Thursday 18 May 2023

Prophecy: Precognition, 'Karma' and Destiny

(For my previous discussions of prophecy follow this link...)

When it comes to prophecy, and taking into account the nature of most true prophecies; there is disagreement as to how this is (or may be) possible. 


For some reason, many people seem to regard prophecy as a form of 'precognition' - which entails 'seeing the future'. The idea is that, in some sense, the future has already happened and can therefore be perceived. 

This would entail that - from here and now, and by common sense analysis - the future is determined, and free will/ agency is unreal. 

This is then 'explained' by positing weird stuff about Time; such that there is ultimately no such thing as time, the linear sequential time of our mortal lives in this world is an illusion; and from a divine or real perspective - everything that has happened, is happening or can ever happen, is actually simultaneous. 

This philosophical idea dates back at least to Plato, and is famously deployed by Boethius to 'explain' the paradox of God's omniscience and Man's agency. 

The question is whether this really is an explanation at all

It posits weird abstract properties of Time that are counter-intuitive and incomprehensible to ordinary people; leads to the innumerable 'time paradoxes' of science fiction; and purports to explain the specific observation of prophecy by such a vast metaphysical assumption that it explains everything - hence nothing. 

In essence; it purports to explain evidence with metaphysics - which is the wrong way around. Metaphysics comes first (or should come first); observations may be consistent with metaphysics, but can neither confirm nor refute it; and changes metaphysics should therefore not be used expediently as a convenient way of accounting for observations. 

We ought first to establish our metaphysics assumptions - on grounds of intuition and coherence - and then use these to explain observations. My metaphysical assumptions exclude precognition rooted in weird-Time. 

Therefore - explaining prophecy by precognition I regard as illegitimate, invalid, Not really-real.  


I use the term Karma for the idea that that is derived from understanding the consequences of present metaphysics, attitudes and actions. 

In other words; by knowing and understanding the present situation; it is possible to predict what these will (sooner or later) entail. 

Thus, we might prophesy that if Men believe X, then (sooner or later) this-kind-of-thing will come to pass; or if Men do Y, then these will be the effects. Or (as a metaphysical example) if many Men's fundamental understanding of reality excludes God and assumes that all of reality is material - then such and such a human society will (sooner or later) happen. 

Much valid prophecy seems to be of this kind. 


The cause of destiny is that God wills some-thing, and (sooner or later) arranges divine creation so that it happens. 

The free agency of Men (and other Beings) may thwart God's will again and again; yet if God continues to provide opportunities for Men to choose to do God's will - then eventually some Man will make the right choice, and the thing will happen. 


We can see that the two valid explanations for prophecy - Karma and Destiny - have no problem about free will or human agency; because they do not state any particular time or date for the fulfillment of prophecy. 

But as soon as a prophecy is particular and exact; then we run up against the reality of agency, which may tend to thwart such specific prophecy.

Presumably, then; in principle exact prophecy can only be real insofar as it has nothing to do with free will or agency...

But in a living 'animistic' universe - consisting of Beings in relationships - this can never truly be the case; since everything that happens in divine creation must involve the choices of beings. 


Luke said...

But it isn't the orthodox Christian conception of time or weird-Time rooted in the very basics of that religion, for example it is believed the Last Supper which occured before the Crucifixion, and every Mass/Divine Liturgy celebrated after the Crucifixion, are connected to the same event as the crucifixion of Calvary?

So accordingly isn't weird-Space-Time unavoidable?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - I agree that weird Time permeates orthodox-trad Christianity - but that does not make it inevitable. Mainstream theology seems to have been inserted-into pre-existing pagan philosophy; but it might not have been.

Furthermore, there is weird and weird! Some things that are common sense to children and tribal people strike modern educated people as weird - like the reality of Gods and spirits, or ghosts - but in that case the weird is true and modern people reject them on the basis of weird metaphysics!

Lucas said...

It seems like a lot of prophecies that are about destiny are instead interpreted as precognition, in my experience becuase people wish to emphasize God's omnipotence in order to force other people to obey or cooperate with some action. That attitude also seems to regard God's will expressed as an irresistable force and not as a hopeful offer.

Bruce Charlton said...

@lucas - That's also how it seems to me.

Luke said...

But the teaching that the Last Supper before Calvary and the Mass/Divine Liturgy after Calvary, is the same event as Calvary, isn't inserted into/from pagan philosophy, it takes it's origin from Christ's words and actions, in Scripture and the early life of Church. The teaching on the Eucharist is there from the beginning and the Fourth Gospel is well known for its Eucharist mysticism and so this implies what is the Bread of Life (and other such examples of Fourth Gospel Eucharist pointing)?

The answer it is something to do with the life, death, resurrection of Christ, therefore weird-Space-Time is concluded.

This is Jewish and Hebrew Christian and Fourth Gospel in origin not pagan, isn't it?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Luke - You will need to satisfy yourself on this matter. As you may know, I focus on the Fourth Gospel for reasons I give here:

I don't see anything significantly 'mystical' about the IV Gospel's core teachings in the sense implied, quite the contrary - Indeed, I regard that 'mystical' IV Gospel notion as a cover story to explain the fact that our earliest, most authoritative source - the only eye witness account - has some fundamental disagreements with the Synoptics and Paul (and much more with what is inferred and extrapolated from them); one of which would be the idea you articulate.

