When I Dipt into the Future

I. What I am Trying to Do

As some readers will no doubt know, the title of this post has been taken from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall.” Written in 1835, and first published seven years later, it recounts the musings of a rejected suitor. Wandering about, at one point he reminisces about the happy times when he “dipt into the future/far as human eye could see/Saw the vision of the world/And all the wonder that would be.” But just how did he do so? Metaphorically speaking, what kind of “bucket” did he bring to bear?

Tennyson’s unnamed protagonist was hardly the only one who ever tried his hand at this game. To mention a few outstanding names only, when the prophets Isaiah (and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and all the rest) tried to foresee what the future would bring, what methodology did they use? And how about the Greek Pythia? The Roman Sybil? Nostradamus? Jules Verne? H. G. Wells? Stephen Hawking? Ray Kurzweil? Yuval Harari?

By now, I have spent a year trying to answer these questions. In the hope, of course, of one day writing a book about them. One that will put the matter into perspective and explain, if not how good or bad the various methods are and how they may be improved, at any rate when and where they originated, how they developed, the principles on which they rested, and how they related to others of their kind. As a first step, I want to devote today’s post to providing a brief summary of some the most important methods people have been using.

II. Some Methods of Looking into the Future Explained

1. Shamanism. Shamanism is widespread all over the world, particularly among societies made up of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists. Tribes without rulers, as I have called them in another book. Imported into modern cities, especially those of the so-called Third World, in many places it is active even today. At the root of shamanism is the assumption that, to look into the future, it is necessary first of all to leave the “normal” world by entering into an altered state of consciousness (ASC). The methods used to do so vary enormously from one culture to another. Among the most common are music (especially drumming), dancing, prayer, solitude, fasting, long vigils, sexual abstinence (or its opposite, engaging in orgies), breathing exercises, alcoholic drinks, hallucinogenic drugs, and many others.
In each of these cases, the objective is to embark the shaman on a mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality. One in which the difference between present, past and future is eliminated and the last-named becomes an open book to read.

2. Prophecy. Also known as revelation, prophecy of the kind many of us are familiar with from the Old Testament in particular is little but a more institutionalized form of shamanism. The difference is that it is not the spirits but God Himself who supposedly reveals himself to the prophet and speaks through his mouth. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Jonah, he does so even against the prophet’s will. Whereas shamans were almost always illiterate prophets tended to spend their lives in societies where either they themselves or others were able to read and write. Often the outcome was a more detailed, more cohesive, idea of what the future might bring.

3. The interpretation of dreams. Like prophecy, the interpretation of dreams goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. It, too, rests on the assumption that, by entering upon an ASC, people will be enabled to see things which, in their waking state, they cannot.

As the Biblical story about Joseph shows, dreams were supposed to deliver their message not in simple form but with the aid of symbols. Lists of such symbols are known from ninth-century century BCE Assyria and continue to be published today. Note, however, that interpreting the dreams and relating them to future events was the task, not of the person who had them but of specialists who approached the problem in a cool, analytic manner. Before delivering their verdict, they often took the dreamer’s age, sex and personal circumstances into account.

4. The Greek oracles. Oracles were extremely popular in Greece and Rome. To use the example of Delphi as the most important one of all, it centered on the Pythia. She was a woman who, sitting on a tripod in a dark subterranean abode, came under the influence of foul gasses emanating from a split in the earth. Going into a sort of trance, the Pythia let forth confused gibberish which was supposed to contain the clue to the future. Next, a special college of priests interpreted her words. Oracles, in other words, resembled the interpretation of dreams in that prediction was divided into two stages, each of these was the responsibility of a different person or persons.

5. Necromancy. The best-known case of necromancy (from the Greek, nekros, dead, and manteia, divination) is the one described in the Old Testament. King Saul, wishing to learn the outcome of a battle which will take place on the next day, asks a witch to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. Whereupon Samuel tells Saul that, tomorrow, he and his sons too would be dead. Necromancy also occurs in Greek and Roman sources. Virgil in particular has Aeneas visit the underground abode of the dead where he is shown the future of Rome over a period of about a millennium, no less. The basic assumption underlying necromancy is that the dead, having crossed a certain threshold, know more than the living do. Even today in some cultures, procedures for raising the dead and consulting them concerning the future are commonplace.

