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Prospection and Life's Enduring Questions

Pragmatic Prospection

Roy Baumeister

"No fate but what we make" or "The future has not been written. There is no fate but what we make for ourselves."—Terminator II

"Question: How did he do it? (A) He cheated. (B) He is lucky. (C) He's a genius. (D) It is written."

Answer: (D) It is written."—Slumdog Millionaire


radically different versions of the future. A series of movies with the Terminator title invoked the questionable premise of time travel to assert the principle that the future can be changed. The theme of these movies was that in the near future, machines and computers take over the world and wage war on humankind. People fight back under the leadership of a remarkable man. Eventually the machines devise a way to travel back in time, and they send a deadly robot to kill the mother of the future leader.

By eliminating the leader, they could prevent the rebellion in their (future) time. The doughty humans fight back in the present, realizing eventually that by changing the present, they could prevent the machine takeover, thus improving the prospects for future generations. "No fate but what we make for ourselves" is the guiding motto of the humans. We are not locked into one inevitable destiny but can change what happens based on how we act.

A very different theory of the future was articulated in the surprise hit Slumdog Millionaire, about a poor, ignorant boy in India who, through a remarkable series of coincidences, acquires key facts that enable him to know the obscure answers to a series of questions on a televised quiz show, so that he wins a fortune of 20 million rupees. The odds would have seemed impossibly long against his chances of winning: Questions pursuing recondite facts and even a conspiracy by the television show's management militate against him. But the show asserts that the apparent "odds" are misleading, because it was his destiny all along to get on the show, give the right answers, and win a fortune. The movie starts with a multiple-choice question about why the young man won the game, and the film ends with the answer that his winnings were inevitable: "Because it is written." That is, his fate, presumably like everyone's fate, was decreed long in advance, and nothing else was ever possible.

Which is correct? Many philosophers and other thinkers have been smitten with the doctrine of determinism, which asserts that everything that happens is inevitable and that the chain of causality runs ineluctably from the beginning of time, through and including your reading this sentence, off into the finite or infinite future of the universe. The claim that "it is written" is a fanciful rendition of this idea. These thinkers do not really believe that there is a document somewhere on which every detail of the future is actually written down. But they embrace the spirit of it. To a strict determin- ist, everything that ever happens and ever will happen was already inevitable right after the origin of the universe. The appearance of multiple possibilities in the future is an illusion based on ignorance, not reality. Indeed, this vision of reality is itself much like a movie: The film's ending is already set and cannot be changed, even though the audience watching the early scenes does not know what that ending will be. The characters in the film may struggle and choose, and their actions bring about the ending, but it was always inevitable that they would do what they end up doing, and that the result will be what it is. A film ends as it does "because it is written" (i.e., in the screenplay).

The four authors of this book come from rather different disciplines. Peter Railton is a philosopher. Chandra Sripada is also a professor of philosophy, but in addition he is a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist. Roy Baumeister is a social psychologist, and Martin Seligman is a general psychologist with a background in experimental psychology and clinical psychology. Even from these different perspectives, there is one issue that each of us has thought long and hard about: free will. And we each have different opinions about free will (so this is the domain in which the editor's job of having the chapters all speaking with a single voice does not really work).

We agree on the following, however: The metaphysical questions about free will are at a standstill. For every move asserting, for example, that the universe is deterministic and free will is incompatible with determinism, there is a countermove and a countermove against that. So we have decided not to take on the metaphysical issues. Rather, we will assume that psychologically speaking, free will exists. That assumption is unavoidable for both positive psychology and prospection. So we will ask what distinguishes a free creature—Homo prospectus—from those who are not free.

Prospection is centrally concerned with how people think about the future. The idea that we explore in this chapter is that prospection is fundamentally pragmatic. That is, the reason people think about the future is that doing so can enable them to steer events toward one outcome rather than another. Thus, prospection as a practical matter embraces the Terminator view rather than the Slumdog view. The very point of thinking about the future is that there are different possible futures. By anticipating them and adjusting one's actions, one can try to produce the more desirable ones and avoid calamities and disasters.

The idea that the future is unsettled, that we can change the future but not the past, may seem intuitively obvious. But a powerful and mischievous idea, determinism, disputes it. At present, there is lively intellectual debate about whether the future is fixed or malleable. It is vital to consider the deterministic worldview, if only to appreciate what it means to deviate from it.

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