Isaac Asimov on the Thrill of Lifelong Learning, Science vs. Religion, and the Role of Science Fiction in Advancing Society
“It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being.”
By Maria Popova
Isaac Asimov was an extraordinary mind and spirit — the author of more than 400 science and science fiction books and a tireless advocate of space exploration, he also took great joy in the humanities (and once annotated Lord Byron’s epic poem “Don Juan”), championed humanism over religion, and celebrated the human spirit itself (he even wrote young Carl Sagan fan mail). Like many of the best science fiction writers, he was as exceptional at predicting the future as he was at illuminating some of the most timeless predicaments of the human condition. In a 1988 interview with Bill Moyers, found in Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas (public library) — the same remarkable tome that gave us philosopher Martha Nussbaum on how to live with our human fragility — Asimov explores several subjects that still stir enormous cultural concern and friction. With his characteristic eloquence and sensitivity to the various dimensions of these issues, he presages computer-powered lifelong learning and online education decades before it existed, weighs the question of how authors will make a living in a world of free information, bemoans the extant attempts of religious fundamentalism to drown out science and rational thought, and considers the role of science fiction as a beacon of the future.
The conversation begins with a discussion of Asimov’s passionate belief that when given the right tools, we can accomplish far more than what we can with the typical offerings of formal education:
MOYERS: Do you think we can educate ourselves, that any one of us, at any time, can be educated in any subject that strikes our fancy?
ASIMOV: The key words here are “that strikes our fancy.” There are some things that simply don’t strike my fancy, and I doubt that I can force myself to be educated in them. On the other hand, when there’s a subject I’m ferociously interested in, then it is easy for me to learn about it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully…
[What’s exciting is] the actual process of broadening yourself, of knowing there’s now a little extra facet of the universe you know about and can think about and can understand. It seems to me that when it’s time to die, there would be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. There’s only this one universe and only this one lifetime to try to grasp it. And while it is inconceivable that anyone can grasp more than a tiny portion of it, at least you can do that much. What a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.
MOYERS: When I learn something new — and it happens every day — I feel a little more at home in this universe, a little more comfortable in the nest. I’m afraid that by the time I begin to feel really at home, it’ll all be over.
ASIMOV: I used to worry about that. I said, “I’m gradually managing to cram more and more things into my mind. I’ve got this beautiful mind, and it’s going to die, and it’ll all be gone.” And then I thought, “No, not in my case. Every idea I’ve ever had I’ve written down, and it’s all there on paper. I won’t be gone. It’ll be there.
Asimov then considers how computers would usher in this profound change in learning and paints the outline of a concept that Clay Shirky would detail and term “cognitive surplus” two decades later:
MOYERS: Is it possible that this passion for learning can be spread to ordinary folks out there? Can we have a revolution in learning?
ASIMOV: Yes, I think not only that we can but that we must. As computers take over more and more of the work that human beings shouldn’t be doing in the first place — because it doesn’t utilize their brains, it stifles and bores them to death — there’s going to be nothing left for human beings to do but the more creative types of endeavor. The only way we can indulge in the more creative types of endeavor is to have brains that aim at that from the start.
You can’t take a human being and put him to work at a job that underuses the brain and keep him working at it for decades and decades, and then say, “Well, that job isn’t there, go do something more creative.” You have beaten the creativity out of him. But if from the start children are educated into appreciating their own creativity, then probably almost all of us can be creative. In the olden days, very few people could read and write. Literacy was a very novel sort of thing, and it was felt that most people just didn’t have it in them. But with mass education, it turned out that most people could be taught to read and write. In the same way, once we have computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries, where you can ask any question and be given answers, you can look up something you’re interested in knowing, however silly it might seem to someone else.
Asimov goes on to point out the flawed industrial model of education — something Sir Ken Robinson would lament articulately two decades later — and tells Moyers:
Today, what people call learning is forced on you. Everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. But everyone is different. For some, class goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wring direction. But give everyone a chance, in addition to school, to follow up their own bent from the start, to find out about whatever they’re interested in by looking it up in their own homes, at their own speed, in their own time, and everyone will enjoy learning.
