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.