28 April 2011

from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting, at the CENTRO SEGOVIANO + Is the future predictable?

New Location + essay

Dear friends,
First of all, I am extremely grateful to all of you who have suggested
and gone out your way to find a new location for the meeting. And for
those leads that I could check out please accept my sincerest apologies.
Last Sunday, we finally agreed that we should go to the Centro Segoviano
for our meetings. At least to see how things go and then decide what to
do next after the summer holidays. So this Sunday we are meeting at the
Centro Segoviano at 6:30pm. The address of the Centro is:
Centro Segoviano
Alburquerque, 14
28010 Madrid
Metro: Bilbao
The door is on the left, then go upstairs. On the right there is a
restaurant and in the basement there is, as many would know, Clamores.

Is the future predictable?

On the 7 May 1711 one of the most important philosophers, ever, was
born. His main issues in philosophy are as fundamental and relevant
today as they were during the time he was alive. And one of those issues
concerns the future. Of course, I am referring to David Hume, who,
amongst other things, gave us the induction problem. But I do not
propose to write an essay about Hume, but only to show that the topic of
the future is immensely important.
But our question is asking a metaphysical enquiry into the subject and
not an epistemological issue. However, I hope to show that questions
about the future are a single question that implies both metaphysical
and epistemic consideration at the same time. Maybe another sort of duality.
So if the metaphysical question is precisely the one we are discussing,
what is the epistemic question? This question would be: can we predict
the future? Which is a very different question from the metaphysical
And to compound the issue, the future problem, a term I will use to
refer to issues relating to the future, is very much a language problem.
And indeed one of these language problems about the future is precisely
the meaning of future. What do we mean by future? And by meaning I don't
mean a dictionary definition of meaning but rather a conceptual meaning.
One of the possible meanings of future is the state of the world as it
will be found in a time that still has to come. So when I say that the
25 of December 2011 is Christmas, I am saying that the world we live in
will have a serious of events that collectively are called Christmas.
Another meaning of future is whether a certain type of event will happen
in a time yet to come. For example, will we ever meet an alien from
another planet? Or closer to us, will each of us ever have a life style
of a carefree millionaire? Will there ever be a twelve meter tsunami in
We can also interpret the future to mean whether something that happened
regularly in past will continue to happen in the future. Precisely the
induction problem, or at least an aspect of the problem, that Hume
referred to. For example, will it always be the case that a larger
massed body will attract a small mass body through the force of gravity?
We might argue that Christmas means the 25th December and therefore this
is not really a good example of the future. I will concede that there is
an element of analytical meaning in what happens on the 25th December.
But it is these type of events that really concern us in everyday life.
Will I have a good Christmas this year? Will it rain when I'm on
holiday? Will I win the lottery? Will I catch the bus?
No doubt it will be useful if this type of future can be predictable and
even more useful if we can predict it for ourselves. But here we come
across anther language problem with future. There is a difference
between what is 'going to' happen in a specific time and on a specific
date and what 'can' happen in a specific time and date.
Even if we accept that 'what is going to happen on a specific date and
time' and 'what is going to happen in a time that still yet to come' are
both synonymous, the chances of being accurate to within a specific date
seems to be quite a different exercise than just predicting an event by
excluding the time factor. But if we exclude the time factor from the
future what are we left with?
For example, predicting that on the 1st January 2011, that on the 11
March 2011 there was going to be a 9.0 earthquake in Japan followed by a
cataclysmic tsunami is a different type of prediction from predicting on
1/1/2011 that there will be a 9.0 earthquake in Japan followed by a
cataclysmic tsunami. In the latter case we have no problem recognising
the eventuality but not in the former case.
Given that we can predict say eclipses, tides and sunrises to the minute
what is stopping us from predicting earthquakes? Indeed, if we can
predict tides than we can claim that the future is predictable, or at
least part of it. Could it be that tides are much easier to predict than
earthquakes, or is there a different dynamic going on when we study
Our instinct tells us that earthquakes are just more complex than say
tides and therefore maybe they are even beyond predicting, but not
necessarily unpredictable.
Hence, with tides et al we have a case of the future (or part there of)
being predictable and that we know how to predict them. But is this
enough to suggest that in principle at least, all physical events are
predictable and in principle we can predict all physical events.
It seems to be quite reasonable to suggest that if something is
predictable, then in principle we can predict it. Of course, this does
not mean that we are going to predict everything or that we have the
means to predict everything. But this is the issue, if physical events
are predictable, then can we predict all physical events? Even if for
the time being we do not complicate the issue with quantum mechanics
even if QM seems to be at the heart of everything.
Tides and eclipses seem to be types of events that are predictable not
only in the first meaning of predictable i.e. give a date and time but
also in the third meaning of future. That is regularity of certain events.
So what do I mean by: if something is predictable then can we predict
it? On the one hand this means that given certain repeatable causal
events then the effects associated with those causal event will happen.
The problem here is that we tend to speak of these events in isolation.
We speak of earthquakes and not movements of tectonic plates, as
scientists do. And this again is a language problem.
Philosophically and I am sure scientifically, it does not make sense to
reduce an issue to just a few events. It just does not make sense to
