Television Series Review
Foundation (Season One)
APPLE TV (2021–)
Created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman
(Editor’s Note: This is a spoiler filled review.)
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Nearly thirty years after his death, Isaac Asimov’s acclaimed Foundation series — long deemed unfilmable — has been adapted for the screen. Co-created by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman for Apple TV+, season one of Foundation recently concluded with its tenth episode, and seven more seasons have been proposed (season two is already confirmed). The production itself is an impressive feat; Asimov’s mythology is remarkably expansive, encompassing an entire galaxy over the course of a millennium and including a host of characters and locations. Another challenge for the writers is that while Asimov was a brilliant science fiction world-builder, his plotlines — though at times riveting — do not achieve the humane depth required for inspiring significant admiration, empathy, or repulsion toward any of the characters. Ultimately, what Goyer, Friedman, and their team have produced is not a faithful adaptation of the source material; the broad strokes of the story remain, but it has essentially been reinvented with engaging human complexities, intriguing subplots and backstories, and diversification of the characters. Throughout the premiere season of this thorough revamping (dare I say, enhancement?) of the Foundation saga, several interesting philosophical themes are explored. These include intergenerational justice (specifically, our moral obligation to people of the very distant future), the existence and nature of the soul, and our longing for a grand narrative that gives life significance and makes sense of the human condition. Be forewarned: significant spoilers lie ahead.
The central premise of Foundation involves preeminent mathematician Hari Seldon, a professor of probability theory who has developed a scientific discipline known as “psychohistory.” Psychohistory is an integration of psychology, history, and mathematics that allows Seldon to model and forecast the dynamics of human history on a broad scale (the behavior of large populations but not individuals). Through his calculations, he predicts that the galactic Empire, which has endured for 12,000 years and includes trillions of people, will lie in ruins within five centuries. After being arrested for this treasonous proclamation, he — along with Gaal Dornick, a young female protégé he has just recruited from the distant anti-intellectual planet of Synnax — is brought before an imperial tribunal. In response to the subsequent interrogation, Seldon explains: “The Empire will fall. Order will vanish. Interstellar wars will be endless. Ten thousand worlds reduced to radioactive cinders.”1 The aftermath of this fall, he says, will be a thirty-thousand-year dark age characterized by a loss of knowledge that leads to severe technological regression, extensive barbarism, and associated human suffering. However, Hari has a plan to mitigate the inevitable dark age — the development of an organization devoted to archiving as much knowledge as possible into an Encyclopedia Galactica. According to his calculations, this will postpone the fall and shorten the dark age to a mere thousand years: “After the fall, as civilization climbs from the ashes, the coming generations will have something to build upon, a foundation. They won’t have to reinvent the wheel. The knowledge will already exist.”2 The scene includes an allusion to the legendary library at Alexandria, a repository of ancient Western civilization’s treasured manuscripts that is believed to have been destroyed by fire sometime in late Antiquity. Incidentally, it was Edward Gibbon’s famous multi-volume history entitled The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire that popularized an account of this tragedy, the same text that inspired Asimov’s creation of the Foundation mythology.
The emperor, Cleon XII, is arrogantly skeptical and antagonistic toward Seldon’s claims and his call to end the “genetic dynasty” — a series of Cleon I clones who have reigned over the Empire from its wealthy and technologically advanced capital, Trantor, for nearly four centuries, resulting in political stagnation. At any given time, there are three Cleons living in the palace, each having been “decanted” at different times: a young emperor-in-training, Brother Dawn; the active emperor, Brother Day; and the aged, retired emperor, Brother Dusk. After a catastrophic terrorist attack on the Starbridge, a space elevator that serves as Trantor’s portal to the rest of the galaxy and as a colossal monument to its power and innovation, Day acquiesces and permits the formation of Seldon’s Foundation, but exiles him and his followers to the planet of Terminus, on the far outer reaches of the galaxy, to carry out their project. This strategy is meant to keep Hari out of the public eye, where he could be a threat to the populace’s confidence in the Empire. As it turns out, exile was Hari’s secret objective all along — to set up a station of operations far from the prying eyes of the Empire, so that his real mission, organizing a rebellion against the genetic dynasty, may proceed undetected. Thus begins the thousand-year story that will be told through a proposed eight seasons of the series.
As a genre, science fiction has long been regarded by many as the supreme imaginative vehicle for scientific materialism and secular humanism. Asimov himself was an atheist, one of the so-called “big three” fathers of science fiction literature, along with Sir Arthur C. Clarke (an atheist) and Robert Heinlein (an agnostic). Goyer and his team have chosen to emphasize philosophical themes that, whether they realize it or not, raise challenging questions for an atheistic understanding of the cosmos.
