In many ways, the developed world is becoming increasingly tolerant. We are more educated on mental health, more informed on social and global issues, more sensitive to other cultures and religions, and we even allow those of the same sex to marry. Supporters of a more progressive society continue to advocate for these causes, often summarizing their position with the following statement:

People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.

When first heard, this seems like a modern, insightful and reasonable thing to say. In fact, this point of view is actually very old, and this statement has so many glaring flaws and omissions that it’s hardly worth uttering in this context. Let’s begin unraveling this hideous tapestry by exploring its history.

Popularized by John Stuart Mill in his 1859 book, On Liberty, this idea, known as the harm principle, is one of the foundational doctrines of Liberalism. Although Mill coined the phrase, a similar statement appears 70 years earlier in France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: “Liberty consists in the freedom to do everything which injures no one else…”

This idea has carried on through the centuries and has recently become a maxim for progressive citizens. The modern form of the harm principle can be expressed in a number of ways, usually appearing as one of the following:

  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone.
  • People should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t affect others.
  • As long as everyone involved approves and it doesn’t affect anyone else, then people can do whatever they want.
  • Consenting adults can do whatever they want, as long as no one else gets hurt.

It’s important to note the small differences because this statement is extremely broad and has powerful, far-reaching implications. After all, the written word is the only thing that protects our most basic rights and freedoms, and as we’ve already discussed, the claims we make often support views that we don’t agree with. In addition, we usually aren’t even aware of the assumptions behind our claims. Let’s illustrate these issues using a relevant example.

In the recent push to legalize gay marriage in the United States, many came forward with pleas for tolerance, and many of them invoked some variation on the harm principle. Their views were frequently summarized in this way:

People should be allowed to marry anyone they want.

This seems like a perfectly reasonable opinion, but hold on a minute. Is that really what they mean? After all, they weren’t addressing the age of consent, and yet this statement implies that there should be no distinction between adults and minors.

The point here isn’t to say who should and shouldn’t be allowed to get married, just that we are often careless with the phrasing of our views and values, and we are often unaware of the implications that follow. After all, most of those who spoke in favor of gay marriage still support a number of the following marriage restrictions:

  • People should not be allowed to marry minors.
  • People should not be allowed to marry ideas, inanimate objects, artificial intelligences or animals.
  • People should not be allowed to marry either blood and adoptive relatives.
  • People should not be allowed to marry temporarily.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are already married.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t know or those who don’t know them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those they don’t love or those who don’t love them.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those living in other countries.
  • People should not be allowed to marry those who are severely mentally impaired.

Some make the defense that the statement is not meant to address these other issues, but because of its phrasing it does exactly that. If a law was passed stating that anyone could marry anyone else, then all of these conditions, along with many others, would be perfectly legal.

Now we’ve seen how improper or incomplete phrasing can cause problems, so how does the harm principle square up? If we really want to enact a law stating that people should be allowed to do whatever they want, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone, then there at least 205 important questions that need to be answered:

