lunes, 27 de septiembre de 2010


2012: Doomsday!
The history of apocalyptic expectation is closely linked to collective forgetfulness. Over and over again, the end of the world has been announced for a specific date. And, over and over again, each one of those specific dates has come and gone, and yet, here we are. By now, a massive list of failed apocalyptic dates should warn us against future specific apocalyptic expectations, and yet, large amounts of people in the Western World still pay attention to doomsday enthusiasts.
The list of failed apocalyptic predictions is simply too long to be referenced here. Although there has been great apocalyptic expectation ever since the days of Jesus, for some time it seemed that the Enlightenment would bring forth an era of secular optimism, and would finally suppress obsessions with the end of the world as we know it. But, soon, the Enlightenment became the very root of secular millennialism, and a new sort of apocalyptic expectation emerged in utopian thought, i.e., Marxism.
Whereas 19th Century Europe became the birthplace of a sort of secular utopian millennialism, 19th Century America became the birthplace of a renewed religious apocalypticism. William Miller and his followers (Millerites) openly expected the end of the world on March 21, 1844, but of course, nothing happened. This became the ‘Great Disappointment’. And, ever since, a wide variety of successive ‘Great Disappointments’ have taken place among American Doomsday cults, over and over again. These failures do not disappoint (perhaps they should no longer be called ‘Great Disappointments’); instead, they are just interpreted as suspensions until a future apocalyptic announcement.
There is, in fact, a major obsession with the end of the world in American culture. And, as a result of globalization, this obsession is easily spreading to other regions of the world. This obsession, of course, is not confined to traditional apocalyptic factions such as Seventh Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. We are also fully aware of doomsday cults that tend to have tragic ends, such as the Branch Dravidians, Peoples Temple or Heaven’s Gate. Actually, the apocalyptic obsession need not even be religious: a major flood of apocalyptic films in recent years deal with secular doomsday scenarios.
For a while, it seemed that the Great Disappointment did leave a lesson: when proclaiming the upcoming end of the world, it would be wiser not to offer a specific date. Indeed, this seems to be the strategy pursued by contemporary apocalypticists, both religious and secular. Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have gone over the board with their very lively Left Behind series, and although they seem to think that the Rapture will come in the not-too-distant-future (perhaps before this very generation passes away), they have been careful enough not to offer a precise date. The same goes for Shiite enthusiasts of the Hidden Imam’s return. Yes, there are signs of the end times all over; but, no one really knows exactly when it will happen.
Secular apocalypse seems no different in this aspect. Yes, global warming, nuclear winter or robots’ rebellions will bring an end to the human race, but, exactly when? No one dares to say. The Millerite lesson has been learned: announce the imminent end of the world, but do not announce its date!
Yet, every once in a while, the Millerite lesson is ignored, and again, a new doomsday date is set. By now, you probably forgot about 1988: according to Edgar Whisenant, the world would come to an end that year, and he even offered 88 reasons for it (it is hard not to see a publicity stunt in the number of reasons!). You might remember, however, the Y2K bug a decade ago. Planes would crash, the international bank system would collapse, wars would be fought as a result, etc. Another Great Disappointment came forth.
The Y2K bug, however, was unique among the rest of the Great Disappointments. The threat (if there was ever one) was secular: mankind had not measured the consequences of technology use, and then we would expect dire consequences. But, in as much as it coincided with the start of the third millennium (actually, the start of the millennium was the year 2001, but little attention was paid to that crucial little detail) the Y2K bug expectation was not wholly secular. A great deal of Christian factions have expected the start of the millennium (Christ’s 1000 year-reign before the final battle with Satan), but prior to that, the Great Tribulation is expected (a seven year period that witnesses the rise of the Antichrist). It did not take a long time for some people to figure that the imminent Y2K chaos would be a signal for the beginning of the Tribulation. In a sense, the Y2K bug expectation was the first conjoined religious and secular apocalypse.
