On pre-echoes and their practical relevance

A sort of book review of Tiziano Terzani’s book, “A Fortune Teller Told Me”

Told by a fortune teller in the 1970s not to fly at all during 1993, Mr Terzani, an Asia-based journalist for significant Western newspapers had a long time to consider his dilemma . Did he follow the advice of this prognosticator, change his professional life profoundly for a year, and implicitly accept that his western, scientific scepticism of those who predict futures was not the full story. Or did he ignore the advice, scoff at what might have been his fate, and continue to scoot about the place on planes?

The result of his decision forms the background for this thoughtful, charming and brilliant book, recently re-read after being unexpectedly found on a friend’s bookshelf. First published in 1997, it is many things: a brilliant literary travelogue through the countries of South-East Asia, a meditation on globalisation and the consequences of economic development, and an exploration of the world of fate and fortune-tellers – a personal tour through the layer of mysticism and superstition that underlies society, particularly in the east.

Mr Terzani venerates the past. He struggles to review the present dispassionately because he sees economic progress as fundamentally compromising traditions he has long respected – in his view progress evens out the differences in the world and makes the world a less interesting, less human place. And he is therefore fundamentally sceptical as to whether the future is a cause for hope or for despair.

I particularly like mysticism as a counter-point to our age of common sense, and cause and effect. It seems to me that practicalities too often intervene before motivation, by which I mean that ideas are killed by a thousands tut-tuts because it is thought that they won’t work even before the question is asked about whether we really want to pursue these ideas or not. The fact that there is no alternative is not a good argument for anything: it undermines the very creativity and participation that is helpful in resolving our societal dilemmas.

The effect of all this rationalism is that there are fewer and fewer places for non-rational thinking to hide in the world. Religion, art, dreams, superstition. These are powerful expressions of the limits of human reasoning, and the importance of surprise, principles, and unpredictable connections between ideas to our continued ability to flourish.

So, to my mind, all power to art, unpredictability, dreaming, foolishness, and creative thinking in the world. Boo to too much rationalism, over-assessment of the inherently unpredictable, and the intellectual arrogance of decision-makers choosing before they really understand. More scratch and sniff. Less wait and see.

To that end, I present my theory of pre-echoes. The idea is simple: once you have decided to do something, other people can get an idea of what is going to happen in the future as a result of your intention. So I am driving from Wellington to Auckland, and a friend sends me a message asking if she just saw me crossing Fort Street in downtown Auckland. I haven’t got there yet, but the pre-echo of my future arrival was already detectable. Or your mother suddenly pops into your mind, and a minute later she calls you. A coincidence from one point of view, but a pre-echo from another – you know that she is going to call because she has decided to. I think of it as like a radio on some distance away on a windy day. Sometimes you can just catch enough to know the name of the tune, sometimes events intervene to prevent it.

This is clearly a rather whimsical idea. Since it is impossible (I think) to test, it is fundamentally unscientific. I am surprised by many things every day, despite the existence of pre-echoes, and so clearly my theory is either not foolproof or it needs substantial refinement to fit the facts as I encounter them. My theory is also not especially helpful for predicting future events – another standard test of the quality of theories. It does not prevent people changing their mind or limit the ability of free-will. And I know not what the transmission mechanism is from someone else’s made-up mind to my own.

If I were in a mood to defend the science of my theory, I might note that science has moved along rather a lot over time and in surprising directions. The earth (not the sun) was once thought the centre of the galaxy, cholera was once thought to be caused by dirty air, radiation only showed up at the turn of the nineteenth century, vitamins remained a mystery until the 1950s, things thought impossible (space travel, mobile phones, decent coffee at petrol stations) have become reality. No reason to doubt, therefore, that science will stumble across pre-echoes at some point.

All of this science talk is all very well, but that is not, of course, the point of my pre-echo story. Pre-echoes come from a different world that exists alongside the world that we all accept as real every day. A world where time’s arrow does not necessarily travel in a single direction. A world where what would be called magic and dreams have a function and an effect. A world where things are connected in much more complex ways than the cause and effect story that we imbibe with our mother’s milk. A world, let’s face it, rather more intriguing and mysterious than the one we actually inhabit.

It is the same world from which come basic western superstitions. Some that I respect, for better or worse, are the importance of the 1st of the month for luck in the month following, a fear of doing anything too important on Friday the 13th, casting some salt over my left shoulder if I drop any on the floor, saying “bless you” when someone sneezes, and wishing on rainbows and over birthday candles.

