HE inherent indeterminacy, via quantum physics, of the universe, seems to preclude detailed prediction on a micro level— for example a particular individual’s random thoughts. However general forecasting on a macro scale is not only possible, but is already being accomplished reliably and on a regular basis.
Perhaps the best and most familiar example is weather forecasting. Atmospheric currents are large enough to be quite predictable, and can be modeled using computer software. On a still-larger scale the orbits and paths of planets and other moving objects in space can be tracked and their future positions plotted to a high degree of accuracy.
But elaborate computer software and advanced scientific knowledge are not necessary for many predictions. All that is needed is a good sense of history (while history does not necessarily repeat itself you can find cycles), a knack for observation, an ability to stay objective, and a knowledge of something that changes little through time— human nature.
Nostradamus or Da Vinci
When we think of a modern prophet we might be inclined to think of psychics like Edgar Cayce, the so-called sleeping prophet, or Jeane Dixon, whose predictions, such as in the book A Gift of Prophecy, made her famous several decades ago. Unfortunately if you go back and check their published predictions they’re little better than guesswork.
While it’s reasonable to be skeptical of psychics, there are two other classes of prophets, which you could call talkers and trenders. Talkers are people that know how to talk, and thus how to write. For a good example of a talker you could go back to Nostradamus, who wrote in strange verse, in great quantity, subject to various interpretations.
Not to say Nostradamus wasn’t also a psychic and a trender, as well as highly intelligent. His means of expression though were the most significant key to his endurance. Poetic, metaphoric, with a sense of history repeating itself, much of his current fame is due to his readers and interpreters, who with after-knowledge saw clues to later events.
Edgar Cayce too could be classed as a talker as well as a psychic. His voluminous readings, given as spoken word in trance, are still on file and avidly studied by contemporary students and followers. Although credited with having made some specific, accurate predictions, usually the more specific they were the more likely to be wrong.
If one is poetically or metaphorically inclined, as well as prolific, talk might be the way to go. But the most-proven way to know the future, the way of scientists and others, is through imagination, creativity, sensing direction, and pattern recognition— the trender. This goes back at least as far as the Ren Man himself, Leonardo Da Vinci.
While not renowned primarily as a prophet, scholars are still amazed by some of the things Leonardo drew and described centuries ago— things that wouldn’t actually be built until nearer our own time, such as flying machines, tanks, and calculators. How did he do it?
One thing he had going, besides insight and imagination, was a good knowledge of engineering and design, being up-to-date on the technologies that were available at the time. Thus he might be able to sense generally how something might work if the technology to actually do it were to come along. He sensed progress, knowing that technology was advancing.
This was how writer H.G. Wells, another successful forecaster, worked in the early years of the last century— intuiting need for something and then trying to imagine how technology could be used to make it if the technology needed were to become available. Successful inventors have this capability and thus in some cases fulfill their own visions.
By keeping an eye out for trends of all sorts, in a variety of disciplines, and trying to put them together in different ways, keeping in mind human need and aspiration, you can begin to see success as a prophet— or if you prefer a more contemporary term, futurist.
Such a skill can be profitable (prophetable :) as well as engaging. The day-to-day price fluctuations of a particular company’s stock is usually too subject to micro-influences to be reliably predictable. But if you can sense how successful a new or existing product or service of that company might be in the future, money can be made longer-term.
(Be sure to recognize that since some such estimates are already built into the price of a stock, they should be evaluated relative to the opinions of others— for example is the generally-held optimism or pessimism too high or too low relative to your optimism or pessimism.)
These types of predictions need not require money for investment— they can be done numerous times on smaller scales. An obvious example— if you think the price of gas is going to go up you can fill up immediately, or wait until you have to and then buy as little as you can if you think the price is going to go down.
If you think an area is going to increase in population, buy rather than rent. If you think it is growing too fast to support the population with jobs, etc. and that a bubble could burst, rent rather than buy. The local unemployment levels and which way they are trending relative to the country as a whole might be one worthwhile clue on this.
Brave New World
What is really fascinating though is to envision how the whole world might look in the future. What aspects of life would be better? What aspects would be worse? The historical trend long-term is more better than worse, at least on a prosperity scale, as machines allow people to accomplish more. But in some areas things are seeming to deteriorate.
For example climate change— can we and will we do enough in time to mitigate negative effects? Or is it already too late and we’ll have to resign ourselves to rebuilding Venice on higher ground. Could a technology be envisioned to raise the whole state of Florida and other low areas ten or twenty feet, or perhaps to somehow remove water from oceans?
It would seem that machines will continue to get smarter at a rapid pace. What does this imply for the long-term future of humanity? Will we colonize space or destroy the world we have? When might human life end, if ever? Will we establish contact with other intelligent beings in the universe?
The key to trying to answer questions like these is to put together different trends and threads of research and knowledge. It involves risk. Some of Leonardo’s ideas were impractical, and H.G. Wells had misses as well as hits. But part of the fun is in the doing, and then maybe staying healthy long enough to see how well you did.
© 2010 Warren Farr for the Unitheist Fellowship — revised 6/21