Apr 18 2013

Predicting the Future

An Iranian inventor claims to have created a machine that can predict an individual’s future 5-8 years in advance. Ali Razeghi claims to have registered “The Aryayek Time Traveling Machine” with the state-run Centre for Strategic Inventions, but the Iranian government denies this.

Details are, as you might suspect, sketchy. Razeghi claims his machine works by a complex “algorithm.” It sounds like it’s a machine, not just computer software. Also he claims that the machine works by simply touching the user.

Obviously this is nonsense, but stories like this (now spread far and wide by the internet) always raise the question for skeptics and scientists – how do we address scientific claims that are “impossible,” and is it even meaningful to characterize anything as impossible given the limitations of human knowledge?

I do think that it is meaningful to characterize certain claims as impossible, although I usually will add some generic caveat such as – “as much as anything can be said to be impossible in science.” It is undeniably true that all of our scientific knowledge is imperfect and tentative. We are forced to look at reality from a certain perspective or frame of reference and there may be limitations to our knowledge of which we are not even aware.

The real limitation is not that a highly established scientific fact will be suddenly found to be wrong. Some facts are established to such a high degree that the risk of being found wrong is essentially zero. The real risk is that they will be discovered to be incomplete. A scientific fact or theory may be correct as far as it goes, but only be the tip of a deeper and more complex reality.

My favorite example is that of Newton’s mechanics. They are correct within the frame of reference of Earth. It turned out, however, that Newton’s laws are an incomplete description of reality, and once we looked outside the Earth’s frame of reference these laws failed to accurate predict observations. Einstein eventually established that Special and General Relativity are the accurate descriptions of how the universe behaves, and his equations reduce to Newton’s when not dealing with large masses or relative velocities.

But – is there a deeper reality still? Are there more fundamental equations that reduce to Einstein’s? The answer is probably yes, evidenced by the need for a theory of quantum gravity.

How does all this affect how we address apparently impossible claims? Traveling back in time, for example, appears to be impossible, a reversal of the arrow of time, of cause and effect. Information cannot travel from the future to the past, and so we cannot have knowledge of the future.

The only theoretical exceptions to this involve wormholes with fantastic masses and energies, not the kind of thing that can be contained in a small box as Razeghi claims.

Proponents of such apparently impossible claims often invoke arguments from ignorance – quantum mechanics is weird and counter-intuitive, therefore my claims are true. Such arguments are not valid, however, and do not diminish the implausibility of such claims.

The approach that I take is this – while I acknowledge that our scientific knowledge is by necessity limited and we cannot know anything to 100% metaphysical certitude, our confidence in a scientific fact can asymptotically approach 100% confidence. When a claim violates one or more scientific facts, theories, or laws that are asymptotically close to 100% certitude, then I consider that claim to be functionally impossible (if not literally so). For all practical purposes, it should be treated as impossible.

This means I do not think we should seriously entertain the claim, fund it with public money, give it the benefits of official sanction or the trappings of scientific legitimacy.

If, however, a private individual, group, corporation, or other entity wants to spend their own resources pursuing such a claim they are free to do so, and I wish them well. When evaluating their claims, however, the principles of “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” and Occam’s razor apply in full force.

This means that the threshold of evidence required to take the claims seriously should be proportional to the apparent impossibility of the claims. The evidence would have to be of such a nature that it would be equally impossible for the claims to be false as for them to be true. We never seem to get anywhere near such a threshold of evidence for apparently impossible claims, however.

Evidence for free energy or perpetual motion machines is always flimsy and vanishes under close scrutiny. ESP, homeopathy, faster-than-light travel, and time travel all consistently fail to provide impressive evidence.

It’s probably redundant at this point to point out that Razeghi is probably a crank. He is a serial inventor, with 179 other claimed inventions at the age of 27. While it’s possible he is just a genius, it’s more likely that he is simply delusional. He claims that his invention can:

“predict five to eight years of the future life of any individual, with 98 percent accuracy”.

I wonder how he tested that claim. By definition it would take 8 years to test the accuracy of predictions made for 8 years in the future. He claims he has been working on his machine for 10 years – did he succeed after two and then spend 8 years testing his machine? Where is the concrete evidence of such predictive power?

I cannot say with 100% metaphysical certitude that  Razeghi’s claims are false. It is rational to treat his claims in every practical way, however, as if they are impossible. I would be open to looking at any stunning evidence he wishes to offer, but I’m not holding my breath.

