Addiction to Prediction

When you don’t have a television, friends, or family, you have lots of time to read.  At least I do, and lately, I’ve been reading about science and philosophy.

I’ve been trying to understand from a scientific point of view the apparently universal addiction to predictions.  Albert Einstein believed it is the goal of science to predict, as did Isaac Newton.  They believed the laws of the universe could be apprehended and codified mathematically.  This was the basis of Einstein’s discomfort with quantum physics.  That events could not be definitely predicted–only their relative probabilities–led him to insist the theory was “incomplete.”

It could be said the future is incomplete, too, that science and the future will never be finished.  The ancients (and moderns) have a similar argument about God.  If God is perfect, the mover that doesn’t move, as Aristotle believed, or if God is done, complete, finished, and all life is moving toward that ideal, it does imply an end point.

It intrigues me that science has taken on the soothsayer’s cloak, seemingly without awareness that this is the stuff of superstition and mythology.  What’s this preoccupation with the future?  Is the present not good enough?

Quantum mechanics takes a leap by challenging the assumption of predictability.  It also challenges the mechanistic tradition that ousted God or other life force from the cosmos.  It supports my contention that there is no objective reality standing apart and uninvolved.  The experiment is a creation of the experimenter.

The most significant distinction, here, to me, is that quantum mechanics turns conventional views of science’s predictive aspirations upside down.  The cosmos is unpredictable.  We are floating in an ocean of probabilities punctuated with unlikely events.

We can predict with relative certainty that all our bodies are going to die, but no one can predict how or when.  Those who commit suicide may on some level want to decide the method and timing.  Those who “live dangerously” increase the probability that the how and when will occur dramatically and sooner rather than later.

Psychologically, the admission by scientists and mathematicians that life is unpredictable, that nature, the universe, and even electrons pulsate to their own rhythms–despite the rules mankind wants to impose on them–rattles the cages of the concrete thinkers who believe reality consists of rules.  It’s possible that the theologically inclined and the philosophers are more mentally nimble with respect to probabilities, possibilities, and the unexpected.  The people who believe miracles are possible, that prayer works, that all is not what it seems, might delight in the idea of a probable universe of infinite variability.

It seems science has painted itself into a corner by creating a construct that has little relevance to life.  Will Durant, in The Story of Philosophy, looks to Francis Bacon–who wanted to compile all human knowledge and saw science as the guiding light of the future–as a kind of messenger.  Durant praises Bacon’s vision but notes Bacon was not familiar with the scientists of his own time, like Kepler and Harvey.  His enthusiasm was ideological, not practical.  But Durant also suggests the idea of world rule by scientists instead of politicians is laudable.  According to me, Durant is idealistic himself.  Scientists in politics become politicians, as indicated by the current controversy over global warming or “climate change.”  According to the media-digested and regurgitated “statistics” or “evidence,” scientists speak with one voice.  Dissenters are ignored, discredited, or otherwise cast into the dustbin of irrational heretics.

My point, which I keep skirting, is that today’s science is not my version of “science,” so maybe I should respect Socrates’ insistence on strict definitions.  In our world, scientists as a group are accorded the awe and respect formerly reserved for gods, but who can define what “science” or “a scientist” is?

The Latin root for “science,” is “sciere,” or “to know,” so it presumes nothing about forecasts.  Aristotle made observations and used inductive reasoning to synthesize what he observed into an organized framework.

My dictionary says science is “knowledge obtained by study and practice.”  It also refers to systematized knowledge and classification.  By that definition, any organized body of knowledge could be a “science.”  The dictionary refers to the “science of boxing.”

Also by that definition, anyone who studies and uses a certain skill or set of skills can call himself a scientist.  The science of carpentry, the science of advertising, and of course, political science.  The “scientific method” need not apply.

