26 October 2013
In my last post, The Retrodiction Wall, I introduced several ideas that I think were novel, among them:
● A retrodiction wall, complementary to the prediction wall, but in the past rather than the present
● A period of effective history lying between the retrodiction wall in the past and the prediction wall in the future; beyond the retrodiction and prediction walls lies inaccessible history that is not a part of effective history
● A distinction between diachronic and synchronic prediction walls, that is to say, a distinction between the prediction of succession and the prediction of interaction
● A distinction between diachronic and synchronic retrodiction walls, that is to say, a distinction between the retrodiction of succession and the retrodiction of interaction
I also implicitly formulated a principle, though I didn’t give it any name, parallel to Einstein’s principle (also without a name) that mathematical certainty and applicability stand in inverse proportion to each other: historical predictability and historical relevance stand in inverse proportion to each other. When I can think of a good name for this I’ll return to this idea. For the moment, I want to focus on the prediction wall and the retrodiction wall as the boundaries of effective history.
In The Retrodiction Wall I made the assertion that, “Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge.” An increase in knowledge allows us to push the boundaries the prediction and retrodiction walls outward, as a diminution of knowledge means the contraction of prediction and retrodiction boundaries of effective history.
We can go farther than this is we interpolate a more subtle and sophisticated conception of knowledge and prediction, and we can find this more subtle and sophisticated understand in the work of Frank Knight, which I previously cited in Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty. Knight made a tripartite distinction between prediction (or certainty), risk, and uncertainty. Here is the passage from Knight that I quoted in Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty:
1. A priori probability. Absolutely homogeneous classification of instances completely identical except for really indeterminate factors. This judgment of probability is on the same logical plane as the propositions of mathematics (which also may be viewed, and are viewed by the writer, as “ultimately” inductions from experience).
2. Statistical probability. Empirical evaluation of the frequency of association between predicates, not analyzable into varying combinations of equally probable alternatives. It must be emphasized that any high degree of confidence that the proportions found in the past will hold in the future is still based on an a priori judgment of indeterminateness. Two complications are to be kept separate: first, the impossibility of eliminating all factors not really indeterminate; and, second, the impossibility of enumerating the equally probable alternatives involved and determining their mode of combination so as to evaluate the probability by a priori calculation. The main distinguishing characteristic of this type is that it rests on an empirical classification of instances.
3. Estimates. The distinction here is that there is no valid basis of any kind for classifying instances. This form of probability is involved in the greatest logical difficulties of all, and no very satisfactory discussion of it can be given, but its distinction from the other types must be emphasized and some of its complicated relations indicated.
Frank Knight, Risk, Uncertainty, and Profit, Chap. VII
This passage from Knight’s book (as the entire book) is concerned with applications to economics, but the kernel of Knight’s idea can be generalized beyond economics to generally represent different stages in the acquisition of knowledge: Knight’s a priori probability corresponds to certainty, or that which is so exhaustively known that it can be predicted with precision; Knight’s statistical probably corresponds with risk, or partial and incomplete knowledge, or that region of human knowledge where the known and unknown overlap; Knight’s estimates correspond to unknowns or uncertainty.
Knight formulates his tripartite distinction between certainty, risk, and uncertainty exclusively in the context of prediction, and just as Knight’s results can be generalized beyond economics, so too Knight’s distinction can be generalized beyond prediction to also embrace retrodiction. In The Retrodiction Wall I generalized John Smart‘s exposition of a prediction wall in the future to include a retrodiction wall in the past, both of which together define the boundaries of effective history. These two generalizations can be brought together.
A prediction wall in the future or a retrodiction wall in the past are, as I noted, functions of knowledge. That means we can understand this “boundary” not merely as a threshold that is crossed, but also as an epistemic continuum that stretches from the completely unknown (the inaccessible past or future that lies utterly beyond the retrodiction or prediction wall) through an epistemic region of prediction risk or retrodiction risk (where predictions or retrodictions can be made, but are subject to at least as many uncertainties as certainties), to the completely known, in so far as anything can be completely known to human beings, and therefore well understood by us and readily predictable.
Introducing and integrating distinctions between prediction and retrodiction walls, and among prediction, risk and uncertainty gives a much more sophisticated and therefore epistemically satisfying structure to our knowledge and how it is contextualized in the human condition. The fact that we find ourselves, in medias res, living in a world that we must struggle to understand, and that this understanding is an acquisition of knowledge that takes place in time, which is asymmetrical as regards the past and future, are important features of how we engage with the world.
This process of making our model of knowledge more realistic by incorporating distinctions and refinements is not yet finished (nor is it ever likely to be). For example, the unnamed principle alluded to above — that of the inverse relation between historical predictability and relevance, suggests that the prediction and retrodiction walls can be penetrated unevenly, and that our knowledge of the past and future is not consistent across space and time, but varies considerably. An inquiry that could demonstrate this in any systematic and schematic way would be more complicated than the above, so I will leave this for another day.
