Can we at least learn something from this Mayan apocalypse mumbo jumbo?

The failed Mayan apocalypse ramblings could be a positive awakening for humanity, but it won’t be. Read on for why I’m not optimistic.

Sorry but I can’t not talk about the supposed Mayan apocalypse hubbub. I just think that we can learn some lessons from this whole thing. I mean, we laughed at Harold Camping for his absurd pronouncements about the end of the world last year (twice as the math was slightly off).

For starters, the Mayans never made such a prophecy. Even if they did — so what!? The obsession with what the Mayans may or may not have said/thought seems in part to be due to the romantic (false) notion that ancient societies were in some sort of wonderful place, in harmony with nature and the cosmos.

My basic premise

Claims such as those made about a mysterious Planet X destroying the Earth or any other apocalyptic ramblings fail because those making/believing such claims are arriving at conclusions from a faulty epistemology.

Check this list of failed predictions of apocalyptic events (Wikipedia).

Remember, ancient peoples were ignorant of many basic facts that we take for granted today. In fact, you only have to go back a few hundred years to see how primitive our collective human understanding really was. It wasn’t long ago we had no idea of: the germ theory of disease; sun centered solar system; expanding universe; DNA and heritability; evolution and the origin of species; radio waves; electricity; gravity… We were blind to so much.

Misconceptions galore — A Primer on Knowledge

A claim I was presented with recently went as follows (paraphrasing):

“At one time, the research of the day showed that the Earth was the centre of the universe”.

I hear similar statements from people quite a bit. The idea that science is somehow flawed because our understanding of the world was primitive at one point is really unconvincing.

Claims such as “the Earth is at the centre of the universe” stem from primitive intuitions based on limited data — such claims come before research is done.

Remember, science isn’t a “thing”. The word is a noun for a process of fact checking and observation. At one point knowledge on a subject is minimal. The scientific method helps us grow a body of reliable knowledge and increases our understanding. This is what makes science a reliable and valid epistemology.

Therefore (and this is the key point): Human understanding improves over time.

That means, we cast off that which is shown to be false and accept that which we find to be true.

Science has allowed us to open our eyes, lift the veil of ignorance and reveal a world that rich and wonderful and even more important — science has shown us that it is comprehensible, even to our limited brains.

“But science changes over time”

Wrong. Knowledge changes over time. Science is just the method we use to acquire knowledge/discard hypotheses. This is a good thing.

The Mayans had a primitive understanding of reality

The Mayans, like all ancient cultures were superstitious, attributing all manner of natural phenomena to gods and mystical beings. Human progress has been a long history of superstitions being replaced by real knowledge and understanding.

I think we can learn some valuable lessons from these facts about our collective understanding of the universe in which we live, and yet another failed end of the world hypothesis:

  • Knowledge improves over time.
  • The process by which we accumulate claims has changed: We now can produce reliable information about reality through validation and testing.
  • Ancient cultures did not validate claims through a stringent process of checking facts.
  • They didn’t have sophisticated tools to investigate reality and therefore couldn’t be expected to ask better questions.
  • Ancient cultures were largely ignorant of basic facts about the natural order.
  • Ancient cultures did not have privileged information that we don’t know now (as much as we would like to romanticise and claim they did).

Ergo… We must ask ourselves, “How does the ancient claim/philosophy square with our understanding of nature today?”

Ignorance and default thinking

People can still choose to believe that lightning is still mandated by higher powers and that cyclones and earthquakes are sent by gods but this thinking is now optional. When people didn’t know better they defaulted to the supernatural claim. That’s just part of being human.

Conclusion — why nothing will change

If human knowledge improves over time then we can’t look back into the deep past and expect to see great understanding of reality. Even if an ancient culture claimed something about today, that isn’t a reason to believe it (again the Mayans didn’t make an apocalyptic claim, people interpret it that way today).

Here is a prediction: Those invested in the Mayan apocalypse nonsense will probably not change their beliefs even after yet another failed attempt to predict the end of the world. That is just human nature, cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias in action

What we will see is more ad hoc justifications on and beyond 22 December 2012.

Then the next craze will hit town and the we will be entertained/bemused at yet another prediction stemming from flawed epistemology and more lame justifications.

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