Summary: Managing our increasingly complex world, where the past gives ever less guidance about the future, requires reliable predictions. Here Martin van Creveld provides a guide to prophecy, and the many ways it has been done — from the distant past through today. When next you read confident forecasts, this will help you assess their reliability.
…Here about the beach I wandered, nourishing a youth sublime
With the fairy tales of science, and the long result of Time;
When the centuries behind me like a fruitful land reposed;
When I clung to all the present for the promise that it closed:
When I dipt into the future far as human eye could see;
Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be. …
— “Locksley Hall” by Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
By Martin van Creveld.
From his website, 30 November 2017.
Re-posted with his generous permission.
I. What I am Trying to Do.
As some readers will no doubt know, the title of this post has been taken from Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall.” Written in 1835, and first published seven years later, it recounts the musings of a rejected suitor. Wandering about, at one point he reminisces about the happy times when he “dipt into the future/far as human eye could see/Saw the vision of the world/And all the wonder that would be.” But just how did he do so? Metaphorically speaking, what kind of “bucket” did he bring to bear?
Tennyson’s unnamed protagonist was hardly the only one who ever tried his hand at this game. To mention a few outstanding names only, when the prophets Isaiah (and Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, and all the rest) tried to foresee what the future would bring, what methodology did they use? And how about the Greek Pythia? The Roman Sybil? Nostradamus? Jules Verne? H. G. Wells? Stephen Hawking? Ray Kurzweil? Yuval Harari?
By now, I have spent a year trying to answer these questions. In the hope, of course, of one day writing a book about them. One that will put the matter into perspective and explain, if not how good or bad the various methods are and how they may be improved, at any rate when and where they originated, how they developed, the principles on which they rested, and how they related to others of their kind. As a first step, I want to devote today’s post to providing a brief summary of some the most important methods people have been using.
II. Some Methods of Looking into the Future Explained.
Shamanism is widespread all over the world, particularly among societies made up of hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists. Tribes without rulers, as I have called them in another book. Imported into modern cities, especially those of the so-called Third World, in many places it is active even today. At the root of shamanism is the assumption that, to look into the future, it is necessary first of all to leave the “normal” world by entering into an altered state of consciousness (ASC). The methods used to do so vary enormously from one culture to another. Among the most common are music (especially drumming), dancing, prayer, solitude, fasting, long vigils, sexual abstinence (or its opposite, engaging in orgies), breathing exercises, alcoholic drinks, hallucinogenic drugs, and many others.
In each of these cases, the objective is to embark the shaman on a mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality. One in which the difference between present, past and future is eliminated and the last-named becomes an open book to read.
Also known as revelation, prophecy of the kind many of us are familiar with from the Old Testament in particular is little but a more institutionalized form of shamanism. The difference is that it is not the spirits but God Himself who supposedly reveals himself to the prophet and speaks through his mouth. Sometimes, as in the famous case of Jonah, he does so even against the prophet’s will.
Whereas shamans were almost always illiterate prophets tended to spend their lives in societies where either they themselves or others were able to read and write. Often the outcome was a more detailed, more cohesive, idea of what the future might bring.
3. The interpretation of dreams.
Like prophecy, the interpretation of dreams goes back at least as far as the Old Testament. It, too, rests on the assumption that, by entering upon an ASC, people will be enabled to see things which, in their waking state, they cannot.
As the Biblical story about Joseph shows, dreams were supposed to deliver their message not in simple form but with the aid of symbols. Lists of such symbols are known from ninth-century century BCE Assyria and continue to be published today. Note, however, that interpreting the dreams and relating them to future events was the task, not of the person who had them but of specialists who approached the problem in a cool, analytic manner. Before delivering their verdict, they often took the dreamer’s age, sex and personal circumstances into account.
4. The Greek oracles.
Oracles were extremely popular in Greece and Rome. To use the example of Delphi as the most important one of all, it centered on the Pythia. She was a woman who, sitting on a tripod in a dark subterranean abode, came under the influence of foul gasses emanating from a split in the earth. Going into a sort of trance, the Pythia let forth confused gibberish which was supposed to contain the clue to the future. Next, a special college of priests interpreted her words. Oracles, in other words, resembled the interpretation of dreams in that prediction was divided into two stages, each of these was the responsibility of a different person or persons.