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23 October 2013
Prediction in Science
One of the distinguishing features of science as a system of thought is that it makes testable predictions. The fact that scientific predictions are testable suggests a methodology of testing, and we call the scientific methodology of testing experiment. Hypothesis formation, prediction, experimentation, and resultant modification of the hypothesis (confirmation, disconfirmation, or revision) are all essential elements of the scientific method, which constitutes an escalating spiral of knowledge as the scientific method systematically exposes predictions to experiment and modifies its hypotheses in the light of experimental results, which leads in turn to new predictions.
The escalating spiral of knowledge that science cultivates naturally pushes that knowledge into the future. Sometimes scientific prediction is even formulated in reference to “new facts” or “temporal asymmetries” in order to emphasize that predictions refer to future events that have not yet occurred. In constructing an experiment, we create a few set of facts in the world, and then interpret these facts in the light of our hypothesis. It is this testing of hypotheses by experiment that establishes the concrete relationship of science to the world, and this is also a source of limitation, for experiments are typically designed in order to focus on a single variable and to that end an attempt is made to control for the other variables. (A system of thought that is not limited by the world is not science.)
Alfred North Whitehead captured this artificial feature of scientific experimentation in a clever line that points to the difference between scientific predictions and predictions of a more general character:
“…experiment is nothing else than a mode of cooking the facts for the sake of exemplifying the law. Unfortunately the facts of history, even those of private individual history, are on too large a scale. They surge forward beyond control.”
Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas, New York: The Free Press, 1967, Chapter VI, “Foresight,” p. 88
There are limits to prediction, and not only those pointed out by Whitehead. The limits to prediction have been called the prediction wall. Beyond the prediction wall we cannot penetrate.
The Prediction Wall
John Smart has formulated the idea of a prediction wall in his essay, “Considering the Singularity,” as follows:
With increasing anxiety, many of our best thinkers have seen a looming “Prediction Wall” emerge in recent decades. There is a growing inability of human minds to credibly imagine our onrushing future, a future that must apparently include greater-than-human technological sophistication and intelligence. At the same time, we now admit to living in a present populated by growing numbers of interconnected technological systems that no one human being understands. We have awakened to find ourselves in a world of complex and yet amazingly stable technological systems, erected like vast beehives, systems tended to by large swarms of only partially aware human beings, each of which has only a very limited conceptualization of the new technological environment that we have constructed.
Business leaders face the prediction wall acutely in technologically dependent fields (and what enterprise isn’t technologically dependent these days?), where the ten-year business plans of the 1950′s have been replaced with ten-week (quarterly) plans of the 2000′s, and where planning beyond two years in some fields may often be unwise speculation. But perhaps most astonishingly, we are coming to realize that even our traditional seers, the authors of speculative fiction, have failed us in recent decades. In “Science Fiction Without the Future,” 2001, Judith Berman notes that the vast majority of current efforts in this genre have abandoned both foresighted technological critique and any realistic attempt to portray the hyper-accelerated technological world of fifty years hence. It’s as if many of our best minds are giving up and turning to nostalgia as they see the wall of their own conceptualizing limitations rising before them.
Considering the Singularity: A Coming World of Autonomous Intelligence (A.I.) © 2003 by John Smart (This article may be reproduced for noncommercial purposes if it is copied in its entirety, including this notice.)
I would to suggest that there are at least two prediction walls: synchronic and diachronic. The prediction wall formulated above by John Smart is a diachronic prediction wall: it is the onward-rushing pace of events, one following the other, that eventually defeats our ability to see any recognizable order or structure of the future. The kind of prediction wall to which Whitehead alludes is a synchronic prediction wall, in which it is the outward eddies of events in the complexity of the world’s interactions that make it impossible for us to give a complete account of the consequences of any one action. (Cf. Axes of Historiography)
Retrodiction and the Historical Sciences
Science does not live by prediction alone. While some philosophers of science have questioned the scientificity of the historical sciences because they could not make testable (and therefore falsifiable) predictions about the future, it is now widely recognized that the historical sciences don’t make predictions, but they do make retrodictions. A retrodiction is a prediction about the past.
The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy by Simon Blackburn (p. 330) defines retrodiction thusly:
retrodiction The hypothesis that some event happened in the past, as opposed to the prediction that an event will happen in the future. A successful retrodiction could confirm a theory as much as a successful prediction.
As with predictions, there is also a limit to retrodiction, and this is the retrodiction wall. Beyond the retrodiction wall we cannot penetrate.
I haven’t been thinking about this idea for long enough to fully understand the ramifications of a retrodiction wall, so I’m not yet clear about whether we can distinction diachronic retrodiction and synchronic retrodiction. Or, rather, it would be better to say that the distinction can certainly be made, but that I cannot think of good contrasting examples of the two at the present time.
We can define a span of accessible history that extends from the retrodiction wall in the past to the prediction wall in the future as what I will call effective history (by analogy with effective computability). Effective history can be defined in a way that is closely parallel to effectively computable functions, because all of effective history can be “reached” from the present by means of finite, recursive historical methods of inquiry.