    1.  What does it mean to harm someone?
      1. Does it mean failing to help others?
        • Does it include refusing to donate blood and organs?
        • Does it include refusing to give to a panhandler?
        • Does it include refusing to foil a robbery?
        • Does it include refusing to volunteer?
        • Does it include refusing to donate to charity?
        • Does it include refusing to discourage unhealthy behavior?
        • Does it include refusing to comfort someone who is upset?
        • Does it include refusing to do business with those who can’t afford it?
        • Does it include refusing to share trade secrets?
      2. Does it mean providing unwanted help?
        • Does it include providing poor quality help?
        • Does it include providing untimely help?
      3. Does it mean intending to harm?
        • Does it include failing to cause harm?
        • Does it include helping by mistake?
      4. Does it mean failing to fulfill a responsibility?
        • Does it include failing to converse with acquaintances?
        • Does it include failing to spend time with friends and relatives?
        • Does it include failing to provide quality services and products?
        • Does it include failing to diagnose or assess a problem?
      5. Does it mean causing physical harm?
        1. Does it mean causing pain?
          • Does it include small amounts of pain?
          • Does it include very short duration of pain?
          • Does it include pain caused during medical procedures?
          • Does it include pain caused during sports?
        2. Does it mean causing unwanted contact?
          • Does it include pushing and shoving?
          • Does it include playing?
          • Does it include tickling?
          • Does it include hugging and kissing?
        3. Does it mean causing an injury?
          • Does it include small injuries
          • Does it include temporary injuries?
          • Does it include painless injuries?
        4. Does it include negatively affecting health?
          • Does it include spreading an illness or disease?
          • Does it include enabling unhealthy behavior?
          • Does it include tempting those with addictions?
          • Does it include serving unhealthy food?
      6. Does it mean causing emotional harm?
        1. Does it mean causing emotional discomfort?
          • Does it include saying something controversial?
          • Does it include confronting someone?
          • Does it include approaching a stranger?
        2. Does it mean causing emotional pain?
          • Does it include deceiving someone?
          • Does it include criticizing someone?
          • Does it include insulting someone?
          • Does it include mocking someone?
          • Does it include disappointing fans, friends and family?
          • Does it include disciplining children?
          • Does it include cheating on a lover?
          • Does it include ending a relationship?
        3. Does it mean causing offense?
          • Does it include using crude language or gestures?
          • Does it include showing irreverence toward a religion?
          • Does it include being insensitive to those who have suffered traumatic experiences?
          • Does it include living a controversial lifestyle?
      7. Does it mean causing financial harm?
        1. Does it include disrupting finances?
          • Does it include spreading false information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading accurate but controversial information about a person, product or organization?
          • Does it include spreading positive information about a harmful person, product or organization?
          • Does it include refusing to do business with a person or organization?
          • Does it include protesting or boycotting a product or organization?
          • Does it include automating or oursourcing jobs?
          • Does it include putting a competing company out of business?
        2. Does it include failing to properly raise children?
          • Does it include failing to provide life skills?
          • Does it include failing to pay for college?
          • Does it include refusing to buy toys?
          • Does it include refusing to go on vacations?
          • Does it include failing to properly educate students?
        3. Does it include exploitation?
      8. Does it mean causing harm unintentionally or as a consequence?
      9. Does it mean causing risk of harm?
        • Does it include driving above the speed limit?
        • Does it include engaging in dangerous sports or activities?
        • Does it include leaving hazards about?
        • Does it include failing to wash one’s hands?
      10. Does it mean causing indirect or ambiguous harm?
        • Does it include condoning or enabling harmful behavior?
        • Does it include failing to discourage harmful behavior?
        • Does it include supporting exploitative organizations?
        • Does it include hurting someone by affecting those they care about?
        • Does it include supplying substances to an addict?
        • Does it include gossiping or spreading rumors?
        • Does it include using language that some might consider offensive?
        • Does it include illegally copying music, movies and software?
        • Does it include cheating on a test?
        • Does it include buying illicit drugs?
        • Does it include hurting someone without their knowledge?
        • Does it include hurting someone who accepts or invites harm?
    2. Who are the people participating in the behavior?
      1. Does this mean people of all types?
        • Does this include minors?
        • Does this include the elderly?
        • Does this include the mentally disabled?
        • Does this include the mentally ill?
        • Does this include the drug addicted?
        • Does this include convicted or suspected criminals?
        • Does this include businesses, governments and institutions?
        • Does this include the homeless?
        • Does this include illegal immigrants?
        • Does this include politicians and public figures?
        • Does this include people in other countries?
      2. Does this mean people of all beliefs?
    3. Who are those affected by the behavior?
      1. Does this mean all life?
        • Does this include animals?
        • Does this include plants?
        • Does this include microscopic organisms?
      2. Does this mean all people?
        • Does this include the participants?
        • Does this include friends and family?
        • Does this include people from other places in the world?
        • Does this include people who don’t yet exist?
      3. Does this mean the collective?
        1. Does this mean burdening society?
          • Does this include getting a divorce?
          • Does this include engaging in sexual promiscuity?
          • Does this include eating unhealthy food?
          • Does this include failing to exercise?
          • Does this include smoking, using drugs or drinking alcohol?
          • Does this include being homeless?
        2. Does this mean taxing collective or government resources?
          • Does this include overusing parks and public facilities?
          • Does this include misusing emergency services?
          • Does this include having numerous children?
          • Does this include suing insurance companies?
          • Does this include living with a disability?
        3. Does this mean failing to fulfill social responsibilities?
          • Does this include failing to recycle or pick up trash?
          • Does this include failing to be informed on social issues?
          • Does this include failing to hold the government accountable?
          • Does this include refusing to vote?
          • Does this include refusing to procreate?
          • Does this include failing to maintain employment?
          • Does this include refusing to engage in consumerism?
          • Does this include failing to manage personal finances?
    4. What does it mean for a person to want something?
      1. Does this mean people with addictions?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to substances like tobacco, drugs or alcohol?
        • Does this include people who are addicted to activities like lying, stealing or having sex?
      2. Does this mean people with mental health issues?
        • Does this include people who are insane?
        • Does this include people with depression?
        • Does this include people with dementia?
      3. Does this mean people with a dire need for attention or approval?
        • Does this include pressuring peers?
        • Does this include hazing initiates?
      4. Does this mean people who are very poor?
        1. Does this mean allowing any work terms?
          • Does this include voluntary slavery?
          • Does this include unsafe working conditions?
        2. Does this mean allowing any depraved or harmful acts in exchange for money?
          • Does this include paying for permission to humiliate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to rape?
          • Does this include paying for permission to torture or mutilate?
          • Does this include paying for permission to murder?
          • Does this include paying people to fight, even to the death?
          • Does this include paying people for their blood, organs or body parts?
      5. Does this mean people with extreme, demented or violent interests?
        • Does this include engaging in self mutilation?
        • Does this include committing suicide or making suicide pacts?
        • Does this include cannibalism?
        • Does this include incest?
    5. How do we demonstrate whether or not behavior is harmful?
      1. Who is responsible for demonstrating whether or not behavior is harmful?
        • Does this mean the government?
        • Does this mean the people participating in the behavior?
        • Does this mean the people who are affected by the behavior?
      2. What kinds of arguments are acceptable?
        • Does this include surveys and studies?
        • Does this include philosophical speculations?
        • Does this include anecdotal evidence?
      3. How much harm is required for behavior to be considered harmful?
        • Does this mean that a certain number of people must be harmed?
        • Does this mean that a certain degree of harm must be inflicted?
    6. What should be done when behavior is determined to be harmful?
      1. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be discouraged?
        • Does this include using government advertisements?
        • Does this include using public schools?
        • Does this include banning dangerous activities?
        • Does this include banning offensive words?
      2. Does this mean that all acts that are harmful should be illegal?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to harm those who harm others?
        • Does this mean that it’s okay to cause harm in order to prevent harm?
      3. Does this mean that those who accept or invite harm should be protected?
        • Does this include those who welcome harm in the name of a belief?
        • Does this include those who instigate harmful behavior?
        • Does this include those who are indifferent to harm?

