Facing the Future

Human beings live for the future. Everything we do in the present is done to bring about the future we would prefer. We have to decide what future we want whether it is what brand of peanut butter I want to buy, or what country will I choose to live in. We can never know the future for sure. We can only ever make our best guess about what might happen, so we must always act as if we know. Sometimes we can be pretty sure what will happen, while at other times we really might not understand what might happen.

We understand the present and the future by recognising the patterns from the past. Usually, the patterns that have been true in the past will be true for the future. The sun has risen every morning of my life. I have a high level of certainty that it will rise again in the morning and so I can plan a future presuming the sun will rise. Some patterns do not always hold true in the future, but often we can predict how a pattern may change. If I find a fraying rope, it may seem like it is carrying its load, but I know from the pattern of fraying rope that it can suddenly break its pattern of being able to hold weight. I know that if I do not fill my car with petrol, the usual pattern of driving around town will be broken.

 First, we need to understand the present moment to predict some likely future outcomes that we must then choose from. We understand the present and the future by learning from the patterns we have perceived in the past. So, as we grew, we had more and more experiences and started to notice patterns. If I do things I like, I will feel good. Over time, I will realise the distinctions between things I like and things I don’t like. I am drawn towards the things I like and repelled by things I don’t like. Then when I encounter something I have encountered before, I already have an assessment of how I feel about it.  

As a child, I see a banana on the table and my past experience tells me it tastes good. My experience tells me that if I ask politely, I am more likely to be given the banana. I have a picture in my head of a future state where I am eating a banana and feel pleasure just while I anticipate receiving the banana. This is actually reinforced by a squirt of dopamine that rewards me and makes me want to do what I like.

If I predict a future state, I would prefer to avoid or see a potentially better future than the most likely future to unfold, I can act away from the state I want to avoid to make my preferred future happen. I have to do that before the most likely future happens. I am driving my car too fast towards a corner. I need to notice that I am driving too fast to give me sufficient time to choose an alternative action, that is, put my foot on the brakes and slow down enough to avoid crashing the vehicle.

We need to look forward as a mariner looks out the horizon looking for signs of what lies ahead. What we see way off in the distance is not clear and many signals are not relevant, but with a keen eye and wisdom, the mariner knows what to look for to recognise a threat or an opportunity from way off. We need that same ability to look into the future and look at what appears faint and determine whether it is an important signal to be heeded, or just another reflection that fades as soon as it gets close.