Effective history is not fixed for all time, but expands and contracts as a function of our knowledge. At present, the retrodiction wall is the Big Bang singularity. If anything preceded the Big Bang singularity we are unable to observe it, because the Big Bang itself effectively obliterates any observable signs of any events prior to itself. (Testable theories have been proposed that suggest the possibility of some observable remnant of events prior to the Big Bang, as in conformal cyclic cosmology, but this must at present be regarded as only an early attempt at such a theory.)
Prior to the advent of scientific historiography as we know it today, the retrodiction wall was fixed at the beginning of the historical period narrowly construed as written history, and at times the retrodiction wall has been quite close to the present. When history experiences one of its periodic dark ages that cuts it off from his historical past, little or nothing may be known of a past that once familiar to everyone in a given society.
The emergence of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization effectively obliterated human history before itself, in a manner parallel to the Big Bang. We know that there were caves that prehistorical peoples visited generation after generation for time out of mind, over tens of thousands of years — much longer than the entire history of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization, and yet all of this was forgotten as though it had never happened. This long period of prehistory was entirely lost to human memory, and was not recovered again until scientific historiography discovered it through scientific method and empirical evidence, and not through the preservation of human memory, from which prehistory had been eradicated. And this did not occur until after agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization had lapsed and entirely given way to industrial-technological civilization.
We cannot define the limits of the prediction wall as readily as we can define the limits of the retrodiction wall. Predicting the future in terms of overall history has been more problematic than retrodicting the past, and equally subject to ideological and eschatological distortion. The advent of modern science compartmentalized scientific predictions and made them accurate and dependable — but at the cost of largely severing them from overall history, i.e., human history and the events that shape our lives in meaningful ways. We can make predictions about the carbon cycle and plate tectonics, and we are working hard to be able to make accurate predictions about weather and climate, but, for the most part, our accurate predictions about the future dispositions of the continents do not shape our lives in the near- to mid-term future.
I have previously quoted a famous line from Einstein: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” We might paraphrase this Einstein line in regard to the relation of mathematics to the world, and say that as far as scientific laws of nature predict events, these events are irrelevant to human history, and in so far as predicted events are relevant to human beings, scientific laws of nature cannot predict them.
Singularities Past and Future
As the term “singularity” is presently employed — as in the technological singularity — the recognition of a retrodiction wall in the past complementary to the prediction wall in the future provides a literal connection between the historiographical use of “singularity” and the use of the term “singularity” in cosmology and astrophysics.
Theorists of the singularity hypothesis place a “singularity” in the future which constitutes an absolute prediction wall beyond which history is so transformed that nothing beyond it is recognizable to us. This future singularity is not the singularity of astrophysics.
If we recognize the actual Big Bang singularity in the past as the retrodiction wall for cosmology — and hence, by extension, for Big History — then an actual singularity of astrophysics is also at the same time an historical singularity.
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I have continued my thoughts on the retrodiction wall in Addendum on the Retrodiction Wall.
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1 May 2012
After having written, just a few days ago, about declensionism as the possibly now-dominant narrative in the US (in From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), it seems a bit odd to take up the topic of whether happy days are here again, but I have been noticing subtle rhetorical shifts in the media that suggest that, no matter the pessimism and cynicism of the moment, Americans are always willing (if not eager) to believe in a better tomorrow. Reinvention — personal, institutional, civic, national — is one of the central themes of the American narrative, and this includes the continual reinvention of a brighter tomorrow.
There is a certain elusive nostalgia in the predictions of plentiful natural gas from shale (has anyone yet called it “power too cheap to meter?”), the revitalization of Rust Belt-era cities, and the return of manufacturing jobs to the US. The fact that these strategic trends are all based in fact does not mean that they will come together to form a coherent future, but it is (or would be) easy to put these trends together and draw conclusions from them — it is (mostly) a pleasant scenario. However, for starters, these strategic trends — all of which, I will admit without hesitation, have a clear basis in contemporary events — are mutually incompatible.
Thomas P.M. Barnett of Wikistrat has been particular assiduous on reporting both the potential for shale gas and the return of manufacturing to US shores, and in fact combining the two by considering the industrial development that will follow from the large scale commercial exploitation of fracking to extract natural gas from shale. Dr. Barnett has posted a stream of loosely related items on this, such as The coming American industrial renaissance, States and localities fighting over hydrofracturing drilling
, The displacement effect of all that new US natural gas, and North American energy boom attracting Chinese investment, inter alia.
Dr. Barnett has not been alone in predicting a revitalization of American prospects based on a conventional outlook on economic prosperity. I recently listened to the book $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better by Christopher Steiner, and while parts of this book read like “peak oil” apocalypticism, as the subtitle indicates, the author believes much good will come out of increasing unaffordable fossil fuels. He predicts the revitalization of failing metropolitan areas like Detroit, as well as the return of manufacturing jobs to the US because of the expense of transported manufactured goods when transportation costs rise sharply.