6. Astrology. Along with shamanism, astrology is probably the oldest method for trying to look into the future. Its roots go as far back as Babylon around 3,000 BCE. That is why, in Imperial Rome, it was known as the “Chaldean” science. At the heart of astrology is the proposition, so obvious as to be self-evident, that the sun and moon (which, before Copernicus, were classified as planets) have a great and even decisive impact on life here on earth. Building on this, its students try to make that impact more specific by also taking into account the movements of the remaining planets, the fixed stars, and the relationships among all of these.

Even today, almost one third of Americans are said to believe in astrology. True or false, that does not change the fact that, unlike any of the above-mentioned methods, it is based not on any kind of ASC but on observation and calculation. Of the kind that is practiced, and can only be practiced, by perfectly sober people in full possession of their faculties. So mathematically-rooted was astrology that it acted as the midwife of astronomy, helping the latter become the queen of the sciences. This position it retained right until the onset of the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century.

7. Divination. As Cicero in his book on the topic makes clear, neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever took an important decision without trying to divine its consequences first. Both civilizations also maintained colleges of specialized priests who were in charge of the process. The most important types of divination were the flight of birds on one hand and examining the entrails of sacrificial animals on the other.

Like astrology, but unlike shamanism, prophecy, dreams, the oracles, and necromancy, divination did not depend on people becoming in any way ecstatic, mysteriously travelling from one world to another, and the like. Instead it was a “rational” art, coolly and methodically practiced by experts who had spent years studying it and perfecting it. Today the same is true for such techniques as numerology, Tarot-card reading, etc.

8. History (a). The idea that history is a linear, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a relatively recent one. In this form it only made its appearance after 1750 or so. Before that date history was considered to be, either the province of “again and again” (as the historian Jacob Bronowski used to put it) or of regularly occurring cycles (as Plato and many others did). If the former, and assuming that the same circumstances always lead to the same effects, then the resulting patterns could be used to look into the future; such a view is very evident both in Thucydides and in Machiavelli. If the latter, then in principle at any rate the future could be predicted on the base of the point in the cycle that had been reached.

9. History (b). Both the idea that historical patterns repeat themselves and that history itself moves in cycles are alive and well. Starting with the Enlightenment, though, they have been joined by two other ideas both of which are often used for prediction. The first, which has since become easily the most common of all, was the discovery of “trends,” a term which was hardly used before 1880 or so but which has since grown into one of the buzzwords of our age. Trends made extrapolation possible. A good example is Moore’s Law which predicted that the speed of computer would double every eighteen months. Used by countless people, the characteristic hallmark of this method are the oft-repeated words, “already now.” “Already now” the situation is such and such; hence we can expect it to be even more so in the future.

The second method consisted of dialectics. The basic idea goes back to Heraclitus’ saying, around 500 BCE, that all things originate in agon, i.e. “strife.” In its modern form, the first to bring it to the fore was the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. In his hands it was applied to intellectual history above all. Next, it was taken over by Karl Marx. The latter, turning Hegel on his head, applied it to material factors. Both men believed that any historical trend must of necessity give rise to its opposite, thus making prediction possible in principle.

To retrace our steps, history (a) and (b) provides four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, based on the idea that there is no change, are age-old; whereas the other two, assuming that change is the very stuff of which history is made, are of more recent vintage. What all have in common is that there is no room, in them, for ASC. Instead they are based, or are supposed to be based on sober study of recorded facts to which anyone has access.

10. Models. Modeling, like history, owes nothing to ASC. Essentially it consists of building models in order to understand how various factors that shape reality, past and hopefully future, are related and interact. The earliest, and for millennia almost the only, models were developed in order to represent the movements of the heavenly bodies. A very good example, which still survives, is the great astronomical clock of Strasbourg whose origins go back to the fourteenth century.

By definition, models are based on mathematical calculations. The more accurate the calculations, the better the model. But not all mathematical attempts to understand the world have been translated into nuts and bolts. Most remained on paper in the form of algorithms. Following the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 the popularity of models of this kind increased. Applied to the physical world around us, currently they represent the most sophisticated, often almost the only, method for looking into the future we have. Some go so far as to predict developments that will take place in millions and even billions of years.

