Beloved science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, remembered for his classic works like the Foundation and Robot series, was described as “the greatest explainer of the age” by a peer. Bill Moyers spoke to him in this 1988 interview for his World of Ideas series that featured the world’s leading literary voices on wide-ranging conversations about life, art and contemporary issues.
In part one, Asimov explains why he believes that scientists are among the most moral people, why he doesn’t feel science and religion are at odds, and why empowering women is the way to secure our very survival on the planet.
BILL MOYERS: [on camera] Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. There’s something so clean, so compelling, so definite about the coming year 2000 that everyone, it seems, is indulging in a little millennial enthusiasm. But consider this: that same year in the Byzantine calendar will be called 7507 and in the Jewish calendar, 5759. The Chinese will be marking the year 4698. And it will be the year 1418 in the Mohammedan calendar. Those calculations come from a man who is famous for thinking globally and rationally. Tonight he tells us why we all must follow suit if we want to survive and why we can’t wait for the year 2000 AD to start. Join me for a conversation with Isaac Asimov.
[voice-over] Isaac Asimov. Whatever you’ve read, you’ve probably read something of his. Science fiction, of course — his Foundation series is a classic — science fact, chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology, children’s books, history, math. One scientist calls him “the greatest explainer of the age.” The American Humanist Association has named Dr. Asimov the Humanist of the Year. And some religious folk have considered him the incarnation of the devil.
In the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, where Americans have been debating ideas since the days of Abraham Lincoln, I asked Dr. Asimov about his faith in the power of human reason.
MOYERS: Are you an enemy of religion?
ISAAC ASIMOV: No, I’m not. I feel that, as it seems to me any civilized humane person should feel is that every person has the right to his own beliefs and his own securities and his own likings. What I’m against is attempting to place a person’s belief system onto the nation or the world generally. You know, we object because we say constantly that the Soviet Union is trying to dominate the world, communize the world. Well, you know, the United States, I hope, is trying to democratize the world. But I certainly would be very much against trying to Christianize the world, or to Islamize it, or to Judaize it, or anything of the sort. And my objection to fundamentalism is not that they are fundamentalists, but that essentially they want me to be a fundamentalist, too.
Now, I can imagine they object, they say, “I believe that 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 decide for themselves. Now, they say they want to teach creationism on an equal basis. But they can’t. It’s not a science. You can teach creationism in the churches, in the courses on religion. I mean, they would be horrified if I were to suggest that in the churches they teach secular humanism as an alternate way of looking at the universe, or that they teach 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.
MOYERS: But, of course, this is what frightens many, many believers. They see science as uncertain, always tentative, always subject to revisionism. They see science as a complex, chilling and enormous universe, ruled by chance and impersonal laws. They see science as dangerous.
ASIMOV: 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, in my way of thinking, 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. If it doesn’t agree with me, it’s false.”
This is the legendary remark of Omar when they captured Alexandria and asked what to do with the library. He said, if the books agree with the Quran, 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 that all of knowledge will fit into one book called the Bible and refuse to allow that there is even the conceivability of an error in there. That, to my way of thinking, is much more dangerous than a system of knowledge which is tentative and uncertain.
MOYERS: Do you see any room for reconciling the two world views; the religious, the Biblical view, the universe as God’s drama, constantly interrupted and rewritten by divine intervention and the view of the universe as scientists hold it, always having to be subjected to the test of observation and experimentation? Is there any room for reconciling?
ASIMOV: Well, there is if people are reasonable about this. There are many scientists who are honestly religious. You can rattle off the names of them. Milliken was a truly religious man. Morley of the Michelson-Morley experiment, was truly religious. Hundreds of others who did great scientific work, good scientific work, at the same time were religious.
But they did not mix their religion and science. In other words, they did not presume that if something they didn’t understand took place in science they could dismiss it by saying, “Well, that’s what God wants.” Or at this point a miracle took place. No, no. They know that science is strictly a construct of the human mind working according to the laws of nature. And that religion is something that lies outside and may embrace science.
