Prescience in Dune

Author: Frank Herbert

Rating: N/A / 5.0

I wrote this document circa October, 2005. I have resurrected it from where it was an independent file and am now re-integrating it into this site.


This document is the result of a discussion of distasteful contrivances within literature that tend to make a story “hokey” or that are hallmarks of a lack of creativity. In particular, my correspondent, Rohan Wynar Ph. D., and I noted that the elements of prophecy, ability to see the future, and tehcnological savior were particularly odious.

Wynar offered an insightful case study of the former when discussing “O, Brother Where Art Thou.” Wynar, and I, both agree that when a character issues a prophecy, the question of Who the heck is really in charge then? throws a real burden of doubt into the believability of a story. In essence, if you grant this God (or similarly powerful, nameless, mysterious source external to the ‘stage’ in which the story unfolds) who can issue glimpses into the future (via a prophet), why should the audience care about your protagonist? If this God really wants, He’ll get our hero out of the pickle. I backed this point of view with references to the Greek epics. Ultimately, no matter how clever / brave / valiant Odysseus, Paris, Hector, etc. are, their endeavors can be squashed at a whim by the caprices of the Olympians.

Aside: This is likely why the end of explanation by religion as canonized is Hesiod was but a few short centuries from its overturning by philosophy, Queen of Sciences. It seems appropriate that I should mention the Fragments of my favorite pre-Socratic, Heraclitus who noted that "Hesiod is most men's teacher. Men think he knew very many things, a man who did not know day or night! They are one." and thought that Hesiod deserved to be "..expelled from the contests and flogged..." for promulgating nonsensical mysticism versus the knowledge that comes from inquiry. To pull us back towards our present discussion, the question emerged in our correspondence of whether or not Frank Herbert's Dune, with both prophecy and the ability to see the future, was damaged in light of the aforementioned complaints. I contend not. I seek to show that "Prophecy" does not actually exist within Dune and that prescience ('The ability to see the future') is never convenient as "I see who wins the lotto next week" but is rather a complex blend of insight, deduction, confusion, and data overload that preserves the drama of the tale. Note: I use the typographical italic (like this paragraph) to show "The Dune Series / Universe" and the underline style to show 'Dune-the-book'

Chapter I: DUNE's 'Prophecy' : In fact 'prophecy' and 'prescience'

With my scope of work established, I must first attempt to save Dune from the indictment that it uses prophecy.

Addressing Prophecy:

When one reads Dune carefully, one realizes that there is no prophecy. Indeed much mention is made of the Fremen prophecy that one day an off-world boy, son of a Bene Gesserit monther, will come and deliver them to their rightful station; however, it is merely human contrivance masquerading as superstition for political advancement [-- like most religion].

The entire notion of the 'Prophecy' is a tool for dominant cultures (The 'Enlightened' familial Houses: House Corrino [The Imperial Family] and the other great houses) to influence the development of 'inferior' cultures still under the illusion and supernatural yoke of a supernatural intervening force

Aside: An interesting point of exploration would be to consider this statement as a foil to Nietszche's The Genealogy of Morals which chronicles the rise of the slave cult that arose during the Roman empire which, in succeeding centuries, has glorified and reveled in the ugliness of existence, shamed that which is beautiful, and scorned reason. Oddly, it's a new set of fundamentalist's turn to scorn the amazing fruits of intellect, labor, and achievement as decadence. Will that sect subvert the master morality of our age? Time will tell.

The primary media distribution outlet of this prophecy meme is the Bene Gesserit's Missionaria Protectiva. Having recoginized that one day they would achieve their Kwisatz Haderach eugenics breeding mission and that this superbeing's mother would surely be one of their own, the Bene Gesserit propagated this meme as an insurance policy. This, let us be honest, lie was merely a way of influencing as many cultures as possible to be sympathetic to their goals.

As such we see, unlike The Odyssey or O, Brother Where Art Thou, prophecy cannot be seen to be applicable to the Dune universe.

Addressing Prescience:

Let me take the explanation of prescience:

  • "Knowledge of actions or events before they occur; foresight."

I believe Herbert may have misused this term. As Herbert applies the term 'prescience', in two separate and distinct contexts that I shall categarize as 'omnivision' and 'prescience'.

'Omnivision' is seeing all things at time X. The snapshotted state of the universe. Paul experiences this when he takes the Water of Life overdose. He sees the Guild ships above, pregnant with machines of war, he sees the Emperor plotting the war, he sees The Spacing Guild's collaboration, etc.

Prescience is who will win next year's Superbowl. Herbert rarely describes Paul's experience of this (seen in Dune Messiah and God Emperor of Dune), but the knife fight with Jamis shows a good example, Paul can see Jamis' movements and attacks before they happen.

