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In my fantasy world there exists a book that contains everything that has, is, and will happen as well as every emotion, thought, and action. This book is known as the Acabar.

One cannot physically "read" this book instead one asks the book a question and the book tells them the answer. The book is even able to open and project a "body" for itself, but also display images.

As expected this book has become a site of pilgrimage and is kept in a temple for safe keeping. Pilgrims from across the known world come to ask the book questions and receive answers.

However the priests have noticed one thing: whenever someone asks about the present or past, the book's explanation, while long winded, is clear and easy to understand. However when someone asks about the future the answer is rather confusing and hard to grasp. A example would be taking a book like The Hobbit and seeing how easy it is to understand and then reading Revelations (the biblical Revelations) and comparing how difficult parts of Revelations are to grasp.

Here's an example of descriptions from the two books. First The Hobbit:

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. It had a perfectly round door like a porthole, painted green, with a shiny yellow brass knob in the exact middle

Now a description from Revelations:

Then, a Beast emerges from the Earth having two horns like a lamb, speaking like a dragon. He directs people to make an image of the Beast of the Sea who was wounded yet lives, breathing life into it, and forcing all people to bear "the mark of the Beast", "666". Events leading into the Third Woe:

While the description from The Hobbit gives a clear image of at least the door saying it's round, "like a port hole", and green. While the description from revelations, while having parts that can be imagined, others that are open to interpretation/wildly different depending on who's reading.

So why would the Acabar be able to explain the past and present in a clear and easy enough (it can still be wordy and confusing for some) manner to understand, but when explaining the future it's hard to understand what The Acabar is trying to explain or trying to make sense of the imagery and descriptions it is using.

Note:

by Revelations I mean the descriptions mainly. For example how Revelations describes the beast, or the four horsemen. The Acabar would answer in a very similar, cryptic and metaphorical, tone.

When The Acabar tries to display images of the future they are not as clear as images from the present. Ex: "From the east will rise a red beast with four arms with a flaming sword in each hand" it will depict exactly that even if the person asking the question is unable to grasp what the Acabar means by this (better put: the image will appear how the person would see it not what The Acabar is trying to describe)

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  • $\begingroup$ Can you perhaps add examples of the reading/understanding difficulties in both the hobbit and the revelations. In the last paragraph, you also say the Acabar does not display images of the future, Then you seem to launch into an explanation of how to image of the future will appear. $\endgroup$ – Shadowzee Aug 5 at 23:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Shadowzee I'll try and edit it as best as possible $\endgroup$ – Celestial Dragon Emperor Aug 5 at 23:27
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    $\begingroup$ Any time travel (and definitive future telling is a kind of time travel) generates paradoxes. So this manner of talking about the future is probably a way of dealing with these paradoxes. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Aug 5 at 23:27
  • $\begingroup$ is it physical book like with layers of paper or whatever material to write in it ? seems like a waste if ppl can just ask the book which make it look like not a book at all, and the layer or the book must be huge if it record everything as memory. for the future maybe because its not predetermined it can change just from small single different act like butterfly effect make it hard to predict the exact destiny or fate of the future. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Aug 6 at 4:55
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    $\begingroup$ oh yeah also maybe the present is easy to predict or clearer because it require shorter calculation make it more accurate compare to the future which is more complicated and longer. $\endgroup$ – Li Jun Aug 6 at 5:09

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The answers are always descriptive to the same degree, but we’re lacking context for future answers

The Hobbit hole seems perfectly simple, but then we know what comes next. To someone who has never read the book, the reference to a porthole may be significant because the hole is on a floating island. The references to “perfectly” round and “exactly” in the center may portend a race of Hobbits that are obsessive in their craftsmanship unlike any other. We know that these are not borne out in later paragraphs, but if that clip is all you knew of the Hobbit, how could you be sure?

Therefore, there need not be a metaphysical reason why the future answers can be interpreted to many meanings, it’s just that no matter how descriptive, the book can never include all of the relevant context for future events, so everything from the future is inherently ambiguous.