Later, in agreeing with Moyers that this revolution in learning isn’t merely for the young, Asimov adds:
That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. People think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, it’s a rite of passage. You’re finished with school. You’re no more a child, and therefore anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kid’s stuff. Now your’e an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore…
Every kid knows the only reason he’s in school is because he’s a kid and little and weak, and if he manages to get out early, if he drops out, why he’s just a premature man.
Speaking at a time when the Internet as we know it today was still an infant, and two decades before the golden age of online education, Asimov offers a remarkably prescient vision for how computer-powered public access to information would spark the very movement of lifelong learning that we’ve witnessed in the past decade:
You have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed afterward of going back to learning. If you have a system of education using computers, then anyone, any age, can learn by himself, can continue to be interested. If you enjoy learning, there’s no reason why you should stop at a given age. People don’t stop things they enjoy doing just because they reach a certain age. They don’t stop playing tennis just because they’ve turned forty. They don’t stop with sex just because they’ve turned forty. They keep it up as long as they can if they enjoy it, and learning will be the same thing. The trouble with learning is that most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning, and they’ll keep it up.
When Moyers asks him to describe what such a teaching machine would look like — again, in 1988, when personal computers had only just begun to appear in homes — Asimov envisions a kind of Siri-like artificial intelligence, combined with the functionality of a discovery engine:
I suppose that one essential thing would be a screen on which you could display things… And you’ll have to have a keyboard on which you ask your questions, although ideally I could like to see one that could be activated by voice. You could actually talk to it, and perhaps it could talk to you too, and say, “I have something here that may interest you. Would you like to have me print it out for you?” And you’d say, “Well, what is it exactly?” And it would tell you, and you might say, “Oh all right, I’ll take a look at it.”
But one of his most prescient remarks actually has to do not with the mechanics of freely available information but with the ethics and economics of it. Long before our present conundrum of how to make online publishing both in the public interest and financially sustainable for publishers, Asimov shares with Moyers the all too familiar question he has been asking himself — “How do you arrange to pay the author for the use of the material?” — and addresses it with equal parts realism and idealism:
After all, if a person writes something, and this then becomes available to everybody, you deprive him of the economic reason for writing. A person like myself, if he was assured of a livelihood, might write anyway, just because he enjoyed it, but most people would want to do it in return for something. I imagine how they must have felt when free libraries were first instituted. “What? My book in a free library? Anyone can come in and read it for free?” Then you realize that there are some books that wouldn’t be sold at all if you didn’t have libraries.
(A century earlier, Schopenhauer had issued a much sterner admonition against the cultural malady of writing solely for material rewards.)
Asimov then moves on to the subject of science vs. religion — something he would come to address with marvelous eloquence in his memoir — and shares his concern about how mysticism and fundamentalism undercut society:
I’d like to think that people who are given a chance to learn facts and broaden their knowledge of the universe wouldn’t seek so avidly after mysticism.
It isn’t right to sell a person phony stock, and take money for it, and this is what mystics are doing. They’re selling people phony knowledge and taking money for it. Even if people feel good about it, I can well imagine that a person who really believes in astrology is going to have a feeling of security because he knows that this is a bad day, so he’ll stay at home, just as a guy who’s got phony stock may look at it and feel rich. But he still has phony stock, and the person who buys mysticism still has phony knowledge.
He offers a counterpoint and considers what real knowledge is, adding to history’s best definitions of science:
Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism, a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. This works not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life.
Asimov goes on to bemoan the cultural complacency that has led to the decline of science in mainstream culture — a decline we feel even today more sharply than ever when, say, a creationist politician tries to stop a little girl’s campaign for a state fossil because such an effort would “endorse” evolution. Noting that “we are living in a business society” where fewer and fewer students take math and science, Asimov laments how we’ve lost sight of the fact that science is driven by not-knowing rather than certitude:
MOYERS: You wrote a few years ago that the decline in America’s world power is in part brought about by our diminishing status as a world science leader. Why have we neglected science?
ASIMOV: Partly because of success. The most damaging statement that the United States has ever been subjected to is the phrase “Yankee know-how.” You get the feeling somehow that Americans — just by the fact that they’re American — are somehow smarter and more ingenious than other people, which really is not so. Actually, the phrase was first used in connection with the atomic bomb, which was invented and brought to fruition by a bunch of European refugees. That’s “Yankee know-how.”
