Isaac Asimov: A Prophet For Our Time1

These things shall be: a loftier race
Than e'er the world hath known shall rise">

Isaac Asimov: A Prophet For Our Time1

These things shall be: a loftier race
Than e'er the world hath known shall rise,
With flame of freedom in their souls,
And light of science in their eyes.

(John Addington Symonds)

KEY TERMS: Isaac Asimov -- naturalism -- cultural evolution -- world government -- digital revolution -- futurism -- "built-in-doubter" -- scientific method -- the anthropic principle -- mysticism -- scientific humanism

By the end of the 1960s it was clear to most concerned observers that the scientific approach to knowing was still foreign to the general world culture. Although science was revolutionizing the course of history and opening the entire universe for intelligent perusal it was seldom being applied to the social realm, and had scarcely dented the world views of human beings. Conceptually speaking, the majority of Earth's inhabitants were still living in a world defined by Bronze Age tribalism.

An American chemistry professor, Isaac Asimov, recognized the danger that this situation posed for humanity. Armed with a uniquely creative imagination, plus a gift for explaining difficult ideas, he began to carve out a remarkable dual role: that of science-fiction writer and futurist, and of public educator and interpreter of science. Perhaps more than any other modern writer, Asimov succeeded in spreading the idea of the universality of scientific inquiry to every corner of the civilized world. His world view was founded on an open-ended naturalism: a philosophy that evolves in tandem with the science on which its ultimate premises depend. But, unlike the work of the great earlier philosophers of naturalism such as John Dewey, Asimov's message was communicated in a format and language readily understandable by ordinary people.

THE MAKING OF A FREE-LANCE SCIENCE EDUCATOR

Isaac Asimov was born in 1920, in Russia, into a Jewish middle class family, and he died in 1992. In 1923 his parents had emigrated to the United States, where they made their living by operating a candy store. By the time he was eleven years old, Isaac was already trying to write. In 1938, as a very youthful college student and aspiring science-fiction writer, he met an editor, John Campbell, who was to play a helpfully critical role in his life for many years. Isaac published his first science-fiction story in 1939, the same year that he graduated with a B.Sc. from a junior college division of Columbia University. He then entered Columbia's Graduate School, majoring in chemistry, while continuing to work in the family store and publish science fiction.

By 1942 the United States was at war. Asimov, already a recognized science-fiction writer, left his doctoral studies to work as a chemist at the US Navy Yard in Philadelphia. He was drafted and shipped to Hawaii in 1945, not long before the end of hostilities, and found himself back in civilian life by July of 1946. Two years later the PhD in chemistry was completed. After a year of post-doctoral work, Asimov became an instructor in biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine. In 1950 he published his first novel, Pebble in the Sky, and in 1951 he was promoted to the position of Assistant Professor.

Asimov's humorous down-to-earth speaking style, and his comprehensive grasp of the entire field of science, must have made him an outstanding classroom teacher. His academic output during the next few years included the textbook, Biochemistry and Human Metabolism, and another book, The Chemicals of Life. However, he considered as his most important scientific contribution (the one that all by itself justifies my scientific career.")2 the paper which, for the first time ever, pointed out the importance of carbon 14 in the body. Meanwhile, he had discovered his gift for explaining science in a "friendly, breezy way" that seemed to intrigue publishers and readers alike. He began writing books on science for young readers as well, along with what was by then an annual torrent of science fiction. In 1955, in recognition of his accomplishments and teaching competence, the School of Medicine granted him the tenured position of Associate Professor.