Apocalypticism is mostly Judeo-Christian-Islamic heritage. Apocalypticism presupposes linear time: History began at some point, and History will also come to an end. Many historians of religions acknowledge that linear time is mostly a Biblical invention. Although cultures not influenced by Biblical apocalypticism have often made some predictions of coming catastrophes (e.g. Norse mythology’s Ragnarök), this is not a major theme in their folklore. But, in the same manner that some Christian fundamentalists made use of the secular Y2K bug expectation, today many Christian and secular apocalypticists are making use of an alleged Maya prophecy: the 2012 phenomenon. And, just as the Y2K bug was the first conjoined Christian-secular apocalyptic expectation; today the 2012 phenomenon is becoming the first conjoined Christian-secular-neopagan apocalyptic expectation.
On December 21st, 2012, a cycle of 5125 days will come to an end in one version of the Maya calendar. Doomsdayers see this as the end of the world. It is far from clear that, under the Maya conception, the end of the 5125-days cycle will bring about the end of the world. In fact, it seems much more likely that the Mayans believed that at the end of the cycle, another cycle would begin. Consider this analogy: our calendars for 1998 came to an end on December 31st, 1998; that does not mean that the world would come to an end on that date, it only meant that a new calendar would be in use. Contemporary Mayans certainly do not interpret December 21st 2012 as the end of the world. For them (most Mayans even prefer the Gregorian calendar), it is just the end of the cycle, and the beginning of a new one.
But, let us suppose that, indeed, the Maya calendar does announce the end of the world, and indeed, contemporary Mayans are preparing for doomsday. So what? Should Western scientific secular rationality even care about what an ancient civilization believed? Why should the Mayans be credited with knowledge of the future? If we are willing to discredit Hal Lindsey’s idiotic apocalyptic announcements in The Late Great Planet Earth, shouldn’t we do the same with the Mayans (if, at any rate, the Mayans do accept December 21st, 2012 as doomsday)? Although Mayan culture survives today among the inhabitants of Mexico and Guatemala, their civilization notoriously collapsed in the 9th Century. Would the Ancient Mayans be any good at predicting the end of the world, if they could not even sustain their own civilization?
There is, of course, a long tradition of attributing great knowledge to ancient cultures, especially non-Western cultures. I suppose this is part of what Eric Gans calls “white guilt”: Europeans and their descendents feel embarrassed about what their ancestors may have done in the Americas (it is rather strange that contemporary Mayans do not generally feel ashamed of what their ancestors may have done; e.g., human sacrifice), and one way to cope with their guilt is to attribute great wisdom to pre-Columbine peoples. Ever since Tacitus, there has been a tendency to romanticize the Noble Savage. The 2012 apocalyptic expectation is part of this trend. Under the doomsdayers’ vision, we Westerners have despised natives, but they will have their final say: prepare to meet thy end!
Ever since Bartolome De las Casas back in the 16th Century, many Christian missionaries have attempted to see a form of primordial Christianity among non-Christian indigenous peoples. De las Casas believed that Native Americans were one of the lost tribes of Israel, as would later do Joseph Smith. Something similar seems to be going on with 2012 doomsday expectations. Christian and post-Christian Western apocalypticists interpret the Maya calendar in terms of the long apocalyptic expectation of Christianity. And, in as much as they attribute ancient Mayans with a doomsday prophecy, they make ancient Mayans resemble early apocalyptic Christians. Thus, in a sense, the 2012 phenomenon is a conjoined Christian-pagan apocalypse.
But, that is not all. In our secular era, you needn’t be a Christian or a Maya enthusiast to believe the world will come to an end on December 21st 2012. A plethora of secular pseudoscientific beliefs also support the idea of imminent doomsday. Planet Nibiru will collide with Earth on that doomful day. The scientific community agrees that such planet does not even exist. However, 2012 doomsdayers claim that Nibiru was in fact discovered by the Sumerians, and that NASA and conventional scientists are pursuing a massive conspiracy to conceal the imminent catastrophe. Apparently, such beliefs are not very different from lunar conspiracy theorists and the like.