MOYERS: There’s long been a bias in this country against science. When Benjamin Franklin was experimenting with the lightning rod, a lot of good folk said, “You don’t need a lightning rod. If you want to prevent lightning from striking, you just have to pray about it.”
ASIMOV: The bias against science is part of being a pioneer society. You somehow feel the city life is decadent. American history is full of fables of the noble virtuous farmer and the vicious city slicker. The city slicker is an automatic villain. Unfortunately, such stereotypes can do damage. A noble ignoramus is not necessarily what the country needs.
(What might Asimov, who in 1980 voiced fears that the fundamentalists coming into power with President Reagan would turn the country even more against science by demanding that biblical creationism be given an equal footing with evolution in the classroom, if he knew that a contemporary television station can edit out Neil deGrasse Tyson’s mention of evolution?)
But when Moyers asks the writer whether he considers himself an enemy of religion, Asimov answers in the negative and offers this beautifully thoughtful elaboration on the difference between the blind faith of religion and the critical thinking at the heart of science:
My objection to fundamentalism is not that they are fundamentalists but that essentially they want me to be a fundamentalist, too. Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and I want everyone to believe that evolution is true. But I don’t want everyone to believe that evolution is true, I want them to study what we say about evolution and to decide for themselves. Fundamentalists say they want to treat creationism on an equal basis. But they can’t. It’s not a science. You can teach creationism in churches and in courses on religion. They would be horrified if I were to suggest that in churches they should teach secular humanism as nan alternate way of looking at the universe or evolution as an alternate way of considering how life may have started. In the church they teach only what they believe, and rightly so, I suppose. But on the other hand, in schools, in science courses, we’ve got to teach what scientists think is the way the universe works.
He extols the “thoroughly conscious ignorance” at the heart of science as a much safer foundation of reality than dogma:
That is really the glory of science — that science is tentative, that it is not certain, that it is subject to change. What is really disgraceful is to have a set of beliefs that you think is absolute and has been so from the start and can’t change, where you simply won’t listen to evidence. You say, “If the evidence agrees with me, it’s not necessary, and if it doesn’t agree with me, it’s false.” This is the legendary remark of Omar when they captured Alexandria and asked him what to do with the library. He said, “If the books agree with the Koran, they are not necessary and may be burned. If they disagree with the Koran, they are pernicious and must be burned.” Well, there are still these Omar-like thinkers who think all of knowledge will fit into one book called the Bible, and who refuse to allow it is possible ever to conceive of an error there. To my way of thinking, that is much more dangerous than a system of knowledge that is tentative and uncertain.
Riffing off the famous and rather ominous Dostoevsky line that “if God is dead, everything is permitted,” Asimov revisits the notion of intrinsic vs. extrinsic rewards — similarly to his earlier remark that good writing is motivated by intrinsic motives rather than external incentives, he argues that good-personhood can’t be steered by dogma but by one’s own conscience:
It’s insulting to imply that only a system of rewards and punishments can keep you a decent human being. Isn’t it conceivable a person wants to be a decent human being because that way he feels better?
I don’t believe that I’m ever going to heaven or hell. I think that when I die, there will be nothingness. That’s what I firmly believe. That’s not to mean that I have the impulse to go out and rob and steal and rape and everything else because I don’t fear punishment. For one thing, I fear worldly punishment. And for a second thing, I fear the punishment of my own conscience. I have a conscience. It doesn’t depend on religion. And I think that’s so with other people, too.
