The Human Need for a Future

Peter Gärdenfors – Lund University Cognitive Science

#II. inside animals / animals inside

ii. a bestiarium vocabulum – the primate

spring, 2022

1) Book of Hours, MS M.282 fol. 58r France, Paris, ca. 1460 – Images from Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts. 2) untitled, Mark Peckmezian

After all, life can be summed up in the paradoxical formula: the preservation of the future.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 

Broadening horizons

Humans have, as long as there is history, been obsessed with demarcating themselves from other animals. Different answers have been tried, such as that we are alone in using tools. Then it was found that many species use tools. Next attempt was to say that we are alone in making tools. Again, this is not true since both apes and birds make tools. One demarcation has remained though: humans have language. 

From an evolutionary point of view, the next question then becomes why we are the only species that has language. Before attempting to answer that question, the ecology of our ancestors must be considered. One explanation for what happened when the ancestors of humans (hominins) separated from those of chimpanzees some 6-8 million years ago is that the hominins adapted to a life in open landscapes, while the early chimpanzees remained in forests or denser vegetation. The adaptations to a savannah landscape provided new evolutionary pressures on the hominins, who had to travel over larger distances. Foraging demanded planning for longer periods of time. In brief, the ecology forced the hominins to broaden their spatial and temporal horizons. We have become the far-ranging apes.

The selection pressures, however, also affected the inner worlds of the hominins. In the same way as they needed to see further across the savannah, they needed to be able to see further within themselves. The evolution of human thinking is closely connected to how we have succeeded in broadening our inner and outer horizons. In short, my thesis is that the unique position of humans is due to the fact that we are the only animals that can plan for future needs and not just for the needs we have here and now. 

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future – sub specie aeternitatis. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task. 

Viktor Frankl

The poet Paul Valéry says in one of his aphorisms that the task of consciousness is to create a future. Much of the analysis of the minds of animals, children and adults concerns precisely how rich their images of the future are. Evolution has given humans an increasingly rich inner world and more and more cognitive abilities. As I shall argue, this has generated language, leading to an increasing ability to transmit knowledge between generations. 

As Rüdiger Safranski notes, however, a rich consciousness leads to complications in our relationship to the world.

Consciousness results in a broken link with the world. It plunges us into time: into a past that harasses us because we cannot forget it and that remains present even when repressed; into a present that constantly escapes our grasp; and into a future that may become a disturbing scenario beset with threats. Everything would be simpler if consciousness were only conscious being. But it breaks loose and becomes open to a horizon of new possibilities. Consciousness is able to transcend the given reality, and hence to discover either a dizzying nothingness or a god in which everything comes to rest.

Rüdiger Safranski

untitled, Mark Peckmezian

Prospective cognition

The main advantage of an inner world is that it makes it possible to go through an imagined future before the real one falls upon you. To the extent that you manage to foresee the consequences of your choices, you are in a better position to control the future. The essence of planning is that, in contrast to trial-and-error, an individual imagines a series of actions that will lead to a desired goal before carrying out the actions. One should however distinguish between immediate planning, which aims at fulfilling current desires, and prospective planning, which aims at satisfying future desires. 

It was, for a long time, assumed that humans were the only animals capable of prospective planning. This is sometimes called the Bischof-Köhler hypothesis. We can foresee that we will be hungry tomorrow and save some of the food; we realise that it will be cold and windy in winter and build ourselves a shelter well in advance. We sow and we harvest. Humans live in their dreams and plans – notions that carry them away, but also give them perseverance. We act on what’s in our heads, not just on what’s around us. This applies to all kinds of distant goals: to pass a degree, to build a house, to write a book, to get the one you love, and so on. Imagination is our strongest driving force. 

What makes it harder to plan for future needs than for present ones? The answer is that the two types of planning rely on different levels of imagination. When planning to satisfy a current need, the value of the consequences is determined in relation to what one wants to do at the moment, but it does not require conscious thought about the need. Planning for future needs, on the other hand, requires the ability to imagine and value these potential needs even though one is not experiencing them now. 

The human throws at the future 

an arrow tied to a string. 