Imagine being told in 1860 that in 100 years a president would be shot while riding in his motorcade. You would not know what a motorcade was! Maybe the oracle would even translate to existing terms so that it would be potentially understandable, but easier to lose the exact meaning.

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    $\begingroup$ This was exactly the problem faced by the seer in the book Good Omens. She could see the future quite clearly, but had no way to effectively describe concepts that hadn't been invented yet, situations with no analog in her limited and uneducated experience, and places that hadn't been founded or named yet. Also, what she found interesting was quite different from what we might find interesting. $\endgroup$ – user535733 Aug 6 at 0:51
  • $\begingroup$ I need to read that book! $\endgroup$ – TzeraFNX Aug 6 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ @TzeraFNX it is an amazing and hilarious read, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett are a stellar combo. I love the fact she does not care about things we might find important if they don't impact her direct descendants. $\endgroup$ – John Aug 6 at 17:56
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    $\begingroup$ @user535733 Also in the webcomic Dominic Deegan: When teaching new students, the main character explains that a lot of prophecy is cryptic or vague because the seer doesn't understand what they see, and assigns them reading material to learn about as much as possible to avoid that. Of course, this reasoning doesn't apply to "What are the winning Lottery Numbers in this country for next Saturday's draw?"... $\endgroup$ – Chronocidal Aug 7 at 9:50
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If you want a mathematical argument, consider that the Acabar must know of what it tells people as well.

Self-referential statements are the bane of mathematics. They are famously troublesome. Predicates such as "this sentence is false" are so troublesome that we tend to write the grammar of our language to make such sentence simply invalid. That way we don't have to deal with them.

Alfred Tarski famously explored a class of what were called "interpreted languages." These languages consisted of strings, such as "Hi, how are you?" and "The week is long. The silver cat feeds when blue meets yellow in the west," and an interpretation of those strings, which turns the string of characters into meaning.

He showed that for vast swaths of desirable languages (in particular, those which could prove all true arithmetic statements in first order logic), the language could not describe itself. You could not put together a set of sentences which describes precisely how the interpretation should work without simultaneously breaking itself by admitting such troublesome paradoxical phrases.

Now we like to think using those sorts of languages all the time. We do it by accident -- so much by accident that many of us don't even realize we were assuming it during our math classes. If you've ever "infinity-plus-one-dog-dared" someone you've tried to grapple with them.

When dealing with future events, Acabar must deal with these issues, and thus must speak in a language which can withstand such self-reference. This is not the language you and I typically talk in, so it sounds cryptic and vague.

Dan Willard explored one such world. Mind you the paper is a scholarly mathematical paper, and thus deeply steeped in Greek letters and mathematical symbols. His world started from infinity, and worked its way down to "one." It has all sorts of crazy things, like the ability to construct an "infinity" outside the system which suddenly becomes larger if you look at it from within the system, like some mathematically inspired episode of Through the Looking Glass.

Its the kind of price you pay for being able to speak of the future with precision.

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Alternative option: it is a trick.

The author of the Acabar was an individual or organisation of considerable skill and power, as evidenced by the "book"'s ability to scry across the world and look into the past, but predicting the past is more or less straightfoward. Predicting the future may as well be impossible. Rather than simply have an artefact that refused to scry into the future, some joker made it pretend to do so.

The people who the book were made for are naturally mythopoeic (ie. have a strong tendency to make stuff up), suffer from pareidolia (ie. have a strong tendency to mean meaning, pattern and agency in something that contains none of the above) and have a strong tendency towards rationalisation (ie. it may turn out that what they said was wrong or what they did was stupid, but they can invent an excuse to justify it anyway). Humans are a good example of this.

When asked about the future, the Acabar generates a load of vaguely contextual and portentious-sounding delphic gibberish (related, PDF) whose purpose is to sound plausible but not to convey anything that might accidentally sound like a solid, testable prediction.

Much like Revelations, the works of Nostradamus, horoscopes, tarot readings and all the rest, people will work tirelessly to bend, stretch and torture the words to fit to any real-world event that sounds like it might, may, if you squinted a bit and smoked enough salvia, seem to fit. Even telling them it is all nonsense may not convince them that they have been conned. They have faith in the book. It has shown them the future, after all.