I also see the attempt to synthesize the whole Bible into a unitary (and essential) teaching as misguided and misleading. Christ's actual teachings of what we each need to do; were very simple, clear; and do not require massive exercises in intellectual and organizational stamina and scholarship in order to comprehend and live by them.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Believing weird things about time is inevitable. Any attempt to take the "common sense" view of time seriously (in particular, to deal with the fact that time elapses) leads to counterintuitive conclusions. The only other option is just to not think about it very much.

Precognition is compatible with free will if, as in Dunne's model, the future already exists to be perceived and yet can be changed. Precognition could then be a real phenomenon but would not be infallible.

That said, I agree with you that prophecy is not precognition, and that these two modes of knowing the future have very different characteristics. The content of precognition is limited to things you yourself will later come to know by ordinary means, and what is foreseen is often specific images or details disconnected from their contextual meaning. Prophecy is much more broad-brush and coherent, and its content is not limited to the prophet's own future experiences.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - "Believing weird things about time is inevitable. "

I don't agree, at least not if we take the understanding of children and tribal peoples as the baseline of 'not weird'.

Or, more exactly, we get weirdness only when we detach the concept of 'time' from actual living Beings, and make it into a pseudo-independent abstraction. If we start from Beings, and keep to that assumption, we will stay on-track and avoid weirdness.

Dunne's model strikes me as obviously artificial and abstract, a variant of Platonism; and mistaken in trying to explain empirical observations by tailoring metaphysics to 'explain' them. This, I regard as formally in error.

We ought to work *from* our metaphysical assumptions, not towards them; not from what we (wrongly) suppose to be assumption-free observations.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Dunne starts with the man in the street's metaphysical assumptions about time and works out their non-obvious implications. If the result seems "artificial and abstract," well, you could say the same about the quadratic formula. Not all truths are simple and obvious.

As for Dunne's model being a variant of Platonism, that's so far off base that I don't even know where to begin. It's like calling Mormonism "Gnostic"! Dunne does not assert that linear time is an illusion and doesn't really elapse. The whole point of his theory -- and where he parts ways with everyone from Boethius to Einstein -- is to assume the opposite. Linear time is real and does elapse; everything else follows from insisting on that.

Regarding your final point, of course no observation is assumption-free, and metaphysical assumptions come first. But assumptions can and should be revised in light of empirical observations -- as, for example, the assumption that planetary orbits must be perfect circles was later revised to accommodate empirical data. In any case, Dunne never tries to argue from observations of precognition to his theory of time. The theory of time is argued from first principles, and observations of precognition confirm it.

I'm curious as to how you think focusing on Beings solves any of the paradoxes of time. Do you have any specific examples of how this works? (Of course we begin with the understanding that the elapsing of time is fundamentally a matter of consciousness, but Dunne does that, so I assume you mean something else.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@Wm - Sorry to use Platonism in such a lax way! - I meant the idea/assumption that recurs through (post-agricultural) history that the most fundamental reality is one of universal changeless simultaneity. That's what Dunne's diagrams made me think of.

I certainly agree that the modern man in the street commonsense is incoherent!

re Time and Beings; my point is that it is a metaphysical decision to assume that there is an 'detachable' concept called Time. Whereas I think it is true that all being-ness is 'dynamic', entails change; and this necessity of change for life and consciousness - as part-of life and consciousness - is where Time comes from, i.e. Time as an abstraction.

This leads to ideas such that Time occurs 'relative-to' not-Time - we picture Time as happening against this background of stasis. My sense was that this was what Dunne was doing - splitting Time from a not-Time, and positing consciousness moving between them.

Whereas if Time is intrinsic to Being and therefore consciousness; then not-Time is a product of consciousness abstractly severed from Time - not-Time is as much an aspect of consciousness as Time (both are abstract concepts); but not-Time is implicitly pretending (incoherently) to exist in a realm without consciousness.

In sum, if someone has experiences that he regards as being pictures things that later happen, he should seek explanations that do not violate the basic understanding of how this world is fundamentally organized - which is (for me) of Beings with attributes including life, consciousness, agency... all of which mean that the future cannot be 'perceived', simply because it has not happened.

The true explanations of such experiences therefore ought not to imply or assume that kind of thing; which I think Dunne did (at least in the book of his that I read).

I personally don't have these kind of experiences which strike people with abstract ideas about times as 'pre-cognitive', and have never been convinced by the accounts of others that they are 'seeing the future'.

For instance, a couple of days ago, I read a chapter of Anthony Peake's book about Philip K Dick in which he listed PKD's putatively precognitive experiences, which Peake and many others find compelling, and proposed various theories.

But I did not find *any* of the accounts to be such as to evoke conviction in my heart - so, for me, there wasn't really anything precog. to explain; all seemed to have a variety of alternative explanations that fitted other categories compatible with my metaphysics - psychological explanations, recollection rather than precognition, divine or other supernatural interventions etc.

And, of course, it must be like this! Metaphysical assumptions work like this - if they run deep. Stuff outwith them simply doesn't strike us as compelling, or important -- in a rather fundamental sense we 'can't be bothered' to think about them!