Well, on the other hand, you know, if there were some need to arise evidence, scientific, confirmable evidence that God exists, then we’d have no choice, scientists would have no choice but to accept that fact. On the other hand, the fundamentalists don’t admit the possibility of evidence, let us say, that would show that evolution exists, because any evidence you present, they will deny if it conflicts with the word of God, as they seem to think it to be. So that the chances of compromise are only on one side. And therefore I doubt that it will take place.
MOYERS: If God is dead, everything is permitted. That’s what scares them.
ASIMOV: Well, on the contrary. They assume that human beings have no feeling about what is right and wrong. Is the only reason you are virtuous because that’s your ticket to heaven? Is the only reason you don’t beat your children to death, because you don’t want to go to hell? It seems to me that it’s insulting to human beings 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? Because that way the world is better?
I would like to think — 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 does not 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 it’s so with other people, too.
Besides, even in societies in which religion is very powerful, there’s no shortage of crime and sin and misery and terrible things happening, despite heaven and hell. I mean, I imagine if you go down death row, bunch of murderers maybe are waiting for execution, ask them if they believe in God. They’ll tell you yes.
MOYERS: Is there a morality in science?
ASIMOV: Oh, absolutely. There is a morality in science that is further advanced than anywhere else. If you can find a person in science — and it happens, scientists are only human — who has faked his results, who has lied as far as his findings are concerned, who is trying to steal the work of another, who has done something scientists consider unethical, his scientific reputation is ruined, his scientific life is over, there is no forgiveness.
MOYERS: Because the morality is?
ASIMOV: The morality is you report the truth. And you do your best to disprove your own findings. And you do not utilize someone else’s findings and report them as your own. In any other branch of human endeavor, in politics, in economics, in law, in almost anything, people can commit crimes and still be heroes. Somehow, to my way of thinking, to my way of thinking, for instance, Col. North has done terrible things. Yet he’s a hero and a patriot to some people.
And this goes in almost every field. Only science is excepted. You make a misstep in science and you ‘re through, really through.
MOYERS: You love the field, don’t you? You love science?
ASIMOV: Oh, I’m very fond of it I think that 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. And he worked out the laws of genetics. Two other guys worked out the laws of genetics at the same time, a guy called Charles Carrinse, who was a Gennan – de Vries was a Dutchman – and Eric Von Chennark, who was an Austrian. All three worked out the laws of genetics in 1900. All three looked through the literature, having done so just to see what had been done before. All three discovered that in 1867 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, once he discovered Mendel. And that’s the sort of thing you just don’t find outside of science.
MOYERS Reporting to the truth.
ASIMOV: And you know what it meant? It meant that two of them, Carrinse and Chennark, lived in obscurity and de Vries is known because he also was the first to work out the theory of mutations. But as far as the discovering genetics is concerned, Mendel gets all the credit. And they knew at the time that this would happen, but they did it.
MOYERS: It is the truth that excites you. So what is the value of science fiction, for which you are justifiably universally known?
ASIMOV: Okay, let’s look at literature as a whole. Fiction. Just any kind of fiction. I think that serious fiction, fiction where the writer feels he’s accomplishing something besides simply amusing people — there’s nothing wrong with simply amusing people – but if he thinks that he’s doing something besides simply amusing people, what he’s doing 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, maybe making it possible for you to understand yourself better. This is an important thing.
Now, science fiction uses a different, a different method for doing this. It works up an artificial society, one which doesn’t exist, one which may possibly exist in the future, but not necessarily. And it portrays events against the background of this society. Well, it’s amusing, it’s interesting. But in the hope that this will give a new way of looking at people and looking at yourself, that you will see yourself seen against the strange society in ways you couldn’t possibly see yourself, seen against the present society.
I don’t claim that I succeed at this. It seems to me that to do this properly takes a great man, you know. Takes a guy on the level of, well at least half of Shakespeare. And I don’t come up there. But I try and who knows, maybe once in a while I succeed a little bit, but I try. And that’s why I write science fiction, because it’s a way of writing fiction in a different style and enables me to make points I can’t make otherwise.
MOYERS: Someone said that one great advantage of science fiction is to introduce the reader to the idea of change. Of changes that may well be inevitable, but which are not conceivable to the reader.
