Science Vs. The Future

The systematic, scientific study of the future is impossible.

Wait, what?  Really?  Well, speaking as someone who has deeply internalized the values of science, and who also loves to study the future, the thought certainly leaves me uncomfortable.  And yet I’m pretty sure that’s an ironclad statement.  I’m not quite about to throw in the towel completely, but the issue is worth exploring, and I haven’t seen it treated anywhere else.

students working in chemistry lab


So You Have a Theory About the Future…

Let me back up a bit.  A couple weeks ago, I wrote a post encapsulating some of my favorite quotes about the future.  It was intended as a bit of a fluff piece, honestly, just a way to engage people with the future in a fun way.  But it ended up generating some remarkably deep comments.

One reader tackled head-on a future paradigm that I’ve written about several times, namely the persistent acceleration of technological advancement.  For one thing, he said, we don’t know what the next technological hurdle will be, therefore we can’t know whether we’ll overcome it.  Then comes the crux of the argument:

More irksome, is that while making the very point of having only just begun our technological journey in time, we overlook that only that relatively small period of time is being measured… It is at the very least presumptuous to base a full hypothesis (and often times belief) in a single, small and inherently irreproducible data point.

Or, as they say in the finance industry, past performance is no guarantee of future results.  I do think it’s an exaggeration to say we have only one data point to work with (more on this in a moment).  But the larger point is that we don’t know all the variables that are going to influence our future, and there is simply no guarantee that the past will be a reliable guide.  Also notice that this argument applies not just to acceleration, but to any theory whatsoever about the future.  In a way, the situation reminds me of the extraterrestrial intelligence problem: we can’t predict whether life should be common or rare throughout the universe, because our sample size of one isn’t enough for us to tell the difference.

…Which is by Definition Untestable…

Now, contrast this with how science works.  A theory is proposed; its predictions are tested against observations of the real world; and it is thereby confirmed or denied (preferably in a repeatable way).  But that second, crucial step can’t happen with theories of the future – those theories aren’t testable, and therefore never rise to the level of a true hypothesis.

I suppose if you offer a theory of the future, you’ll eventually be proved right or wrong, just by waiting long enough.  But that isn’t actually helpful, because by the time that happens, the situation you suggested has become the present, not the future, making your theory purely academic.  And even if your idea does prove correct, there’s still no guarantee that you can extend it any further into the future: the initial conditions will have changed, and there will still be another 7 million unknown variables that could change the course of everything.  So you can pat yourself on the back for being right once, but you’re essentially back in the same boat as when you started.

The only real option would be to live in a universe with many parallel observable timelines, which we could compare with one another to see which theories hold up under which conditions.

Yeah, like I said: you can’t study the future scientifically.

Drawing of microscope

Courtesy calsidyrose

…But I Still Want to Hear About It.

Does all of this mean I’m ready to concede that we can’t say anything useful about the future?  Hell no!  Theories about the future may be unscientific, but they can still be well-grounded, useful, and powerful ideas.  There are many, many different theories of the future out there (maybe one day I’ll write about them all!) but since I’m most familiar with the accelerating change idea, let’s stick with that one as an example.

The underlying dynamic of the acceleration theory is that each technological achievement creates the possibility for a bigger one, further down the road.  The reason I find this so compelling is there are actually many different data points to support it, and they stretch all the way back through human history.  The development of tools was the first big one.  This allowed us to invent agriculture, which allowed human civilization to take root.   Once the food thing was taken care of, we had the spare time to come up with writing, a technology that to this day is essential to all further technology development.  The printing press, the steam engine, electricity, computers – I could go on and on.  Each advance creates a whole new paradigm in which further advances can occur, and speeds up the rate of those advances.  And while this acceleration tends to happen in bursts, it’s been a fairly consistent pattern throughout history.

Does this mean the pattern will continue into the future?  No, it doesn’t.  But do I think it’s a pretty plausible guess for how things will go in the near term?  Yes, absolutely.

One last point about theories of the future, a point that I like to drive home whenever possible.  And that is that our future is not an intrinsic feature of the world, merely waiting to be discovered like magnetic fields or the value of G.  It is something we ourselves create, meaning that any given “theory” of the future could potentially be self-fulfilling.  Of course, interfering with the world in order to get the results you’re hoping for is pure anathema to good science… but it is dearly important when ascertaining the future of our humble civilization.

Your turn!  Do you agree?  Have a different take?  Add your thoughts in the comment box below.  And don’t forget to like us on Facebook!

6 thoughts on “Science Vs. The Future

  1. I get your point on this post Scott BUT…I do think that principles of scientific inquiry should be used when thinking about the future nonetheless. And I don’t necessarily agree that theories about the future are unscientific (in all cases). Our ability to accurately forecast grows each year. This is especially true given the types of data-mining and other technologies that are available to us today. Predictive analysis and forecasting are two examples of models that have been developed using principles of science. You mentioned acceleration theory…this is a model developed around sound scientific principles. I think you would agree with me on this but consider this. Scientific research is predicated on the idea that theories are part of the process correct? When we predict the future, are we not simply throwing theories out there just as we have with evolution or the Big Bang? Over time, and with scientific study, we will determine whether these are accurate or not. I think the same applies to futurism as you pointed out. I have to give this post some more thought. Great job as always!

    • That’s true, it’s definitely possible (and important!) to approach future-modelling with scientific rigor and sound principles. Despite the certainty I asserted throughout this post, my own thinking around the issue is still very much evolving.

      Computer modelling is another gray area, in that models can incorporate inputs that haven’t yet exerted a pattern, if the modellers understand the dynamics well enough. Better still, they’re also being constantly refined and updated based on their performance relative to observations. So in some cases they generate highly accurate predictions, which are scientific in a sense. At the same time, they’re still subject to random or even unknown variables that could critically alter the prediction, and the chance of this happening increases we as we extend the model further into the future.

      Perhaps we can say this: we should assert confidence in a particular model roughly in proportion to the time period it extrapolates from. For example, if we say worldwide widget usage will keep going up, based on 100 years worth of observing widgets, then we should apply the model to about 100 years into the future, but not much further. By this standard, technological acceleration is on pretty solid ground in the relatively near term.

      Again, I’m not entirely clear on these issues. All the more reason I appreciate your sharing your thoughts!

  2. Re: “…our future is not an intrinsic feature of the world, merely waiting to be discovered like magnetic fields or the value of G. It is something we ourselves create…” Yes! The future is ours to create! The longer I live the more I believe that individuals and communities have concrete control over our surroundings, depending on our belief systems and our small actions. It’s kind of overwhelming to think about how much power an entire civilization has, but very true and very important.

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