My definition starts with the scientific method, which uses deductive reasoning to establish a hypothesis and seek evidence pro and con.  To establish cause and effect in a controlled experiment, the variables must be artificially reduced to one.  There is a “study” group and a “control” group, with the numbers in each group great enough to produce statistically significant differences between the groups, should differences exist.  So “scientific research,” at least in modern terms, only seeks to predict probabilities, like quantum physics does.

I have oft-expressed doubts about whether the scientific method is valid for obtaining knowledge that can be generalized outside the experiment, but this is the method used in medical research, at least.  The idea of causation, the motivation to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and the factors that might affect the outcome are arbitrarily chosen.

Does any effect have a single cause?  Here I have perhaps a broader view than most, yet I’m subject to “because” thinking, myself.  I figure it’s so much a part of traditional Western thought processes that many are not even aware of its subliminal effect on how we structure reality.  As I read the ideas of philosophers through time, I see they, too, sought causes for the effects they observed.  This correlated with beliefs in God, or nature worship, or superstitions and mythology.  The idea of an unseen hand directing the forces of nature and thereby life on earth, reveals the human desire to understand.

Quantum mechanics and the Oriental pattern-based approach to understanding shakes the cause-and-effect pedestal.  It no longer reigns absolute in a world in which correlations are given at least as much intellectual weight as presumed causes.

I wonder about such taken-for-granted notions as the speed of light.  How do they know it travels at 186,000 miles/second?  Who discovered that and how was it proved?  How does anyone know that’s the absolute speed limit of the cosmos?

It’s hard to know where hypothesis or mathematical conjecture ends and proof or answers begin.  So much is assumed to be true, until it no longer is, like the world is flat or evolution is a fact.

Are concepts of space and time even legitimate when considering the scope of the universe?  I wonder if any answer will satisfy the questioners.  Aren’t answers just the flip sides of the next questions, or series of questions?

Another serious limitation of the scientific method, especially as it’s applied to natural phenomena or human activity, is that you can’t know what might have been.  There are no alternative scenarios with which to judge and compare.  This is my dilemma with historical trends and concepts like man-made climate change.

Ex-post facto justification for historical events—like dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan—rely on the propaganda generated by “our side” about what might have happened instead.  “The Japanese would never have capitulated,” or “We saved thousands of American lives” are excuses I’ve heard numerous times.  Fact is, nobody knows what might have happened.  It is not given to us to know the results of unrealized action.

The disconnect between science and life also bugs me.  Thomas Hobbes tried to apply scientific principles to human behavior for a model of government.  I suppose the “behavioral sciences” also strive to fit human behavior into scientific models.  This seems backwards.  The deductive method tries to exclude too much and risks being blind-sided by factors it chooses not to see.

My study of astrology made me wary of predictions long ago.  People want and crave predictions, but “good” or “bad” forecasts both put binders on the future and restrict imagination regarding alternative possibilities.  “Science” might be more useful to humanity by broadcasting its knowledge of the present and leaving predictions to the fortune tellers.

11 thoughts on “Addiction to Prediction

  1. Rosaliene Bacchus

    The survival of the human species depended upon understanding and predicting natural events that affected and continue to affect our day to day lives. If it appears that we’ve become addicted to predictions, I’d say that it’s humanity’s way of beating the odds.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      I’ve been wondering where it began, and I think it began with watching solar and lunar cycles to create calendars and predict the seasons, for travel (as in full moons) and for agriculture. I want to look more into that.

      1. katharineotto Post author

        I started but did not finish a library book by an astronomer/archaeologist who wrote about some of those sites in North America. I’ve been thinking about checking that book out again.

