The end is not near
January 4, 2015 8:08 PM   Subscribe

 
Great concepts and links, though the first link doesn't really deliver. The obvious answer, aside from that we always believe it is the End of Days, is, I think, from Keynes: "In the long run, we are all dead" - deep time is geological, not personal. We can do plenty to ruin life on earth for us in our lifetimes, even if we don't actually ruin the earth.

Two recent(ish) books on the subject of deep time that might be interesting, in different ways. First, in SF, Alastair Reynold's House of Suns is a great deep time story from the author who does deep time better than anyone else. And in nonfiction, Zalasiewicz's Earth After Us examines what traces our civilization will leave in 100 million years.
posted by blahblahblah at 8:16 PM on January 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


Teleology remained outside science when much of what we learnt from Newton was supplanted by Einstein, and most scientists today suppose it ought to be gone for good. As a result, Nagel was crucified. But was this swift reaction yet another consequence of our short-sightedness?

No, it's because the book fucking sucks and uses wishful thinking as its guiding principle
posted by Greg Nog at 8:21 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


The eventual proton decay and heat death of the universe is the only thing that keeps me going in the morning. That and coffee.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 8:30 PM on January 4, 2015 [28 favorites]


Because life is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing?

That or the boot stomping on a human face, forever.

These are the answers one has when it's Sunday night.
posted by fifteen schnitzengruben is my limit at 8:38 PM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


One of the reasons that I quit smoking was that I suddenly realized that 43 years isn't a very fucking long tme, especially if I was going to be dead in 20 years.
posted by double block and bleed at 8:42 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


People have always believed that the end-times are at hand, because people project the sense of their own inevitable decay and demise onto the world as a whole. Also because Sarah Palin was nearly elected.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 8:52 PM on January 4, 2015 [14 favorites]


Sort of a bait and switch there in the Aeon piece.
posted by batfish at 8:58 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Its not just that "In the long run, we are all dead", it's that we'll also be forgotten billions of years before it all gets wrapped up.

We're minuscule drops in a vast ocean of time.
posted by blue_beetle at 9:02 PM on January 4, 2015


Also relevant reading:
Dystopian Fiction’s Popularity Is a Warning Sign for the Future

"Far future science fiction (usually meaning about 10,000 years from now) is the most optimistic [sci-fi] subgenre because it assumes humanity will still be around in some recognizable form."

I admit when I read the title of the Aeon piece I hoped it was more about this– the fact that more near-future sci-fi that skirts climate change seems to be most popular right now. Interstellar has a more dramatic time-span but still avoids dealing with climate change.
posted by melissam at 9:02 PM on January 4, 2015


"All looked after by machines of loving grace."
Richard Brautigan 1950
posted by Oyéah at 9:02 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


What a Capt. Buzzkill the author of the first link's article is. I was just beginning to climb out of my depression over all the destruction that humanity has wrought, and now the author wants me to dwell on how that destruction will continue into the distant future. Uh, nope. For my own sanity, nope.

I wish the "best" for most life, including humanity, but the basic fact is that once I'm gone, I no longer get to watch. It may be nice to consider the possibilities of what may happen, but I'm merely guessing.

However, I think it's worth noting that humanity doesn't have a singular reaction to this fact. I'm not out to grab it all for me while I'm alive. I'll live out my remaining time trying to do what little I can to make life better for the beings of the future after I've assured myself of my basic needs. Many people react oppositely. (I'm not saying one attitude or another is "better." I'm merely pointing out that I find the fact that so many human's reactions to the same concept can vary so markedly is interesting to me.)
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 9:17 PM on January 4, 2015


Interstellar has a more dramatic time-span but still avoids dealing with climate change.

What about all the dust storms?
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:17 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Because humans, by some bayesian reasoning may not be around for that long, geologically speaking. (Linking to XKCD instead of Wikipedia for ease of reading.) (InsertNiftyNameHere, you may want to skip that)

In seriousness, I think that people accept, but do not really understand deep time. I know that I am someone who has spent quite some time thinking about it, and to me a million years might as well be a billion when thinking into the past. I know which is bigger and by what magnitude, but I don't have a sense of the difference. The closest I can get is the cosmic calendar and even that fades quickly.

As a species we don't deal well with huge numbers.

All that said, I think that the Aeon article was a bit weaksauce.
posted by Hactar at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2015


I think it was George Carlin in the 90s that made the observation about the 'Save the Planet' T-shirts that sums up my belief: The planet has been here for billions of years. It is a self correcting organism. It will be here long after we are gone - even if we wreck it, it will heal in time. The shirts weren't really 'Save the Planet', they were 'Save Ourselves' T-Shirts.