One of the most difficult things about prediction and futurism (and futurism must here be understood as a coherent group of predictions definitive of a particular way of life) is that the world is complex and interconnected, while the human mind has difficulty keeping three or four things in its focus at the same time. Both because of the practical realities of thinking and writing, which are processes that take place in time and therefore are “strung out,” as it were, rather than found together simultaneously, our narratives of necessity give a sequential account of things. This comes through very clearly in $20 Per Gallon, which exemplifies this diachronic imperative in contrast to the synchronic reality of parallel and simultaneous development. The author treats in sequence consequences of high fuel prices that will happen across the board, simultaneously, and as these consequences occur simultaneously, then will influence each other, with the result being quite beyond our powers of prediction. Complex adaptive systems are continually adapting to each other, and, in the process of adapting, changing themselves and changing the context in which all other complex adaptive systems adapt.
As I attempted to show in Futurism Without Predictions, the approach to futurism that is likely to tell us what the future is going to be like, rather than picking and choosing particular items and there, but getting the whole completely wrong, is identifying the master strategic trend, and the master strategic trend is that which not only becomes the dominant strategic trend but also that strategic trend that is intrinsically capable of subordinating the greatest number of coherent and mutually compatible (i.e., in Leibnizean terms, compossible) strategic trends.
Traditional futurists have often defended their predictions (and the predictions of past futurists, thereby to shore up the credentials of the discipline generally speaking) by pointing to individual items that were predicted and which where eventually built — submarines, helicopters, the videophone, and so forth. The problem with this strategy of rationalizing predictions (a problem that we often feel but do not always know how to express) is that particular instances of technology predicted and then built do not add up to the feeling that futurists have given of the future. It is not only that we aren’t wearing unisex leotards, going to work in flying cars, and getting all our nutrition from a single pill we take in the morning, it is that our world does not look like and does not feel like the world of the Jetsons.
To get a proper feeling for what the world is like, and what it may be like in the future, we need to stop thinking in terms of individual predictions and start thinking in terms of dominant strategic trends that shape the overall character of life in a particular historical era. In other words, we need to look at the big picture. And in the big picture, some of the obvious trends of today will be in conflict, and will not come together (cannot come together) into any kind of synthesis that will define the future.
It is pretty obvious that at least some manufacturing jobs will return to the US. As poorer countries become wealthier, it will no longer be cheaper to make things overseas and ship them back to the US. That’s pretty simple; it’s not rocket science. But the danger of thinking in terms of a US manufacturing economy is the perverse fetishism of industry that one often finds in popular writings on economics. Manufacturing is no more an answer to the economic conundra of the present than is the idea that everyone will become a hedge fund manager and work in financial services. Any real and vital economy has many sectors, and the interaction of these sectors in the marketplace is what makes an economy thrive. So don’t expect to get a job at 18 making widgets at the local factory, planning to retire in 30 years on a full pension. Those days are over. Longevity killed that dream. Ironically, we have to work longer and harder because we are healthier and live longer. This is an example of unpredictable consequences of simultaneous developments.
It is also pretty obvious that new fracking techniques are going to allow for the extraction of natural gas from shale at a level that was not previously possible. But natural gas is a fossil fuel, and although it certainly burns cleaner than coal, if the world economy expands dramatically by cranking up natural gas, we will be digging ourselves deeper into a problem that may have truly radical unpredictable consequences — like having to abandon the world’s major coastal cities because they are all under water due to rising sea levels.
Furthermore, the rentention of an economy based on cheap and widely available fossil fuels will mean that the kind of forced urbanization imagined in Christopher Steiner’s book will not occur. It is a relatively simple matter to convert cars, trains, and planes to run on one fossil fuel or another, and LNG is only marginally less convenient that oil. If natural gas is cheap and plentiful, LNG will be cheap and plentiful, and travel by private car and by airline will continue to be routine. And if the problem of hypersonic engines can be practically tamed, the world may become more internationally knit together, not less.
Make no mistake, increasing urbanization is one of the central strategic trends of our time, and we can expect it to continue. But it is likely to continue along the model of what Joel Garreau called “edge cities,” as well as sprawling, car-enabled suburbs that many people claim to disdain but which continue to grow in population.
Whether or not the trend is your friend, it is certainly your future. And the tone and feeling of the future will be set by that strategic trend that drives, shapes, and influences all the other strategic trends — either by magnifying them or by rendering them irrelevant.
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27 January 2012
In yesterday’s Addendum on Neo-Agriculturalism I made a distinction between political ideas (with which, to use Sartre’s formulation, essence precedes existence) and historical ideas (with which existence precedes essence). Political ideas are formulated as ideas and are packaged and promoted as ideologies to be politically implemented. Historical ideas are driving forces of historical change that are only recognized and explicitly formulated as ideas ex post facto. At least, that was my general idea, though I recognize that a more subtle and sophisticated account is necessary that will take account of shadings of each into the other, and acknowledging all manner of exceptions. But I start out (being the theoretician of history that I am) in the abstract, with the idea of the distinction to be further elaborated in the light of evidence and experience.
Also in yesterday’s post I suggested that this distinction between political and historical ideas can be applied to communism, extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and neo-agriculturalism. Thinking about this further as I was drifting off to sleep last night (actually, this morning as I was drifting off to sleep after staying awake all night, as is my habit) I realized that this distinction can shed some light on the diverse ways that the term “globalization” is used. In short, globalization can be a political idea or an historical idea.
