Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The Wrong End of Time

The "Mayan Prophecies" are supposed to predict the end of the world, coming on the 21 December 2012. It's all been worked out, and doomsday is upon us. E. G. Richards states this position fairly clearly in "Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History":

"The Maya believed that time was cyclic and that at the end of a great cycle of 13 Baktuns, the world would be destroyed--only to be recreated for the next cycle. Most scholars now agree that the current great cycle started on Wednesday, 8 September 3114 BC (Julian calendar). This date is based on a concordance of information from various sources: eclipses and other astronomical events dated in Mayan inscriptions; information from contemporary Mayan calendar priests who continue to maintain the calendar to this day; concordances between Christian and Mayan dates recorded by the early Spanish invaders and by the Mayans in writings made after the conquest. The calendar round date of this day is 4 Ahua, 8 Cumhu. The current great cycle will end on Sunday, 23 December 2012. On this day supposedly the world will end. A gloomy attitude would suggest that this is not all that unlikely." (1)

It's interesting that a book written in 1999 puts it on 23 December, whereas most of the more current predictions put it at 21 December, but it just shows what a slippery thing calculations can be when looking at strange calendars and trying to match them up to ours.

And predictions there are in plenty, probably really taking off with the book of 1995 by Gilbert and Cotterell, although the obsession with prediction goes back further to Jose Arguelles in the 1960s.

"The Mayan Prophecies, published by Adrian Gilbert and Maurice Cotterell in 1995, is an international bestseller which revolves around the notions of the end of the world and of revealed wisdom from another sphere. Their claim is, essentially, that in some Mayan carvings, particularly the Lid of Palenque, there are secret messages that can be decoded and understood. Further, the authors argue that the Mayan obsession with calendars concerned cycles of sunspots. They then relate sunspots to dramatic drops in human fertility, and thus explain what they claim is the hitherto enigmatic Mayan collapse. It is all entwined with the Popol Vuh, the sacred Mayan book which can itself be considered an apocalypse of sorts, concerned as it is with prophecy, the past and the future. Based on the Mayan calendar, Cotterell and Gilbert make specific predictions for the year 2012, of the greatest catastrophe that mankind has ever known. We are to expect a reversal of the magnetic field, pole changes, giant floods, submerged landmasses, a drop in temperature. the works. We are entreated to sit up and take note while we still can." (2)

What I can predict with some certainty is that the doomsday merchants, when the promised catastrophe does not materialise, will go away and do some rapid recalculation, and come back with a revised date. Alternatively, they may adopt the strategy adopted by the Jehovah Witnesses that it marks the beginning of the end. Yet another interpretation is that it marks the end of an old cycle, rather like the "dawn of the age of Aquarius" that was so influential in 1960s pop culture.

These are all methods adopted to "immunise" the prediction against failure. We can be pretty sure that the spectacular quasi-science fiction prediction of Cotterell and Gilbert will not come to pass, but any drop in temperature or flooding may be taken as indicators of its truth.

It is a well known strategy that can be seen time and again in non-scientific theories, that instead of a theory being falsified by predictions failing to come true, the theory is adjusted to deal with that problem, thus "immunising" the theory so that it cannot ever be wrong.

What has also been observed by social psychologists, notably Leon Festinger and his associates in their studies on cognitive dissonance, is that when the promise fails to materialise, people who have acted on it (such as making preparations) don't give up the belief, but modify it to retain a consistent belief system, and may even believe it even the more strongly.

The Mayan predictions are, however, comparatively recent rather than ancient. As Professor William Saturno has noted, the Mayans did not have a myth of the end of the world.:

 "There isn't even a myth of the end of the world in Maya mythology," he says. "The Maya talked about multiple creations, but they never talked about the current one ending." The calendar last reset in August 3114 B.C. As Saturno notes, "We know the world didn't end then." Instead, the calendar started a new cycle-one that lasts every 1,872,000 days. For those who then say, "The world is going to end because it's December 21st," Saturno's response is, "It didn't end last December 21st"(3)

What is more is that the Mayan Calendar Long Date began around September 3114 BC, that in all likelihood being the equivalent of Mayan This is not very ancient. Even if we regard the system as cyclical, and another whole cycle before that, we are still a long way off even 100,000 BC, when the Neanderthal man was hunting wooly mammoths from the vicinity of La Cotte de St Brelade. As for the age of the earth, the "deep time" of 4.54 billion years, the Mayan Calendar, long though it may be, scarcely scratches the surface.

