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Intention and the Future

What is the future? It should be an easy question to answer.

One way to look at it is to say that the future is a point in time which we have not yet reached. This assumes a linear, forward progression through time. Since we all pretty much experience a linear, forward progression through time – those of us who aren't drugged or mentally ill, that is – such a progression seems an okay thing to assume. Today and yesterday are not the future, tomorrow and the day after are. Of course, it's all relative. Today isn't "the future," but later today is. And at some point, the day after tomorrow will be the day before yesterday – and thus no longer the future.

So the future has this mirage quality. We are always in the same relationship to it. It recedes from us one instant at a time. The future is never any closer and never any farther away. Tomorrow, as Little Orphan Annie reminds us, is only (and always) a day away. This definition of the future works, but it doesn't tell us much.

Let's try a different definition. Rather than looking at the when of the future, we look at the what. The future is everything that hasn't happened yet. So we had this future in which the Democrats would take control of the House in the 2006 elections. And here we are today. Unlike “tomorrow,” a content-defined future either arrives or it doesn’t. The “Democrats take the House” future arrived; the “Republicans retain the House” future did not.

Content-defined futures don’t have that mirage quality. Thanks to probability, they get closer or farther away as we approach them. Three weeks ago, the “Broncos win the AFC West” future was farther away in time than it is now, but much closer in probability. At the time, they were tied for first place in the division. Now they’re three games back, with most of the season already spent. I don’t think that, as of this date, their winning the division has been absolutely eliminated in the mathematical sense, but it’s so unlikely now that it has been virtually counted out. Now we’re looking at the “Broncos get the Wild Card” future, which still has a fair shot of coming into being.

However, there is more at work here than simply probability. Take a look at this possible future:

On Friday, April 13, 2029, Earth Has a 99.7 Percent Chance of Being Missed by an Asteroid–Is That Good Enough?

I would say that the Broncos have a (slightly) better chance of winning the division this year than that asteroid has of hitting us. But I take the chances of the latter happening seriously, while disregarding the former. Why? The asteroid is less likely to hit us, and even if it does it’s a long time from now – whereas the AFC West divisional championship will be decided within a few weeks, most likely next Sunday when Denver plays San Diego.

The answer is so obvious that it hardly bears stating. Superfans notwithstanding, who goes to the NFL playoffs this year doesn’t matter. Careers may be affected, money may be won or lost, some people will be happy and others sad, but it’s pretty much a wash. Whether a monster asteroid hits the planet, however, does matter to everyone. It’s one of those existential risks we hear about.

So let’s put our definitions together and see what we have so far. The future is…

A point in time beyond where we are right now

By which certain things will or will not have happened

Some of those things being far more significant than others

Adding significance to the mix complicates things, but there’s really no getting around it. Which of my rose bushes will come into bloom first next spring? It’s a wide-open question, hinting at numerous possible futures. But I don’t care. I’ll start to be interested only if none of them do, or if one seems to be taking a particularly long time. There are many, many more insignificant (or seemingly insignificant) outcomes yet to be realized than there are significant ones. I’m considerably more interested in whether the Broncos make it the playoffs than I am in which rose bush blooms first, and even more interested than that (by a much wider margin) in whether the asteroid is going to hit Earth.

When we talk about the future, generally what we’re talking about is the realization of significant outcomes which are currently unresolved.


The mountain itself is a set of random outcomes; this caption is a set of intentional ones. Welcome to the future.

Such a definition of the future seems to mesh nicely with Anton Zeilinger’s speculations (hat-tip: Matoko) on the relationship between information and reality:

What I believe but cannot prove is that quantum physics teaches us to abandon the distinction between information and reality.

The fundamental reason why I believe in this is that it is impossible to make an operational distinction between reality and information. In other words, whenever we make any statement about the world, about any object, about any feature of any object, we always make statements about the information we have. And, whenever we make scientific predictions we make statements about information we possibly attain in the future.

Realizing unresolved outcomes is an exercise in processing information. This may seem more intuitively to be the case when we’re talking about less significant outcomes such as which rose bush blooms first or who wins the AFC West. When the discussion shifts to whether an asteroid will destroy the earth or an unfriendly AI will exterminate humanity, it seems that we’re talking about more than mere information. We’re talking about existence itself.

But if Zeilinger is correct – if reality effectively is information – then it makes perfect sense to describe any outcome, even an existential threat to human existence, as an information transaction. So what is the future? In one sense, it’s information that we don’t yet have. In another, it’s information that we have not yet become.

This raises the question of how it is that outcomes are resolved. What determines the information that we will eventually know or become? Or to put it in the simplest of terms, how do things happen? Ultimately, that’s where any inquiry into the nature of the future is bound to take us.

Well, we can wade through thousands of pages of theology, cosmology, physics, quantum mechanics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, biology, and so forth and still not have a very precise answer as to how it is that outcomes are resolved, or we can admit that ultimately, from our point of view, there are two ways things happen:


On Purpose

In other words, there are outcomes which are the result (or which appear to be the result) of intentional action, and there are outcomes which are the result (or which appear to be the result) of random chance. Leaving God or any other intelligent designer out of this discussion, everything that has happened in this universe until quite recently was accidental. That is, it occurred with no apparent intention behind it.

If I look out the window to my left, I see the snow-capped peak of Mount Evans in the distance. That Mount Evans looks the way it looks is apparently a matter of random chance. It could have been steeper or rounder. It could have been several small peaks instead of one big one. The Mount Evans that we see today is the future of some pre-Mount-Evans state of the Colorado landscape. However, there was no plan in place to get the landscape to that state. Mount Evans just sort of happened.

Contrast that reality with my description of Mount Evans in the preceding paragraph. As Zeilinger would point out, ultimately both the reality and the written description are information. The written description is the result of a set of conscious and unconscious choices on my part to write about Mount Evans. While there may be no intention behind the mountain itself, there is plenty of intention behind my description of it.

The future is a set of unrealized outcomes. Some possible futures (my rose bushes, the asteroid hitting the Earth) will or will not be realized through seemingly random events. Others (the AFC Championship, the Singularity) will or will not be realized through a complex combination of random and intentional events.

In the end, defining the future requires an understanding of intention. What is it? Another form of information? Its aim would appear to be a unique kind of information processing. Intention seeks to convert information in one form – an idea – into information in another form – manifested reality. Karl Popper dealt extensively with this puzzle, perhaps without providing the answers we’re looking for.

So did a new metaphysical reality become manifest when human beings began planning their actions? Or is intention only an illusion, effectively fooling conscious beings into believing that their random actions are leading to something other than random outcomes?

Maybe intention is the fire that Prometheus gave our remote ancestors, the same fire that we will soon be handing down to our electronic progeny. Assuming that it is not an illusion, intention is not only the one hope we have against all the random existential threats to human existence, it’s our one hope against all the intentional threats, as well as all the random threats that never would have existed were it not for intentional actions. It may be our damnation. It may be our salvation.

How interesting that we can’t even say with any certainty precisely what it is.

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