ASIMOV: Well, I’ve said that myself at different times. The fact is that society is always changing, but the rate of change has been accelerating all through history. For a variety of reasons. One thing, change is cumulative. The very changes you make, make it easier to make further changes.
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. So that people are suddenly aware that not only were things changing, but they would continue to change after they died. And 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, to what happened in the next century. So it’d be nice to imagine what they might be. And other people decided to make money that way.
Well, as time goes on, the rate of change still continues to accelerate, it becomes more and more important to adjust what you do today with 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 may take place and perhaps what you’re doing will have no meaning then.
So that nowadays, futurism has become an important part of thinking in business, in economics, in politics, in military affairs. At any rate, science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that people would have that somehow there’s something about things the way they are right now which are permanent.
MOYERS: Use your imagination, which you do so often, in this way. If the next President asks you to draft his inaugural address and said, “Dr. Asimov, make sure I say the one thing you think I must convince the American people that they should pay attention to.” What would it be?
ASIMOV: Well, it would be this: That all the problems that we face now, that are really important for the life and death, are global problems. That they affect all of us alike. The ozone layer, if it disappears, disappears for all of us. Pollution in the ocean, in the atmosphere, in the ground water, is for all of us. The only way we can ameliorate these problems, solve them, prevent them from destroying us, is again a global solution. We can’t expect that anything the United States alone does is going to affect the situation the world over. There’s got to be cooperation among the nations of the world. International cooperation is absolutely essential and if we can achieve that in the face of a danger deadlier than has ever faced humanity before, why one advantages we’ll have is that automatically we will probably start spending less money on war and preparations for war, which will in turn be a beneficial cycle. Because we’ll have more money for solving these problems we must solve.
MOYERS: What about, though, the one subject you’ve written so much about, the population explosion, you know, the fact that right now the population of the globe is over four billion. You’ve said that if it –
ASIMOV: It’s over five billion.
MOYERS: Over five billion, yes. You’ve said if it continues at its 2% growth rate a year, it will be what in another-
ASIMOV: Well, actually, it’s down to 1.6%, but with a higher population it’s the same amount in actual numbers: 80 million a year. So that, oh, by the year 2000, it’s going to be perhaps 6.5 billion.
MOYERS: That’s just 12 years from now.
ASIMOV Yes. Yes, it’s going up very fast.
MOYERS: How many people do you think the earth is able to sustain?
ASIMOV: I don’t think it’s able to sustain the five billion in the long run. So that, I mean, right now, most of the world is living under appalling conditions. And we can’t possibly improve the conditions of everyone. We can’t raise the entire world to the average standard of living in the United States, because I don’t think we have the resources and the ability to distribute well enough for that. We have condemned, right now as it is, most of the world to a miserable starvation-level of existence. And it will just get worse as the population continues to go up.
MOYERS: But you just can’t say to a woman, “Don’t have children.”
ASIMOV: Well, you know, it’s not so much that. It’s so many people are saying, “Have children.” There is such a pro-natalist attitude in the world. We celebrate Mother’s Day so enthusiastically, we say, “May all your troubles be little ones.” We celebrate additional children. I feel sometimes that if we’d only stop pushing for children, that somehow there’d be fewer of them.
MOYERS: Why did you say that the price of survival is the equality of women?
ASIMOV: Because if women have full ability to enter into all facets of the human condition, if they can enter business, if they can enter religion, science, government, on an equal basis with men, they will be so busy that they won’t feel it as necessary to have a great many children. As long as you have women under conditions where they don’t feel any sense of value, no self-worth except as mothers, except as baby factories, they’ll have a lot of children. Because that’s the only way they can prove they’re worth something.
In general, if you look through the world, the lower the status of women, the higher the birth rate. And the higher the birth rate, the lower the status of women. So that if you could somehow raise the status of women, I am certain the birth rate will fall drastically through the choice of the women themselves.
MOYERS: What do you see happening to the idea of dignity to the human species if this population growth continues at its present rate?
