Is the End Near?

Since I am writing this and you are reading it, the world seems to still exist in spite of recent claims that the end was here. When you saw the billboards announcing the end of the world, did you decide it was true? Probably not, but why not? This post is about decisions. How did you decide the end was not near?

Philosopher David Hume long ago observed that even if you have seen the sun come up everyday, and know from history that it has come up as long as records have been kept, that you have no logical reason to assume absolutely that the sun will rise tomorrow. Nonetheless, I bet that you are more confident the sun will rise tomorrow than that the world will cease to exist on the date the next person of note predicts. Why is that?

In this series, I sometimes post puzzles based on a pretend Earth ruled by logic. For example, a castaway lands on an island known to be inhabited by two tribes; one always tells the truth and the other always lies. The castaway meets a native at a fork in the road and wants to know the way to the nearest village to get help. How can he find the right path by asking a single question? (Only one question is permitted in these puzzles.) The normal answer assumes only logic. It is more interesting to ask what is the purpose of telling a lie. Do the liars want to conceal the truth or respond logically? If they are perverse and want to conceal the truth, then the puzzle cannot be solved exactly. The best one can do is ask the native if he knows there is free beer in the village. Then he can follow the native to town, or if the native sees through the ploy, at least know the native thinks he might be missing free beer.

Real decisions made in our real world are more complex than purely logical ones. Real decisions always involve probability. The probability of the sun will rise tomorrow is so high based on past observations, that we accept it as a proven fact regardless of Hume’s warnings.

All this brings us to one of the basic problems of philosophy. What is the nature of the world in which we make decisions? Some philosophers assume the world we experience through our senses is an illusion. The “real” world can only be accessed through non-sensory means. Others are agnostic about an underlying reality different from what we sense. This argument over duality has raged for millennia.

Prophets who predict the end of the world belong to the school that believes in (at least) two worlds. Knowledge of the coming end is transmitted to them in some way from the ideal world to our everyday world. For instance, a prophet might hear the voice of God warning of the end. For that person, the warning seems valid, but to everyone he/she warns, the relayed warning is sensory data and should be judged as such. The probability that someone who predicts the end of the world on a particular day is insane or lying is much higher than the probability that it will happen.

This is so obvious we wonder how anyone can believe end of the world predictions, yet it happens.

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_4FJWKBQPQMOYZGQTYWQPNLLOZM Tfamily

    The person who said that about the world ending was “supposedly” basing things on the bible. To get a more accurate reading from a biblical perspective if anyone read the bible themselves they would know and read this from St Matthew’s gospel chapter 24 verse 36:
    “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
    .. so in the end.. I guess the guy skipped over that verse in his bible…

    • http://twitter.com/geekgirlfri Melinda P.

      Everyone in my church kept talking about this, and you’re not the first person I’ve seen comment on it. It reminds me of Luke 10:21, where Jesus talks about God hiding things from the wise and prudent, and revealing them unto babes.

  • Anonymous

    The doomsday folks are just a half-bubble off plumb IMO.

    But what you’re talking about is something we “Preppers” call the “Normalcy Bias”. Water has always come from the faucet, so it always will. Food has always come from the grocery store, so it always will. I have always had the freedoms guaranteed me by the United States Constitution, so I always will, and on, and on.

    Compared to World History, or even that of the United States, our lives are short. Since we have never known anything different, we tend to believe things will always be the same, aka “It can’t happen here!”. While a total nuclear exchange or an asteroid hit are highly unlikely, it remains to be seen how all of the other smaller events (political, natural, terrorist) will effect our quality of life in the future.

  • William Morgan

    Thanks for the article – I am going to jump in and try a few of those apps.

    Funny I had a meeting with a senior user yesterday, showing him the sound recorder app in Windows 7 for dictating as well as Dropbox for file sharing. Made me think – people can really set themselves up with a lot of good stuff without having to invest anything but than their time.

    Love that anecdote about the recycling of old hardware using Linux. Great work.

  • http://twitter.com/Egehead Cindy Solberg

    I, too, tried a “Fabulous Freebies” class. Ended up with people who didn’t know how to use the Internet and therefore didn’t find the apps valuable. The result was that we spent a lot of time on the different search engines and how to use advanced search options within them.