Scientific Knowledge, Technical Evolution, and Prediction

G. L. Filkovsky,
Nomura Securities International,
New York, USA

An idea of technology forecasting has its origins in what Karl Popper terms one of the oldest dreams of mankind - the dream of prophecy, the idea that we can know what the future has in store for us, and that we can profit from such knowledge by adjusting our policy to it. This dream was given further impetus by the emergence of a genuine predictive capability regarding such events as solar and lunar eclipses at an early stage in human civilization, which has of course become increasingly refined with the development of the natural sciences and their concomitant technologies. The kind of reasoning which makes technology forecasting plausible may be reconstructed as follows: if the application of the laws of the natural sciences can lead to the successful prediction of such future events as eclipses, then surely it is reasonable to infer that knowledge of the laws of technical evolution (assuming that such laws exist) would lead to the successful prediction of such future phenomena as inventions? Why should it be possible to predict an eclipse, but not an invention? Why can we not conceive of a science of technical evolution which could and would function as the theoretical natural sciences function, and yield precise unconditional predictions in the appropriate sphere of application? I will use Karl Popper's criticism of historicism to show that this parallel is based upon a series of misconceptions about the nature of science, and about the relationship between scientific laws and scientific prediction.

In relation to the concept of prediction, Popper makes a distinction between what he terms conditional scientific predictions, which have the form If X takes place, then Y will take place, and unconditional scientific prophecies, which have the form Y will take place. Contrary to popular belief, it is the former rather than the latter which are typical of the natural sciences, which means that typically prediction in natural science is conditional and limited in scope - it takes the form of hypothetical assertions stating that certain specified changes will come about if particular specified events antecedently take place. This is not to deny that unconditional scientific prophecies, such as the prediction of eclipses, for example, do take place in science, and that the theoretical natural sciences make them possible. However, (a) these unconditional prophecies are not characteristic of the natural sciences, and (b) the mechanism whereby they occur, in the very limited way in which they do, is not understood by TRIZ evolutionists.

What is the mechanism which makes unconditional scientific prophecies possible? The answer is that such prophecies can sometimes be derived from a combination of conditional predictions (themselves derived from scientific laws) and existential statements specifying that the conditions in relation to the system being investigated are fulfilled. Schematically, this can be represented as follows:

[C.P. + E.S.]=U.P.

where C.P.=Conditional Prediction; E.S.=Existential Statement; U.P.=Unconditional Prophecy. The most common examples of unconditional scientific prophecies in science relate to the prediction of such phenomena as lunar and solar eclipses and comets. Such unconditional scientific prophecies are very rare in natural sciences and are always temporary, even when they are possible: in case of eclipses they will hold only until an unexpected collision will create a new moon, or until Sun will blow into Nova, etc.

Given that this is the mechanism which generates unconditional scientific prophecies, the following two claims distinct them from the prophecies of technical evolutionism: (a) Technical evolutionists do not in fact derive their unconditional prophecies in this manner from conditional predictions, and (b) technical evolutionists cannot do so because only temporary unconditional scientific prophecies are possible and only if and while they apply to systems which are well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent (like our solar system). Such systems are quite rare in nature, and human technology is most emphatically not one of them.

This is the reason why it is a fundamental mistake for the technical evolutionists to take the unconditional scientific prophecies as being typical and characteristic of the predictions of natural science - in fact such predictions are possible only because our solar system is a relatively stationary and repetitive system which is isolated from other such systems by immense expanses of empty space. The solar system aside, there are very few such systems around for scientific investigation - most of the others are confined to the field of biology, where unconditional prophecies about the life-cycles of organisms are made temporarily possible by the existence of precisely the same factors. Thus one of the fallacies committed by the technical evolutionists is to take the (relatively rare) instances of unconditional prophecies in the natural science as constituting the essence of what scientific prediction is, to fail to see that such prophecies apply only to systems which are isolated, stationary, and repetitive, and to seek to apply the method of scientific prophecy to human technology and evolution. The latter, of course, is not an isolated system, it is constantly changing, and it continually undergoes rapid, non-repetitive development. In the most fundamental sense possible, every event in human technical history is discrete, novel, quite unique, and ontologically distinct from every other historical event. For this reason, it is impossible in principle that unconditional scientific prophecies could be made in relation to human technology - the idea that the successful unconditional prediction of eclipses provides us with reasonable grounds for the hope of successful unconditional prediction regarding the evolution of human technology turns out to be based upon a gross misconception, and is quite false. The fact that we predict eclipses does not provide a valid reason for expecting that we can predict inventions.