The issue isn’t that the harm principle has no value, it’s that those who use it to argue a position usually haven’t considered the many ramifications of such a belief. This is true of many other popular sayings. Take a look at the following statements and try to identify any potential problems:

  • We should not implement socialist programs.
  • The government should not regulate the economy.
  • People should be allowed to own weapons.
  • Parents should not indoctrinate their children.
  • The government should not censor anything.
  • Parents should be allowed to raise their children however they choose.
  • People should not force their beliefs on others.
  • The government should stay out of the bedroom.
  • We should do whatever it takes to stop terrorists.

The world is an incredibly complicated place, and a great deal of thought and discussion that goes into making important decisions. Pretending that the our problems can be solved by such simple rules hardly improves the conversation, and making declarations that we don’t fully understand is foolish and irresponsible.

Boiling Acid

Most of us remember the 1995 movie Batman Forever for its wacky villains and cheesy dialogue, but there’s one scene that stands out from the rest.

Early on in the film, Batman attempts to foil an evil plot by his nemesis, Two-Face, to rob a bank. Of course, it turns out that the robbery is merely a ploy to kill Batman. Our hero is lured into a vault in an attempt to save an unlucky security guard, but they become trapped when the door suddenly swings shut.

The vault is then snatched from the building by a chain connected to a helicopter, leaving Batman and the hapless guard inside the vault, now precariously dangling high above the streets of Gotham City. Then, as if things couldn’t get any worse, safe deposit boxes burst open, spewing forth a suspicious, steaming fluid. The frightened security guard then screams, “Oh, no! It’s boiling acid!”

Wait a minute. Forget about the vault, the helicopter, the terrible acting and the source of the acid. Why is Two-Face filling the vault with boiling acid?

First of all, a criminal mastermind like Two-Face would know that a human body dissolves much more quickly in a base than an acid. This is why both Mexican drug cartels and medical institutions use them to dispose of unwanted cadavers.

