The Human Art of Prospection

I admit to a growing love for various kinds of psychology and psychological research. The human brain is simply amazing. And much of what distinguishes humans from lower primates, at least in terms of our brain, is in the frontal lobe of the human brain.

cover-mid_trade After viewing a PBS series on emotional life I was drawn to read the book written by the host of this three-part series. The book, Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert, is a delight. It is funny, well-written, fascinating and incredibly helpful to Christians, even if they reject his evolutionary biology.

If you were asked, says Gilbert, to name the human brain’s greatest achievement you might think of impressive artifacts produced: The Great Pyramid of Giza, the International Space Station, or perhaps the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. These are great achievements but they are not, argues Gilbert, our “greatest” achievements. A sophisticated machine could produce all of these and much more. Gilbert writes, “Seeing the Great Pyramid or remembering the Golden Gate or imagining the Space Station are far more remarkable acts than is building anyone of them” (italics his, 5). He then adds, “What’s more, one of these remarkable acts is even more remarkable than the others. To see is to experience the world as it is, to remember is to experience the world as it was, but to imagine—ah, to imagine is to experience the world as it isn’t and has never been, but as it might be” (5).

pPBS3-6935374dt Philosopher Daniel Dennett has called the human brain an “anticipation machine,” and “making future” is the most important thing that the brain does. But what does “making future” mean? All brains make predictions about the immediate, local and personal future. They do this by using current events and past events to anticipate what is likely to happen next. When we take Neo, our miniature dachshund, to the vet she begins to shake before we get out of the car. She has memory and anticipates what comes next.

What distinguishes us is found in the idea of later. Human beings can preview in their minds chains of events that have not yet come to pass. Our brains stubbornly insist on projecting into the future even when there is so much to think about today. Why do we do this? Gilbert believes we find this process pleasurable. We daydream about hitting the winning shot, or landing the big fish, or getting the girl we desire, etc. Gilbert calls this activity prospection and defines it as: “The act of looking forward and considering the future.”

We may long for some future we imagine as joyful or we may fear a future that we dread. But the future is there and we think about it by prospecting in our minds. Our large and developed frontal lobe has the ability to look into the future and make predictions so that we might, somehow, seek to control it or even avoid it. From infancy we seek to control things around us to make our future better and safer. We come into the world with a passion for control. In fact, Gilbert says, “Our desire for control is so powerful, and the feeling of being in control so rewarding, that people often act as though they can control the uncontrollable” (23).

Gilbert says that “We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain—not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find our destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope . . . we experience illusions of foresight” (25).

His whole book works out what this means in normal human experience. It is an exciting read. What fascinated me in particular was Gilbert’s connection of virtue to happiness (both a Greek and Christian idea). Second, I was struck by his acknowledgement that the Christian martyrs learned to die to attain happiness because they truly believed that the happiness of this world would be improved greatly by their better happiness in the next.

The writer of Hebrews says the same when he says that men and women of faith died believing and trusting God, often in dire circumstances. But why? And why did the Christian martyrs die with such hope and grace, dare we say at times with incredible joy?

All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it. They agreed that they were foreigners and nomads here on earth. Obviously people who say such things are looking forward [prospecting as Gilbert calls it] to a country they can call their own. If they had longed for the country they came from, they could have gone back. But they were looking for a better place, a heavenly homeland. That is why God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them (Hebrews 11:13-16, NLT).

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