Bringing In the Future: An Essay on Time

By Johan Galtung

International Sociological Association Prize
New School for Social Research, New York NY, 15 Nov 2016

The West, and Western sciences in particular, have a peculiar way of conceptualizing time; derived from two millennia Christianity.

Thus, in the civilizations of Hinduism, Buddhism, China and Japan, to mention some, time flows from eternity to eternity. In the West (and Islam is similar), there is a Beginning (Creation for the religious, Big Bang for the secular), and an Ending, the End Time (Armageddon for the religious, entropy, death, etc. for others).

In others, time flows from past into a possibly different future; in the West, the future is continuous with the past. In the natural sciences, “laws” from the past are automatically valid for the future; reality being as stable as the planetary system, the galaxy; astronomy being the model. The Creation has been finished, once and for all.

In the social sciences, the future is largely off limits, taboo; predictions are often discarded as “wild speculations”. Extension of built-in trends into the future is permitted, but not forecasting with qualitative jumps. The underlying assumption is stable equilibrium, things have found their place and that’s it. Thus, no forecasting of (early) modernity during the Middle Ages, let alone working for it.

That is in theory, but the practice is different. People design their individual careers – life trajectories – and have always done so. For collective life there is politics, designing future societies.

But the social sciences are not supposed to be in it. They approach past and present with data and theory; and values for health, law, engineering, architecture. But data have the final word, and only the past delivers data, leaving us with theory and value for exploring “future-landia”.

Then declare science “value-free” and social sciences–and people–are deprived of the basic tool for designing futures.

Thus politicians get rid of a major competitor.

The West has constructed a wonderful tool for understanding past empirical reality, empiricism: collect data, make theories, and check whether the observed is foreseen and-or the foreseen is observed. Values enter in law, health sciences, architecture and engineering. Law preserves old reality, the others create new: people with lower morbidity and mortality, living in houses of all kinds rather than caves, with miracles of engineering all over.

Solving old problems at the expense of creating new ones, with the social sciences not allowed to follow suit by presenting alternative social constructions.

Economics is different. It settled early for a stable equilibrium model accommodating small aberrations, but not the Big, the crises.

As revealed by Queen Elizabeth II asking why such intelligent people did not foresee 2008. The answer, predicting only mall changes but not a system crisis, was a death sentence over them for being like a meteorology only handling winds up to Beaufort Scale 5, breeze; not storms, hurricanes.

In came future studies exploring futurelandia, doing to time what “discoveries” of unexplored (by us) lands did to space.

But somebody else had been doing this for millennia, with another wonderful tool, daoism. Holism and dialectics, huge realities cut through by forces and counter-forces paving the way for potential reality becoming empirical reality.

The Chinese know Western empiricism and use it; the West is mainly ignorant of Chinese daoism, and too arrogant to learn.

Of course all civilizations map time, not only the Chinese.

Hinduism does it with much complexity, and we are now on the way down. The West does it with the naive simplicity of “the idea of progress”, picked up by liberalism as economic growth and expanding freedoms, and by Marxism as jumpy stages in the means/mode of production relations.

The iconic countries, USA and USSR, these last decades live the fervor of unforeseen contradictions. One collapsed; the other is on the way?

Both might have learnt from the yin/yang in the yin/yang, etc.

How do we enter Future without data, “only” theory and values?

By means of visions, not of what was, nor of what is, of what may be. We envision, image, a desirable and viable future; using values for the desirable and theory for the viable. They are there for that.

To work on visions of negative peace without direct-structural-cultural violence and positive peace with direct-structural-cultural peace, use dialogue.

Establish the goals–values, interests–of actors and parties; test the goals for legitimacy using law, human rights and basic needs as guides; then create a vision of a new social reality meeting the legitimate goals. Its records show that it often works.

The goals of the parties are established by asking questions like, “What does Afghanistan, the Middle East, or the marriage you would like to be in look like”?

These are the values. And the theory is that for viability, the goals have to be legitimate: “How do you justify that?”

Then create visions of new social realities meeting legitimate goals.

The Washington Post 14 Nov 2016 featured “To frame future for D.C. boys, schools turn to art”. The focus is not on art as beauty – neither value, nor theory – but on art as creativity, given them the support to be innovative”, as “producers, writers and creators”. Excellent; artists are among the most creative human beings.

But why so indirect? How about “D.C. boys” addressing “What does the D.C. you would like to see look like?” Why? – that is, not going via art.

Much work is needed to bring the future closer to us.

People articulate past much better than future, using their facts, not their visions.

And so much better at the negative than the positive.

Words flow in torrents about “negative past”; for “positive future” stuttering, body language. Learning from media negativism?

The argument is not for the future to dominate as the past did.

The argument is in favour of a symmetric presence in our minds and sciences of past and future, not falling into the empiricist trap.

Originally published by the Transcend Media Service, TMS, here.

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