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Is the Future Truly Uncertain or Can it be Predicted?

Updated on April 27, 2012

We stand here in the present worrying about the future and dwelling on the past.


Is the future predictable or do we pave our own way through time? Is there some scientific evidence to either question? What would it mean for humanity if the future was predictable (or it truly wasn't)? By looking at some of the most prevalent and controversial perspectives on the subject, is there any real evidence to support either argument?

Science, Physics, and Engineering

The objective of science is not only to try and understand something (answer questions), but also to attempt to predict the future. When it comes to predicting things, scientists take the observable and measurable aspects of our world and attempt to develop an equation that predicts an outcome based on a set of inputs. Any accepted equation is based upon experiments that were repeatable. The main problem with this is that most of the equations scientists and engineers use today are simplified so they are comprehendible and usable. Every equation has some level of uncertainty associated with it.

What is uncertainty? Well in terms of science, uncertainty refers to the amount of unpredictable an equation has. Uncertainty comes from the fact that there are more things that determine an outcome than just what is represented by the equation. Once you add additional variables to an equation to account for the other things, the level of uncertainty can be reduced.


Take for example the simple equation of projectile motion. The equation, X = (V02/g)sin2θ, will predict the horizontal distance an object would travel using only three inputs. For this equation, the three inputs are the initial velocity of the object, V0, the acceleration of gravity, g, and the angle from the horizontal that the object is launched from, θ. This equation works well at describing everyday objects, but fails to adequately predict the landing position of an object that has a high drag coefficient or one that is shot at high velocity. Does this mean the equation is wrong? No! It just means that more variables need to be introduced to help account for additional things such as air resistance and the fact that the acceleration of gravity is not constant with respect to altitude. With enough time and effort, you could develop an equation for projectile motion that predicts the landing location with 99.9% certainty for any situation. Note that an equation of this caliber would likely fill many volumes of manuscript and require so many inputs it would be impractical to use.

To truly be able to predict the future, scientists would need to develop a grand unifying theory that relates everything to everything. This theory would need to account for every possible piece to the puzzle of life. The problem here is twofold. First, there is no way to know for certain that you have accounted for everything that is uncertain. In other words, there is no way to know if you have accounted for everything in the equation because our perceptive ability is limited by our senses and our ability to measure. Second, there likely isn't enough time available on earth to develop such an equation that has a 99.9% level of confidence. But the fact that you can never know or predict anything with 100% uncertainty means that the predictability of the future is still unknown.

Nostradamus supposedly predicted many events including the rise and fall of Hitler and 9/11.
Nostradamus supposedly predicted many events including the rise and fall of Hitler and 9/11. | Source

What about Prophets?

Many people would say that the future has to be predictable because many supposedly successful prophets have come and gone throughout the years. I don't discredit the fact that many prophecies (including those of Nostradamus) seemed to have become true, however, this does not necessarily prove that the future is predictable. There are a number of reasons that could serve to explain how a prophet's could appear to predict the future. Here is a short list of possibilities.

  • Prophecies are mere coincidences because they are rare
  • Prophecies are fulfilled by the people who hear them (e.g. the self fulfilling prophecies)
  • Prophecies are 'fit' to an event after it has happened
  • A prophet was privy to some prior knowledge not available to the public
  • A prophet could make his prediction come true by causing it to happen
  • A prophet could be a skilled magician
  • A prophet is more aware of the subtle intricacies in our world compared to others

Even so, the idea that that some people have the uncanny and strange ability to accurately produce an account of an event before it happens is mind boggling.


The Power of the Human Mind

The human mind is an amazingly capable and powerful thing. Using this tool, we have been able to do many great (and not so great) things. And in doing so, most people believe that they have the power of choice or "free will." If free will and choice does exist, then immediately it would seem that the future could not be predictable. You see, if the future is determined by choices, it cannot be predicted. The argument here is that it is not possible to predict the actions, thoughts, emotions of another person (and therefore the future cannot be predicted). Despite the notion of freewill and the predicament it creates for predicting the future, there may be evidence to support its opposite.

