This article is a contribution to the development of the epistemological foundations of Futures Studies. The article starts by presenting the conventional “covering-law” model asserting the symmetry between prediction and explanation, a model that continues to undermine the authority of Futures Studies as a discipline despite the fact that Logical Positivism, the epistemological paradigm that inspired it, is no longer dominant. Then the article outlines the fatal weaknesses of that model showing how out of its criticism emerges the prospect of a coherent and robust epistemology of prediction. Two major points are made: First that predictive argumentation is not demonstrative but merely evidential. Therefore formal logic argumentative structures of the “covering law” type are inadequate in giving a complete and accurate account of predictive argumentation and practice. If the nature of predictive arguments is evidential then the epistemology of prediction should be based not on mere formal logic but on a larger theory of argumentation. Second, the criticism illuminates the complex problem of the types of knowledge and information used in predictive arguments to build up evidence. Explicit and formalized knowledge and statistical evidence are not enough for a successful predictive procedure. Background information and personal, local and tacit knowledge play a surprisingly major role in predictive arguments and procedures and that has very important epistemological consequences. One of the most challenging difficulties Futures Studies had to face since its inception as a discipline has been the fact that in an era dominated by the legacy of Logical Positivism the Futures Studies project seemed epistemologically odd and not quite matching the rigid standards of scientific investigation imposed by the mainstream Positivist cannon. In spite of its impressive advances in theory, methodology and applications, the shadow cast on it by the fact that it was epistemologically suspicious to the philosophic mainstream undermined a good deal of its credibility and authority as a discipline. Even in the wake of the retreat of Positivism as a dominant paradigm the situation in this respect remained frustratingly dysfunctional. Thus there is no surprise that many preeminent scholars in the field argued that an epistemology of Futures Studies was long overdue and that given the current intellectual circumstances, the effort of developing it came to represent one of the major priorities of the field at this point (1, 9,14,15, pp. xxiii, 191–238) . Futures Studies had to establish its epistemological credentials in a clear and robust way and thus to claim its clout and legitimacy undermined by Logical Positivism in front of the scholarly community. Undoubtedly the main source of the damage done by Logical Positivism to the epistemological foundations of Futures Studies was neither the rigid methodology implied by it nor its ultra-empiricism but its widely accepted and influential theory of explanation . The crux of that theory is that explaining and predicting events are logically and methodologically identical. It is true that positivists were interested in developing a theory of explanation and not of prediction but due to the alleged logical symmetry between the two, a complete and analogous theory of prediction emerged in a natural way by implication from the theory of explanation. This model and the relationship between prediction and explanation implied by it have raised to dominance and become the backbone of epistemology and the theory of sciences for a couple of decades. The problem is that the account it has given to both explanation and prediction is incomplete and in many respects harmful to the explanatory and predictive practice. By tying the two too close together in a rigid conceptual framework it has arbitrarily constrained their domains and undermined the epistemological legitimacy of many of the methods, practices and approaches associated to them. In the case of explanation , the model, while adequate for many important types of scientific explanations is not at all applicable to all scientific domains. It is definitely not a complete account of explanation and the consequences of the straightjacket it has imposed to scientific inquiry are appreciable. Imposing prediction as a fundamental concept and criteria for explanation the positivist epistemological model sets standards that many disciplines could never achieve by their very nature. As such they were arbitrary relegated outside the proper domain of science. The result was an unnecessary long and painful debate in all the disciplines affected by that demarcation criterion, a sterile debate that rages to this day in, for instance, political science or sociology. But the impact of the model on prediction was even worse. The spread of the belief in the identity of predictive and explanatory scientific procedures undermined at a fundamental level the efforts to reflect on the nature and potentialities of predictive procedures different from those used for explanation. The legacy of this state of affairs continues to be felt very strongly in Futures Studies. Nevertheless it is interesting to stress that doesn’t happen due to the embrace of the positivist model by the discipline. Familiar with the complexities of future oriented thinking, Futures scholars never took the model seriously. But outside the sphere of its own theorists and practitioners, the Futures Studies field has been still perceived through the epistemological lenses shaped by the positivist model. The truth is that the legitimacy and status of Futures Studies rest with the position the field manages to validate for itself in the mainstream epistemological and scientific methodology forum. And the reality is that the epistemological asymmetry between explanation and prediction has not been adequately recognized and considered outside the field in epistemology or social theory, and that the Futures Studies scholars haven’t made and drawn that distinction convincingly enough. The discussion of the specific methodology of prediction—a theme that with very few exceptions has been neglected by the philosophers of science themselves—failed to enter the mainstream epistemological and philosophy of knowledge debates. And the crucial obstacle to that development continues to be the myth reigning in mainstream social sciences that explanation and prediction are or should be symmetrical processes. It is interesting to note that disentangling the models of predictions from those of explanation, and making the case for a solid epistemological argument remains today a priority for the futures research community as it was 30 years ago. In a path-breaking article written in 1964 Hellmer and Rescher wrote: “As long as one believes that explanation and prediction are strict methodological counterparts, it is reasonable to press further with solely the explanatory problems of a discipline, in the expectation that only the tools thus forged will then be usable for predictive purposes. But once this belief is rejected, the problem of a specifically predictive method arises, and it becomes pertinent to investigate the possibilities of predictive procedures autonomous of those used for explanation” (5, p. 32) . During the last decades Futures Studies made important progress in theory, methodology and applications. But it is still to make a convincing case to gain epistemological legitimacy outside its own field. The task is clear: translating into the mainstream’s epistemological terms the insights gained by the discipline and placing them within the ongoing debates in philosophy of science and theory of knowledge. That effort and the epistemological battle for the future and status of the field are even more urgent today when the place of logical positivism is filled by a number of scattered approaches that may lead to a broader and more realistic view of explanation but that continue to neglect the issue of prediction. Thus in spite of the change of the climate of philosophical opinion, the prediction issue is in danger of remaining strongly tied in its entanglement with explanation, and to unwittingly carry on the legacy of the positivist model. Therefore it is even more important today to disentangle the theory of prediction from the theory of explanation and thus to contribute to the elaboration of a strong case for an autonomous and specific epistemology for Futures Studies. This paper is a contribution to this effort of carving a firm epistemological ground for Futures Studies. As such it continues by presenting the classical model of the symmetry between prediction and explanation and then outlines its fatal weaknesses showing how out of its criticism emerges the possibility of a coherent, robust, original and very interesting epistemology of prediction. All these are done being aware of the fact that the epistemology of Futures Studies could not be reduced to a mere extension of a theory of prediction and that themes such as conditionals, counterfactuals and scenario-related analytic narratives that carry on their own epistemological load are as important as prediction is. However given he external perception of Futures Studies, a perception that is defined and shaped by the notion of prediction, the issue of prediction should be addressed with priority.
Futures – Elsevier
Published: Dec 1, 2003
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