Knowing the Future

Knowing the Future

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Knowledge with some specificity what is going to happen is called  precognition. It is easy to imagine an all-knowing God who, by definition, knows the future also. But do or can human beings have precognition? Even if there is predestination, normally, in the phrase of a popular song, the future’s not ours to see. While we have footprints on the sands of elapsed time, there is no trace of events yet unborn, especially of events in the world of human beings. To be told that one recognizes the marks which will be left by future events sounds like psychic mumble-jumble, unacceptable to rational modes, but not to all, much less at all times.

In an ancient Babylonian tablet we reads the following: “If smoke bunches towards the east and disappears towards the thighs of the baru (priest), you will prevail over your enemy… If it moves to the left, not to the right, your enemy will prevail over you.”

In 2600 BCE beautiful Nefertiti of ancient Egypt is said to have predicted that “A king shall come forth from Upper Egypt called Ameni, the son of a woman of the South.” Ancient Rome had its soothsayers. All through history, knowledge of the future has ranged from the majestic splendor of religious mythology, through foretelling of royal undertakings to newspaper astrology which spells out occurrences in individual lives on the basis of birthdays. The prophesies of Nostradamus are among the best known of these. The interpretations of  his medieval musings by gullible scholars isn’t always amusing.  In the last quarter of the twentieth century, there was panic in California because Nostradamus had written: “A very mighty trembling in the month of May, Saturn in Capricorn, Jupiter and Mercury in Taurus.  Venus also, Cancer, Mars in Virgo, Hail will fall larger than an egg.” It mattered little that such planetary configurations will occur in May only in 3755.

But, basing themselves on the imaginative interpretations by a certain Henry Roberts who believed he was a reincarnation of Nostradamus, movie producers, psuedoscholars and tongue-in-cheek celebrities propagated predictions of seismic catastrophes in California. There was, of course, no rocking of the ground in San Diego or San Francisco.  But it would be rash to bet that astrology and Nostradamus will lose credibility as a result. The clever quatrains of Nostradamus are vague enough to be interpreted to mean many different events of later centuries.  Thus enthusiasts have seen in his lines prophecies about Napoleon and Garibaldi, Hitler and Khrushchev, Roosevelt and Kennedy.

It is not as widely publicized, however, that some of the more precise predictions of the notorious soothsayer never came to pass. He had stated, for example, that Charles IX would live to be 90; actually the man died at 24.  Also, that the king and his son would be murdered, with an expectant queen left behind; that the Inquisition would ban astrology in 1607; that a new Pope would be elected in 1609; etc.  None of these things ever happened. But who remembers!

Nostradamus had also predicted major upheavals (“pestilence, long famine, wars and floods”) on June 22, 1732.  Nothing of the sort occurred.  But then, his prophecies are invariably full of catastrophes and worse: earthquakes, fires from the sky, plagues, pillages, persecutions, poisons, rapes, wars, tyrants and deaths. The man was the most pessimistic prophet that ever let his fancies run wild, though, basing themselves on more concrete data, some moderns have also been predicting a dire future for the human race within a short time.  In fairness, it should also be recalled that practically every ancient and medieval religion spoke of deluge and disasters, false religions and strife that are in store for humanity. Nostradamus did not invent the notion of Armageddon. 

The story of Nostradamus and his admiring interpreters serves as a case history of how myths and mystery permeate human societies.  Capable writers, many of them believers in such matters themselves, pander to the natural propensity of the human mind to revel in magical metaphors, predictive assertions, and supernatural occurrences. Obscurantism has an appeal that not all the rational might of science can extinguish, if only because there is more thrill in groping in the dark than in the impeccable proof that pi is a transcendental number.  Thomas Huxley once said something to the effect that nothing is more painful than the killing of a fanciful dream by the rude awakening wrought by the light of reason. 

While  revered prophets and promising astrologers foretell, there are also some ordinary people who report flashes of events whose actual occurrence they themselves witness only later. Many simple people have had foreboding dreams: dreams that come to pass; prescient insights: vague feelings that something is going to happen, before it actually does; déjà-vu experiences: when encountering something for the first time, one suddenly feels one has gone through it sometime before, without being able to say precisely when or where. Many of these have been reported and recorded. The reports and records have been scientifically studied.

A number of premonitions can be brushed off as fantasies or cute coincidences, but not all. For example, Karl Jung reported that one day when he had had fish for lunch, someone mentioned April fish (poisson d’avril means April Fool in French). He also happened to see an inscription which said about a half-man with the fish at the bottom: Est homo totus medius piscis am imo, with the figure of a merman. Later that day one of his patients showed him some of his paintings: of fish. That night someone showed him an embroidery “with fish-like sea monsters in it.” The next day, another patient whom he had not seen for a long time told him about a dream in which a large fish came ashore and landed at her feet. Jung adds that at that time he was himself working on the theme of the fish symbol in history. This fish story inspired him to coin the term synchronicity for profound and meaningful coincidences, and write a book on the topic.

In most instances these are genuine and deeply felt personal experiences. But one has not been able to either confirm their objective validity, or provide completely scientific explanations for them. Most explanations rely on abnormalities or unusual occurrences in the brain or in psychopathic conditions.  One may wonder whether  the human brain and the related consciousness have capacities of which we are as yet not fully aware. But Richard Dawkins, the incorrigible skeptic who has no tolerance for anything smacking of non-science, is not one to do that. In one of his books there is a chapter on Unweaving the Uncanny to debunk the mystique of coincidences. He coined the word PETWHAC (Population of the Event That Would Have Appeared Coincidental) to explain it all.

Religious leaders prophesy, astrologers foretell, and some simple folk claim to have had premonition. Prophecy, psychic powers, omen-mongering and the like have always appealed to the general public through the ages in all cultures. In every generation serious thinkers and scientists have also been interested in such phenomena, though they have seldom done this as members within practicing scientific circles.