All Along the Watchtower. On the Relationship between Philosophy and Futures Studies

In this post, I analyze the relationship between philosophy and futures studies. I do not intend to capture the whole picture. Rather, I reflect on the commitments that my own study of the estimating of possible futures of science makes to the nature of philosophy.

In my view, the main distinction is to be made between (a) philosophy in futures studies, and (b) philosophy of futures studies.

By philosophy in futures studies, I mean the use of philosophical views and theories in the estimating of possible and desirable futures. In this sense, philosophy provides views and theories that are relevant to the future in the same sense as other field of research. For example, we can take philosophical theories and create scenarios where the development of science follows those theories. Or we can take ethical views and assess the desirability of a possible future through those views.

To provide more concrete examples, consider structural realism (SR) in the philosophy of science. Structural realism commits to the view that the (mathematical) structures of successful theories are preserved in scientific change (Worrall 1989). Given this view, we can estimate that there will not be radical changes in the mathematical structures of well-confirmed science in the future. In ethics, consider the view that

“Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (a) to the greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle, and (b) attached to offices and positions open to all under conditions of fair equality of opportunity” (Rawls 1999, 266). Although this principle requires interpretation when implemented, it still provides a suggestion what kinds of futures are desirable.

When we consider the role of philosophy in futures studies, we do not necessarily need to understand philosophy as a distinct field of study. Rather, it is a source of insight into possible futures among many other sources (theories, expert judgement etc.). At least the philosophy of science is strongly integrated with empirical studies of past and with the present activities and contents of science. However, the inherent normativity of ethics – and also the philosophy of science that attempts to tell what kind of scientific development is rational or desirable (see Virmajoki 2019) – complicates the issue. Given that normative judgements presumably require different kind of justification than descriptive ones, we need to have an account of scenario-building that tells how scenarios that are created by following normatively loaded theories can be justified. In my own work, I attempt to create a philosophy of futures studies (of science[1]) that is able to integrate the descriptive and normative aspects of scenario-building (see here, here and here). 

By philosophy of futures studies, I mean the reflection on the nature, prospects, limits, and problems of and in the futures studies. The basic question are

(a) how does futures studies work,

(b) what problems and tensions the field faces,

(c) how can the existing approaches be justified,

(d) how can we generate new approaches that are equally or better justified,

(e) what is the conceptual core of the future studies,

(f) is the conceptual core consistent.

Question (a) is made in descriptively oriented philosophy and science studies. The purpose is to find out (i) what subjects are studied, (ii) what are the goals of research in the field, (iii) what methods are used, (iv) how research is organized, (v) how the research is connected with society, politics, culture, and technology. Despite the descriptive underpinnings of such questions, there is always an interpretative element present: It is important to ask “Why?” with respect to any descriptive finding. Moreover, descriptive accounts are rarely free from interpretative elements.

The motivation behind (a) is that we should not begin our analysis of a field of inquiry from some pregiven definition or conception concerning the nature of the field or what “really” counts as science. It is much more fruitful to analyze the field as it actually stands than to ponder around ideals or conceptions whose origins are obscure.

Question (b) concerns the interplay between methods, results, motivations, and application of the result. We need to analyze to consistency between the methods and the interpretation of results and between methods, results, and intended applications. For example, how can we tell when a future is desirable or ethically sound? How can the methods used in the mapping of possible futures decide the issue (i.e. how can they get “the ought from the is”? Another example: Is the mapping of many possible futures in tension with the necessity of decision-making that motivates futures studies?

Question (c) does not concern the search for infallible foundations. Rather, it concerns the rationality and meaningfulness of the approaches with respect to problems we are attempting to solve. For example, we could justify the mapping of many possible futures by noting that the mapping makes it possible to be prepared for future possibilities. The point of futures studies is not provide “one recipe for the future” (as that is a problem for politicians…). This type of analysis is made, for example, in the external-validity analysis of Kuusi, Cuhls and Steinmüller (2015), where the authors formulate criteria for validity of futures maps from a pragmatic point of view (see a previous post).

The point behind this question (d) is to remind that science and research are also historical activities that need to be developed further. The development of new approaches has three aspects that require analysis: (i) Pragmatic aspect: Should approaches from other fields be adopted? (ii) Epistemic aspect: How can we modify existing approaches or borrowed aspects to be more suitable for the goals of futures studies? (iii) Meta-aspect: Should we reconstruct the goals? If so, how do we reconsider the existing approaches?

