I am often asked by people who first encounter Cliodynamics whether I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation, and what is the relationship between Asimov’s Psychohistory and Cliodynamics. I read Foundation some 35 years ago, and it left quite an impression. I actually begin my popular book War and Peace and War by referring to Hari Seldon and his prediction of the collapse of the Galactic Empire. So there is no question that Asimov’s ideas have been an influence.
However, there are many differences between the Asimov’s imaginary science of history and the reality of Cliodynamics. Asimov wrote Foundation in the 1940s – way before the discovery of what we now call ‘mathematical chaos.’ In Asimov’s book, Hari Seldon and psychohistorians develop mathematical methods to make very precise predictions years and decades in advance. Due to discoveries made in the 1970s and 80s we know that this is impossible.
In Asimov books Psychohistory, quite appropriately, deals not with individuals, but with huge conglomerates of them. It basically adopts a ‘thermodynamic’ approach, in which no attempt is made to follow the erratic trajectories of individual molecules (human beings), but instead models averages of billions of molecules. This is in many ways similar to the ideas of Leo Tolstoy, and indeed to cliodynamics, which also deals with large collectives of individuals.
What Asimov did not know is that even when you can ignore such things as individual free will, you still run against very strict limits to predictability. When components of a dynamical system interact nonlinearly, the resulting dynamics can become effectively unpredictable, even if they are entirely deterministic. For complex systems like human societies this possibility becomes a virtual certainty: they are complex and nonlinear enough and, therefore, must behave chaotically and unpredictably. This is, by the way, why weather cannot be predicted more than a few days in advance (and in Connecticut, where I live, not even a day in advance).
The hallmark of mathematical chaos is ‘sensitive dependence on initial conditions.’ In climate it means that a butterfly deciding to flutter its wings (or not) can cause a major hurricane to veer from its predicted path.
This is actually a very optimistic result. It means that human individuals are not as powerless as Asimov imagined them. Exercising one’s free will can have major consequences at the macrolevel, just like a butterfly fluttering its wings can affect the course of a hurricane. However, such optimism should be tempered by realism. Although each of us probably affects the course of human history, most of us have a very slight effect, and any large effects are probably a result of a completely unforeseen concatenation of events.
In short, making precise predictions about events in human societies decades or centuries in the future is just science fiction. It seems that Asimov himself became uneasy with the mechanistic unfolding of future history according to the Seldon Plan. He solved the problem by throwing in the Mule – a mutant with frightening mental powers who derails the actual history from the course predicted by Seldon. In actuality, we are all ‘Mules.’ By exercising a multitude of choices throughout our lives we constantly derail the course of future history in unpredictable directions.
But it doesn’t mean that the dynamics of our societies are simply ‘one damn thing after another.’ Both the systemic forces and the myriad of actions of individuals are combined to produce the actual outcome. You can see it vividly if you play with a model that is in a chaotic regime, for example on a Lorenz attractor, but is additionally constantly buffeted by random perturbations. The trajectory is constantly modified, but it still remains on the chaotic attractor. To put it in simple terms, if you have a peak coming, then individual actions can delay it, or advance it; make the peak a little higher, or a little lower. But there will be a peak in one form or another.
The Lorenz Attractor
In addition to the impossibility of precisely predicting the future, Asimov insisted that any knowledge of psychohistorian predictions must be kept hidden from the people. Otherwise, when people learn what is in store, that will affect their actions and cause the prediction to fail. There are several things wrong with it. For one, most people couldn’t care less about what some egg headed scientist predicts. For example, I feel quite safe making the prediction that there will be a peak of political violence in 2020 (plus/minus a few years). If this prediction fails, it will be a result of the theory going wrong, or some massive unforeseen event affecting the social system, or something completely unforeseen (the “unknown unknowns,” in the brilliant characterization of Donald Rumsfeld). But I am fairly certain it will not be because the American policy makers suddenly take a note of what an obscure professor wrote and take action to avoid this undesirable outcome.
And if they do, I will be quite happy. Prediction is overrated. What we really should be striving for, with our social science, is ability to bring about desirable outcomes and to avoid unwanted outcomes. What’s the point of predicting future, if it’s very bleak and we are not able to change it? We would be like the person condemned to hang before sunrise – perfect knowledge of the future, zero ability to do anything about it.
Ajax drags Cassandra away from the statue of the goddess at which she had taken refuge. Lycurgus Painter, Red figure pottery, c. 370-360 BC. Cassandra was a daughter of King Priam of Troy and his queen Hecuba, who captured the eye of Apollo and so was given the ability to see the future. However, when she did not return his love, he placed a curse on her so that no one would ever believe her predictions. Thus Cassandra foresees the destruction of Troy, the death of Agamemnon, and her own demise, but is unable to do anything about them. Source: http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Mythology/Cassandra.html
Nice image of Hari Seldon against the skyline of Trantor! Who is the other guy standing in the ruins of Trantor? He can´t be the mule: If I don´t remember wrong this character was supossed to be a very strong dude…
I am completely into cliodynamics. I agree that the chaos theory must not discourage us at all. Indeed the existence of strange attractors and limit cycles somehow mean islands of predictability. Limit cycles represent the existence of natural equilibria both stable or unstable. Both are equally important in cliodynamics not only for predictability but for social engeneering: institutions who can bring stable limit cycles of welfare should be welcome. In my opinion our evolved human psychological adaptations along with coevolved cultural entities (meme complexes) set the frame for an interesting case of “phase space” were limit cycles can be found: the trends of History. Countless examples of convergent evolution, both in the natural and the cultural realms, seem to confirm this. But the most interesting points in History are the unstable periods between different stable cycle limits. Indeed, traditional historians usually focus on these periods and try to find cause-effect relations a posteriori, though noy using a scientific rationale. On that account I go with your point of view and Jared Diamond´s which seem to me very much alike.
May be Non-equilibrium thermodynamics can help us to fully understand the apparent path to increasing complexity.
The second image is that of the Mule. In person he is not at all muscular, it’s his mental powers that dominate all around him:
“Physically, the Mule is a freak, with a long nose (at least three inches) tightly stretched facial skin, and a spindly body. His joints jut out from his diminutive musculature.”
Oh, I had forgotten that! May be this is a perfect moment for re-reading “The foundation”… but not before reading “War and peace and war”…
Indeed, something like Asimov’s psychohistory may have recently become a reality “here on Earth”: I have found a group that claims to have derived a system of seven psychohistorical equations, using a new mathematics that their founder, “Karl Seldon”, discovered, and that allegedly reconstruct humanity’s past on this planet, and that ‘pre-construct’ its future. See —
— and which give the locations of their offices as “Stars’ End, NY” and “Terminious, CA.”
or, how about ‘computational psychohistory’