The best-known case of necromancy (from the Greek, nekros, dead, and manteia, divination) is the one described in the Old Testament. King Saul, wishing to learn the outcome of a battle which will take place on the next day, asks a witch to raise the spirit of the prophet Samuel from the dead. Whereupon Samuel tells Saul that, tomorrow, he and his sons too would be dead. Necromancy also occurs in Greek and Roman sources. Virgil in particular has Aeneas visit the underground abode of the dead where he is shown the future of Rome over a period of about a millennium, no less. The basic assumption underlying necromancy is that the dead, having crossed a certain threshold, know more than the living do. Even today in some cultures, procedures for raising the dead and consulting them concerning the future are commonplace.
Along with shamanism, astrology is probably the oldest method for trying to look into the future. Its roots go as far back as Babylon around 3,000 BCE. That is why, in Imperial Rome, it was known as the “Chaldean” science. At the heart of astrology is the proposition, so obvious as to be self-evident, that the sun and moon (which, before Copernicus, were classified as planets) have a great and even decisive impact on life here on earth. Building on this, its students try to make that impact more specific by also taking into account the movements of the remaining planets, the fixed stars, and the relationships among all of these.
Even today, almost one third of Americans are said to believe in astrology. True or false, that does not change the fact that, unlike any of the above-mentioned methods, it is based not on any kind of ASC but on observation and calculation. Of the kind that is practiced, and can only be practiced, by perfectly sober people in full possession of their faculties. So mathematically-rooted was astrology that it acted as the midwife of astronomy, helping the latter become the queen of the sciences. This position it retained right until the onset of the scientific revolution during the seventeenth century.
As Cicero in his book on the topic makes clear, neither the Greeks nor the Romans ever took an important decision without trying to divine its consequences first. Both civilizations also maintained colleges of specialized priests who were in charge of the process. The most important types of divination were the flight of birds on one hand and examining the entrails of sacrificial animals on the other.
Like astrology, but unlike shamanism, prophecy, dreams, the oracles, and necromancy, divination did not depend on people becoming in any way ecstatic, mysteriously travelling from one world to another, and the like. Instead it was a “rational” art, coolly and methodically practiced by experts who had spent years studying it and perfecting it. Today the same is true for such techniques as numerology, Tarot-card reading, etc.
8. History (a).
The idea that history is a linear, non-repeating, process that leads in a straight line from far in the past to far into the future is a relatively recent one. In this form it only made its appearance after 1750 or so.
Before that date history was considered to be, either the province of “again and again” (as the historian Jacob Bronowski used to put it) or of regularly occurring cycles (as Plato and many others did). If the former, and assuming that the same circumstances always lead to the same effects, then the resulting patterns could be used to look into the future; such a view is very evident both in Thucydides and in Machiavelli. If the latter, then in principle at any rate the future could be predicted on the base of the point in the cycle that had been reached.
9. History (b).
Both the idea that historical patterns repeat themselves and that history itself moves in cycles are alive and well. Starting with the Enlightenment, though, they have been joined by two other ideas both of which are often used for prediction. The first, which has since become easily the most common of all, was the discovery of “trends,” a term which was hardly used before 1880 or so but which has since grown into one of the buzzwords of our age. Trends made extrapolation possible. A good example is Moore’s Law which predicted that the speed of computer would double every eighteen months. Used by countless people, the characteristic hallmark of this method are the oft-repeated words, “already now.” “Already now” the situation is such and such; hence we can expect it to be even more so in the future.
The second method consisted of dialectics. The basic idea goes back to Heraclitus’ saying, around 500 BCE, that all things originate in agon, i.e. “strife.” In its modern form, the first to bring it to the fore was the nineteenth-century German philosopher Georg Hegel. In his hands it was applied to intellectual history above all. Next, it was taken over by Karl Marx. The latter, turning Hegel on his head, applied it to material factors. Both men believed that any historical trend must of necessity give rise to its opposite, thus making prediction possible in principle.
