in this case, condemning an innocent man to a horrible death.

            Anyway, keep pushing me, Bart, please! I might be not too quick with my responses, but it’s not avoidance, just lack of time. I think this topic is super interesting, so thanks for inviting me to this discussion πŸ˜€

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            • (I’ll get back to you later this week.)

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            • Agreed that determinism is a story, but that doesn’t make it untrue. I also don’t think that it takes away responsibility, but indeed it might “absolve” them, in the sense that I don’t think traditional notions of morals, sin, guilt, are very useful for having ethical discussions. In that sense people don’t need absolution, as I think there is no “sin” in the first place.

              The infinity argument is flawed imo: it’s not because something is complex, that the principle of causality would cease to exist. It’s a variant of magic, vitalism, etc.: somewhere in our infinitely complex brain there is somehow something that escapes the principles of action-reaction, with the old “the sum is more than its parts”-arguments. How such a feat would be achieved is never explained. It’s a form of handwavium.

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              • I never said the principle of causality would cease to exist in the inifity; I’m only saying that among the infinite pressures/factors/time that influences our behavior, certain points of space-time continuum of the moment of decision can be as close to undetermined as possible – “as if” our will was indeed free (for a given definition of free, of course). In other words, in some situations the availability of choices is greater than in others.

                I think that because our minds are incapable of comprehending that much information, we’re either latching on to monocausalism, or some primitive version of determinism, or we’re espousing the concept of absolute free will. I’m saying both of these extremes are false. We are determined; we are born into deterministic world and so (to the extent of our knowledge) cannot exist outside of it. But there are many levels and many definitions of determinism; I’m starting to suspect our opinions are not so different after all, the difference lies more in the details of our respective approaches.

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  6. Aonghus Fallon

    My brother got me the first 3 – 4(?) books a few years back. I’d read a lot of Asimov’s short stories as a teenager, but never got round to this series. Nor had I read Asimov in the interim. Like you say, a lot of his work is about setting up a predicament/mystery, then resolving it, which works just fine for me – I’d also reckon Asimov has dated better than many of his contemporaries; I find him easier to read than – say – Heinlein, anyhow. So I enjoyed the books, if not maybe enought to continue with the sequence.

    I think – if you had all the necessary information – a society or an indivual’s behaviour could be anticipated with a high degree of accuracy. But does this mean the individual etc lacks free will? Especially given that a high degree of accuracy is not the same as 100% accurate?

    Assuming free will to exist, how would you define it?

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    • I’ve only read 2 Heinleins, but I think I agree.

      As for free will, I would define it as something like the realistic possibility to have chosen or have done something otherwise in the exact same circumstances (both determined by the surroundings and ones own history). As such, I don’t think it exists.

      As for the accuracy: again, this is a matter of epistemology. The accuracy of our predictions is a matter of our knowledge and processing power, it doesn’t say anything about the existence of causal chains yes or no.

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      • Aonghus Fallon

        That’s very interesting! I guess I’d see people making choices based on their own personal preferences as predictable, but still making choices? Ie, I wouldn’t regard determinism and freewill as incompatible?

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        • Yes, people make choices, very much so, but my stance (and that of lots of others) is that these choices are determined (basically by nature & nurture), so in that sense this ‘will’ is not free. So people have preferences indeed, but also these preferences are determined.

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  7. I’ve yet to revisit the second title so have skipped most of your discussion of the Mule but I liked this statement you make: “unpredictability operates on another level (the epistemic) than determinism (the ontological level).” I’m looking forward to unwrapping this a bit more before I read on.

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    • Thanks. Liked it myself too. It’s something I’ve felt for a long time, but just while writing this review it has struck me why, and was able to put in into words.

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  8. It’s reviews like this that make me scared to go back and read books from years ago that still glow in my memory. Perhaps they glow, but not so brightly…

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    • I don’t reread a lot, under 10% of what I read each year are rereads, and I generally only reread stuff that I’ve read over a decade ago. There’s always a bit of fear going in, indeed but I generally like rereading (at least for the amount I do it) as it’s also about yourself and your own aging as much as it is about the books, and that’s an aspect you don’t really get when you read a book for the first time.

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  9. I recently read these books for the first time. I’m slowly getting around to trying some of the classics of the genre that I didn’t read when younger. And though I’ve much more to read, I have read enough to know much from that time period were idea-based fiction less concerned about character or beautiful prose. So going in with that in mind I ended up enjoying these. I enjoyed how the science of psychohistory over time became something of a religion for some people, and questioning how much people ended up validating the predictive nature of Seldon’s work by doing what they thought were required of his predictions, essentially playing their deterministic roles and giving up any free will they may (or may not) have had. The stories did sometimes feel a little disjointed but that made sense given they were originally published as shorter works and only later pieced together as novels. I agree with you it might have been nice if he’d re-edited them when merging into novel form.

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    • Yes, I think it is all about expectation management. That said, in my work, I notice that younger people (17-18 year olds) that love scifi generally think these are really great, without the idea they are dated are whatever. So maybe these really are more something to read in your teens.

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