My interpretation of a famous baffling story

 Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), winner of many awards for his writings, who wrote or edited more than 500 books, is considered one of the top three science fiction writers. Although his parents were Orthodox Jews, he called himself a non-observant Jew. One of his many books is “Asimov’s Guide to the Bible,” reflecting his interest in the Bible. This interest can also be seen in the 1956 short story “The Last Question” about which he wrote: “This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written.” The story is very thought-provoking and many people have offered their interpretations of it. This is mine.

Here is a PDF copy which can be read before reading my interpretation: https://www.physics.princeton.edu/ph115/LQ.pdf

The story can be summarized as follows: In 2061, humans developed an extremely powerful computer called Multivac and AC. The computer was given the ability to improve itself over the years. During six of seven historic periods, over trillions of years, beginning in 2061, different people were concerned about the future of the world and asked the computer the same question, how can the world be saved from entropy, meaning, how can the world be saved from being extinguished, such as when the sun ceases to shine? Each time that the question was asked, the computer responded: “Insufficient data for a meaningful answer” or, more specifically, after the question was asked the first time, “There is yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.”

In the seventh scene, the last scene, trillions of years in the future, the descendants of humanity are separated from their bodies and live as intellect. They exist in hyperspace beyond the bounds of gravity or time. AC is also no longer physical and it too exists in hyperspace not bound by any physical laws. The question is asked a final seventh time. AC is still unable to answer. The last humans merge with AC and disappear. Although AC is still unable to respond, it continues to ponder the question even after humans, space, and time cease to exist, and AC suddenly understands, and answers the age-old question by a demonstration. AC says: “Let there be light,” and there was light.

I understand Isaac Asimov relying on some Jewish and other ideas and suggesting the origin of God and the eternity of the universe.

Many people say that God did not create humans, but humans created God. In this tale, Asimov takes the later approach. The computer turns into what humans call God. The computer was made by humans to help humans and to create what they need, and many people think of God having this function. This is what AC does: it creates a new world after a former one ended.

Asimov uses the number seven, which is not connected directly with creation in his story, but it could remind readers of the biblical six days of creation with divine rest on the seventh.

Why was AC unable to answer the question about the end of the world for trillions of years? It realized that nothing in this world disappears. It may change into another state, but does not leave the universe. Yet, AC could not know if in the future when humanity and all physical beings ended by humans merging with AC this rule that nothing in the world disappears would still apply. It was only at the end, when AC saw that the rule still applied, because humans merged with it, that it knew that the rule continued and the world would not cease.

Maimonides and others taught that the world will never cease to exist, and there are Jewish legends and legends in other cultures that worlds ended and were followed, and in Asimov’s tale, with another world.

The notion that the intelligence of humans would merge with something else after the body dies is also Maimonides’ idea. He said the intelligence joined the Active Intellect, a force ancient cultures believed surrounded the earth. We will not know if Asimov drew the name AC from Active Intellect since the two beings are similar, both being sources of intelligence, and active Intellect begins with AC. But it seems that he did so.

So, I see Asimov describing God as a powerful intelligent force created by humans assuring that humans will inhabit the world that will never cease.

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