The beginning of a new year tends to be a time for predictions. Have you peered into the crystal ball, read the runes, consulted the astrologists and listened to the soothsayers? Good. Then you know what’s going to happen. My prediction, which I make with total confidence, is that total confidence in predictions is never warranted. They turn out, more often than not, to be wrong.
Here are some of my favourites. “Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible,” said Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society in 1895. “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home,” said Ken Olson, president and founder of Digital Equipment, a maker of mainframes, in 1977.
“Everything that can be invented has been invented,” said an official at the US patent office in 1899. And Charles Darwin wrote in the foreword to The Origin of Species, “I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone.”
Despite the many political experts, research institutes, think tanks, government and university departments, no one foresaw the bloodless end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Few foresaw the possibility of a terrorist attack like 9/11, that changed our world.
I was once present at a gathering where Bernard Lewis, the scholar of Islam, was asked to predict the outcome of a certain American foreign policy intervention. He gave a magnificent reply. “I am a historian, so I only make predictions about the past. What is more, I am a retired historian, so even my past is passé.”
We know so much at a macro- and micro-level. We look up and see a universe of a hundred billion galaxies each of a hundred billion stars. We look down and see a human body containing a hundred trillion cells, each with a double copy of the human genome, 3.1 billion letters long, enough if transcribed to fill a library of 5,000 books.
There remains one thing we do not know and will never know: What tomorrow will bring. The past, said L. P. Hartley, is a foreign country. But the future is an undiscovered one. That is why predictions so often fail. They don’t even come close.
Why, when even the ancient Mesopotamians could make accurate predictions about the movement of planets, are we, with all our brain-scans and neuroscience, not able to predict what people will do? Why do they so often take us by surprise?
The reason is that we are free. We choose, we make mistakes, we learn. People constantly surprise us. The failure at school becomes the winner of a Nobel Prize. The leader who disappointed, suddenly shows courage and wisdom in a crisis. The driven businessman has an intimation of mortality and decides to devote the rest of his life to helping the poor.
This is something science has not yet explained and perhaps never will. There are scientists who believe freedom is an illusion. But it isn’t. It’s what makes us human.
We are free because we are not merely objects. We are subjects. We respond not just to physical events but to the way we perceive those events. We have minds, not just brains. We have thoughts, not just sensations. We react but we can also choose not to react. There is something about us that is irreducible to material, physical causes and effects.
I personally believe that the way our ancestors spoke about this remains true and profound. We are free because God is free and He made us in His image. That is what is meant by the three words God tells Moses at the burning bush when he asks God what is His name. God replies, Ehyeh asher Ehyeh. These are often translated as “I am what I am.” What they really mean, though, is “I will be who and how I choose to be.” I am the God of freedom. I cannot be predicted. Note that God says this at the start of Moses’ mission to lead a people from slavery to freedom.
There is something about the human person that will always elude scientific analysis. Our future is unpredictable because it is made by us and we are free. So I urge you to do one totally unpredictable act of kindness in the next twenty-four hours and show someone that the world is a little better than they thought it was going to be.
(First published in The Times)