I have primarily used “globalization” as an historical idea. I have argued from many different perspectives and in regard to different sets of facts and details, that globalization is nothing other than the unfolding of the Industrial Revolution in those parts of the world where the Industrial Revolution had not yet transformed the life of the people, many of whom until recently, and many of whom still today, live in an essentially agricultural civilization and according to the institutions of agricultural civilization. While is the true that industrialization is sometimes consciously pursued as a political policy (though the earliest appearances of industrialization was completely innocent of any design), politicized industrialization is almost always a failure. Or, the least we can say is that politicized industrialization usually results in unintended consequences outrunning intended consequences. Industrialization happens when it happens when a people is historically prepared to make the transition from agricultural civilization to industrialized civilization. This is not a policy that has been implemented, but a response both to internal social pressures and external influences.
In this sense of globalization as the industrialization of the global economies and all the peoples of the world, globalization is not and cannot be planned, is not the result of a policy, and in fact almost any attempt to implement globalization is likely to be counter-productive and result in the antithesis of the intended result (with the same dreary inevitability that utopian dreams issue in dystopian nightmares).
However, this is not the only sense in which “globalization” is used, and in fact I suspect that “globalization” is invoked more often in the popular media as a name for a political idea, not an historical idea. Globalization as a political idea is globalization consciously and intentionally pursued as a matter of policy. It is this sense of globalization that is protested in the streets, found wanting in a thousand newspaper editorials, and occasionally touted by think tanks.
Considering the distinction between political ideas and historical ideas in relation to globalization, I was reminded of something I wrote a few months back in 100 Year Starship Study Symposium Day 2:
If you hold that history can be accurately predicted (at least reasonably accurately) a very different conception of the scope of human moral action must be accepted as compared to a conception of history that assumes (as I do) what we are mostly blindsided by history.
A conception of history dominated by the idea that things mostly happen to us that we cannot prevent (and mostly can’t change) is what I have previously called the cataclysmic conception of history. The antithetical position is that in which the future can be predicted because agents are able to realize their projects. This is different in a subtle and an important way from either fatalism or determinism since this conception of predictability assumes human agency. This is what I have elsewhere called the political conception of history.
What I have observed here in relation to futurist prediction holds also in the case of commentary on current events: if one supposes that everything, or almost everything, happens according to a grand design, then it follows that someone or some institution is responsible for current events. Therefore there is someone to blame.
Of course, the world is more complicated and subtle than this, but we only need acknowledge one exception to an unrealistically picayune political conception of history in order to provide a counter-example that demonstrates not all things happen according to a grand design. Any sophisticated political conception of history will recognize that some things happen according to plan, other things just happen and are not part of any plan, while the vast majority of human action is an attempt, only partly successful, to steer the things that happen into courses preferred by conscious agents. If, then, this is the sophisticated political conception of history, what I just called the “unrealistically picayune political conception of history” may be understood as the vulgar political conception of history (analogous to “vulgar Marxism.” Vulgar politicism is political determinism.
This analysis in turn suggests a distinction between vulgar catastrophism, which maintains dogmatically that everything “merely happens,” that chance and accident rules the world without exception, and that there is no rhyme or reason, no planning or design whatsoever, in the world. From this it follows that human agency is illusory. A sophisticated catastrophism would recognize that things largely happen out of our control, but that we do possess authentic agency and are sometimes able to affect historical outcomes — sometimes, but not always or dependably or inevitably.
In so far as globalization is global industrialization, it is and has been happening to the world and began as a completely unplanned development. Since the advent of industrialization, its global extrapolation has mostly followed from the same principles as its unplanned beginnings, but has occasionally been pursued as a matter of policy. On the whole, the industrialization of the world’s economy today is a development that proceeds apace, and which we can sometimes (although not always) influence in small and subtle ways even while the main contours are beyond direct control. Thus globalization begins as a purely historical idea, and as it develops gradually takes on some features of a political idea. This pattern of development, too, is probably repeated in regard to other historical phenomena.
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12 December 2011
“From the relation of the planets among themselves and to the signs of the zodiac. future events and the course of whole lives were inferred, and the most weighty decisions were taken in consequence. In many cases the line of action thus adopted at the suggestion of the stars may not have been more immoral than that which would otherwise have been followed. But too often the decision must have been made at the cost of honour and conscience. It is profoundly instructive to observe how powerless culture and enlightenment were against this delusion; since the latter had its support in the ardent imagination of the people, in the passionate wish to penetrate and determine the future. Antiquity, too, was on the side of astrology.”
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S.G.C. Middlemore, 1878, Part Six, MORALITY AND RELIGION, “Influence of Ancient Superstition”
A few days ago Neil Houghton read my post The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought and made the following comment on Twitter:
● Neil Houghton — I add prospective agency. RT @geopolicraticus The Third Law of Geopolitical Thought: human agency in time and history
I responded with a question, and a miniature dialogue developed (within the tightly constrained limits of Twitter):
● Nick Nielsen — How would you define prospective agency? Is this agency understood in terms of possibility and potentiality?
