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Precognesis is a school of magic in which an individual can access the time stream of reality. These individuals are called seers, who use their mental training to read the future. This ability is open to anyone that is willing to learn, and takes many years of practice and dedication. However, oracles are very rare due to the difficulty and length of time it takes to master. This makes them highly sought out for in warfare by generals. This ability to know what is going to happen has the potential to be a power breaker, and I have sought a way to limit its effectiveness in reasonable ways. One of which is to not make the future linear, and depend on multiple variables. Potential realities are not set in stone, and change depending on the decision making and selection process of the seer.

An oracle who accesses the time stream can only see potential futures, which can number in the thousands. They do this through a ritual involving incense and meditation which allows them to sink into a trance-like state, with the intention of selecting the future they believe is most likely to come about. Once selected, thousands more branches open up, leading to more possibilities that resulted from that future being chosen. The seer must follow this string to its ultimate conclusion. This process becomes harder to read the further one follows the string.

This method of reading the future sounds like a lot of guesswork at best, with hit or miss strategies that are unreliable and time consuming. I need to make these individuals valuable to have in a fast paced environment, such as a warzone, where things are constantly changing and decisions need to be made quickly by generals in real time. I need to refine these rules to make precondition useful enough to be valuable in these situations. How can I make this happen?

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    $\begingroup$ The ability is extremely useful as it is. A general can execute the preliminary moves of a plan, and ask a seer to check the future. The seer says nope, there are thousands of futures. This means that the plan is ineffective. The general then either aborts the plan, or makes adjustments and tries again. If the general is good, eventually the seer will say all right, there are now only half a dozen futures. The general evaluates the possible outcomes and takes steps to avoid those which are undesirable. By carefully managing the feedback from the seer the general can optimize his campaign. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Apr 9 at 21:24
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    $\begingroup$ What counts as a distinct future. If I slit a guys throat in combat 2cm lower and he dies either way is that a different future? If so, how can there be anything less than hundreds of billions of futures? Where is the line? $\endgroup$ – Muuski Apr 9 at 23:28
  • $\begingroup$ Interesting question! What is "the ultimate conclusion" of a string? In reality, strings of events interweave such that it is nearly impossible to see when one string ends and another begins. What happens if they don't see it all the way through? $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Apr 10 at 15:58
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It sounds like seership would be exactly more valuable in a fast paced environment, it depends on how far in time you want to know the future and to which extent the forecast must be detailed.

Let's say that the farther the seer tries to see the future, the more difficult it is, since the possible branches increase exponentially.
In a battle, a general usually only needs to know the immediate outcomes of his tactics (say, no more the 3-4 hours from present), so the seer would need to have a clear view only of the near future, which he should be able to do with ease.

Moreover, to realize if a possible tactics will be successful, the seer could "prune" some of the least possible branches, according to the input of the general. For instance, if the general says he wants to forecast an attack to the right flank, all the futures starting with an attack on the left flank could be ignored.

About the detail, it could be noted that the outcome of a melee is the consequence of a plethora of single fights, each one creating new branches in the future (the friend wins, the foe wins, the friend wins but is severely wounded...), but in their totality, they would tend to the outcome more likely to happen, which would show itself as more vivid in the visions of the seer.
In other words, it is similar to gas theory (or psychohistory): even if you can't see the movement of every molecule, you can study and predict the behavior of a gas. The same way, even if the seer can't reliably predict if a single soldier will survive, he can forecast the "big picture" with enough detail to be useful to the generals.

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I do not really understand your explanation but I will point out that your ability would be very valuable to generals with those limitations. This is because while the future is mutable, as it should be, the past is not.

For example, there either is an ambush set up or there is not. A fortress either has been reinforced or not. The enemy either has a fleet strong enough to threaten you or not. The enemy either has reserves available or not. The retreat of his center is either genuine or part of a stratagem that will live in history books for thousands of years.

There is no uncertainty of the future for such things because you are only seeing the future consequences of events that already happened. This actually works better when looking for near events such as on a battle field since there is less noise to mess things up. In fact, in your setting you might have enemy seers who see the same vulnerabilities and warn the enemy generals, so far future would be very unreliable.

I think warfare would become fairly chess like with generals looking to have a definite strategic advantage before starting a battle. It might be possible to win a war without a fight by simply getting enough of an advantage since enemy seers would flat out tell the enemy they cannot win.

What I mean is that any resource you commit to a fight will become visible to enemy seers in the past. This means that generals would want to avoid committing any forces until they are in position to win regardless of the enemy seeing it in advance. They'd probably also have lots of screening and scouting units to facilitate this type of warfare.

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The seer is useful because they can see the present.

They fact that they can see futures means that they can see now. There is only one now, even if they have to see a blur of it by looking a second into the future.

This is a huge advantage to any general.

  • Where are my troops
  • Where is my supply train
  • Where is the weather worsening
  • Where are the enemy troops
  • where are the enemy supply wagons
  • Who is breaking formation

So many questions that even a modern general would love to have answered.

The seer is useful as a spy

A general turns around and asks the seer to walk through the other generals camp/target to the best of his ability. Not breadth but depth.

