All About the Apocalypse
Featuring aliens, memes, and mythology
Is it the end of the world as we know it? The "end-times meme of 2020" has become popular over the last few months, feeding the uncertainties of this precarious year with light-hearted takes on the impending apocalypse.
From Noah's Ark to Avengers Endgame, the idea of the apocalypse has been a cornerstone of human culture for untold generations. Why are we so fascinated by these stories that bring death and destruction? Some stories explore the aftermath of these world-ending events; others show heroes fighting to prevent it. Regardless of the details, the overarching context remains the same: the mass extinction of life, the death of deaths, the loss of life on an unimaginable scale.
In his novel, The Stranger, Albert Camus gloomily writes:
"Since we're all going to die, it's obvious that when and how don't matter."
And yet, the apocalypse presumes to answer the when and how of everyone's deaths, which may be why so many writers romanticize this idea. Death is life's greatest mystery, for once we reach it and know its true nature, we are no longer around to understand it. Death is deeply personal, and yet we all must end with it. The apocalypse brings us together in death; it means that we cross that boundary into the unknown together. We don't leave anyone behind. Maybe we find an unusual comfort in the idea of everything ending together, that nobody will miss out on what's to come.
In Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, he writes about how death is the unifying terror that defines human life.
"…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man." (The Denial of Death, p. xvii)
As we battle our wits to live a life in the face of this terror, we embark on "causa sui," or immortality projects, things that will extend meaning into our lives by ensuring our survival past our biological death. Things like love and art. A book we write that is passed through the generations. A family who will pass down our good deeds. Becker writes about how these projects are mainly symbolic, which is the cause of our condition.
"Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever." (The Denial of Death, p. 26)
Joseph Campbell, whose work on the Heroe's Journey has inspired thousands of fictional works, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, knew this truth as well. In The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers quotes Campbell:
"The secret cause of all suffering," he said, "is mortality itself, which is the prime condition of life. It cannot be denied if life is to be affirmed."
Campbell's work on mythology is similar to Becker's on death. We use stories to survive. In the book, Moyer brings up the similarities of mythological stories across cultures, to which Campbell replies:
"The images of myth are reflections of the spiritual potentialities of every one of us. Through contemplating these we evoke their powers in our own lives." (The Power of Myth, p. 273)
With the maturation of social media and the internet, our stories are now spinning forth at unprecedented rates. A recent article in Nature explains how social science is going through a revolution, using big data from online sources to analyze society's opinions and behaviors. Those looking at the data today would see new myths and immortality projects, the birth of ideas that infect the minds of those behind screens. They’d see that today's stories are split and divided; we cannot agree on who the heroes and villains are, or what the moral of the story should be.
This failure of shared understanding is the apocalypse we should fear. As I wrote about in a previous essay, fake news and other ideas on these platforms damage our shared consciousness, constricting our ability to expand as a species into a more grounded, mutually empathetic reality. Can an empire divided survive? Note, I am not saying here that we must agree on everything, but that a common ground is crucial, and we seem to be lacking even that.
It's no wonder things seem so apocalyptic. Coronavirus cases continue to spike. Instead of agreeing that Black Lives Matter and that we must find solutions to systemic racism, people are still debating that an issue even exists. Both Becker and Campbell acknowledge humanity's unique predicament in life, but I can only imagine their dismay at seeing our modern failures, despite the tools for progress at our disposal.
The apocalypse can come in two ways, by a random force of nature, or by the failure of human collaboration. I sometimes joke with friends that I can’t accept an apocalypse if it's human-caused. An alien attack on Earth would at least bring final knowledge on our place in the universe, but a nuclear armageddon would be a death caused by human stupidity and ego.
Apocalyptic storytelling is a warning, a way to digest a possible future that condenses the human condition into an unfathomable event by some measures, but one that's also far too possible given the majesty of our species.
So keep the memes alive, watch the movies and read the books. Just know that in our world, we don't have superheroes to save the day. Humanity must wear a cape that inspires us all. As Campbell said:
"We need myths that will identify the individual not with his local group but with the planet." (The Power of Myth, p,30)
Today's essay only scratches the surface of these insightful thinkers and their work. Expect more on these topics in future Multilarity newsletters.
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👽Our Favorite Alien: Those Beyond the Great Filter👽
In other news this month, a new scientific paper proclaims that there are potentially thirty-six intelligent civilizations in the Milky Way Galaxy. Although questions have been raised about the math used in this calculation, I'll use any scientific paper on aliens as an excuse to write about the possibilities of extraterrestrials. In an article in Wired, Daniel Oberhaus writes about how the Drake Equation (the formula used to predict the number of alien civilizations), hinges upon the number we use to decide how long these civilizations survive.
