KNOWING THE FUTURE
D/ R. Khashaba
The question “Can we know the future?” has three distinct aspects which I designate (1) the prophetic; (2) the logical; (3) the scientific.
THE PROPHETIC ASPECT
The future has lured humans ever since they created the concept of time and the daughter concepts past, present, and future. We need not go into the psychology of wanting to know the future: Every one of us knows the experience of wondering what the morrow will bring, with trepidation, hope, anxiety, perplexity, curiosity. In olden times people resorted – and to some extent still do – to soothsayers, prophets, necromancers, etc., to foretell the future. Basically this involves the same absurdity inherent in the now ‘respectable’ notion of time travel.
Time is a creation of the human mind. In the natural world there is no time. As in the case of the notion of infinity, there is not and there cannot be any actual thing corresponding to the notion. Newton believed in absolute time; Leibniz ridiculed the notion; but even for Newton it was no more than a working fiction on par with the ‘force of gravitation’ which Newton confessed he had no inkling what it might be.
The past no longer exists; the future does not exist at present. To foresee the future is to see what is not; to travel to the future is to travel to what is not. Historians do not go back to the past to discover what happened: they interpret extant marks and reconstruct in the present a plausible picture of what might have been. In the same way when we recall a dream we had in sleep we do not sleep back and return to the dream; we reconstruct the dream. Thus I maintain that knowing the future in the manner of soothsayers and diviners and the idea of travelling to the future (or to the past) involve the same absurdity of actualizing what cannot be actual.
THE LOGICAL ASPECT
What I called the second aspect of the problem does not in fact relate to whether we can know the future but to the logical status of statements relating to the future. In logic the principle of excluded middle states that a judgment is either true or its negation is true. So it looks as if we are faced with a dilemma when we say for instance “It will rain tomorrow”. Is this statement true? If not, is the statement “It will not rain tomorrow” true? Aristotle had the answer long ago. Statements about the future are neither true nor false. They are not logical judgments. Like wishes, prayers, and commands they do not report ‘what is the case’ – these alone are either true or false – but express affects or states of emotion.
THE SCIENTIFIC ASPECT
Modern science queerly wedded Empiricism to Rationalism. In principle Empiricism should acknowledge no certainty. But the outstanding successes of science and technology from the seventeenth century onwards made it easy for both scientists and philosophers to embrace the rationalistic notion of causal necessity which oddly imports mathematical certainty into the empirical arena. Mathematical certainty is only a consequence of mathematics being an artificial formal construction invented by the human mind. When we created the number series we made 4 equal to 2 and 2.
Around the turn of the nineteenth century Laplace (1749-1827), in A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities, confidently declared:
“We ought to regard the present state of the universe as the effect of its antecedent state and as the cause of the state that is to follow. An intelligence knowing all the forces acting in nature at a given instant, as well as the momentary positions of all things in the universe, would be able to comprehend in one single formula the motions of the largest bodies as well as the lightest atoms in the world, provided that its intellect were sufficiently powerful to subject all data to analysis; to it nothing would be uncertain, the future as well as the past would be present to its eyes” (as quoted by Carl Hoefer’ in “Causal Determinism”, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).
This has since been held as an unquestionable creed among scientists in general and many philosophers. Laplace’s doctrine is clearly based on the assumption that “the present state of the universe (is) the effect of its antecedent state and (is) the cause of the state that is to follow”. But do we really know what a cause is? Do we understand how one state of affairs causes another? All that experience teaches us is, as Hume said, that one thing follows another. The concept of cause – as Kant said and as Plato knew long before Kant – is produced by the mind to lend coherence and intelligibility to what dumb experience presents us with.
We know two kinds of causality. There is the causality of free will, our spontaneous acts and thoughts. This is a creative causality where the antecedents do not determine or explain the consequents. This we know immediately in ourselves and it is only because we are blinded by the dazzling practical achievements of science that we belie our immediate awareness and try to constrain our free thoughts and deeds into the model of ‘natural causation’. What do we know of this causation? We know that a seed given soil and moisture and sunshine develops into a plant that produces flower and fruit. We can describe the process to whatever degree of comprehensiveness and accuracy but we only fool ourselves if we think that we understand how that comes about.
To my mind nature is creative as all being is creative. But this is a philosophical vision that I do not foist on science, especially as I insist in principle on keeping philosophy and science strictly apart. Confining ourselves to the empirical sphere, do we find it conceivable that all the variety and change in the natural world could have come about had there been no origination in nature? Darwin taught us about the origin of species. Now a new species is not reproduced mechanically from its predecessor but comes out of the interaction of many factors and the product is something new. So if nature is not only in flux as Heraclitus said but is always bringing in what is new, this gives further support to what we should have known already: that all so-called laws of nature are approximations describing observed regularities. A scientific law by its nature must generalize. A scientific law has the inbuilt proviso “other things being constant”, but other things in the universe are never constant. The most sophisticated astrophysical calculations must be based on the state of the universe this instant, but thus instant is a fiction, a chimera that you can never catch. Einstein wisely said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain, as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
The upshot of all this is that causal determinism is a fiction, a fiction that may have given scientists courage to make wide strides in their various fields, but a fiction nevertheless. The scientific prediction of the future is, under the best circumstances, approximate, probabilistic, and never absolutely certain.
Finally a confession. In all of this I have had an axe to grind. I wanted to point out a moral. It is foolish to cast doubt on the freedom and the creativity of the will on the ground of the presumed incompatibility between freedom and causal determinism. Poor Kant needlessly huffed and puffed to rescue moral freedom because the rationalism underlying his critical system made it hard for him to reject the fiction of causal determinism.
D. R. Khashaba
December 18, 20`6
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