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If the future is fluid then the book cannot give a clear answer because its answer has to cover all possible futures - including contradictory ones.

If you plan to flip a coin twice and then ask the book what the result will be then it tries to simultaneously tell you HH HT TH TT.

These are all contradictory, so you end up with a mess, as a result all it can do is tell you the things that are always true along with what might be true. For example the result might be "There are four beasts from two. The two headed beast watches both ways, the blind beast has two tails, their siblings have both head and tail".

That looks like a mess but actually is just the book trying to describe the four plausible outcomes of the coin flips.

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Because the future isn't yet fixed, it consists of multiple possible options. When describing a specific point in the future, all possible futures are described simultaneously.

As you get closer to the point, clarity improves, there's a reduced number of possible options or meaningful differences between them.

As you reach a moment the waveform collapses down to only a single possible option and that can be described with perfect clarity.

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  • $\begingroup$ A number of people have similar answers but I think you explain it the best. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Nov 6 at 18:02
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Consider the motives of Acabar's author.

It seems very plausible to me that whoever wrote/created Acabar (whom I would imagine is likely some kind of god, given the contents of the book) could have all sorts of reasons--mysterious or not--for not wanting to reveal the future in clear detail. It's up to you as the worldbuilder to decide what these reasons are, how important they are for your narrative(s), and how and when, if at all, they are revealed to the characters in-universe.

Here are some potential motivations I would suggest as plausible to readers:

  1. There are actually many possible futures (though Acabar knows them all), and it describes them loosely because it doesn't want to bias readers/listeners towards or away from any particular future.
  2. Acabar's author wants people to be engaged in thinking about the future and their part in it; not just mindlessly/passively following a step-by-step recipe.
  3. (Or, relatedly) Acabar's author doesn't want people to despair at the losses or suffering or changes that are in store for them.

There are plenty more possibilities, but in summary: if Acabar has an author and your characters learn about him/her/it at all in-universe, it would make a lot of sense to build around its motivations.

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The past and present have already happened. It's why you can make a documentary on the past but not the future. Maybe the book does not know the outcome of the futures, only the common paths that might be taken (like Garnet from SU). The book can only write a "prophecy" as the outcome might not be exact.

But from what you're saying the book seems omnipotent to an extent, it knows literally everything. I don't really know what kind of questions are being asked, but maybe the book wasn't designed to give the answers in regards to the future. Maybe the creator of the book made it give accurate information on the past, to learn from it, while allowing society to develop and remain free to choose what it wants.

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Have the book give answers in the vernacular of the time period in question. While historical answers can be decoded by dedicated historians and linguists, future answers need a lot of guesswork as to how phrases ought to be interpreted. Consider this example:

This chart shows samples of the changes in English. #1 is Old English or Anglo-Saxon (circa 450-1066 CE). #2 is Middle English (circa 1066-1450 AD). #3 is Modern English from about the time of Shakespeare. #4 is another sample of Modern English, but it is more recent than #3.

A simple phrase in old, middle, early modern, and modern English.

I think you could use this same principle for pictures as well, especially if you eschew pictures for diagrams and graphs, which have their own visual language that evolves over time. Consider the difficulty of interpreting a graph with little to no context that uses a format that you've never seen before. Try and read this chart for example:

A chart.

It probably took you a bit of effort because it is an uncommon chart style and you are largely lacking context.

This graph was developed with the specific aim of driving important military hospital reforms. Given this context, consider the same information represented by this line graph:

A more modern representation of the same data.

You likely have a much easier time grasping the data being presented here.

References:

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/diagram_4English.html

https://blogs.sap.com/2014/06/05/reworking-florence-nightingales-diagram-of-the-causes-of-mortality-in-the-army-in-the-east-with-sap-lumira/

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The book is just being honest.

Consider humanity's history so far. Up until the early 1900's it was all about kingdoms and wars and famine and the slow but sure march of human reason towards illuminism and science.