Thus far, Asimov's career had developed not too differently from that of his contemporaries. However, by 1955, trouble was already brewing for him in academia. With the coming of a new Dean that summer, he realized that he had gained his tenure just in time. The truth was that he simply did not fit in. He had recognized that his talents lay, not in original research, but in clarifying and making connections among the research findings of others. The ability to do this, not only for students, but for the general public as well, is not at all common in the university community. It is, in fact, so rare that one might expect that it would be highly valued. But Asimov came to realize that his work was considered bad for the university's reputation, and that he was not welcome there. Years later he wrote, "I was a danger to no one, to be sure. I was not pushing for promotion, or salary, or power, but even the fact that I wasn't was an annoyance, since it implied an indifference to that which others find important."3

At one point, the administration confiscated Asimov's share of certain grant money assigned to the university in his name, after he had completed all the work and made all the expenditures for which it had been earmarked. He noted that, as a widely published author, he had dealt in the harsh world of business for twenty years and no one, outside the Halls of Academe, had ever tried to cheat him. For some years Asimov was a non-person in those halls, befriended only by one courageous member of the faculty: a female. He finally moved to resolve the dilemma by agreeing to continue holding his title and tenure, while receiving no pay. In return he would lecture to students only once a year. Although he loved teaching, and his classes were popular, Asimov eventually came to realize that the forced compromise had been for the best. He was now a full-time writer. "I was forced along the path I ought to have taken of my own accord, if I had the necessary insight into my character and abilities."4 Twenty-one years later, in 1979, Boston University was only too happy to award the internationally proclaimed author and science educator with a Full Professorship.

THE GIFT OF CLARITY IN EXPOSITION

In his role as educator, Asimov wrote on the subject of the evolution of human culture in general and science in particular. He published almost 400 titles, including science fiction, science books for young readers, collections of non-fiction essays on scientific and philosophical topics, general history, and annotated works on the Bible and other literary classics. He traced the development of Judaism and Christianity by analyzing Biblical accounts of human origins and pre-history in the light of what science and historical scholarship have taught us since the Bible was written. For example: he explained how the Adam and Eve myth can be found in 5000-year-old Sumerian legends; how Noah's Ark probably represents a folk memory of an actual flooding of the Tigris-Euphrates valley in the twenty-fourth century BCE; how the "Single-God" hypothesis originated in the fourteenth century BCE with the Egyptian pharaoh who took the name of Ikhnaton, and worshipped the Sun god, Aton; and how the idea of Satan and of virgin births had their sources in the religion of early Persia.

Asimov presented the Old Testament as a literary masterpiece, much of it put together around 500 BCE, during the period of the Babylonian Exile, and representing the collective knowledge of the most learned members of the Judaic culture. It is obvious that he viewed its Books with reverence, as a monument to the wisdom, scholarship and literary skill of its Hebrew authors. However, although he respected the Jewish tradition growing from those Biblical roots, he said that he did not value it above those of other groups, nor did he value the tendency to exclusiveness that all such traditions foster. He wrote: "I just think that it's more important to be human and to have a human heritage, and I think that it is wrong for anyone to feel that there is anything special about any one heritage of whatever kind. It is delightful for the human heritage to exist in a thousand varieties, for it makes for greater interest, but as soon as any one variety is thought to be more important than any other, the ground is laid for destroying them all."5

Perhaps Asimov's greatest talent as an educator was his ability to articulate for his readers the basic conceptual framework of each of the established disciplines with which he dealt in his books. Like all good teachers, he was well aware that simply transmitting bits of information does not lead to understanding. In addition, he seemed to have assumed a responsibility for organizing and simplifying new knowledge in astronomy, physics, chemistry, biology and ecology as it becomes confirmed and established, and for identifying the connections among these studies and their implications for the future of humanity. Most of the essays in his various collections are concerned with these matters.