Crucial to the initial premise of the show is the notion of intergenerational justice; the very reason for the Foundation’s establishment is the maximization of human flourishing in the distant future through the curation and preservation of civilization’s accumulated knowledge. One must ask: Why should anyone be concerned with the welfare of people who will not exist for several centuries and who will not be able to reciprocate? The materialist has no satisfying answer to this question, but the situation for the Christian theist is far better. To begin with, the importance of concern for the flourishing of future people is reflected in Scripture. In the book of Exodus, the Israelites are warned that their punishment for idolatry will be inflicted upon their descendants to the third and fourth generations (see Exod. 20:5 and 34:7). The Lord’s dire warning to His people is that the practice of idolatry will result not only in suffering for their own households, but also in the suffering of an exponential number of future souls. Clearly, the Israelites cared about the fate of their descendants, and God, in His goodness and justice, gave them explicit instructions for the prevention of present and future human anguish produced by idolatry.
The concept of intergenerational justice can also be connected with Christ’s exhortation to love our neighbors as ourselves (see Mark 12:30); arguably, we have a moral imperative to love our neighbors across both space and time, regardless of the length of either. Moreover, Christians understand that human persons are not merely animated matter that will cease to exist upon physical death. Rather, we have souls that will persist forever, and actions we take in our own lifetimes will have reverberations into the future in terms of the health of the church and the dissemination of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In other words, we impact the future state of the eternal kingdom through our decisions in the here and now. In the materialist worldview, all sentient life will eventually be snuffed out for good, so there are no eternal ramifications for choosing to ignore the wellbeing of future generations.
The Soul and Artificial Intelligence
Another major philosophical theme of Foundation is the existence and nature of the soul. In the fourth episode, “Barbarians at the Gate,” Gaal Dornick, Hari’s protégé who serves as the show’s narrator, says, “Belief is a powerful weapon. That’s why the Empire feared Hari Seldon’s predictions so much. Empires govern worldly concerns, but what comes after? Our souls? These realms are the purview of faith.”3 Intended or not, there is a subtle implication here about the immaterial nature of the soul, an implication that becomes more explicit in a later scene. Dawn, Day, and Dusk are discussing the death of the Proxima (high priestess) of Luminism, a major religion that boasts three trillion followers (nearly 40 percent of the galactic population). The presumed successor, Zephyr Gilat, is being challenged by an increasingly popular candidate, Zephyr Halima, who promotes a pre-imperial scripture known as the Primary Octavo. Dusk explains to Dawn that the problem with this “heretical scripture“ is that “it directly links the soul to individuated sentience.”4 Apparently, this individuation includes a genetic aspect, and thus Zephyr Helima is essentially claiming that the members of the Cleonic dynasty are soul-less, inhuman copies of Cleon I. This presents a worrisome challenge to the Empire, for Luminism’s adherents believe in the evolution of the soul — its growth in holiness through enlightenment and reincarnation. As Day puts it, “If the galaxy comes to believe their leaders are less than, rather than more than themselves, they may cease to follow.”5
The theme of the soul comes to the forefront again in the sixth episode, “Death and the Maiden.” Day has made the unprecedented decision to go on a diplomatic journey to the Maiden, the moon that is the epicenter of Luminism. He brings along his AI android, Demerzel, who is, quite surprisingly, a Luminist. When Demerzel is drilling Day on facts about Luminism prior to their arrival at the Maiden, Day interjects: “I’ve never asked you — how is it that you believe?”6 This is a penetrating question; after all, anything Demerzel says or does is determined by “her” hardwiring and coded software directives. She has no self, no soul that transcends the material, so outward expressions of belief would be merely the result of material cause and effect within her circuitry. Does this mean she was programmed, prior to the advent of the Cleonic dynasty, for allegiance to Luminism? Demerzel’s response to Day’s question is intriguing: “From the moment you come into the world, you and your brothers know your purpose. But the rest of us have to seek these things on our own.” Day objects, “But you know your purpose. It’s to serve my brothers, to serve me, to serve the Empire above all. It’s literally written into your code.”7 This reveals Day’s materialistic, utilitarian understanding of Demerzel’s nature, and perhaps of purpose in general. In Demerzel’s reply, there is a subtle shift — from talk of purpose to statements about the search for meaning and having the power to choose one’s own path in the pursuit of enlightenment. The intriguing thing about this shift is that the concept of existential meaning cannot be construed in material terms. Genuine meaning transcends the physical stuff of the world. Besides this, having the ability to truly choose our own path of meaning-discovery would require free will, which cannot exist for any entity that is wholly material.
