Limits of Conceivability in the Study of the Future. Part 6. Common Themes

Continues from the previous posts.

In this series of posts, three cases from philosophy of science were discussed. The cases involve conceptual and epistemological considerations that suggest the following lessons.

First, there are possible futures that cannot be conceived due to deep epistemological and conceptual reasons. At least in science, there have been unconceived alternatives and probably still are. Moreover, the unconceived alternatives at one level of a system radiate through the whole system which suggests that unconceived alternatives might have radical rather local consequences in the system.

Secondly, there might be conceivable futures whose plausibility or even possibility cannot be justified for deep epistemological and conceptual reasons in contrast to more practical limitations in foresight practices. Our current epistemological and conceptual predicament prevent us from creating plausible scenarios that do not converge towards the current state. Moreover, even if we could provide an alternative scenario, there are always resources to deny that the alternative is genuinely possible or nonbenign.

Thirdly, the range of possible histories and the range of alternative futures seem to depend on the same sets of rather contentious convictions about the space of possibilities of historical trajectories. One cannot find historical or future possibilities independently of the convictions and, vice versa, we cannot understand the robustness and inevitability of the present world independently of how we view historical and future possibilities. Other pasts, different presents, alternative futures, to use Black’s (2015) phrase, are entangled in a web of modal considerations.

It is interesting to note that that the insights on conceivability discussed in this series of posts are far from obvious or a priori even though they are based on philosophical debates. Rather, the insights are based on historical, historiographical, epistemological, and conceptual considerations. They build on historical patterns but also on insights on how it is possible to study and understand history. It turns out that our ability to conceive and reason about possibilities has been historically limited. It is also limited by our ability to make sense of the history from the present point of view. There are many mechanisms by which the present state of the world reinforces its own hegemony, continuity, and inevitability.

In general, the cases discussed in this series of posts do not fully support the optimism that the past-facing approaches can straightforwardly reject determinism by multiplying and pluralizing possibility or open new possibilities by studying counterfactual scenarios. However, this should not demoralize us. As we have seen, even if we cannot fully escape our epistemological and conceptual predicament, we should not settle for accepting the present world as inevitable and continuous. For the very reason that the current state reinforces its hegemony, we should study the alternatives. In fact, too much optimism towards our ability to conceive possible futures makes us blind towards the possible futures that lay beyond conceivability, thus reinforcing the present even further. Only by understanding the limits, we can plan to overcome them. It is conceivable that the limits of conceivability are not historically immutable or nonnegotiable.

In essence, the series of posts suggests that the epistemological and conceptual limits of our ability to conceive and reason about possible futures should be mapped systematically and in connection with many different fields. This provides better understanding of the creative and critical bite of futures studies and reminds us of our epistemological and conceptual predicament with respect to future possibilities.

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