Happily for me and my theory, Mr Terzani talks about something similar, referring to the thoughts of the prince soon to become Buddha in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha when sitting on a hill looking at a river:

It strikes him that once the measurement of time is waived, the past and the future are ever-present – like the river, which at one and the same moment exists not only where he sees it to be, but also at its source and at its mouth. The water which has yet to pass is tomorrow, but it already exists upstream; and that which has passed is yesterday, but it still exists, elsewhere, downstream.

There are eddies and tributaries, dams and irrigation schemes, but that does not affect the basic point about the connectedness of what we call the past, present and future, and the powerfulness of the idea that our concept of time is not the complete answer.

Mr Terzani goes on, while looking at a river intersection in Laos:

It seemed to me that that conjunction and mingling of muddy waters was, like life – mine included – made up of so many streams. It seemed that past, present and future were no longer distinguishable one from another: they were all there, in that relentless flow. Fifty-five years had slipped away like the great river rolling towards the China Sea; the rest of my time on earth was already welling up in the Himalayan slopes, already underway moving towards me along the same channel, clearly defined and counted to the last hour. If I had had a higher perch than that hill I might have been able to see more of the river, in both directions. And thus could I have seen more past, more future?

This connection of past, present and future is a powerful theme throughout the book as Mr Terzani consults the most famed fortune-teller he can find in every country that he visits. As a journalist, he reports the differences and similarities in how they ply their craft, and gives his views on whether they actually have any unique capabilities. Rationally speaking, he assesses if they are sufficiently accurate in telling him his own past (something they all do as part of the process) that he can ascribe them some credibility as advisers on what is going to happen in the future.

As the book goes on and the number of fortune-tellers grows, he sadly concludes that most are in a business like any other, i.e., selling predictions of the future that others are willing to pay for. They have a standard patter, and present a hodge-podge of culturally-influenced generalisations that are true enough for enough people to sound profound, while any firm predictions are couched in such a way that they can not be obviously wrong. But predicting the future is not really the point of fortune-tellers, in his view. They are not actually selling predictions. They are selling a combination of reassurance and warning, helping people feel better about their pasts, and more secure or cautious – depending on the story – about their futures.

But intriguingly, Mr Terzani also continues to accept that there might be something in it. That there might be some fortune-tellers who really can do as they say on the tin. He quotes from a London-based fortune-teller called Norman, responding to the question of whether he can really predict the future:

‘Not 100 per cent, otherwise we would no longer have any responsibility for our actions’, he said. ‘The cards read the shadows of things, of events. What I can do is help people to change the position of the light, and then, with free will, they can change the shadows. That I really do believe: you can change the shadows.’

Which feels a bit to me like my pre-echo theory. Sometimes you can pick up the shadows of future events, without really knowing how or why.

Fascinatingly, it turns out that the author did in fact avoid an air crash by following the advice he was given 16 years prior. A helicopter he was meant to be on crashed near Siem Reap, Cambodia in March 1994.

There is also an interesting minor riff on the complexity of cause and effect throughout the book. Once the web of influences becomes sufficiently complicated, any event can start to look like magic, and disentangling what is actually responsible is more an act of story-telling than it is of science.

The chain of cause and effect that links human affairs is endless, and that means they remain without a real explanation. I was on that ship as the result of an infinite series of ‘becauses’, of which it was impossible to establish the first. That is the maddening thing about destiny – and the wonderful thing.

There is always an inexplicable bridge of San Luis Rey, where different people with different stories, coming from different places, meet by chance at the moment when the bridge collapses, to die together in the abyss. But the first step of each of the journeys which end in the assignation cannot be retraced.

In my case, any starting point that I might fix – the fortune-teller in Hong Kong, the escape from death in Cambodia, the decision in Laos, even my own birth – was not it. Perhaps because, when you come down to it, there really is no beginning.

It seems to me this question comes down, as usual with interesting things, to a question of underlying beliefs. Perhaps human action is like the weather, i.e., something that is very complex but fundamentally based on a few, knowable rules. If it is, then we could look forward to a time when the future can be predicted with total accuracy. All that is needed is enough information on the right things and sufficient computing power and time.

Mr Terzani meets a meteorologist who says that his science has almost reached this point. At present, the meterologist says that scientists can predict the weather with 99 percent accuracy for the next three days (I am not sure this is true of the weather forecasters I rely on, but however). The next step, says the meteorologist, is mastering the theory of chaos, and this will enable exact weather predictions two or three years in advance.

“Why can you not predict human actions”, inquires Mr Terzani, perhaps archly. “They too have complex causes and effects”.


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