ASIMOV: It’s going to destroy it all. I use what I call my bathroom metaphor. If two people live in an apartment and there are two bathrooms, then both have what I call freedom of the bathroom, go to the bathroom any time you want to and stay as long as you want to for whatever you need. And this to my way is ideal. And everyone believes in the freedom of the bathroom. It should be right there in the Constitution. But if you have 20 people in the apartment and two bathrooms, no matter how much every person believes in freedom of the bathroom, there is no such thing. You have to set up, you have to set up times for each person, you have to bang at the door, aren’t you through yet and so on.
And in the same way, democracy cannot survive overpopulation. Human dignity cannot survive it. Convenience and decency cannot survive it. As you put more and more people onto the world, the value of life not only declines, but it disappears. It doesn’t matter if someone dies.
MOYERS: Of course so many people, say the United States is bringing its population under control. That we’re going to have a stable population, we’re not even reproducing ourselves. And what the rest of the world does, we can’t control.
ASIMOV: The population of the United States is still going up. The only time it went up really slowly was during the Great Depression when there were no laws sort of lowering the birth rate. There was just an economic depression, which made people think twice before they had children.
But the United States is doing something else, which is absolutely refusing to help other nations control population. So that our feeling is somehow that it’s enough for us to somehow make sure that the United States is in good shape and what other nations do is their business. It’s not their business, it’s our business, too.
MOYERS: In other words, we can’t exist as a stable economy, in a stable society, if around us is turmoil, chaos?
ASIMOV: Absolutely not. Right now in many nations they’re just destroying the rain forests because they need the firewood, they need the space for farms.
MOYERS: Why should I care about that?
ASIMOV: Because without the rain forests, we’re going to have deserts instead. The food supply will dwindle. As a matter of fact, there’s even the possibility that we’re going to lose all kinds of valuable substances we know nothing about. Those rain forests have an incredible number of species of plants and animals that we know very little about. Some of them may produce chemicals of great importance pharmacologically and medically. Some of the plants, might if properly cultivated be new food sources. And in addition to that, nothing produces the oxygen of the atmosphere with the same intensity that a forest does. Anything that substitutes for it will be producing less oxygen. We’re going to be destroying our atmosphere, too.
MOYERS: You’re how old now?
MOYERS: You’ve lived through a lot of this century. Have you ever seen human beings think with the perspective you’re calling on them to think now?
ASIMOV: Well, it’s perhaps not important that every human being thinks so. How about the leaders thinking so? How about the opinion-makers thinking so? Ordinary people might follow them. If we didn’t have leaders who are thinking in exactly the opposite way; if we didn’t have people who are shouting hatred and suspicion of foreigners; if we didn’t have people who are shouting that it’s more important to be unfriendly than to be friendly; if we didn’t have people shouting somehow that people inside the country who don’t look exactly the way the rest of us look, that something’s wrong with them. Again, again, it’s almost not necessary for us to do good. It’s only necessary for us to stop doing evil, for goodness sakes.
MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Great Hall at Cooper Union in New York City, this has been a conversation with Isaac Asimov. I’m Bill Moyers.
let us put it this way
888 will order the meteorite attack shower
I do estimate about 20000 such meteorites will simultaneously attack
all military targets on earth
in one minute the story is over militarly since humans lost
and is nothing that 777 and 555 myself
can do about it either
888 brings these teleportated metorites from far away galaxies
outside the juristiction of your God on Earth 777
he simply knew about it since ancient times
and he warned as oracle the ancient satanists nations on earth
who did not take it seriously into account
neither 555 or 777
know exactly the time and date
because it is an Index
which normalizes global enthropy on earth today
with respect to memory allocation overflow index
of the previous Universe
whenever this index finds itself arround 98%
888 will attack to simulate the Bing Bang of the previous Universe
so clearly returning the 5 million euros you have stolen from me
will instantly drop this global enthropy index
that only 888 knows about
the only thing I do know for sure is that
following 777 request to 888 this morning
but also myself as a member of the Holy Trinity too I did approve it
Isaac Asimov on His Hopes for the Future (Part Two)
October 21, 1988
BILL MOYERS: Good evening. I’m Bill Moyers. Not too many years ago, it all would have seemed like science fiction. A rocket weighing over two thousand tons blasts one hundred eighty-four miles into space and completes a full orbit of the earth in ninety minutes. One the same day twelve countries sign an agreement to build an orbiting space station. Of course it’s all real, it all just happened. But as my guest tonight warns, if we’re going to keep turning science fiction into scientific fact, we may have to rethink what we mean by education. And he should know. Join me for part two of a conversation with Isaac Asimov.