The interest is not in the exact outcome of the event but in exploring. The fact is that a written battle plan speaks volumes of the general intelligence of its authors. The patrol patterns of the guards gives an idea about how trained the guards/captain are. Even social interactions can point to strong/weak points, guards hate their food, two captains dislike each other, etc...

This gives reams of behavioural knowledge. With that tactics like bribery, food sabotage, etc... are likely to divide or demoralise the opponent.

The seer is useful as a weather vane

During an active battle the seer can be continually observing the general trend of the battle across futures.

The trend is by no means an outcome, but knowing that not calling on reserves right now gives a 20% success, and calling them gives you 40% success (success meaning your own side is mostly alive). A general can decide if he wants to hold out, or commit, or try something else.

A seer can also be used on such tight time frames to see if the other side is about to change tactics. The few minutes warning might be enough to have a tactic prepared to counter it.

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Your logic is wrong.

If a seer looks at the future, the seer sees only one future but the fact that looking at the future has the potential to change the future means if they look again, the future may have changed.

The seer looks and sees Barry gets killed in a car accident on the way to work. They tell Barry to stay home today. If they look again, Barry is ok

Things get more interesting when there are lots of seers looking.

Barry stays home and isn't killed but instead Trevor gets killed in the accident because Trevor's seer looked before Barry seer and saw everything was ok.

Now in a war, one side uses a seer to see what the other is doing. They then change their plans but the other side also uses a seer and knows they changed so they also change.

Both sides would be continuously looking and changing until you're left with a future that is unavoidable.

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Seers are wise.

The future is mutable, in play, and coming fast. But maybe accessing the time stream allows access to the multiple possible pasts - what could have happened if...

That is what seers spend most of their time doing: studying past events, what happened, what could have happened and why. From this study they get the benefit of many lifetimes of experience. An individual counselor to a general may have been present at a dozen battles. A seer can have experience of hundreds, including the same battle played out different ways. A seer understands what is possible.

A seer is valuable in the present because of his skills as an advisor. The ability to look into the future is the cherry on top.

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Tl/Dr: There's a simpler version of seeing the future which can't see the future, but can see the best path to take towards it. This can be within the realm of a seer's "fast paced" capability. What I find interesting is that it certainly appears that we mere mortals do this, today -- every day.

This is a topic near and dear to my heart because we're all seers in some sense. We all have some ability to predict the (near) future. It's the little voice in our head which says "This is not the bar to have a drink in tonight" 5 minutes before a bar fight breaks out. It's the little voice which says "I should check on my daughter just one more time, to make sure she's asleep." It's the mother's voice which somehow knows how to check on the daughter even when she's hundreds of miles away at college. We're all seers, just perhaps not as well trained as yours.

So how do we do it? You mention there could be thousands of potential futures. I'll raise the stakes on that. There's an infinite myriad of solutions. In fact, it is "uncountably infinite," which is a particularly large variant of infinity, if you follow those concepts. Surely one will get lost!

So what do we do? I find the key concept for untangling this web is symmetries. Symmetric situations are situations which are related in a way which also relates their outcomes. It doesn't really matter whether you drive on the left side of the street or the right side of the street. However, we find a symmetry here: those who drive on the left side also put the speed limit signs on the left. Those who drive on the right put the speed limit signs on the right. It doesn't matter which way you drive, by symmetry we always put the speed limit signs on the side of the road we drive on (this makes them easier to see).

So with this, we can reduce the complexity of the seer's job. If two sets of strings to follow are symmetric, they only really need to follow one. They can then use the symmetry to figure out what would have happened on the other side.

This can reduce the complexity dramatically, but any number of mirrors or rotations by 45 degrees or such won't make a dent in an uncountable infinity number of possibilities. You need a more advanced concept: continuous symmetries. Consider a free rotation. You could rotate an object 90 degrees, or 45, or 22.5, or 3.14151689371 degrees. Any rotation is possible. And, for each of them, the object will still have a symmetry -- Turning an object around doesn't mean it stops being that object. This is what we call a continuous symmetry.

There's many variants of continuous symmetries. Rotation is only one of them. You also have a continuous symmetry of translation. In many cases, it doesn't matter if you're at one spot and, say, a soccer ball is 5 feet in front of you, or if you're in a different point 3 feet away and the soccer ball has also moved 3 feet to the side so as to remain in front of you. Your interaction with the ball is exactly the same. That's a translational continuous symmetry. You can put that soccer ball and player system anywhere in the universe, and its behavior is still the same (barring minor details like picking somewhere with air to breathe).

Mathematicians have a sub-discipline focused on these symmetries called group theory. This is exciting to me (geek alert!), because if anything has the tools to deal with an uncountably infinite number of strings, it's fundamental mathematics! In particular, group theory looks at how symmetries compose. It can ask the question "If I rotate this ball 90 degrees along one axis, and then 90 degrees along another, what rotation do I actually end up with?"