The notion of cyclical time has recently been extended to include the Universe, but it is clear that the ancient concept of cycles of time, which we find in Hinduism or in the ancient Mayan calendar system, was clearly related to the earth as well as the universe. That's not surprising, because a geocentric model of the universe was the norm among most ancient peoples.

Of course another form of immunisation is to rework the texts to make them say something quite different. As Dr Shukavak Dasa notes in his Hindu Primer:

"I have seen interpretations by modern Hindus that attempt to show how modern particle theory was known at the time of the Rig Veda, and how this knowledge was secretly inserted into the text of the Vedas. I have seen attempts by modern Hindus to rationalize and reinterpret Puranic cosmology, which holds a geocentric view of the universe and describes the sun as closer to the earth than the moon, to name just a few differences, in terms of modern astronomy." (4)

The cyclical idea was that Earth has no beginning or end. The notion of "time's arrow" or linear time, was an alien concept. That's not to say that cyclical time cannot be extended into the idea of the universe itself going through cycles, but that is clearly not the ancient understanding, where civilisations would rise and fall into barbarism, and rise once more. Catastrophe would wipe out the world, only for it to be reborn. It's easy to see where these ideas came from, for remains of ancient civilisations, perhaps destroyed by floods, earthquake or wars made it look as if a pattern was recurring. And the four seasons and patterns of the stars appeared cyclical, and well-developed time keeping did not develop until the 14th century.

But that's not the way history works. The Earth had a beginning in time, and also a history that did not repeat. Human beings and their civilisations came very late in the earth's history, contrary to the legendary pre-history that we find in tales. Dinosaurs are nowhere to be seen. Evolution of life is unknown. And the ultimate fate of the earth is that it will, in all likelihood, be consumed by an expanding sun as it comes to an end.

In "The Time Machine", H.G. Wells traveler goes to the far future, when humanity has long become extinct, and most of the life on earth has ended. Here is a modern view of the end of the world, based on scientific knowledge:

"So I travelled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, more than thirty million years hence, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless. And now it was flecked with white. A bitter cold assailed me. Rare white flakes ever and again came eddying down. To the north-eastward, the glare of snow lay under the starlight of the sable sky and I could see an undulating crest of hillocks pinkish white. There were fringes of ice along the sea margin, with drifting masses further out; but the main expanse of that salt ocean, all bloody under the eternal sunset, was still unfrozen."

In "October the First is too late", Astronomer Fred Hoyle has a strange world which has split off our own. In this bifurcation, parts of different epochs of the planet are together side by side, with Britain in the 1960s (when the novel was written), and Europe in the midst of the First World War. Over Asia and Russia is nothing but a vast plain of glass, hard, smooth and unbroken. The scientist John Sinclair discusses this with his friend:

`You were talking about the Plain of Glass. Why does it belong so obviously to the future?'
`Because it's been melted, everywhere, smoothly. You know the Sun is going to get hotter and hotter as time goes on. There'll be a stage when the whole surface of the Earth melts, after that the Sun will cool. Everywhere over the Earth here'll be smooth glass. You remember what I said about it's not being etched by blown grit or sand. There couldn't be any sand with everything fused. Besides at that stage there would be no atmosphere, no wind. The Plain of Glass is the ultimate fate of the Earth.'

That is the real end of the world. That's not discounting the possibility that an asteroid might hit the planet and wipe us out as easily as it wiped out the dinosaurs, or that the changing climate may lead to an ecological catastrophe which wipes us out, but probably not the bacteria. But ultimately, the sun will eat her children, and there will be no earth, and no life on earth. It's a one way street.

(1) Mapping Time: The Calendar and Its History. Contributors: E. G. Richards - Author. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of publication: Oxford. Publication year: 1999. Page number: 193
(2) Archaeology and Folklore. Amy Gazin-Schwartz, Holtorf - Editor, 1999
(3) http://bostinno.com/2012/12/11/mayan-calendar-end-of-the-world-december-21-2012/#ss__271599_1_0__ss
(4) http://www.sanskrit.org/www/Hindu%20Primer/hinduismandscience.html


Anonymous said...

They take this stuff seriously, bu tnot literaly in China. See arrested for spreading apocalypse rumours

Anonymous said...

Tony, the end of the world IS the 21st. You can watch it happening live online.