THE EXPLANATION OF THE FUTURE
Armando Martins Janeira
History is not prophecy, and therefore the business of historians is not to engage in predictions. It is easy, though, to gather a number of examples in which the foresight of the future looms with surprising precision. This without resorting to religion, in which prophetic or nebulous prognostication made in a far away past can always be found by modern augurs to explain retrospectively the bewildering events of our days.
One of the most quoted examples is this passage of Tocqueville, written in 1835 in his book Democracy in America:
“The time will therefore come when one hundred and fifty millions of men will be living in North America, equal in condition, the progeny of our race, owing their origin to the same cause, and preserving the same civilization, the same language, the same religions, the same habits, the same manners, and imbued with the same opinions, propagated under the same forms. The rest is uncertain, but this is certain; and it is a fact new to the world - a fact fraught with such portentous consequences as to baffle the efforts even of the imagination.
“There are, at the present time, two great nations in the world which seem to tend toward the same end, although they started from different points: I allude to the Russians and the Americans. Both of them have grown up unnoticed; and while the attention of mankind was directed elsewhere, they have suddenly assumed the most prominent place among the nations; and the world learned their existence and their greatness at almost the same time.
“All other nations seem to have nearly reached their natural limits, and only to be charged with the maintenance of their power; but these are still in the act of growth; all the others are stopped, or continue to advance with extreme difficulty; these are proceeding with ease and celerity along a path to which the human eye can assign no term. The American struggles against the natural obstacles which oppose him; the adversaries of the Russian are men; the former combats the wilderness and savage life; the latter, civilization with all its weapons and its arts: the conquests of the one are therefore gained by the ploughshare; those of the other by the sword. The Anglo-American relies upon personal interest to accomplish his ends, and gives free scope to the unguided exertions and common sense of the citizens; the Russian centers all the authority of society in a single arm: the principal instrument of the former is freedom; of the latter servitude. Their starting-point is different, and their courses are not the same; yet each of them seems to be marked out by the will of Heaven to sway the destinies of half the globe.” (1)
Tocqueville was not a historian, but a social observer of rare acumen. Many predicted the outburst of the first world war, among them Spengler. However, the example of Spengler shows how relative and short is the sight of great men - a man with the large historical vision displayed in The Decline of the West has at the end of his life believed that the salvation of the world was in Hitler and has supported Nazi doctrines with the blindest intellectual enthusiasm. This and other examples prove that knowledge does not help to see better nor to understand deeper the things of life when passion obscures reason, and shows also how great are the perils of forcing the doors of the future.
Karl Jaspers ends his book Man in the Modern Age by the question: “What is going to happen”, and his answer is “Man, living man, will never answer this question through his own being, in the course of his own activities”. Obviously, it doesn’t advance us much. (2)
In the East, looking into the future has been a more serious occupation than in the West. I am not referring to mere superstitious divination, encouraged by priests of many religions; since the Babylonians and the Greeks, men of all races and breeds pretended to unveil the secrets occult in the stars, in the shape of the mountains, in the entrails of sacrificed animals. I refer to divination as a rational art. The ancient Chinese have found an art of divination based on mathematical principles and expressed in the form of hexagrams. I will come later to the meaning of the I Ching, the Book of Changes. Now it will be enough to say that that extraordinary book which was the basis of Chinese intellectual speculation for more than two and a half thousand years pretends to have found a complete mathematical expression of the principles according to which the universe moves. The hexagrams of the Book of Changes are representations of earthly phenomena and in the interrelation they show, the interrelation of events in the world. Thus the hexagrams were representations of ideas. But these images or phenomena, explains the greatest expert alive, Richard Wilhelm, reveal only the actual; there still remains the problem of extracting counsel from them in order to determine whether a line of action derived from the image is favourable or harmful, whether it should be adopted or avoided. They are probably still used in China and I saw them used in Taiwan. The hexagrams are related to the cosmic process, representing the Yin and the Yang, the heavenly power and the earthly power. The lines can be broken in two and can also change and regroup themselves, making a new hexagram. The three world principles, heaven, earth and man are represented there, and the sixty four hexagrams had to be interpreted, and many interpretations and commentaries were added from century to century. The interpretation would say if the course of action indicated by the images was good or ill. When the trend of an action is in harmony with the laws of the universe, it will succeed, and bring good fortune; if the trend is in opposition to the laws of the universe, it will lead to loss and will bring misfortune. An old Chinese commentary says: “By thinking through the order of the outer world to the end, and by exploring the law of their nature to the deepest core, the holy sages arrived at an understanding of fate.”
The interpretation of the hexagrams is very difficult and the successive commentaries added to them made it still more complicated. About the value of this work, we are led to ponder seriously, when we are told that for great minds like Confucius and Lao-Tse The Book of Changes was the main source of inspiration. In our times, and from the West, C. J. Jung has commented upon it and at least once even made use of it.
Today the interest of the Book of Changes is limited to a small number of scholars, and the modern Chinese have decidedly taken the uncertain paths opened by the Western science for the exploration of the future.
We have seen in the previous chapter that we can definitely see in history the progress of man. But is it possible to unveil through the science or the philosophy of history towards where such progress is bringing us and which great things will happen in the future? There are historians, as we will see further, who try to find a goal to history. But no serious historian believes that it is possible to predict the future course of human history. The theory of progress belongs to the philosophy of history. So, at this point, to find an answer to our question we are obliged to resort to social science.
