Rereading Isaac Asimov, part 3: “Reason” — a Creationist Robot!

Asimov began writing stories about robots very early in his career; the first one, “Robbie”, was published in September 1940, only a year and a half after his first-published story, “Marooned Off Vesta”, in March 1939, and the second robot story, “Reason”, was published in April 1941. This is notable because in Asimov’s iconic book I, Robot, published in 1950, the story is placed third in the sequence of nine stories, which were arranged in a kind of future history sequence, and — I’m not sure this is generally known or appreciated — *revised* from their magazine appearances, to make consistent their adherence to the “Laws of Robotics” that Asimov, with editor John W. Campbell’s guidance, had not formulated until several stories in.

(As far as I can tell, there were only two robot stories written to that point *not* included in I, Robot — they were “Robot AL-76 Goes Astray” (1942) and “Victory Unintentional” (also 1942), both semi-farces that were not as serious as the others that were included in the book.)

So: it’s curious that “Reason” was only the second robot story that Asimov wrote, and that it was written before Asimov and Campbell had crystallized the three laws. That may or may not be of significance to the story’s theme.

In “Reason”, a new robot has been assembled on a space station, somewhere out in the outer solar system, that has been built to gather sunlight and beam the power to Earth and other settlements. The robot, designated QT-1 and nicknamed Cutie, is first of its model and exhibits unusual curiosity. When one of the two human technicians, Powell, tells the robot that “One week ago, Donovan and I put you together”, the robot ponders and replies, “For you to make me seems improbable.” It goes on to say “Call it intuition. That’s all it is so far. But I intend to reason it out, though. A chain of valid reasoning can end only with the determination of truth. and I’ll stick till I get there.”

So Powell takes Cutie to an observation port, looking out at the stars. Powell explains about stars and how they come from Earth, how the space stations were built, why robots were built to replace human workers on the stations, and so on.

Cutie replies,

Do you expect me to believe any such complicated, implausible hypothesis as you have just outlined? What do you take me for?

Globes of energy millions of miles across! Worlds with three billion humans on them! Infinite emptiness! Sorry, Powell, but I don’t believe it. I’ll puzzle this thing out for myself.

And so, in this story, Cutie recruits the lower-order robots on the station to worship what Cutie perceives as obviously what they all serve — the “Master”, the Energy Converter. Cutie presumes that, obviously, the Master created humans first, then the simple robots, then the robots like itself, to take the place of humans. Cutie creates a cult, and shuts the humans out of the control room.

Powell and Donovan try to argue. Cutie accuses them of an obsession. “Why should you insist so on an absolutely false view of life?”. An energy storm threatens; the men need to take action, and Cutie is preventing them. Cutie replies, “The beams are put out by the Master for his own purposes. There are some things – he raised his eyes devoutly upward – that are not to be probed into by us. In this matter, I seek only to serve and not to question.”

The men realize: “He’s a reasoning robot. He believes only reason, and there’s one trouble with that… You can prove anything you want by coldly logical reason—if you pick the proper postulates. We have ours and Cutie has his.”

And then, the story resolves with the storm hitting, and despite the men being shut out of the control room, Cutie takes appropriate action to prevent damage to Earth. Why? The men realize, Cutie was acting according to the First Law (to not harm humans, or through inaction, allow humans to come to harm).

They realize — it doesn’t matter what Cutie *believes* — as long as he acts in accordance with the laws.

In other words, to be an effective member of society.

I think this is a profound story on some level. It’s a perfect analogy, almost a parody, of the self-centered views of human creationists, who reject explanations of things about the universe they cannot personally verify and therefore consider absurd (“Were you there??” as the brain-washed, querulous creationist child asks the evolutionary biologist), in favor of theology centered myths, which, of course, place themselves as the center and reason for all existence. Asimov’s conclusion is that *it doesn’t matter* what such a robot or human thinks, as long as it or he or she is a functional member of society. This is perhaps a profound conclusion, and in the context of my PvCs, suggests that the ‘meaning of life’ lies entirely within the bubble of human culture, and is independent of any knowledge or understanding of the actual outer universe.

And, of course, this theme anticipates the creationists of the 21st century, who after all these centuries of scientific exploration and understanding of the history of our planet and its life, respond with childish rejection. Most notably in recent months, Republican candidate Ben Carson, who, despite being a talented neurosurgeon, is either too dumb to understand the readily available explanations of why, for example, the eye developed evolutionarily across many lines and to many degrees, or is simply being deferential to his factually challenged religious base. E.g, Ben Carson: Evolution Is An Absurd Myth, ‘Give Me A Break’. This isn’t an aside; the persistence of these anti-intellectual trends in the 21st century is the main reason I find this Asimov story, published more than *70 years ago*, so significant.

I don’t want to find this depressing. I want to take this into account as an inevitable aspect of human nature.

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