29 responses so far

29 thoughts on “Predicting the Future”

  1. pdeboer says:

    Some obvious crank behaviour:

    Overselling the widespread game changing effect of their discovery.

    “Razeghi says Iran’s government can predict the possibility of a military confrontation with a foreign country, and forecast the fluctuation in the value of foreign currencies and oil prices by using his new invention.”

    “As such we expect to market this invention among states as well as individuals once we reach a mass production stage.”

    Calling on nationalism and anti-establishment to boost his claim and gain support:

    “The Americans are trying to make this invention by spending millions of dollars on it where I have already achieved it by a fraction of the cost.”

    Over convenient methods

    Just a touch of a computer tower can predict a hurricane in Tokyo.

    Over convenient and nonsensical reasons why he can’t provide evidence

    “The reason that we are not launching our prototype at this stage is that the Chinese will steal the idea and produce it in millions overnight.”

  2. Enzo says:

    Regarding using the word “impossible,” I completely understand your perspective and probably agree with it, but I can’t help but feel this nagging sense that’s it is the incorrect word. It’s much like using “absolute certainty” in science — it just doesn’t feel right.

    I don’t want to come off as excessively picky here; I agree your caveat “as much as anything can be said to be impossible in science,” remedies most of the problem, but I think in this case and many like it, it is also better to put the claim in context by using the word “currently” as well.

    This claim is *currently* impossible, given our understanding and technology.

  3. ConspicuousCarl says:

    Does it have knobs? You can always tell a machine is real if it has knobs on it.

  4. Enzo, I don’t share your discomfort, it seems so abstractly philosophical to not be able to say that what this crank is claiming is impossible. Plain and simple, no elaborate word games.

    It bothers me somewhat that cranks use skeptics’ and scientists’ own logic and reason against them, by taking advantage of this very understandable fact: we don’t like to declare things impossible because it makes us uncomfortable. But you are too polite of a thinker and debater. It doesn’t make them at all uncomfortable to endlessly blab bullshit and take advantage of people and straight-up lie to everyone. We need to call them on it.

    So my philosophy more recently has been this: declare obvious nonsense as “impossible”, I’ll be happy to eat my words later if I am wrong, since all of science and what I know will have been overturned and revolutionized anyway if it turns out to be true. But like Steven said, I won’t hold my breath.

  5. jt512 says:

    My favorite expositor on the plausibility of paranormal phenomena is the physicist Sean Carroll. His article Telekinesis and Quantum Field Theory should be required reading for all skeptics. Carroll explains that the physical laws governing the everyday human-scale regime are completely understood, and they rule out all paranormal phenomena. There are no ghosts, no afterlife, no ESP, no telekinesis, etc, because science has already shown that there are no particles or forces that could mediate those phenomena.

    There are only two forces—electromagnetism and gravity—that can affect human-scale objects (like brains and spoons), and neither of those forces can interact with atoms in a way that would permit paranormal phenomena. If there were other forces that could do so, physicists would have already found them, because they have done the necessary experiments. There may be yet-to-be discovered forces, but they must either be too weak or too short-range to produce an effect on human-scale objects. This imposes a practical definition on what it means for a paranormal phenomenon to be “impossible.” It means that a large body of rigorous experiments must be wrong. That’s not impossible in the deductive sense of the word, but its probability is vanishingly small. Such a caveat is hardly worth a mention. For all practical purposes, paranormal phenomena are impossible.

  6. Lisa Sinervo says:

    I disagree that future (very limited) information is utterly impossible to access has I have had some very specific precognitive dreams. Please here me out.

    I think there is an overlooked mechanism for this. It lies in the difference in the speed of one’s brainwaves when awake as opposed to the stages of sleep prior to dreaming. Since motion slows down time, this difference could make your waking time and sleeping time out of sync.

    I think the precognitive information that is accessed as the inspiration to one’s dreams is only one’s thoughts, including future thoughts. The brainwaves encoded with this information would be accessible under this model. It’s not stored memory being accessed. This would explain why dreams are so hard to remember upon wakening as their content doesn’t exist in waking spacetime.

    This won’t explain fortune telling, which I don’t think is possible, but it does explain why so many people say, I had a dream about that in retrospect or an intuition about something. The evolutionary benefit of this is enormous and it’s not a surprise that most mammals dream.