Attempts to extend mathematical modelling of the future from astronomy and physics to social life go back to the Renaissance when the first firms specializing in insurance were created. Assisted by the establishment of statistical bureaus from about 1800, their use increased during the second half of the nineteenth century in particular. The introduction of computers, which made possible the procession of vast bodies of data at enormous speed, caused reliance on them to grow exponentially. This has now been taken to the point where anyone who does not use, or pretend to use, computers for prediction is likely to be regarded as a simpleton.

III. Some Tentative Concluding Comments

To misquote Tennyson, methods for looking into the future go far back as human eye can see. Probably there never has been, nor ever will be, a society which did not have them or tried to devise them as best it could. Broadly speaking, methods for looking into the future may be divided into two kinds. The first relies on ASC and focuses on applying a variety of methods for entering upon those states. The second is based, or is supposed to be based, on rational, often mathematical, analysis and calculation. Some methods, such as the interpretation of dreams and oracles, separate the person who experiences an ASC from the one who explains her or his visions and utterances. By so doing they combine them.

The two basic methods have always existed side by side. However, with the advent of the scientific revolution their relative importance changed. Previously even educated people—often enough, the best-educated people—put their trust in ASC in its various forms. Not so in the centuries since 1700 or so when they were pushed into the margins, so to speak.

However, there is no proof that even the most “rational” methods, used with or without the aid of computers, obtain better results than the rest. Generally speaking, the less grounded in physics the future we are trying to foresee the more true this is. Furthermore, and presumably because visions have greater emotional appeal than equations, the greater the stress on individuals and societies the more likely they are to revert to ASC.

The topic is enormous in size, fascinating, and very difficult. Which is why, at this point, this is all I have to say about the topic.

No Exit

As some readers will know from some of my previous posts, I have been interested in the future and, even more so, the methods people of various times and places have developed in their attempts to predict it. One day, perhaps, I shall write a book about that endlessly fascinating topic. Until then, here are some preliminary reflections on it.

* Attempts at prediction are as old as humanity. As far as we can make out, Stone-Age hunters going on an expedition used to ask their shaman whether they would return alive, return loaded with quarry, and so on. We today are always looking for some device that will enable us to see where the stock exchange is heading.

* We today tend to see prophecy, astrology, divination, and similar practices as leftover from former, less sophisticated times. However, Cicero’s brother Quintus, took the opposite view: he held that only civilized societies could bring them to perfection.

* Historically, predictions have often taken poetic form. To this day, no one has been able to improve on the Old Testament in this respect. Or on good old Nostradamus (1503-66), perhaps the most famous seer who ever lived, whose quatrains (four-lined poems) have been read, interpreted, and believed by immense numbers of people over four and a half centuries. But no longer. Present-day “scientific” forecasts tend to consist of prose texts illustrated with the aid of tables and graphs.

* It used to be that practically all attempts to look into the future involved some kind of divine assistance. The old Hebrew prophets claimed that God had got hold of them—on occasion, as with Jonas, even against their will—and spoke through their mouth. So did St. John. At the Oracle in Delphi, supposedly it was Apollo who gave his advice by way of the Pythia. As Nostradamus put it, without religious faith even mathematical calculations, which he and others used to cast horoscopes, did not work. That, however, no longer applies. Regardless of whether it takes the form of mathematical modeling, or surveys, or “data mining,” most “serious” attempts at prediction have become strictly secular.

* Prophecy used to be closely linked with madness. The abovementioned Pythia uttered her prophecies while seated on a tripod positioned over a deep split in the ground from which emerged some kind of gas—said to be Apollo’s breath—which befuddled her. Casandra, daughter of King Priam of Troy who was cursed in that no one ever believed her (quite accurate) predictions, was often portrayed as incoherent and half mad. When Saul, the future King of Israel, went chasing his lost she asses and suddenly found himself prophesizing, people thought that he had gone off his rocker. That, too, no longer applies. Looking into the future, or trying to do so, is now often considered a rational, quite sober, activity. One on which billions are spent and on which some of the best minds, from that of computer guru Ray Kurzweil down, are engaged. By contrast, modern psychiatrists would like nothing better than to consign those who try to predict the future on the base of ecstasy to the loony bin. As, in fact, they not seldom are.