ON THE EVOLUTION OF CIVILIZATION

As if all that were not enough, Asimov attempted to do the same thing for history. In his 1991 book, The March of the Millennia, he related the evolution of civilization to the development of technology -- beginning with the discovery of fire by early hominids. His premise was that it was this crucial technological breakthrough that first distinguished our ancestors from other primates and gave them their evolutionary advantage. As in the case of all subsequent technology, fire made greater demands on primitive communication skills as well as expanding opportunities for their practice. It also increased the food supply of that species of upright animals which mastered it, and made it possible for their range and numbers to increase. From then on, natural selection would have ensured that "Man was intelligent enough to be a tool-designing animal in a large way, and that meant a new kind -- a much faster kind -- of evolution began to take place."6

That new kind of evolution was accelerated considerably with the next great technological revolution: the domestication of plants and animals and the more stable form of social organization that farming required. For Asimov it marked the achievement of civilization. He selected 8000 BCE as an approximate date for the beginning of "the kind of society that is marked by agriculture and cities."7 From that point on there was to be no turning back, although the myths of all cultures have expressed a yearning for some dimly remembered golden age before the advent of agriculture. Many of these myths reveal, as well, a deeply embedded resentment and scapegoating of women. Asimov related this to the probability that it was the female of the species who initiated seed planting and the caring for animals and thereby the more organized, responsible and labour-intensive existence that such practices required. (A further possible explanation of such myths is that it would likely have been non-childbearing males freed by a surplus food supply who had sufficient leisure time to become the first story-tellers and soothsayers.)

The arrival of agriculture brought organized warfare in its wake, as settlements tried to protect their stores from invaders. Asimov believed that this determined the pattern of history for the following twenty centuries. It is the story of an evolutionary arms race (no doubt spurred on by population pressures) that generated invention after invention -- each providing a temporary resting place for the more innovative civilization. Ultimately, in every case, the barbarians without would co-opt the technology and use it against the settled group.

Asimov cited the Sumerian invention of the wheel which (along with the taming of wild horses) led ultimately to the chariots used by the Kassites to overrun Babylonia; the invention of metallurgy that resulted in the iron weapons of the Hittites which were, in turn, used by the Dorians who destroyed the Mycenean and Ionian Greek civilizations; the mounted cavalry and spears and shields of the Assyrian hordes; the technique for telling direction by the stars that enabled the Phoenicians (formerly the settled citizens of Canaan or Palestine) to become the invincible seafaring arm of the early Persian Empire until conquered by the Romans using the same technology; Alexander's successful use of the Theban phalanx and the catapult; the Roman legion formation and the roads used by the Goths to destroy the remnants of the empire in its waning days, and so on and on.

Invariably, these technologies were invented by a dominant civilized culture and ultimately turned against their originators by successive waves of invading barbarians. Asimov suggested that the tide did not turn in favor of settled civilizations until the invention of gunpowder in the fifteenth century AD. A similar watershed was crossed with the discovery of nuclear fission and the revolution in communications and transportation resulting from the other World War II breakthroughs of radar, jet propulsion and the computer. A major theme of all of Asimov's writings is the need for humankind to recognize the significance of these seminal events.

ON THE NEED FOR WORLD GOVERNMENT

This is where Asimov, the futurist, steps in. However, his was not the futurism of the 1990s, which has seems to have been appropriated by mystical transcendentalists. Instead, Asimov chose to shed light on future possibilities and dangers by employing his analysis of a human history propelled into the future by technological advance generated by the demands of the recurring warfare which, in turn, is the inevitable consequence of population expansion. He claimed that, at every stage of the resulting increase in intellectual and organizational complexity, humanity had been faced with only three choices: abandon, endure, or advance! He noted that no society has ever voluntarily given up the improvements in quality of life made possible by the current technology. The second option -- to endure -- is simply to be buffeted about as helpless victims of change, with no corresponding social or cultural adaptation. Asimov recognized that we have many tragic examples of this in the recent history of persistently nomadic cultures. He concluded that the successful societies at every juncture of history have been those which chose to advance. This move has always involved attempts to develop more appropriate social organization and even better technology in order to solve the problems of adaptation, including those problems created by previous advances in technology.

