Prediction is futile

In the ancient world, there was an oracle on every corner and an augur near every seat of power. Divination was integrated with daily life and served society in unexpected ways. Soothsaying was useful if for no other reason than by delaying the process of decision-making. Important matters, like new battles or clearing land, required a visit to the oracle, which forced deep consideration. Prophecies were poetic, so the consultant was illuminated, but maintained autonomy. The first maxim of the Sybil was, “know thyself.”

The purpose of prediction is to make sense of the present, it’s useless for seeking facts. Uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. Our preference is for cyclical regularity that buffers us from inevitable crisis. Without normalcy, we look around for any indication of what is ahead. We peer into the future, searching for whatever signs will guide us.

Plutarch said, “The oracle neither conceals, nor reveals, but indicates.”1 We are in a moment of revelation, but our vision will always be skewed. Today, the narrative is in revolt and the reign of fact is over. Truth is a dance. For too long we’ve stood on the toes of fact and lumbered together around the ballroom. Prophetic understanding is useful now precisely because it’s not overt.

Discord breeds prediction because it gives us something to hold on to. The motto of the day is, “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos, the situation is excellent.”2 The ominous voices of accurate prediction are in high demand. Analysis will become a mixture of paranoid criticism and superstition. But facts have failed because we crave a good story.

The incoming administration thrives on the core understanding, “There’s no such thing as facts.”3 But this contrarian statement is a bluff. What matters is undeniable action, which is the purest fact. In bombast they are saying to everyone, “We’ll let ya’ll figure out what is true after the fact.”

But do you see what I just did there? I read their tea leaves. I interpreted a statement with no idea of whether or not it’s correct. There is comfort in making my own sense of it.

Prediction is a guide that makes the path up as we go. It creates the future by imagining the contours of the present. In order to think critically about the present we must recognize the narratives, and completely suspend ourselves outside of them. The oracular critic is a poet and an interpreter. Within poetry we explore truth as dynamic and beauty as constant. The soothsayer is pure only when she no longer holds assumptions.

  1. Plutarch as quoted in the epigraph to Chapter 1 in “Delphi: A center of the ancient world” by Michael Scott.

2. Quote taken from Slavoj Žižek interpretation of Mao Ze Dong,