19 January 2022

Predicting the future imperfectly

Do humans want to know their future?

Yes, people are interested in knowing their future.

We want to know the future in terms of…

  •  what the weather will be tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after…?
  • whether our new product is likely to be a success in the market or not?
  • whether our large investment will be go up or go down in value?
  • what numbers will win next week’s lottery? 
  • whether or not we will survive the fatal disease we have contracted (with certainty, not a probability)?
  • can modern medicine prevent or cure the fatal disease I have contracted?
  • can we humans live forever?
  • do humans avert their own extinction?
  • what is the human-experience after death (assuming our quest for human-generated eternal life fails)?

Can humans know their future?

The future remains uncertain. No matter how good our prediction skills, the future is uncertain, both empirically and logically.

Empirically, even if we have “big data”, massive computing capacity, and fantastic skills, the weather tomorrow may be as predicted, but it may not. There is no certainty about what the future holds, and complexity and chaos theory ensures that it remains so. 

Logically, even if the world is a series of causes and effects, there is no logic that permits us to say that many previous contingent events will occur again in the future (see Hume). Sure, the sun has ‘risen’ every day for thousands of millennia, but it does not logically follow that it will do so tomorrow. 

Even with “more data” and more skills, some of these questions about the future, especially the ones further down the list above, are likely to always remain beyond us. 

What is the human-experience after death? Who knows? It has not stopped many people developing stories of what they think, even believe, or perhaps wish will happen after death. But the truth is we do not know. And even more, that we are unlikely to ever know.

Do humans avert their own extinction? We might desperately wish it to be so, but humanity does or does not survive remains in the future, and is unlikely to be known. The problem is open-ended for even if humanity survives the current apocalyptic scenarios, the possibility of extinction in some other, currently unseen and perhaps unknown apocalyptic scenario remains.

Can we live forever? It hasn’t happened yet although it is clear that human life has been massively extended beyond the standard “three score years and ten”. Can a human live forever? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Even if we do manage to insert our mental selves into a machine, what happens if the world ends and the machine stops? 

So many unknowns. 

But there are also some confusions that get tangled with the idea of prediction.

The first is confusing possibility with prediction. It is possible that there is life after death, that humans escape extinction and that people get to live forever (or at least 200 years or more). So, yes, these outcomes might be possible, but that is not a prediction. The other outcome is also possible!

Which leads to the related issue of confusing guesses with predictions. Guessing that a tossed coin will come up heads is a guess, not a prediction. If the coin does come up heads, then it was a lucky guess, not a correct prediction.  

Predicting the future is already an uncertain game, but it seems certain that uncertainty will always plague questions about particular futures such as the human experience after death, whether humans avoid extinction, and whether humans can live forever. 

My prediction is that we will only ever be able to predict the future imperfectly.

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"The history of predicting the future" (Rees 2021, Wired)

"Humans are bad at predicting futures that don't benefit them" (Beaton 2017, The Atlantic)

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