* Except when it was used in astrology, past attempts to look into the future seldom involved mathematics. Even as late as the early years of the twentieth century, it never occurred to the famous British science fiction writer H. G. Wells that models might have something to do with it. Basically all the tools he had were his knowledge of some recent inventions, a few rather simple trends, and his own extraordinarily fertile imagination. That is no longer true. To the contrary: the more mathematics such an attempt involves, and the fewer therefore the people who understand it, the better.

That said, there are also some things that have not changed:

* Some of the oldest methods, astrology in particular, are still in use. True, they have been pushed off center stage by supposedly better, more rational and more sophisticated, methods employed by economists e.g. As newspaper and magazine columns confirm, however, that does not mean many people do not take notice of them and are not interested in them.

* Many prophecies used to be rather obscure, often deliberately so. To adduce but one famous example, the Pythia told King the envoys of Croesus that, if he went to war with neighboring Persia, he would bring down a great kingdom. He believed her, took the offensive, and was defeated. The explanation? The Pythia had not said which kingdom would be destroyed.

Similarly, many of today’s forecasts are “probabilistic.” Meaning that, instead of providing yes/no answers, all they yield are estimates of the chances of this or that happening. From the point of view of those who make them, of course, such forecasts have the advantage that they are always right.

* To pursue this thought, here is a story that used to be told about a former Israeli chief of staff, General Rafael Eitan (served, 1978-83). One day he was asked to approve some operation the air force was preparing. When he asked about the weather, he was told that there was a twenty percent chance of rain. “Wrong,” he said. The correct answer is fifty percent. Either it will rain, or it won’t.” He had a point, didn’t he?

* The use of computers, models and mathematics notwithstanding, to date there is not a shred of evidence that we secular, supposedly rational, moderns are one bit better at looking into the future than, say, Babylonian astrologers exercising their craft four thousand years ago used to be. If the book of Genesis may be believed, the seven good and seven lean years which Joseph, on the basis of Pharaoh’s dream, predicted did not come as a surprise as much as the 1929 and 2008 depressions did. Or, for that matter, as the boom of the Clinton years.

But suppose, someone might say, we had been able to accurately predict the future; what then?

* If it happens, it will probably form the most important “singularity” ever, far eclipsing anything those who so often play with that concept have come up with. More important, say, than the development of artificial superintelligence which Ray Kurzweil has been trumpeting. And more important than meeting with an ex-terrestrial civilization.

* Such a world would require that all information at the predictors’ disposal be correct, accurate, and comprehensive. Right down to what is happening in each one of the hundred billion or so cells and trillions of connections (synapses) which make up the brain of each and every one of us. All causes and all effects would have to be known and perfectly understood.

* In such a world movements and impacts would still be possible, as they are e.g. in the atmosphere or in the heavens. However, those movements and those impacts would be blind, occasioned solely by natural laws. The reason is that such a world would have to do without intentionality, because intentionality is the greatest obstacle to certainty of all. But beware. No intentionality, no feelings to choose the objectives we are aiming at; nor thought about the best way of achieving them. In other words, no conscious life, either emotional or intellectual. Purely physical phenomena apart, such a world would be frozen in concrete. With no exit.

Make up your own mind, if you can, whether you would want to live in such a world.

Neither Heaven nor Hell (I)

Part I

Recently I have been devoting a lot of thought to what life in the rest of the twenty-first century might be like. No doubt that is because, like so many old folks, I find myself playing with vague ideas about vague topics. Or perhaps it is the ideas that, floating in the air, are playing games with me? Anyhow. Some authors, looking forward to global peace, the suppression of poverty, advancing medical science, moral progress (yes, there are people who believe it is actually taking place) and similar goodies believe that the future will be heaven. When I was much, much younger, writing an essay about the “ideal” future and my hope of living to see it come about, I myself took this view. Others, perhaps more numerous, keep warning us that it will be hell. As, for example, when we run out of resources, or when growing economic inequality leads to violent disturbances culminating, perhaps, in war.

So here are some thoughts on the matter. spread over this week and the two following ones. They are framed in terms of tentative answers to ten critical questions, arbitrarily selected and here presented in no particular order like fruit in a salad. Enjoy the feast!

