The Problems of Prediction, Part 2

In Part One of “The Problems of Prediction,” David Reynolds explained that our knowledge remains fallible and limited, while our desire to predict, and our belief in our predictive power, continues to grow. This dangerous overconfidence ironically increases unpredictability.

The incomprehensibility of what we cannot predict can be largely defined by the complexity, variation, change, interdependence, and infinitude of reality. All of these inherent characteristics of life consistently push it beyond the comprehension of both finite humans and the contrivances finite humans create. The advances which humankind makes in understanding and computation do not refute this, but bring it into yet greater relief. As a species, as well as individuals, it really is the case that the more we know, the more we realize the extent of what we do not know. “Unpredictability is not lack of foresight,” Hannah Arendt wisely concluded, “and no engineering management of human affairs will ever be able to eliminate it.”

Complexity is a good place to start because we are wont to assume that our efforts at producing our own forms of contrived complexity put us on a par with natural complexity. But we do not even have a thorough understanding of the thing that enables us to understand—the human brain. Wander around a bookshop these days and you will find shelves devoted to the findings and implications of cognitive neuroscience. And many things have indeed been recently discovered about the brain. Yet our brains remain, even as we use them every time we think about them, largely mysterious—and it is their complexity that mostly makes them so. A human brain, according to estimates (yes, we do not know for sure), contains 100 billion neurons, each of which is connected to ten thousand other neurons, forming over 100 trillion synapses. Your brain, in other words, is too complex for your brain. If that does not temper our epistemological arrogance, perhaps nothing will. Furthermore, as British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh reflects, “we can’t even begin to explain how consciousness, how sensation arises out of electric chemistry.”

This complexity is related to the brain’s plasticity. Brains would be somewhat simpler phenomena if they were not constantly changing. Our means of understanding often seek to create an artificial conceptual stasis because we tend to need this in order to render something comprehensible. But as soon as we do this, we have created something distinct from reality, precisely because it is simpler than reality, which will pervert our presumed understanding and skew our predictions into error. Unlike our conceptualizations and models, reality is ineluctably fraught with constant change. Heraclitus perceived this two and a half millennia ago, concluding that a person cannot step in the same river twice. This caution has prevented generations of historians from presuming that they could infallibly know the unrepeatable past; how much more should it silence our presumptions to act on the basis that we could either control or predict the future?

As well as complexity and plasticity, interdependence is a further characteristic of life that our own bodies can teach us. The lesson, and its implications, can easily be missed, since genetics is another area in which recent advances have obscured the fact that our ability to act far outpaces our knowledge. The public sphere is full of misleadingly simple statements about what genetic manipulation can and will do. But “it is paradoxical,” observes Craig Holdrege, Director of The Nature Institute, “that genetic manipulation, which aims to effect discrete, clearly demarcated alterations in organisms, can make us more aware of the dynamic, context-dependent nature of life. Unintended effects do that.” As Holdrege continues, “The manipulated organism is a dynamic, active context for the inserted genes and therefore does not simply take in genetic instructions passively and do as it is told.”

Therefore, rarely do genetic manipulations produce the effect that researchers expect. Of course, a process of trial and error is part of any experimental pursuit of knowledge, but when there is something consistently and inherently beyond prediction in elements of life that we persist in tampering with, we are being alerted to incomprehensibility as a fact, not simply a challenge. “In this dynamic, changing relation between organism and environment, unintended effects have further opportunity to make themselves known,” Holdrege explains, elucidating the connections that we often choose to ignore between change and interdependence and innate unpredictability. “So while the genetic engineer wants control, stability, regularity, and constancy, life plays itself out in dynamism, unpredictability, and change…. The ideal to control life through genetic engineering rather as we control a manmade machine begins to appear sadly one-sided.” As the stem-cell expert, Paul Knoepfler of the University of Calfiornia, Davis, admits, “the gene edit that we think will lead to one sort of functional outcome instead leads to another very different one.” Even in the areas in which we seem most proud of our mastery, our knowledge does not defeat our ignorance because reality is always more complex than the complex methods we devise to explain, manipulate, and predict it.

Maze / stockmorrison

But perhaps the greatest indication of incomprehensibility in the universe is infinitude. Not only do we not know most things, we also do not know most things about the things we do know. “Though we humans are finite beings, we can know universal truths. We can also know generalizations about vast swathes of the world. And we can know many facts about individual things,” Daniel R. DeNicola, author of Understanding Ignorance, wrote in summarizing the thoughts of philosopher Nicholas Rescher. “But we can never know fully all the individual entities about which we generalize. Indeed, we can never fully know even one individual. Its facts are infinite, an infinitude that protects its opacity.” Nobody could, if thoughtfully considering it, claim to know everything about anything at all. And that is only the tip of the iceberg, when you consider all that you cannot be aware of not knowing. Even our most complex machines answer for us the questions we have thought of, not those we do not know how to ask. / francescoch

The apparent infinitude of the material universe itself—the site and context of all our knowing and unknowing—ought to demonstrate the foolishness of presuming that humans master reality enough to predict or direct it. But the topic of the universe is one in which the human tendency to overstate and claim false certainty is well represented. It should be said that most scientists are well versed in their own limits and aware of the contingency of their claims, but this modesty gets entirely lost when scientific findings are presented in the media or when the ideological doyennes of scientism employ the results of scientific experimentation to suppress all other means and forms of knowledge.