Asimov was convinced that the concept of world government has been made possible and workable, for the first time in history, by the very technological innovations that have rendered it imperative. The advent of instant worldwide communications systems and the prospect of open access to the products of global surveillance -- along with the technical capability to annihilate all life on Earth -- have made human social interdependence a fact rather than distant ideal. "The kick you aim at your neighbor will hit your own rear as well."8 He said that it is time we forgot the myth of "less-than-all" -- the siren call of tribalism in all its ethnic, religious, and nationalistic forms. "It is only the whole world as a unit that is, as yet, rich in all respects (provided we limit our numbers and grow wiser in our use of power). Anything less than all? Forget it."9

He warned against the foolish idea of abandoning technology in our search for solutions, referring to the population explosion as the overriding challenge. "Consider mankind's increasing numbers that are outstripping the food supply, outracing its energy resources, outgrowing its room, outraging its ecology."10 We could, he conceded, forget medical science and allow unbridled plague to decimate our numbers. Spurning the use of agricultural implements, irrigation and fertilizer would accomplish the same end through wholesale famine. Abandon? Asimov maintained that the natural food trend is not the wave of the future. Endure? Or advance? "Mankind has only a forward gear that will operate in safety. To go into reverse is sheer, unimaginable catastrophe... It may be that, in the end, there is no escape at all, but if there should be escape, it can lie in only one direction: Forward. There must be still further advances in technology; advances, it is to be hoped, more wisely managed than some we have had in the past."11

Asimov predicted the end of sexism, noting that equality of the sexes has been shown to be associated with the freeing of women from extended responsibility for childbearing. In a world where population expansion means destruction of the ecology, only a relatively few people will raise children, he said. The end of war will come about, not because of any change of heart on the part of the majority, but because access for the "barbarians without" to the tools of mass destruction will mean suicide for the human race unless the world organizes to prohibit and contain the use of violence to achieve political ends. "The great legal problem of the twenty-first century will, then, have to be the establishment of a strong world government, capable of withstanding the centrifugal shocks of separatism, and yet one that will not drown out regional self-rule in matters that are not of global interest."12 According to Asimov, the end of racism will necessarily result, not only from world governance in action, but from the need for Earth people to cooperate in the collective use, colonization, and protection of space.

ON THE COMPUTER-BASED SECOND INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

Asimov saw two important steps for the immediate future. "One change involves the computerization of our society, and the other change involves the extension of our capabilities through aeronautical and space research."13 He expected that we will eventually establish ecologically self-contained colonies in space, as essential stepping stones to building a solar power station capable of providing a clean, safe source of energy that will last as long as Earth. He also suggested using space for purposes neither appropriate nor sufficiently safe for our fragile Earth: the building of nuclear fission and fusion stations (if needed); recombinant DNA research; the discharge of unavoidable pollution that is now threatening to engulf us; and the establishment of space laboratories. As for the role of computers in all this, he concluded: "When we finally do extend the living range of humanity throughout space, possibly throughout the entire solar system and out into the stars, it will be done in tandem with advanced computers that will be as intelligent as we are, but never identically intelligent to humans. They will need us as much as we will need them."14

Asimov's perspective on the computer was somewhat unique. He wrote that it is the key, not only to a necessarily more complex future, but to the only future that can work. He recognized that evolution, whether of biological life or technology, is irreversible and unstoppable. "The only alternative ... is utter destruction. And that means complete computerization because the society has grown too complex to be made to work in any other way. If we program our computers properly we will be able to apply minimum taxes, we will be able to hold corruption to a minimum, and we will be able to minimize social injustice."15 In response to the fear that totalitarianism would be the inevitable political consequence of the comprehensive records (and public accessibility to these) made possible by the computer, he noted that twentieth century history has shown such systems to have quite the opposite roots and results. In his opinion, complete computerization of society would promote dissemination rather than centralization of information and power.

