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In Asimov's Forward the Foundation Hari Seldon's last encounter with the robot Daneel Olivaw is below:

Seldon stood there for a few minutes after Daneel had gone, lost in thought. Suddenly he began moving in the direction of the First Minister’s apartment. Seldon had one more thing to tell Daneel–the most important thing of all. Seldon hesitated in the softly lit hallway before entering. But the room was empty. The dark robe was draped over a chair. The First Minister’s chambers echoed Hari’s last words to the robot: “Good-bye, my friend.” Eto Demerzel was gone; R. Daneel Olivaw had vanished.

What did people interpret as the most important thing?

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Spoiler alert, my answer has to do with Asimov's Foundation and Earth. In that book, it's revealed at the end that there is a problem with Seldon's Psychohistory Laws in that they assume a human-only universe. So even if Seldon's Foundation dream is successful, whose to say that aliens from another galaxy won't destroy our human civilization. Trevize realizes this in Foundation and Earth (Daneel does not it seems), and when sharing this theory he compares it to the discovery of the Zeroth Law followed by Daneel. The Zeroth Law is discovered last but is the most important law in the Laws of Robotics, just like this aliens theory. So in Forward the Foundation, right before Daneel and Hari split for good, Daneel mentions the "Zeroth Law" and the word "humanity". Then Daneel quickly changes the subject by telling Hari he still has Dors, and here Hari pauses for a moment before shaking Daneel's hand and saying goodbye. That pause shows Hari is thinking something but he's not sure what, and the mention of Dors, who Hari loves, derails his thoughts. Then Daneel leaves, Hari stands there for a few minutes lost in thought, and then he figures it out - "the most important thing of all", which we already know from Foundation and Earth is that Psychohistory assumes intelligence lies with humanity only. If Hari had been able to tell this to Daneel, it may have helped Daneel in his following of the Zeroth Law. That's why it was so important to tell Daneel.

So as I just said, I bet he figured out the same thing Trevize figured out. It makes sense, and that way Hari remains the smartest figure in the series as he's not to be out-done by the always-one-step-ahead-always-right Trevize, which is how it should be.

I read somewhere that Asimov wrote the first three parts of Forward the Foundation completely, but the final part was in draft form, though largely done. Maybe he had planned to answer this riddle in that final part but never got the chance to. Why whoever put the finishing touches on this part for him didn't put in the answer, who knows. Maybe they didn't want to corrupt the work by putting in an answer not first verified by Asimov, so they just left the riddle unsolved. I suppose it's possible that Asimov expected people to solve this riddle by themselves, but I don't think so. That's not really his style I think.

  • Thanks, that's a great summary and I suspect the correct answer to this. As I recall the last line in the series refers to the possibility of alien life attacking the galaxy. – Aram Kocharyan Mar 30 '13 at 7:33
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    There are quite a few things wrong with this answer. (1) Hari Seldon has not developed psychohistory at the time that Daneel/Demerzel leaves; he can't have worked out its basic assumptions yet. (2) If Seldon did know that psychohistory assumes intelligence lies only with humanity, why didn't he tell anyone? Everyone in "later" books doesn't know about this assumption, but they know the other two. (3) Asimov did write the first three parts of 'Forward the Foundation' completely, and didn't finish the last sections - but this scene is at the end of the first section of that book. – Algernon_Asimov Apr 19 '14 at 1:45
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Surely it's just what he did say: goodbye, and that Daneel was his friend.

  • Yes but he said goodbye before his minutes of revery – Aram Kocharyan Feb 8 '12 at 3:10
  • The most important thing was that Daneel was a true friend. – curiousdannii Jun 22 '14 at 0:57
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The top-voted and accepted answer in this thread says that "the most important thing" that Hari Seldon wanted to tell Daneel Olivaw was the basic psychohistorical assumption that "intelligence lies only with humanity".

However, there are a few flaws with that answer.

Firstly, at the time the scene in question takes place, when Daneel disappears as Eto Demerzel, Hari Seldon had not developed psychohistory. This is the first section of 'Forward the Foundation', when Seldon is still forty years old, and still working out psychohistory. He can't have worked out its basic assumptions yet.

