Future Improbable

Posted by on December 14, 2012 in Featured, Thoughts | 3 comments


It’s difficult to say with any kind of certainty what the future holds. There are just so many variables, so many interconnected pieces, that come together to build what we call “the present”. Given that all events which occur are the result of things which came before, one would think that, given enough data, we could successfully predict the future. And in theory, this is possible, but with our current technology and our limited ability to see even our current situation, this possibility remains elusive. Even predicting weather from day to day is a very complex and unpredictable study, one in which humans are still discovering new and unexpected results based on their studies. The weather services employ some of the largest and most complex computers in the world, and still can (and do) get the predictions wrong. If we can’t predict something as small as weather (on a universal scale) how could we even begin to get a grip on the future of everything?

Imagine if we could predict the future, based on data from the past. What would it take to gather and study enough data to be able to do this? What data and information would we need to study to reliably predict to reliably predict the future, and what would we need to be looking for?

The problem with future studies is that we have before us only potential, and no certainty. We can predict short term happenings within an acceptable margin for error, given the nature of our understanding of nature, physics and people.

For instance, if I threw my iPad up into the air a few things would be predictable; Firstly the iPad would come flying back down toward the earth. We know this because we understand that gravity works on all things with mass, and is stronger in objects with a greater mass than in objects with a lesser mass. (Interestingly the earth would also move imperceptibly and very slightly “up” toward the iPad.) We could predict, taking into account the place where the iPad is going to land, that the iPad would sustain a certain amount of damage, possibly scratches, a cracked screen, or even physical damage which renders the object useless. We could even predict, within reason) the look of horror on my face as I watched this expensive piece of technology speeding toward possible destruction and doom. And these predictions are all made inside the human brain, no computer is needed to realise these.

If we created a computer model, like one used to predict the weather, and plugged in all the known variables of the flying iPad, we would still only be working within the realm of the already known. Things like the physical makeup of the iPad, the physical nature of the ground it is about to hit, wind speed and direction, whether there are any sharp objects on the ground that may change the outcome of the iPad’s landing, are all knowable or already known. But what of the unknown variables? Could an unseen pebble or grain of sand on the landing surface cause the screen to crack? Is it even possible to scan the ground for these objects in the time between pitching the iPad into the air, and my holding my breath as I watch it crash to the ground?

But this is not the kind of prediction I am really interested in here. What I is interesting is a much larger scale of prediction, one where all things that can be known, are known, and are then used to make a calculation of future events. In theory, if one were to have a computer big enough, and data flying on from all over the universe feeding this computer, a prediction of this kind would only require that we ask the computer the right question. Of course, this is an impossibility given our current state of technology, our limited resources, and the fact that we are all stuck here on earth, not able to receive data from distant stars or planets.

The weather bureau, those who deal in climate modelling, and those that deal with social and population models are the closest thing we have to future predictors. So can they predict the future? Not really, but they could predict the future if the information they dealt with were more precise and from a wider scope.

On a universal scale, when looking at predictions of the future, we encounter many problems. Let’s put aside the fact that humans aren’t sufficiently advanced enough to do anything of the sort due to technological restraints and restraints caused by our lack of understanding of things of this nature. One much bigger problem lies in scale; The universe is so large that in order for information to reach us from far-flung galaxies, the time it takes for the information to travel to us at the speed of light could render the information useless for prediction by the time it reaches us. We would be gathering information that was already several years old, and would be rendered useless by the time we even knew of its existence. If we want to record all things at all times, we would have to be everywhere simultaneously to gather this data.