Few yet comprehend it fully, but the advent of the computer represented the beginning of the second Industrial Revolution. And even fewer recognize what Asimov considered one of the computer's greatest future contributions: its use as an instrument for helping humans determine appropriate solutions to the problems raised by the first Industrial Revolution. "Now perhaps we can plan ways of accomplishing great change while foreseeing with useful clarity the consequences of those changes, and therefore so guiding them as to achieve what we want and expect, rather than stumbling into what we don't want and didn't expect."16 What we want, however, will, then as now, be the result of some sort of collective value judgment, to be realized through a political process which computerization has the potential for rendering increasingly democratic and knowledge based.

Asimov was convinced that not only will the computer be imperative as a tool for managing democratically determined social change, but it may soon have to operate in the service of another, even more sensitive and profoundly ethical human task. He put it this way: "We have now reached the stage ... where the advance of genetic engineering makes it quite conceivable that we will begin to design our own evolutionary progress -- and will be stopped from doing so not by any strictly technical difficulty but by the overall ethical problems of deciding how we want to change, what we intend to become, where we want to go."17 The computer, with its ability to demonstrate the chain of events flowing from every hypothetical option, would be invaluable in preventing grievous irreversible errors here.

ON THE THREE LAWS OF ROBOTICS

But might not the computers take over, becoming the masters of humankind rather than its tools? Asimov provided a number of answers for this legitimate concern. Very early, in his science-fiction work featuring human-like robots, he introduced the notion of built-in precautions, to be programmed into all computer systems, once they begin to approach a complexity anywhere near that of the human brain. He called these The Three Laws of Robotics. They have operated as essential guiding principles of science fiction ever since. He was convinced that, when the time comes, these rules will necessarily be applied to advanced computerization in real life as well. They are: "(1) A robot may not injure a human being, nor, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm; (2) A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the first law; (3) A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the first and second laws."18

In Asimov's view, there is nothing to prevent the eventual development of computers with intelligence as efficient as that of humans, but with strength in quite different areas of functioning. It will never be a matter of their replacing human intelligence, but of complementing it. He maintained that the breakthrough in the evolution of computerized intelligence will come when we are finally able to design a computer capable of replicating itself -- and never exactly, but in the direction of a diverging series. The prerequisite is a computer that can formulate its own program for the design of another computer just slightly more complex than itself.

At that point, and only then, said Asimov, will a new form of intelligence be born on Earth. He expected it to emerge as an evolutionary product of the first great human intelligence: itself a product of the countless eons of geological time required for a step-by-step accumulation of structured connections within the human brain. According to Asimov, "There is nothing magic about the creative ability of the human brain, its intuitions, its genius. It is made up of a finite number of cells of finite complexity, arranged in a pattern of finite complexity. When a computer is built of an equal number of equally complex cells in an equally complex arrangement, we will have something that can do just as much as the human brain can do to its uttermost genius."19

Asimov appeared to be quite sanguine about the possibility of computers equaling and possibly surpassing us in many aspects of braininess. He imagined them moving out to comprehend and adapt to the entire universe in some far distant future millennium -- perhaps long after humanity has destroyed its earthly home. They may even, he suggested, look back to some dimly remembered giant species in a Golden Age and muse: "There was this serpent ...!"20

ON THE FUNCTION OF GOOD SCIENCE FICTION

Employing another self-coined term, Asimov explained The Three Laws of Futurics that have guided him in his predictions of the future. His advice was simply to (1) recognize that what is happening will likely continue to happen, (2) seriously consider the obvious, for few people ever do, and (3) consider the logical consequences of current practices. Science fiction is an excellent vehicle for doing this, he said. It allows the writer to present the obvious long-term effects on human society and all life on Earth of following current trends. It was Asimov's hope that someone out there will sit up and take notice while there is yet time, and he thought that a good place to begin was with youthful readers. However, all this applies only to the role of good science fiction and not to the fantasy/sex/horror variety that threatens to overwhelm the field today. Asimov was critical of the scientific illiteracy and drug-taking among many modern science-fiction writers. As a lifelong teetotaller he was amused to encounter the comment that, for this generation of writers, drugs were an aid to creativity just as alcohol had "no doubt been for Isaac Asimov."

