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.

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