Summary: Hunter gatherers appear not to have been pre-occupied with predicting the future. Ideas about fate and pre-destiny arose more strongly after the advent of farming as pleasing God might be rewarded with better harvests. Examines the idea that fortune telling may have been an earlier method of psychotherapy. Analyses ideas of fate and pre-destiny in religion, Marx’s theory of history and Nazism’s idea of racial superiority.
The historian Yuval Harari says we cannot know much about the myths of hunter gatherer socities or the way they saw the world, and that we not assume that the many different groups of hunter gathers had the same or similar world views. What we know about hunter gather socieites comes from those groups that survived into modernity and the inferences drawn by anthropologists, often based on farily scant evidence.
That said, it may be that hunter gathers did not seem to have had a huge concern with predicting the future. Most of the hunter gatherer myths that we know about concerned their past, their ancestors and how they were created.
Some myths served to make everyday parts of the hunter gather life, such as the hunt, a special or spiritual experience. Although it seems likely that hunter gatherers believed in a spirit world, magic and an afterlife, the hunter gather myths we know about do not seem to have featured stories about how the world would end.
We also know that hunter gatherers lived in nature and constantly saw, very close up, the ongoing cycle of life and death. For these reasons and because their way of life had not changed in fundamental ways over tens of thousands of years, its seems possible that they made no assumptions about how the world might end.
Although the hunter gather societies had Shamans who were regarded as having spiritual wisdom, hunter gatherers may have have seen little need to predict the long term future.. Their concerns may have focused on the practical necessities of safely hunting and gathering enough food to sustain their group and to continue practicing the customs and rituals handed down by their ancestors.
It is easier to identify concerns about predicting the future emerging more strongly following the development of farming. Farmers were far more dependent on good weather to produce food than the hunter gathers because the hunter gathers could simply move on to another location when food in a particular area began to run short. This may be one reason why interest in predicting the future, or pleasing a God who might reward the faithful with good farming harvests, became more widespread during the farming period.
Oracles were people who were regarded as having a special ability to predict the future, usually through communicating with the Gods. They were important in ancient Greece but also existed in other ancient farming cultures. The Romans relied on examinations of animal’s organs, and flights and sounds of birds from to make predictions on the future.
Others have claimed to be able to predict the future based on the reading of tea leaves, tarot cards or the lines on a person’s palm.
Astrology is the belief that human events are influenced by the position of stars or planets, including the position they happened to be in on the date a person was born. Astrology has long been believed to be a method of predicting the future and first appeared in Ancient Babylon about 4,000 years ago. But it has also appeared in other cultures, including Asian cultures. It remains popular even in modern societies, though it is not supported as a reliable method of predicting the future by scientists.
Fortune telling and psychotherapy
An interesting theory is that perhaps the main purpose of reading of tea leaves, tarot cards, palms or astrological charts is not really to predict the future. According to this theory the more important reason for these activities was always to give the person who went to the fortune teller the opportunity to reflect upon their lives and their hopes, dreams or fears.
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) developed the theory that mental illness as well as less serious personal problems could be caused by traumatic experiences, often from childhood, being repressed. Freud described repression as a process that led to the memory of these traumas passing into a part of the mind that we are not aware of in our everyday lives. This he called the unconscious or sub-conscious mind.
Locked in the sub-conscious Freud believed that these traumas could lead a person to negative forms of behaviour that would damage them, without the person being aware of the reasons for their behaviour.
Freud claimed that the sub-conscious could be “unlocked” by getting a patient to talk about dreams or to say immediately what comes to their mind in response to a word or image (“free association”). This process Freud called psychotherapy. Through this process a person could become more aware of the reasons for their behaviour and perhaps begin to alter it in positive ways.
But there are lots of different types of psychotherapy as well as differences of opinion over how effective it is in fixing people’s problems.
It has been suggested that the reading of tea leaves, tarot cards, palms or astrological charts were an old, pre-scientific method that aimed to perform a similar function to psychotherapy. The idea is that the future predicted in the session was less important than the opportunity given to the person in to contemplate and discuss the current direction of his or her life. With tarot cards, it has even been suggested that the images in the cards might lead to a form of free association.
Religion the future and pre-destination
Central to the Abrahamic religions- Judaism, Christianity and Islam, which all arose after the invention of farming, is the idea that the world will come to an end at a time when God will judge all humanity. These religions also believe that the future is rosy for certain human beings but dismal for others. Some will be saved and join God in heaven and others will go to hell.
Some adherents of these religions believe that what a person does in his or her life can affect what happens to them in the afterlife. A person can be saved either through faith in God or through living a good and virtuous life, or both. But others believe that whether a person has faith, or leads a good life, makes no difference because God as he has already determined who will be saved.