speak of say tides without the sun, the volume of water in the sea, the
size of the earth, and the whole caboose.
In a way our knowledge on how things (admittedly certain things) work,
say tides, takes into account the rest of the system leaving us to
isolate the relevant facts for our purposes. For example, if we ask when
is it high tide in La Coruña or Dover? We do not need to start by
considering how the universe was formed. We understand the word 'tide'
because there are scientists who understand how heavenly bodies
influence water.
So instead of speaking of reductionism we can speak of neighbourhood
causal events to make things practical. What I mean here is that instead
of assessing the whole cosmological system to explain tides we only need
to assess the immediate causes of tides: water, latitude, moon, season
and so on.
But this is a problem for us, first how big or small does our
neighbourhood have to be to be enable us to say that something is
predictable and that we can predict it? And secondly the bigger the
neighbourhood the more factors there are to include or exclude in our
calculations. The first problem seems to require experiment, whilst the
second problem would require a lot of time to work out.
For example, it is quite manageable to predict which restaurant a group
of five friends might choose to go to for lunch, but it is quite another
if that group was fifty or sixty persons. The problem with these two
groups is that we can safely speak of which restaurant the small group
might decide to go to, but asking the large group where they want to go,
is, I suggest, beyond predictable.
So the question where shall we go for lunch we might predict what the
small group will say, but the dynamics of the large group are such that
you cannot employ the method from the small group to the large group.
Hence, the two questions, 'where will the small group go for lunch?' and
'where will the large group go for lunch? 'although they look
grammatically similar, the implied analysis required in answering them
are as far apart as one end of a galaxy from the other.
Thus a game theory matrix might work for the five person group and then
propose a restaurant or maybe two to be on the safe side. But with the
group of fifty you just have to suggest one or two locations and hope
for the best, or simply one parson suggests a specific place.
Let us now look at another language issue. It is very common for people
to qualify predictions about the future with statements such as "if
nature does not change" or "a change in nature made it impossible to
predict something." For example, some might say that in the past it was
possible to predict the weather but today nature has changed so much
that we cannot predict anything any more.
The flaw with this argument is of course the assumption that nature has
changed and not us. In reality it is us who have changed, specifically
our epistemic state. So when nature changes we change. But change
doesn't mean that things stopped happening as they did in the past,
gravity will still pull down, it's not going to start pushing up. What
change means is that certain new causal events have been introduced in
such a way that maybe the effects of other causal events we are familiar
with have been neutralised. The problem with reductionism is us and not
Let me move on to another language issue. Part of the meaning of future
is that something (some things) And 'has not yet happened 'implies it
does not exist, or has not yet existed. The next tsunami off the shores
of Japan has not taken place, hence it does not exits, or has not yet
existed. But given how the tectonic plates of the shores of Japan
interact, the next tsunami off the shore of Japan is more than certain,
it just has to happen. And language wise, if something has to happen it
is as good as if it happened; of course other things being equal.
But the real problem about the future is, of course, the future does not
exist. The next tsunami that will hit Japan has not yet happened, but of
course we know that there will be another tsunami off the shores of Japan.
Could it be that issues about predicting the future are not really
metaphysical issues about nature, but simply epistemic issues about us,
especially how we use language. Thus, when we ask 'is the future
predictable', we are also asking 'can we predict the future.' So the
answer to the question 'is the future predictable?' the answer is yes,
but the question 'can we predict the future?' is not about the future
but really about us. And the instances when we can predict the future is
probably luck or the product of hard work trying to understand how
nature works.
Thus a question such as "is the future predictable?" is really two
question in one; something like a liquor filled chocolate. The outside
or surface is chocolate, but the core is liquor. Thus, 'is the future
predictable?' is a question about nature, but the core of the question
is an epistemological question about us.
The reason why the future is predictable is because nature does not
change its ways. Of course, this statement goes against the spirit of
quantum mechanics and maybe even mathematical chaos. In the first case
nothing is certain until we check and in the latter case not only
nothing is certain going forward, but we cannot even go backwards. So
how can something be predictable under these conditions?
Once again, the problem in my opinion is one of language. QM, chaos and
all random events are no less part of nature than the moon and the grass
hopper in the field. We speak of things such as chaos and grasshoppers
to satisfy our neighbourhood mind set, but the word 'nature' implies
everything from one end of the universe to the other.
Nature is the set of all sets and QM and grass hoppers are subsets of
this big set. However, I would argue that the idea of the future is a
subset of our brain. And this is where the duality or the simultaneous
metaphysical and empirical issue I mentioned in the introduction is
relevant. The brain is a physical entity well established as part of the
set of nature, but "the future" is a language entity with the epistemic
meaning of something yet to happen. Hence, the epistemic aspect of the
question: the core if you like.
To put the whole issue in colloquial language, the future is a figment
of our imagination. But what are not figments of our imagination are
tsunamis, tides, tax bills and the wife's birthday.
Take care,
from Lawrence, this Sunday meeting, at the CENTRO SEGOVIANO + Is the
future predictable?

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