Second, there is no apparent reason to boil the acid. Sure, it speeds up the process a little, but it would still take several hours to dissolve our hero, assuming that his suit isn’t acid-resistant, which it probably is. In addition, the liquid in question was likely sulfuric acid, since it is both powerful and easy to obtain, and sulfuric acid boils at 648 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s an awful lot of planning, equipment and energy spent just to make Batman melt slightly faster.

Perhaps Two-Face had something else in mind other than dissolving the Caped Crusader. Boiling the acid would cause Batman to inhale its toxic fumes. But though he would likely suffer severe and long-lasting respiratory damage, it takes significant time – hours or even days – for someone to feel the effects of exposure.

It’s also worth mentioning that submerging someone in boiling water, which is only a fraction of the temperature of boiling acid, results in sudden, instant and even immediate death. Since Batman would die just as quickly in boiling water as in boiling acid, there’s seems to be no rational reason to boil it.

Finally, filling the vault with any liquid, regardless of its temperature or corrosive properties, would certainly drown our hero in a few short minutes. Batman is courageous and resilient, but he still needs to breathe.

So what possible explanation could there be for using boiling acid? What sinister objective was Two-Face trying to achieve? As a well-educated former district attorney, how could he possibly fail to realize the glaring impracticality and absurdity of such an elaborate plan? Apart from producing a suspenseful and memorable scene in the film, there’s really only one conclusion we can make, and it’s explained by the origin story of Two-Face.

Harvey Dent became Two-Face after being driven insane by his hideous facial disfigurement – a disfigurement that he received as a result of contact with sulfuric acid. Like Batman, Dent was a crime fighter, and he paid the price for his cause in the form of a courtroom attack in which he was deliberately splashed in the face with the corrosive substance. This explains why he would use acid as part of his plot against Batman. He wanted to remind our hero of what was done to him and make Batman feel what he felt. Perhaps he expected, and maybe even hoped, that Batman would ultimately survive, but only after being burned and disfigured like himself. This theory is supported by the fact that the bank heist took place on the anniversary of Two-Face’s capture at the hands of Batman.

If this was indeed the case, then this would also explain why he boiled the acid. Two-Face could have suspected that Batman might keep a small oxygen tank hidden in his utility belt, so he likely couldn’t drown him. And maybe, just maybe, he considered that Batman might wear an acid-resistant suit in preparation for just such a scheme, so he likely couldn’t dissolve him. And so Two-Face boiled the acid, ensuring that Batman would certainly and immediately succumb to its unbearable heat.

Unfortunately we still don’t know why the attacker in the courtroom used acid to attack Dent or, more importantly, whether or not it was boiling.

Mind Control

Robotic prosthetic limbs are truly amazing. These devices allow those who have suffered catastrophic, life-altering illnesses and injuries to regain lost mobility or dexterity and to experience aspects of life that were once inaccessible. In addition to improving the quality of life for millions of people, robotic prostheses have also inspired us to imagine new, exciting ways that the technology could be used.

While modern electronics continue to offer more immersive and intuitive interfaces, these inventions are still bound by the limitation of physical interaction. Touchscreens, mice and keyboards are very useful devices, but they still require us to translate our thoughts into actions before accepting input. This might lead us to wonder, “wouldn’t it be great if we could control devices with our minds?”

Although telepathic communication is often depicted as a lightning-quick, visceral technology in science fiction, there’s actually no convincing evidence that it would increase the speed or ease of communication, and the details of such interfaces appear anything but simple and intuitive. Let’s find out why this is the case.

Most of us believe that we can think faster than we can move or speak. This is based on the false assumption that the physical body merely limits the conscious mind. In actuality, the truth is often the opposite.

Our bodies not only optimize our cognitive abilities by sending important data to the brain, prioritizing things that require our immediate attention, they also carry out critical, complex tasks without conscious direction, often without our knowledge or consent, which frees our minds to spend attention in other ways. Examples include everything from walking and talking to biking and typing. By restricting our interface to only accept conscious thought, we are actually forcing ourselves to take control of automated systems, which impedes our mental capacity. It forces us to think about every individual instruction rather than the function as a whole. Imagine trying to think out a sentence one word or even one character at a time.

