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On the Religion of Science or How real is the Gruffalo? - Commentary to FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov

It is 1951. Isaac Asimov presents to the world for the first time a collection of stories set into a distant future of a Galactic Empire bundled up into the format of a novel. He calls this novel Foundation and set on a difficult journey of exploring the dynamic forces which put worlds into motion. 


Even though the world created in Asimov’s Foundation, is distant and fantastic, it is predicated on a set of general theses recognizable in any real world. The axiom on which it is based is that at the foundation of the society it is the collection of knowledge accumulated during its history and its development. It follows from this that when such a civilization finds itself in crisis, it will seek its salvation in the FOUNDATION upon which it is built: preserving its knowledge.


picture of island and submerged in sea

Furthermore, the interesting aspect explored and enriched throughout the book is the nature and form of this FOUNDATION. And in this exploration journey, Asimov confronts one with the concepts of Science, of Religion and in a subtle manner, to a Religion of Science. It is the Religion of Science which will further be analyzed in the following paragraphs, in order to determine its implications, validity and in no lesser sense its universal value. 


From the very first pages  of the book, one is introduced to a world of knowledge and science which knows no boundaries in what it can conquer and where concepts such as hyper warp, hyper atomic motors and ultra wave relays are mundane realities. However, this world inhabited by psychohistorians, symbolic logicians and psychological engineers is disconnected from the reality of its own space and geography as its people have stopped looking at the stars. 


If you’re born in a cubicle and grow up in a corridor, and work in a cell, and vacation in a crowded sunroom, then coming up into the open with nothing but sky over you might just give you a nervous breakdown. They make the children come up here once a year, after they’re five.” Chapter 3, Part I: the Psychohistorians, Foundation. 

This disconnection can be conceptualized as a rift between content and form, between the physical world (empirical) and the meaning behind it (transcendent). This rift represents  a malady of this Galactic Empire which will inevitably lead to its decline, or so do the psychohistorians predict through one of their illustrious representatives, Hari Seldon. The mighty Galactic Empire is thus the giant with feet of clay.  And as any giant with the feet of clay, it is heading towards impeding doom, in the face of which, its most precious possession must be conserved: its knowledge. Therefore, the FOUNDATION is thus created at the edges of the Galactic empire, on the small and unremarkable planet of Terminus.


human shape figurine on surface of planet

In its original format, the FOUNDATION sets out to catalogue knowledge as a collection of facts into an Encyclopedia Galactica. The experiment of the FOUNDATION is carried out over many years but with the counter productive effect that as it catalogues facts, it is not concerned with producing new knowledge. We are confronted here with knowledge as a collection of facts. But very soon, it is realized that a collection of mere facts is only static and arid. It cannot create novelty and has no interest to as it is a scope in itself. It does not have a direction or a purpose outside itself. Therefore, the rift between content and form becomes even larger as the FOUNDATION believes into the facts of science instead of engaging into the act of science. 


It is at this point, in the midst of looming danger from the neighboring worlds that, in a strive for survival, the knowledge of the FOUNDATION is used as a tool, a civilizing tool for the barbaric neighboring worlds. A strategy for keeping the light of knowledge in a world of ever expanding darkness of ignorance was to create priests and a religious context to bring enlightenment to the neighboring kingdoms. And the architect of this idea, we are lead to believe, is Salvor Hardin. Atomic power, one of the more concrete embodiments of this knowledge is used to rekindle civilization but it is wrapped in a layer of mysticism. Therefore, the FOUNDATION becomes a church and its former scientists become now its priests.


The rebranding of the FOUNDATION premise and purpose seems to set history on an entire new course. But, is this new Religion of Science a mere “fluffy flumery” or is it an unavoidable reality emerging from a deeper need that the world has and was starved for? Is the Religion of Science an artificial creation or an inescapable evolution of the FOUNDATION?


In other words, one might have created a powerful protector from the collective fears of ones enemies, such as let’s say, a Gruffalo. But once that idea,  the Gruffalo, is unleashed upon that world, doesn’t it become real even for oneself?


Under this light, one might concede as Voltaire once did that

“Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer.” (“If God did not exist, it would have been invented”).

And once on this path, one might acknowledge the practical usefulness of the concept. For is it not the case that:

“It is the most potent device with which to control men and worlds.”? Chapter 7, Part V: The Merchant Princes, Foundation.

And it serves as a compelling tool to subjugate the neighboring kingdoms as stated elsewhere:

In their anxiety to cement for ever total domination over their people, the kings of the four Kingdoms accepted the religion of science that made them divine; and that same religion was their bridle and saddle, for it placed the life blood of atomic power in the hands of the priesthood“ Chapter 8, Part III: The Mayors, Foundation.

It is a well developed theme in the novel that power lies with the knowledge and access to the energy source. But if it where to stop the analysis here, on this rather cynical note, one would not get a chance to reach a full understanding of the forces put in motion here. 


Isn’t it so that by the very acknowledgement that science is the restoring force in a declining world, it is elevated to the level of sacred? And once on this path, one would observe that even Salvor Hardin himself exhibits a deep reverence for the predictions of Hari Seldon.  The FOUNDATION is therefore a sacred institution making the prediction of Hari Seldon a prophecy, the recording of his message, an epiphany.

A civilization falling. Atomic power forgotten. Science fading to mythology - until the Foundation had stepped in.” Chapter 1, Part III: The Mayors, Foundation.

The Religion of the FOUNDATION is predicated on the deterministic psychological model of Hari Seldon or at least it starts that way. Be that as it may,  there seems to be the case that some truths, even scientifically deducted are too hard to accepts without a mystical overlay. And in this case, the mystical overlay becomes a coping mechanism in the face of the tragedy of destiny. 


religious figurine with book in background

It was earlier suggested that the rift between form and content had destabilized the empire and lead to the creation of the FOUNDATION. Under the Religion of Science, this rift would now be reconciled. For even artificially created worlds cannot properly function under a divorce of form from content, in Kantiant terms. In its mechanics, the Religion of Science does move the world further to expands beyond itself. Therefore, the arid territory of knowledge as its own scope is now infused with meaning which propels it further into ever expanding realm. 


For it is the chief characteristic of the religion of science, that it works, and that such curses as that of Aporat’s[priest of the Religion of Science] are really deadly.” Chapter 7, Part III: The Mayors, Foundation

The skeptics have tried to take control of the FOUNDATION and annihilate the Religion of Science, but were defeated themselves. In this lies the proof that the Religion of Science is real in the collective psyche at the edge of the Galactic Empire and once that light was kindled it will not be easily extinguished. 


Aporat [priest of the Religion of Science] and his circle of light passed, striving to touch the hem of his robe, pleading for the tiniest scrap of mercy. And always his answer was, ‘Follow me!’ “Chapter 7, Part III: The Mayors, Foundation. 

It is 2023, and the world looks a little different than seventy years back, when the Foundation was written,  but the laws which govern it are still the same and, in spite of all the evidence, we are still not convinced of how real is the Gruffalo. 

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