So yeah, I can easily accept deep past, but I can't look to the future and not think we're more capable of self harm through stupidity and short shortsightedness as viewed through the lens of something that comes after us in a similar fashion to the way we view dinosaurs.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:27 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


We should at least let Nagel come down from the cross long enough to explain more fully the teleological view that he thinks might be needed to give consciousness a place in nature.

HE HAD AN ENTIRE BOOK TO DO IT IN, AND IT WAS BAD

HE WAS OFF THE CROSS WHEN HE STARTED, DUDE
posted by Greg Nog at 9:33 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Doris Lessing's Shikasta and the series that followed it was good for medium-depth time exploration. She focuses on the depths of the human past, and not so much on the future, but I thought it was organic and very human.

I agree with East Manitoba RJKC '94 above that as we get older we project our own demise onto the future of whatever we care about.
posted by sneebler at 9:46 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, if these strings. Wait. Geology is part of the. Not quite. Newtonian physics is just tossed. But.

History up to the elbow.
posted by clavdivs at 9:48 PM on January 4, 2015


Our imagined futures are shallow because we've strip-mined the earth to depths of miles, ensuring that no future sapient species will ever match our "progress." Oh, I guess in theory a geologic timescale could see new veins of precious elements rise to within reach of our newly sapient cousins a billion times removed, but most likely this will not happen before Sol evolves off the main sequence onto the giant track.
posted by infinitewindow at 10:01 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Eon by Greg Bear is pretty good.
posted by Nevin at 10:10 PM on January 4, 2015


Not really.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:17 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I found the premise of the article to be a bit annoying. If the author has a teleological or some other better way to view the "deep" future then he should just come out with it. Of course it will be rejected by the academic community like just about any new idea is, but who cares. If he or Nagel feel confident that they have something, maybe they will be vindicated by scientists and philosophers in the deep future.

I agree with those who predict human life will continue on for millions of years. Considering evidence of past mass extinctions, it seems likely there will be huge catastrophes resulting in massive suffering and rapid reductions in human population, but I think it is unlikely the entire planet will become completely uninhabitable in that time frame causing the species to go entirely extinct. That doesn't mean we shouldn't be doing a lot more to stop the ecological destruction we are now causing.

Even half the humility of Darwin will lead you to see that there might be aspects of reality we’ve not yet evolved the ability to handle intellectually.

This I agree with strongly. It seems that academic culture could do with a lot more humility and less assholishness. But perhaps most scientists refrain from answering "big" questions and imagining the "deep" future because of their humility, and it is only the guys making big names for themselves talking about the singularity and saving the world from religion or whatever, that we have this impression.

"Humanity—barely shaken awake from the old majesty of dead mythologies—wildly runs blindly through the same forest of explanatory fantasies."
--@BrokenDasein

Maybe it is not the same forest, but I think reductionist materialism (and there is no other kind) fails to explain consciousness and possibly life. When it tries to, it becomes today's mythology or explanatory fantasy. And as mythologies go, it kind of sucks. It reminds me of Mr.Hart in WSB's Ah Pook Is Here routine, "It must be one thing or the other. I's all very simple."

Not that I support a teleological approach at all. I think we go as far as we can with efficient causes, in the Aristotelian sense, and that's that.
posted by Golden Eternity at 11:18 PM on January 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Vacuum Diagrams?
posted by aramaic at 5:06 AM on January 5, 2015


The author does have a point about the impact of the Bible. The Pursuit of the Millenium details how pretty much every group exposed to the Bible over the past thousand years has become convinced that they are living in the End Times, the most important times that have ever been. It's an intoxicating idea.
posted by clawsoon at 7:02 AM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


I would think our imagined futures are shallow simply because humans are terrible at predicting the future for all sorts of reasons; it's an entirely different activity from understanding the past, deep or shallow, and I don't understand how one could consider these activities remotely comparable.

Also, some quick googling suggests that that Aeon piece is a basically big ad for the author's books, which (I'm probably mischaracterizing to some degree) try to pitch looking forward into "deep" time as one aspect of a sort of religion called "ultimism" that (he argues) can escape many of the arguments against conventional theism. So there's some back story there.
posted by advil at 8:00 AM on January 5, 2015


Golden Eternity: ...but I think it is unlikely the entire planet will become completely uninhabitable in that time frame causing the species to go entirely extinct.

That's not the usual way that species extinctions happen. Of the nearly seventy Hominidae species that we know about, for example, only seven are around right now. There have been a few ice ages during that time, but no disaster to make the earth "completely uninhabitable". Just the usual process of species being replaced by other species.

