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Is Prediction Possible?  

by William McGaughey

Can any human being accurately predict the future? The last chapter of Five Epochs of Civilization contains speculations on the future of the fifth civilization (based on computers). This web site, www.worldhistorysite.com, has gained a certain reputation with respect to prediction. If you type the words "predict the future" in the Google search engine, its "prediction" page comes up at the top of the list. In a certain directory, it was put under the category of "paranormal phenomena - prophecies and predictions."

Yet, it is a fair question whether this enterprise is even possible. Are modern-day soothsayers mere hucksters peddling dubious wares to credulous types of people? Perhaps. Predictions are often wrong. The future has a way of confounding the wisest of men. But that does not stop us from trying to know what the future will bring. So much depends on being properly prepared for what is to come.

Let's start with the idea that attempts to predict the future come under the category of "paranormal phenomena". This suggests that soothsaying cannot be a science. Its knowledge is not available to just anyone. It takes a special type of person to practice this art. The person is predicting while in an altered state of consciousness. The early prophets spoke while in a trance. In this state, they were able to communicate with God. God presumably told them what the future would bring.

Divination was an honored practice in ancient societies. In Shang China, practitioners of this art interpreted cracks in tortoise shells. The Roman generals consulted with augers before commencing battle. The Babylonian astrologers foretold the future by associating the alignment of stars and planets with certain times such as a person's birth date. The Oracle at Delhi spoke while in a trance. This was a common practice in the Middle East.

Syrian and Hebrew prophets roamed the countryside uttering pronouncements about the future. A later type of Hebrew prophet wrote histories extending into the future. As revered religious figures, their writings carried an aura of divine authority. Today, many believe that prophecies in the books of Revelation, Ezekiel, or Daniel will yet come true in the future, perhaps in our own time. It is an important part of Christian belief.

The Google listing says that by consulting the web site http://www.worldhistorysite.com/prediction a person can learn about "using world history to predict the future." Presumably certain historians who have studied world history carefully and completely have found patterns in past history which can be expected to apply to the future. While not quite a scientific "law", these patterns describe all human societies. We can perhaps use them to guess where our own society is headed.

As the author of both the book and the prediction page of this web site, let me lay my cards on the table. I will tell you what, if anything, I know. I am working from the premise that the scheme of the five civilizations accurately describes world history. Each "civilization" is a cultural and social configuration which applies to human communities at a particular time. There is a certain entity called a "civilization". Some civilizations have arisen in the distant past; others, more recently. We can look at the fate of the earlier civilizations to guess where the later ones might be headed. That is because there is a certain life cycle common to all such entities.

I am a historian in the tradition of Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee, even though my definition of civilizations is different from theirs. (They associate civilizations with regional societies - e.g., Egyptian civilization, Chinese civilization - while mine are worldwide.) The essential concept advanced by historians in this tradition is that civilizations are organic entities exhibiting a life cycle. They are born, they rise to maturity, and then they decline and die. When we look at a mature civilization, we are anticipating its decline and death. Yet we assume that the process of birth and growth is occurring elsewhere. There may be a next-generation civilization somewhere.

So, how do we know about the future of our world? Our knowledge comes from the idea that this "world" is primarily the one created by human beings. It is the world of human society. It belongs to a civilization. If civilizations are organic entities exhibiting life cycles, then we look at the particular phase of the life cycle to decide what the future will bring. If the civilization began recently, we would anticipate the growth phase. If it is already grown, we would anticipate that the civilization will either remain in a steady state for some time or it will decline. Past civilizations have done this already. Present civilizations can reasonably be expected to follow the same course.

From this perspective, it can be said (without speaking from an altered or paranormal state of consciousness) that, yes, we can predict the future. Think of civilizations - our present and future societies - as being analogous with living creatures. We can know something about our own future by remembering what our parents and grandparents experienced. We can guess that a baby will some day become a child, and a child will become an adult, and an adult may (or may not) have children, and mature adults often experience infirmities of body and mind, and adults in old age eventually die. This is a life cycle common to all human beings including ourselves. We can anticipate much of our own future by looking at the general pattern.