To retrace our steps, history (a) and (b) provides four different ways of looking into the future. Two of those, based on the idea that there is no change, are age-old; whereas the other two, assuming that change is the very stuff of which history is made, are of more recent vintage. What all have in common is that there is no room, in them, for ASC. Instead they are based, or are supposed to be based on sober study of recorded facts to which anyone has access.
Modeling, like history, owes nothing to ASC. Essentially it consists of building models in order to understand how various factors that shape reality, past and hopefully future, are related and interact. The earliest, and for millennia almost the only, models were developed in order to represent the movements of the heavenly bodies. A very good example, which still survives, is the great astronomical clock of Strasbourg whose origins go back to the fourteenth century.
By definition, models are based on mathematical calculations. The more accurate the calculations, the better the model. But not all mathematical attempts to understand the world have been translated into nuts and bolts. Most remained on paper in the form of algorithms. Following the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 the popularity of models of this kind increased. Applied to the physical world around us, currently they represent the most sophisticated, often almost the only, method for looking into the future we have. Some go so far as to predict developments that will take place in millions and even billions of years.
Attempts to extend mathematical modelling of the future from astronomy and physics to social life go back to the Renaissance when the first firms specializing in insurance were created. Assisted by the establishment of statistical bureaus from about 1800, their use increased during the second half of the nineteenth century in particular. The introduction of computers, which made possible the procession of vast bodies of data at enormous speed, caused reliance on them to grow exponentially. This has now been taken to the point where anyone who does not use, or pretend to use, computers for prediction is likely to be regarded as a simpleton.
III. Some Tentative Concluding Comments.
To misquote Tennyson, methods for looking into the future go far back as human eye can see. Probably there never has been, nor ever will be, a society which did not have them or tried to devise them as best it could.
Broadly speaking, methods for looking into the future may be divided into two kinds. The first relies on ASC and focuses on applying a variety of methods for entering upon those states. The second is based, or is supposed to be based, on rational, often mathematical, analysis and calculation. Some methods, such as the interpretation of dreams and oracles, separate the person who experiences an ASC from the one who explains her or his visions and utterances. By so doing they combine them.
The two basic methods have always existed side by side. However, with the advent of the scientific revolution their relative importance changed. Previously even educated people — often enough, the best-educated people — put their trust in ASC in its various forms. Not so in the centuries since 1700 or so when they were pushed into the margins, so to speak.
However, there is no proof that even the most “rational” methods, used with or without the aid of computers, obtain better results than the rest. Generally speaking, the less grounded in physics the future we are trying to foresee the more true this is. Furthermore, and presumably because visions have greater emotional appeal than equations, the greater the stress on individuals and societies the more likely they are to revert to ASC.
The topic is enormous in size, fascinating, and very difficult. Which is why, at this point, this is all I have to say about the topic.
Forecasting methods become ever more sophisticated, complex, and esoteric. More reliable but less understandable to the layperson. Which gives status and power to experts, whom we must trust. At what point do these experts become shamans — with their professional training in arcane arts a “mysterious voyage which will take him into a different country, realm, or reality.”
At what point do experts become oracles and models become divination? At what point does this become a round trip, from relying on priests, to relying on experts, to relying on priests?
To survive in this world we must demand objective third-party validation of experts’ claims, transparency of their data and methods, and reliable records of their predictions. All tools can be misused. Preventing that is our responsibility.
About the Author
Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy.
The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has written 24 books, about almost every significant aspect of war. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.
OF more general interest are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?
To better understand our future, see his magnum opus — the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State
His latest book is Hitler in Hell
For More Information
The picture of Alfred, Lord Tennyson, is from The National Portrait Gallery (London, c1880). The photo of it is by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images.
- About models, increasingly often the lens through which we see the world.
- Experts now run the world using their theories. What if they fail, and we lose confidence in them?
- We must rely on forecasts by computer models. Are they reliable?
- Tips to find the experts that help you see the world more clearly.
Two great books by van Creveld about our future.