Question (e) refers to attempts to explicate and clarify the basic concepts of futures studies that underline the research. For example, Wendell Bell (see discussion here) included in the “transdisciplinary matrix” of futures studies the following element: “Shared key concepts (e.g., image of the future, future shock, tempocentrism, time frames, time horizons, alternative futures, possible futures, probable futures, preferable futures, post-industrial society, sustainable development, self-altering prophecy, issues management, scenarios, trends, life-sustaining capacities of the Earth, human values, among others”. It is important to understand such concepts and their relationships to each other and to future-oriented thinking in practice.

Question (f) is an extremely important continuation of the question (e). We have to ask whether the basic concepts (provided by some framework like transdisciplinary matrix) fit naturally together. And if so, do they fit together naturally or in a ad hoc –manner. For example, Bell’s list may turn out to include mutually incompatible. Or one may wonder how natural the listing is. Question (f) reflects the change from reductive philosophical conceptual analysis to “conceptual engineering”. No longer we attempt to reduce difficult concepts to more basics one but rather we attempt to engineer conceptual systems that show the connections between different concepts. For example, Woodward (2003) provided an analysis of causation not in reductive terms but in terms of the connections between causation, (hypothetical) experiments, counterfactuals, explanation, and invariant generalizations. In a similar spirit, we may attempt organize other conceptual families (like the ones in the core of futures studies) into a neat and trackable order.

At its best, philosophy can provide reflection on the questions and systematize the possible answers to them. The goal of philosophy is to “clarify [–] claims when those claims are “confused, unclear, and ambiguous” and to suggest “how these limitations might be addressed”, as Woodward famously puts it (2003, 7).

I think we should not include grand philosophical questions like “Does anything beyond present moment exist?”, “What can we know in the first place?”, “Is the world a deterministic place?”, “Do human actions differ from natural phenomena?” in the list. There are several interconnected reasons for this.

First, while possible answers to these questions can be extremely valuable while reflecting on futures studies, they are not confined to futures studies. As I take it, the philosophy of futures studies has to reflect on the field as it actually works and attempt to tackle problems that are specific to that field. General philosophical questions are – well – general, and they do not impose any specific problems for futures research.

Secondly, the grand questions have turned out to be very difficult to answer. If our understanding about the nature of futures studies required that we are able to answer them, we would never understand the field. Neither would we understand any other field of research – which really is not the case. We can ask more modest questions and still make progress in our understanding about the field.

Thirdly, the answers to the grand questions cannot be separated from the results of science and research. For example, given how successful physics have been for some centuries now, it seems that we can know great many things (and at the same time be ignorant about many other issues). This observation should shape the answer to the question “What can we know in the first place?”. In the same sense, the development of futures studies as a field could potentially inform us about how certain grand question ought to be answered. The interrelatedness of grand questions and existing research indicates that the idea of philosophy as a systematization of ideas is the correct one. We need to balance our deep ontological and epistemic commitments with the ones made in the actual research. Tensions will arise but that is exactly where we need to sit down and reflect on what is going on in our thinking.

These are all negative points against the centrality of the grand questions in the philosophy of futures studies. Now I turn to more positive ideas about the possible strategy for the philosophy of futures studies. My suggestion is that we should (a) attempt to apply the most systematic and powerful philosophical accounts that have been created in the analyzes of other related fields (historiography, sociology, STS, economy etc.) to futures studies and (b) when idiosyncratic problems arise, we should improve and develop further the philosophical account we are using. This strategy is based on the observation that philosophical accounts of other fields (like science and ethics) have been developed in depth and have become quite nuanced and insightful. Given that we have such powerful philosophical accounts, there exists a great hope that those accounts can also illuminate the nature, prospect, limitations, and problem of futures studies.

Moreover, there is a motivation for this strategy that does not stem merely from the powerfulness of these accounts outside futures studies. The motivation is this: Given that possible futures are such an important topic in all the areas and scales of life, we should require[2] that the best philosophical accounts are able to clarify different aspects of futures-related thinking. We should feel certain uneasiness towards philosophical accounts that would paralyze in front of the important topic of future. For example, in the previous post we discussed the problematic situation where Popper’s falsificationism leads in this regard. The philosophy of futures studies can be highly relevant and insightful if it succeeds in establishing the future-oriented force of our best philosophical account. This surely is a task worthy of trying.

One example of such strategy is the use of the accounts of counterfactual reasoning in understanding scenario-building. I have discussed this topic in many previous posts so there is no point in going to details here. The basic idea is that we attempt to understand the construction of counterfactual past and possible futures as similar processes. Surely, there are important differences between these two activities (for example, we know more about the past; and we can affect the future, not past) but these differences can be highly revealing.

