Thinking Forward

Much of what makes human beings distinctive is what Jacob Bronowski called “a sense of the future” (in addition to his old book by that name, see also more recently Homo Prospectus by Seligman, Railton, Baumeister, and Sripada). Certainly most animals can think at least a few minutes or maybe hours in advance, but they’re not actively planning months or years ahead of time as humans can. Yet, perhaps under the influence of modern science, our conception of our intellectual capacities is often retrospective: reason is thought to be a faculty that formulates accurate conclusions and stable laws from the evidence we have painfully gathered in the past through induction, experiment, and the like.

However, it seems that the function of reason in human life is just as centrally to imaginatively project future possibilities. When we are “thinking forward”, we consider multiple potential routes to attaining what we want in life and from those options we attempt to make a “good enough” decision about what to do based on rough estimations of costs and benefits.

This has several implications for practical wisdom.

First, as long as we are prepared to handle the most likely future paths with some consideration of what could go wrong, then accurate prediction and precise definitions are of secondary importance. This implies that ethical rules matter much less than philosophical theorists like to think. After all, the point of such rules is reduce or eliminate the scope of individual decision-making.

Second, there’s no completely reliable way to predict what situations we will face in life: most of them tend to be novel along various dimensions (e.g., there are different people or time pressures or practical implications involved). This doesn’t mean that anything goes, but it does mean that we typically use analogical reasoning to solve problems based on similar but not identical patterns we’ve experienced as well as the accumulation of decisions we’ve made in those situations.

Third, a critical component of practical wisdom is means-end planning in its broadest sense. As I hinted a few weeks ago, this is not as simple as it sounds. It’s one thing to figure out and visualize our goals within a long-term project or relationship (e.g., “I want to have a happy marriage”), but it’s quite another to identify and successfully pursue the full range of thoughts, feelings, attitudes, virtues, principles, policies, and behaviors necessary to achieve those goals (what Aristotle called “things toward the end”, many of which are not simple means but active constituents of the end).

For all these reasons and more, practical wisdom about our future activities holds a central place in human flourishing.

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