Another problem is that we don’t actually know how fast our brains can think. We also don’t know how fast they think whatever type of thoughts a telepathic device would accept. What we do know is that a comfortable rate of speech is about 150 words per minute and that skilled typists can reach upward of 120 words per minute. It’s likely that an improved keyboard configuration would allow for even faster speeds, so the disparity between speech and typing is actually very small. We also know that the average person reads at about 250 words per minute, which is about as fast as an auctioneer speaks. Using speed reading techniques, it’s possible to achieve a pace exceeding 500 words per minute. While comprehension at these rates usually falls between 60 and 70 per cent, these figures reveal that our brains can actually accept data far faster than they can generate it.

Of course, it’s possible that our rates of comprehension and speech are limited by our senses, so we we might accept and transmit data faster if we removed our mouth, fingers, ears, eyes and other body parts from the equation. But as it stands, the average person can type and speak at a rate similar to how they read and listen, which means that the bottleneck that telepathy would supposedly overcome has not yet been observed.

If we take a look at how modern robotic prostheses work, we observe yet another hurdle. Robotic limbs pick up signals sent from the brain, but they do not sense them within the brain. They merely intercept instructions in the nervous system on the way to the muscles. The difference is a significant because the type of thought that moves a limb is very different from other thoughts that occur in the brain. And this is precisely the problem: there are many different types of thoughts.

Our brains carry out a variety tasks, both conscious and otherwise. They are constantly sending and receiving signals to and from various locations in the body, monitoring and controlling our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, muscular, respiratory, lymphatic, urinary, excretory, reproductive, digestive and immune systems. Our brains are also remembering the past, perceiving the present and predicting the future, and they’re usually doing more than one of these at any given moment.

The thought protocol for each functions is unique and must be distinguished if we plan to implement telepathic technology, for even the way we ponder a simple idea can vary significantly. We don’t just think in complete, coherent sentences, like mind-readers would have us believe. Our brains process emotions, sensations, opinions, images, music and ideas, and we’re thinking all these things while both consciously and unconsciously controlling our bodies. To illustrate the variation in thought, let’s examine all of the ways that we can think about a dog.

First of all, thinking the word dog is different from thinking about the word dog. It’s different from saying the word dog, thinking about saying the word dog and reading the word dog. It’s also different from thinking about a dog, some dogs or dogs in general, and it’s different from imagining or remembering a dog. It’s different from wanting a dog, missing a dog and loving or hating a dog. It’s different from looking at a dog, looking at a picture of dog, imagining a picture of a dog, and it’s different from imagining a picture of the word dog. It’s different from thinking about what it’s like to be a dog, from wanting to be a dog, and it’s different from actually being a dog. And thinking the word dog is different than thinking about thinking the word dog, and it’s different from considering thinking the word dog. Of course, considering thinking about the word dog is impossible, which brings us to our next point.

There’s a big difference between thinking something and doing or saying it, but if devices are controlled by thoughts directly from the brain, how would they know the difference? If someone with a prosthetic arm imagines punching another person in the face, the arm doesn’t do it, because it is merely sensing signals in the nervous system. But if we were controlling a device purely through thoughts in the brain, how would it distinguish which thoughts to obey and which to ignore?

If we consider taking an action, our body does not execute that action until we have made the decision to send the signal to our muscles. But in the brain there is no such confirmation through action. If we were to try and write an e-mail using a telepathically-controlled computer, how would we separate the words we wanted to send from the words we were considering? And how would we control punctuation, spacing, format and other details? Would we have to construct each sentence using individual words, or would we simply send raw thoughts, ideas or emotions? Would we be able to mute incoming signals or control their priority or storage? Would we be able to transmit images, music and other media? How about emotions? How would our brain receive emotional signals? And how would we deal with distractions and multitasking?

One possible solution to a few of these issues could be to use the nervous system to communicate. This would involve training our minds to control imaginary limbs that we pretend are part of our bodies. The instructions could then be translated into other signals that could be interpreted by a device. We can prove that this is possible by simply imagining that we have another set of arms beneath our normal arms and then imagining moving them around. This produces an eerie sensation that is likely similar to phantom limb syndrome.

Another less efficient option would be to confirm thoughts by thinking the words out loud (or speaking internally). It’s much harder to articulate how this type of thought works, but it’s probably best described as strongly imagining saying a word. Unfortunately, this solution would mean that we could only transmit words and only do so one at a time.

One of the more serious problems with telepathic technology would be deciding exactly what would be transmitted. Thoughts would have to converted into electrical signals, but our thoughts are usually very abstract, and the brain hides the complexities of most of its functions from our consciousness. In addition, the brain also prioritizes, categorizes and filters incoming information, so sending mere words would not only be incredibly difficult, but also incredibly incomplete when compared to the advanced level of thought that normally occurs in the mind.

