3. "Seeing" the Future

Some years ago, a somewhat naïve young lady, with whom I used to work, told us all in the office that she had been to visit a “clairvoyant”. She had actually been taken in by this woman, and claimed that the latter had “known things” about herself, which she couldn’t have known without genuinely being blessed with psychic powers.
As she was enthusing, someone asked her, “Did you have to make an appointment?” While the rest of us sniggered, realising what was coming, the joke went over the girl’s head, and she simply replied, “Yes” – to which the wit replied, “Why? She should have known you were coming!”
In similar vein, I came across a priceless joke in the seaside resort of Whitby. On the seafront stands an old shack which used to house “Madame” Someone or other, a so-called “gypsy clairvoyant”, but which has been empty for years. Someone has attached a sign saying, “Closed due to unforeseen circumstances”!

3.1. A logical impossibility

Most of us know perfectly well that the fairground and show business variety of “clairvoyants” and “fortune tellers” are nothing more than confidence tricksters. Their supposed “insights” into your life and character are achieved by subtly manipulating the conversation, in a manner which leads you to give away information about yourself, without realising that you are doing so. And their “predictions” of the future are phrased in such deliberately vague terms that they can mean just about anything; you can find a meaning, if you want to believe it!
There have, however, been many stories of people who claim to be genuinely able to “foresee” future events. After every newsworthy disaster, whether natural or man-made, someone somewhere crawls out of the woodwork and claims that he or she had a “premonition” of the terrible event, before it happened. Sometimes, they will claim that they tried to alert authorities to the impending disaster, but were not taken seriously ( You don’t say! ) – but needless to say, there is never a single shred of evidence to support their claims.
Some of these people may be simply sad attention-seekers; others may be deluded to the point of genuinely believing their claims in their own minds. But whatever the explanation, their claims are simply absurd.
I’m not concerned here with the kind of “predictions” which are made by astrologers by means of horoscopes; my demolition of that ridiculous subject will appear in due course elsewhere on this site. I’m talking about those people who claim to have “visions” or “premonitions” of future events.
This entire concept is, quite simply, a logical impossibility! Think about it. Suppose, for a moment, that it is possible for someone to “foresee” an event in the future. If the “foreseen” event is something terrible ( which it invariably is; when did you ever hear of anyone having a “premonition” of anything good? ) it would also be possible, at least in theory, for that person to take the appropriate steps to prevent the event happening – certainly if the event was something specifically involving someone close to them, as opposed to a large scale disaster. But then we would have the paradox of the person having “foreseen” something which didn’t actually happen – which is clearly absurd!

3.2. A hypothetical case

Let’s consider a simple hypothetical example. Suppose a woman has a “premonition” that her husband is going to be killed in a car crash on a specific date. She somehow convinces her husband to take her seriously, and he agrees to travel to work by train that particular day. So he comes back home safely, and remains alive and well for many more years, eventually dying of natural causes.
So the event which the wife “foresaw” never actually happens; therefore, how could she possibly have “foreseen” it?

3.3. “Foreseeing” or forecasting?

There is, of course, a huge difference between “foreseeing” future events, and merely predicting or forecasting them! There are many people who routinely do the latter – e.g. meteorologists who forecast the weather several days in advance, political analysts who try to anticipate the reaction of a government to events which have just happened, and sports commentators who try to predict the outcome of games or contests. Sometimes they get it right, sometimes they don’t; when they are proved right, it simply means that they were able to use their specialist knowledge of their subject to make an informed assessment as to what was most likely to happen.
I myself have, on quite a few occasions, collected significant amounts of money from bookmakers, by virtue of correctly predicting the outcomes of boxing matches, and betting on the round in which they would end. But I certainly don’t claim to have “foreseen” the results in any way! It’s just that I have a very extensive knowledge of boxing; in each case, I was able to use my knowledge of the two boxers and their career records to assess the most likely outcome. And it goes without saying that there have been plenty of other occasions when I got it wrong.
Returning to my earlier example, there may be several valid reasons why a wife might fear for her husband’s safety on a given day. Perhaps some exceptionally bad weather is forecast, which will make the roads especially dangerous. Or perhaps she knows that the car has dodgy brakes, but her husband hasn’t yet got around to having them repaired. She may be able to convince her husband of her fears, to the extent that he agrees to leave the car at home.
Conversely, if our hypothetical husband ignored his wife’s pleading, and subsequently did die in a car crash, then it’s quite conceivable that the grieving widow might subsequently, in her own mind, distort her earlier concerns into a genuine belief that she actually “foresaw” her husband’s death. I suspect that this kind of post-event distortion may be the rational explanation behind many – though certainly not all - claims of “premonitions”.

3.4. A true life example

There have been many stories of people supposedly “foreseeing” future events, which would, at first sight, appear to defy any such simple rational explanation as that described for my hypothetical example. But I firmly believe that every such case must have a rational explanation, even if it isn’t easy to find it.
Let me tell you about a famous real life example. It relates to one of my great passions – the Noble Art of boxing. In fact, it concerns the greatest boxer who ever lived, the legendary Sugar Ray Robinson.
In 1947, Robinson defended his world welterweight championship against one Jimmy Doyle. The fight ended in tragedy; after being knocked out, Doyle was rushed to hospital with a brain injury, and died a few hours later.
Naturally, Sugar Ray was devastated, as would any boxer be in the circumstances. But in his case, there was a strange consequence. He later claimed – he told the story in his autobiography, and swore to it until the day he died – that shortly before the fight, he had had a “premonition” of Doyle’s death, and had been so convinced of it that he pleaded with the promoter to cancel the fight.
Had he really “foreseen” the tragedy, and had he succeeded in getting the fight called off, then Doyle would not have died – and once again, we would have had the logical impossibility of Robinson having “foreseen” something, which subsequently didn’t happen!
So what did happen before the fight, which convinced Robinson that he had experienced such a “premonition”? No-one will ever know, as he took the truth to his grave – but allow me to present a possible explanation.
My theory is as follows. During the buildup to the fight, Robinson watched Doyle in training, and saw something which caused him to fear for his opponent’s safety. Perhaps Doyle was noticeably below full fitness, and his reflexes were dulled – maybe because he had had difficulty making the weight limit, or maybe because he was recovering from an illness or injury, which had hampered his training. ( In fact, there is evidence to suggest that Doyle had already sustained a brain injury in his previous fight, which had somehow been missed by the doctors. ) Or perhaps he simply wasn’t good enough to face the Great Sugar Ray, who feared that he would take a terrible beating. Whatever the reason, Robinson became worried, and thought, “I don’t want to fight this guy; I think he’s going to get badly hurt!” And perhaps, for this reason, he really did try to persuade the promoter to cancel the fight.
After the tragic outcome, Robinson, wracked with grief and remorse, became confused about his earlier concerns, and distorted them in his mind into a belief that he had actually “foreseen” Doyle’s death – an understandable delusion in the circumstances, and one which became so convincing that he sincerely believed it for the rest of his life.
This is just my personal theory; I’m not claiming that it’s right! But in this and every other such case, there must be a rational explanation. “Seeing the future” is simply impossible.

Previous page Next page

Return to Contents