Another greater problem is the occurrence of random events. A small random event, even on a particular level, when added to more of these over time and compounded over millions of years could have a drastic effect on the outcome of a situation. For example, in order to know how things have happened in the past with any kind of precision, we would benefit from knowing the initial state from which situations and things emerged. In the case of the beginnings of the universe, this still remains (and may forever remain) elusive, but there are many ideas about the universe’s initial state from which the Big Bang eventuated. In any case, a small change in an initial state, and when the effects of this change are compounded over millions and billions of years, can create a huge effect on the present, and will continue to do so into the future. Added to this, with the occasional unforeseeable random event occurring, there is no way to know which way things could, or even have, eventuated. So even if we did have knowledge of the initial state of the universe, what a computer model would conclude about the universe in it current state as we see it would be two very different things.

Of course this is all speculation. Since it is a massive task to know the initial state of the universe, when things were comparatively simple when held against the vast complexity of the current universe, how much more massive would the task be to know the state of the universe now?

Let’s step back into the realm of science fiction here. Imagining we found a way to overcome the problems of distance, measurement and an inability to travel back in time to see the beginnings of the universe, imagine we did create a computer powerful enough to see and record all happenings within the universe and report back to us where things were headed. Within this computer, every atom, every electron, every particle could be measured, and its effects on surrounding particles could be measured. Over time we’d be able not only to see the present, we could build a model to look into the future. What we will have built is a huge computer simulation of our universe, only it would not be a fanciful universe that could be, it would be a carbon copy of the universe that is. Not only that, we’d be able to see everywhere and everywhen. In effect, we would have built the mind of God; Omniscient and omnipresent.

The computer would have to be massive, in fact in all probability, larger than the universe itself, which in essence is an impossibility, at least to our puny human brains.

But what of so-called predictors of the future we see all around us? Is it not possible that a person could just “see into the future” using nothing but their own special powers? Future predictors of the past, soothsayers, mystics, psychics and the like, when making predictions have a couple of very useful tricks up their sleeves. Firstly, they make vast amounts of predictions. For example, the writers of horoscopes in daily newspapers make at least 12 predictions a day. In 2007 there were over 6.5 thousand individual daily papers in production worldwide. If each of these contained a horoscope, that makes 2,8470,000 predictions a year from newspapers alone. Then there’s the ones printed in weeklies and quarterlies, online horoscopes, “personal” horoscopes, those ones on the little paper scrolls that come out each month. Each of these sources makes claims about the future, and in particular, your future, depending upon which “star sign” you align yourself with. Secondly, they make a lot of noise when one prediction comes true, and all those that don’t are left by the wayside as if they never existed. All predictions of this kind have two things in common; They are written in a vague way that could relate to any person, event, location, or time, and they are all mutually inconsistent when compared to each other.

Likewise, Nostradamus, who has been considered to be a future predictor by many, wrote a series of 100 quatrains (four line verses), a series of vague and nonsensical poetry, that when seen as prophecies could be applied to just about any situation. People say he predicted with certainty everything from the Second World War to the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Over 400 lines of gibberish, translated from 16th century French, then embellished and added to by those wishing to “prove” the efficacy of the predictions, are hardly a source of future prediction. In fact, one could randomly cut words from the newspaper, arrange them into 400 lines of “poetry”, remove the words that don’t make sense grammatically, add random words where needed, and voila, you have made future predictions with the same accuracy as those of Nostradamus. Of course, the predictions of the end of the world have been “foretold” in the writings of Nostradamus, and it appears that next week is the end for us all. Again.

The “predictions” found in the bible are similar, in that they are vague and numerous, and many of them may have actually been past predictions, i.e. stories from times past rather than stories of the future. What it takes to change a poem or a piece of prose into a prediction is first the want to see the prediction come true. You have to be predisposed to believe that a prediction is true in order for it to hold any weight. What is scary about biblical predictions is not the predictions themselves, but the people who are willingly and actively trying to make the predictions come true. Many Christians in the USA not only believe that the end of the world is coming, according to their only textbook, but that it will be sooner rather than later, and many among those are welcoming the end of humanity in the hopes that their God will give them a place in heaven alongside their dead loved-ones and their childhood dog. But it’s not only in the USA that this is happening; We see in the Middle-East people who are playing out a self-fulfilling prophecy of war over their holy lands, and many of these wish to fulfill the prophecy of the end-times as written in their various holy books.