● Neil Houghton — Great question… in one word, foresight… in more a transdisciplinary practice between, across and beyond orders of time
● Nick Nielsen — The whole problem is separating the wheat from the chaff: the wheat is the big picture; the chaff, trivial predictions.
● Neil Houghton — Yes. seeing gradience is an aspect of the problem; the difference between the big picture and trivial prediction is one such gradience.
● Nick Nielsen — Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.
● Neil Houghton — Foresight as gradience between freedom and destiny (for example) … please say more of your different kind of foresight.
This brief exchange points to something that I consider to be important, so I will attempt to give an account of the distinction I proposed between seeing the big picture and attempting to make predictions.
The most familiar form of futurism consists in making a series of predictions. Like any prognosticator of the future, regardless of methodology, the futurist is caught in a bind. The more specific his predictions, the more likely he is to be caught out. Even if the general drift of a prediction is correct, supplying a lot of details means more ways of potentially being wrong. And the more vague a prediction, the less interesting they are likely to be.
Some futurists take pride in their detailed lists of predictions, and although detail is an opportunity to be wrong, it also provides a lot of fodder for utterly pointless debate. In The Law of Stalled Technologies I wrote the following about Ray Kurzweil’s specific predictions:
Kurweil’s futurism makes for some fun reading. Unfortunately, It will not age well, and will become merely humorous over time (this is not to be confused with his very real technological achievements, which may well develop into robust and durable technologies). I have a copy of Kurzweil’s book that preceded The Singularity is Near, namely The Age of Spiritual Machines (published ten years ago in 1999), which is already becoming humorous. Part III, Chapter Nine of The Age of Spiritual Machines, contains his prophecies for 2009, and now it seems that the future is upon us, because it is the year AD 2009 as I write this. Kurzweil predicted that “People typically have at least a dozen computers on and around their bodies.” It is true that many people do carry multiple gadgets with microprocessors, and some of these are linked together via Bluetooth, so this prophecy does not come off too badly. He also notes that “Cables are disappearing” and this is undeniably true.
Kurzweil goes a little off the rails, however, when it comes to matters that touch directly on human consciousness and its expressions such as language. He predicted that, “The majority of text is created using continuous speech recognition”, and I think it is safe to say that this is not the case. I don’t want to parse all his predictions, but I need to be specific about a few particularly damning failures. Among the damning failures is the prediction that, “Translating Telephone technology … is commonly used for many language pairs.” Here we step over the line of the competence of technology and the limitations of even the most imaginative engineers. While machine translation is common today for text, everyone knows that it is a joke — quite literally so, as the results can be very funny though not terribly helpful.
Kurzweil gives a decade-by-decade running commentary of predictions. I once had somebody scold me about ridiculing Kurzweil’s predictions, because, I was told, the dates given were intended to indicate the initial dates of a ten year period, which gives him a ten year window to be right, thus kicking all his predictions another ten years down the road. This is the kind of ridiculous debate over pointless predictions that is an utter waste of breath. Predictions can be parsed like this until the end of time; this is precisely why people are always trying to show that Nostradamus predicted something. Add vagueness to ambiguity and you create the deconstructionists’ dream: anything can mean anything.
Just to unearth one more prediction, for 2019 Kurzweil predicted:
“Paper books or documents are rarely used and most learning is conducted through intelligent, simulated software-based teachers.”
Even if we give Kurzweil another ten years, I can guarantee you that, if I am still alive in 2029, that I will still have my personal library, it will probably be bigger than it is now, and I will consult it every day, as I do now. This does not, for me, constitute rarity of use. However, I will readily acknowledge that there is, already today, no need whatever to print textbooks, since knowledge is changing so rapidly and students usually don’t retain their textbooks after they have been used for a class. In situations such as this, it makes much more sense to make the material available on the internet. But even if we don’t bother with textbooks anymore, there will be a continuing role for books. At least, for me there will be a continuing role for books.
Whether you want to take pride in a list of specific predictions, having convinced yourself through a charitable hermeneutic that they have all come true, or whether you would rather it were all forgotten as a great embarrassment along with jetpacks, flying cars, and unisex jumpsuits, this model of futurism will always have a certain novelty value, so I will predict that “laundry list futurism” (like the poor) will always be with us.
There is, however, another kind of futurism, which we may not even want to call futurism, but which does incorporate a vision of the future. This other model of futurism is not about offering a laundry list of predictions, but rather about understanding the big picture, as I have said, both in space and time, i.e., geographically and historically. Here, “seeing the big picture” means having a theory of history that embraces the future as well as the past. This approach is about seeing patterns and understanding how the world works in general terms, and from an understanding of patterns and how the world works, having a general idea of what the future will be like, just as one may have a general idea of what they past was like, even if one cannot jump into a time machine and march with Alexander the Great or listen to Peter Abelard debate.
The big picture in space and time — and the biggest picture is what I have called metaphysical ecology and metaphysical history — is a theory, which if it is to be coherent, consistent, and universally applicable, must be applicable both to the past and the future. Ultimately, such a theory would be a science of time, although we aren’t quite there yet. I hope that, before I die, I can make a substantial contribution in this direction, but I recognize that this is a distant goal.
