Who Knows What Tomorrow May Bring?

A collection which includes Asimov’s early excursions into psychohistory. This edition published by Granada Publishing Limited in Panther Books 1979. Cover illustration by Chris Foss.

History seems to repeat itself.  It may be nothing more than an aspect of getting older, but one tends to feel that one has seen it all before – possibly because, to some extent, one has.  And then one gets ever more frustrated that surely people should learn from history, though they never seem to.

Which raises the thought that, since the amount of historical data is increasing all the time, it ought to be become more and more feasible to predict what is going to happen based on what is known to have occurred previously.  After all, people’s mind-sets don’t really seem to change that much from generation to generation, and a great deal of psychology and sociology is based on the idea that patterns of behaviour can be analysed, and indeed predicted, on evidence from previous activity.

In his 2005 book Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, David Berreby looks at how we convince ourselves that we belong to certain categories, from races and religions to gangs and cliques, and seeks a common root in human nature.  We may each have our own mind map of what we are, but it is dictated by thought patterns that are essentially part of being human.  And in his 2012 book The Righteous Mind, the social and cultural psychologist Jonathan Haidt explains that we are effectively hardwired to take certain moral and judgemental stances.  This enabled us to form communities in the first place, but also means that we are predisposed to believe certain things.

In other words, given enough people from which to draw evidence, we ought to be able to make a fair assessment of how, on the grand scale, humans will behave in certain circumstances.  And if this applies here on this one planet, how much more accurate it might be if calculations were based on the billions that might live in a wide-spread interstellar civilization.  This is the premise of the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s well-known science of psychohistory, made famous in his Foundation series which began with short stories appearing in Astounding Science Fiction magazine in 1942.

However, in his 1972 collection The Early Asimov, or Eleven Years of Trying, the author suggested that the concept was foreshadowed in some of his earlier tales where, for the first time, he “treated psychology as a mathematically refined science.”  The first such story was his Homo Sol from 1940, where psychology in a Galactic federation has become a strictly quantifiable science, allowing its psychologists to assess the peculiar behaviour of the humans from planet Earth who are now being considered for acceptance into the federation, and resulting in some serious reconsideration – on both sides – as to whether this is such a good idea from the point of view of both parties.

Asimov’s 1942 sequel The Imaginary, set in the same federation, raises an even more disturbing problem.  The baffling behaviour of a species requires the use of imaginary numbers in the mathematics, which cancel out in the final formulas so as to explain what is happening.  As one of the psychologists exclaims: “What can the square root of minus one represent, psychologically speaking?…the neural synapses were hooked up in neither more nor less than four dimensions!”  As another suggests, perhaps facetiously, if you stimulate the creature today, it will react yesterday.

No doubt that’s going much too far in terms of possible advances in prediction that might be feasible through a mathematical psychology, but it does suggest that there could be major obstacles if one places too much emphasis on the potential for precise scientific accuracy.  Humans are individually remarkably unpredictable for much of the time, as may also be any intelligent extraterrestrials that we might meet one day and that might be within our realm of comprehension.  But that’s the point – individuals are unpredictable, but large masses may be entirely predictable.  We who are no more than mere cogs in the machine might not even be aware of the forces that are pushing our buttons.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

With a lifetime’s interest in science, history and human behaviour, Richard Hayes focuses his writing on how the imagination has created the world in which we live, and where it may lead us in the future.  Odyssey, the e-magazine of the British Interplanetary Society, draws on the rich treasury of science fiction to explore many fields of speculation, enabling us to glimpse what might yet be, both here on Earth and out amongst the stars.

For related Odyssey posts, please click here: The Season of Goodwill | The Dangers of Prediction

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