Sociology tells us that, though we cannot predict the future, this does not preclude the possibility of social prediction, that is, of foreseeing that, under certain conditions, certain developments are bound to occur.
Why wouldn’t it be possible for sociologists to predict the future of social groups, to foresee certain social events, as astronomers are able to forecast the position of planets and eclipses a long time ahead?
Why wouldn’t the new science of social engineering . as physical engineering does by designing new buildings and new machines - be able to plan new institutions, to remodel and improve those already existent, both in the public plane, like the planning of new cities, new trade-unions, new international organizations, and, in the private sector, like creating new industries, new forms of insurance etc.? And going further, why not a human engineering for the purpose of launching a science of Man, to study, exactly and effectively, the way of improving man’s behaviour and even his nature, as if he was a machine operation in accordance with scientific laws?
We have seen before that Marxism, by contending its resting on scientific laws and claiming that history is an exact science, pretends to foresee the future developments of the present society.
It is natural to think that, if man can improve physical environment, he should also be able to improve social environment. Hence a need for a science of the society as a whole. For the first time in history the mass of people are drawn into a process of planned social transformation. These rational social changes are slower in capitalist countries, quicker and radical in communist ones. These changes are made under the justification of certain political ideals and moral principles. We can foresee the results of these changes for the present and near future generations. But we cannot foresee what the results will be in later generations on whose future we are already weighing by our present decisions.
The present state of social science does not allow us to make predictions with scientific precision; the most we can do is to foresee certain tendencies or directions in the social phenomena. Sociology, the “center of reflection about social science”, is still in a formative state. The contemporary increment of social knowledge, without bringing precision, has widen the field of sociology to increasingly vaster fields, where the problems of definition and method become more and more difficult. Sorokin defines sociology as the science of the general characteristics of all classes of social phenomena, with the relationship and correlation between them. (3) This vast definition suggests how many fields of social study can be comprehended therein. Others define still more vaguely sociology as the science which studies “social corporations, the forms of civilization, mankind at large”.
With such an immense scope, it is not surprising that sociology is lacking in precision and clarity of subject matter and certainty of method. Even accomplished sociologists like Sorokin accuse many of their colleagues of merely “piling words” and Unamuno was more pessimistic when he wrote: “that horrible rigmarole which is called sociology”. The encyclopaedic character of sociology has been much in its detriment. Besides, the problems of method have been so absorbing that it has been written that some sociologists, specially in America, are so preoccupied with methodology that they ceased to be interested in society.
Social sciences are trailing behind the physical sciences, still involved with problems of limiting the frontiers to their respective fields and with problems of method.
While physical laws are uniform and valid in space and in time, social laws differ in place and in time. While physics explains events quantitatively, with the aid of mathematic formula, sociology tries to understand events in a more qualitative terms beyond causal explanation.
Sociologists, writes T. B. Bottomore, have succeeded in establishing many empirical generalizations, but they have produced no significant sociological laws. (4)
Only scientific economics (some sociologists like Talcott Parsons and N. J. Smelser tend to consider economic theory as a part of general sociological theory) has experienced success. This success has been limited to reveal the driving forces of economic development through different historical periods. Economics can help us to foresee the outlines of future periods but it cannot help us to develop and put into operation any detailed plan for any new period. (5)
There are, though, a certain number of determinisms verified in economic science. For instance, it is known that there is a connection between the consumption of electric power and the productivity of industrial power, and between the latter and the buying power of the wages. (6)
In France was founded an international center of Prospective, the organ of which is the excellent revue Prospective; the aim of the group is “to study the technical, scientific and social causes which accelerate the evolution of the modern world and to foresee the situation which may derive from their conjunct influences.”
A lot of research, social planning, experiment in social affairs, are being done today in the idea of knowing the dynamics of modern society and by this knowledge suppressing social evils, improving society, accelerating the distribution of social justice, in a word making a short cut toward the future.
Will sociology become a bridge between science and the humanities?
A considerable amount of study and theoretical elaboration has been done in the last years on the sociological field. Impressed by the advance of physics since Galileo and Newton, and of biology since Pasteur, sociologists have been trying to find laws of social evolution. But so far it is difficult to affirm that historical events obey to uniform and precise laws; it would be more appropriate to call them trends. And such trends, or tendencies, on account of their vague and imprecise nature, cannot be used as a basis for scientific predictions. (7)
What the social scientists can do is to study these trends, to calculate their extent and analyse their inter-relationship, and with the results obtained, based on his knowledge of the structure of society, make assumptions about the dynamics of the same society and plan changes for social improvement. The increasing rationalization of contemporary society is a result of social planing. The use of reason in human affairs is the guarantee of liberty. But the rationalization of social life should not go beyond the frontiers of what is known by man. There is a dangerous line beyond which abstract planning threatens to “alienate” man from nature, to alienate him even from human nature.
In such a society, vacant of human values, characterized by a decline of reason, man would become a cheerful robot, cumulated with meaningless gadgets.
But all this lies on the limits of social planning. We should not walk ahead in the dark. And we must also look beyond our steps to try to descry new, promising fields in our distant horizon. We should advance as far ahead as we can on the firm ground of already known realities and, to the further lands where we cannot yet go, address our speculative thought and our indomitable ambition