20 January 2021


Martin Van Creveld. Seeing Into the Future, A Short History of Prediction. Reaktion Books, 2020.

One thing you must consider when about writing about looking into the future is that for a great part of human history everyone knew that the future was going to be exactly the same as the present, or that any major changes in the world would be part of some endlessly repeating cycle which had been ordained since the creation. 
Time, and concepts of future and past had very little meaning except in the day-to-day organisation of life – season for planting, harvesting, hunting, celebrating, and the births and deaths of individuals. 

In a way then, anyone predicting the future was moving outside the known world into alternative realities, which were revealed through a number of processes, which are often now referred to as ‘shamanic’. These states would be entered through such means as hallucinogenic drugs, physical deprivation, ecstatic dancing, drumming, or meditation. The aim was to take the participant outside of the mundane world to a place where they could metaphorically “see over the wall” to new revelations. 

The ‘shaman’ is a rather different character to the ‘prophet’. The shaman’s visions come from within, the prophet is an individual who has – or claims – the ability to be able to interpret the future through messages from a higher power. In doing this they often set themselves against the interests of the ruling secular power, who had little hesitation in sentencing such potential troublemakers to death. 

Other methods of prophecy involved consulting and interpreting a range of quite random events, from the observation of the flights of birds, to the random throws of straws or dice, to the pattern of cracks in the bones of sacrificed animals, to any number of random natural phenomena. Of course this continues to the present day in the popularity of such divining methods as tarot and the I Ching. 

Van Creveld points out that all those methods of prophecy had one thing in common: “these methods were … based on the assumption that in order to learn what the future may bring it is first of all necessary to take leave of the ‘ordinary’ world and enter into a different one.” This may be by some mind-altering process, or by opening ones mind to a random release from everyday thought processes. 

Alongside these other processes make use of observation of the natural world and make predictions based on observation rather than revelation. “These methods require the user to adopt the attitude not of the ecstatic but of the scientist, or at the very least the technician”. 

The oldest and most widespread of these is astrology, which according to some historians can be traced back to the Mesolithic period, but more generally attributed to the Mesopotamian region about 3000 BC. The observation that the apparent motions of the stars and the Sun related to earthly processes of growth and renewal, and indicated changes of seasons and weather, clearly demonstrated to early cultures that observation of astronomical objects provided an insight into the way in which the gods controlled like on earth. 

For many thousands of years the processes of astrology and astronomy were identical. The instruments that astrologers used to determine the tiny celestial movements that determined changes on earth were the same as those which provided the foundations of modern astronomy and mathematics. Van Crefeld writes: “So deeply rooted in mathematics was astrology that, far from being an inferior offshoot of astronomy as most people see it today, it often acted as the latter’s parent”. 

Mathematics itself was also a means of prediction. Pythagoras and his followers saw in numbers another way of entering the mind of God, or the numbers and the mathematical processes linking them to themselves being God. This could be accessed by linking numbers to words or letters in holy texts, and in some languages such as Hebrew, the letters themselves have a mathematical value. 

Of course, predicting the future is not a practice that has been left behind in the history books, and today vast sums of money are paid by governments, multinational corporations and millions of individuals, to gain some insight into the possible pattern of future events on a global and personal scale. 

One of the methods described here, which determines the economic policies of governments and companies, is the analysis of cycles of events. The idea that life, in all its forms, individual and social, can be observed in terms of cycles of birth, growth, maturity, decay and death was one of the most fundamental concepts of mankind. Historically this seemed to apply to societies as well. Nearly all civilisations saw history in term of a series of cycles, some describing cycles of cycles, over vast periods of time. In one Brahminic cycles, the kalpa was supposed to involve over a billion years! 

The cyclical idea survives as a concept but began to fall apart at the onset of the Industrial Revolution it began to be seen that predicting the future was not simply a matter of “again and again”. 

Foretelling the future is now cast in scientific terms, it is done through the analysis of trends rather than cycles, along with such aids as opinion polling, which is looked at in some depth here. Although cycles can still dominate much of longer-term economic forecasting, the modern fortune teller is the mathematical modeller, a profession that at the present time seems to control almost all aspects of our lives, particularly – but by no means exclusively – in regard to dealing with the coronavirus epidemic. 

Van Creveld summarises this book by considering just how accurate these models can be, and indeed how accurate they should be. Any real ability to foresee the future is, he suggests, likely to be just as dangerous as past rulers thought they would be when they sentenced prophets and mystics to the flames or the axe! 

This is an interesting book on a topic which we have all pondered at some time, and provides a great deal of food for thought. – John Rimmer 

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