To Know the Future

The following post is based off a philosophy journal entry I wrote for my Grade 12 Philosophy class, taught by Brian Wildfong.


It’s impossible to know the future.

It’s common cliché that it’s “impossible” to know the future. I don’t agree. For some events, I have strong beliefs about the outcome. When I drop a book, for example, I know that it will fall, even though the event hasn’t happened yet. It would be impossible to live life without being able to predict the future. I know that if I leave the ground, then I will fall back down. If I didn’t know that, then I would risk floating off into space every time I take a step while walking!

I think that the future is at least as knowable as the past. Skeptics may argue that something important could change that invalidates all my predictions. They may contend that if I haven’t seen it happen, then I can’t possibly know that it will happen. But the same skeptics could detract from knowing events in the past as well. Let’s say that I just dropped a book. How do I know that I dropped a book? Maybe my memory is faulty, so I can’t rely on that. Sure, there’s a book on the ground, but maybe someone else put it there—or maybe I’m hallucinating and there isn’t actually a book on the ground. Even an event that happened seconds ago can’t be knowable from a radical skeptic’s perspective.

Such a perspective, in my opinion, is useful only as a thought experiment. It reduces all that one can know to meaningless statements, like “I perceive a book,” or perhaps tautologies like “Either this object exists or it does not exist,” or “If he is real, then he exists.” Some might accept certain innate ideas like “One plus one is two”. And the super-radical skeptic may even dispute the validity of all those statements. What’s the use of knowledge if it can’t apply to the real world, but only some abstract world of Forms, or if it can’t even apply to the world of Forms?

Some would suggest that knowledge implies certain truth, and I disagree with that. I think that requiring certainty for knowledge is absurd. I’m not certain that other people actually exist (maybe this is all a dream), and if someone doesn’t exist then they can’t know anything. I’m not certain that my senses aren’t deceiving me, so I’d have to accept that none of my experiences are knowledge. I’m not certain that I’m sane either, so I can’t accept anything that my logical reasoning suggests is true. Under this definition, there is no knowledge—nobody knows anything. There are already plenty of synonyms for “nothing”, so with that definition “knowledge” becomes just an unfortunate waste of a word.

If it’s probably true (for a very high standard of “probably”), then I would classify it as knowledge. That means that I believe that the future is knowable. I know that there will be a solar eclipse on March 9, 2016 and that it will be seen across Indonesia, because astronomical calculations have shown that. I accept that there’s a non-zero probability that it won’t be true: perhaps the sun will disappear before then, or the astronomical calculations (that have worked for thousands of years) are wrong, or Santa Claus will intervene and prevent the solar eclipse. But then again, maybe I’m just a brain in a vat. Life is too short to consider the non-zero but practically-zero probability that the underlying assumptions I make about the world are false.

This is the interpretation of knowledge accepted by B. F. Skinner, who classified knowledge into three kinds: acquaintance (having experienced an event), description (reading or hearing about an event), or prediction (to believe a future event). Skinner accepted that prediction may be the least reliable form of knowledge, but Skinner argued that it is in fact the most useful form of knowledge. Only with prediction can we decide on the best course of action. Many of the major problems plaguing today’s world are due to past mistakes made due to either incorrect predictions about consequences or not predicting the consequences (Skinner 105).

I know some things about the future, and I think what I know about the future is indeed the most important kind of knowledge. In the end, other forms of knowledge serve as a foundation for the kind of knowledge that helps us make the right choices: knowledge by prediction.

Works Cited

Skinner, B. F. “To know the future.” The Behavior Analyst 13.2 (1990): 103.

Advertisements