The following guest post by Ijlal Naqvi is part of a series on sociology and science fiction.
Psychohistory is the mathematical social science from Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series which can be used to predict important societal developments at the population level. My colleagues writing in this blog series have used Foundation as an illustrative example of structural functionalism for a sociological theory course and likened psychohistory to quantitative sociology. Elsewhere, Paul Krugman described it as an inspiration to his younger self. It is a series which is familiar to more than just the geekier social scientists – there are clearly plenty of us! – after winning the only Best All-Time Series Hugo award and selling many millions of copies. For good measure, the series was packed into the boot of the Tesla roadster recently launched into space.
As recounted in Asimov’s Foundation, psychohistory can be used to generate probabalistic predictions of future events, works with mobs and large populations rather than individuals, can only handle a limited number of independent variables, works best when freedom of action is heavily constrained, and only works when its findings are kept secret. In the opening of the book, Hari Seldon – the founder of psychohistory – tests the new hire to his research institute by having him calculate (in his head) the probability of the galactic empire’s demise within 300 years. The collapse of the empire will lead to 30 millennia of chaos, but Seldon wants to reduce that interregnum to 1000 years by judiciously guiding the rise of a new empire through the use of psychohistory. I argue against the possibility of psychohistory by drawing on concepts of emergence and meaning making, while also questioning the normative basis of such a social science and its usage.
My primary argument against the possibility of psychohistory is that the human condition – who we are and what we will do – is not a solvable problem. Emergence is the idea that systemic characteristics arise organically from the interaction of the system’s parts, and these emergent outcomes cannot necessarily be determined in advance. More detailed discussions of emergence can be found in organization theory (Padgett and Powell 2012) and critical realism (Gorski 2016), but I think it is fair to say that emergence is a central concept in sociology precisely because we are not just studying collections of individuals. A very similar set of ideas could be expressed in language more familiar to the Santa Fe Institute: Given that human societies are complex non-linear systems with multiple independent actors who co-evolve with their environment, these are not systems which lend themselves to being ‘solved.’ A more fun treatment (I’m assuming you’re here because you like to read science fiction!) can be found in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem, whose fascinating story uses the non-repeating motion of a planet orbiting three suns as a central plot point. The critique of quantitative and predictive social science I offer here is related to George Box’s idea that ‘all models are wrong, but some are useful.’ Unlike the ambitions of psychohistory, the good model – to my mind – functions as a paradigm whose value lies in eschewing nuance (to paraphrase Healey 2017).
My second main argument against the possibility of psychohistory is based on the meaning-making activity which is fundamental to human life. We imbue our lives and actions with meanings that we construct, but these constructions are subject to change over time. I have in mind a version of Giddens’ (1984) structuration, but there are other theoretical formulations which will work. Humans think back at you. Religion, kingship, family, the good life: these are not constant over time, and human behavior reshapes itself as the basic categories of how we make sense of our own lives change over time. The vector space of social life keeps changing because the categories we use to make sense of it are impermanent, and because our interventions shape future possibilities.
Taking it on its own terms, psychohistory has features which render its potential suspect. The importance of secrecy to Seldon’s plan reveals what I consider to be psychohistory’s most fundamental weakness. Psychohistory, were it to exist, has the potential to invalidate its predictions once they become known. The mob whose actions are predicted must be “blind” and without “foreknowledge of the results of their own actions” (Asimov 1991, p120). Even the servants of the plan on the planet of Terminus must remain ignorant: “Interference due to foresight would have knocked the plan out of kilter” (Asimov 1991, p120). However, the knowledge that there is a plan – even if one doesn’t know what it is – plays into the behavior of the characters. Comically, one politician with some knowledge of the basics of psychohistory wonders “I tried never to let my foresight influence my action, but how can I tell?” (Asimov 1991, p121). After the existence of the plan becomes known, every mayoral campaign on Terminus has references to a “Seldon crisis” as people second guess the workings of the plan. Relatedly, psychohistory breaks down in the presence of too many independent variables and relies, to some extent, on constraining the freedom of action of the population whose behavior it wants to predict. The planet Terminus is chosen precisely because it has no natural resources and is on the very periphery of the galaxy. It is under these constraints that the future course of Terminus’ society can be predicted and guided.
Other arguments about its viability aside, I retain deep reservations about the normative basis of such a social science and its potential usage to shape humanity’s future. The necessity of its secrecy makes psychohistory unacceptable to me because it goes against core tenets of academia in terms of openness and its public functions (Calhoun 2011). Good intentions notwithstanding, the paternalism entailed in covertly shaping social futures is profoundly anti-democratic and grossly transgresses upon individual free will and human rights. Without offering a public account of its intentions and methods, any social science taking psychohistory’s capability to predict and shape the future as a model – even if it is in service of the greater good – will have a rotten core.
Despite my opposition to psychohistory and whatever its real-world analogues might be, I value Foundation for the kind of challenges its core ideas provoke and the kind of science fiction that it represents. Philip K Dick once defined science fiction as describing worlds that are “possible under the right circumstances,” and having this new world be based on a transformation or dislocation of our current world in such a way that a new society is revealed. Thus “the true protagonist of an sf story or novel is an idea and not a person” (here Dick cites Willis McNelly, an English professor at California State University, Fullerton). This is what I love about science fiction, but also in my mind what makes it profoundly sociological. At its best, it prompts you to rethink what you know about the world, and what could be.
Ijlal Naqvi is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Singapore Management University.
 For some reason I don’t understand, he and everyone on Terminus refers to psychohistory as psychology.
 Dick’s definition of science fiction comes from a letter which forms the preface to The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, Vol. 1. The relevant sections can be read here:https://biblioklept.org/2017/09/19/the-shock-of-dysrecognition-philip-k-dick-defines-science-fiction/ Apologies – I couldn’t track down the McNelly reference.
Asimov, Isaac. 1991. Foundation. New York: Bantam Books.
Calhoun, Craig. 2011. “The Public Mission of the Research University.” In Diane Rhoten and Craig Calhoun eds. Knowledge Matters: The Public Mission of the Research University. New York: Columbia University Press. pp. 1-33.
Giddens, Anthony. 1984. The Constitution of Society. University of California Press.
Gorski, Philip S. 2016. “The matter of emergence: Material artifacts and social structure.” Qualitative Sociology 39:211-215.
Healy, Kieran. 2017. “Fuck nuance.” Sociological Theory 35:118-127.
Padgett, John Frederick and Walter W. Powell. 2012. The emergence of organizations and markets. Princeton: Princeton University Press.