For example, counterfactual reasoning concerning the past is usually restricted to scenarios that the relevant historical actors considered possible. While we should be critical towards this suggestion (as discussed here), it makes some sense: In most cases, people hardly could have taken a course of action that was completely inconceivable for them. However, the building of future scenarios should not be restricted in this way. Rather, the whole point of futures studies is to make us reflect on possible futures and to make conceivable that which has not been conceived in the proto-reflective state. While we cannot demand that historical actors should and could have reflected on all sorts of possible futures, we surely must require such reflection from ourselves. Given this difference between counterfactual past and possible future scenarios, we can recognize a methodological need for tools (many already in existence) that allow us to go beyond “ordinary” reflection towards future. In this way, we can understand and justify the use of the methods in futures studies thorough the comparison between historiography and futures studies and between us and historical agents.

Another example of applying accounts that were developed in other fields could be the use of method of reflective equilibrium (RE) in deciding which futures are desirable. Scanlon describes the method of RE (in the context of philosophy of justice):

“One begins by identifying a set of considered judgments about justice. [–]. The second stage is to try to formulate principles that would “account for” these judgments. [–]. [The] third stage in which one decides how to respond to the divergence between these principles and one’s considered judgments. Should one give up the judgments that the principles fail to account for, or modify the principles, in order to achieve a better fit?” (2003, 140–141.)

In my (2019) dissertation, I discussed how RE can be used to decide what is significant (important, good, bad, desirable, undesirable) about science. Basically, by systematizing our existing judgements about significant features of science, we can find general principles of significance that enable us to assess the significance unclear or upcoming features.

Prima facie, RE enables us to reflect on the desirability/undesirability of possible futures. This is due to the fact that the method (i) enables us to use our own values and needs as the starting point of the evaluation of the future values and needs and (ii) and still it enables us to evaluate how the future changes in nature, culture, society and technology might change the values and needs. For example, we might currently consider as significant that science provides simple explanations and find out that this judgement of significance is (partly) based on our limited cognitive abilities and our willingness to be able to effectively cope with phenomena. However, we could estimate that the processing power of computers increases and that the main problems of the future, related to climate for example, are extremely complex and conclude that, in the future, simple explanations are no longer preferable to complex models that enable us to make accurate predictions. Here we have projected the willingness to cope effectively with important phenomena onto the future but have re-evaluated the preference for simple explanations in the light of other mappings of future possibilities.

Again, there is a difference between the use of RE in judging what is significant in the present and what could be significant in the future. Whereas Virmajoki (2019) discusses systematization of our current values and judgements with RE, the estimating of desirable futures of science requires that we systematize what could be significant in the future when the world has changed. To put it simply, the problem is how to avoid relativism: We need to add some assumptions concerning the future values and needs into RE and it is difficult to evaluate the relative merits of those assumptions. Different sets of assumptions lead to different systematizations of values and judgements and therefore it is difficult to evaluate the relative merits of those systematizations.

This difference, however, is revealing about how we to think about the goal of the “ethical aspect” of futures studies. Perhaps we should not attempt to find one desirable future but to map many possibly desirable futures. Perhaps we should not attempt to get rid of relativism but to mitigate its consequences. From the fact that there might be different systematizations of desirable features of possible futures it does not follow that we can justify any systematization whatsoever. Once again, we can understand and justify the search for many possible and desirable futures in the current futures studies by comparing the nature, prospects, and limits of futures studies with those of a different field – philosophical ethics in this case.

Finally, we can see that the strategy that I prefer highlights the importance of philosophy of futures studies as a comparative field where the nature, prospects, and limits of futures studies are made understandable by comparing them with the nature, prospects, and limits of other fields. The positive effect of the comparative methodology is that while it makes futures studies more understandable, it also makes creates critical insights towards other fields. For example, I once discussed (see here) “what we can infer about the relative epistemic merits of scenario-work from the failures to formulate correct scenarios of the future.” I argued “that these failures are not qualitatively different from failures in other disciplines. Rather, the difference is in the way that the epistemic commitments become apparent and can be tested.” The comparative study of futures studies and other fields on research can be highly revealing about the nature of the futures studies and the nature of other fields.


Bell, Wendell (2009 [1997]). Foundations of Futures Studies, Volume 1: Human Science for a New Era. [Fifth printing.]

Kuusi O., Cuhls K., Steinmüller K. (2015) “Quality criteria for scientific futures research”. Futura 1/15

Scanlon, T. M. (2003). “Rawls on Justification”. In Freeman, Samuel (ed.) Cambridge Companion to Rawls. Cambridge University Press

Woodward, James (2003). Making Things Happen. A Theory of Causal Explanations. Oxford University Press.

Worrall, John (1989). “Structural realism: The best of both worlds?”. Dialectica 43.

[1] It is only a hypothesis that the tools that enable us to estimate the future of science work in other areas of future.

[2] I like to require many things, as my (2020) paper indicates already in its name.

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