In the Dune Universe, some creatures or beings possess omnivision (in varying degrees), while others possess prescience (in varying degrees), and others have an infinitely well focused understanding of the reflexes and actions of the body and mind human (not so much a 'talent' or an 'ability' but a result of rigorous study - the zenith of medicine) [1].

In the next chapter we will discuss who has these qualities and to what degree they assert them.

Chapter II: Manifestations of 'omnivision' and 'prescience' in DUNE

I will give lesser examples of those who possess pieces of the 'full prescience puzzle ' as expressed in totality in Paul Atriedes.


The Bene Gesserit sisters possess an infinitely detailed understanding of the body and mind human. They can read a lie in an eyelash, a truth in a whisper and fear in a faint muscle move. They possess neither omnivision nor prescience. However, in their Water of Life ceremony, they enter a trance where briefly they are given a glimpse of omnivision and in which they inherit the voice of The Other Memory (the lives of all other Gesserit sisters as a mental companion).

It is with this voluminous amount of data from their other memories that they are able to deduce the truth. With enough data points, across many generations and lifetimes, one could indeed, with very high probability predict the behavior of a being - almost to the degree of making it look like telapathy As I said above, the Bene Gesserit contain the zenith of medical knowledge - including behavioral psychology.

In the Water of Life Science, the Bene Gesserit realized a place they could not look, the zone of total omnivision. They realized a woman could not reach this place (why is never cleary explained, dishearteningly) and began their breeding program to produce the Kwisatz Haderach (a male Bene Gesserit).


The navigator possesses omnivision of this exclusive present universe for just a second. It is in this moment he mentally encompasses the universe and folds space. This is achieved through his consistent spice overdose [poisoning?]. Likewise the navigators have some sense of the future, but they are so far removed from humanity by the process of their mutation, they cannot understand it. What is human aspiration? What is power?

When compared to the infinitude of the universe, they have no tolerance or base for understanding to understand the products of 'human action" and scheming (Consider the Navigator's tete-a-tete with Shaddam IV - "You must share with us")[2]


Paul's Infinite Omnivision

Paul possesses omnivision, but not only can he see everything that happens in 'now' but he sees everything that can happen in all possible nows.

Oddly, this power provides so much data, he cannot easily turn it into information. He grows in this acumen through the series. The first waves of this power come over him before his first knife fight with Jamis. He sees his opponent dance in many presents each with many futures. It's so much data in fact, that he can't make much of it. I find it appropriate to see consider the 'Many Worlds' theory of quantam mechanics. Paul sees the quantam branching and at any given moment in the future can compare that future with another future at the exact same time cross-section.

Elsewhere in the book Paul realizes that forcing the seeing of the 'actual' path he will take is almost fruitless. Too much data yield no information - just as no information yields no information.

His ultimate zenith (in Dune) vis-a-vis omnivision is his epiphany during the Water of Life overdose. Paul sees the Guild's ships over Arrakis complicit in a large attack. Simultaneously he sees Shaddam IV's flotilla, the Harkonnens, everything.

Note that none of these characters use this power consistently. They're not oracles living forever in a prescient haze - were that so they would fall prey to those grand Gothic myths (Narcissus in his mirror) where the seers get so lost in the seeing they forget to live. Something in the plot that tends to help this is that these epiphanies tend to be contingent on melange overdosese.

But as part of the composite that creates Herbert's 'prescience', does 'omnivision' qualify as a deus ex machina? I would submit that it does not on account that this data could have been gained by other means quite credibly (satellites, reconnaissance, etc.). While it is a leap to say that a person could mentally derive this data, it does not introduce an inexplicable party outside the closed system of the story.

Paul's Prescience

But what about prescience? Paul gains awareness of this power in Dune, however he doesn't truly begin to cultivate the skill until Dune Messiah. Ultimately Paul is able to see the NOWS, both the NEAR HUMAN and NEAR COSMIC future and the LONG DISTANT FUTURE. I divide between NEAR HUMAN and NEAR COSMIC because both he and the Navigators can see the latter (The Navigators' skill exceeds Paul's at this); however it is only Paul exclusively who can see the former.

Paul's vision makes me think of walking across the African savannah. You can see the grass in front of you and Kilamanjaro off in the distance. The real mystery is that beyond your near vision and not big enough to be deduced. It is here, in that golden grass, that the lion attacks you and that the greatest plurality of possible futures rest as cloudy contingencies.

Seeing the long distant future, for Paul, is also enhanced by the fact that he has Mentat (I think this is a corruption of 'MenTab' or Mental Tabulator) - supercomputer mental powers. With the few bits of data from the future, Paul is able to build statistical models with incredible precision. In a sense his brain is a crucible of 'psychohistory' (to pull from Asimov's Foundation series.