“I used to worry about that. I said, I’m gradually managing to cram my mind more and more full of things. I’ve got this beautiful mind and it’s going to die, and it’ll all be gone. And then I say, not in my case. Every idea I’ve ever had I’ve written down, and it’s all there on paper. And I won’t be gone; it’ll be there.” – Issac Asimov
[voice-over] Isaac Asimov. Just about everyone who reads has read something of his. Science fiction, of course; his Foundation series is a classic. Science fact; chemistry, astronomy, physics, biology. Children’s books. History. Math. One scientist calls Asimov the greatest explainer of the age. In this second part of our conversation in the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, where American’s have been debating ideas since the days of Abraham Lincoln, I talked to Dr. Asimov about science, education, and the universe.
[interviewing] Your book, your latest book, your three hundred and what?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, 391 altogether.
BILL MOYERS: Three hundred and ninety-one; As Far As the Human Eye Could See. How far can we see?
ISAAC ASIMOV: It depends on what we’re looking for. If we’re looking at human history, we can’t see very far, because human history is a chaotic thing. Small changes have big results, unpredictable in direction. But if we’re looking at something that is essentially simple, such as stars and galaxies and things like that, then it is possible to look far, far ahead. We may be wrong, but it is possible to make a case for something that might happen ten to the hundred years in the future; one with a hundred zeros after it. In fact, that’s what I do in the last essay. That’s why I call it As Far As the Human Eye Could See. That comes from Locksley Hall by Tennyson, of course. “When I looked into the future far as human eye could see, saw the” something or the other “and the wonders yet to be,” and so on. But you have to stick to very simple things.
BILL MOYERS: Do you see wonders out there?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes, in a way. I see a picture of the universe which somehow becomes infinite. It can expand and expand and expand until it is sufficiently thinly spaced to allow another universe to begin; and that perhaps surrounding our universe is the far, faint, faint remnant of another universe, and beyond that of another one even fainter, and so on infinitely. And if the universe doesn’t expand forever, if it goes into a crunch and disappears, there may be a limitless, a really limitless ocean of vacuum out of which new universes are constantly arising like bubbles in boiling water; some large, some small, some with one set of laws, some with another. We just happen to be living in one that’s suitable for life. In fact, there we get into the anthropic principal because we can only exist in one that’s suitable for life, and the mere fact that we exist makes it suitable for life, you see. And there are people who argue that everything in the universe depends upon human observation. And then there are people who say, “Well, suppose there are no human beings, just frogs. Will a frog observation do the trick?” It’s a game for modern scholastics. Instead of “how many angels can dance on the point a pin,” we try to argue out quantum weirdness. It’s a lot of fun, but it makes you dizzy.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think that we can educate ourselves? That anyone of us, as you once said, at any time, can be educated in any subject that strikes our fancy?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, the key words there 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 it. I have never really been interested in economics, for instance, or in psychology or in an as a non-spectator to really know what art is all about. And, therefore, even if I try to read about it, it bounces off. 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 read it. I absorb it. I take it in gladly and cheerfully. I’ve written more books on astronomy than on any other science, and no one has ever complained that my astronomical books are wrong, silly, anything like that. I’ve never taken a course in astronomy. I’m completely self-trained in it. On the other hand, I’ve written relatively few books on chemistry, which is my training. I’ve got a PhD in chemistry, but I know too much chemistry to get excited over it, whereas astronomy is different.
BILL MOYERS: Excited. Learning really excites you, doesn’t it?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Oh, yes. I think it’s 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, and that will come to all of us, there’ll be a certain pleasure in thinking that you had utilized your life well, that you had learned as much as you could, gathered in as much as possible of the universe, and enjoyed it. I mean, 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 do that much. I mean, what a tragedy just to pass through and get nothing out of it.