We can be replaced, too. No end-times disaster is required.
posted by clawsoon at 8:08 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]




every group exposed to the Bible over the past thousand years has become convinced that they are living in the End Times, the most important times that have ever been.

Well, maybe they're right if we're talking "deep time" here. Every human born in the past ten thousand years is living in exceptionally important historical times, during which our species has rapidly gained its mighty technological powers that have radically transformed the nature of life on this planet.

I mean okay, maybe it's not as exciting as the K-T extinction event would have been, but it's the biggest deal for millions of years. Not that the ice ages weren't fun, I'm sure, but by now we're surely into something more interesting. Something which is if it's not near its end, is at least near a major turning point where Man and his Machines stop taking over more and more of the earth, and either perish or find something better to do.
posted by sfenders at 8:15 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


But perhaps most scientists refrain from answering "big" questions and imagining the "deep" future because of their humility

In a sense yes - because it's not their job. Science is a methodology that accumulates knowledge through experimentation, observation and generating testable hypotheses - it's just not a useful toolset for this sort of issue. It's a pretty good bet if you want to do useful things like discover a cure for a disease or find out the underlying structure of the universe though.
posted by sobarel at 8:21 AM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


Well, maybe they're right if we're talking "deep time" here.

People seduced by eschatology generally aren't thinking about deep time. :-) They're thinking about "within my lifetime", or maybe "within a few years", or even 88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988.
posted by clawsoon at 8:23 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


destruction will continue into the distant future. Uh, nope. For my own sanity, nope.

I'm pretty convinced that the 'end times are nigh' thinking is, in very large measure, a way of quelling and dealing with anxiety. If time is going to march forward for millions to billions of years, there is a near infinite number of things to worry about. If The End more like 10-20 years off, the amount of things to worry about between now and then is far more manageable.

On a related note, I had a friend who, when overwhelmed with worry and anxiety, found the only thing that would calm him was walking in a cemetery. He eventually found a career in the funeral business for the same general reason. At the time I couldn't understand why this helped, but I think I'm beginning to . . .
posted by flug at 8:31 AM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


or even 88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988.

A lot of my Mormon friends are only just now getting over the idea that the Millennium would begin in 2000. The math of 4000 years from Adam to Christ plus 2000 years from Christ to the year 2000 makes 6000 years=6 days (by the formula 1000 years = a 'celestial day' or whatever they call it) and now we get our Sabbath (ie the 7th Celestial Day=another 1000 years=Millennium). For a few years it was still possible to believe that there was some kind of rounding error in the 2000 calculation and it was still going to happen. Even now I'm sure there are plenty of folks coalescing around the idea that it will be 2000 years from Jesus's death; after that passes there will be another recalculation ad infinitum.

FWIW when I took a religion class at BYU back in the early 80s, one day the instructor polled students on when they thought the world would end/Millennium start, agreement in a date right around the year 2000 was very, very close to unanimous. Only one out of a class of about 60 dared broach the idea that *even according to the Church's own stated doctrine* no one knows the day or the time--and mentioned a number of previous dates earlier LDS folks had believed in just as fervently. But when your very name prominently includes the words "Latter-day," and pretty much your entire doctrine is based around preparing for the end times, it's pretty hard to keep that type of thinking down.
posted by flug at 8:45 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


Well the thing is, sooner is later the people saying we're living in the End Times will be right.

Civilizations come and go, networks of trade collapse into barbarism. The climate changes, local environments no longer support cities, and those people's disappear, leaving little more than stone monuments. It's happened before, and given our trade networks are global, it makes sense that when the next collapse happens, it will be global.

Also given how we've used up ready supplies of easily worked metals and dowels, it's quite probable that the next civilization will have a much harder time getting resources. They may find it impossible to ever regain our heights of civilization. And then of course, in the passing of deep time, humanity will go extinct.

The world is littered with the remains of civilizations that thought they weren't living in the End Times. To think that we're different is massive arrogance.
posted by happyroach at 8:55 AM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not really sure what the point of this is. He's asking us to speculate more about the future. Pretty sure we do that all the time -- in physics, geology, and astronomy, for example, there is a great deal of speculation about possible distant futures. Science fiction is replete with imaginings of futures (and Star Wars style futures in the past). Other fields, such as biology, don't really benefit from the long view.

