Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Aug/10

22

Apocalypse Now (Please)

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I’ve long suspected that amongst those who believe that the apocalypse is just round the corner, a certain vanity may well be at work – the belief that their time is somehow special.

Now there’s this from Scientific American

Some researchers think that apocalyptic dread feeds off our collective anxiety about events that lie outside our individual control. The fear of nuclear war and environmental decay that gripped the nation in the 1960s was a big factor in the rise of the counterculture, says John R. Hall, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, and author of Apocalypse: From Antiquity to the Empire of Modernity. In this decade, civilization has suffered through even more fundamental threats. “After events like 9/11 and the Great Recession, as well as technological disasters like the BP oil spill, people begin to wonder—not just people who are fringe zealots or crazies—whether modern society is any longer capable of solving its problems,” Hall says. If the world appears to be going to hell, goes the thinking, perhaps that’s just what is happening.

The impulse is partially a consequence of our pattern-seeking nature—we are, after all, creatures of the savanna, programmed to uncover trends in the natural world. It is in our nature to weave a simple story from a complex set of data points. (In recent years this tendency has been amplified by news media that are very good at turning complex events into cartoon crises.) The desire to treat terrible events as the harbinger of the end of civilization itself also has roots in another human trait: vanity.
We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species. Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences. This attitude may stem from nothing more than our desire to place ourselves at the center of the universe. “It’s part of the fundamental limited perspective of our species to believe that this moment is the critical one and critical in every way—for good, for bad, for the final end of humanity,” says Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychologist at the University of California, San Diego. Imagining the end of the world is nigh makes us feel special.

Read the whole thing.

H/t: The Daily Dish

11 comments

  • Pangloss · August 23, 2010 at 12:32 am

    You mean… we’re not dead yet?

  • Le Mur · August 23, 2010 at 2:16 am

    SciAm: Some researchers think that apocalyptic dread feeds off our collective anxiety about events that lie outside our individual control.

    You mean, like, “by definition”, dude?

    SciAm: We all believe we live in an exceptional time, perhaps even a critical moment in the history of the species.

    We all believe that?

    SciAm: Technology appears to have given us power over the atom, our genomes, the planet—with potentially dire consequences.

    We have power over our genomes and “the planet”? When did that happen? Or does it just “appear” that way…to whom? Will SciAm drop the AGW hysteria because “we” appear to control the planet? In the meantime, I’m gonna “control” my genome into making me look cuter, or at least “appear” to look cuter.

    SciAm: In this decade, civilization has suffered through even more fundamental threats. “After events like 9/11 and the Great Recession, as well as technological disasters like the BP oil spill,…

    “even more fundamental threats” – that sounds scary! Then, for some reason, he lists several rather trivial recent events rather than mention anything remotely resembling a “fundamental threat”.

    SciAm is pretty worthless nowadays, so I’m not surprised they didn’t mention the idea that the brain’s set up to be false-alarmed rather than complacent because the “cost” of a false-alarm is low, but the cost of incorrect complacency can be quite high (e.g., eaten by the lion the other guy ran away from, but the other guy sometimes runs away when there’s no lions).

  • Mark E. · August 23, 2010 at 6:46 am

    I agree with Le Mur that SciAm has deteriorated. (I stopped reading it a year or two ago, but I had the feeling that it had become politically correct, and too political generally.) That juxtaposition of “even more fundamental threats” with the oil spill and recession (both caused by the greed of big business!) is indeed laughable.

    On the main issue, I think it’s a good point – vanity is a factor in wanting (in a way) apocalyse now. Nonetheless, I’m inclined to think we are living at a time of unprecedentedly rapid technological and social change … and I don’t think my vanity is making me think this.

  • Tal Ager · August 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    On the other hand, some say that there are more people alive today than dead; and if it is an exponential rise in the world’s population that causes the apocalypses, we may be more likely to be alive when it happens than not

  • Apathy Curve · August 23, 2010 at 5:10 pm

    When you get past eating and fucking, there are two things that drive the human animal:

    1) The desire to feel special
    2) The drive for power over others

    Religion and politics offer these, in varying degrees. So too, unfortunately, does modern “science” — or what passes for it nowadays, at least.

    We’re not nearly so far removed from the wild apes as we like to deluded ourselves into believing.

  • Rich Rostrom · August 23, 2010 at 5:40 pm

    Much of the doom-mongering from SciAm and its ilk is fraudulent.

    But there is as yet no proof that this whole high-tech free society thing is sustainable.

    Peak oil is, so far, a false alarm, but someday we will run out of oil. The oceans _have_ been overfished.

    Tech-enabled humanity hits the natural world a lot harder than it used to.

    And it sure looks like crony capitalism and other rent-seeking may devour the productive economy.

    Democratic government _can_ be subverted by kleptocracy and electoral fraud, or break down into civil disorder.

    And with modern tech, things are happening _fast_.

  • Sully · August 23, 2010 at 6:48 pm

    “In this decade, civilization has suffered through even more fundamental threats.”

    I couldn’t bring myself to read any more after that amazing assertion. More fundamental than two superpowers facing off with tens of thousands of nuclear weapons and both prepared to launch on warning, even discounting the nuclear winter hysteria? More fundamental than Hitler with all of continental Europe under his thumb and seemingly unbeatable armies approaching Moscow?

  • Narr · August 23, 2010 at 8:51 pm

    This touches on a broader theme that I find all-too-common among the faithful (but which for some reason they take offense at): the salvationist religions tell people that they’re eternally important. Which is to say, it feeds a natural (IMHO) human vanity, and allows them to parade arrogance as humility.

    And of course, to the historically minded, “ends of the world” are a dime a dozen.

  • Carl S · August 24, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    I completely agree Narr. There is a constant refrain from the faithful who claim their superior humility is demonstrated by their belief in a supremely powerful being who is really very interested in the boring details of their pathetic lives.

    Whereas, since I don’t think I’m uniquely special or that the universe has the slightest bit of interest in me, I’m obviously a self-centered egotist.

  • Snippet · August 25, 2010 at 1:55 am

    When I was about, oh, 13, I read, “The Late Great Planet Earth,” by Hal Lindsey, which convinced me that the Apocalypse was nigh.

    I converted to Christianity and did the hand-waving thing in church, and, for good measure, the pastor got caught having his way with young girls he was “counseling.”

    After a while, it became apparent to me that the Earth wasn’t going to end anytime soon, and I felt … disappointed.

    So, this article intrigued me. I suspect a lot of apocalyptarians just want the whole mess to be over with, and hope it happens soon.

  • Randall Parker · August 30, 2010 at 4:43 am

    Carl, I assert that the universe is uninterested in me most of all. I am unique in the extent to which the cosmic space muffin shows total disinterest in my existence. This of course makes me special.

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