1. Will war be abolished? Whether war is due to the fragmented nature of human society, which never in the whole of history has been subject to a single government, or to the fact that resources are always limited and competition for them intense, or to tensions within the various war-waging polities, or the aggression and will to power that are part of our nature, I shall not presume to judge. Probably all these factors are involved; as indeed they have been ever since the first band of nomadic hunter-gatherers, wielding clubs and stones, set out to fight its neighbor over such things as access to water, or quarry, or berries, or women, as well as things vaguely known as honor, prestige, deterrence, etc.

One and all, these factors are as active, and as urgent, today as they have always been. That is why all previous hopes and efforts to put an end to armed conflict have come to naught. In the words of the seventeenth-century English statesman and jurist, Francis Bacon: There will never be a shortage of “seditions and troubles;” some of which will surely lead to politically-motivated, socially-approved, organized violence, AKA war.

2. Will we run out of resources? The fear that the point is arriving, if it has not done so already, where we humans exhaust the earth’s resources has been with us at least since the Christian writer Tertullian in the second half of the second century CE. And not without reason, as it seemed. At this time about one quarter of the population of the Roman Empire died of plague, perhaps reducing the total number from 80 to about 60 million.

Bad as it was, the crisis did not last. Over the two millennia since then the number of people living on this earth has increased about thirtyfold. No other plague, no war however destructive, has succeeded in permanently halting growth. During the same period the amount of resources extracted and/or consumed each year has grown by a factor of a thousand or more. Tet thanks to techniques such as saving, substitution, recycling and, above all, broadly-based technological progress, world-wide more people can afford to buy and consume a greater variety of resources than ever in the past. Recently the growing use of fracking for extracting shale oil has brought about a situation where even energy, which for over four decades has bedeviled the world by its ups and downs, has become available at a reasonable price and looks as if it will continue to do so; instead of peak oil, it seems that prices have peaked.

In brief: Tertullian, Malthus and their countless fellow prophets of economic doom, major and minor, are wrong. Local and temporary bottlenecks have always existed. One need only think of the shortage of wood and charcoal that led to their being replaced by coal, helping usher in the industrial Revolution in England. They will, no doubt, continue to do so in the future too. Pace Al Gore and his fellow “environs,” though, shortages so serious as to disrupt global economic life for any length of time are not in the cards. One could even argue that, given the background of continuing economic recession, many raw materials are underpriced; just look at what happened to the shares of Anglo-American from 2008 on.

3. Will poverty disappear? Some people think so. Pointing to the fact that, over the last two centuries or so, the standard of living in the most advanced countries has increased about thirty-fold, they expect prosperity to spread like ripples in a pool. It is indeed true that, except when it is deliberately manufactured as part of war, famine, famine of the kind that used to be common even in Europe before 1700 or so, has largely become a thing of the past.

That more present-day people can afford more and/or better food, hygienic facilities, clothing, warmth, housing, transportation, communication, entertainment, and many other things than ever before is obvious. No ancient treasure trove, no Ali Baba cave, could offer anything like the wares on display in any large department store. Even the Sun King himself did not enjoy many of the amenities which are now standard in any but the poorest French households.

There are, however, three problems. The first is that poverty is psychological as well as material. Of the two kinds, the former is much harder to eradicate than the latter. This is brought out by the fact that, even in Denmark which has the lowest poverty rate of any OECD country, just over five percent of the population say that they cannot afford food.

Second, poverty and its opposite, wealth, are not absolute but relative. People do not look just at what they themselves own, earn, consume and enjoy. They are at least as interested in the same factors as they affect their neighbors, role models, and enemies.

Third, the scale along which poverty operates is not fixed but sliding. When new products appear they are almost always luxuries, at any rate in the sense that, before they did so, no one felt any need for them. As time passes, though, luxuries have a strong tendency to turn into necessities. The histories of automobiles, personal computers, and mobile telephones all illustrate this very well. Each one caused life to re-structure itself until it became absolutely indispensable. Once this happened anyone who could not afford the product in question would define himself, and be defined by others, as poor; even if his economic situation was satisfactory in other respects.

Quite some economists go further still. They claim that inequality is growing. Also that, unless some pretty drastic measures, such as a 100 percent inheritance tax, are implemented, serious upheavals are going to upset even the richest and most advanced societies. But such a tax itself is likely to cause quite as many upheavals as it was designed to prevent. In brief: wealthy as future societies may become, there is no reason to believe that poverty will be abolished.

How is that for a starter? See you next week.