If You Want to Know the Future…

“If you want to know the future, study the past,” is one of the clichés of our age. Among those who are said to have said so are the Spanish philosopher George Santayana and President Theodore Roosevelt. Rarely, though, have people gone very far in explaining just how it should be done. So here are a few thoughts about the question.

Until 1750. The idea that history is an arrow-like, ever-changing, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a surprisingly recent one. In this form it only made its appearance around the middle of the eighteenth century. Before that date history was considered to be the province of again and again. Either the most important things did not change at all but always followed the same patterns, as Thucydides and Machiavelli thought. This, too, was what Sun Tzu was referring to, albeit in a negative way, when he said the historical analogies were no way for finding out what the enemy would do. Or else history moved in cycles as many philosophers and historians from Plato to Arnold Toynbee did. Either way it was possible to use the past for looking into the future, at any rate in principle.

From 1750 on. Starting with the late Enlightenment, patterns and cycles have been joined, and to some extent replaced, by the view of history as a linear process. A process, in other words, that was moving in a certain direction from the Creation (later replaced by the Big Bang) towards an objective or goal. This in turn gave birth to two other ideas, both of which are often used for predicting the future. The first, which has since become one the most common of all, was “trends.” The term is derived from the Middle English trenden, meaning to roll about, turn, revolve. In other words, the very opposite of what it means today. During the sixteenth century it began to stand for a move in a specific direction; but it was only about 1880 that its use became at all common.

Trends gave rise to extrapolation, another modern term. Starting its rise around 1920, today extrapolation is everywhere. The number of fields which have been analyzed with its aid, sometimes with success and sometimes without, is vast. Among them are births, deaths, populations (both human and non-human), migration, incomes, demand, sales, traffic (including accidents), energy consumption, hothouse gases in the atmosphere, the number of working scientists, technological development, the speed at which we move from one point to another, and so many other things as to boggle the mind.

Following hard on the discovery of trends and extrapolation came the other post-1750 historical method, i.e dialectics. The first to point to dialectics as the key to historical change, and therefore to any attempt to look into the future, was the early nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. Hegel’s starting point that it was the spirit that moved the world. Any idea (thesis) would quickly give rise to its opposite (antithesis). As the two met, the outcome would be a synthesis made up of elements taken from both the thesis and the antithesis—for nothing is ever completely lost—and forming a new thesis. And so on in a process that could be observed at work in all human affairs, from the highest to the lowest.

Where Hegel really left his predecessors behind was by insisting that the process was not stationary, like scales moving now one way and now in another while in search of equilibrium, but dynamic. Unfolding in time, never repeating itself but always taking on new forms, it led history away from the past through the present and from there into the future. History, in other words, was a process of becoming.

It was in this form that dialectics were taken over by Karl Marx. Marx’s starting point was that, while Hegel had been right in pointing to dialectics as the moving principle of history, he should have applied it to economic life first of all. Here the various systems of production were forever jostling each other, pushing development along. Thus emergent slavery replaced “primitive communism.” Feudalism took the place of slavery; capitalism drove out feudalism; and communism, returning in a much more highly-developed form with every kind of modern technology at its disposal, would end up by doing away with capitalism. Each of these four systems contained traces of the previous one. And each also contained the germ of its own opposite within itself. When the time was ripe it would be negated by that opposite. As the old passed away, the new would emerge out of it like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. To this process Hegel had given the name Aufhebung. Inadequately translated as sublation, it can mean both “abolition” and “taking to a new, and higher, level.”

Hegel and Marx are long dead. However, arguably dialectics, applied to both spiritual and material factors and recognizing the interaction between them, still remains the best way to describe the way history unfolds over time. If so, then seen as a method for understanding the present and forecasting the future it is by no means passé. Modern examples of the way dialectics work are all around us. One such is the shift from craftsmanship to conveyor belts producing endless numbers of identical items and from there to computerized factories which manufacture an almost equally endless variety of them. Another is the growth in motor traffic which has now reached the point where, instead of increasing mobility, it threatens to choke it and bring it to a halt.

Still others are the rise of globalization which, having emerged after the end of the Cold War with its sharp division between West and East, is now being confronted by its opposite, decentralization, regionalization, and social fragmentation; and the rise of political correctness (itself, in many ways, a reaction to the “sexual revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s), the reaction to which became manifest when Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Thanks to dialectics all these, and many others, were predictable. And some far-sighted people actually did predict every one of them.

To retrace our steps, history (A) and (B) together provides us with four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, the one based on the idea that there is no change and the one that change is cyclical, go back at least as far as the fifth century BCE when the very idea of history, meaning a record of things past, was conceived of for the first time. Between them they dominated the field until the effects of the industrial revolution started making themselves felt during the second half of the eighteenth century. Both remain in use even today. The other two, which assume that history does not repeat itself and that change is the very stuff of which it is made, are of more recent vintage.

What all four methods have in common is that they are based, or are supposed to be based, on the sober and systematic study of recorded facts and processes. Such as anyone, provided he or she applies himself, can access and interpret. The difficulty, of course, is to decide which method should be applied to what development at what time; also, which one to use in dealing with each problem and how to combine all four.

To this question, no answer had yet been found.

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.