It is traditional at the start of the year to speculate on what will happen in the new year. However, as Niels Bohr is reputed to have said ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future’. Some people have suggested that our brains are constantly predicting the future. We weigh up the options for what might happen next before choosing a course of action. Our ancestors might have watched a fish swimming near a river bank and predicted where it would be a moment later when their spear entered the water. Or on a longer timescale, they predicted that seeds planted at a particular time of year would yield a crop some months later. Our predictions are not always correct but our life depends on enough of them being reliable that we have evolved to be good predictors of the immediate future. In Chinese thought, a distinction is made between predicting the near and distant future because the former is possible and latter is impossible, at least with any degree of confidence (Simandon, 2018). Wisdom can be considered to be understanding the futility of trying to predict the distant future while being able to sense the near future through an acute awareness and immersion in one’s surroundings. This implies that a wise person can go beyond the everyday predictions of the immediate future, made largely unconsciously by our brains, and anticipate events on a slightly longer timescale, the near future. In engineering terms, events in the near future are short-term behaviour dominated by the current status of the system whereas events in the distant future are largely determined by external interactions with the system. This seems entirely consistent with the Chinese concept of wisdom arising from ‘vanishing into things’ which means to become immersed in a situation and hence to be able sense the current status of the system and reliably anticipate the near future. Some engineers might call it intuition which has been defined as ‘judgments that arise through rapid, non-conscious and holistic associations’ (Dane & Pratt, 2007). So, in 2021 I hope to continue to exercise my intuition and remain immersed in a number of issues but I am not going to attempt to predict any distant events.
Dane, E. and Pratt, M.G., 2007. Exploring intuition and its role in managerial decision making. Academy of management review, 32(1), pp.33-54.
Simandan, D., 2018. Wisdom and foresight in Chinese thought: sensing the immediate future. Journal of Futures Studies, 22(3), pp.35-50.
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As the great economist John Maynard Keynes claimed – some of the cleverest minds have been involved in economic forecasting but they invariably get it wrong. Maybe we can only, as you say, take a holistic stance at any one point – sum up the data, look at what is actually happening, and take an educated guess. Even then, who listens? The listener has to have the ability and knowledge (?) to discern what is relevant. The Big Depression in the mid-2000s, for example, was a car crash waiting to happen – even the IMF warned of hot-air housing loans ballooning in UK and US (I remember reading it out to my A-level Economics class in 2003) – but no-one seemed to care. In the late 60s and early 70s some of us could see that increasing pollution and lackadaisical political policies were going to lead to major problems, unless we took action, but we were totally ignored, written off. Twas ever thus – that’s why, as a retired 75-year-old I’m immersing myself in my books (maths, physics, ancient and medieval history, among others). My “future” is limited, of course, but I’m very happy, thank you very much!