Waiting for Another Apocalypse

Many of you will know that the 21st of December is a date that has great significance to eschatologists. Now, while you might think “Why do I care about people who sing ‘bee boop doodly oop’ to Jazz?” I’m actually talking about people who are interested in studying the eschaton (Wikipedia), the end times or the last days of humanity. Most traditions have an end of the world event contained within but what happens after that moment varies far more widely than the ‘world will end’ event that most have ancient writings for. Some believe that great transformation will occur to unite all of humanity, some believe that there will be some sort of giant shift in consciousness and some believe that it will mark the end – as was so amusingly illustrated in that recent scientific tract from John Cusack, “2012”.

There is a fundamental point here that, of course, that when you have two or more conflicting claims, and the claims are mutually exclusive, that in the absence of any other evidence you can say that at least one of them must be wrong. It’s also worth noting that even where you have agreement on something, if it isn’t supported by evidence, there is no guarantee that anyone is actually right. Can we say that everyone is wrong? No, of course we can’t, and this is where situations like this provide an excellent way to talk about controversial but important facets of human thought with students, without having to actually try to control or undermine their existing sets of faith and belief. But, given that most of our students are now aware that they have lived through at least two predicted calamitous eschaton events prior to now, the next one provides an opportunity to look at how information, belief and culture interact.

The December 21st date is mostly related to the Mayan long count and the end of this particular b’ak’tun, a period of 144,000 days. However, Mayanist scholars note that interpreting this event as the ‘end of the calendar’ is not accurate and, apart from anything else, the Mayans referred to events beyond this date. (If you’re convinced that the world is ending on Tuesday, then making a note to pick up your shirts on Thursday is either absent-mindedness or a lack of conviction.) Basically, yes, the end of the 13th b’ak’tun may have been noteworthy, a matter for celebration, but far more along the lines of the Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jef re-uniting for a Y2K music video than the harbinger of the eschaton. The problem is that, much like pyramid power and magic water, it doesn’t take much fuel to get certain engines running and it would be fair to say that a group of people have run a very long way with the idea that the end of the world is coming in less than a month.

We all handle the eschaton in our own ways. Will Smith apparently stands above it.

However, looking around, it’s pretty obvious that this is not a mainstream belief although it is widespread information. We have had a number of these dates come and go, Y2K itself was one of them if you happened to be a millennialist, and some groups have more than others. It’s understandable that there is now some accumulated cynicism about this particular date, although we do have enough perceived knowledge penetration into the mainstream community that Hollywood was willing to bankroll cinema that combines conspiracy theory, Mayan calendars, eschatology, and some particular bizarre politics and ethics in the movie “2012”.

Breaking this down, we have the Mayan Calendar, which provides a date that we can map into our calendar and it appears that this date was noteworthy, in some way, but we don’t get anything else because the Mayans tended to record historically, rather than prophetically. That the 13th b’ak’tun is going to end soon is a fact, and let’s assume that everyone has done the correct adjustments for calendar shenanigans in the Western/Christian calendar. Where we have records of Mayan prophecy, they don’t make a big deal about this change. In fact, if anything, they were completely aware that a cycle had preceded this one and they certainly hoped that their world would continue into the next one. This is where I like to start a discussion about data, information and knowledge, after a rather contentious hierarchy that could be claimed by many (Ackoff springs to mind although Wisdom is, unnecessarily and confusingly in my opinion, added on top. I cite Quigley most often, but Sowa also discusses it well.) The data of the Mayan 13th b’ak’tun is the total number of days from the start of that cycle, which is 13*144,000: 1,872,000 days. By itself, if you gave someone that, they have a value but no structure, no context and no way to use it. Putting it into the Mayan Long Count format gives us Now, with structure, we can see that we have 13 b’ak’tuns, 0 k’atuns, 0 tuns, 0 uinals and 0 days. Much like turning 730,500 days into 2000 years (I didn’t do this precisely, I just multiplied by 365.25, before anyone checks), we now see structure and we have some context for the value.

What we do not yet have is any understanding of how we would use this in order to make significant decisions and, as such, there is now knowledge implicitly associated with this that could tell us anything other than “this is a date with a lot of zeros”. After all, if your car odometer flips over to 20,000 miles/kilometres, that is merely a figure with a lot of zeros, unless you can associate this with a servicing schedule that says “come in when you hit 20,000”. Once we have correctly contextualised the information in a way that we can make decisions, we have knowledge. This is a great opportunity to talk with students about things like occult or secret knowledge, where great weight is placed upon the hidden or ritual knowledge of lost or ancient cultures, because of a perceived significance of a greater wisdom from these older cultures. (And this is the foundation of conspiracy theory, where wisdom is associated with occult knowledge of what the faceless they are up to. Not knowing these secret facts makes you a rube, or someone whose opinion may be discounted. Wake up, sheeple!) Without having to say whether anything is right or wrong, because it is impossible to make strong statements either way in most of these areas, we can look at how numbers (or facts) are placed into structures and how these structures can then be drawn upon and extended in ways that we would interpret as concrete or rational, and in ways where we see any number of reasoning or philosophical fallacies. We can also talk about cultural misappropriation and how the transporting of ideas from one culture to another sometimes just doesn’t work, because we don’t really have enough information or a correct cultural context to make any sense out of it.

Of course, the fallacy fallacy is the great out for everyone here because a fallacious argument does not mean that the idea is, itself, wrong. Thinking about all of this is important because it can help to identify where our facts have been taken up and used in ways that are, ultimately, not really well grounded in terms of their interpretation as knowledge. Certainly in neo-Piagetian terms, students are very prone to magical thinking when they start to learn in a new area (pre-operational) and being able to discuss magical thinking in other areas, even down to notion of mimicry and cargo-cultism, can help to broach the idea that, somewhere in the reasoning process, a leap has been made that is not necessarily supported.

Having said all this, I shall be highly surprised if the end of the world does occur on December the 21st, but I hope that you will understand why I do not publish an apology on the 22nd.

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