As with many studies in the history of ideas, the main thing is to bear in mind that concepts are a reflection of the culture/epistemology from which they arise and they change as that culture changes. As a result, it’s important to remember that the meaning of words change, even if the words themselves don’t. This is true whether you look at the ideas of intellectuals or the beliefs and understandings of ordinary folks (usually harder to find since most folks didn’t leave published works behind).
Much of how we think about the future these days is a product of the modern mentality, by which I mean a sense that the future is, if not definitively knowable, then is at least is plausibly conceivable by use of causal analysis and (often) probabilistic thinking (usually implicit). Perhaps the most common demonstration of this is weather forecasting. We all get to complain about erroneous forecasts even as we enjoy the confidence of knowing what is (likely) to come. It’s no coincidence that this developed in the late 19C shortly after statistical analysis emerged and just as some literary authors started to apply rational extrapolation to the technological developments of their age, producing the first recognizable science fiction. Jules Verne takes pride of place here; followed by H.G. Wells.
Another example of how this period was crucial to our modern sense of taken hold of and controlling the future can be seen in the rise of conscious urban planning in the mid-19C, although even then, it seems that “planning” was more focused on remedying existing problems than planning for how cities appeared to be evolving. For example, in designing the first comprehensive London sewer system in the 1850s (the largest public works project of its era), the engineers didn’t even project that the population to be served would grow much.
The 20C saw not only a burgeoning of future-oriented science fiction, but the rise of planning, scenario construction, and contingency planning on an organized and rational basis. This has taken place primarily within the context of larger organizations, usually businesses or governments, of which the current work around projecting and preventing the impacts of climate change are the most prevalent exemplar. We are now used to all sorts of projections about how the world will be in the future. Indeed, we could say that the future is now part of the present to a degree not known before the 20C. Much of this is built around technology and the extrapolation of recent trends.
In earlier times (although with some continuation even in the 21C), the future was spoken of in terms of either revelation or some mode of prophesizing. These notions are embedded in our culture and are difficult to shake off, whether from the Bible or Nostradamus. Simply stated, the future was unknown, and faith in deities sufficed to explain the workings of the world. The hints from divine sources, whether in Revelations, Kabbalah, the visions of seers or sorcerers, or various mythological systems, would be studied as the basis for seeing what lay ahead.
By the same token, all manner of omens and signs were considered as guides. Astrology, inferring a terrestrial pattern from the alignment of the heavens, was the most developed. However, as late as the mid-18C, the great French Encyclopédie discussed about 70 methods of divining the future (even as it was proclaiming the rationality of human thought which was the core of the Enlightenment).
All of these show that we look to what explains the present to also explain the future. Humans are hungry for psychological security; to have a sense of order and the potential for control over their lives. Feeling like we know what’s coming is comforting (and potentially profitable or otherwise beneficial) and we’re often willing to pay commentators and consultants to tell us “what the future holds” (and all too rarely actually check on whether their predictions prove accurate).
Of course, we can never know what’s coming. Nothing is inevitable. But, with the rise of probabilistic thinking and statistics in the 19C, the future began to seem more knowable, or, at least, that we could have a pretty good guess (better than reading chicken entrails) based on extrapolating trends. In this way, we can see how the “Scientific Revolution” of the 17/18C slowly permeated the mentalités of modern men. Science promised stability, replication, and confidence in results through the application of reason. Partially through technological developments, partially through mathematical/statistical thinking, partially through repeated demonstration of its form of “knowledge”, we have come to expect things to happen in ways which we can plausibly and reliability (if not with certainty or utter faith) predict.
As we have come, over the past several centuries to understand how the world works, there is less space for mysticism and religious cosmology. The future (i.e., how we see it) is a place where the world has become more confident, and more secular.
Still, past practices take a long time to change; social habits die hard. Most of us still partake of mysticism (do you ever “knock on wood”? Or pray for a future other than that which seems likely?).
In the 21C, big data and AI promise even more certainty (or at least the appearance of certainty). However, as a historian, I will split my bets. I will read SciFi to stimulate imaginings of possible futures, read sophisticated scenarios for the near-future, I check out the weather reports; but I will always leave a space for contingency and the butterfly effect because, you never know….