In addition to all these barriers, there is also the issue that our brains, while absolutely amazing, are quite terrible. We are constantly overlooking, misinterpreting and forgetting things, and we get distracted easily and often. Just stop and think about your thoughts for a moment. Are they ordered, logical, focused and useful? Are they even coherent? The brain is a complex, damaged, dysfunctional machine, so if we want mind control, we must control our minds and do so in a much different way than we do now.

There’s also the serious and inescapable problem of connecting a human brain, which both controls our bodies and defines who we are, to a electronic device that can be forged, faulty or even compromised. That’s right, hackers could potentially gain access to our minds and monitor, steal, copy, corrupt or destroy our thoughts and memories. They could also take control our bodies, forcing us to obey their instructions, or even tell our hearts to stop beating.

Finally, though this is more of an indirect and ethical issue, it is interesting to note that even as society is beginning to recognize and prioritize the importance of regular physical activity, technology continues to alleviates us from physical duties. Standing desks, for example, have recently become a trendy way to improve our health. But with telepathically-controlled devices, we certainly don’t need a desk, and we may not even need to get out of bed. In fact, we may not need to wake up or even have bodies.

Thoughts aren’t what you thought. Think about it.

In Memoriam

We make them always, all the time,
and out of every thing.

We make them out of friends and facts,
and out of songs we sing.

Locked inside the cells within,
they’re with us all the time.

Shaping and defining us,
both awful and sublime.

They can’t be killed or stolen,
but most are changed or gone.

And some are hidden deep,
so we can carry on.

They follow, charm and haunt us,
no matter what we do.

Until one day they slip away,
and we become one too.


Uncertainty about the future is something that plagues us all. Indeed, in every civilization throughout history there have been those who claim to have special insight into events that have yet to unfold. In our eagerness to rid ourselves of our fears, we often reward these people handsomely for their supposed knowledge.

Although astrology and mediumship are still popular in Western culture, a more modern profession of precognition has recently arisen: the futurist. Rather than observing heavenly bodies or communicating with spirits to obtain special knowledge, a futurist uses their knowledge and expertise in a given field to predict the future. One of the most well-known of this new breed of  fortune teller is Ray Kurzweil, and he’s made a number of shocking predictions about the future of technology and ascension of artificial intelligence. While his claims have brought him great fame and profit, he’s certainly no prophet.

The fact that he doesn’t deserve the label of prophet is not a commentary of the accuracy of Kurzweil’s predictions, though they are certainly worthy of suspicion, but rather an important distinction about the method by which his knowledge is attained. A prophet is someone who communicates a message on behalf of a divine or supernatural source. While Kurzweil’s predictions are certainly otherworldly, they are not the result of divine inspiration or supernatural powers (as far as we know).

Another difference is that prophets usually do not benefit from their insight, but freely offer their knowledge to help others, usually in response to a divine command. Without getting too deep into the issue of discerning the authenticity of a prophecy, we can probably assume that the presence of praise and reward is probably a strong indication of a false prophet. Now let’s take a closer look at prophecies and what it means to be a prophet.

Nostradamus is one of the most popular of those who claimed to predict the future. Born in 16th century France, he produced thousands of predictions. Some of these were accurate, some inaccurate but most are too vague to determine their meaning. Consider Nostradamus’ quatrain #1-35:

The young lion, shall overcome the older

On the field of battle, by singular duel;

Through armor of gold, his eye will be pierced,

Two wounds in one, then to die a cruel death.

Those who believe in Nostradamus’ abilities claim that this verse describes the accidental death of King Henry II of France during a jousting tournament. Followers also claim that Nostradamus predicted the rule of Hitler, the September 11 attacks, the conquest of Napoleon, the Kennedy assassinations and many other major events. However, even if we can determine with certainty that the predictions are referring to these historical events, of what use are they? After all, the events still happened. And if we’re only able to associate a prediction with an event after the event unfolds, then it serves no purpose other than to astonish.

Nostradamus admitted that he wasn’t a prophet, and he based his predictions on a number of sources, including astrology, Biblical text and other works of prognostication. He also didn’t meet the requirement that he help others with his clairvoyance. This doesn’t mean that Nostradamus meant harm or didn’t care about others. Perhaps he meant well, but without specific instruction on how to respond to a prediction, it is impossible to help. And if he actually could predict the future, Nostradamus would have known that his predictions wouldn’t change anything. A true prophecy is meant to be understood before it unfolds, and it includes a response. This leads us to our next point: the purpose of a prophecy.