In Asimov's view, another important function of good science fiction is the development of a general scientific orientation in committed readers. It can provide the background of reliable information and view of future possibilities needed to fuel the intuition and fire the imagination -- both conducive to scientific creativity. It can also arm readers with a healthy skepticism concerning unsubstantiated propositions, even though they may enjoy the pursuit of these in a fictional context.

ON THE ABILITY TO DOUBT INTELLIGENTLY

Asimov saw nothing essentially mysterious about creativity in science or any other field of endeavor. He claimed that it merely requires: (1) the possession of as many relevant "bits" of information as possible, (2) the ability to combine these in a variety of ways with ease and comprehension, (3) the ability to "intuit", with great rapidity, chains of consequences flowing from new combinations of "bits", (4) courage and (5) lots of luck.

The other vital aspect of the scientific orientation is what Asimov called "a built-in doubter". One must be able to doubt intelligently; that is, to judge the authoritativeness of the source of a proposition, and the nature of the claim being made for it (the degree that it "fits" into the structure of science). If it represents a revolutionary departure, doubt should be very great. Asimov reminded us that even Einstein did not overturn the entire structure of physics. He did not prove Newton's theory wrong, but merely incomplete: a particular instance of a much broader principle.

Asimov offered a general rule for evaluating scientific heresies. If they emerge within the scientific community, and are not taken up and supported by the public, they often turn out to be right. But, on the other hand, "when a view denounced by scientists as false is, nevertheless, popular with the general public, the mere fact of the popularity is strong evidence in favor of its worthlessness." He noted that, for the growth of science, doubting is far more important than believing. It is all too easy to be gullible; to doubt requires logic and a depth of knowledge of the field in question. According to him, the procedures of scientific inquiry are specifically designed to encourage doubt and prevent easy acceptance of new propositions. This is why experiments must be repeated and observations and measurements confirmed in a variety of situations by different researchers; why speculations that fail to generate hypotheses capable of standing up to such repeated efforts to disprove them fall by the wayside. For Asimov, science was, more than anything, a rigidly formalized procedure for ensuring and satisfying doubt. Echoing Karl Popper, he pointed out that "All this is nothing more than the setting up of a system of `natural selection' designed to winnow the fit from the unfit in the realm of ideas, in a manner analogous to the concept of Darwinian evolution. The process may be painful and tedious, as evolution itself is; but in the long run it gets results, as evolution itself does."22

He compared science to other disciplines where there is as yet no accepted consensus. "The different schools argue endlessly, moving in circles about each other as fad succeeds fashion over the centuries. Though individuals may be unbelievably eloquent and sincere, there is, short of the rack and the stake, no decision."12 In a field such as sociology, he said, one can be a plausible fake simply by learning the language and speaking with authority. There are no procedures, such as those at the heart of science, which, sooner or later, reveal all fraudulent claims.

Asimov explained that, because of its internal requirements of testability and replicability, the evidence provided by science is compelling. None of the so called alternative paths to truth are capable of presenting similarly compelling claims. He related how people who like to hold beliefs for which there is no such evidence often ask him if he believes in anything at all. He then quoted his typical answer: "I believe in observation, measurement and reasoning, confirmed by independent observers. I'll believe anything ... if there is evidence for it. The wilder and more ridiculous something is, however, the firmer and more solid the evidence will have to be."24

ON THE PERSISTENCE OF ANTHROPOMORPHISM

The underlying message in all of Asimov's writings is one of thoroughgoing naturalism. Not for him were mystical quests for meaning above and apart from the strivings of humanity. In his view the Universe can have meaning "... only insofar as its incredible intricacies can be sensed, interpreted, and analyzed by Intelligence."24 That he had no use for mysticism in any form was made plain by a reference to Martin Gardner as one of those few people "... who are utterly rational and who, surrounded by the wonders of science, have always been able to distinguish those wonders from the malodorous glitter of mysticism."26

