The difficulty with prophecies — whether based on passages from the Bible or ancient calendars, on solid climate science and economics or the visions of the Mongolian shamans Lawrence E. Joseph visited while researching his books — is that they are almost invariably wrong. Human beings are remarkably bad at predicting even relatively short-term, simple occurrences, such as the weather on Monday or the price of gold on Friday, much less something as vast and complex as the future of humanity. Many important events of the recent past came as a surprise to most people: World War I, the stock market crash of 1929, the Cold War, the computer age, the economic meltdown of 2008, the Arab Awakening, even the Occupy Wall Street movement. Part of the problem, as Scottish philosopher David Hume pointed out in the eighteenth century, is that we are equipped with a concept of “cause” that constitutes little more than an association of things or events in the past — and projecting the patterns of the past onto the future is perilous. We read books of narrative history and biography and get the impression that what made things happen, what shaped the story, was always sharply defined and clear, when in fact it wasn’t and more likely still isn’t. The real problem with the future is that it doesn’t yet exist, and the forces that bring it into existence are too complicated, too subtle and volatile and fractal, for us to know in advance — or ever.
And yet we continue to try. Why? Because we need to have a sense that we control our fates, even if all that means is that we know our fates. And because we need to believe we are part of a story with a larger meaning, that vice is rewarded with punishment, that redemption is possible, that history is not random and empty, that a higher power (whether Isaiah’s wrathful God or simply the natural world) exacts the final judgment.
I’ve got the book Longing For The End in the stack of books waiting to be read, as it happens. Guess I better hurry up and get it done before next December if I want to at least die in the comforting embrace of wisdom!
I think the second paragraph sums it up pretty well, but I would also add in a dash of Nietzsche: “However, the fact that generally the ascetic ideal has meant so much to human beings is an expression of the basic fact of the human will, its horror vacui [horror of a vacuum]. It requires a goal—and it prefers to will nothingness than not to will.”