The desire to know the future is so human, but if we consistently knew the future with calculable certainty, this would lead to damaging behavior, darkness, and dehumanization. What, then, are we to do with this human desire to see what is to come?

Wanting to know the future is a natural human desire. We see this manifested in many a story and movie where characters seek to travel to the hereafter. We also see this in less wholesome venues: tarot cards, magic 8-balls, crystal balls, Ouija boards, palm readers, astrologers. The motives for knowing what lies ahead are multiple. Some seek the future for fun. Others because the uncertainty of days to come can produce anxiety. This is probably the most common cause of the desire to know the future. Here at the start of 2021, the world of politics and COVID-19 are certainly producing much anxiety.

However, would knowing what is to come actually bring peace? Dostoevsky’s dark novel Notes from the Underground sheds some light on this question. The narrator of the work, a deeply disturbed character, muses about being able to “calculate [his] life for thirty years ahead.”[1] If it were possible to do this, he realizes, it would only be because life is a “formula” of predetermined responses—a table of predetermined actions to predetermined scenarios.[2] If we could actually foresee the future thusly, would “future” be the right word, or would we instead see some sort of evolving present? Either way, this would not produce a very satisfying life. “Who wants to want according to a little table?” the narrator notes.[3] To have true desires, we have to have a will, and to have a will we have to be capable of willing things, and to be capable of willing things we have to be capable of not willing them. We cannot fulfill a future that we are incapable of unfulfilling. Thus, if we knew the future, it seems that we might not even be human at all, “because what is man without desires, without will, and without wantings, if not a sprig in an organ barrel?”[4] Not knowing the future, then, “preserves for us the chiefest and dearest thing, that is, our personality and our individuality.”[5]

Because wanting to know the future is so human, it is strange to think of attaining this desire as dehumanizing. Things that dehumanize are dangerous. They can lead to outbursts of violence and rebellion. If the Future continually said, “Here is your fate,” perhaps we would respond, “Oh yeah? Watch me!” I would want to assert that I am me. You would want to assert that you are you. If we felt trapped by the future, we might, in an effort to prove our individuality and freedom, forcefully steer our lives, if only into a ditch. Then we would have the case where a “man may purposely, consciously wish for himself even the harmful, the stupid, even what is stupidest of all: namely, so as to have the right to wish for himself even what is stupidest of all and not be bound.”[6] If we consistently knew the future with calculable certainty, it seems at least likely that the end result could be this damaging behavior and darkness. As Dostoevsky’s narrator notes, a formulaic life where “two times two is four is no longer life… but the beginning of death.”[7]

What, then, are we to do with this human desire to see what is to come? Perhaps we should limit the desire in some fashion. Perhaps we should want to know what is to happen but not how? “Lord, if you show me what is to happen, I can bear whatever means are necessary.” Or maybe we should do the opposite and pray to know the how but not the what? “Lord, how should I proceed? Tell me, and I leave the results in your hands.” Either seems like a nice compromise, an acceptable solution. However, Christ requested neither in his prayer: “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”[8] Here we see that Christ has an intention in his prayer, but the means and results he trusts to Our Father.

Perhaps Christ is showing us that we must accept uncertainty as one of the costs of being human—whether that uncertainly comes from politics, COVID, or elsewhere. Humans live in a continuum that includes time. We live on a plane that includes duration. No, there is no time with God, but there certainly is time with us, his creatures. Perhaps we finite mortals need time in order to give our Creator our faith, hope, and fullness of charity. Perhaps the human desire to know the future is really just a call to increase our practice of the theological virtues. The start of the year 2021 seems as good a time as any.

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[1] Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1994), 27.

[2] Dostoevsky, 26.

[3] Dostoevsky, 26. Italics mine.

[4] Dostoevsky, 26.

[5] Dostoevsky, 28-29.

[6] Dostoevsky, 28.

[7] Dostoevsky, 33.

[8] Matthew, 26:39.

The featured image is “The Fortune Teller” (1880) by Albert Anker (1831–1910) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.

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