The End (some waffling)

25 April, 2008

We live at the end of the world. Within a number of decades, everything we know and love will be gone.

We have the benefit of being able to look back in time. There are traces of events that happened over 13 billion years ago visible to us every day. When you look at a TV screen of static, you are looking at random noise. Some of that noise (maybe 1%) is caused by long wavelength light that has been travelling since almost the beginning of time. Stars in the night sky shine down at us and we see light that emerged from a distant sun in bygone days. Walking along a beach you may come across the remains of an ancient ammonite, or brachiopod. In museums we have carved stone tablets from thousands of years ago. We have copies of copies of copies of ancient manuscripts that we can buy in bookstores.

By looking at all these things from the past we can construct a history. We can imagine what it must have been like to attend the great festivals of Athens, or fight in the armies of Rome. We can piece together what life may have been like for ancient Israelites as their religion blossomed over the centuries. We can ponder the experiences of Elizabethan playwrights and debate the causes of innumerable wars. Although we can not visit the past it has left a mass of information that we can use. It is an incomplete history that we have, and it is necessarily so. But we keep looking, and gradually our picture of our place in the world becomes a little clearer. We light a candle in the dark.

But then to the future. Unknown and unknowable. We can’t search for evidence from the future and so it remains mysterious, a blank page upon which we can write any future we desire, or any future we fear. Of course we can also do this with the past. We can say that once there was a race of lizard-like humanoid hunter gatherers 150 million years ago, and who could say that we were wrong? Sure there’s no evidence for this, but there are a lot of blank places in history to squeeze random ideas in to. But there are also lots of places where you can’t do that. You could say there was a race of lizard-like humanoids who roamed the American South West in the 1960’s but we have there a place where a lack of evidence really is evidence of a lack of any such thing.

The future also has some aspects we can be confident of. I can be pretty sure that if I bang my head off of a wall it will hurt. We can be sure of where Mars will be in a few decades time. Some things we can predict, including our own demise. No one living centuries ago who predicted that they would one day die was wrong. So if we can predict some things well, can’t we predict other things well too? The world will end for us all soon enough, we will not escape death forever. And yet if we are to die, who is to say that the end is not nigh for everyone? Who wants to think about just their own death, when we can contemplate the destruction of everything and everyone.

Since the development of enough nuclear weapons to destroy all life on the planet it’s been pretty easy to imagine a nightmare ‘end-of-the-world’ scenario. An asteroid impact could wipe out humanity and all major forms of life. Not likely today perhaps, but possible, and a near certainty in the long run. Religious groups of all sorts have often claimed to know the date of the end of the world. The Jehovah’s Witnesses have famously predicted that the end would be nigh in 1914, 1915, 1918, 1920, 1925, 1941, 1975, 1994 and on and on. Their excuses for being wrong each time are interesting, and follow the same logic as many other groups whose predictions fail to come to pass.

Nonetheless, eventually, though it may be millions of years from now, humans will no longer walk upon the Earth. So when imagining the future if we stick with the bleak view, the view that extends our own mortality to the whole of humanity, things can be depressing indeed. What way to escape the end of the world? One way is to leave this world behind, not as the Gnostics would have us do by throwing off our physical bodies, but by travelling to the heavens and bringing our humanity with us. The colonisation of other worlds is something that will be incredibly challenging. Other than perhaps Mars, we don’t yet have the technology to do such a thing right now. But unless we want humanity to die in the cradle in which it was born, someday, we will have to go to the stars. The Pleroma awaits us.

One Response to “The End (some waffling)”

  1. popscience Says:

    STOP IT!

    You almost plunged me into a pit of despair if it wasn’t for the caveat “though it may be millions of years from now”.

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