Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Asimov — Good stuff, but you have to know when to quit.

Actually, no, Dr. Asimov, that isn't the way things work. It's a bit of a weakness in the world of science fiction to think of even silicon-based dwellers on neutron stars or whatever to be basically Just Like Us. After all, that makes for a good story.  Sound familiar? That's the basis of most of the errors of liberalism. Assumption of equivalence. Oh, there are interesting equivalences among human beings and even other living things, but many of them are superficial, and others are more apparent than real. I don't know the context of this Asimov quote, and I suppose it could be a truth on some level of abstraction, but mostly it isn't, and is very misleading. Of course it helps to understand yourself if you're going to understand something else, if only to help get your thoughts organized. But that's trivially true. Looking at myself doesn't help me understand Asimov all that well, for example. Despite the fact that we're both Americans (I know he's dead, but it's less awkward to use the present tense here), our backgrounds are such that we'd have a bit of a problem understanding each other. He came from a Jewish background in New York, for example, while I come from a Baptist/Quaker background in Indiana. These backgrounds have a lot to do with the way we think. I realize that, and I wonder if Asimov did? I expect, like a lot of urban Jews, he tended to think of his cultural background as the default human culture and everything else out there as a more-or-less watered-down version of that.  Hence, his ideas about politics were the right way to think, and if anybody disagreed, it was because of their ignorance, and if they simply knew what he did, they'd agree with him.

All of this is hilarious, of course, when you consider the amazing divergence of human thinking that varies by time, geography, and culture, while Asimov's culture and mine have been extensively influences each other for centuries. There are/have been cultures where cannibalism is not only permitted, but is a positive value. This is not because of ignorance, but because of culture, and, conceivably, even genetics. Like I said elsewhere once, it is going to be very hard for a 17th-Century English Quaker and a 16th-Century Aztec to understand one another, no matter how much introspection they utilize.

The trouble with smart, creative people isn't that they're not insightful.  They are. But the problem is that, knowing that they're insightful, they think they're always insightful. And of course their readers and admirers can make the same mistake about them.  Even Isaac nods.  Over at Secular Right, Andrew Stuttaford points to the limitations of Asimov's wisdom:


Here’s the great man himself:
I have never, not for one moment, been tempted toward religion of any kind. The fact is that I feel no spiritual void.
Well, quite.
That Asimov never “felt” the tug of any faith, let alone any God-shaped hole is, I suspect, a reflection of the fact that an individual’s susceptibility to religious belief or even to “spirituality”(to use that gelatinous term) almost certainly owes more to his or her psyche (we can debate how much of that is down to the genes) than to anything else.
Asimov then succumbs to hubris:
I have my philosophy of life, which does not include any aspect of the supernatural and which I find totally satisfying. I am, in short, a rationalist and believe only that which reason tells me is so.
Oh come on. The idea that anyone’s beliefs are founded solely on reason is a leap too far. Robots may be built that way. Humans are not. Judging by the section I have highlighted in these comments below, Asimov was no exception:
The soft bonds of love are indifferent to life and death. They hold through time so that yesterday’s love is part of today’s and the confidence in tomorrow’s love is also part of today’s. And when one dies, the memory lives in the other, and is warm and breathing. And when both die — I almost believe, rationalist though I am — that somewhere it remains, indestructible and eternal, enriching all of the universe by the mere fact that once it existed.
Under the circumstances it’s perhaps not a surprise that Asimov bought into the soft-left mush that is so much of Secular Humanism (there’s a reference to that creed elsewhere in the piece), but I did like this:
There is nothing frightening about an eternal dreamless sleep. Surely it is better than eternal torment in Hell and eternal boredom in Heaven. And what if I’m mistaken? The question was asked of Bertrand Russell, the famous mathematician, philosopher, and outspoken atheist. “What if you died,” he was asked, “and found yourself face to face with God? What then?”
And the doughty old champion said, “I would say, ‘Lord, you should have given us more evidence.’”


  1. My experience has been atheists almost always liberals of varying degrees.

    1. Take a look at Secular Right.

    2. Certainly, but I think Bob's right — With occasional exceptions, in current culture, atheists are mostly on the left.

    3. OTOH, I don't know if the boys at secular right are atheists or agnostics or some of each.

  2. I can only speak for myself, but believing in something better than this life is mighty appealing to me. I guess if your life is nothing but kicks and giggles, then you're inclined to an attitude of total self worth and no need for something existential. My life, thus far, demands that I wish for something better in the next.


  3. I think that we have to remember that Isaac Asimov fought hard for smoker's rights and died from lung cancer from secondhand smoke.

    (Not true, but see how he actually died and see if you get my point).

  4. Delusional, pompous ass. Like all leftists.