BILL MOYERS: Well, what happens to me when I learn something new, and it happens every day, is that I just feel a little more at home in this universe, a little more comfortable in the nest. I’m afraid that just about the time I’ll begin to be really at home, it’ll be over.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, you know, I used to worry about that. I said, I’m gradually managing to cram my mind more and more full of things. I’ve got this beautiful mind and it’s going to die, and it’ll all be gone. And then I say, not in my case. Every idea I’ve ever had I’ve written down, and it’s all there on paper. And I won’t be gone; it’ll be there.
BILL MOYERS: Do you realize how — the possibility of that depressing the rest of us who can’t write it down the way you can? Isn’t it possible that one could say, “Well, since I can’t write the way Isaac Asimov does, and know what Isaac Asimov knows, I won’t do it at all”?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Oh, I wouldn’t want people to do that. A little is better than nothing. In fact, you might say that I overdo it. Lately I’ve been thinking that people must look upon me as some kind of a freak. There was a certain pleasure in writing 100 books, you know, I felt I’ve accomplished something, then 200. But now it stands at 391, it’s liable to be 400 by the end of the year, and I have every intention of continuing because I enjoy the process. And, in the end, it seems to me nobody’ll care what I write, just the number. Maybe I will have defeated myself in that way.
BILL MOYERS: How do you explain yourself to yourself. What is it that caused a man to want to know so much that he would write 400 books?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, I suppose it’s sheer hedonism. I just enjoy it so.
BILL MOYERS: Pleasure?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes. I mean, what made Bing Crosby or Bob Hope play all that golf, you know? They enjoyed it, and that’s the way it is with me.
BILL MOYERS: Do you think it’s possible that this contagion can be spread to ordinary folks out there? This passion for learning that you have, can we have a revolution in learning?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes. I think not only we can, but I think we’re going to have to. 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 brain, it stultifies and bores them to death, there’s going to be nothing left for human beings to do but the more creative types of endeavor. And 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 his 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 we can, almost all of us, be creative. Just as, in the old days, very few people could read and write. Literacy was a very novel sort of thing and you thought that most people just didn’t have it in them. But when you indulged in mass education, it turned out that most people could be taught to read and write.
In the same way, if instead of having mass education as we now have, must have, with a curriculum, once we have outlets, computer outlets in every home, each of them hooked up to enormous libraries where anyone can ask any question and be given answers, be given reference material, be something you’re interested in knowing from an early age, however silly it might seem to someone else, it’s what you’re interested in — then you ask, and you can find out, and you can follow it up, and you can do it in your own home, at your own speed, in your own direction, in your own time, then everyone will enjoy learning. Nowadays, what people call learning is forced on you and everyone is forced to learn the same thing on the same day at the same speed in class. And everyone is different. For some it goes too fast, for some too slow, for some in the wrong direction. But give them a chance in addition to school — I don’t say we abolish school, but in addition to school — to follow up their own bent from the start.
BILL MOYERS: Well, I love the vision, but what about the argument that machines, computers de-humanize learning?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, as a matter of fact, it’s just the reverse. It seems to me that it’s through this machine that, for the first time, we’ll be able to have a one-to-one relationship between information source and information consumer, so to speak.
BILL MOYERS: What do you mean?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, in the old days you used to have tutors for children. A person who could afford it would hire a pedagogue, a tutor, and he would teach the children; and if he knew his job he could adapt his teaching to the tastes and abilities of the students, you see. But how many people could afford to hire a pedagogue? Most children went uneducated. Then we reached the point where it was absolutely necessary to educate everybody. The only way we could do it is to have one teacher for a great many students and, in order to organize the situation properly, we gave them a curriculum to teach from. So, how many teachers are good at this, too? Like in everything else, the number of teachers is far greater, is far greater, than the number of good teachers. So, we either have a one-to-one relationship for the very few, or a one-to-many relationship for the many. Now, there’s a possibility of a one-to-one relationship for the many. Everyone can have a teacher in the form of access to the gathered knowledge of the human species.
BILL MOYERS: Through the libraries that are connected to the computer on my desk in my home.
ISAAC ASIMOV: That’s right. Right.