Other 2012 doomsdayers believe there will be a geomagnetic reversal that will result in major catastrophes. Although such reversals have taken place in the past, they have not been sudden events, and there is no evidence that such a reversal would cause catastrophes. A wilder theory holds that there will be a polar shift. The Earth’s axial tilt is 23.44 degrees, but this theory expects a much greater axial tilt, to the point that Antarctica would be near the equator, and North America would be the new North Pole. Again, scientists acknowledge that the Earth’s axial tilt may increase, but at the rate of 1 degree per million years. Nothing special is expected for December 21st 2012.
It is true that on December 21st, 2012, there will be an alignment of the Sun with the galactic equator. But, scientists assure us that this is nothing special. The galactic equator is just an arbitrary line designed for our purposes of enquiry. No special effect should be expected from this alignment.

The Clausewitzian Apocalypse
Clearly, the 2012 apocalypse is massive nonsense. It may be fine entertainment, and as such, blockbuster movies such as 2012 are not entirely blameworthy. However, it is quite sad that TV networks that purport to be scientific, such as The History Channel, perpetuate 2012 doomsday speculations.
But, we shall ask: is all apocalyptic talk nonsense? René Girard thinks not. In what appears to be the closing book of his career , Achever Clausewitz, Girard tackles apocalypticism, an issue that was latent in his previous work, but was never really fully developed. And, indeed, through a reading of the work of 19th Century military genius Carl von Clausewitz, Girard comes to consider that the apocalyptic message is very urgent.
Girard (2007: 21) would agree that most (but by no means all) apocalyptic talk is dangerous nonsense: “The only Christians that still talk about apocalypse are fundamentalists, but they depart from a totally mythological idea. They believe that violence during the end of days will come from God Himself… They do not see that the violence that we are amassing on our own heads has all qualities necessary to set the worst. They do not have any sense of humor”.
The New Testament is filled with apocalyptic passages. Jesus’ sayings as recorded in the gospels (especially the Olivet discourse in Matthew 24; Mark 13 and Luke 21) announce terrible things to come. The epistles of Paul also have an ardent apocalyptic message, and the most controversial piece of all Biblical literature, the Book of Revelation, is thoroughly apocalyptic.
Indeed, as Girard warns in the passage cited above, most contemporary Christians interpret these Biblical passages in terms of imminent divine wrath, and a dualist cosmic battle between God and his elected few on the one side; and Satan, the Antichrist and the forces of evil on the other side.
According to Girard, these Christians have gravely misunderstood the book of Revelation, and the Christian apocalyptic message in general. The Greek word Aποκάλυψις means ‘revelation’. And, as such, an apocalyptic message purports to reveal a message. Thus, apocalypticism need not proclaim a violent God. It only proclaims a revelation. Under Girard’s view, the message revealed in Biblical apocalypticism is not God’s wrath, but rather, a warning about the dire consequences of uncontrolled human violence. The Olivet discourse and the book of Revelation are not warnings about God’s imminent intervention wipe out sinners; they are warnings about what will become of humanity if we continue our current trends of violence.
Girard believes that Christianity has made scapegoating ineffective. Before the spread of Christianity, cultures could solve their violent strife with a scapegoat mechanism: conflicts would come to an end as communal violence was transferred upon a scapegoat accused of transgressing some prohibition. But, in as much as Christianity defends victims, Christians begin to appreciate scapegoats as such (i.e., as not guilty), and the scapegoat mechanism no longer works. Girard believes that, as a result of Christian influence worldwide, communities cannot employ the scapegoat mechanism as they used to, and they no longer have an easy way of putting an end to violence. The apocalyptic message is a warning about the inefficiency of scapegoating. In as much as scapegoating no longer works, violence among human beings becomes a major threat. The only way to avoid doomsday is to lay down our weapons and stop becoming obsessed with our enemies. Otherwise, the apocalypse will be inevitable.
