Monday, 16 September 2013

The Paramathematical Theory Of Man

"The most important discovery since the superdrive was, he gathered, the paramathematical theory of man, both as individual and as society, which had made it possible to reorganize on a stable, predictable, logical basis. There had been no guesswork on the part of the Technate's founders: they didn't think that such and such arrangements for production and distribution would work, they knew. The science wasn't perfect, it couldn't be; such eventualities as the colonial revolts had arisen unforeseen; but the civilization was stable, with high negative feedback, it adjusted smoothly to new conditions."

- Poul Anderson, The Long Way Home (St Albans, Herts, 1975), p. 58.

Sf ideas include not only interstellar drives but also a science of society. Can a single mathematical theory cover both individual and society? Isaac Asimov involved himself in several confusions -

(i) Will a sufficiently large, galactic scale, population be mathematically predictable despite individual unpredictability just as planetary orbits are predictable despite the unpredictability of individual particles? An Economics student thought, and I am inclined to agree, that increasing the number of individuals merely increases the unpredictability.

(ii) Will "Second Foundationers" who apply mathematics to society also understand individual psychology? It suits Asimov's story purposes to assume so.

(iii) The Second Foundationers, despite their greater understanding, turn out to be as mutually suspicious and in conflict as anyone else.

(iv) Does mental understanding really just mean mental control over other people?

(v) Asimov forgets between volumes what the nature and range of the mental powers is supposed to be.

(vi) It turns out that the mental powers were discovered and developed separately, not as part of Seldon's psychohistory.

(vii) Asimov says both that the mental science of the Second Foundation differs fundamentally from the physical science of the First Foundation and that mental events must be based in physical events. Dualism versus reductionism is an old philosophical debate. However, although I am confident that I am paraphrasing Asimov accurately, I am doing so from memory. His text either reduces mental events to physical events or leaves open the possibility that a qualitatively new level of being, the psychological, emerges from, without being mechanically reducible to, a more basic level, the physical. I am confident that Asimov meant the former but, since this discussion of Asimov is an unplanned digression from a discussion of Anderson, I am not disposed right now to look through Second Foundation for a verbatim quotation. But, Asimov fans, please comment or disagree?

As always, I prefer Anderson's treatment of these themes to Asimov's but that will have to wait till a later post.

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