What the Future Holds

06 January 2020

This holiday season has been the end of an extraordinarily exhausting, pedal-to-the-metal year. After the tsunami of papers to be graded, and urgent writing projects to be attended to and set aside, my philosopher spouse and I finally had the mental and emotional space to relax, hang out with each other, and indulge in the yearly ritual of binge-watching a TV series.  

This year, we chose HBO’s The Leftovers. The story concerns the sudden disappearance of two percent of the world’s population, and the struggles of those who remain—the “leftovers” of the series’ title—to make sense of and come to terms with what has happened. While watching it, my mind kept wandering back to traumatic events that took place in my own life and in the lives of my friends that we could never have anticipated: a serious automobile accident, the abrupt and savage destruction of a seemingly secure and loving relationship, an assault, a rape, the diagnosis of a terminal illness, the death of a dear friend. When such things happen, the regularities of life—the daily routines and expectations that cement our lives into a unity—seem to go up in smoke. Events like these can have destructive consequences far beyond what’s immediate. When what you thought was solid ground beneath your feet turns out to be quicksand, nothing, it seems, can be relied upon anymore. If this can happen, then anything can happen.

The Leftovers is such compelling viewing because it addresses a key feature of the human condition: the pervasive contingencies and uncertainties of life, the ongoing possibility of things happening to us that we can neither anticipate not encompass. One of the traditional roles of philosophy has been to help us to address and come to terms with these features of our existence. For instance, the Roman writer Boethius wrote his literary masterpiece Consolation of Philosophy while on death row. At the peak of a stellar career in philosophy and government, he was convicted on trumped-up charges of treason and sentenced to death. In his book, Boethius describes being visited by Lady Philosophy, who instructs him on life and fate. 

Much more recently, philosophers working in the existentialist tradition have made such matters part of their principal philosophical focus. But for the most part, these philosophers do not move me, either emotionally and intellectually. Instead, I turn to my intellectual hero David Hume for guidance. This might sound like a bizarre choice. Hume was an eighteenth-century empiricist, whose work is often seen as rather dry, analytical, and miles away from existential concerns. The part of his work that I think is most helpful in this connection is his analysis of what’s called the problem of induction.

The problem of induction is the problem of drawing conclusions about the future on the basis of what’s happened in the past. Here’s an example. I live in New England, a region that’s well known for its spectacular displays of fall foliage. It’s winter now, and the trees are bare, but I’m sure that once October rolls around again these same trees will be a riot of color. Why do I think so? It’s because every past fall has seen the New England leaves turn bright colors, and it’s because of this robust pattern that I’m confident that the same will occur next fall. In other words, I’ve reasoned my way from past observations to future ones. This sort of reasoning is called induction

Induction is central to the practice of science because scientists draw general conclusions—which include conclusions about unobserved cases—on the basis of a limited number of observations. The claim that a certain disease (say, plague) is caused by a certain bacterium (Yersinia pestis) is supposed to apply to every case of that disease that has ever existed or will ever exist, even though only a small fraction of them has ever been scientifically investigated. And it’s also an indispensable component of our everyday lives, which we conduct against a backdrop of taken-for-granted beliefs about life’s constants.

The problem of induction (or one might say, the problem with induction) is that there’s no logical basis for drawing conclusions about what will happen in the future on the basis of what’s happened in the past. Doing so rests on the assumption that that things will continue rolling out in just the same way as they did before. That’s at best a leap of faith and at worst an example of intellectual laziness. You might reply “I know that the leaves will turn orange next October because they’ve done so every October for as long as records have been kept!” But that wouldn’t address the problem, because the fact that something has been observed before—no matter how many times and how consistently—doesn’t say anything about what will happen in the future. And if you think that the laws of nature can underwrite inductive inferences, then think again. The laws of nature are just patterns that have held up until now. But that doesn’t guarantee that they’ll continue to hold  tomorrow. 

Hume helps us to recognize that although we wouldn’t be able to navigate through life without assuming that the patterns of the past will persist into the future, such assumptions are at best insecure. As I write these words, we are at the start of a new year and the dawn of a new decade. Many of us have made plans, formulated resolutions, and wondered what life will be throwing in our path, both as individuals and collectively. But Hume teaches us that even though life requires us to devise plans that are founded on what we believe will lie ahead, at any moment the unprecedented can erupt into our lives, and we can therefore never be certain of what the future holds.


Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

Comments (2)

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 -- 5:10 AM



Why do things repeat? Why are kinds of things similar? Is there reason or purpose in these repetitions and similarities?

Come back from the edge my good man.

Read on past Hume, or at least causally intuit his purpose. I would direct you to C.D. Broad's The Relation between Induction and Probability--(Part II.). Mind New Series, Vol. 29, No. 113 (Jan., 1920), pp. 11-45 (35 pages). The last part of that is our common project in all of Philosophy and dare I say Math. Oh god, I did dare.

We can be certain of some things. Why repetition emerges from quantum randomness - at least we are Godel and certain we will never know.

There is some logical beauty in the whole thing even if we never understand its purpose.

I don't care for your morosity but I will share that my wife, daughter and I binged Ms. Maisel this holiday. Therein we did determine; the importance of being there, the importance of being earnest and the importance of being kind. I'm not sure I can explain that without getting way off track but let me segue my way through.

Being There by Jerzy Kosinki might lighten our 2020. We all garden. Sometimes the owner of our garden dies and we have to move on. We do. Life is a state of mind. We should chance it.

The importance of Being Earnest by Wilder. What a great play. If we don't know the future, well at least let us enjoy the metaphors. Sincerity is the heart of the matter.

Kindness, well not so much though between family members always appreciated.

All three of these were brought out by our binge of Ms. Maisel. Art inspires eruptions of its own provenance that in turn suggests inductive truth in our own lives. Hume never had it so good.

It we knew the future... well what is the fun in that? Surely when the singularity comes about that mind will know the future best. That mind will know the reasons for the past. When asked, that mind will give you reasons for every present action. But I don't think that mind will ever know the future. In fact I am certain of that. Still I would aspire to that knowing.

I'm happy to share the repetitions with you and this essay. It is what it is all about.

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 -- 12:40 PM

With Hume, and others of his

With Hume, and others of his time, (and as in previous ones), the problem was not whether they could posit anything substantial about the future, but whether they had enough technology to underpin the limited science which was developing among the minds of thinkers such as Copernicus; Galileo. Newton, et al. We have the advantages of progress that those societies had no real notion of. The turbulent times of the Enlightenment were ripe for great philosophers' pronouncements about government and a host of other issues. Men like Newton and Leibniz were rare. We have (we think) the luxury of taking science for granted, whereas in Hume's time (and before), philosophy and science had the burden of patronizing the Church or suffering dire consequences. I, for one, would not have wanted to be around then...although, I'll admit, it must have been, uh, interesting.