In the meantime, familiar sciences are engaged in precisely this enterprise, though on a less comprehensive scale. Let me try to explain how this is the case.
When we work in the historical sciences, the scale of time is so great that we must settle for retrodiction, because this is what can be done within one human lifespan, or within the lifespan of a community of researchers engaged in a common research program, but if we could afford to wait for thousands or millions or billions of years we could make predictions about the future. When, on the contrary, we work in the natural sciences as in physics, we must make predictions about the future, because we must create an elaborate apparatus to test our theories, and these did not exist in the past, so retrodiction is as closed to us as prediction is closed to the historical sciences. If we could go back in time with a superconducting supercollider, we could make retrodictions in physics, but at the present stage of technology this time travel would be more difficult than the experiment itself.
We accept the limitations of science that we are forced to accept, perhaps not gladly, but of necessity. What alternatives do we have? If we would have knowledge, we must have knowledge upon the conditions that the world will allow us knowledge, or refuse knowledge altogether. We are confident that our theories of physics apply equally well to the past, even if they cannot be tested in the past, and we are confident that our theories of paleontology would apply to the future if only we could wait long enough for the bones of the present to be fossilized.
In the fullness of time, if industrial-technological civilization continues in existence, the limits of science will be pushed back from the positions they presently occupy, but they will never be eliminated altogether. However, our strictly scientific knowledge can be extrapolated within a more comprehensive philosophical context, in which the resources of logical and linguistic analysis can be brought to bear upon the “problem” of history.
When I first began writing about what I began to call integral history, and which I now call metaphysical history, my aim at that time was to give an exposition of an extended conception of history that made use of the resources both of traditional humanistic narrative history and the emerging scientific historical disciplines, such as genomic resources which have taught us so much about the natural history of our species. I have subsequently continued to expand my expanded conception of history, and this is what I call metaphysical history, elaborated in the context of ecological temporality.
A further extension of the already extended conception of metaphysical history would be a conception of history that sees the big picture by seeing time whole, past, present, and future together as one structure that exhibits laws, regularities, patterns, and, of course, exceptions to all of the same.
This, then, was what I meant when I said that, “Seeing the big picture in both space and time yields a different kind of foresight than the attempt to predict future events.” The kind of foresight I have in mind is an understanding of historical events, both past and future, in a larger theoretical context. It is “foresight” only because it is, as the same time, hindsight. Both the past and the future are comprehended in an adequate theory of history.
I have no desire to produce a laundry list of predictions; I have no desire to say what I think the world will look like in 2019 or 2029 or 2039. I think that most of these predictions are irresponsible, though it may land a prophet on the front page of the National Enquirer. Not all such attempts at prediction, however, are irresponsible from my point of view. I have several times discussed George Friedman’s book The Next 100 Years, which strikes me as a responsible exercise in laundry list futurism. I have also discussed Michio Kaku’s book Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100.
Kaku’s book is particularly interesting to me in the present context, because Kaku has a very specific method for his futurism. He has interviewed scientists about the technologies that they are developing now, in the present, and which will become part of our lives in the foreseeable future. I realize now that Kaku’s methodology may be characterized as a constructive futurism: he is immersed in the details of technology, and extrapolating particular, incremental advances and applications. This is a bottom-up approach. What I am suggesting, on the contrary, is a profoundly non-constructive approach to the philosophy of history, a top-down understanding that looks for the largest structures of space and time and regards all details and particulars as fungible and incidental. That is my vision of a theory of history, and I think that such a theory would give a certain degree and kind of foresight into event in the future, but certainly not the same degree and kind of foresight that one might gain from the constructive methods of Kaku and Friedman.
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14 August 2011
Dated futurism is one of my guilty pleasures, and I have written about this previously in A Hundred Years of Futurism. Recently I’ve been reading a number of mid-twentieth century futurist works for some research I am doing. These are not the wide-eyed adolescent takes on the future, but intended to be sober analyses of what one book calls The Most Probable World. This is a project in the spirit of George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which I have discussed several times (cf. Ecological Succession in Cultural Geography).
The wide-eyed enthusiasm for possible futures is pure fun, but the serious attempts to try to understand a likely future constitute futurism of another order, and it deserves to be treated separately, if only because of the intentions of the author. While the science fiction scenarios have sometimes come closer to the truth than some overly-serious attempts to futurism (the latter at times approaching self-parody), this kind of nearly-chance correspondence bears some resemblance to the Gettier paradox, which can be intuitively understood as the fact that a non-functioning clock is precisely correct twice a day, but when a stopped clock is correct in indicating the time, it is not correct for the right reason.
Some of these “serious” (for lack of a better term) works of futurism are more sociological than futurist in character, and can only be called futurist in virtue of their discussion of present trends with a strong implication that the trend under discussion will be a central thread in the developments of the immediate future. In this sense, the sort of sober “futurist” works to which I am here referring needn’t even mention the future or prediction. The future is understood to be embodied in the pregnant present, if only we can recognize the inchoate future in embryo.