Other fallacy of technical evolutionism is that of inferring from the fact that our understanding of any (past) event - such as, for example, invention of steam engine - is in direct proportion to our knowledge of the antecedent conditions which led to that event, that knowledge of all the antecedent conditions of some future event is possible, and that such knowledge would make that future event precisely predictable. For the truth is that the number of factors which predate and lead to the occurrence of any event, past, present, or future, is indefinitely large, and therefore knowledge of all of these factors is impossible, even in principle. What gives rise to the fallacy is the manner in which the technical evolutionists (necessarily) selectively isolate a finite number of the antecedent conditions of some past event as being of particular importance, which are then somewhat misleadingly termed the causes of that event, when in fact what this means is that they are the specific conditions which a particular evolutionst or group of evolutionists take to be more relevant than any other of the indefinitely large number of such conditions. While this kind of selectivity may be justifiable in relation to the treatment of any past event, it has no basis whatsoever in relation to the future - if we now select, the relevant antecedent conditions for some future event, the likelihood is that we will select wrongly.

The evolutionists failure to distinguish between scientific laws and trends is equally destructive of their cause. This failure makes them think it possible to explain change by discovering trends running through past history, and to anticipate and predict future occurrences on the basis of such observations. There is a critical difference between a trend and a scientific law, the failure to observe which is fatal. For a scientific law is universal in form, while a trend can be expressed only as a singular existential statement. This logical difference is crucial because unconditional predictions, as we have already seen, can be based only upon conditional ones, which themselves must be derived from scientific laws. Neither conditional nor unconditional predictions can be based upon trends, because these may change or be reversed with a change in the conditions which gave rise to them in the first instance. The habit of confusing trends with laws, together with the intuitive observation of trends such as technical progress, inspired the central doctrines of evolutionism. I do not, of course, dispute the existence of trends, nor do I deny that the observation of trends can be of practical utility value - but the essential point is that a trend is something which itself ultimately stands in need of scientific explanation, and it cannot therefore function as the frame of reference in terms of which anything else can be scientifically explained or predicted.

A point which connects with this has to do with the role which the evolution of human knowledge has played in the historical development of human technology. It is incontestable that there has been a causal link between the two, in the sense that advances in scientific knowledge have given rise to widespread global changes in patterns of human technology, which in turn have led to further growth in human knowledge. In short, the evolution of human technology has been strongly influenced by the growth of human knowledge, and it is extremely likely that this will continue to be the case - all the empirical evidence suggests that the link between the two is progressively consolidating. However, this gives rise to further problems for the evolutionsts. In the first place, the statement that if there is such a thing as growing human knowledge, then we cannot anticipate today what we shall know only tomorrow is highly plausible. No scientific predictor, human or otherwise, can possibly predict, by scientific methods, its own future results. In other words, no society can predict, scientifically, its own future states of knowledge. Thus, while the future evolution of human technology is extremely likely to be influenced by new developments in human knowledge, as it always has in the past, we cannot now scientifically determine what such knowledge will be. From this it follows that if the future holds any new discoveries or any new developments in the growth of our knowledge, then it is impossible for us to predict them now, and it is therefore impossible for us to predict the future development of human technology now, given that the latter will, at least in part, be determined by the future growth of our knowledge. Thus once again evolutionism collapses as an impossible dream.