Sunday, March 03, 2013

Forbidden knowledge

Precognition is a common theme in science fiction as well as sword & sorcery literature. To take a stock example, a character has a premonitory dream.

Let’s discuss this on fictional terms, then consider this from a realistic perspective. A premonitory dream generates a prima  facie paradox. If the character is previewing what will happen, then there’s nothing he can do to prevent what he foresees from happening.

However, that seems incoherent. For doesn’t that very preview give him a chance to interject himself into the chain of events and redirect the outcome? Yet we then seem to be caught in a causal loop. What he foresees prompts him to change what he foresees. But then, he wouldn’t foresee it in the first place.

Screenwriters often gloss over these paradoxes, but is it possible to make that scenario coherent? There seem to be two related ways.

First of all, perhaps a character foresees what will happen, but key details are omitted from his dream. He sees the outcome, but not the events leading up to the outcome.

If he tries to intervene, his intervention may not introduce a new factor into the chain of events. Rather, that may have been part of the causal pathway all along. But because his dream left him in the dark regarding his own role, his intervention is not an additional factor. Unbeknownst to him, he was always going to be a necessary participant. Moreover, the premonitory dream is, itself, a contributing cause to its own fulfillment by motivating the character to unwittingly contribute to its realization.

Second, the “future” he sees may be ambiguous. Is he previewing the actual future, or a possible alternate future? More precisely, is he seeing what would happen if he does something? Conversely, is he seeing what would happen if he does nothing? Will his action cause the premonition to eventuate? Will his inaction cause the premonition to eventuate? The dream itself may not furnish that crucial, differential information. Perhaps this a premonition of what would have happened had he acted on the premonition. Unless this is a premonition of what would have happened had he not acted on the premonition.

So there’s lost opportunity if he makes the wrong decision. And the dream poses a dilemma, for the dream itself doesn’t tell him which is which. He’s confronted with a forced option, and there’s no way to quantify the odds. Ignoring the premonition may be risky, or maybe the real danger lies in playing his part in the scripted outcome.

Let’s shift to a real-world situation.  Suppose someone dabbles in divination. According to Scripture, that’s forbidden knowledge. Prying into the future is morally prohibited. But, of course, many people do it anyway.

Suppose, as a result of their occultic activity, they have a premonition. And suppose it’s “true”–in the trecherous sense that I just discussed.

BTW, this isn’t just hypothetical. We have an actual case of this in Scripture, where a pagan king gets the right answer using three different convergent divinatory techniques (Ezk 21).

However, there’s a sense in which this can be divine punishment. You learn the “future” by forbidden means, but you don’t know what to do with your knowledge. Maybe that’s guiding you into a trap. You allow yourself to be drawn ever deeper into the enchanted forest until you are hopelessly lost.

1 comment:

  1. This is one of the most prevalent devices I see being used in a great deal of sci-fi and fantasy storytelling: Star Trek (TOS) episodes: City on the Edge of Forever, and Assignment Earth; The mirror of Galadriel in Lord of the Rings; the Tom Cruise movie Minority Report, etc.

    Very interesting blog, Steve. Thanks for the read!