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My scientific method of predicting the future

In the last days of 2005, leading thinkers and scholars from around the world share their fears, hopes and expectations of 2006. Forty-nine of openDemocracy’s distinguished contributors, from Mariano Aguirre to Slavoj Zizek, Neal Ascherson to Jonathan Zittrain – offer their predictions for the coming year. Since this is openDemocracy, we did not expect them to agree. We were not disappointed. (Part Two).
Leszek Kolakowski
22 December 2005

 

The safest way of thinking about the future is by believing that tomorrow will be like today. We automatically expect the world to work according to this principle. I go outand I expect the street to be what it was yesterday; I visit my friends and I expect them to be what they were yesterday. I know, to be sure, that unexpected things do happen: a house may burn down, a person may die suddenly. But – again – the aforementioned principle is the safest way of dealing with the future in relatively stable conditions. Absolute stability, however, never exists; in the middle of a revolution, during a terrible sea storm, the principle does not work.

But this is only half of the most reasonable attitude we can take toward the future. The other half is a truth known to all of us. It says that historical processes are made up of innumerable accidents; and if they are steered by divine providence, we are totally unable to detect their plans or intentions. There is no such thing as laws of history; we can all cite any number of important events that could have easily gone differently and, if they had, the entire course of history would have been changed.

We have observed such accidents in the recent history of central and eastern Europe. There were no historical laws that caused the emergence of the Solidarity movement in Poland, one of the main factors in the peaceful collapse of Communism in Europe. Solidarity grew out of a few small accidents. Had they not happened, we would today be living in a different world. No historical laws were at work preventing Mikhail Gorbachev from sending Soviet troops into East Germany at the request of Erich Honecker; no historical laws assured the victory of Yeltsin in the coup that had been staged against him. The history of central and eastern Europe in last few decades abounds in small accidents which transformed the face of Europe.

There is no reason to suppose that there will be a war in Europe in the coming year. (If the war in the Caucasus expands, Europe will know about it only what the Russian government wishes us to know, and anyway, European governments will be no more interested than they were in the deportation of Caucasian nations by Stalin.)

Ultimately, if we want to predict events in central and eastern Europe for 2006, we may rely on the first principle: that tomorrow will be like today. Certainly, there might be new parliamentary elections in Poland and they might change the character of the government. Everywhere there will be more scandals, more conflicts. But we have no reason to expect events that would merit articles on the front pages of British and American newspapers.

 

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