Aside form their divine or supernatural origin, prophecies tend to function as warnings, usually warnings of catastrophe. Astrologers, mediums and futurists tend to focus on the positive. After all, who would pay for a prediction that makes them upset? On the other hand, just because a prophecy warns us of a threat does not guarantee that it is authentic. There have been plenty of false prophecies about the end of the world, including the famous Mayan apocalypse, which was supposed to occur in 2012. With all of these predictions of the end of the world, it seems that we can be certain of one thing:

“No one knows the day or hour when these things will happen…” (Matthew 24:36)

Another trait of a prophecy is that it is specific. As we mentioned earlier, a vague prediction is of no use to anyone. While it’s easy to make ambiguous statements about lions, wounds and golden armor, it also draws much less attention than a claim about the day the world will end. The specificity of a prediction is usually also proportional to the number of predictions made, offering a choice between quality and quantity. In addition to being extremely specific, a prophecy usually contains only a single prediction.

In summary, here are the defining characteristics of a prophecy:

  • Its origin is divine or supernatural, not based on mere observations.
  • It doesn’t benefit the prophet.
  • It is understood before it unfolds.
  • It warns of a catastrophe and includes a call to respond.
  • It’s very specific and usually contains a single prediction.

Alright, so now we can identify a prophecy from a prediction, but predictions actually come in many shapes and sizes. Every day we ask meteorologists to make a prediction about the weather, and it’s a relatively easy one to make. This is because of the high availability of information about coming trends and the fact that there are only a limited number of possibilities. It’s also easier to predict something that’s closer to the present, which is why a weather forecast rarely reaches beyond a week or two.

The biggest tool for predicting the future is examining the past, or more accurately, comparing the past to the present. If we can find a recurring trend in the past and identify where we are in the trend, then we can theoretically predict what will happen next. Economists use this tactic to predict booms and busts. Here’s an example:

From our position in the present, we can use a number of different strategies to make our prediction. We can look back at a recent significant event, and use that to make our guess:

Or we can look at a recent or ancient measurement:

There are still other strategies to employ. We could take a number of measurements and average them, or we could try to find an algorithm that describes the occurrence of booms and busts. We could even ignore all past information and consider only current trends. Part of the reason why the predictions of futurists like Kurzweil are so extreme is that there isn’t a lot of past information on modern technology. There’s only been one computer age, one Internet and one Google, so it’s hard to say where we’re headed.

One of the great predictions of the 20th century was made by Gordon Moore in 1975. He observed that transistor density on integrated circuits was increasing at a steady rate, so he predicted that the transistors count would continue to double every two years. This prediction has largely proven accurate, though some say this is merely because the semiconductor industry uses it to set research and development targets.

However, even a prediction heralded for its longevity and accuracy hasn’t yet outlived its maker and may soon be proven irrelevant. The capacity to build smaller transistors will eventually end as they approach the atomic scale. In addition, quantum technology threatens to shatter the entire framework of computing architecture. Overall, the rapid change in technology makes it an exceedingly difficult subject to forecast.

If we take a look back at films that depict the future (our present), we scoff at their interpretations. Decades later, the flying cars, jet packs, food capsules, laser guns, tiny cellphones and robot dogs we saw on the big screen are nowhere to be found. Part of the reason for this folly is the inclination to imagine improved versions of things we already use, essentially futurizing things found in the present. This is because our imagination is largely limited by what we’ve already seen.

Visionaries like Gene Roddenberry were able to imagine a future quite different from our own, with inventions that weren’t just improvements, but whole new concepts never before seen or imagined. Yet even Roddenberry could not predict some of the advances in technology we see today. Although we may not have yet conquered poverty, disease or intergalactic travel, things we do every day on our smartphones were beyond his comprehension.

Another factor that makes prediction difficult is the chance of catastrophe. It’s possible that we establish a colony on Mars in the next 50 years, but it’s also possible that a massive earthquake hits Washington, D.C. and levels NASA headquarters. The problem with catastrophes is that we can’t be sure when, where or how they will happen, just that they will happen.