The first example lies in the everyday career of a criminal profiler. These highly skilled and highly trained experts on humans can literally predict (with a fair amount of accuracy) the person who performed a crime. They are also sometimes able to determine when and where the criminal will strike again. How is this possible? The profiler's job is to predict the behavior and characteristics of the most likely suspect using only the factual information from a police investigation. Similar to a mathematical equation, the profiler takes a set of inputs about a particular case and develops a profile that describes the criminal. Although these tactics are used to predict who performed a crime, is it really a prediction of the future? Probably not, but the answer is up for debate.

Another example that supports the possibility that the future could be predictable is something that many of us can relate to. I am talking about a person's sixth sense or intuition. Have you have been in a situation where you experienced a strong sense of urgency that caused you to suddenly change your behavior just before something bad happened? It's happened to many people I know, and as far as I can tell, there really is no explanation for it. Does this idea support the theory that the future is predictable? Perhaps, but I am leaning towards the side of "no" on this one as well. My reasons are this: Similar to a dog acting weird just before an earth quake, it's probable that our brains are capable of anticipating the occurrence of an event just before it happens. It's likely that our brain can pick up on environmental signals that indicate that something is about to happen. Note that anticipating the future is not the same as predicting the future. However, this kind of thing is also up for debate and argument.


The Meaning of the Answer to This Question

Let's assume for arguments sake that the future is predictable. Lets say you could get out a calculator, enter a bunch of inputs, and it could tell you what the outcome would be. What would the ramifications of this be? Well for one, this would strongly suggest that free will and choice doesn't exist. As intelligent beings we believe that we are making choices, but in this scenario we are acting just like the calculator (or a computer)! This would suggest that our minds are really just a very complex program designed to make choices based on thousands of inputs. The removal of free will as a possibility would significantly change our perspective on the world. Simply put, it would be possible to know everything there is to know with enough research and experimentation. Any uncertainty about anything could or would someday be explainable.

Now let's assume that we have proven that the future is not predictable. What would the results of this conclusion be? Well for one, it serves to chip away at the possibility of ever finding "the grand unified theory of everything". It would suggest to the world that no matter how predictable some things seem, there will always be some level of (albeit unexplainable) uncertainty in the matter. Simply put, it would not be possible to know everything there is to know. With this realization, many humanly endeavors would likely cease to exist. There would be clear limits on our existence and observations of this world.


There certainly is a significant amount of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, to support both sides of the issue. Because we are limited by only what we can perceive, we may not ever know the answer to this question. Perhaps knowing the answer will simply reveal more questions. More importantly though, the real answer to the question just may not be worth knowing anyways. What ever the outcome, it is sure to have profound affects on every aspect of our lives. Perhaps the only thing that is certain is that any discussions involving predestination, free will, and prophecy will ultimately end with no clear answer. I resolve to let you all formulate your own conclusions.


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    • CWanamaker profile imageAUTHOR

      Christopher Wanamaker 

      7 years ago from Arizona

      Wilderness - As an engineer, I struggle with this question. I use equations everyday to bring some order out of the chaos of life. Even so, I dont know if it is possible to predict everything. I really like the idea of free will as well. Thanks for reading.

    • wilderness profile image

      Dan Harmon 

      7 years ago from Boise, Idaho

      This is an interesting hub about a subject I have pondered about. Predestination. I am not so concerned about being able to predict the future, but about free will. Whether or not we could actually predict an action tomorrow (a car crash perhaps) that ability to predict is immaterial to the question of free will. If there is no free will there is no choice and that is abhorrent to me.

      As a theoretical question, suppose we know the makeup and velocity of every particle and smidgeon of energy in the big bang. Could we then predict (with a super computer that would fill a universe) that Wilderness's brain, on this particular day, would cause him to decide to take a different route to work? And crash when he didn't look at oncoming traffic because the electrons in his brain were traveling a different neuron than they should have been?

      Whether we could actually make the prediction or not if it is theoretically possible given enough knowledge of events of the past it would negate the idea of free will. Everything would be laid out already, like the grooves on a record.

      On the other hand, quantum physics seems to be indicating that some things are truly random, without a cause behind them. If so, there is hope that free will does indeed exist.

      A good, thought provoking hub. Voted up.


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