1500 words about the future
by Steven Cottingham

The future is the indefinite time period after the present. Its arrival is considered inevitable due to the existence of time and the laws of physics. Due to the apparent nature of reality and the unavoidability of the future, everything that currently exists and will exist can be categorized as either permanent, meaning that it will exist for the whole of the future, or temporary, meaning that it won't and thus will come to an end. The future and the concept of eternity have been major subjects of philosophy, religion, and science, and defining them non-controversially has consistently eluded the greatest of minds.1 It is the opposite of the past.2 In the Occidental view, which uses a linear conception of time, the future is the portion of the projected time line that is anticipated to occur.3 In special relativity, the future is considered absolute future, or the future light cone.4 In physics, time is the fourth dimension of the universe.5

In the philosophy of time, presentism is the belief that only the present exists and the future and the past are unreal. Religions consider the future when they address issues such as karma, life after death, and eschatologies that study what the end of time and the end of the world will be. Religious figures such as prophets and diviners have claimed to see into the future. Organized efforts to predict or forecast the future may have derived from observations by early man of heavenly objects.

Future studies, or futurology, is the science, art, and practice of postulating possible futures. Modern practitioners stress the importance of alternative and plural futures, rather than one monolithic future, and the limitations of prediction and probability, versus the creation of possible and preferable futures.

The future has been explored through several art movements and cultural genres. The futurism art movement at the beginning of the 20th century, explored every medium of art, including painting, sculpture, poetry, theatre, music, architecture, and even gastronomy. Futurists had passionate loathing of ideas from the past, especially political and artistic traditions. Instead, they espoused a love of speed, technology, and violence.4 5 Futuristic music involved homage to, inclusion of, or imitation of machines. Futurism expanded to encompass other artistic domains and ultimately included industrial design, textiles, and architecture.

Forecasting is the process of estimating outcomes in uncontrolled situations. Forecasting is applied in many areas, such as weather forecasting, earthquake prediction, transport planning, and labour market planning. Due to the element of the unknown, risk and uncertainty are central to forecasting.

Prediction is similar to forecasting but is used more generally, for instance to also include baseless claims on the future. Organized efforts to predict the future began with practices like astrology, haruspicy, and augury. These are all considered to be pseudoscience today, evolving from the human desire to know the future in advance.

Modern efforts such as future studies attempt to predict technological and societal trends, while more ancient practices, such as weather forecasting, have benefited from scientific and causal modelling. Despite the development of cognitive instruments for the comprehension of future, the stochastic and chaotic nature of many natural and social processes has made precise forecasting of the future elusive.

Future studies or futurology is the science, art and practice of postulating possible, probable, and preferable futures and the worldviews and myths that underlie them. Futures studies seeks to understand what is likely to continue, what is likely to change, and what is novel. Part of the discipline thus seeks a systematic and pattern-based understanding of past and present, and to determine the likelihood of future events and trends. A key part of this process is understanding the potential future impact of decisions made by individuals, organizations, and governments. Leaders use results of such work to assist in decision-making.

“Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you.”
– Patrick Dixon, author of Futurewise

Futures is an interdisciplinary field, studying yesterday’s and today’s changes, and aggregating and analyzing both lay and professional strategies, and opinions with respect to tomorrow. It includes analyzing the sources, patterns, and causes of change and stability in the attempt to develop foresight and to map possible futures. Modern practitioners stress the importance of alternative and plural futures, rather than one monolithic future, and the limitations of prediction and probability, versus the creation of possible and preferable futures.

In physics, time is a fourth dimension. Physicists argue that space-time can be understood as a sort of stretchy fabric that bends due to forces such as gravity. In classical physics the future is just a half of the timeline, which is the same for all observers. In special relativity the flow of time is relative to the observer's frame of reference. The faster an observer is traveling away from a reference object, the slower that object seems to move through time. Hence, future is not an objective notion anymore. A more significant notion is absolute future or the future light cone. While a person can move backwards or forwards in the three spatial dimensions, many physicists argue you are only able to move forward in time. 8

One of the outcomes of Special Relativity Theory is that a person can travel into the future (but never come back) by traveling at very high speeds. While this effect is negligible under ordinary conditions, space travel at very high speeds can change the flow of time considerably. As depicted in many science fiction stories and movies (e.g. déjà vu), a person traveling for even a short time at near light speed will return to an Earth that is many years in the future.