In any case, speculation about the future is necessarily limited by our current conceptual understanding (from the past) and therefore of limited value in projecting forward more than a very short distance in any system of even moderate complexity. So this does seem like a call for more science fiction, or else it's a (seemingly fatuous) call for more lengthy extrapolation from existing physical, geological, or other scientific theories, which I think scientists would engage in if they felt it were practical.
posted by haricotvert at 9:09 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


we've used up ready supplies of easily worked metals and dowels

Are we really short of dowels? If that's a sign of End Times, I'm going to hoard them.
posted by librosegretti at 9:25 AM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


Well - it's not as if science doesn't have anything to say about the distant future (seriously: 10^1000 -- that's TEN GOOGOLYEARS!)
posted by symbioid at 9:28 AM on January 5, 2015


If we're out of dowels,
that's it,
I'm throwing in the towels.
All of them.
posted by symbioid at 9:28 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


So when I showered this morning, I was using the end towels?
posted by Naberius at 9:45 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


No matter how many dowels you use when assembling something from Ikea there are always a few bags of them left over to vex you. That's probably where they've all gone.
posted by sobarel at 10:04 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


That's probably where they've all gone.

Now there's a hoopy frood who knows where his dowel is
posted by Greg Nog at 10:26 AM on January 5, 2015 [5 favorites]


Also given how we've used up ready supplies of easily worked metals

I think you mean, "concentrated them nicely in handily workable deposits that follow a suspiciously regular pattern".
posted by MartinWisse at 12:11 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


Here's some end times stuff for you: civilizations have come and gone but so far none have been at risk to run out of phosphorus. Intense recycling could provide some relief if implemented widely before the stuff has all been mined, deployed and washed into the oceans.
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:02 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


We can be replaced, too. No end-times disaster is required.

And of course, if we crash our civilization by way of ecological catastrophe followed by resource and migration wars, famine, etc, it might actually prevent our being replaced -- it takes a pretty big and stable technological culture to advance computer science to the degree it's going to take to create our AI successors.
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:08 PM on January 5, 2015


Golden Eternity,

There are definitely non-reductive and anti-materialist positions out there--in fact, dualism about the mind is probably better subscribed by philosophers than at any time in the 20th century--but I think you'd find most of those views as arid and "reductive" as the other stuff you don't like. You might check out Evan Thompson. He has a view that the mind is a kind of processual aspect of persons.
posted by batfish at 4:17 PM on January 5, 2015



If we're out of dowels,
that's it,
I'm throwing in the towels.
All of them.


*sigh* And one day, ages from now, Swype will actually let me get through a past without fucking it up. And then we'll really know the Ebbs Times are here.
posted by happyroach at 10:58 PM on January 5, 2015


The imaginative paucity of our futurism was the subject of a good recent installment of Backstory.
posted by Miko at 12:35 PM on January 6, 2015


> civilizations have come and gone but so far none have been at risk to run out of phosphorus. Intense recycling could provide some relief if implemented widely before the stuff has all been mined, deployed and washed into the oceans.

From your link:
Sewage treatment plants accumulate almost 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of phosphate a year per resident.

In today's sewage treatment plants, the phosphates end up in the sludge, which is then heated in mono-combustion plants and is often buried in landfills as ash or baked into concrete -- together with its valuable fertilizer component.
Landfill - the strip mines of the future. Inadequate for large scale use perhaps, but if you take a long enough view, even the Phosphorus in the oceans will eventually come back when sedimentation traps it and creates new veins of ore.

If you take a long view, even oil is renewable, maybe in millions, maybe merely hundreds of thousands of years. The main danger (from our limited viewpoint) is that Homo sapiens may not be the species that benefits. So perhaps it's worth the effort to survive that long.

But one thing is certain. If we stay here, our lifespan is at best the lifespan of the Sun, and probably not even that long. The technology required to survive the death of the Sun is more than enough to take us to the stars - so why wait that long?
posted by Autumn Leaf at 11:29 PM on January 7, 2015


The technology required to survive the death of the Sun is more than enough to take us to the stars - so why wait that long?

Because the more experience we have in getting to live in space, the more apparent it becomes that escaping Earth is a foolish dream. We're too adapted to our environment-living in space will always be too expensive and difficult to be worth it. Maybe someday we'll create a creature that can live and thrive in space, but it won't be human, any more than humans are fish.
posted by happyroach at 12:35 AM on January 8, 2015


Materialists will continue to be tormented by apocalyptic nightmares, and idealists will continue to be tantalized by dreams of bliss.
posted by No Robots at 11:06 AM on January 8, 2015 [2 favorites]


No Robots, I think you've got "tormented"and "tantalized" switched there.
posted by happyroach at 10:12 PM on January 8, 2015


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