Foundation and Faith: Faux Religion, Real Science and Pink SF

Thursday , 25, June 2015 3 Comments

“Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right.”- Salvor Hardin, Foundation, Isaac Asimov

As the Galactic Empire collapses, the best and earliest seed planted for re-establishment of civilization is religion. Specifically, a religion that is based on science (such as atomic power) so that its miracles and promises are immediate and tangible, but with a thick veneer of ritual and mystery, so that believers can’t conceive of material naturalism. In other words, the religion – though entirely fabricated on purpose – nonetheless <i>works</i> immediately, inspiring faith.

This is a bit of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law in action: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is

The religion of Scientism held Hari Seldon – psychohistorian and forefather of the Foundation – as a prophet.

indistinguishable from magic.”

With a twist. “Scientism” (or “The Church of Science”) as it comes to be known is hierarchical, liturgical, law-giving, inspirational, socially binding, and beneficial. In short – it isn’t just misunderstood engineering appearing as if by magic, it is a functional, generational religion unto itself.

Faithful adherents are therefore able to “pray” to the Galactic Spirit, perform the rituals (say, the memorized “ritual” of engaging an atomic engine) and – if sufficiently righteous – see the effects of God’s wonderworking power.

Although those most closely associated with the Foundation are aware of the hoax, even most of them find value in the principles of the religion and can find themselves to be faithful to it, even if they understand the theory behind some advanced technology, or the science and engineering behind it.

However, those who only have a subconscious empirical understanding of the miraculous effects (“eat holy food (radiation pills) and the Galactic Spirit will cast out cancer” or “Perform the ritual of hand prayers (pushing buttons) and the atomic hover chair will levitate”) are very limited and dependent on the application of scientific principles. In other words, they can “perform” science (simple engineering functions) without ever correctly “practicing” science or the scientific method.

The idea is that the adherents don’t know what they don’t know.

As interesting as this notion is, I always found Asimov’s take on it to be somewhat narrow and implausible (especially since the same characters in Foundation unwittingly refer to what should be virtually unknown Christian ideas in such a setting, such as “thirty pieces of silver” for betrayal.)

Well, at least I used to believe that.

Pink SF as Scientism

Upon re-reading foundation, it becomes extremely difficult for me to view “Scientism,” as it plays out in the book, to be an apt metaphor for Pink SF.

You see, science fiction – for all of its diversity – has a core set of principles. It must:

  1. Include an element of recognizable science, either practical or theoretical.
  2. Speculate on the possible outcomes of the practice of that scientific element.
  3. Entertain – in principle – on the value of its ideas.

There is a lifetime of experience, study and understanding that goes into developing quality science fiction based off of these principles.

Now, imagine yourself on a planet – let’s call it Anachrion – that has no concept of modern science fiction, and only rudimentary concepts of science as a remarkable new field – a place akin to 17th century Europe during the scientific revolution…or at least no later than the 19th century when the modern term “scientist” was coined.

Suddenly, missionaries of a strange new faith arrive, but their witness is compelling, because with miraculous devices and prayers, they teach you how to win attention, acclaim and money by replicating – eventually from rote memory – stories that portray science as a form of magic, or – at best – as a static, unchanging monolith, devoid of innovation of thought.

Ultimately, these books may technically include the 3 core principles above.

But they aren’t true. The scientific practice or application of the principles is actually masked to be: “half religion, half balderdash.”

Pink SF is that same chimera – a half-religion, half-balderdash subgenre that nonetheless continues to give millions of faithful savages hope that one day it might enlighten the world. They don’t actually hope that someday it will become true, scientific Blue SF, simply because they don’t conceive of such an engine behind their Pink miracles.

Ironically, those who understand the Blue SF lessons of the past are the ones most capable of looking forward and creating new dangerous visions of the future, while those who are ideologically committed to “progressing” beyond the remarkable, reliable and productive essence and structure of the past SF – by ignoring it, downplaying it or eventually erasing it – are the ones who collapse into the rote worship of a non-existent past.

“Don’t you see? It’s galaxy-wide. It’s a worship of the past. It’s a deterioration—a stagnation!” – Salvor Hardin

But even Foundation notes the limitation of counterfeit religion, especially one that masks something (such as science) which, when empirically learned leads to it being better theoretically learned.

It is worth noting that Scientism lasted – as a politically meaningful construct – barely a century after its founding.

No hoax outlives the truth.

3 Comments
  • I did love the scene where Hardin’s men take control of the warship. That was badass.

  • Daniel says:

    Yes, it is outstanding – and some of Asimov’s best writing in the series to boot. To quote Euripedes “Kickass priests kick ass.”

    That’s something that is completely ignored in this post: how absolutely pro-religion Asimov’s plot is; the priests are genuinely faithful, incorruptible(except for the fake missionary) and though the faux religion apparently runs its course after a century, it isn’t brought down by internal corruption or being exposed as a fraud.

    Asimov – the Leftist Humanist – presents a benign form of idealized, positive general, but definitely spiritual religion coexistent with advanced logical society. It is remarkable for that alone.

    Although you could make a bit of an argument that it is no more positive than Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood’s End, in that religion seems to be a stage of necessary development that then falls away as man evolves, Asimov’s entire work would deny this: the Empire is clearly in something of a cycle of progress and fall, and the fading of the Galactic Spirit into the background of the story in no way marks a new stage of development aside from the temporal cycle of politics (I think in the move from Trader-dominated relations to the Merchant Princes). It isn’t like the nature of man “improves” by “passing through” a religious phase.

  • The other robot says:

    Pink SF is nothing more than a Cargo Cult.

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