Girard appreciates Calusewitz as a sort of apocalyptic genius. The great Prussian general understood that, beginning in his time, war would no longer be a matter of gentlemen, but rather, a crude, inhumane, brutal activity. Clausewitz wrote in the context of the Napoleonic wars, and these were the first ‘total wars’, i.e., wars fought regardless of the extreme consequences. Ever since, successive ‘total wars’ have been fought, and mistakenly, some people hold Clausewitz responsible for the brutality of World War II. It is a matter of debate whether Clausewitz in fact desired ‘total wars’; but under an interpretation favored by Girard, Clausewitz was more of an apocalyptic announcer than an actual advocate.
Clausewitz also realized that military confrontations arise from reciprocity and escalations, and Girard appreciates in Clausewitz a forerunner of his theory of mimetic desire. Girard interprets Clausewitz’s famous dictum that war is a continuation of politics, as a warning that, in a world touched by Christianity, not even politics is an efficient means to contain violence. Girard draws a conclusion that Clausewitz did not reach: the only way to contain violence is to avoid destructive mimetic desire.
Clausewitz, no doubt, is widely misunderstood. And, I find Girard’s analysis very enlightening. Girard has a negative tendency to project on past authors his own views, but I think he is justified to do so in Clausewitz’s case. However, I find Girard’s interpretation of the Christian apocalypse very dubious.
Girard refuses to accept what seems to be a plain historical fact: contemporary Christian apocalyptic fundamentalists closely resemble early Christians and Jesus. It seems to me that Girard’s portrayal of the historical Jesus is erratic. The most plausible portrayal of the historical Jesus is that he in fact was an apocalyptic preacher that believed God’s wrath was imminent. Jesus does not appear to warn that human violence would bring forth the apocalypse; when he said something like “The Son of Man will send his angels and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 13: 42), he meant it quite literally; i.e., God’s violence will come. We would need a very forced interpretation (as Girard sometimes attempts to do) not to appreciate the plain appeal to divine violence in Jesus’ words. Nowhere in passages such as the one previously cited, does Jesus imply that apocalyptic violence will come from man and not from God.
Most secular historians would accept a variant of Albert Schweitzer’s portrait of Jesus: a failed apocalyptic prophet that was awaiting divine violent intervention. To claim that Jesus did not expect God’s imminent wrath is simply to ignore the historical setting. A century and a half before Jesus, the Maccabee motivated apocalyptic expectations. The expectation of an intervening wrathful God encouraged fierce resistance against Seleucid occupation. By Jesus’ time, Roman occupation had once again motivated an apocalyptic expectation that encouraged patience and resistance in the face of suffering. Most historians would agree that Jesus was a disciple of John the Baptist, an ardent apocalyptic teacher (again, John plainly seems to preach imminent divine wrath, not an apocalypse brought forth by mimetic rivalries). And, there is little reason to suppose that Jesus would not continue his teacher’s conception of apocalypse.
The book of Revelation seems to be no different. The themes, symbolism and structure of the book offer very few hints that its author intended it to be a warning about uncontrolled human violence. I find it much more plausible that Revelation is a book written in the face of Roman persecution, and it invokes a violent God. Its purpose is to encourage early Christians to resist just a little more, because God will soon intervene and put an end to all suffering, as the wicked will finally be punished. The Whore of Babylon, the seven hills, the number of the Beast, etc., are all clear references to Rome. The purpose of such symbolism is quite evident: there will be a cosmic battle, and God will defeat Roman imperial power in a spectacularly violent manner.
I think primitive Christianity would be more in tune with the Left Behind series than with Girard’s Les choses cachées despuis la fondation du monde. Contrary to what Girard seems to believe, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ apocalyptic leanings closely resemble those of Jesus and early Christians. Girard would be ashamed of a Jesus that preaches imminent divine wrath. And, indeed, he should be, for doomsday cults and sects are thoroughly irrational. But, we cannot adjust the historical facts to our preferences and desires. Girard is a superb philosopher, but I do not think he is a good historian of early Christianity or a New Testament critic. Girard does a marvelous job at warning how mimetic rivalries may lead us to an apocalypse of human violence, but I think he is wrong to attribute these views to the Gospels and the book of Revelation.