And then came the radio, then TV, then the Internet. The way people have communicated between the 1980's and today has changed much faster than the way people communicated in all of previous human history.

From ancient Egypt to WW2 knowledge was spread through books and tomes. The format of the books varied, but that was it - text on paper (or papyrus, or clay tablets).

Now we have videogames and memes.

Now imagine that, in order to come up with an answer, Acabar is actually accessing random media from some time period which can answer the question. If someone from 2019 asks about WW2, they may get excerpts from diares of people who lived it. But if someone from 1840 Russia asked how the world would be a hundred years in their future, they could get a random picture from nowadays Google's image results for stalin meme. They might be asking themselves, 'Who is this man called "bae"? Why did he send her parents to the gulag? What IS a gulag? What does this moustachio'd man have to do with it? Is he the girl's father? Is he smiling because the Gulag is a happy place?'

And then think for a minute. How will the people from the next decade communicate? I felt really old when I saw my younger cousins saying some random girl was a "Yandere" and I had to google it. And now they are saying that they are feeling old because some kids said whatever. Let it sink in - millenials are feeling old because of what some school kids are saying. Will we even be able to understand what our great-grandchildren say?

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Current and past events are or have been perceived by human beings. So the book can use those perceptions in describing the subject of the answer.

Future events have not yet been perceived by human beings. Currently the only ones able to perceive them directly (not through the book's description) are the divine. So you are reading an attempt to convert divine perceptions into human readable text. And the book is just not that good at doing the translation. It is much better at compiling human perceptions.

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-Randomly got here, logged in just to answer this-

I've been "making" a scy-fi story (in my head) and this is something that comes up in the story

The main character eventually gets a direct "connection" to the Universe Knowledge Cognitive System (UKCS) that is pretty much the conscience of the universe itself but isolated from direct access from living beings.

So, how does this prevent the "user" to pretty much turn into a god and ruin all the plot? Well, the thing is, when you access it, you can perform 2 different actions, one at a time:

  1. Direct communication with another living being, instantly (telepathy)
  2. Access to the cognitive front

the cognitive front is just what you think the front should be, maybe a female person that answer your questions, or a robotic voice-over, in an all-white place, whatever your mind comes up with, depends on who connects to it, it's a personal "experience".

So what's the trick? First, it's ALL THE UNIVERSE KNOWLEDGE ("pasts", "presents" and "futures") so to access the information you have to be specific, imagine an endless universal library. So in order to have an answer, you have to narrow the scope of the question, else you won't get useful info. This is easy to do with a question about the present or past, but the future is not unique, and you don't know what to ask if you don't know what's going to happen, unless you have a hint, or you make the right questions to get useful info about what to do/what is going to happen.

So having all the knowledge at your disposal is not an instant win, but a huge advantage, hope this helps.

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It is the limitation of causality, where the book "knows" that which is to transpire, but unable to tell it in clear detail which would in so invite change, is restrained to reveal only as much as to ascertain that the blurred truth spoken, shall have to come to pass.

Pardon my French, but you need to be deceived by truth to make truth become.

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Clearly explaining future events would by itself change those events- an example being, if someone destined to bankrupt themselves speculating on tulips were to hear of their future, they would seek to change it, either refusing to speculate at all or pulling out before the crash. In order to predict the future without changing it, Acabar must give vague and confusing answers which, being able to see the future, it knows will ultimately change nothing and bring the same result as if nobody had asked it in the first place, whilst still (with appropriate context and interpretation) describing those future events.

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because even the book has to travel through time backwards, like all beings bound to this reality.*

Think of it: we clearly move towards the future yet we can only see the past, hence backwards.

The Acabar however is the only thing with a temporal wing mirror. But as you know things in the mirror are closer than they appear and no mirror (especially one constructed by wizards and gods) is perfect so the Acabar tries to describe the future the best it can see in the little, shaking device bolted to his side.

Hey, you try it, it's not as easy as it sounds.

* credit to the great Terry Pratchett for the idea

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