Author's note: in the pursuit of improving anything we need to explore the edge of our understanding. This is no different when it comes to compliance. In this article, I delve into philosophy and future causality. You may wonder what this has to do with compliance. As it turns out, how we conceptualize the future influences how we think about risk and more importantly our posture.
The world according to classical physics is deterministic. If you know the initial conditions and given fixed laws of nature, then the future will also be “fixed” – what will be, will be. This provides a sense of certainty and predictability.
However, that’s not how we experience the world. We do observe the past as fixed, but the future appears open to possibilities, in a deep sense, anything can happen – a source of potential but also uncertainty.
According to Dr. Jenann Ismael, Professor of Philosophy at John Hopkins University, the future is not so much something for us to know as it unfolds from an epistemic perspective but something that is becoming through the application of knowledge we have collected. We use knowledge about the past to interfere with the future.
It's our agency that determines the future and makes it more certain.
Dr. Ismael provides an explanation for this from the domain of physics, her focus with respect to philosophy.
Classical physics use a birds-eye third person view rather than an immersive first-person perspective to model the world. This separates the observer from the environment to isolate interactions but it also leaves out how observers interact with it.
From an observers point of view, we participate in the environment which we are trying to represent and therefore Interference is inevitable.
Dr. Ismael uses "interference" over other words such as "influence" because of its dynamic behaviour. We gather knowledge to represent the world at the same time that we are acting in the world. This creates the opportunity for interference behaving much like ripples in a pond when we skip stones.
Interfering with the Future
Knowledge of the past can be applied to delay, discourage, or prevent what we don’t want as well as advance, encourage, and make certain what we do want. This is not unlike the practice of risk management where measures are used to interfere with the natural course of events to achieve preferred ends.
Our choices make some possibilities more probable than others. The future becomes more “fixed” perspectively (from our point of view) not because of determinism but because of agency. This doesn’t mean we can bend physics to our will but rather only that our choices influence the way the future becomes, understanding there are other forces at work.
However, up until the time we decide, the future does not have that information from which to make certain the course of preferred events. This contributes to the uncertainty we experience.
We can get a better appreciation of this dynamic from the field of quantum mechanics. At a quantum level, the act of measuring affects what we observe. According to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, we can’t know with perfect accuracy both the position or the speed (momentum) of a particle at the same time.
Until the measurement is taken knowledge of both the particle’s position and speed are possible but also uncertain. It's only when we take the measurement that one is made more certain and the other less so.
Ripples of Intent
Dr. Ismael further suggests that our decisions create ripples in the future record that become part of the future we are trying to anticipate. When the future becomes a reality, we observe not only what “is” but also records of what “is now” the effects of our prior choices. In other words, our choices have effects beyond proximal events.
Our day-to-day experiences also reinforce our intuitions regarding how our decisions interfere with the future. When we consider the future and act on our predictions we affect the future itself. This arises because of the self-referencing nature of processes involved.
"As long as one's activity is connected with the domain one is representing; some what one encounters will be the ripples produced by one's own activities. One can't treat those features of the landscape as potential objects of knowledge." – Dr. Jenann Ismael
This is one of the reasons why we limit the publication of poll predictions during elections. We don’t want the measurement of what “is” to affect what “will be.” To limit the effect we isolate the measurement from the reality we are observing. However, when the measurement becomes part of that reality it can’t help but interfere with it creating ripples in the future record.
Another example is the use of Artificial General Intelligence (AGI). AI systems of this kind are also self-referencing. The output they generate interferes with the future they are trying to represent. AI is not an impartial observer in the classical sense. AI is an observer-participant which gives it a measure of agency, something that may not be desirable, but in any case should be accounted for.
This may be interpreted by some as the makings of a self-fulfilling prophecy, or creating what we colloquially call luck (good or bad). This could also be the effects of ripples in the future made by our prior choices.
We can establish safeguards, quarantine the effects, or introduce other precautions concerning these ripples. At the same time these ripples can be used strategically, which we do most of the time.
We act as if our decisions matter and have causal effects on the future.
Are we standing still, moving towards, or creating the future?
When we think of the future as unfolding and deterministic we envision ourselves as standing still, waiting for the future to present itself.
In this context, we can decide to:
Hope for the best.
Prepare for the future we anticipate by strengthening resiliency.
However, if the future is also becoming we can decide to:
Steer towards a preferred possibility making it more probable than others.
Interfere with the future by creating ripples of potential opportunity.
The observer-participant dynamic may not be ideal for gaining knowledge, however, it's strategic to make things happen in the presence of possibilities.