Thus, I would agree with Girard that apocalyptic talk is not necessarily nonsense. The world will not come to an end on December 21st, and the threats of polar shifts and Mayan prophecies are idiotic claims. But, there is plenty of room to argue that there is an apocalyptic threat. Girard thinks that that threat is violence among human beings, and violence against the environment. Unlike polar shift, this is no joke. We have been warned (although, again, I do not think the New Testament makes such a warning); it is up to us.

The Doomsday Argument
I would like to consider an apocalyptic book by a contemporary philosopher, John Leslie: The End of the World. Leslie’s book resembles Achever Clausewitz, in as much as it is a warning about the potential threats for human existence. However, I believe Leslie’s book is more interesting than Girard’s; Leslie is much more analytical and makes no appeal to divine revelation.
Girard’s apocalypticism is, in a sense, a posteriori. His warning about the end of the world is empirical: Girard has observed some empirical facts (mimetic desire, mimetic rivalry, scapegoating, the effect of Christian culture, etc.), and he has drawn the conclusion that, if we continue this path, the world could come to an end sooner than expected. Leslie’s apocalypticism is both a posteriori and a priori. Very much as Girard, he makes some empirical observations, and draws the conclusion that there is a latent danger for humanity’s existence. But Leslie believes that even if no empirical facts about destructiveness were to be known, we should still expect humanity to be short-lived. Thus, out of pure thought (i.e., without empirical observations), he has developed an argument about the extinction of humanity. This argument has been called the ‘Doomsday Argument’.
The argument goes roughly as follows: consider the total number of human beings that will ever exist, and consider the order that you occupy in the successions of human beings that have existed and that will ever exist. Now, consider the so-called mediocrity principle: in the same manner that you should not consider that the planet where you live is the center of the universe, you should not consider that your existence exceptional in any way. Now, if you accept the mediocrity principle, you should not consider yourself special in the order of human beings that have lived and will ever live.
After taking these premises into account, now consider two possibilities: 1) humanity overcomes major threats, colonizes other galaxies, and becomes extinct trillions of year from now; 2) humanity becomes extinct in a few centuries. If you accept the first possibility, and humanity survives for trillions of years, then your order would be exceptionally early in the succession of human beings that have lived and will ever live. But, by the mediocrity principle, you should not consider yourself exceptional. In other words, it is not likely that you are a very early or a very late member of the human species; probability would dictate that you are somewhere around the middle.
By most estimates, humanity has been around 200,000 years. If, by the mediocrity principle, you are probably not exceptionally early or exceptionally late, then you should assume that your position is around halfway in the course of humanity’s history. Thus, if so far humanity has been around 200,000 years, then maybe it still has 200,000 years more of existence.
However, we should not make calculations in terms of years of existence, but rather, in terms of the number of human beings that have existed. By most estimates, the current human population is about 6-10% of all humans that have ever lived. If the current demographic growth rate continues, then humanity would meet its end in a few centuries. For, even if we are currently halfway in the number of human beings that will ever live, current demographic growth would dictate that in a matter of a few centuries, we would reach the total number of human beings that will ever exist.
Let me try another line of argument, appealing to a thought experiment popularized by Leslie. Suppose two urns are placed in front of you. Both urns have numbered lottery balls. One urn has 10 balls (numbered from 1 to 10); the other urn has 1,000 balls (numbered from 1 to 1,000). However, you do not know which urn has 10 balls, and which one has 1,000 balls. Now, suppose that you draw a ball from the first urn, and it is numbered 7. Would such an urn be likely to have 10 balls, or 1,000 balls? Common sense would indicate that, most likely, the urn would only have 10 balls.
This thought experiment would be an analogy of human population. Instead of two urns, consider two hypotheses: the total number of human beings that will ever exist can be estimated by billions, or by trillions. When ball number 7 is drawn, common sense dictates that it is more likely that there are only 10 balls. In the same manner, when we consider how many human beings have existed so far, common sense would indicate that it is more likely that the number of human beings that will ever live can be counted by the billions, not trillions.
