Smart Thoughts

About Designing the Future

Remain Open to the Mysteries With Humility, Courage and Curiosity

Written by: Hava Tirosh-Samuelson

The human future as a design space – what does that mean to you?

In 1189 Moses Maimonides composed his famous Guide for the Perplexed (in Arabic: Dalalat al-hairin; in Hebrew: Moreh Nevuchim).  The perplexity that he sought to address emerged because of the perceived tension between Aristotelian philosophy and science and the Jewish religious tradition.  Maimonides, who knew something about humility, did not try to guide the future; instead, he sought to guide Jews (and members of other monotheistic religions) by removing misunderstanding about Aristotelian science or about the meaning of revelation. He correctly understood that perplexity is intrinsic to the human condition because humans can never know all there is to know about themselves, about the world they inhabit, or about the ultimate reality, to which we refer as “God.” Maimonides held that we can only know what God is not, rather than what God is, and from observing the universe we can only surmise how God manages the world but not the manner in which God does so.

Maimonides’ agnosticism pertains to his view of the future.  Since the future is always that which is “not yet,” the future is always unknown and to a great extent unknowable.  The future is but a possibility that may or may not come to be, depending on human choice. We may imagine the future in all sorts of ways but whatever will actually come to be will be different from what we imagine. This insight is as true today as it was in Maimonides’ day.  But today humility is in short supply. Instead, futuristic techno-optimists, who call themselves transhumanists or posthumanists, lead people to believe that the future is not only knowable and predictable, but that it can be designed, controlled, and managed by humans. Unlike Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, ASU’s The Guide Project asks us to imagine the future as a “design space,” which means to think about the future as if it were a product whose quality can be planned, controlled, and manipulated. 

I find this approach to the future be problematic. First, it is a mistake to think that at a given moment we already know what there is to know or what we need to know.  Human knowledge, no matter how advanced, is always incomplete, prone to errors, and open to revision and correction. Second, the universe itself is a mystery.  It has an inherent measure of uncertainty that invites or even compels us to explore what is currently unknown. Without openness to the mystery of the universe there could not be expansion of scientific knowledge.  Third, while science leads to technological advances that impact all aspects of our world, there are always unintended consequences which render the future inherently uncertain and unpredictable.  Furthermore, new properties appear when a number of simple entities or agents form more complex behavior as a collective. This is the phenomenon of emergence that further makes it impossible to treat the future as if it were a product to be designed. 

Humans have always been fascinated by the unknown future and have entertained various scenarios about the future.  Indeed, the capacity to construct imagined scenarios is one of the most admirable aspects of human consciousness.   Consciousness itself remains an unexplained mystery no matter how much we know about the functioning of the human brain. All imaginative futuristic scenarios will necessarily be different from future reality because whatever we imagine about the future reflects our present values, preferences, anxieties, and concerns rather than what will in fact take place in the future. This judgment is especially relevant to transhumanists who think that we can and should engineer the future because we already know how to edit the human genome, how to build Artificial Intelligence, or how to influence human emotions, attitudes or behavior. What we do in the present will clearly impact the future.  But what we imagine will happen is not necessarily what will actually happen.    

If we cannot design the future what can we do?  My answer is not so different than Maimonides’: we need to acknowledge our contemporary perplexity and respond to it with courage and humility. Courage fuels our desire to know what there is to know and what we must know.  Humility reminds us that whatever we know is always provisional, partial, and correctable. I agree that contemporary technoscience poses unprecedented perplexing challenges to humanity.   Humans can now engineer their biology, control and irreversibly destroy the physical environment, and build super-intelligent machines that transform all aspects of social life. The new situation, in which algorithms are involved in decision-making processes, demands that we think deeply and creatively about the challenges ahead.  Unlike futurists who pretend to know what the future will bring and urge us to act as if their predictions are inevitable facts, I would encourage us to humbly admit that we cannot design the future but summon the courage to create an educational system that facilitates curiosity about what is yet to be known.


About Hava Tirosh-Samuelson 

Hava is Regents’ Professor of History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at Arizona State University.  Trained as an intellectual historian, Dr. Tirosh-Samuelson writes about Jewish philosophy and mysticism, religion, science and technology, and religion and ecology.  She has published 30 books and over 50 essays, including the award-winning Between Worlds: The Life and Thought of Rabbi David ben Judah Messer Leon (1991); Building Better Humans? Refocusing the Debate on Transhumanism (2012) and Perfecting Human Futures: Transhuman Visions and Technological Imaginations (2016).