Some physicists claim that by using a wormhole to connect two regions of space-time a person could theoretically travel in time. Physicist Michio Kaku points out that to power this hypothetical time machine and “punch a hole into the fabric of space-time”, it would require the energy of a star. Another theory is that a person could travel in time with cosmic strings.

While a person cannot go back in time, information can. The bell inequality in quantum physics allows for information to go back in time, but only as long as no one has tried to retrieve it in the past.

“The trouble with the future is that it's so much less knowable than the past.”
– John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History9

In the philosophy of time, presentism is the belief that only the present exists, and the future and past are unreal. Past and future "entities" are construed as logical constructions or fictions. The opposite of presentism is “eternalism”, which is the belief that things in the past and things yet to come exist eternally. Another view (not held by many philosophers) is sometimes called the “growing block” theory of time—which postulates that the past and present exist, but the future does not.10

Presentism is compatible with Galilean relativity, in which time is independent of space, but is probably incompatible with Lorentzian/Einsteinian relativity in conjunction with certain other philosophical theses that many find uncontroversial. Saint Augustine proposed that the present is a knife edge between the past and the future and could not contain any extended period of time.

Contrary to Saint Augustine, some philosophers propose that conscious experience is extended in time. For instance, William James said that time is “… the short duration of which we are immediately and incessantly sensible.” Augustine proposed that God is outside of time and present for all times, in eternity. Other early philosophers who were presentists include the Buddhists (in the tradition of Indian Buddhism). A leading scholar from the modern era on Buddhist philosophy is Stcherbatsky, who has written extensively on Buddhist presentism:

“Everything past is unreal, everything future is unreal, everything imagined, absent, mental ... is unreal ... Ultimately real is only the present moment of physical efficiency [i.e., causation].”11

While ethologists consider animal behavior largely based on fixed action patterns or other learned traits in an animal’s past, human behavior is known to encompass anticipation of the future. Anticipatory behavior can be the result of a psychological outlook toward the future, for examples optimism, pessimism, and hope.

Optimism is an outlook on life such that one maintains a view of the world as a positive place. People would say that optimism is seeing the glass “half full” of water as opposed to half empty. It is the philosophical opposite of pessimism. Optimists generally believe that people and events are inherently good, so that most situations work out in the end for the best. Hope is a belief in a positive outcome related to events and circumstances in one's life. Hope implies a certain amount of despair, wanting, wishing, suffering or perseverance – i.e., believing that a better or positive outcome is possible even when there is some evidence to the contrary. “Hopefulness” is somewhat different from optimism in that hope is an emotional state, whereas optimism is a conclusion reached through a deliberate thought pattern that leads to


1     Hastings, J., Selbie, J. A., & Gray, L. H. (1908). Encyclopædia of religion and ethics. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark. Page 335–337.
2     Hegeler, E. C., & Carus, P. (1890). The Monist. La Salle, Ill. [etc.]: Published by Open Court for the Hegeler Institute. page 443.
3     Moore, C.-L., & Yamamoto, K. (1988). Beyond words: movement observation and analysis. New York: Gordon and Breach. Page 57. (cf., The representation of time as a linear, unidirectional progression is a distinctly Occidental point of view.)
4     Eddington, A. S. (1921). Space, time and gravitation; an outline of the general relativity theory. Cambridge: University Press. Page 107.
5     Bragdon, C. F. (1913). A primer of higher space (the fourth dimension). Rochester, N.Y.: The Manas press. Page 18.
6     Umbro Apollonio (ed.), Futurist Manifestos, MFA Publications, 2001 ISBN 978-0-87846-627-6.
7     “The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism”. italianfuturism.org (Originally published on Le Figaro, Paris, February 20, 1909).
8     You Can't Travel Back in Time, Scientists Say. LiveScience.
9     Gaddis, John Lewis (2002). The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-19-517157-0.
10     Broad, C.D. (1923). Scientific Thought. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.