He goes on to extend this conscience-driven behavior to the domain of science, which he argues is strongly motivated by morality and a generosity of spirit uncommon in most other disciplines, where ego consumes goodwill. (Mark Twain memorably argued that no domain was more susceptible to human egotism than religion.) Asimov offers a heartening example:
I think it’s amazing how many saints there have been among scientists. I’ll give you an example. In 1900, De Vries studied mutations. He found a patch of evening primrose of different types, and he studied how they inherited their characteristics. He worked out the laws of genetics. Two other guys worked out the laws of genetics at the same time, a guy called Karl Correns, who was a German, and Erich Tschermak von Seysenegg, who was an Austrian. All three worked out the laws of genetics in 1900, and having done so, all three looked through the literature, just to see what has been done before. All three discovered that in the 1860s Gregor Mendel had worked out the laws of genetics, and people hadn’t paid any attention then. All three reported their findings as confirmation of what Mendel had found. Not one of the three attempted to say that it was original with him. And you know what it meant. It meant that two of them, Correns and Tschermak von Seyenegg, lived in obscurity. De Vries is known only because he was also the first to work out the theory of mutations. But as far as discovering genetics is concerned, Mendel gets all the credit. They knew at the time that this would happen. That’s the sort of thing you just don’t find outside of science.
Moyers, in his typical perceptive fashion, then asks Asimov why, given how much the truth of science excites him, he is best-known for writing science fiction, and Asimov responds with equal insight and outlines the difference, both cultural and creative, between fiction in general and science fiction:
In serious fiction, fiction where the writer feels he’s accomplishing something besides simply amusing people — although there’s nothing wrong with simply amusing people — the writer is holding up a mirror to the human species, making it possible for you to understand people better because you’ve read the novel or story, and maybe making it possible for you to understand yourself better. That’s an important thing.
Now science fiction uses a different method. It works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, or one that may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society in the hope that you will be able to see yourself in relation to the present society… That’s why I write science fiction — because it’s a way of writing fiction in a style that enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of science fiction, Moyers intimates and Asimov agrees, is its capacity to warm people up to changes that are inevitable but that seem inconceivable at the present time — after all, science fiction writers do have a remarkable record of getting the future right. Asimov continues:
Society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history for a variety of reasons. One, the change is cumulative. The very changes you make now make it easier to make further changes. Until the Industrial Revolution came along, people weren’t aware of change or a future. They assumed the future would be exactly like it had always been, just with different people… It was only with the coming of the Industrial Revolution that the rate of change became fast enough to be visible in a single lifetime. People were suddenly aware that not only were things changing, but that they would continue to change after they died. That was when science fiction came into being as opposed to fantasy and adventure tales. Because people knew that they would die before they could see the changes that would happen in the next century, they thought it would be nice to imagine what they might be.
As time goes on and the rate of change still continues to accelerate, it becomes more and more important to adjust what you do today to the fact of change in the future. It’s ridiculous to make your plans now on the assumption that things will continue as they are now. You have to assume that if something you’re doing is going to reach fruition in ten years, that in those ten years changes will take place, and perhaps what you’re doing will have no meaning then… Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.
Given that accepting impermanence doesn’t come easily to us, that stubborn resistance to progress and the inevitability of change is perhaps also what Asimov sees in the religious fundamentalism he condemns — dogma, after all, is based on the premise that truth is absolute and permanent, never mind that the cultural context is always changing. Though he doesn’t draw the link directly, in another part of the interview he revisits the problem with fundamentalism with words that illuminate the stark contrast between the cultural role of religion and that of science fiction:
Fundamentalists take a statement that made sense at the time it was made, and because they refuse to consider that the statement may not be an absolute, eternal truth, they continue following it under conditions where to do so is deadly.
Indeed, Asimov ends the conversation on a related note as he considers what it would take to transcend the intolerance that such fundamentalism breeds:
MOYERS: You’ve lived through much of this century. Have you ever known human beings to think with the perspective you’re calling on them to think with now?
ASIMOV: It’s perhaps not important that every human being think so. But how about the leaders and opinion-makers thinking so? Ordinary people might follow them. It would help if we didn’t have leaders who were thinking in exactly the opposite way, if we didn’t have people who were shouting hatred and suspicion of foreigners, if we didn’t have people who were shouting that it’s more important to be unfriendly than to be friendly, if we didn’t have people shouting that the people inside the country who don’t look exactly the way the rest of us look have something wrong with them. It’s almost not necessary for us to do good; it’s only necessary for us to stop doing evil, for goodness’ sake.
Bill Moyers: A World of Ideas is a remarkable tome in its entirety. Complement this particular sample-taste with Asimov on religion vs. humanism, Buckminster Fuller’s vision for the future of education, and Carl Sagan on science and spirituality.
Published April 7, 2014