By contrast, there are also trends that come and go, cultural shifts brought on by subtle and gradual changes to our collective psyche. If we could turn back the clock to July 21, 1969, we likely couldn’t find anyone who would predict that we wouldn’t visit any other planets in the next 50 years, yet here we are still stuck on this boring old dust bowl. The lunar landing ignited imaginations and had a huge impact on television and film, but our interest in outer space fizzled. Likewise, virtual reality was a huge trend in the 1980s, but is only new seeing a resurgence 30 years later.

We also make a huge error when we consider the advances that humans have made in recent years and assume that everyone has experienced these improvements and that there have been no consequences. Billions of people across the globe have yet to experience sanitation and safe drinking water, which makes the whole futurist thing seem kind of vain and meaningless. We also tend to think of technology as the solution to the world’s problems, ignoring the huge environmental cost and health hazard of manufacturing integrated circuits and other electronic components. We like to think that we’re on a trajectory toward perfection, but in many ways we’re worse off than we’ve ever been. Here are just a few examples:

  • Obesity is a global health crisis.
  • Voter turnout continues to fall.
  • Education is failing our youth.
  • Social media, video game and pornography addiction are increasing.
  • We’re consuming and corrupting the Earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate.
  • The gap between the rich and poor is growing.
  • Depression and anxiety are on the rise.
  • More children are being raised without both parents.
  • Large sections of the population have no legal protection.
  • The government has alarming levels of surveillance on its citizens.
  • Sexual promiscuity among adolescents is increasing.

Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. War, poverty, and disease are on the decline (in most places). The point here is merely that the world is a big, complicated place, and that it’s easy to believe that everyone’s lives are as good as ours and get caught up in the excitement for what’s ahead. The world is getting better, but not for everyone and not in every way.

So what’s the future going to be like? Well it’s probably going to be similar to the present. Despite all of the advances in technology and the social, political and economic change, we still get up, go to work, pay our rent, cook our food and so on. But predicting that things will generally stay the same is not interesting or provocative. If we want people to heed our warning or buy our book, then we have to predict something that grabs headlines. Let’s take a stab at creating our own prediction. Here’s how we do it:

First we need to make sure that people pay attention to us, so we should probably choose a subject that is interesting, relevant (or seemingly so), and a little controversial. How about the Internet?

Next we need to choose a timeline. We need to pick a date that is close enough to seem meaningful, but distant enough that we can’t be proven wrong anytime soon. Choosing a point too far in the future also makes our prediction seem less credible, since we have to provide a basis for our forecast. We should also choose a number that seems significant. Let’s go with 20 years.

As for actual the prediction itself, we merely need to spot a trend, then choose a point in recent history and extrapolate a seemingly-reasonable projection into the future. Access to the Internet is on the rise, so let’s predict that in the next 20 years everyone on the planet will be online. Now we just need to find some numbers to back it up.

Year Population (m) Users (m) Users (%) Increase (m) Increase (%)
2005 6514 1024 15.72
2006 6593 1151 17.46 127 1.74
2007 6673 1365 20.46 214 3.00
2008 6753 1561 23.12 196 2.66
2009 6834 1751 25.62 190 2.51
2010 6916 2019 29.19 268 3.57
2011 6997 2224 31.79 205 2.59
2012 7080 2494 35.23 270 3.44
2013 7162 2705 37.77 211 2.54
2014 7243 2937 40.55 232 2.78
2015 7324 3174 43.34 237 2.79

Pulling up some figures on global population and Internet access, we can clearly see that the number of people online is rapidly increasing. In the past 10 years, we’ve seen it jump from around 15 per cent of the world’s population to over 43 per cent, so it’s definitely believable.

Now we should think about the specificity of our prediction. It shouldn’t be so vague that it is indecipherable, but it also shouldn’t be so specific that people can agree on its meaning and critique it. We also want to leave room for reinterpretation, should things take an unexpected turn. For these reasons it’s important to choose our phrasing very carefully.

Let’s go with this: all people will have access to an Internet connection in the next 20 years.

We use all people instead of everyone because it could refer to groups as well as individuals. We also say have access to an Internet connection, not be connected or have Internet access, because it’s more broad. After all, anyone with the potential to have electricity and a satellite dish is already included. We also say in the next 20 years instead of by 2035 because the year 2035 seems like it’s further away.

And there we have our prediction. Now we just need to give ourselves a fancy title that doesn’t require any credentials, like futurist or technology expert, and we’re on our way to fame and fortune.