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Posted: March 29, 2013

The futurist: The final five unanswerable questions

Why is the future unknowable?

Thomas Frey

(Editor's note: This is the second of two parts. Read Part One.)

Here are the last five of my 10 questions that cannot be answered by either science or religion:

6.) Why do humans matter?

We struggle our entire life with finding food and shelter, educating ourselves to gain more understanding, staying healthy, making friends and relationships, raising a family, earning a living – and then we die.

If we have more accomplishments in life, earn more money, have more friends, raise a bigger family and somehow do everything better than anyone else, we will still eventually die. Right?

In a world teaming with 8.7 million different life forms, how do humans fit in?

Every past civilization, with their manmade structures, machines, systems, and cultures, has eventually succumbed to Mother Nature. Plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi methodically remove every trace of what we leave behind.

Why are humans important?

Does the fact that we can ask questions like these, ponder the unponderable, think the unthinkable and accomplish things that no other species can accomplish, somehow give us a higher purpose?

Are humans destined to become the guardians, caretakers and eventually the masters of the universe? If so, then we have to ask…

7.) Why are humans so fallible?

Humans are the bull in every china closet, the off-center bubble on every level, the mystery behind every hidden agenda and the blunt instrument whenever a precision tool is needed.

We are both our greatest heroes and our most feared enemies. We are praised for our accomplishments and castigated for our failures.

Of all species on Earth, humans are the least predictable, most destructive, require the longest nurturing period and consume the most food. At the same time, we are also the most curious, most aware, most innovative and the most likely to waste countless hours playing video games. 

Yes, we may have better developed brains than all the other animals, but that doesn’t explain why we are so unbelievably fallible. 

8.) Do human accomplishments have long-term meaning?

If you do a search of humanity's greatest accomplishment, you come up with lists that include the building of the great pyramids, landing on the moon, the invention of the telephone and light bulb, amazing artworks, and the composition of countless music scores. But are those things that humans consider to be great accomplishments really significant in the bigger scheme of things?

Perhaps today’s human accomplishments are a stepping-stone to what comes next.

We live in a world driven by prerequisites. Machinists need to understand a single-point lathe operation before they can advance to multi-axial milling. Engineers need to understand the concepts of mechanical stress and strain before they start bending a cantilever beam. Metallurgists need to understand thermodynamics before they attempt phase transformations in solids. Physicists need to understand quantum mechanics before they can understand a standard model for particle physics. Mathematicians need to understand nonlinear differential equations before they can understand strange attractors.

Are all our accomplishments just stepping-stones to something else that we don’t know or understand yet? 

So what is it that we don’t currently know that will make tomorrow happen?

9.) Why is the future unknowable?

While I’m well aware of the notion that a “known future” will strip us of our drive and motivation, understanding the consequences still doesn’t explain why the future isn’t knowable. 

I like to think of the future as a force so massive that the entire universe is being pulled forward in time simultaneously. We have no choice in this matter. The future will happen regardless of whether we agree to participate.

Currently, there are no known techniques for us to speed it up, slow it down or even try to stop it. The pace with which the future is unfolding is constant and at the same time, relentless.

Will the future always remain unknowable?

10.) What is the purpose of death? 

Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs said, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.”

But why death?

Couldn’t we just dissolve into a pile of ash, fly out of our skin, step into an invisible elevator preprogrammed to go to the highest of all floors or just mentally fade to black? 

People fear death. We spend millions on vitamins, health food, fitness programs and doctors all to avoid the unavoidable Or is it unavoidable?

Why are we so terrified of the unknown?

Final Thoughts

People who surround us today are part of the present and will also be part of the future. For people who are intellectually enlightened and “tuned in,” it’s easy to discount those who have a different perspective.

Yet the future is being created by all of us. If we believe we have a purpose, then so does every butterfly, mouse and beam of light.

We have all experienced things that we would consider extra-dimensional, such as thoughts that spring from “nowhere,” words that come from our “intuition,” and ideas that torture us relentlessly.

Regardless of your beliefs, start with the most basic of all questions – Why does anything exist?

It’s rather ironic that our first impulse is to use logic and reason to come up with answers, an approach that has historically only been able to answer questions about the tiniest of all fractions of the knowable universe.

If you were expecting me to have all the answers to life’s most unanswerable questions, then this column will certainly disappoint you. It has been a lifetime journey for me just to formulate the questions. 

That said, I would love to hear your thoughts. Am I asking the right questions? Do you have answers to these questions, even one of them? Here’s your chance to weigh in.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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