The Course of Future History

Like Paul Krugman, Peter Turchin was inspired by Asimov’s Foundation. Unlike Krugman, Turchin appears to understand that psychohistory is not merely fiction, it is impossible due to the instability introduced by mathematical chaos theory.

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.

There is, of course, a considerable amount of general predictability concerning the course of the future due to the fact that people are still people and behave according to the same behavioral patterns that have been exhibited reliably across the millennia. Alphas are going to alpha in the future, just as gammas gammad in the past. History does not repeat, but it rhymes sufficiently to provide us with a reasonable clue which way things are going; it was not difficult to anticipate the pendulum eventually swinging back with a vengeance on globalization and its manifold ills.

However, no purely material model will ever suffice, because no material model can account for either human evil or spiritual evil. And that is the fundamental weakness of cliohistory, since it takes no account of anything beyond the material world.