Thursday, August 11, 2011

Apocalypse and Zeno's paradox

It's old news, but it's coming back at you: several months ago, U.S. heathens were treated to a cross-country billboard & bus shelter media blitz with its epicenter in Oakland, California, headquarters of Family Radio and apocalypse-addled, unordained preacher Harold Camping. Camping predicted to his congregation and over the airwaves that the end of the world would occur on 21 May 2011.

Didn't happen.

Camping promptly changed his tune, saying that the rapture has been rescheduled for five months later, 21 October 2011. Camping has a history of predicting judgment days that don't come to pass: 21 May 1988 was one, 7 September 1994 was another.

So zoom in to the UC Berkeley campus, to Sproul Plaza, ground zero for left-leaning activism since the Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s. Zoom in further, to find "Yoshua" -- a nom du discours for a loooooooooooooongtime denizen of of Sproul Plaza who been excoriating the sins of Berkeley's student body for about as long as I can remember (we're talking decades here). Here, take a look at this video for a sense of his style if not much sense of his views:

I don't know how Yoshua is connected to Harold Camping. What I can tell you is that he brought Camping's message to Sproul Plaza before anybody I knew ever heard it: Yoshua was counting down the days to the May 21st apocalypse months in advance of the predicted event. I thought he was just doing his usual hyperbolic, self-gratifying, mildly-entertaining thing until the billboards started to go up around town. Then I realized he had allies. Yup. Yoshua was part of a movement.

So what now, in the wake of the fact that the world went on after May 21st? Yoshua is no more daunted than Camping. The other day when I passed by the corner of Bancroft and Telegraph, there stood Yoshua in front of a resurrected countdown to the rescheduled end of the world.

You've got to admire the man's commitment. Damn the facts, full-speed ahead, no?

When I saw Yoshua counting down to a new apocalypse I thought of Zeno. Remember Zeno? Zeno liked paradoxes, and constructed some forty of them as arguments aimed at proving that his philosophical mentor (and lover, some think), Parmenides, was correct to assert that "all was one indivisible, unchanging reality" (this from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Zeno's paradoxes, most of which have not survived the two and a half millenia since he conceived them, attempted to demonstrate that absurd conclusions follow from assumptions opposite to Parmenides positions.

So Zeno's paradox known as the "dichotomy" comes to us by way of Aristotle (Physics, 239b11). The argument as Aristotle put it: "motion is impossible, because an object in motion must reach the half-way point before it gets to the end."

That is, traversing a distance of any length involves getting halfway there, then halfway from the halfway point to the end, and so on ad infinitum (which is Latin, sorry, I don't know how to type in Greek). Getting anywhere, in other words, involves an infinite number of journeys of finite length. It takes forever. Like getting to the front of the line at the DMV.

Or getting from The End is Near to The End is Here.

Poor Yoshua. Always huffing and puffing his toward doomsday, never quite making it to rapture.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of a fresco in the Library of El Escorial, northwest of Madrid: "Zeno of Elea shows Youths the Doors to Truth and Falsehood."


  1. Did Camping say why the rapture was rescheduled? God had a football game to get to?

  2. @katinsf: The Lord calendars in mysterious ways?