Because symmetries are so fundamental in the mathematical world, a great deal of effort has been spent characterizing them. Mathematicians have notations which capture the fundamental behaviors of different groups. However, if we focus specifically on the continuous symmetries, we have an even better situation: the continuous symmetry groups, called "Lie groups" (pronounced "Lee") are fully categorized. If you have a continuous symmetry, mathematicians can describe it!

Thus your seers could leverage these continuous symmetries to cut down the threads they have to look at. Instead of uncountably infinite, we may be able cut them down to the mere thousands you were thinking of. Now we're back into the realm of, say Men in Black future telling.

Now with all of that, we can have some real fun (geek alert)! Mathematicians noticed that there's some connection between some sorts of groups. For example, consider the "belt trick." This is a neat trick you can do yourself with a belt that's fixed to a wall, which lets you spin around as much as you like without tangling yourself up in the belt. It's the basis of the candle dance, and it's also at the heart of the physics of getting out from a hold where someone has twisted your arm behind your back. It's what lets you rotate your arm enough to get free without requiring your feet to move. For those who haven't done it, the solution, surprisingly, is simply to step forward. Its only when you're tense that you can't realize that you can do this trick. If you walk forward, you stop concentrating so hard, and your body does it right.

The reason for this is that $SU(2)$ is a double cover of $SO(3)$. Remember when I said mathematicians had this categorization of symmetries thing in the bag? Well that's their funny notation to describe that this "spinor" motion of the belt trick is basically the same as a double rotation in 3-d space. This sounds really abstract, but it leads mathematicians to something which is very practical for our seers. It introduces the idea of a "Lie Algebra," which describes how these groups behave at a single point.

Remember when the wise people in your life told you to live in the moment? Well this is where it factors in. As it turns out, the algebras for $SU(2)$ and $SO(3)$ are the same at all points. If all you care about is the moment, you don't actually have to care about whether this is a $SU(2)$ or $SO(3)$ symmetry you're trying to use to simplify your seeing. If all you need is this moment, and the next step forward, you can treat them both as $B_1$. That's the name associated with the root diagram for that algebra.

Wow, that was a lot of mathematical terms to throw into one paragraph, so let's back it up. If you want to truly see the future, you have to worry about an uncountably infinite number of possibilities. You can use continuous symmetries to bring that down to a managable number. However, you have to be concerned with all of the various symmetries, whethere it's $SU(2)$, $SO(3)$, or $U(1)\times SO(2)$. They are all different, mathematically. However, if all you care about is the best direction to go at the moment, you don't need that detail. You just need to know the algebra for that group, and it will tell you everything you need to know (incidentally, if you think that way, it will point out that the last of my examples is actually fundamentally different from the others).

And, despite being called an "algebra," the algebras for Lie groups are really simple. There's 4 infinite series of them, which all have geometric and physical meanings, along with a spattering of "exceptional" algebras that just don't fit in. Once you have those, you merely combine them in natural ways, like how $x=3$ and $y=4$ can be combined to $x+y=7$ The entire list is:

  • $A_n$ - describes symmetries that come about from the special linear group in n-dimensions. For one thing, this is what we use when we are all "in sync" with one another. If a dance troupe all seems to move exactly as one, it's because they all have the same "beat", and that's captured by this sort of thing. When dealing with a well trained army, you will deal with a $A_n$ algebra which captures the army's ability to stay in sync in the heat of battle.
  • $B_n$ - describes odd dimensional symmetries that are orthogonal. This describes rotations in odd numbers of dimensions, such as rotating a ball.
  • $C_n$ - the symplectic algebras. These are horrible to try to define in non mathematical words, but we find them at the heart of Hamiltonian mechanics. The Hamiltonian typically describes "total energy," so we can think of the $C_n$ series as describing the symmetries in how energy flows through systems. If any martial art speaks of manipulating "energy," it is highly likely that their training helps one be comfortable with manipulating symmetries with a $C_n$ algebraic structure.
  • $D_n$ - describes even numbered symmetries that are orthogonal. This describes rotations in even numbers of dimensions, such as rotating a circle.
  • $E_6$, $E_7$, $E_8$, $F_4$, $G_2$ - These are the exceptional algebras. They are hard to pin down to a specific physical phenomena, but the $E_n$ series is very popular among particle physicists, because if you break those symmetries, you end up with the symmetries we see in the Standard Model of Quantum Physics. It may be that the mere act of learning how to intuitively work with these is what differentiates an average Joe from a seer.

And that's it. That's all of them. There's literally no more. If you can intuit rotations in any number of dimensions, matrix manipulations such as keeping things in phase, energy manipulation, and a hand full of special cases, you can always determine what direction you should be going as long as the world it continuous... and all of physics says it is.

So there's a lot of math there (geek alert!), but in the end, what we see is that a seer could choose to not tackle "the future," but merely tackle "where do I go next," reducing the complexity of managing these threads of time down to 4 series of simple algebras and 5 exceptional ones. And, in the heat of battle, you really only have time to think about where you're going, so this would be a very interesting skill.

And, with all the geek alerts, what fascinates me is that there's nothing to distinguish what these seers would be doing from what we mere mortals do. The only difference is a level of magnitude, and perhaps an awareness of those 5 exceptional cases which are so hard to learn.

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