Newton and Entailed Futures

Several months ago a colleague passed me a book called, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night. Like so many readings, it ended up in a pile and was forgotten about until just this past weekend during Operation Kon Mari (if that immediately makes sense to you, yay and welcome to the club; if not, play with a web search a bit).

Of the many, many authors and thinkers who have pieces in the book, there is a bit by Stuart Kauffman entitled, “Children of Newton and Modernity.” I couldn’t resist reading this one, as the shift from a Newtonian paradigm to… something newer, was a recurring theme in my graduate days in the futures studies program at the University of Hawaii. The piece is short and in it Kauffman talks about entailment, by which I took him to mean some perceived… deterministic quality about life, a perception of such that emerges from a worldview deeply imprinted with the power of Newtonian physics. Kauffman writes that this in no small part led to our disenchantment with the world.

In the second part of the piece he goes to claim that for the living, evolving world, the world of living systems both human and non-human, that “no laws at all entail the becoming of these worlds into their forever newly emerging but un-pre-statable ‘adjacent possible opportunities,’ which, in evolution, are not achieved by the ‘action’ of natural selection.”

I’ll admit that I got a bit lost towards the end of that statement, but at the end of the entire piece he states again, “Evolution of the biosphere and, a fortiori, of the human economy, legal systems, culture, and history, are entailed by no laws at all.” For Kauffman this represents a path beyond Modernity and towards re-enchantment.

This was not the most profound thinking one could read on this, but for an academically trained futurist like me, this calls attention back to that tension in foresight work around the role and capability of prediction. Many today will reflexively nod their heads as they repeat the notion that the future isn’t truly predictable. Yet, in the face of huge amounts of data, new analytic powers, and studies in “superforecasting,” many are still driven by the thought of getting much better at predicting the future state of human systems.

As many of my colleagues make a beeline for Tetlock’s latest book, “Superforecasting,” it seems to me that we are far from resolving this tension between wanting to predict and believing the world is unpredictable. To put it in Kauffman’s terms, it’s like wanting to be enchanted again with the world yet secretly (or, not so secretly) harboring the desire to see it entailed so as to have a hope of exerting some sense mastery over it.

What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night (Edge Question Series)

Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction


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