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Avital Pinnick

The more uncertain the future becomes, the more eager we are to predict it. From interest rates to COVID to Ukraine to climate change, there is never any shortage of authoritative voices telling us what is going to happen next, almost all of them wrong. History tells us that even enormously important events are rarely foreseen — the French Revolution of 1789 for example, or the First World War, or the Russian invasion of Ukraine — they all took the world by surprise, as did the Vietnam War and the collapse of the cryptocurrency racket. The last one hasn’t quite happened yet, but I confidently predict that it will — although I could be wrong.

Of course, we know that common sense based on facts and experience can foresee the future in a limited way: for example, the prediction that the cat will sleep on my clean shirt. This will invariably be true if I have both a cat and a clean shirt. Everybody knows that.

But the daily news is filled with unverifiable speculations about what might happen, most of them no more reliable than tips on a horse race. Who will win this or that election? What will the price of gasoline be next week? When will Texas declare independence? Nobody knows because the answers are in the future and, no matter how much we talk about it, we can’t see the future.

We hate uncertainty — of course we do. We hate to accept that the future is unknowable. Hence the eternal appeal of prophecy. Prophets have always found an audience, and the whole of human history has been plagued by imposters who claim to read the future from Tarot cards, star charts, palms, crystal balls, dice and sacrificial entrails.

Prophecy today hides under quasi-scientific names such as “forecasting” or “statistical prediction,” or in medicine, “prognosis.” Algorithms, artificial intelligence and vast collections of data are deployed to reveal the mysteries of the future, but the results are not much better than the poetic guesswork of Nostradamus. Perhaps our world is just not designed to be predictable. Some physicists argue that, at the sub-atomic level, nothing can be predicted at all. In other words, our universe is chaotic all the way down, which makes a lot of sense when you contemplate the news of the day.

A group of scientists in England once studied what they called “premonitions.” A premonition is the simplest and most basic kind of prophecy — a dream or vision that predicts an actual event, often a disaster. The “Premonitions Bureau,” which was active in the 1960s, collected a large archive of examples, many of them striking and hard to explain, and their work is now the subject of a book. I had a premonition myself once, and it saved me from a serious accident. But if one such premonition in a lifetime happens to be true, and all the rest false, does it prove anything? A single genuine glimpse of the future would upset our entire view of the universe, with catastrophic results. Think what it would mean for the gambling industry.

So, when it comes to seeing into the future, we have many questions and virtually no answers. The only single prophecy, prediction, speculation, forecast or guess that never fails is that things will get worse before they get better. But everybody knows that.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.