Asimov confronted the issue of supernaturally based religious claims in his typically direct fashion, noting that no evidence has ever been uncovered by science that in any way points to divine guidance in the workings of the Universe. Nor is there evidence of the existence of a soul or any other non-natural essence that sets humans apart from other animals and departs at death. While admitting that this does not amount to proof that such entities do not exist, he reminded us that the same applies in the case of Zeus, Marduk, Thoth and a myriad of other supernatural beings. "It is not reasonable," he said, "to demand proof of a negative and to accept the positive in the absence of such a proof."27

Asimov discussed the tenacity of the "strong anthropic principle" in human culture: the notion that the universe was formed for the benefit of human beings according to the design of an omnipotent observer. A currently popular revival of this takes the form of an argument (sometimes even presented by accredited scientists) that, because only Earth seems to be conducive to life, these uniquely perfect conditions must have come about by design rather than by accident. Asimov responded with the following scenario: "There may be an indefinitely large number of universes in existence, each with a different set of laws of nature ... In only one of them do the laws of nature allow for the existence of life. This universe would be ours, and we would have evolved in it and then marveled at how exactly suitable the universe is for us ... We find our universe perfect because it is the only one we could exist on."28

Asimov explained that the anthropomorphism behind the strong anthropic principle is a remnant of the geocentrism that dominated civilized thought from the time of Ptolemy to that of Copernicus and Galileo. Even today, he said, most people are geocentric, anthropocentric, ethnocentric, and egocentric. Intellectually they may know better, but emotionally the old infantile self-absorption and tribalism is still in the driver's seat. The other-world religions, with their myths about authority from on high, cater to these primitive emotions and the fantasies that feed them. Nonetheless, Asimov sounded a stark warning concerning the need for a this-world focus. "In an age when the Earth was sturdy and indifferent to any damage that mankind with its small numbers and feeble power could do, refuge in fantasy-security was psychologically comfortable and could do little harm. Nowadays, such fantasies could kill us all ... we must all be very sure that, just as it is man alone who is destroying the world, so it is man alone -- alone -- who must save the world."29

ON ROLE OF HUMANISM IN THE FUTURE COURSE OF HUMANKIND

During the twentieth century, humanism has not always maintained the core of reason and commitment to disciplined inquiry that was its trademark in earlier times. Sometimes the worst enemies of science have been experts in the subjects usually termed the humanities. Asimov reminded us that the humanities have traditionally represented secular learning: the accumulated product of human intelligence. Certain scholars in the humanities seem not to have noticed that, since the Renaissance, science has become an overwhelmingly significant aspect of the universal culture. This means that, today, people can no longer claim to be humanists and yet remain ignorant of science, for, in so doing, they have deliberately isolated themselves from one of humanity's most important concerns. Similarly, no one can claim to be a humanist in the late twentieth century while refusing to acknowledge the primacy of reason and evidence in the search for knowledge. Here, Asimov's only source of optimism was the fact that there is always a new generation coming along. "Every child, every new brain, is a possible field in which rationality can be made to grow. We must therefore present the view of reason, not out of a hope of reconstructing the deserts of ruined minds that have been rusted shut, which is all but impossible -- but to educate and train new and fertile minds."30

Perhaps the most compelling argument ever made for scientific humanism is contained in Asimov's introduction to his 1978 book, Life and Time. He began with Alexander Pope's couplet ("Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.") and proceeded to analyze it in the context of current scientific knowledge. First, he identified the real nature of the antithesis posed by Pope as being between matters subject to the laws of nature and those assumed to be bound by no laws of any kind. Pope was presenting humanity's two choices: scientific inquiry leading to expanding knowledge or endless speculation leading nowhere.