For example, a 2016 article on the BBC website proclaimed with its headline, “It took centuries, but we now know the size of the universe.” Of course, even if that were literally true, we would still not know almost anything about almost everything that was in the universe. But read the piece, with all its accounts of guesses, extrapolations, and estimates based on pervasively and vastly incomplete knowledge, and no honest person could conclude that we now know the universe’s size. The conclusion—with the caveat that the universe could be infinite—was that the observable universe may be 93 billion light years in diameter and that it may be that the whole universe is at least 250 times the size of the observable universe. But it may not. Faced with such pretensions of certainty alongside the infinitude of reality, we are left to consider, in the words of physicist Daniel Whiteson, co-author of the new book We Have No Idea: A Guide to the Unknown Universe, “how absurd it is to think we have any clue what’s going on or how the universe really works.” For example, “the kind of matter that we consider normal—because it’s the only kind we know—is actually fairly unusual. Of all of the stuff (matter and energy) in the universe, this kind of matter accounts for only about 5 percent of the total [we think]. What is the other 95 percent made of? We don’t know.”

We Rely on Predictions More, While We Ensure They Are Less Reliable
Nothing better demonstrates the unrealistic sense of our own predictive power than the befuddlement, and often anger, that ensues when events refuse to conform themselves to our forecasts. So much of the analysis following 2016’s UK referendum and US presidential election remained stuck around the discrepancies between prior poll-based predictions and reality. Similarly, the entire post-event media and political narrative regarding this year’s general election in the UK was determined by the difference between what polls had indicated the governing Conservative Party would achieve and what it did achieve. What an entirely absurd way to conduct the discussion of public affairs! In a superb episode of the Freakonomics podcast titled “The Folly of Prediction,” author Stephen Dubner assessed, “our need for prediction is getting worse.” According to some scholars, “we get more upset now when the future surprises us.” Political science writer Philip Tetlock added, “there’s an asymmetry of supply and demand…an enormous demand for accurate predictions in many spheres of life in which we don’t have the requisite expertise to deliver.”

This gap between what we insist on knowing and can actually know would be problematic enough, without the fact that our desire to foresee and the actual possibility of foreseeing are moving in opposite directions. Our expectation that we can and will accurately forecast the future has been greatly deepened in recent years by the illusions of certainty and misplaced concreteness that technological ways of thinking and living have ingrained in us. But, in the same spirit, the more we seize hold of the stuff of life as resources to be transformed for our short-sighted gain and convenience (as evidenced in plant and human genetic engineering) and the more we impose our ability to act on each other and creation, the more we deepen the scope and nature of resulting unintended consequences. We are sowing the seeds (metaphorically and literally) into the already complex and changeable soil of nature which will manifest our own inherent lack of foresight. In other words, we act as nature’s gods (rather than its stewards) because we presume to control everything, including the future. But in doing so, we push the future yet further from our management because we have removed the reality and implications of human ignorance from our calculations, ensuring a harvest of perversions and frustrations, as well as a new round of corrective manipulations. It is what the philosopher Hans Jonas (see “Principles of Technoskepticism, Part Two”) described as “the excess of our power to act over our power to foresee and our power to evaluate and to judge.”

This is also what Hannah Arendt was getting at when she insisted that “modern natural science and technology…have carried irreversibility and human unpredictability into the natural realm, where no remedy can be found to undo what has been done.” We are good at doing, but when our doing is over-extended and produces calamities we did not anticipate, our attempts at undoing it entail further destructive doing. “Nothing appears more manifest in these attempts than the greatness of human power,” Arendt continued in The Human Condition, “whose source lies in the capacity to act, and which without action’s inherent remedies inevitably begins to overpower and destroy not man himself but the conditions under which life was given to him.” To acknowledge our power here carries the same compliment with which the proverbial bull’s strength would be praised, as he does his china-shop worst.

In this deepest sense, therefore, as well in the mundane course of events, our reliance on prediction seems to be largely self-deception. More often than not, we want to be flattered by it. If you look at the careers of false prophets in the Old Testament, there is a striking consistency. Time and again, while genuine prophets passed on God’s revelatory warnings about how the people needed to change and the danger if they did not, false prophets were marked by their misleading affirmations that all was and would be well. “They have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace,” (Ezekiel 13:10). Could we not make a similar assessment today on the priests and prophets of our technological society, and on ourselves? Already, we have believed in our own power to predict far too much and for far too long.