    It is a proposed model of course, a hypothetical one, but it isn’t true that one can’t model a mechanism for precognition using standard physics and biology.

    One’s thoughts don’t travel back in time, time speeds up while dreaming to collect it. My own dreams support this model.

    I’ve made a short video to illustrate this.


  7. Jim Shaver says:

    ConspicuousCarl, please, it’s Iranian technology. All of their machines have knobs.

  8. Enzo says:

    John MC,

    I see your perspective, but if you’re going to go with the use-our-own-wording against us thing, you have to consider that if you say “impossible” flat out, they’ll do the same thing. They’ll throw “technically you can’t say impossible” right at us. I also think it alienates people on the fence about the issue; it sounds dismissive. That’s why I’m in favor of a polite “currently impossible” because you get the umphf of impossible but it may be more correct as well. Not that there is a way to win this either way.


    Agree that some things are more appropriately called impossible than others.

  9. BillyJoe7 says:

    CC: “Does it have knobs? You can always tell a machine is real if it has knobs on it”

    Knobs are necessary but not sufficient.
    It must also go ‘ping’.


  10. Davdoodles says:

    I will need to see several randomly blinking lights on his machine, before I can be sure it works.

    And the inside must contain many different coloured wires. I cannot stress that point enough: MANY wires, MANY different colours.

  11. T Clark says:

    Why is it necessary to say that Razeghi’s claims are impossible? Why can’t you just say they are not true. That pretty much covers it and allows us to avoid all this convoluted rationalizaton. All the evidence for its impossibility, as Novella calls it, is really just evidence for why we believe it is clearly not true. We don’t add any information by making the stronger claim.

  12. starik says:


    Let’s say some was actually so much of a genius that they could invent a machine that could see into the future. What would you expect them to say?

    “Hai guys! I invented a fewter-see machine but u can’t see it yet lol!!!! Believe me?”

    Or something more like:

    “I know this sounds ridiculous because I am aware of the current state of human knowledge and this violates all of that, but I have invented a fewter-see machine. I knew you wouldn’t believe me because it sounds ludicrous, so here is the evidence. Make of it what you will.”

  13. starik says:

    It’s like science fiction movies that aren’t internally consistent… “Fine, time travel is possible. Now act like real people would act if time travel was possible!”

  14. eiskrystal says:

    Electronic horoscope creators are hardly new. Which is exactly what this will be.

  15. Clark – all things that are impossible are not true, but not all things that are not true are impossible. They are not equivalent.

    Evidence for impossibility is distinct from evidence that something is simply not true. Violating a basic law of physics is evidence that something is impossible.

    This is really just an extension of plausibility arguments. Where we set the threshold of required evidence before we take a claim seriously, or act as if it is true depends highly on the plausibility of the claim.

  16. tmac57 says:

    Many of the comments have identified the features of a valid ‘future telling machine’ (FTM), but I think the obvious missing component is a Paradigm Shifter (PS). Without the PS,I’m afraid I’d have to call this FTM BS.

  17. tmac57 says:

    I have found that I can predict the future with 100% accuracy,but the tricky part is that because of the uncertainty principle (UP) if you try to look at my data (MD),you will collapse it’s intended path,and change the outcome,so it is imperative to, under no circumstances,look at my data.

  18. eiskrystal says:

    Maybe someone took the PS when they first heard about it. I know I wanted to.

  19. DOYLE says:

    Of course these machines work.Hobo kelly had a crank assisted cardboard box that converted bricks and banana peels into toys.

  20. sonic says:

    I’m not sure it would be wise to try to explain how it is impossible for something to be impossible. 🙂

  21. BillyJoe7 says:

    tmac: “I have found that I can predict the future with 100% accuracy,but the tricky part is that because of the uncertainty principle (UP) if you try to look at my data (MD),you will collapse it’s intended path,and change the outcome,so it is imperative to, under no circumstances,look at my data”

    Just in case someone gets the wrong idea about QM from the above, let me translate….

    I have found that I can predict the future with 100% accuracy, but the tricky part is that, because of the uncertainty principle (UP), if anything interacts with my data (MD), it’s intended path will collapse, and the outcome will change, so it is imperative that, under no circumstances, anything interacts with my data.

