Humans as Predicting and Predictable Machines
Updated: Jan 27, 2021
In an interesting piece in Aeon ('The Problem with Prediction') Joseph Fridman writes “René Descartes claimed that cognition was the foundation of the human condition. Today, prediction has taken its place.” Is that because today we live in an electronic dumbed-down world where unpredictability, contingency and chance are seen as undesirable attributes?
Prediction and inductive reasoning work best when it assumed that tomorrow will be exactly like today. It is reasonable (and often comforting) to make such an assumption when dealing with the physical world—the motion of planets, tectonics, botany, environmental science, chemical reactions and the like assume a fairly uniform and predictable world (quantum theory notwithstanding!) The biological and evolutionary sciences are also grounded in cause-effect predictability.
We make predictions all the time. There is nothing wrong with that. Accurate predictions based on a solid empirical foundation can help us to meet the future with something like equanimity. We often chide ourselves for not predicting what in hindsight was all too predictable. We predict that Trump will go to jail and a Biden presidency will be better for us--or that it will be more of the same; we predict the pandemic will end and we will get back to 'normal'; we predict our team will win or that our friend will be late for dinner because that is what usually happens. At the same time, when we ourselves are reduced to a physical or psychically predictable thing, object or ‘number’ we consider this to be ‘dehumanizing’. Why? Because we believe that part of what it means to be human is to see ourselves as fallible, freely choosing beings who cannot be programmed or reduced to predictable, robotic machines. As Aristotle might might say, the human realm of freedom is characterized as 'that which can be otherwise than it is'.
Yet it precisely a mechanistic understanding of humans as predictable and predicting machines that has, since Thomas Hobbes Leviathan, been used as a rationale for political control (mass production and profit). In this sense the important question is not whether we are predicting and predictable beings, but rather, why did it become necessary to see us in this way. There is a very good reason. Prediction is crucial in a capitalist world. It thrives when unpredictable human beings can be made predictable: i.e. quantified, controlled, disciplined, managed, bought and sold.
Fridman tells us that many brain scientists believe that the brain understood as a ‘prediction engine’ be can “a conceptual tool used to understand the deepest essence of our humanity”. If that is true then our 'essential humanity' does not amount to much!
I would argue instead that to understand ‘our deepest humanity’ is not to understand ourselves as predicting and predictable machines, but rather as beings who always already exist within a complex web of manifold meanings, histories, orientations, interpretations and relations: a world of contingency and possibility where human beings are ‘human’ precisely when they are not entirely predictable, and cannot predict with certainty what the future will bring.
Wisdom and ethical insight are not “additive” or logical step-by-step “processes” or procedures that can be digitally replicated. They do not advance or deepen as a consequence of strict adherence to self-evident laws in a straight-forward, predictive continuous line. Nor can wisdom be gained programmatically as a set of rules, facts, algorithms, theorems or mere data.
Instead, it is the uniqueness, unpredictability, coarseness, ambiguity and often opaque quality of human experience that makes the acquisition of practical wisdom and ethical depth challenging for us, and impossible to collapse into any kind of numerical arrangement or predictive algorithm. Wisdom, ethical understanding and the exercise of good judgment are acquired through experience and practice, by a constant back and forth attentiveness and reflection upon always changing situations and contexts in relation to more general or universal ideas and principles. In a real sense the more predictable we become, the less human we are.
Autocratic leaders and for-profit corporations would be only too happy if human beings would gradually pattern themselves after the predictable programmed robot! It should then be no surprise to anyone that the rise of capitalism coincided with an understanding of human beings as mechanistic and predictable objects to be controlled and profited from.
Indeed, there is something truly disturbing about the way human relations, human experience and meaning are now so easily reduced to mathematical models of predictive decision-making, algorithms or “game-theory”, and then replicated in “virtual” digitized worlds.
Is it possible that these human orientations are easier to replicate because our “really existing world” has become a place where worship of celebrity and banality abounds; where social media elites see people as predictable ‘consumers’ rather than free individuals and political beings; beings who can be converted into shallow personal preferences, likes or dislikes.
In a digitized world it has become normal and acceptable to reduce deep moral issues and complex, multifaceted geopolitical situations to simplistic formulas, preferences and “either-or” bifurcations: You’re either with us or with the terrorists; you either like or dislike what someone says; you either see Trump as completely evil or a God-given saviour. Informed, thought-provoking debate has been largely displaced by shrill, loudmouthed boors who are paid enormous sums of money to advocate extremist conspiracies and intolerant, sexist, xenophobic and warmongering attitudes on social media and talk radio.
A zombie culture that mindlessly reduces human differences and complexities to banal maxims, and increasingly valorizes empty, superficial forms of communicative interaction, is much easier to replicate with 1s and 0s, and therefore much easier to control, predict and profit from.
Reducing the human condition to something quantifiable, measurable and “thing-like” has always been attractive to science. In their theoretical and fundamentalist zeal, biologists, neuro-physiologists, psychologists and sociologists have provided much of the groundwork here: reducing the human person to a set of genes, or human thinking and emotional experience to neuronal, electro-chemical signalling in the brain, or human action to formulaic indices that promise to give us a better understanding of human physiology or psychology, and more accurate ways of assessing risk or predicting behavioral outcomes.
In these days of global pandemic, we are told that we should be guided by science—and rightly so. There is very good reason to follow the advice of science and take appropriate steps to reduce the risk of spreading a virulent pathogen. But it is also clear that over time humans will inevitably rebel against the idea of being seen through a narrow scientific lens as no more than carriers of a disease, and treated as a mere body that must be confined and quarantined.
The reason for that is rather obvious: human reality and experience transcends the domain of scientific method and prediction. We become more fully human when we are able to go beyond a reductive understanding of ourselves, and instead expand our thinking and experience beyond what is controllable and predictable.
Here, it is not science but art, historical awareness, philosophy, poetry and literature that speak to us in profound and truthful ways about who we are, what we should do, and what we can hope for. Within such a broadened context of thinking and awareness we are compelled to finally conclude that 'what is to come' can neither be known or predicted with anything like certainty!
You can read the article in Aeon here: