Sunday, January 4, 2009

What Do We Do if the World Doesn't End?

I dreamed that the world was crumbling down We sat on my back porch and watched it (Jesus is knocking on the door of your heart, eh) I dreamed that the buildings all fell down We sat on my back porch and watched it I dreamed that the world was crumbling down We sat on my back porch and watched it -- Matchbox 20, "Busted" (that's right, bitches, Matchbox 20) I'm about three credulous Nostradamus specials away from declaring The History Channel "The Bullshit Channel." Seriously. There's some sort of weird end of the world zeitgeist going on right now that's perfectly understandable, but also the exact sort of place where con artists who want to peddle bullshit show up and play the role of experts The worst thing is, too, that it's a horribly transparent form of charlatanism. But it preys upon four human tendencies: 1. We want to believe there's a pattern. 2. We want to believe that someone knows the pattern. 3. We want to believe that we're recipients of the great gnosis of the pattern. 4. We want to believe that we're the most important people ever, and there's no one more important than the witnesses to the end of the world. There's an overarching tendency that must be understood, too. For some strange reason we want to believe that the people who came before us were a hell of a lot smarter than we are, and way smarter than they actually were. At the very least, we want to believe that they were possessed of the same level of knowledge we have now, but without the vocabulary to describe it.. This is a key concept. So we end up with stupid shit like The History Channel's Nostradamus 2012. I've been looking forward to this show for, like, a month because I apparently enjoy getting pissed off at these things. And so but anyway, here's the deal: We all know about the Mayan 2012 prophecy thing. Basically, the Mayans (who, I've learned over the last hour, not only knew that we're all a part of the Milky Way galaxy, but that there's a black hole at the center of said galaxy) had a super-awesome celestial calendar. That calendar ends in 2012 on December 21st. We all know that Nostradamus was a flawless prophet who knew lotsa shit. For instance, he predicted death, plague, and famine in the future. Oddly enough, nobody remember Nostradamus's brother Billy, who predicted several centuries of endless parties, excellent weather, and that the women of every generation would get hotter and hotter and have lower and lower standards (although with cosmetic surgery, easier lifestyles, and alcohol, maybe that's not hard to believe). Finally, we know that the masons, like, knew everything. And they put it in to the surface of buildings. So when you see, say, a bull and an eagle and a lion and a man on a church it has nothing to do with Biblical imagery, but the use of the same imagery to say something completely different. But, really, it's extremely hard to debunk crap like this. There's too much required background explanation and so much circular logic that simple explanations fail miserably. It's easier to simply explain the mentality and let reason take over. Let's start with what I (and most westerners) know best: Biblical Revelation. There's lots out there on Revelation. I used to have completely logical sounding discussions about how John of Patmos might have been trying to describe helicopters when he told of armored locusts with the faces of men. There's stuff about an angel throwing a mountain in to the sea and destroying a bunch of shit. This is obviously a reference to nuclear weapons. Or meteors. It kind of depends on who you're talking to. We were constantly prepared for the end of the world. Now, we weren't ready in any sort of useful way, since the people most worried about such things believed in the Rapture and, to be perfectly honest, don't give a shit about the world we live in, anyway. So predicting the end was a hobby, kind of like me sitting around and arguing whether the Mets or Phillies will win the NL East in 2009. I have no rooting interest in either team, but it's an interesting thing to work through. Although I think I care more about the Phillies than the average Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist cares about the world we live in. Either way, it's much easier to explain why the thinking is wrong than explaining how each individual prophecy is wrong. Because that would take forever. And I don't have forever. Besides, some prophecies come true. For instance, Arthur C. Clarke predicted geosynchronous satellites. He did that by extrapolating from science, technology, and desire, however. To the best of my knowledge, meanwhile, we didn't send a manned spaceship to Jupiter in 2001... The new 2012 craze, as I've said, is based on the Mayan calendar and a newly discovered book of prophecies by Nostradamus. The first doesn't mean what most people think it means, the second is, at best, suspect. Nah, strike that. The second is deadly to any predictive desire. See, Nostradamus has the sort of cred usually reserved for the Bible in the realm of prophecy. We're supposed to believe the predictions of the religious greats because they were god's buddies and if anyone knows how it's all going to end, god does. There are about a million problems with this line of reasoning. I'll try to narrow it down to just a few. First, at least as far as the Bible is concerned, god is remarkably indecisive and capricious. He decides to destroy Sodom & Gomorrah, for instance. Abraham shows up and says, "Hey, what if there are some righteous people there?" God considers this possibility and destroys Sodom & Gomorrah after rescuing Lot and his family. Later prophets work under this system and basically say, "Hey, god's going to destroy you unless you leave your wicked ways." Consider Amos and Jonah, wherein god predicted but did not send ruin. Consider the reign of Hezekiah, when a return to god averted ruin. So why are we so certain that Revelation predicts a hard and fast ruin? Second, a lot of Biblical "prophecy" is after the fact. There's a remarkable passage in the book of Daniel about a goat with one horn coming from the west, conquering the east, and then losing that one horn and having it split in to four. The one horn was Alexander conquering the Persians and the four were the successor states. Although I was never quite able to wrap my head around that one, since I always counted Macedon proper, the Seleucids, the Ptolemys, and about three or four minor successors and came up with either three or a half-dozen, never four. Either way, this is a crazy prophecy. However, it was most likely written much later than the book of Daniel under his name under an ancient practice that basically amounted to stealing someone else's good name to make your own stuff seem better. It would be great I could accurately predict the White Sox are going to win the World Series in 2009. It doesn't count to predict that they're going to win it all in 2005, though. However, if you don't know that tendency, you get an overinflated sense of the accuracy of predictions. Nostradamus, however, doesn't even have that going for him. All he's got is a legion of admirers who believe that he was brilliant. Oh, and he's got really shitty specials on The Bullshit Channel that report his predictive abilities and at no point during a two-hour broadcast bother to devote a single minute to a skeptic, beyond a couple of those, "Skeptics might say..." sentence constructs. Anyway, here's a far from exhaustive list of things you'd need to believe to make the 2012 prophecy thing real: 1. Nostradamus and the Mayans knew that we're in a galaxy about three or four hundred years before we developed powerful enough equipment to develop the modern understanding of the construction of the universe. 2. The Mayans knew that there's a black hole at the center of the Milky Way galaxy. 3. The Mayans and Nostradamus knew that there's a planetary cycle lasting 26,000 years that coincides with the sun rising through the center of the Milky Way galaxy. The Mayans also knew that each 26,000 year cycle coincides with a period of great upheaval. 4. Nostradamus knew similar things and put them down in a series of cryptic pictures (not quatrains, as is his usual M.O.) in a book that was only recently discovered in some sort of crazy coincidence. 5. Nostradamus had a similar problem to John of Patmos in that he had no ability to accurately describe the things he accurately saw. So a city of modern skyscrapers becomes a field of crystal or something like that. 6. That weird guy who walks around dressed like Nostradamus actually has something valid to say. 7. People from a few hundred to a couple thousand years ago were deeply, deeply brilliant and possessed of a great need to send a message forward in time to us, right now, about the inevitable end of our world. Seriously, the money quote from Nostradamus 2012 was something to the effect of, "Why would people build entire civilizations just to send us a message?" They wouldn't. It's that simple. There's that old question: if people are actually able to psychically predict the future, why doesn't anyone use that to get tomorrow's lottery numbers or bet on the horses? It's what I would do, that's for damn sure. People have been predicting the end of the world pretty much from the point when there were people who had the ability to predict things. People have also been self-centered enough to believe that the world would end on their watch and everything has been leading to that point. Prophecy doesn't tell us about how our world will end. What it does is let us look in a mirror and say, "We really need to get over ourselves." Make another, better world. Start looking to the future instead of the past. It's really for the best.

6 comments:

Fiat Lex said...

How come this gets a science tag, by the by?

That point you made about people wanting to witness the end of history, and thereby become important, totally reminded me of Ishmael. (That version only has the first twelve chapters, but it's still good!) And you're right on. People get this idea or this belief that mankind is inevitably fated for fiery doom. So part of our natural curiosity makes us want front-row seats for the big show!

I know what you mean about the history channel. The old man only used to watch it when there was something about Romans, like their crazy plumbing or the siege of Masada. Or the Ark of the Covenant, when he wanted to laugh his ass off. It shouldn't be so hard to find freaking science on TV.

Speaking of which, we've started recording old episodes of Scientific American Frontiers, starring your host, Alan Alda. The first one was good watchin' and I have high hopes for the series.

Nostradamus was a tool. His quatrains were freaking cryptic schoolboy clevernesses that happened to be quadrilingual and full of puns and still rhymed. Even looking up translations of his stuff is as frustrating as trying to read Mark Danielewski's second book.

I swear to the everliving dog, it would be so damn easy to generate a cult following for any crazy thing right now. Anything that doesn't involve too much driving, leastways. Our stupid lack of culture has left millions of poor people with very few spare resources emotionally adrift and ready to glom onto anything that offers a little self-esteem.

Geds said...

First, I put it under science because part of the discussion hinges on the difference between astronomy and astrology.

Second, Scientific American Frontiers is awesome. I used to watch it when it was on channel 20 on Monday nights. Some of it is getting dated, but it's still good. Alda's glee at getting to see and experience new things makes the show.

Third, I'm suddenly remembering In Search Of..., narrated by Leonard Nimoy. That was a great old show about all the random, unexplained crap out there. I'd rather watch it than the crap that's floating around now.

Anonymous said...

It doesn't matter how stoned I get; those Nostradamus shows are still dumber than me. His brother Billy, on the other hand, sounds like he's got some good info. For example, when the same thing that happened to Jenna's over-surgeried face is going to happen to her boobs. That's news I can use.

suzy-q said...

But you're missing the most important thing. That which has been bothering me since I first saw this Mayan prophecy of doom: The world is going to end on my birthday. My 34th birthday. It's very upsetting. Who wants the world to end on their birthday? Not me. Stupid Mayans.

That Nostradamas thing is on our DVR. I don't know why. I certainly didn't record it.

Geds said...

Oh, no, I've been aware of that for a while. It was really the only part of the whole deal that made any sense to me...

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