  22. tmac57 says:

    BillyJoe7- Thanks for the clarification. Originally,I had explained it in the way that you did,but apparently Deepak Chopra got a look at my comment,and changed it to his reality. Chopra !!!

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    tmac, yes I assumed you were doing a Chopraesque parody.

  24. davidsmith says:

    Steven said,

    Traveling back in time, for example, appears to be impossible, a reversal of the arrow of time, of cause and effect. Information cannot travel from the future to the past, and so we cannot have knowledge of the future.

    Steven, I think you are making too strong a claim. It’s not that such things appear to be theoretically impossible. Rather, it appears that we only observe one direction and not the other. Theoretically, we don’t have a reason why this should be so. For example, there have been two AAAS symposiums on quantum retrocausation. The first was in 2006 and was titled “”Frontiers of Time: Retrocausation — Experiment and Theory”. The second was in 2011 and was called “Quantum Retrocausation: Theory and Experiment”. The description for the 2011 meeting was as follows:

    Causation — the notion that earlier events affect later ones but not vice versa — undergirds our experience of reality and physical law. Although it predicated on the forward unidirectionality of time, in fact, most physical laws are time symmetric; that is, they formally and equally admit both time-forward and time-reverse solutions. Time-reverse solutions would allow the future to influence the past, i.e., reverse (or retro-) causation. Why time-forward solutions are preferentially observed in nature remains an unresolved problem in physics.

    Laboratory evidence for reverse causation is intriguing but scarce; meanwhile, theoretical models for these results have not yet made deep enough connections with mainstream physics. Even the most basic physical constraints — e.g., whether reverse causation is best explained by energy transfers or simply by correlations without information exchange — remain open questions.

    This symposium will explore recent experiments, theory, and philosophical issues connected with retrocausation. In particular, it is hoped that this meeting will help generate comprehensive theoretical models by which experimental results can be understood, and stimulate new experiments and collaborations by which the underlying physics may be more clearly exposed.

    Of course, this does not mean that we should allow Razeghi’s claims to stand without evidence. However, we should consider the theoretical idea of retro-causation with less scepticism than presented here so far. And we know that once an idea is theoretically “more possible”, that changes how laboratory data is interpreted. Data can become interpreted less as error and more as real evidence for the idea.

  25. BillyJoe7 says:


    I’m not quite sure what you are trying to say here, but it is true isn’t it that, althought time reversal is not “theoretically” impossible, there has never been a scientific observation that cannot be explained other than as a result of time reversal or retrocausation, and that includes so called quantum retrocausation.

  26. Davdoodles says:

    I can predict the future with 100% reliability.

    Well, occasonally my predictions contain minor spelling errors, and they rarely if ever turn out to be correct.

    But, every time I attempt to predict the future, I in fact produce a prediction of some sort.

    Also, I can fire a gun every time I pull the trigger. Just never hit the damned target…

  27. Murmur says:

    Use a shotgun, bound to hit something every time.

    And don’t restrict yourself to your target… you closed minded skeptic you… a hit on anything is a hit is it not?!

  28. Halfdead says:

    What no one is gonna comment on seeing the future in dreams?

    They’ll throw “technically you can’t say impossible” right at us. I also think it alienates people on the fence about the issue; it sounds dismissive.

    I think when you are not dismissive of obvious nonsense you lend it credibility.

    “If you are ever tempted to suggest something does not obey the laws of thermodynamics, just don’t. You are wrong.” is a perfect response to certain forms of nonsense.

  29. davidsmith says:

    Halfdead said,

    “If you are ever tempted to suggest something does not obey the laws of thermodynamics, just don’t. You are wrong.” is a perfect response to certain forms of nonsense.

    Not according to Daniel Sheehan, professor of physics at the University of San Diego. He has written,

    Among physical laws, arguably none is better tested than the second law. It has been verified in countless experiments for more than 150 years. Most scientists consider its universality beyond reproach; even to question it invites ridicule and ruin. Nonetheless, over the last 10–15 years, the second law has come under unprecedented scrutiny. More than 60 mainstream journal articles, monographs and conference proceedings have raised dozens of theoretical and experimentally-testable challenges to its universal status – more than the sum total during its previous 150-year history. From a Kuhnian perspective this suggests a paradigm shift might be on the horizon.

    Taken from this article – http://www.scientificexploration.org/journal/jse_22_4_sheehan.pdf

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