So does Paul have 'knoweldge of things before they occur' - the definition of prescience? The answer is yes. This combined with his Mentant reasoning powers and his omnivision give him the ability to make very powerful predictions about the future. One must note that these theorizations are local to Paul, are within him, and do not involve an entitiy external to the closed system of the story. Even if the ability to see the future is 'mystical' or 'non reason based', the source is a character that the reader has a relationship with and an understanding of. Since Paul's prescience (my use) does not invoke a deus ex machina, it cannot be seen as creating the hokey 'sees the future' criticism.

In conclusion, since both Paul's omnivision and prescience can be explained and scoped within the closed system of the story, Dune does not fall victim to the complaint that its use of prophecy / prescience unndermine the 'logical completeness and independence' of the story.

In sum, Paul possesses a unique combination of genes such that spice-derivative product overdoses can cause him to see a snapshot of the universe). Paul's seeming prescience (my use) can be explained by his superhuman mental powers, Bene Gesserit training, and omnivision data. Notably, both of these extrasensory skills are products of the closed system of the story - nowhere is there an appeal to a mystical supernatural informant.

Chapter III: The Allegorical Tale of The Spice

This also seems like a good point to bring up the allegory of Dune.

I had always considered the spice as an allegory of oil. A small group of religious fanatics control something demanded by (ostensibly more powerful) other forces. The other forces have the ability to destroy the fanatics, but will not at the risk of the fanatics destroying all the desired commodity.

I stil think that this is a very believable allegorical explanation of Dune - but given that there is so much else going on in the story ("What do you do when you discover you are the best human possible?", "What is it to be worshipped?", etc.), to say that it is simply an allegory about fossil fuel seems unfair, naive, and myopic.

Now is the spice / Dune "about drugs." I don't think so. What's it about though? That is, if we demand an allegorical meaning viz. drugs, what is that meaning?

I think Dune is the allegory of human potential. This story has a cousin in the Japanese anime manga Akira. Whereas Tetsuo's awakening in Akira is driven by a motorcycle accident (and perhaps accelerated by contact with #26), Paul's is accelerated through the Bene Gesserit training and the Spice.

Yet the perception that Dune is about drugs continues. I think that this is because the trigger of the rapid unfolding of human consciousness / power is a substance which can be ingested and to which people invariably become addicted. Given the time period when it was published, it is easy to think that this is a Leary-esque pro-hallucinogen book.

Yet the behavior of those who are addicted to the spice paralells all of human lusts and vices: power, sex, money (to name a mere few). Surely these things all trigger an unfolding, a changing in people as they pursue them? Cannot each of these things become addictive - can they not all be drugs? We are not so philosophically bound so as to understand 'drug' only by that which a bureaucratic organization defines by drug schedules etc., are we?

Yet I shall entertain, briefly, the interpretation that melange is an analog for LSD, DMT, and other psychedellics. From this perspective, Dune is about how drugs are brilliant, amazing, and demoralizing, killing tools for triggering changes in your humanity - mind and soul. Jimi Hendrix, Picasso, Rimbaud -- drug users all who left us with astounding artistic statements.

Is it that "Herbert supports LSD?". No, I don't think so. Even if he did, it's not the point of Dune. In consideration of the sheer immensity of the Dune universe, I find it far too simple to say the spice is about LSD and that those who take it discover a new world which will overpower the 'squares' (see statements above about allegory of oil).

Yet even as I write this, I find I often write in the idiom of drugs: 'overdose' etc. While I can't deny the handiness of the mataphor, it would be impossible to spread such a simple allegory over six books.

Final thoughts on the allegory

Let me distill my dialectic one last time. The whole series as allegory is about the survival of the human species and it slowly disciplining itself into better versions. The series starts with humans (and the next round of prequels are to explore this world) conquering the distances of space with the help of Thinking Machines. Like all explorer cultures, once everyone has his piece of the empire, they turn decadent, fat, and stop fighting. The humans become enslaved by Thinking Machines (the brilliance of Herbert is that he chose not to write Terminator II or The Matrix but asked, "OK, what happens after THAT?) and eventually break free. Who in the sixties could have seen our dependence on millions of powerful computers and that we would have to be weaned away at some point? Yet humans tend to bind their genetic and species futures into singularities. In the Dune series they bind themselves to Melange. In the first books Herbert asks: "What is the nature of powershifts and what does the political landscape look like when there is only this single point of failure." In the latter books (End of God Emperor of Dune onward) he asks "How could one break the universe of this unhealthy binding."

Chapter IV: Conclusion

In any case, it's an amazing series and, after having read Dune no less than 5 times, it continues to captivate and reveal new layers of truths. I am just now starting to feel like I truly understand the premise of the series. I hope that this essay serves to help you recognize new subtleties in the mind and political endeavors of Paul Atriedes.


[1]. A particularly interesting fact given the Butlerian Jihad which destroys all computers and immediately led to the establishment of the DUNE Imperium as it is noted in the Gom Jabbar test that even some humanoid creatures are not actually human]

[2] Much of DUNE is the perceiving of data, but not being able to process it into useful information