I would like to suggest that these works of sober futurism are distinct from works of enthusiasm because they are based on a method, however imperfectly put into practice, and this is the method of the historical a priori imagination. In several previous posts I have had occasion to refer to R. G. Collingwood’s conception of the historical a priori imagination. This is given in the Epilogomena to his The Idea of History, as follows:
“I have already remarked that, in addition to selecting from among his authorities’ statements those which he regards as important, the historian must in two ways go beyond what his authorities tell him. One is the critical way, and this is what Bradley has attempted to analyse. The other is the constructive way. Of this he has said nothing, and to this I now propose to return. I described constructive history as interpolating, between the statements borrowed from our authorities, other statements implied by them. Thus our authorities tell us that on one day Caesar was in Rome and on a later day in Gaul ; they tell us nothing about his journey from one place to the other, but we interpolate this with a perfectly good conscience.”
“This act of interpolation has two significant characteristics. First, it is in no way arbitrary or merely fanciful: it is necessary or, in Kantian language, a priori. If we filled up the narrative of Caesar’s doings with fanciful details such as the names of the persons he met on the way, and what he said to them, the construction would be arbitrary: it would be in fact the kind of construction which is done by an historical novelist. But if our construction involves nothing that is not necessitated by the evidence, it is a legitimate historical construction of a kind without which there can be no history at all.”
“Secondly, what is in this way inferred is essentially something imagined. If we look out over the sea and perceive a ship, and five minutes later look again and perceive it in a different place, we find ourselves obliged to imagine it as having occupied intermediate positions when we were not looking. That is already an example of historical thinking ; and it is not otherwise that we find ourselves obliged to imagine Caesar as having travelled from Rome to Gaul when we are told that he was in these different places at these successive times.”
“This activity, with this double character, I shall call a priori imagination; and, though I shall have more to say of it hereafter, for the present I shall be content to remark that, however unconscious we may be of its operation, it is this activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity. That the historian must use his imagination is a commonplace; to quote Macaulay’s Essay on History, ‘a perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque’; but this is to underestimate the part played by the historical imagination, which is properly not ornamental but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.”
The Idea of History, Epilegomena: 2: The Historical Imagination, R. G. Collingwood, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1946)
This is more than I have quoted from Collingwood previously, because I wanted to give a better sense of his exposition. Collingwood calls his method “constructive” (in contradistinction to being “analytic”), but from a formal point of view it is the antithesis of constructive, it is a non-constructive inference of what must be, made on the basis of what is known to be the case.
But I think that Collingwood wanted to call his method “constructive” because he wanted to bring attention to the essentially conservative and traditional aspect of historical thought that he felt himself to be describing. It is one of the remarkable aspects of Collingwood’s conception that it is both metaphysically bold and methodologically conservative. As Collingwood notes, we have no scruples in deducing that when Caesar traveled from Rome to Gaul that he covered the intervening geographical region. This is, in a sense, a necessary truth, and in so far as it is a necessary truth, it is an a priori truth — furnished by imagination.
In works of history, we can make logical deductions as to what must have happened on the basis of connecting two points in history separated by the discrete period of time. In works of futurism, we cannot do this. We have only one point at which the facts are know, and this is the present. And often the present is known far more imperfectly than we would like to admit. As time passes, and we learn more and more about the past, we realize how little we knew of the present when it was in fact present.
Thus futurism labors under a double burden of knowing only half of what is needed to logically extrapolate the historical a priori imaginative narrative, as well as knowing this half highly imperfectly. Despite these substantial handicaps, we can still stand on the firm ground of methodological naturalism in making necessary deductions about the future.
We know that the future must follow from the present as the present has followed from the past. We know furthermore that there will be some future, and that it will be filled with some content, even if we don’t know what that content is. This makes futurism profoundly non-constructive.
Beyond these logical deductions from the very structure of time itself, we know empirically and inductively that things never quite develop as we expect things to develop, meaning that trends that seem to be important in the present often come to nothing, while world-historical events often seem to emerge suddenly if not violently from subtle trends in the present that are often evident only in hindsight.
A better appreciation of non-constructivism as a method of formal reasoning, as well as of subtle trends in the present that are neglected in favor of more obvious trends, would give us a better picture of the content of history that will shape the future. Both of these are highly difficult intellectual undertakings. Despite the fact (which you will know if you are familiar with the literature of formal reasoning) that constructivism is considered a marginal if not ideological mode of thought, I find it remarkable that constructivism has been given several systematic expositions, for example, in the work of Brouwer, Heyting, Dummett, and Beeson, among many others, while non-constructivism, the default form of formal reasoning that makes no special stipulations, has been given no explicit formulation. This is an ellipsis that not only is felt in formal thought, but as we can see here is also felt in historical thought.
As for the empirical and inductive dimension of futurism, a thorough and dispassionate survey of the present, undertaken in a frame of mind informed by parallels with past neglected trends, might reveal a number of threads of historical trends in the present which might hold the key to unexpected developments in the future.
While futurism remains marginal, it is not beyond hope in being given a firmer intellectual basis than it has enjoyed to date. What I have suggested above may be taken as a research program for putting futurism on a more solid footing.
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