The arrow lands in an image

and the human reels itself in towards that object

Paul Valéry

The limited future of animal thought

Apes don’t believe in God. That’s what happens when you have so much fur you can’t see your own navel. They don’t ask about origins, any more than they believe in death. They just laugh as if it were a joke that they exist.

Cecilia Bornäs

Yet much of what animals do seems to be planning for the future: birds building nests, squirrels gathering food for the winter, etc. But these behaviours are only instinctive. Most animals seem to have no idea of the future – they just follow their urges. 

One example of how difficult it is for animals to imagine being different is how monkeys are caught in Asia. They find a hole in a tree trunk just big enough for a monkey to get its hand in. In the hole you put boiled rice, which the monkeys are very fond of. When a monkey spots the rice, it reaches in and grabs it. But then the hand is too big to be pulled out of the hole again. The strange thing is that the monkey is left sitting there, its hand clutching the rice. It cannot disconnect from the thought of the presence of the sweet rice and imagine itself as a free monkey, only to let go of the rice. The monkey’s prospective planning seems to be completely non-existent.

The Bischof-Köhler hypothesis can, however, no longer be upheld in the light of recent experimental results. Great apes are not only able to select tools for future use, but also to save tools that have currently been used to satisfy a desire. Perhaps most importantly, great apes are able outcompete current drives in favor of future ones as well as being able to envision future events. Another example is that in Furuvik Zoo in Sweden, the male chimpanzee Santino has been observed calmly collecting stones in a pile in the morning (and hiding them from his care-takers), and later in the day throwing them at visitors that he becomes angry with. Interestingly, this ability to plan for future needs also seems to have evolved independently in the avian taxon of corvids. For example, scrub jays save food that they will prefer for breakfast tomorrow. Even though these results show that some animals have the capacity for prospective planning, the time range and variations of the plans are rather limited in relation to the capacity of humans.

The difference between immediate and prospective planning can be seen, for example, in the use of tools. Apes and other animals make tools, but almost only for their current needs. Humans, on the other hand, may realize that they will need the tool tomorrow as well and thus carry it with them to a new environment. Signs of carrying tools therefore become an interesting test of whether you are capable of prospective planning or not. Stone tools dating back some 2.5 million years have been found from the so-called Oldowan culture. Archaeologists have been able to show that many of these tools were transported over several kilometres.  Even the raw material for the tools has been moved over long distances, suggesting that there was a plan to produce the tool later at another location. In contrast, studies of chimpanzee tool use have mostly seen them carrying their tools a few hundred metres. This suggest that is a marked difference in prospective planning ability between apes and early humans. It is clear, however, that human foresight has become more extensive over time and nowadays we are constantly juggling the future. We carry not only tools, but also tickets, almanacs, mobile phones, etc. 

The dilemma of the future

Our most important thoughts are those which contradict our feelings.

Paul Valéry

Prospective cognition gives rise to a fundamental predicament. The dilemma is that the actions required to satisfy future needs are often in conflict with those that satisfy present desires. If I don’t want to freeze later tonight, I must go out and look for firewood, but right now I am warm and cosy and have no desire to leave the fire. We have to choose between acting for the present or for the future. There are big individual differences between how we deal with the conflict between our present desires and the future needs we can foresee. The differences are well illustrated by Aesop’s fable of the ant and the cricket. Some people, like the ant in the fable, find it difficult to live in the present and get their greatest satisfaction from planning for the future. They take out retirement insurance at the age of twenty-five. 

The conflict between the present and the future self is closely related to what Kierkegaard calls ”despair” in his book The Sickness unto Death. Despair means that we have no way out of the conflict between living in the present and thinking ahead, but it is precisely this that makes us human. Kierkegaard also points out that the form of “sickness” that despair represents is unique to human beings: 

The possibility of this sickness is man’s superiority over the animal, and this superiority distinguishes him in quite another way than does his erect walk, for it indicates infinite erectness or sublimity, that he is spirit.

When humans acquire the ability to choose their own ends and to plan and dream accordingly, they become more flexible beings, but at the same time their paradisiacal innocence is ended. They become dual natures, living in both a real and an imagined world. The imaginary world can easily become a seductive refuge – a heaven of fantasy – that overshadows the grey, often arduous everyday life. It is tempting not to connect the two worlds – to let the imagination gallop away with no requirement for action in the real world. The inner world becomes a gnawing longing and the inability to realise it leads to constant frustration. 