Living creatures (plants and animals) exhibit clear life cycles. It is less clear that human societies, or what we call "civilizations", are organized in the same way. Yes, that is true: It's much harder to predict the future of human societies. I do think it fair to say, however, that human communities, societies, or civilizations are a kind of conscious entity. They are the product of many conscious decisions made by important individuals such as political leaders, philosophers, creative artists, and others who have created the institutions under which we live. They are the product of thoughtful expressions created by influential writers, artists, and other persons. They are also the product of conscious decisions made by many ordinary persons such as the buyers and sellers of products in the market place whose collective activity determines prices and quantities of commercial products.

Human consciousness and the products of consciousness thus assume the characteristics of a living creature. That is why human societies, which encompass all conscious actions undertaken by a group of people, can be described as living organisms analogous to plants and animals. History exhibits the dynamic of change associated with living organisms. Its events may be less regular and predictable than those in the natural world, but there is a certain pattern.

The German philosopher Hegel presented a theory of history which acknowledged the change inherent in human practices and institutions. Everything started with an idea. Either ideas were realized or they were not. If someone took an idea and made something of it, the world was thereby changed. The world now included the product of the idea - a new element in society, something which people could see. The framework of decisionmaking was now different than before. Society was more complicated. I call this type of thought "self-consciousness" because it takes into account both the original idea and the new situation created by it.

Hegel also developed the theory that each idea, or thesis, generated an opposite kind of idea, its antithesis, and that the two had to be resolved in a third idea, which was a synthesis of them. I think that the history of civilizations shows the same pattern as themes important at the beginning of them move to the opposite as the civilization comes to an end.

Why is this so? Consider that the act of realizing an idea creates a new element in society to which people will react from their own selfish point of view. The animal kingdom is organized in a food chain. As a particular species of animal comes into existence, it becomes food for another species. So ideas or purposes which are realized in society create institutions which have unintended consequences as people react to them. Human society as a whole is an ever-evolving set of purposes and counter purposes that somehow remain in balance.

What are some of the particular "lessons" of history? First, I would say that one should be skeptical of claims that trends evident today will continue indefinitely. No living organism lives forever. Neither does any empire, seemingly all powerful, simply continue to become larger and stronger. Empires collapse; they do not continue progressing in a straight line. Neither is there an "end to history" or an unchanging, perfected society as Marx and Engels anticipated. In their arrogance, the powerful often fail to see these things.

If you think, for instance, that the Wal-Mart model of business will continue to develop and will defeat all other models, you are probably wrong. Something will come along to upset its progress. Those who thought that network news would come to dominate all political discussion were proved wrong by the rise of talk radio, Fox news, and the internet. Any powerful institution will generate a strong reaction that will throw events in a different direction.

But it's also unwise to assume a certain time table. For instance, even though the Roman empire fell, this process took five hundred years in the case of the western half; and fifteen hundred years, in case of the eastern half headquartered in Byzantium. Empires are sometimes able to reform themselves and stave off decay.

Another lesson of history is that powerful people in institutions which serve a particular purpose or function are often motivated by the desire to keep or increase their power, even if it means violating their institutional responsibilities. Growing organizations are built by persons who have a vision of truth. Mature organizations are often led by persons who have a vision of their own importance. They will use violence and coercion to keep themselves in power. They will countenance lies. This is a sign of institutions, even civilizations, which are in a phase of decline. It's a normal part of the life cycle.

Finally, it would be good to be able to spot ideas with the potential to grow into something big and important. But it's easier to predict that a mature organization will decline than to say that a particular enterprise will grow to an impressive size. Here people must take chances. They must also adjust to unexpected events so that their enterprise will survive and, hopefully, thrive. Some ideas make it and others do not. That's life. That's what history is about. The future realities exceed our knowledge.

Five Epochs of Civilization argues that in the last five thousand years humanity has seen four civilizations which have grown to maturity. The fourth, based on entertainment, is currently in its prime. The future, however, belongs to institutions of the fifth civilization, which is the computer civilization. By analogy with the four previous civilizations, we can see how this fifth one might develop. That is how I try to predict the future. World history can be harnessed to that end. But it's not hard science.

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