BILL MOYERS: I can sit there and call up — well, what if I want to learn only about baseball?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, that’s alright. You learn all you want about baseball, because the more you learn about baseball the more you might grow interested in mathematics to try to figure out what they mean by those earned run averages and the batting averages and so on. You might, in the end, become more interested in math than baseball if you follow your own bent, and you’re not told. On the other hand, someone who is interested in mathematics may suddenly find himself very enticed by the problem of how you throw a curve ball. He may find himself engaged in sports physics, so to speak. Well, why not? Why not?
BILL MOYERS: But you know, Dr. Asimov, we have such a spotty, in fact we have such a miserable, record in this country of providing, say, poor children even with good classrooms; and I wonder if our society can ever harness itself to provide everyone, including poor children, with good computers?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Perhaps not at the very start, you know. But it’s like asking yourself, “Is it possible to supply everybody in the nation with clean water?” Now, there are many nations where it is impossible to get clean water except under very unusual circumstances. That was one reason why people started drinking beer and wine, because the alcohol killed the germs. If you didn’t drink that, you died of cholera. But there are places where you can supply clean water for nearly everyone. Now the United States probably supplies clean water for a larger percentage of its population than almost any other nation can. It’s not that we would expect everybody to have a perfect computer right off, to have equal access to outlets. But you try for it. And, with time, I think more and more will. Just as, for goodness sakes, when I was young very few people had automobiles, very few people had telephones in the home. Almost nobody had an air conditioner. Now, these things are very common, indeed, almost universal. It might be the same way.
BILL MOYERS: So, in a sense, every student has his or her own private school?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes. And it belongs to him or her. He can be the sole dictator of what he is going to learn, what he is going to study. Now, mind you, this is not all he is going to do. He’ll still be going to school for some things that he has to know.
BILL MOYERS: Common knowledge, common data base.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Right And interaction with other students and with teachers — he can’t get away from that. But he’s got to look forward to the fun in life which is following his own bent
BILL MOYERS: This revolution you’re talking about, personal learning, it’s not just for the young, is it?
ISAAC ASIMOV: No! That’s a good point. No, it’s not just for the young. That’s another trouble with education as we now have it. It is for the young, and people think of education as something that they can finish. And what’s more, when they finish, that’s a rite of passage into manhood.
BILL MOYERS: Real world. I’m finished with —
ISAAC ASIMOV: Right I’m finished with school. I’m no more a child. And, therefore, anything that reminds you of school — reading books, having ideas, asking questions — that’s kids’ stuff. Now you’re an adult, you don’t do that sort of thing anymore, you see.
BILL MOYERS: And in fact, like prison, the reward of school is getting out.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Exactly.
BILL MOYERS: Kids begin to say, “When are you getting out?”
ISAAC ASIMOV: And every kid knows that. Every kid knows the only reason he’s in school is because he’s a kid and little and weak, and as soon as he — and, in fact, if he manages to get out early, if he drops out, why he’s just a premature man.
BILL MOYERS: Yes. So that’s exactly right I’ve talked to some of these drop-outs and they think they’re there. They think they’ve become men because they’re out of school.
ISAAC ASIMOV: That’s right
BILL MOYERS: What’s wrong with this?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, what’s wrong with it is you have everybody looking forward to no longer learning, and you make them ashamed, afterwards, of going back to learning. If you have something like this than anyone, any age, can learn by himself, can continue to be interested, there’s no reason then, if you enjoy learning, 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 tum 40. They don’t stop with sex just because they turn 40. 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 most people don’t enjoy it because of the circumstances. Make it possible for them to enjoy learning, and they’ll keep it up. There’s a famous story about Oliver Wendell Holmes, who lived to be well into his 90s. He was in a hospital one time — he had not long to live, he was over 90 already — and President Roosevelt came to see him. And there was Oliver Wendell Holmes reading Greek grammar. And Roosevelt said, “Why are you reading Greek grammar, Mr. Holmes?” And Mr. Holmes said, “To improve my mind, Mr. President” I mean, that he hadn’t stopped.