Within Christianity St. Augustine (354-430) from the Catholic tradition and Martin Luther (10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) from the Protestant tradition, believed that God decides who is to be saved even before a human being is born, or even prior to creation. This is known as the doctrine of pre-destination.
Calvin even referred to those pre-determined by God to be saved as “the elect”. There was nothing that a person could do to enter the elect if the person had not been chosen by God to be part of this group. Nevertheless for Calvin, living a virtuous life was seen as a sign that a person had been chosen by God as one of the elect. So Calvinists had a strong motivation to do well on Earth as this might be seen as a sign to themselves and the rest of the community that God had already chosen them as part of the elect.
Calvin was followed in Switzerland, Holland, by the Presbyterians in Scotland, as well as by the Puritans in England, who in turn, exerted a long and strong influence on religion in the USA.
The ideas of St. Augustine and Calvin about pre-destiny and salvation are closely linked to the view held by both men about original sin. This is the idea that because Adam and Eve disobeyed a command from God not to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge, all human beings born after them are born as sinners. They can only be saved if God chooses to save them.
Islam is different in this regard. Islam insists that Arabic is the only sacred language, being the language in which the Holy Koran is written. This gives an advantage to those of Arabic origins. Nevertheless it is open to any person any person to become a Muslim and therefore to be saved.
While Islam also holds that events are pre-determined by God (Allah), or at least that nothing occurs in the world without the will of Allah, any person who lives by the five pillars of Islam can go to heaven.
The first pillar is to declare faith in God by stating the words, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his messenger”. Any person who says these words before a witness becomes a Muslim. The other four pillars are praying in the direction of Mecca five times a day, giving to the poor, fasting during Ramadan and making a pilgrimage to Mecca (the city in Arabia that Muhammad conquered) at least once during your lifetime.
Other branches of Christianity claim that the Bible prophesizes that prior to the world ending believers will be drawn up into heaven to meet God in a process known as “the rapture”. Non-believers will be “left behind” during a period of worldwide hardships, disasters, famine, war, pain and suffering, which will wipe out most of all life before Jesus Christ returns to Earth again.
It should also be said that not all Christians believe that events are pre-determined by God. The notion of free will, including the ability to chose right from wrong, also has a strong tradition within Christianity and in Judaism. In fact Augustine believed that God had given human beings free will. This was the way in which he explained the existence of evil in the world, despite God being all loving and all powerful. Yet he also believed that God had pre-determined who would be saved. This suggests that whether a person exercised their free will by choosing to do good or to do bad was not relevant to whether the person would be saved.
The idea of free will is longstanding and has become more popular within Christianity as modern society has placed greater emphasis on the role of the individual. There is no obvious reason for individuals to choose good conscience over selfish arrogance if God has already chosen who is to be saved regardless of the choices the individual makes.
But not all scientists believe human being possess “free will”. The physicist Stephen Hawking, for example, believes human behaviour is determined by rules of nature that override “free will”. He has pointed to the fact that where surgeons stimulate appropriate regions of the brain this can create in a patient the desire to move part of the body or to move the lips and talk. This has led Hawking to describe human beings as “biological machines” with “free will” being “just an illusion”.
However Hawking has also said that human behaviour is determined in “such a complicated way and with so many variables as to make it impossible in practice to predict”. So despite the fact that Hawking believes human behaviour is somehow determined by laws that do not allow us to exercise true free will, this does not lead him to claim that he knows how human history will develop or end.
In our every day lives however it will still seem obvious to most of us that we constantly exercise choices and free will. Our choices range from simple matters about what to eat or drink to more important issues like how to treat friends or family, how to decide right and wrong and decisions on how to best lead our lives.
Those claiming knowledge about how history works and what the future holds are not limited to those who believe in God. Scientists regularly make predictions about the future. They claim however to base their predictions on theories that have been tested through experimentation, rather than on inspiration from God.
Indeed it is important for scientists to engage in predictions, such as environmental or population changes, because these predictions are important if Governments are to plan for the future.
Marxism and destiny in history
Karl Marx (5 May 1818 – 14 March 1883) did not believe in God. But he did believe that he had figured out a scientific method of understanding how history worked. He also believed that it was inevitable that it would unfold in a certain direction.
Marx pointed out that in every society in which human beings live they must produce food, shelter and other goods or services. In the process of production Marx said that different classes formed and ended up struggling with each other because of their different class interests. It is the process of production and the resulting struggle between classes that propels history along through different stages.
In slave owning societies it was slaves struggling against slave owners. In the Middle Ages it was peasants struggling against landowners who were supported by Kings and the Church. After the industrial revolution the key struggle was between those who owned the factories or other means to produce goods or services for sale and those who worked for them.
Marx called the methods used to produce goods or services “the means of production”.