But what about the emphasis on the human species as the measure of all things? How are we to answer modern critics of humanism who claim that the perspective is human-centered to the exclusion of other living things and other aspects of the Universe? Asimov asked, Is the study of humans, then, not too confining? His answer came as a resounding No! He explained that such a study is inherently and necessarily limitless, for the simple reason that our species does not exist in a vacuum. Every other form of life affects or is affected by it; every environmental condition on Earth operates to shape us and is, in turn, altered irrevocably by our activities. Humankind "is as subject to the laws of the Universe as is the smallest atom and the most distant quasar, and if it takes the study of the infinitely small, the infinitely large, the infinitely distant or the infinitely abstract to elucidate those laws, then all those infinities are man's direct and selfish concern. To study man, then, is to study the Universe."31

Furthermore, wrote Asimov, our species is a unique part of that Universe. The human brain is the result of some fifteen billion years of evolution, and we may very well be the only portion of this vast process with sufficient complexity to be aware of our context and positioning in space. Indeed, "if we cannot exist without the Universe, neither can the Universe be observed or understood without us."32

Asimov believed that we should appreciate the distinctiveness and significance of the human species in the scheme of things -- seeking to understand it and the evolution that brought us into being. No other species has developed the creative and powerful instrument of scientific inquiry: a process with the capacity to illuminate the pulse of the Universe back to the very beginning and the end of Time. If we would but rid ourselves of our crippling Bronze-age cultural imperatives we could learn to focus that same instrument on the nature of humankind itself. Asimov's greatest contribution to social science and modern humanism may well be his recognition of all this.

NOTE:

1  An excerpt from this essay by Pat Duffy Hutcheon was published in The Humanist (March/April 1993, p.3-5) under the title of 'The Legacy of Isaac Asimov'.
2.  Asimov, Isaac. In Joy Still Felt: An Autobiography of Isaac Asimov (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1980), p.9.
3.  ibid., p.34.
4.  ibid., p.133.
5.  ibid., p.147.
6.  ----------------. Science Past -- Science Future. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1975), p. 164.
7.  ----------------. The March of the Millennia. (New York, NY: Walker and Co., 1991), p.15.
8.  ----------------. Life and Time. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1978), p. 250.
9. ibid., p.83.
10. ibid.
11. ibid., p.84.
12. ibid., p.251
13 ---------------. "Our Future in the Cosmos" in James Burke (ed) The Impact of Science on Society. (Washington, DC: NASA, 1983), p.59.
14. ibid., p.70.
15.---------------. The Tragedy of the Moon. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1973), p.193.
16.---------------. The Beginning and the End. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1977), p.172.
17. ibid., p.174.
18 .ibid., p.173.
19.---------------. Science Past -- Science Future, p.291.
20. ibid., p.303.
21. Chambers, Bette. "Isaac Asimov: Durable and Enduring Selections." (The Humanist, Nov./Dec., 1986), p.14.
22. Asimov, Isaac. Fact and Fancy. (New York, NY: Doubleday, 1962), p.246.
23. ----------------. Today, Tomorrow and ... .(New York, NY: Doubleday, 1973), p.308.
24. Chambers, Bette. The Humanist. (Nov./Dec., 1986), p.14.
25. Asimov, Isaac. Today, Tomorrow and ... , p.237.
26. ----------------. In Joy Still Felt, p.353.
27.----------------. In the Beginning. (New York, NY: Crown Publishers, 1981), p.11-12.
28.----------------. Frontiers. (New York, NY: E. P. Dutton, 1987), p.374-5.
29.----------------. Today, Tomorrow and ... .p.254-5.
30. Chambers, Bette. The Humanist. (Nov./Dec., 1986), p.15.
31. Asimov, Isaac. Life and Time, p.xii.
32. ibid., p.xiii-xiv.