One could reasonably say that part of the Human condition is to be both hopeful and fearful about our futures, all at the same time. It is a natural part of our thought process, from wondering what the weather will be tomorrow to wondering if a particular job is “right” for us. We all want to know what is going to happen tomorrow.
|The Human Condition – Rene Magritte
Ostensibly, we want to know these things so we can plan and prepare for the inevitable and unexpected (if there is such a thing). If it’s going to rain tomorrow, maybe an umbrella should be in our hand as we walk out the door. If economic indicators point towards a recession, maybe personal financial steps should be taken to insulate oneself from the expected dip. Similarly, maybe a position could be taken to actually profit from the economic downturn? Suffice it to say, there are any number of practical reasons a person might want to know what the next 24 hours, months or years will bring. This desire to know the future dates from our earliest times.
Foreknowledge itself can take any number of forms. Is the expert you turn to for answers a PhD’d Economist? A Geologist? A psychic? A Time Traveler? As many already are aware, for every expert predicting doom and gloom, there is an equally passionate “expert” that predicts the exact opposite. So how can a reasonable person navigate such contradictory information from equally-credentialed “experts?”
Simply put, our decisions regarding which expert to believe is a personal choice. This choice is really only limited only by what we believe is possible. Do you believe, for example, that an economic meltdown is possible in the United States? Did the Greeks believe that their economy would implode before it happened to them? Were their beliefs proven right or wrong? Did the ancient Neapolitans believe that Vesuvius could never erupt, simply because of their own personal experiences?
What is interesting about the Human Condition is that no matter from whence foreknowledge may come, it is always a personal choice on how much credence to put into any particular prediction, experts be damned. For every expert we believe, there is an expert we decide to ignore.
More often than not, we will always ultimately rely on our own personal beliefs (based on our subjective experiences) whether to follow the advice of any given expert.
So what use are experts then? As it turns out, not much, unless you have 5 minutes to fill in the 24 news cycle and its been a slow news day.
Of course, there are other sources of foreknowledge that many indulge in. Instead of relying on Economists or Physicists to predict the future, some rely on psychics, tarot card readers, palmists, the Quatrains of Nostradamus and others. Our western culture puts these “fortune tellers” on a lower rung of credibility than the socially/culturally accepted western fortune tellers such as economists, stock traders or geologists. The reasons for this are beyond the scope of this essay. But, people are used to dealing with psychically derived information and accepting that data “with a pinch of salt.”
In a general sense, people deal with predictions in a variety of ways. Reactions generally follow a person’s preconceived notions of psychic information: “are psychic abilities possible?” If it is possible then a correct prediction reinforces this belief. If the prediction does not come true, then, for the believer, there are any number of explanations and/or justifications why this prediction and the psychic who delivered it, failed. Ultimately though, the belief in psychic functioning isn’t disturbed in any measurable way.
If, on the other hand, if a given individual doesn’t believe in psychic functioning at all, then that individual’s beliefs will be reinforced by a failed prediction and will be undisturbed by a correct one. Humans are natural justification machines. We can justify anything. So, when faced with a belief that psychics are all charlatans, and simultaneously presented with a correct prediction, the non-believer will point to any number of reasons explaining the successful prediction, never allowing for the possibility that the original thesis is correct: psychic functioning is a real and natural human ability.
But this essay is not about whether psychic functioning is a real and natural human ability. Rather it is how we should judge predictions in general, and specifically when we talk about “predictions” by time travelers.
Over the years, there has been literally an endless parade of individuals who have claimed to be time travelers and, as expected, have made predictions in line with the expectations of their audience. Invariably, when anyone comes along making such claims, the inevitable chorus rises up with the predictable refrain of, “prove it!”
When I first set out to investigate the claims by John Titor, and by extension, others, I realized very quickly that:
There is no such thing as proof
There is only evidence
Likewise, I also realized that the typical metric by which many had judged Titor’s statements (both supporting and detracting) was simply wrong. Why? Because they were applying a metric used to measure the accuracy of psychically-derived information (and the psychics themselves) to a decidedly non-psychically derived data set.
They were using the wrong ruler.
The information that John Titor was passing along was not derived by any type of psychic functioning, he was talking to us referring to his own personal experience and memories (supposedly). So by waiting out Titor’s predictions and then simply comparing historical experience with Titor’s predictions, he was either vindicated or debunked. This is exactly the wrong way to measure Titor’s statements!
Generally, when speaking about psychics, it is in their best interest to be as accurate as possible; whether they are the court’s soothsayer in medieval France or some traveling gypsy in a county fair. They are getting paid for their services, such as they are. So whether the soothsayer wizard or gypsy crone is actually providing psychically derived information or merely inventing a story is a secondary consideration to what their goals are. Their goal is to be accurate.
Does any given Time Traveler, though, have a similar goal? Is he motivated by being accurate? Sure, we generally measure whether he is really a time traveler by how accurate his predictions are, but are his motivations in line with our metrics? They are not.
Personally speaking, I no longer play the convincing game. Conviction of a Time Traveler provides all the information one will need to make an informed decision as to whether time travel is real and Titor was merely a man making use of that technology. That being said, there are many who wish to prove (either to themselves or others) that Titor was real. If they continue to use metrics better suited for judging a tarot card reader or Nostradamus, they will fail every time to make their case.
It must also be said that a correct prediction and a failed one do not have the same weight in the balances of judgment. A correct prediction (a missing skyscraper in NYC for example) must be explained by the debunker beyond merely playing the “lucky guess” card. It must be recognized that “lucky guess” can only be played so often before one realizes that the debunker truly has no evidence to support his position.
Carl Sagan once said (and has been adopted by many) that “Incredible Claims Require Incredible Evidence.” I disagree with this statement but, entertaining it for a moment, I must ask:
Which is more unbelievable?
That Time travel exists
Humanity will never conquer time, ever, in the entire future history of the universe?
Which is the more incredible claim?