Phi Fic #14 “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov


From Ponce de León to Woody Allen (and likely every self-reflective person who has lived), entropy has been at the root of human anxiety. Is there a way to hold off or reverse the inevitable?

A testament to this primary apprehension is “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov, a short story we discussed a few years back (after which the resultant sound files had their very own group entropic episode, only recently resurrected).

This is one of Asimov’s most famous short stories and his personal favorite. It follows the evolution of his enduring conception, the computer Multivac, through six phases of space and time, and humanity’s relation to it. In each phase, a human asks the Multivac if it’s possible to reverse the entropy of the universe—how to stop its seemingly inevitable death, save the universe, save humanity. And the Multivac invariably responds:

There is as yet insufficient data for a meaningful answer.

It’s a short piece but packs a punch, with a comic ending that inspires rumination.

Join us as we tangle with this complex philosophical and engrossing scientific question—as Laura insists we’re not just data, that we have a physical life, Daniel ponders the merged consciousness at the end of the story, and Cezary warns, “If you’re looking for an individual consciousness here—not gonna happen. At some point, we’re going to be called IG-73 and then it’s going to morph into a hive mind.” Mary wonders at the exceptional nature of what makes up the human experience, and Nathan highlights that the end of the story provides a kind of hope, that there is a circularity there, the universe is coming back.

Listen to Isaac Asimov read this story on youtube:

Disclaimer: This is an early discussion and the quality is a bit low, but it’s a terrific talk and a great short story. Please join us!

If you have thoughts, recommendations, or questions that you want to send our way, please do via phificpodcast@gmail.com.
Thanks to Christopher Nolen for our music.

3 thoughts on “Phi Fic #14 “The Last Question” by Isaac Asimov

  1. Interesting story. I read it a few years ago, and wondered why the author thought that a selectively unified consciousness would be a natural consequence of increasing entropy. The personoids at the end of the story are able to tune into and out of other personoids thoughts.

    With respect to modern technology, we see the emergence of blockchains such as BitCoin which require massive amounts of energy to mine the blocks. Each computer in the network carries a copy of the same data-set. In a carbon conscious world many are looking into various trust protocols that would mitigate the need for a wholly unified network, and would allow selective unification.

    If life simply falls out of a natural inclination for universal entropy to increase, do we really think that disembodied conscious structures could accomplish this task better than our coal digging, waste producing embodied selves?

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    1. Hmm…I’m not sure I’m following that last sentence entirely, but a related question I had was why consciousness itself need continue for life or negentropy to continue, especially when pushed as far as he takes the story. But it’s been probably two years or more since we read this now, so I’m fuzzy on it at this point. In any case, I suspect that both human communication and information processing in general, while producing strife along the way, are ultimately forces for homogenization. But it’s only a hunch. Asimov seemed to me to be held back in addressing the fundamental paradox here by a lingering mysticism and anthropocentrism.

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  2. I think the key is, as Daniel touches on–that Asimov was seeking to satisfy the paradox which, within the structure of the story, will ultimately occur. No consciousness doesn’t have to continue for life–but, biological constructs will perish–they must. Yet, consciousness will last–theoretically–because it isn’t–theoretically–a biological construct.

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