Whether Demerzel has free will is a question that continues to be explored after she seems to contradict the Empire by kneeling in response to Zephyr Halima’s impassioned sermon about the need for spiritual ascension, growth, and transformation (ideas that run contrary to the stagnation of the Cleonic dynasty). Back on the ship, Day reprimands her: “This was a staggering betrayal, Demerzel. It was a betrayal of your directive. As far as I understood it, you are incapable of disloyalty. Over all else, your fealty to the Cleonic dynasty is embedded into your programming….Did you want to kneel?”8 This is another key question, since desires, in addition to beliefs, are first-person states of consciousness and thus defy any fully materialistic explanation.9 If Demerzel experienced an authentic desire and then freely acted upon it, there must be more to her than her hardware and software.
As the story continues, the issue of Demerzel’s nature becomes even more complex. When Day lies to the Luminist elders about having had a symbolic vision at the end of his pilgrimage into their Great Spiral, they become convinced that Day indeed has a soul, one with which the Mother goddess is apparently well pleased. Zephyr Halima’s hope for becoming Proxima is entirely dashed, but Day sends Demerzel to assassinate her, nonetheless. A revealing conversation then occurs in Halima’s chamber, when Halima observes the anguish on Demerzel’s face and remarks, “If you don’t support him anymore, you can find another path.” Demerzel replies, “That’s not possible….You don’t understand. I do not have a choice.” Halima disagrees, leading Demerzel to reveal her AI identity and then explain, “Like Empire, I do not have individuated sentience. So, I too must not be in the possession of a soul. If I were, then perhaps I could disobey his commands.” Demerzel understands that there is a connection between having a soul and having free will. Halima realizes that Demerzel has been sent to kill her but is struck by the robot’s emotional agony: “I see genuine compassion in your heart. True remorse. And I can’t explain it, but I know that you have a soul.”10 Halima believes that such genuine inner experiences are impossible for a soul-less being. Philosophers of mind who believe in the existence of an immaterial soul would agree.
What, then, are we meant to make of Demerzel? In the podcast episode that discusses the scene just described, Goyer explains that Demerzel does have a soul, but that her programmed directives override her conscious desires.11 However, this is inconsistent with the jarring scene in the season finale, in which she rips the skin off her own face in a private fit of rage. To be sure, the viewer is not meant to suppose that such behavior was coded into Demerzel’s directives. There seems to be a discrepancy between the Luminist understanding of a soul and the way the soul is characterized by Goyer and his team. In Luminism, the soul is an immaterial entity that survives the death of the body and reincarnates over and over. However, the statement about an ensouled Demerzel paired with the reappearance of Hari Seldon as an AI implies a very different conception. It is revealed that Seldon’s consciousness has been uploaded into two different pieces of hardware — the dagger that was used to kill him and the mysterious Vault on Terminus. This means that his consciousness is fundamentally material.
Seldon’s storyline poses an interesting problem for the materialist account of consciousness. There are now two Hari Seldons with divergent storylines. Each iteration of Seldon has different information about the current state of the Foundation, including the whereabouts of Gaal Dornick. What happens if the two meet? This highlights one of the serious philosophical problems with the materialist concept of “uploading consciousness” — true continuity of the self versus the (arguably impossible) creation of a machine-based consciousness that only mimics a bygone self. Is the viewer meant to understand “the soul” merely as an emergent consciousness ontologically tethered to a complex biological or computerized system? If so, then wouldn’t the Cleon clones in fact have individuated souls on this definition? It will be extremely interesting to see if and how all of this is untangled in the coming seasons.
The Human Need for a Grand Narrative. A less prominent but still notable philosophical thread that runs through the first season of Foundation is the importance of the human story. There is a universal human need for a grand narrative, a story that contextualizes the human condition and gives us a sense of our individual significance and life’s ultimate meaning. Simply put, we long for a story that answers the classic question, “Why are we here and where are we going?” Commenting upon the ninth episode of the show, Goyer rightly says, “People always want to believe — they want to look back on their lives and believe that it followed a plan, or it was meant to be, or that the outcome was leading towards something. We want to apply that to our lives and not feel that it was just this random mishmash….Human beings crave narrative.”12 This is true; the vast majority of us, if we are honest, recoil from nihilism. On some level, we understand that story is the key to meaning, but not just any story will do; we need a true story, a grand narrative that endows human existence with objective worth and purpose by connecting it to the eternal and transcendent. Our telos — the end for which we are made — cannot be invented, it must be bestowed. The question of free will ties in here, since an existential narrative has no meaning if it doesn’t involve people making authentic choices rather than being swept along by the relentless current of determinism. Christianity fulfills this quintessentially human need by suppling a satisfying grand narrative.
