Seeing the future and determinism

As an economic forecaster, the idea of “seeing the future” is no doubt of interest to me.  Combined with the fact that I have compared economic forecasting to tarot card reading, it would seem that I have a prior belief that the ability to see the future exists – but in fact, I very much don’t.

In essence, my prior belief is that the future is not predetermined per see, but that there are current factors that influence future outcomes that are observable – as a result, we can use knowledge about the causal or empirical relationship between these factors to get some idea regarding what could happen and some of the risks around it.

However, in the face of genuine uncertainty I would believe we have no knowledge.  This specific view also indicates that the distinction between free will and determinism is unobservable – as there is no way to disentangle the relationship between cause and effect in a way that tells us whether there is choice, or whether the causal mechanism in itself determines the future.

Yet, a recent study that appears to show a mildly statistically significant relationship between people’s predictions of what will happen and what does happen BEFORE what occurs has been in any way determined.  In essence, there is complete uncertainty but people’s ability to judge what will happen in the face of this is greater than we would expect from chance! [ht Chris Blattman, Marginal Revolution *].

To me, this also provides a test of determinism vs free will – at least along some level of interaction.  Why?  If it is possible for people to “see the future” before it is ex-post determined then the future must in some sense exist before it appears to exist.

In the face of free will, we can still judge what will happen on the future given information, but we would not expect people to outperform chance in the face of no information.  In the face of determinism we would expect the ability to judge the future with no information would be related to the strength of the precognitive ability of the person – if, among people, this is on average greater than zero we would expect a statistically significant deviation from chance.

This is all very interesting, but I would like to see the results replicated and further testing done before I even begin to shift my posterior probability regarding such things.

4 replies
  1. Matt Nolan
    Matt Nolan says:


    How so?

    This study shows people being able to pick things before they have been physically determined – so it illustrates:

    1) People being able to see the future to some limited degree (the purpose of the study)
    2) The existence of determinism – given that, in order to pick it the outcome needs to be determined BEFORE the causal/physical determination actually occurred. Since it was by chance, the appropriate counter-factual was chance, which the results were statistically different from (my additional point).

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