BILL MOYERS: Are we romanticizing this, or do you really think that Saul Bellow’s character Herzog was correct when he said, “The people who come to evening classes are only ostensibly after culture. What they’re really seeking is clarity, good sense and truth — even an atom of it. People,” he said, are dying. It is no metaphor for the lack of something real at the end of the day”?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, I’d like to think that was so. I’d like to think that people who were given the chance at learning facts, at broadening their knowledge of the universe, wouldn’t seek so avidly after mysticism. I wonder how many people, how many people go for these mystical, nonsensical things simply because they must go for something, and this is the only thing available.
BILL MOYERS: Mysticism. What bothers you about mysticism?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, the same thing bothers me about mysticism that would bother me about con men. I mean, it doesn’t seem to me to be 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 And even if people feel good about it, and 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, but nevertheless, a guy who’s got phony stock may look at it, and it’s nice and shiny, and scrolls, and old gold lettering and stuff, and as long as he doesn’t have to do anything with it he feels real rich looking at it. But that’s no excuse. He still has phony stock. And the person who buys mysticism still has phony knowledge, and it bothers me.
BILL MOYERS: What’s the real knowledge?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, we can’t be absolutely certain. Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism. It’s 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. And this works, not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life. I should think people would want to know that what they know is truly what the universe is like, or at least as close as they can get to it.
BILL 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. Do you still think that’s so?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes, I do. We’re still probably well up there technologically, you know, but what margins we do have are slimmer, narrower, and we’re being overtaken.
BILL MOYERS: Why? Why have we neglected science?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, partly because of oversuccess. I mean, if you’re so convinced that — I suppose 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 Americans, are somehow smarter and more ingenious than other people, which really is not so. It causes you to rest on your laurels. And actually it was first used in connection with the atomic bomb that I know of. The atomic bomb was invented and brought to fruition by bunch of European refugees. You can go down the list of names; that’s the “Yankee know-how.” But also there’s this feeling that somehow, because we have a, what we consider a decent economic system, freedom, free enterprise, all that — which I’m all in favor of — that that alone will do it for us. And, I admit, that helps out in some ways, but not if we’re lazy about it. It’s not going to do it for us if we don’t do anything, you see.
BILL MOYERS: And yet there’s always been a bias in this society against science.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, it’s against intellectuality. I mean, when nominee Bush can castigate Dukakis for going to Harvard, whereas he went to a proletarian school like Yale, you know there’s something wrong. I mean, there you’re actually trying to run a person down for belonging to what people see as an elite school, that there’s something vicious about going to an elite school.
BILL MOYERS: What did you mean when you said once that we have to stop living by the code of the past?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Only because times change. In the old days, we didn’t worry about the future, and now we must. We have to worry about the future all the time. Things are changing so fast.
BILL MOYERS: You and I may not be around when it arrives.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, I imagine our children will be, our grandchildren. And besides, the human race will be. And — well, let me try to make it — I don’t want it to sound like a foolish idealist. I don’t want to make it sound as though I just love humanity, but look — my books are going to survive me. I want to have people alive to read them.
BILL MOYERS: Right. Is it possible that you suffer from an excessive trust in rationality?
ISAAC ASIMOV: Well, I can’t answer that very easily. Perhaps I do, you know. But I can’t think of anything else to trust in. You say to yourself, “If you can’t go by reason, what can you go by?” Now, one answer is faith. But faith in what? I notice there’s no general agreement in the world of these matters of faith, they are not compelling. I have my faith. You have your faith. And there’s no way in which I can translate my faith to you or vice versa. At least as far as reason’s concerned, there’s a system of transfer, a system of rational argument following the laws of logic, et cetera, that a great many people agree on. So that in reason there are, what we call, compelling arguments. That is, if I locate certain kinds of evidence, and even people who disagreed with me to begin with, once they study the evidence, find themselves compelled to agree by the evidence. But wherever we go beyond reason into faith, there’s no such thing as compelling evidence. Even if you have a revelation, how can you transfer that revelation to others? By what system?
BILL MOYERS: So, it’s in the mind you find your hope.
ISAAC ASIMOV: Yes, and I have to say I can’t wait until everyone in the world is rational, just until enough are rational to make a difference.
BILL MOYERS: [voice-over] From the Great Hall of Cooper Union in New York City, this has been a conversation with Isaac Asimov. I’m Bill Moyers.