We Can’t Stop Thinking About the Future

In Sapiens, Yuval Harari tells a story of history in which homo sapiens evolved (culturally, not genetically) from foragers to farmers. But it is also a story of how we came to fear the future. As foragers, we took what nature offered us, moving from place to place to do so; so that if one area were scarce with resources, we would move somewhere else, always living in the moment. During our slow transition to farming, we offered ourselves a dream: That through hard work, we could ensure enough food for ourselves and for future generations to come. But the dream had consequences. As we invested more time into farming, we became more reliant on it. Our land was fragile, something which if lost to invaders, would kill us. It could also suffer in bad years from the climate, something on which our seasons of labor were also dependent. With all this anxiety about what we could provide for the future, about when seasons would arrive, and about how to defend against invaders and pests, we also had an additional cause for concern: We could do something about it. We could always “clear another field, dig another irrigation canal, sow more crops.” In this narrative, the dream we chased 10,000 years ago gave us more hopes, but also more responsibilities to take on, leaving us with ever more tasks and anxieties about the future.

Today, while most of our concerns don’t have to do with farming, we stress about our long-term plans for education, employment, relationships, housing, and so on. The concept behind our worries is similar to that of our ancestors, at least according to Harari’s account. Our futures are liable to uncertainty, and we feel that we can do something about them.

Often, we just want a prediction, to know what the future holds before we act. Today, we may ask, ‘What will be the growth of the stock market in the next year,’ or ‘Who will win the election?’ They sound straightforward, yet in some ways are as uncertain as the predictions our ancestors wished for millennia ago. Dr. Mark Lilla makes excellent comparisons between ancient forecasting practices and modern-day ones, like political forecasting, in this NYT column. The simple truth is this: We do not know what the future looks like. We cannot know from looking at the past, or the present; all we can do is follow practical models and adapt.

In the most abstract sense, David Hume explains this well. If one releases an apple five times and it falls every time, he still does not know if it will fall on the sixth. Rather than observing a law that says, ‘when an apple is dropped, it will fall,’ he is observing a conjunction of events: five instances of an apple falling after it is released. It does not matter if he drops it 1000 more times; all he can see is that it falls each time, but he cannot be sure that it will not fly upwards on the 1001st time. The rule that it must fall each time is therefore an idea he creates, not something he observes. This is a very philosophical way of saying we cannot use past events to literally predict the future.

Yet, in more practical scenarios, this is borne out. In a commentary of The Intelligent Investor, Jason Zweig mentions a 1998 hedge fund run by “a battalion of mathematicians, computer scientists, and two Nobel-Prize-winning economists.” Surely, if anyone were to have reason to be extremely scrupulous in their predictions for the future, it would be those investing large sums of money; and who better to succeed than a group of brilliant minds? Yet, in a bet that the bond market would return to normal, the hedge fund lost $2 billion in several weeks. This was not uncommon; many investment groups during this time placed high bets on internet and technology stocks, and terribly lost their bets when the dot-com bubble burst. In other words, statistical models of past information could not predict the future.

For some of us, this shines an unflattering light on our personal lives. If we want to be professional dancers, will we find success in the spotlight? If we pursue a degree in coding, will that be an easy path to high-paying employment by the time we graduate? What industries will stay, and which will go? The anxiety we produce from questions like these is enough to cripple us.

But yet, these questions do not have finished answers. Unlike apples, which—as far as we know—have fallen every time we dropped them, at least on Earth …  humans and at least some other animals have a special form of autonomy. If we wish to be dancers, we do not have to pray then lie down, letting the world make us stars if it wishes, or homeless persons otherwise. In many ways, while we cannot guess what the rest of the world will be like, we have the conscious choice to make our own futures, and shape those of the things within our control.

To think otherwise is tempting. Some of us feel overwhelmed with the prospect of the unknown, and somewhere in the process, resign ourselves from agency—seeing ourselves as the victims of change which is responsible for the faults in our own lives. For some of us, the pain of having no agency in a perilous future is perhaps less than the pain of having agency in that future—the pain of responsibility. This is, of course, the same pain our ancestors felt.

If we cannot know what the future is like, and can only try to influence some part of it, it is helpful to come up with ways to help us to do. We can come to enjoy the process of creating the future, developing an attitude in which it is in line with our fulfillment. Or, if we cannot enjoy a certain path of future-creation, then we can remain adaptable and choose another path we do enjoy—homo sapiens is, after all, a remarkably resilient species which has dominated the food chain for millennia. When all else fails, there are some thoughts that can help us in acting.

One thought concerns our perceptions of the future. The pain we feel from fear of it is often worse than what it will actually be, and this pain often causes us to stop ourselves before we start. Marcus Aurelius understood this at his old age when he wrote the Meditations, so many of his notes to himself were to positively shape his views on the inevitable future—his own death. For example, one of his views on death was that it was a natural process, by which the material composing one’s body was recycled upon his death to create something new. By not allowing himself to be paralyzed by the prospect of the future, he was able to focus on leading and staying in the moment. When fear about a task takes over, one of his quotes is instructive:

“Ask: What is so unbearable about this situation? Why can’t you endure it? You will be embarrassed to answer.”

Among their other thoughts, this was a pillar of Stoic thought: The future will come whether one wants it or not, and he can either do what nature asks of him and accept it, or be dragged along.

This can be especially vivid when we want to retreat to the past. Sometimes, when the future is overwhelming, we wish for a return to ‘normalcy’ or otherwise lose ourselves in nostalgia. But going to the past is one thing we cannot do. time carries us along with it, changing our bodies, minds, and environments. If any of those three were to return to its previous state, there no guarantee that it would match with the other two in their present states. A friend recently told me she wished she were more like her past self, which was more athletic, had more friends, and was better looking. As I pointed out, it was her past self which reacted unfavorably to her environment that made her who she is today. To retain the same benefits she previously had, she would have to grow to fit her present circumstances.

Where does the question of futurism leave us? One takeaway is that for the things we can influence, we should ask what future we want to create, and work to be able to create it. For the things we can’t influence, rather than asking what will happen, we should be focusing on accepting what will happen, whatever it may be. Among Aurelius’s thoughts, one that stood out to me was this: We don’t have the past, because it’s already happened. The future doesn’t exist; it hasn’t come yet, so we don’t have that either. All we live in is the present, and we cannot forget that. No amount of crystal balls will change that fact.

One comment

Comments are closed.