"Humans have only had radio technology for about 100 years, and in that time we have also created existential threats like nuclear war and climate change. How long will human civilization last? It depends on how we handle the dangers we pose to ourselves."
Do you see where I'm going with this? The discovery of extraterrestrial life is intricately connected to the idea of the apocalypse.
The idea of the Great Filter is credited to Robin Hanson. His 1998 paper on the topic is filled with mind-bending ideas that are still relevant today. In short, Hanson writes about how our lack of communication with other intelligent aliens may cause room for concern. He devises of the Great Filter, which he explains as steps in the evolution of a civilization that enable it to reach a point where it can colonize the cosmos. The problem, though, is that we don't know if the lack of these cosmos-spanning civilizations are due to filters in our past or our future. If it's in the past, it might be the formation of life itself, its rise in complexity, the development of intelligence, or these factors together that make species like ours extremely rare. Thus, the cosmic void is due to humanity being a stroke of luck.
The fear is that the Great Filter is in front of us, that a number of alien species reach a point similar to where humanity currently stands, but that eventually, they end up collapsing from within into apocalyptic death, thus keeping the galaxy and universe empty around us. In a paper a decade later, the philosopher Nick Bostrom provides a brilliant take on the topic, writing about the existential threats humanity will certainly face if we do find other life in the universe. In his exploration, he writes:
"A disconcerting hypothesis is that the Great Filter consists in some destructive tendency common to virtually all sufficiently advanced technological civilizations. Throughout history, great civilizations on Earth have imploded—the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization that once flourished in Central America, and many others."
Alas, he is not convinced that internal strife alone can be the cause, saying that:
"Perhaps the most likely type of existential risks that could constitute a Great Filter are those that arise from technological discovery. It is not farfetched to suppose that there might be some possible technology which is such that (a) virtually all sufficiently advanced civilizations eventually discover it and (b) its discovery leads almost universally to existential disaster."
Sounds familiar? A combination of powerful technology and global conflict may be all it takes to end our civilization for good, which would explain Fermi's Paradox and the absence of aliens in our lives.
At the end of his paper, Bostrom discusses the attitudes people may have towards those searching the skies for answers to these big questions:
"There may be no signals from space, yet those with their antennas tuned to more anthropomorphic wavelengths are sure to pick up a buzz of social signaling in people's attitudes towards the search for extraterrestrial beings. Such social background noise might in fact be one of the main obstacles to intellectual progress on many big picture topics."
This "social background noise" sounds eerily like the fake news, bots, and polarization spreading across our digital communication networks.
Hopefully, we can make positive changes and bring clarity to the noise. But if the apocalypse occurred today, we can at least be thankful that the memes will make us laugh until the lights turn off for good.
For another great overview of the Fermi Paradox in general, and the concept of Great Filters, see this essay on WaitButWhy. The visualizations provide a perfect complement to contemplation on the topic.
🧠Bonus Brain Bits🧠
More on Aliens
An essay by Nadia Drake discusses her father, Frank Drake, and his role in starting humanity's search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). In the piece, she writes about how the U.S. and USSR led this search, which connects to the previous essay on aliens and apocalypses:
"The ongoing space race forced both nations to think about what might exist in the heavens, and nuclear stockpiles forced humanity to consider its future on Earth and among the stars. On top of those nagging existential questions, both nations had a rich history of science fiction rife with ideas about first contact."
The End of the Universe
Today's newsletter has focused on the apocalyptic scenario as related to humanity, but scientists also like to explore the end of the universe. An interview with the astrophysicist and author Katie Mack talks about some of these scenarios, such as "the big rip" or "vacuum decay." In the interview, she explains her interest in this topic:
"I think it's just — it's the biggest, most dramatic thing that you can think of. The destruction of the whole universe: There's nothing bigger and more dramatic than that. I like those big questions. I like things that are kind of hard to imagine, but that could have consequences that are just impossibly huge. Those are a lot of fun."
At the end of the article, Mack provides a profound answer to a question about death, which is related to our earlier discussion on Becker and Campbell. When asked, "If the universe is fleeting, how is all of the stuff that we do worth doing?" she responds with this:
"That's a huge thing that I've wrestled with in the course of writing this book, and I don't think I came to a solid conclusion. It's different from a personal death, because people think about their own death and they think, well, I'll live on in some way through my children or my great works, or just the impact I had on the people around me. There will be some legacy to my existence in some way. But if it's the whole cosmos that's ending, that is no longer true. I think there's a point at which you did not matter. And I don't think we have the emotional or philosophical tools to wrestle with that."
A Dystopia in China
A cousin to the apocalypse is the dystopia, and China seems intent on creating their own. We’ve recently learned that China is collecting the genetic information of its male citizens. From censorship to internment camps, China's breaches on human freedom remain a threat to the points above about finding common global goals in the expansion of the human species, making it an important topic we continue to monitor.
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