On a September afternoon of 1965, James Lovelock, a British physicist who was working in NASA, had an epiphanic vision — the Earth as a living organism. The scientist in him of course knew that “it is not alive — it merely behaves as if it were”.
In 1967, he would choose the name Gaia (suggested by William Golding) for the hypothesis that earth was a self-regulating system.
In 1972, the term was introduced in the journal Atmospheric Environment: “Gaia as seen through the atmosphere.”
Soon, Lovelock started working with the US microbiologist Lynn Margulis, who was known for her controversial stands upsetting scientific orthodoxy. Top evolutionary scientists like Richard Dawkins and Stephen Jay Gould strongly criticised Gaia.
The science establishment reacted, in the words of Lovelock, “with that same certainty that the religious have when they reject the views of a rational atheist. They could not prove us wrong but they were sure in their hearts that we were.”
In 1979, Lovelock came up with Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth taking the radical new hypothesis to the general public.
Foundation’s Edge was published first in 1982. An idea expressed or incorporated in fiction may not reflect the worldview of an author. And Asimov was no lover of new age fancies. Yet, here we do see him incorporating the controversial hypothesis mostly condemned for its new-age sounding name, as part of his work of fiction.
In the entire Foundation series, there is a strand. A physical science supremacy undermines and plays with juvenile religious systems for social manipulation. Then, there is the development of inner sciences with a physical and mental realms duality. Ultimately, the quest for the home planet Gaia ends in a non-dualist planetary consciousness.
Can this planetary consciousness expand itself to embrace the entire galaxy? There is a hint at the beginning of Foundation’s Edge. Looking at the galaxy from the spaceship an old historian searching for Gaia exclaims that “the Galaxy looks like a living thing, crawling through space”.
Here, the story line actually moves from the point of view of Western institutionalised religion to a religious consciousness more Hindu-Buddhist or in West’s own tradition — Spinozan.
Of course, Asimov could not have intended this, for he was, as said earlier, a deep atheist.
So, we see the interplay of religion and science, particularly the impact of science and technology on religion, as a continuous theme in Asimov’s sci-fi realm. In fact, this is a central theme in the screenplay written by Harlan Ellison for I, Robot, which Asimov approved, but alas was never made into a movie.
Beyond this we also see that Asimov was sensitive to orthodoxy in science establishment. This reveals a spirituality that emerges naturally, which need not be even theistic.
Surely, Asimov was not given to mysticism and was an atheist. Yet, his sci-fi universe can help the religion of humanity to uplift itself.