Generally, the class which owned or controlled the means of production would organize a society in a way that ensured that they were able to maintain that control. Things like laws, courts, most information (or what we now call media), the education system and ultimately the ability to use force through the police or army, aimed at maintaining the control of the ruling class of society over the means of production.
Yet despite this control, Marx believed that the struggle between different classes would continue under the surface. And at certain points in history this struggle would result in revolution and control over the means of production passing from one class to another.
For example, this was what Marx believed had occurred in the French Revolution. The French Revolution resulted when an emerging capitalist class could no longer accept the privileges, laws and rules made in the interests of the landowning class which were supported by France’s royal family and the Church.
In the modern industrial society Marx believed that it was inevitable that the working class would eventually successfully revolt against the control exercised over society by the owners of the means of the production- the capitalists.
Marx pointed out that the only way that a capitalist could make a profit would be to pay the workers employed in the capitalist’s business less than the value of the products that the workers produced. This is logical. Any business that has to pay it workers more than the value of the goods or services it produces cannot make a profit or stay in business for long.
Marx reasoned that because the workers were paid less by the capitalist than the value of the goods or services they produced, in order to make a profit the capitalist would have to sell his goods or services to others than those who worked for him. This meant the capitalists would be constantly searching for new places to sell their goods and services. The places where goods and services are sold are “markets”. Marx accurately predicted what we now refer to as “globalization”- the constant expansion of markets across the globe.
But Marx also believed that it was inevitable that the rate of profit made by the capitalist class would fall over time. Marx was not alone in this view. It was a view held by other economists in the 1800’s. But Marx was the first to say that the tendency for the rate of the profit to fall would inevitably lead the working class to rebel and overthrow the capitalists.
Marx believed that one the rate of profit fell too much, capitalists would either stop investing, or would try to restore the rate of profit by reducing their workers wages. If the capitalists stopped investing, then economic stagnation and unemployment would result. If the capitalists tried to reduce their workers’ wages, this would result in conflict with those workers. In either case economic and political tension would grow. As the rate of profit continues to fall, it is inevitable that these tensions would escalate and would ultimately in a revolution through which the working class would remove the capitalists.
Nowadays the theory of the tendency for rate of profit to decline is not accepted by most economists. Others argue that the rate of profit does continue to decline but that the effects of this process are far slower and more uneven than Marx had predicted they would be.
The theory of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall is quite complex. It is explained in a short video here.
Marx also believed that the conflict between the capitalist and the working class was the last of the great class struggles that would afflict human society. Once the working class got rid of the capitalist class, a just society without social classes would be established. The means of production would be owned by nobody, or alternatively perhaps, by everybody. This society would be known as communism. Marx saw communism as a type of endpoint in human history.
Marx believed that the creation of a society without classes was possible. He pointed to hunter gather societies and the fact that they did not have social classes as evidence that this type of society was possible. In fact he described the hunter gatherer societies as living a type of “primitive communism”. However an advanced communist society would not suffer from the scarcity in material goods that occurred in hunter gatherer society. In advanced communism there would be plenty of goods to share and they would be produced by each according to his ability and distributed to each according to his need.
The fact that Marx identified many injustices that capitalists inflicted on working people meant his ideas inspired many people. But part of his inspiration was also that those who followed his theories believed that they had gained a special “scientific” insight into how history worked that other people did not understand.
The feelings of inspiration that a person experiences when they believe that they are being swept up by “forces of history” which other people cannot see or fully appreciate, can be very strong indeed. Even more so if the end point of those forces is the creation of a classless society free of exploitation. The inspiration that can result from these ideas appears to be just as strong as the inspiration that a person can feel if they believe they belong to a special group who are God’s most favoured people.
Nazism and racial destiny
Calvinism and Lutheranism both had strong roots in Germany. This meant that idea of a people who had been chosen to be favoured by God or destiny was already present in Germany when the Nazi’s, led by Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933.
Hitler took the ideas of destiny and a “chosen people” and applied it to the idea of racial superiority. Hitler had big predictions about the future. His ambition was to establish a state composed of people of German origin that stretched beyond the borders of the Germany that he ruled. This state, or Third Reich, would last for at least one thousand years. He described the Third Reich as a “unique spiritual” or “divine” creation. The aim was create a “new man” and this would be achieved both through human breeding programs and through the state assuming responsibility for happiness. “The time of happiness as a private matter is over” said Hitler.
Thus we see that throughout history many people have found it difficult or even impossible to live their lives without believing that they know what the future holds, either for them, or for all of us, or that history is pre-determined in one way or another.
It seems that feelings of inspiration, whether from believing that you are part of an elect group favoured by God, or part of a special group who understands how history will unfold, or part of a superior or favoured racial group, often give people a sense of confidence, pride or strength that is too hard to resist.
But it is also worth remembering that to live one’s life, not knowing for certain what the future holds, requires both courage and strength.