We want to think of the future as a universal, abstract concept, and then make general conclusions about it. Often these conclusions of something unknown are made by looking at something known (the past). We may, sometimes with a great deal of casuistry, trace a causal relationship between prior and subsequent events, but this interpretation is an interpretation of actual events.
When we apply our position about the predictability of the future in general to smaller parts, don't we find some events are predictable and others far less so?
The future is always "owned." It is MY future, or the future (of) computing, or the future (of) philosophy, or the future (of) France, and so forth. We normally say, moreover, that events closer to our now are more predictable than events further off---"the foreseeable future," which varies from one horizon to another and even within one will vary from time to time.
Economics looks at a large aggregate of individual actions and makes predictions based on mathematical models and statistical projections. Think of Adam Smith's "invisible
hand." How certain in their predictions are models and statistics, and if they can predict general outcomes, can they predict individual ones?
Marx made predictions based on classes acting in a particular manner. Why was he wrong? Well, he assumed members of the class always acted from certain motives and ignored that actions could be caused by a whole range of motives in combination. We continue to think along some such lines today: Republicans, Blacks, Goths and assume without actually saying the word "all" (each and every), a uniformity that only exists as a "family resemblance."
Let us consider an example of something that each of us would know and know expertly---(My) future. Does our special and unique knowledge of ourselves make our own predictions about our own future more or less valid than an observer's, and if so, does this apply to all circumstances?
Now imagine a case in which something is predicted with some amount of authority, and this prediction is known beforehand. Does this influence the outcome of events? We everywhere hear and read, for example, that Obama's election is almost a certainty; how does this prediction influence the individual voter, and does it influence each voter in precisely the same way?
But then someone says, we can at least predict future physical events because nature operates in a regular fashion and we understand the laws by which it does what it does. This might be the case when we are talking about dropping a book ten years from now and predicting it will fall to the ground. But take a counter-example currently in everyone's mind: global warming. This should
be completely predictable in its effects and in its time-scale, but predictions even from scientific specialists will vary. Part of this problem is incomplete data, part is an incomplete understanding of what data are pertinent, part is a lack of certainly about which "laws" apply to which area of a very complex "equation."
Suppose we could journey back and talk to Dr. Livingston and one of his natives. We ask each of them to predict his own personal future, and then we ask each of them to predict the future of the Congo. Are there differences in reliability in either case?
To ask the question about the predictability of the future is to ask, at least in part, about the many kinds of predictions and the many kinds of futures.