Books / Digital Text

Chapter 4: Certainty and Uncertainty

3. The Uncertainty of the Future

According to an often quoted dictum of Auguste Comte, the objective of the—natural—sciences is to know in order to predict what will happen in the future. These predictions are, as far as they refer to the effects of human action, conditional. They say: If A, then B. But they do not tell anything about the emergence of A. If a man absorbs potassium cyanide, he will die. But whether he will swallow this poison or not is left undecided.

The predictions of praxeology are, within the range of their applicability, absolutely certain. But they do not tell us anything about the value judgments of the acting individuals and the way they will determine their actions. All we can know about these value judgments has the categorial character of the specific understanding of the historical sciences of human action. Whether our anticipations of—our own or other peoples'—future value judgments and of the means that will be resorted to for adjusting action to these value judgments will be correct or not cannot be known in advance.

This uncertainty of the future is one of the main marks of the human condition. It taints all manifestations of life and action.

Man is at the mercy of forces and powers beyond his control. He acts in order to avoid as much as possible what, as he thinks, will harm himself. But he can at best succeed only within a narrow margin. And he can never know beforehand to what extent his acting will attain the end sought and, if it attains it, whether this action will in retrospect appear—to himself or to the other people looking upon it—as the best choice among those that were open to him at the instant he embarked upon it.

Technology based on the achievements of the natural sciences aims at full control within a definite sphere, which, of course, comprehends only a fraction of the events that determine man's fate. Although the progress of the natural sciences tends to enlarge the sphere of such scientifically directed action, it will never cover more than a narrow margin of possible events. And even within this margin there can never be absolute certainty. The result aimed at can be thwarted by the invasion of forces not yet sufficiently known or beyond, human control. Technological engineering does not eliminate the aleatory element of human existence; it merely restricts its field a little. There always remains an orbit that to the limited knowledge of man appears as an orbit of pure chance and marks life as a gamble. Man and his works are always exposed to the impact of unforeseen and uncontrollable events. He cannot help banking upon the good luck not to be hit by them. Even dull people cannot fail to realize that their well-being ultimately depends on the operation of forces beyond man's wisdom, knowledge, prevision, and provision. With regard to these forces all human planning is vain. This is what religion has in mind when it refers to the unfathomable decrees of Heaven and turns to prayer.