Secondly, even if Seldon did already know this assumption that psychohistory assumes intelligence lies only with humanity, why didn't he tell anyone? According to this theory, Seldon knew this assumption at 40 years old. He hadn't created the Foundation yet, or the Second Foundation - they were thirty years in the future.

In the second chapter of '... And Now You Don't' (collected as "Search by the Foundation" in 'Second Foundation'), a Student tells the First Speaker of the Second Foundation that:

The laws of Psychohistory are statistical in nature and are rendered invalid if the actions of individual men are not random in nature. If a sizable group of human beings learned of key details of the Plan, their actions would be governed by that knowledge and would no longer be random in the meaning of the axioms of Psychohistory. In other words, they would no longer be perfectly predictable.

Later, in the fourth chapter of the same story, the First Speaker tells the Student that:

Psychostatistics by its very nature has no meaning when applied to less than planetary numbers.

These axioms were repeated by Golan Trevize a century later in 'Foundation and Earth':

I knew nothing about Seldon's Plan except for the two axioms on which it is based: one, that there be involved a large enough number of human beings to allow humanity to be treated statistically as a group of individuals interacting randomly; and second, that humanity not know the results of psychohistorical conclusions before the results are achieved.

The Second Foundationers, and even the First Foundationers, were fully aware of these two axioms, which they would have learned from Seldon's own work nearly four hundred years earlier. Why not the third? If Seldon had known of this assumption, why didn't he record it along with the other two? As Trevize says, "Maybe the third requirement is an assumption so taken for granted that no one ever thinks of mentioning it." It looks like Seldon himself never recognised this assumption.

Thirdly, that answer states that "Asimov wrote the first three parts of Forward the Foundation completely, but the final part was in draft form, though largely done" and then hypothesises that the person(s) who completed the book "didn't want to corrupt the work by putting in an answer not first verified by Asimov, so they just left the riddle unsolved". However, the section where Daneel/Demerzel leaves is the first section of 'Forward the Foundation', not the last. It was therefore written by Asimov, and is as Asimov intended. (He has himself written that he didn't like to go back and re-write his own works. He did a first draft, then corrected it for spelling and minor wording issues, and that's it.)

So:

  • Seldon hadn't developed psychohistory at the time that Daneel/Demerzel left.

  • Seldon didn't know this basic assumption about psychohistory applying only to humans.

  • The text was written by Asimov himself, as he intended it to be: there's no unresolved mystery about what he might have been thinking.

What, then, was "the most important thing of all" that Hari wanted to tell Daneel?

I posit that Asimov told us what that most important thing was. It's what Hari said to the empty room: "Good-bye, my friend." Friendship is important. At the time Daneel left, he and Seldon had known each other for about a decade: a quarter of Seldon's life. Hari had said "Good-bye, Daneel", but he hadn't said that extra word: "friend".

Asimov did like mystery, but he also liked to reveal the solution to mystery. If he hinted at something, it was either extremely obvious or it would be revealed later. This mysterious "most important thing" to say to Daneel was both obvious and revealed later. The answer is right there in the text, staring us straight in the face.

The most important thing of all for Hari Seldon to tell Daneel was that he was Hari's friend.

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    Thanks for the detailed response to this - it's very thorough and logical. I'm having a hard time choosing which of the answers is more correct, so I'll leave it to the community to vote on. – Aram Kocharyan Apr 20 '14 at 3:14
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It's not aliens from distant galaxy. What Hari had to say to Daneel was that robot intelligence and the Zeroth law would be colliding at some point (seen in "End of Foundation")

As Daneel was actively involved he was also reponsible for the Mule, the psychohistory indirectly and Galaxia.

Psychohistory only involved Humans, is the key.

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"Good bye my friend." Hari has a friendship, in the deepest sense of that word, with a man-made being. (Heck, the love of his life is likewise a non-sentient being.) The notion comes to him, as he stands there, that this is significant. He needs say it out loud to R. Daneel, because it would matter to him. Alas, too late.

Yes of course this relates to the notion that R. Daneel & his mates could themselves be a threat to the zeroth law, never mind aliens. As with all real art, we get to incorporate our own notions after the fact. Interesting to speculate whether and when Hari might have consciously made this connection. And each of us gets to believe what we like.

But Asimov was not a coy writer. He says what he means and means what he says.

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