  2. Sha'Tara

    Isn’t it the more technologically ‘advanced’ who are addicted to predictions? I suggest that ‘it began’ with Homo Sapiens attempting to calculate the return of the ‘planet of the gods’ after these had left the Earthians to their own devices with a promise by some that they would return ‘in time.’ The same belief is carried on within Christianity, Judaism and perhaps Islam… but it is a common thread throughout the world. Be that as it may (I always allow myself to think outside the box) what people today call science is little more than forms of technology, the advance of the machine world that has no feeling for either mankind or nature. This science writes a best seller with some sort of instructions on how to build something (the atom bomb) and long before the negative effects of that ‘something’ have manifested, has gone on to write more and more remunerative best sellers, particularly among the military-industrial cartels and capitalistic consumerism. This is a false science that takes not the least responsibility for the effects created by its best sellers.

    1. katharineotto Post author

      That’s one of the things that bugs me about modern science, too. It’s mechanistic approach chooses not to consider morality or long-term consequences, if those could be known. I think about such things as genetic engineering. But too, any knowledge can be misused. Nuclear energy: power plants, atomic bombs, radiation therapy.

      1. Sha'Tara

        We must be wary of too many neutralizing euphemisms in our current use of language. The turn against the Christian religion along with political correctness is causing havoc with meaningful dialogue. Whether you call it ignorance and I call it evil, the result is exactly the same and when it comes to problems I’m only interested in two things: where they source from and what degeneration they cause within society. So back to the question, is man as a species essentially evil or ignorant? No, using “ignorant” doesn’t work for me. Ignorant is not synonymous with evil, or “sinfulness”. Selfishness would be much closer to what I mean since volition is involved. With ignorance there is no volition, no choice and if there is a choice then it can no longer be honestly defined as ignorance and I would argue thus in a court of law.
        Are we to argue that despite all the teachings on proper conduct and morality throughout the centuries man remains “ignorant” that his selfish conduct results in so much oppression, suppression, imprisonment, torture, racism, misogyny, rape, war and war crimes, famine, genocide and other forms of violent death on this world? Are we to whitewash these acts by saying that man doesn’t know any better? That man is in essence an innocent in his enjoyed display of bestiality and brutality?

      2. katharineotto Post author

        I always enjoy your point of view, but there are many perspectives. While I can’t deny that all the problems you mention exist, I don’t know of anyone who would claim this is good, so there is a moral sense, even if people feel helpless to change what they see as wrong. It is all a learning process, and one of maturation, and light dispelling dark. We are trapped in context, so it’s hard to remember we are only an eye-blink in the great glut of time. To hold to an ideal takes fortitude. It’s easy to get discouraged.

      3. Sha'Tara

        Easy to get discouraged… yes it is if one insists on remaining within the programming – the commonly accepted slough where crocodalian belief systems wallow in lazy shallows within easy reach of a guaranteed prey. The real excitement begins when the programming is broken and that first breath of fresh air is taken in. Ideals are useless and powerless since they rely on input from outside the self. Admiration, adulation, followed by wishful thinking – not the way to evolve. What comes after mental freedom is achieved is giving oneself a life purpose then going on to live that purpose.
        Regarding that moral sense, yes there is such a thing in individuals but never in collectives. If you question individuals about a mass shooting, chances are very few will think it a good thing. Now question a country about engaging in an undeclared, illegal war (say Iraq) and the murder of millions of helpless victims and few will think it is a bad thing. The problem Katharine, is not recognizing the difference between an individual and a group, mob, cult, nationalist sentiment or any process from any collective. When I state without qualms that Earthians LOVE violence, I know I am correct. I do not look at individuals, I look at their performance within their collectives. I look at their wars, their oppression of weaker members of their civilization, their suppression of freedom; their exploitation and enslavement. I look at collective (power) brutality. Governments are corrupt and brutal and they represent the people, therefore the people are in collusion with whatever their government does. This is particularly true of any democracy. What individuals think or believe is irrelevant when they participate in violent collective behaviour and do stand up for what they personally believe. We know what happens to people who do stand for truth and justice: both Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange are in jail in democracies that should be hailing them as heroes. They exposed the violence and brutality of the State and are paying the martyrs’ price for it. Where are the voices of those individuals who do not agree with violence? I rest my case.

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