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.