Most people immediately reject this argument, but it is not easy to pin down what is exactly wrong with it. In this, the doomsday argument resembles Zeno’s paradoxes or Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God: they seem plain absurd, but critics have a hard time refuting them.
Perhaps a parody, or a reductio ad absurdum, is in order here. Cro Magnon could have used the doomsday argument to conclude that humanity would become extinct very soon. A Cro Magnon could have thought about the number of humans that had ever lived, and he would have concluded that the species would soon die out. Perhaps I should even consider that I do not have much time left: I could either live half a million more minutes, or 45 million more minutes. In as much as I have already lived 15 million minutes, it would be more likely that I would only live half a million more minutes; hence, I would not be around a year from now. So, if Cro Magnon could have used the doomsday argument, and yet, he would have been clearly wrong (as humanity has surpassed that expectation), then we would also be wrong to use the doomsday argument.
Be that as it may, the doomsday argument has produced massive rebuttals and defenses. It is not my pretension to settle the discussion either for or against. However, a clarification is most needed: the doomsday argument does not pretend to fix a date for the end of the human species. It only points out that it is highly probable that the world might come sooner than what we might traditionally expect.
Thus, in a sense, the doomsday argument is not absolutely fatalistic. Although we are aware that probabilities are against our prolonged existence, we may use this knowledge to do something about it. In fact, that is the intention of Leslie’s The End of the World: once we understand that there is a probabilistic risk, we urgently need to take measures. And, very much as Girard, Leslie considers some of the risks threatening our survival as a species, and urges to do something about them.
Girard believes that the most relevant apocalyptic threat is human violence itself, and Leslie would agree. Although the Cold War is over, nuclear war (either accidental or deliberate) is still a latent danger. Or, at any rate, if not nuclear war itself, then presumably the effects of nuclear war (e.g., a nuclear winter) could also bring about our demise. Some scientists assure us that nuclear war, although disastrous, would not be sufficient to wipe out humanity. But, regardless of whether or not we survive nuclear battles, it is surely a terrifying threat.
Aside from violence among us, we human beings also have the terrible potential to bring forth our own extinction. Regardless of whether or not global warming is in fact generated by human beings, we do have the capacity to destroy the environment. Perhaps our technologies can grow out of control; e.g., nanotechnology may produce self-replicating minute robots that, in a matter of days, could consume the whole planet. Perhaps careless genetic engineering may set a global pandemic out of control. Perhaps robots surpass us in intelligence, and wind up turning against us. And so on. Obviously, if these scenarios are human-generated, then we do have the opportunity to avoid them.
Girard seems mostly concerned with threats that come from human being themselves, but we must not leave aside apocalyptic threats that do not come from human actions. A few secular apocalypticists (Nick Bostrom, Martin Rees) have warned about them: perhaps a meteorite or asteroid could impact our planet; perhaps gamma rays would affect our atmosphere; perhaps we are invaded by extraterrestrials. Even if these threats are not human-triggered, we could still attempt to evade them through some sort of technological prevision.
The 2012 phenomenon is pseudoscientific gibberish. But, usually, pseudoscientific claims force us to reconsider our current understanding of science. And, indeed, the alleged 2012 doomsday should be an invitation to consider what our real apocalyptic threats are. Time is running out.

Works cited

Bostrom, Nick. “Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards”. Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol. 9, March 2002 Retrieved:
Bruce, Alexandra. 2012: Science or Superstition? The Disinformation Company. 2009.
Gans, Eric. “White Guilt, Past and Future”. Anthropoetics, 12, No. 2. Winter 2007.
Girard, René. Des choses caches depuis la foundation du monde. Paris: Librarie Generale Francaise. 1983.
___________ Achever Clausewitz. Paris. Carnets Nord. 2007
Leslie, John. The End of the World. London: Routledge. 1998.
Rees, Martin. Our Final Hour. New York: Basic Books. 2004.
Schweitzer, Albert. The Quest for the Historical Jesus. New York: Fortress Press. 2001.

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