If we could see the future, and all things were laid out before us like a map of definitive events that would be played out with unwavering certainty, how would we react to this? We would be able to see our own deaths, how we will die and when, and the deaths of our loved-ones. We would know with certainty what each day held in store for us, and would be powerless to do anything about it. We could see potential serial killers in their own future, but instead of being able to stop them, we would have to simply stand by as the killer did his bidding. Of course, also on this map would be future information, such as technologies that will be developed, except we could do nothing with this information if it weren’t already mapped out that we could use it. Having this information creates similar paradoxes to the famous time-travel paradox, where a man kills his own grandfather in the past, and therefore is never born. If we could see the future mapped out before us, then surely we could change the outcomes, and therefore the map of the future would change accordingly. So it seems, no matter how much information we gather about the present and the past, that the future will remain elusive to us.

We long for knowledge of the future based on our experiences from the past. Since we cannot look forward and see what’s coming, we can only delve into our own memories, or the written histories of human civilisation to predict what may come. We all wish we could have stopped something before it happened, or remembered to take our keys out of the ignition before locking the car door, and can only prevent that from happening in the future by building around us certain defense strategies against such occurrences. If we could predict the future, and prevent bad things from happening, then the universe could be a very different place, one where the notion of linear time dissolves, replaced with an even more bizarre idea of time “all at once”, where everywhen happens right now, and the notion of “future” ceases to exist at all. A mind-bending idea indeed.

Although many have tried to predict the future, from detailed statistical modelling through to fanciful visions emanating from the human brain, it seems to me that all notions of an accurate future prediction are equally unobtainable. However it will remain in the human psyche forever, as we strive to control our own destinies and lives.

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  1. Something to think about:
    Quantum Theory includes a concept known as “CPT Symmetry”, meaning that if you reverse the charge and parity (spin) of all particles, and reverse time as well, then the same rules hold. (Actually, there are experiments suggesting violations of this under unusual conditions, but for ordinary conditions — i.e. those which humans live in — that’s essentially irrelevant.)
    Now: we have history, which suggests that the past is fixed. But CPT Symmetry demands that the past and future have the same level of uncertainty. So: either the future is as fixed as the past, and the course of history is essentially fixed, or else the notion of history is effectively a lie.
    Creepy, huh?

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    • @The Vicar Not creepy because we’re skeptical of “CPT Symmetry demands that the past and future have the same level of uncertainty”. Is that the current consensus of physicists who specialise in QT?
      If so, please show us that wikipedia article so some blogger can dig into its references and interview their (living) authors.
      Prediction: the resulting youtube vid will go viral, and its advertising will more than cover the blogger’s time to put it together.

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  2. On the contrary … accurate predictions of the future are quite possible, indeed, based on data from the present and especially the past.  The catch is that they may not have a particularly high level of precision.  I can predict with very high confidence that there will be tornadoes within the USA next year, but I can’t say precisely where or when, or how intense any particular tornado might be.  I can say with very high confidence that Oklahoma City will be struck sometime in the future by a violent tornado, but I can’t say precisely what year or on what date within that year. Accurate predictions of the future weather (note:  the climate is a long-term average of the weather, and so is not the same topic as the weather) will never be both perfectly accurate and precise, no matter how much we might learn, because our knowledge of the information that controls the future will never be of infinite quantity or infinite accuracy.  The atmosphere is a complex system characterized by a property known to mathematicians as nonlinearity.  That nonlinearity dooms weather forecasts to an inevitable level of uncertainty that can never be overcome – this topic is known under the name “butterfly effect” or “chaos theory”.

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  1. The Weekly Gnuz & Lynx Roundup for December 14, 2012 « The Call of Troythulu - [...] Martin Pribble has posted Video: “Oliver Sacks on Humans and Myth-making”  and Future Improbable. [...]

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