Will I pass my degree? And even if I do, will it still be relevant by the time I’m finished? How will the world even look in five years’ time? Is civilisation in the process of collapsing? Will the human species go extinct?
Text: Dominic Murton
We spend our lives peering into the future. Why? I’m interested in exploring what it is that drives our need to predict the future and whether there might be any valid alternative approaches to facing uncertainty.
What motivates the act of prediction? At first glance the answer is obvious: By anticipating the future we hope to better provide for ourselves when we get there. We are dependent on our surroundings for our continued existence, and when they change unexpectedly our ability to meet our needs is threatened. We make predictions in order to ensure that we can meet those needs tomorrow and the day after. But is that all there is to it?
When we attempt to predict the future we are also seeking to eliminate the unknown from our lives.
If this was the whole story then anticipating the future would be a hum-drum affair, like filling out a tax-return or applying for a passport. And yet it is not. Not knowing what is going to happen next can drive us crazy. We dread uncertainty with a fear normally reserved only for sickness and death. We respond to the unknown as if it were an existential threat to be eliminated and so, in addition to securing our future needs, when we attempt to predict the future we are also seeking to eliminate the unknown from our lives.
What is it about the unknown that bothers us so? Why do we lie awake before job interviews and exam days alike in insomniac terror? It seems as if in a society that enshrines empirical knowledge above all else, the continued existence of the unknown constitutes a kind of failure. Human attempts at divination predate written history and yet the future still looms monolithic before us, just as it did our ancestors. Without foreknowledge, tomorrow remains a blank slate upon which our subconscious is free to project a theatre of ecstatic hope and nightmarish fear. We resent the future for its power to realise both our most deeply held dreams and the manifestation of our worst possible imaginings. Without clear facts upon which to hinge our predictions, the future is a mirror that reflects back to us all the insecurity and doubt within us that we fear to meet. Thus, when we desire to make the future known, we also strive to silence anxiety within.
In what ways does trying to predict the future benefit us? Today in the West, most people know that tomorrow they will enjoy the same food, shelter and safety that they enjoy today. This security is a direct consequence of forward planning and it is in this respect that future prediction is most helpful, both in our personal lives and for society as a whole. However, there is a balance to be struck between planning the future and living in the present. When we focus too much on the future we find ourselves unable to enjoy it when it finally arrives. Why? Because another future always awaits us just beyond the horizon, menacing us with its uncertainty. Obsessing about the future can prevent us from ever enjoying where we are right now as there is always more future ahead of us, right up until the moment we die. It goes without saying that we cannot live in the future, but if our fear of it prevents us from living in the present, then there is nowhere left to live at all. Furthermore, if our quest to define the future is also a quest to eliminate the unknown in our lives then it is doomed to failure. The unknown is not to be found in the future but rather here and now, within ourselves. We seek to avoid our unknown selves by projecting them out onto the canvas of the future and attempting to assassinate them there, chasing ever after them as if in some interminable spy film.
How would it feel to gaze into the unknown without trying to make it known? Could it be that when we look into an uncertain future without trying to fix it we are confronted with the uncomfortable awareness that we are not in full control? An unknowable future exposes the reality that, no matter our efforts, some of the central factors influencing our lives will always be beyond our mastery. We are far from the ‘masters’ of our world as the Bible suggests in Genesis, but instead humble participants subject to the same fundamental limitations as the other organisms that surround us. And the most fundamental of those limitations, the ghost that mocks all our attempts at planning and prediction, is death itself.
In medieval Europe, Christian monks engaged in a practice called ‘Momento mori’ or ‘Remember death’. They believed that a continued awareness of mortality enabled one to live a better life. Today in the West we live in a society that has all but excluded death from public life. Old people die together in elderly homes, isolated from the families that in previous generations would have cared for them in their old age. Advertisements plaster our walls and screens with the dream of eternal youth for sale. Our films and newspapers are full of the dead, both in glorified violence and sanitised war reporting, but how many of us are intimate with the reality of the felt experience of death? We live at a time when death and mortality are taboo, even as our civilisation triggers one of the greatest mass extinction events in planetary history.
For years now, the climate scientists have been telling us that our global situation is dire, and the news only seems to worsen with each passing month. If the IPCC’s worst-case scenario predictions are correct, then civilisation as we know it will not survive beyond the end of this century. According to our evolutionary scientists 99.9% of all species that have ever lived on the planet are now extinct. Why should we be any different? Is this truly the end, are we all going to die?
This is the worst-case scenario, isn’t it? Of all the terrible unknowns that lurk in our imagined futures, this is the only one that is truly irreversible.
How do you live when you know that you’re going to die?
A recent medical study worked with terminally-ill patients diagnosed with what is known as ‘End-of-life anxiety’. The people enrolled in the study reacted to their terminal diagnosis in different ways. Some patients, amazingly, simply took matters in their stride. Other patients were not able to accept their doctor’s conclusions. They reacted with anger and frustration, fighting or isolating themselves from their family members and loved ones even as their final days raced relentlessly by. The study was interested in finding ways to improve the quality of life of these patients. In this particular instance, the researchers were investigating the effects of administering doses of LSD to the patients within a therapeutic context.
We’re blindly incinerating the present moment of what we have for a hazy dream of what might become
The testimonials from some of the patients who received the therapy are nothing less than remarkable and they offer an insight that the rest of us, futures uncertain, can sorely benefit from. It is wonderful to have dreams and plans for the future, but we’ve let them grow so large that we’ve lost sight of the present. We’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re blindly incinerating the present moment of what we have for a hazy dream of what might become. Perhaps that glittering future may one day be ours, and perhaps it may not. But the time, the relations, the world that surround us now are real and available for us to appreciate in this present moment. Who knows whether all of this will still be available to us in our unpredictable future. Can we learn how to make the most of what we have whilst it is still here?
An articulate voice in this discussion was that of Alan Watts, an American philosopher and scholar known for his popularisation of Eastern philosophy for Western audiences in the mid-20th century. I leave you with a little taste of his thoughts on the matter:
By replacing fear of the unknown with curiosity we open ourselves up to an infinite stream of possibility. We can let fear rule our lives or we can become childlike with curiosity, pushing our boundaries, leaping out of our comfort zones, and accepting what life puts before us. – Alan Watts