We should once again become good neighbours with the nearest things, and not stare beyond them as contemptuously as we have done hitherto at clouds and night skies. In forests and caves, in swamps and under cloudy skies – there man has lived too long, in millennia-long stages of culture – and lived miserably. There he has learned to despise the present and the neighbourhood and life and himself – and we, the inhabitants of the lighter regions of nature and spirit, still have in our blood, by inheritance, something of this poisonous contempt for what is nearest.

Friedrich Nietzsche

In this way, the rich inner world of humans has become a burden to us – much as the male peacock has to drag around his gaudy tail to attract the females. As Nietzsche suggests, perhaps it is better to come to one’s senses, abandon the most alluring castles in the sky and strive to anchor one’s thoughts in the reality in which one finds oneself, even if it is far less tempting. 

The future and free will

There is a very strong link between having free will and being able to plan for future needs. Harry Frankfurt says that a necessary criterion for an individual to be a person is that the individual not only wants something but also wants it to be wanted. This criterion of free will is based on being able to imagine one’s own desires, which is a prerequisite for prospective planning. Thus, free will requires prospective planning. The converse is also true to some extent: The capacity for prospective planning requires that one can freely choose between trying to fulfil the goals one has now or to fulfil the goals one imagines one will have in the future.

A free will also presupposes a form of self-consciousness in the sense that one must be conscious of one’s own desires in order to want another desire. Kierkegaard expresses the connection as follows:

Over all, consciousness, i.e., self-consciousness, is the decisive thing in relation to the self; the more consciousness, the more self; the more consciousness, the more will; the more will, the more self. A person who has no will at all is not a self; but the more will he has, the more self-consciousness he has also. 

The explanation of why there is a strong correlation between the degree of free will and the level of self-consciousness is that the more freely humans want to be able to choose, the more different goals, present and future, they must be able to conceive of. In other words, the richer your inner world is, the more choices you have. By developing your imagination, and thereby your capacity for prospective planning, you increase your ability to choose freely.

Morality and the future

The ability of human to foresee their future needs leads to two complications. First, individuals are given a much larger set of options from which to choose, since they must also consider future possibilities. Secondly, they can reflect on their own choices and contrast different values. These two complications often lead to great uncertainty for the chooser – in difficult cases to existential uncertainty. In a sense, humans are so free that they can even disregard their self-interest. (This is the topic of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground.) 

In order to reduce this uncertainty, humans need guiding rules to help them choose. To be moral, one must have free will. Darwin writes that morality consists in being able to reflect on and evaluate one’s actions. He believes that short-term desires such as hunger and lust need to be suppressed in favour of longer-term values. Darwin already clearly identifies the dilemmas faced by a prospective planner.

Morality is needed to support the long-term and overarching goals in the struggle between them and our throbbing egocentric desires. Morality points to our future actions, towards things we have not yet decided to do, and it therefore presupposes prospective thinking and a free will.

An unselfish strategy, which is often unconscious, involves foregoing short-term selfish gain in order to build trust that may lead to future benefits in forms of collaborative outcomes that are more valuable than a quick windfall. Nietzsche puts it that people are selfless because they care about their reputation:

A fixed reputation was formerly a matter of the very greatest utility; and wherever society continues to be ruled by the herd-instinct, it is still most suitable for every individual to give to his character and business the appearance of unalterableness, – even when they are not so in reality. ”One can rely on him, he remains the same” – that is the praise which has most significance in all dangerous conditions of society.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Therefore, being selfless now generally means being selfish in the long run. Such an investment model, where trust is capital, provides a rational explanation of general morality. It is important to note, however, that the reasoning is based on the premise that one is capable of prospective planning. We need to be able to compare the reward that an egoistic choice gives us directly with the value of the opportunities that future trust may offer.