The power of myth — defined here as a compelling story that explains important facets of the human experience — is a theme that extends further than the subject of Luminism. In episode seven, a defrosted Gaal is furious with the AI version of Hari for manipulating events such that she and Raych would be separated — by staging his own murder at Raych’s hand. “My death was an essential element to the success of the Plan,” Hari explains. “The Foundation needs more than a man to inspire it. It needs a myth that can endure for centuries. And it worked….My death galvanized the Foundation.” Gaal objects, “The Foundation isn’t a religion, Hari. And you’re not a god.” “No,” says Hari, “gods are impervious to knives. But you can kill them. You just stop believing in them.”13 What Hari means by the Foundation needing a myth is that true devotion to the mission could be inspired by only a powerful and humane origin story — and a martyr goes a long way in terms of giving emotional thrust to a brand-new movement. He knows he needs to style himself as a sort of messiah figure to keep belief in the new quasi-religion alive. Hari’s sentiments are both Asimovian and Nietzschean; both men were atheists who understood the role of world religions in shaping the trajectory of history, and Nietzsche famously referred to a society’s gradual movement away from religious belief as the death of God, a sentiment that Asimov acknowledged, even though he strongly disagreed with Nietzsche about nihilism being the inevitable outcome of God’s demise.14
Like all good science fiction, Foundation goes far deeper than exciting, futuristic story settings and flashy starship battles; it offers thoughtful viewers plenty of big ideas to ponder. The few discussed here — intergenerational justice, the nature of the soul, the human need for a grand narrative of existence, and the power of myth — fit beautifully within the worldview of Christian theism, but they’re deeply problematic for a materialist paradigm.
Melissa Cain Travis, PhD, serves as affiliate faculty at Colorado Christian University’s Lee Strobel Center and as president of the Society for Women of Letters. She is the author of Science and the Mind of the Maker: What the Conversation Between Faith and Science Reveals About God (Harvest House, 2018).
- Foundation, season one, episode one, “The Emperor’s Peace,” directed by Rupert Sanders, written by David S. Goyer and Josh Friedman, aired September 24, 2021, on Apple TV+ (https://apple.co/-Foundation-).
- Foundation, season one, episode one, “The Emperor’s Peace.”
- Foundation, season one, episode four, “Barbarians at the Gate,” directed by Alex Graves, written by Lauren Bello, aired October 8, 2021, on Apple TV+ (https://apple.co/-Foundation-).
- Foundation, season one, episode four, “Barbarians at the Gate.”
- Foundation, season one, episode four, “Barbarians at the Gate.”
- Foundation, season one, episode six, “Death and the Maiden,” directed by Jennifer Phang, written by Marcus Gardley, aired October 22, 2021, on Apple TV+ (https://apple.co/-Foundation-).
- Foundation, season one, episode six, “Death and the Maiden.”
- Foundation, season one, episode seven, “Mysteries and Martyrs,” directed by Jennifer Phang, written by Caitlin Saunders, aired October 29, 2021, on Apple TV+ (https://apple.co/-Foundation-).
- For a concise treatment of this problem, see chapter three of J. P. Moreland’s book, The Soul: How We Know It’s Real and Why it Matters (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014).
- Foundation, season one, episode eight, “The Missing Piece,” directed by Roxann Dawson, written by Sarah Nolen, aired November 5, 2021, on Apple TV+ (https://apple.co/-Foundation-).
- Foundation: The Official Podcast — “The Missing Piece,” Apple Podcasts, November 5, 2021, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-missing-piece/id1586219793?i=1000540825857.
- David S. Goyer, on Foundation: The Official Podcast — “The First Crisis,” Apple Podcasts, November 12, 2021, https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-first-crisis/id1586219793?i=1000541555619.
- Foundation, season one, episode seven, “Mysteries and Martyrs.”
- See Bill Moyer’s interview of Asimov, October 17, 1988, https://billmoyers.com/content/isaac-asimov-on-his-faith-in-the-power-of-human-reason/. Asimov’s statements reveal his poor understanding of philosophy of religion.