Self-consciousness enables us to reflect on our choices and thus to make moral decisions – this possibility is not available to other animals. Already Darwin notes in The Descent of Man that a moral creature must be able to reflect on and evaluate his actions. Jean Piaget argues that children’s moral values do not derive from following the rules of their parents or other authorities, but from their ability to empathise with others, that is, the ability to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Such a role reversal presupposes that the child has an idea of the feelings of the other. But this is not enough for morality to emerge. If I am to be moral towards you, and not just compassionate, then I must make a conscious choice – I must have an idea of my goal and be able to contrast this with other possible goals. Immanuel Kant says in the third part of Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten that one must see oneself as the origin of one’s principles, without outside influence, in order to consider oneself morally free.

Morality is an ill-chosen and ill-reputed term for one of the branches of generalizing politics, which involves the tactics of the self against itself. In the statements, I am master of myself, I give in to myself, I allow myself, ‘I’ and ‘me’ there are separate – or are they not? One could simplify the moral analysis to a determination of whether the distinction between these two pronouns is real or fictional.

Paul Valéry

To be moral, therefore, requires self-consciousness and free will – to be able to distinguish between ‘I’ and ‘me’ as Valéry puts it. Animals are not moral because they cannot consciously evaluate their actions. For the same reason, we generally do not assign morality to young children, because we understand that their inner world is not yet sufficiently developed for them to make conscious choices. On the other hand, monkeys, apes and children have a sense of being treated unfairly and react accordingly.

Small children also have difficulty thinking ahead and are therefore, in all their sweetness, great egoists. A well-known experiment that has been performed with four-year-olds is the following: The experimenter gives a child a marshmallow and says: ”If you can wait a few minutes to eat it, I’ll give you another marshmallow”. Then the person leaves the room and the child sits there alone with the candy. After fifteen minutes, the person comes back in and if the child still has his marshmallow, he gets another one. Only about a third of four-year-olds can wait. The most interesting thing about the test, however, is that it was followed up ten years later and it turned out that the children who could put off the reward were also the ones with the best school grades. For these children, the inner world was sufficiently developed by the age of four that the glow of the imagined future with two marshmallows was more appealing than the present piece of candy.

Language and the future

Man’s unique capacity for foresight also has consequences for our ability to cooperate. Different animal species can cooperate in many ways. Such seemingly simple animals as ants and bees build complex societies with collective efforts. This form of animal cooperation is instinctive – they have no idea of the goals to which the work will lead. Therefore, they cannot create new goals to collaborate on. My main thesis concerning the evolution of language is that, humans have created symbolic communication as a powerful tool for achieving innovative cooperation on future goals.

Homo sapiens is the only species that use symbols to communicate about what happened long ago, about their plans for the future, and about their dreams. In their natural state, animals do not use symbols. They communicate with signals about what is happening here and now. Unlike human communication, animals seldom check whether their signals are getting through. It takes two to tango – human language is, in contrast, based on an interaction with the person you are communicating with.

The difference between the symbols of a language and the signals that animals use is that the signals are only about what is present in the animal’s environment. Bees only dance immediately after returning to the hive after finding nectar. Vervets only signal when danger is imminent. Neither they nor the bees ever tell each other stories or make joint plans.

The point is that without the help of language symbols, we would not be able to share visions of the future and convince each other that a certain unknown goal is worth striving for. This function is probably one of the most important evolutionary drivers behind the emergence of language. Unlike other theories of the evolution of language, it also explains why humans are alone in having a language, since the ability to cooperate on future goals requires both an awareness of oneself in the future and an advanced ability to empathise with the inner worlds of others. Both of these abilities are most developed in humans.


The increasingly rich inner world of man has increased our awareness and extended our imagination of the future, but at the same time made it more difficult for us to choose. We are increasingly able to reflect on our decisions and judge them from a moral perspective. Moreover, our capacity for prospection means that we need to think not only about the consequences of our choices for the present, but also about how they will affect our future choices. These complex choice situations create a need for meaning, for deliberations that place the various choices in a larger context. 

If I were a tree among trees, an animal among animals, life would have meaning, or rather, the problem would have no meaning, because I would be part of the world. I would be the world, to which my consciousness and my whole demand for familiarity now place me in opposition. It is ridiculous reason that sets me against the whole of creation. … And what is at the bottom of this conflict, this rupture between the world and my thought, if not my own consciousness of the world?

Albert Camus

 The text builds partly on material from my book Den meningssökande människan (The Meaning-seeking Human), Natur & Kultur, Stockholm 2006.