Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Catastrophes

NASA has confirmed that an object has again collided with Jupiter, leaving an Earth-sized scar. The scar was initially noticed by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley on the 19th (good for you!), and NASA followed up on his tip.

It's cool to be reminded that the entire Earth could be wiped out in an instant, with no warning. The problem of induction aside, it is strange how the default mode for most of us is to be positive that the things we are familiar with, though they may, perhaps, slowly deteriorate, will never undergo a catastrophic change. We are sure the biosphere will not be wiped out by a cosmic impact or environmental tipping point, we are sure that the splendor of our empire will not come crashing down, we are sure that none of our loved ones will suddenly become a different person on us, and we are damn sure we ourselves will never get cancer or have a stroke. All of these things are impossible, not because we have sat down and evaluated the probabilities—in some cases, we already agree that the probabilities are significant—but because they are unthinkable.

3 comments:

Steelman said...

"The problem of induction aside, it is strange how the default mode for most of us is to be positive that the things we are familiar with, though they may, perhaps, slowly deteriorate, will never undergo a catastrophic change."

If there isn't much, if anything, we can do to prevent catastrophe, why worry about it? I could walk around with my hands up to stave off fateful meteor strikes, but I'm sure my arms would tire eventually (or the authorities would confine me to a mental ward, and with good reason).

The U.S. version of empire will go the way of all others before it, hopefully with a whimper rather than a bang.

As for the more mundane items on the list, I've known too many people who have suffered from disease or betrayal of trust (myself included) to have any illusions that "it can't happen to me." I mean, something is going to kill me sooner or later!

Eat right, exercise, wear your seat belt, be kind to others, and you still stand a chance of being run over by a bus that jumped the curb. Despite that fact I manage to enjoy life without running for the shelter of either religion or Prozac, and endeavor to respect those who find the need for either or both.

Mark I. Vuletic said...

I think your comments are all very wise, Steelman. They're like a more detailed hashing out of the serenity prayer, minus the voodoo, which is actually very wise indeed, if you really have internalized it. I'll admit that I may have been too liberal with my use of "we" throughout this entry ("We're trapped like rats!" "Speak for yourself!" <slap>).

The thing is, speaking for myself, I say that I am entirely human, and subject to all of the normal human frailties (of course I am), but, when it comes down to it, I don't think I really believe, in the core of my being, that it is even possible for me to get cancer, for instance. And so on, down the whole list of things my post mentions, many of which I don't feel I actually have much of a stake in, either way. And most people I have met seem to be like this. The disconnect flummoxes me.

I don't have a moral point with all of this (I don't think); it's just of epistemological interest.

Steelman said...

This cognitive disconnect between people's acceptance of the probability of calamities, and their seemingly irrational inability to see themselves as possible victims, would appear to be a question best suited for psychology. Although, I think there is also a moral question here, and that philosophy and the sciences (hard and soft) should inform each other.

I think many people are aware of this disconnect; neither the laws enforcing the wearing of seat belts, nor the older laws mandating their installation in vehicles, are on the verge of repeal. In fact, there are more safety devices than ever on motor vehicles, through government action as well as manufacturers seeking to impress safety conscious customers. All of this despite the fact that most people hardly ever put these safety measures to the test.

The counterpoint to that is the fact that some people don't bother to correctly secure their child's safety seat, share a steady diet of junk food with their kids, and seldom apply sunscreen to themselves or their children. There seems to be a variability of cautious consideration among people, and also among the possible dangers that each individual faces (e.g. an habitual junk food consumer who always uses sunscreen). There seems to be a healthy psychological defense mechanism that keeps all but the severely depressed from suffering the paralysis of constant catastrophic thinking; a "risk assessment program" in the brain that can yield both reasonable and incongruous results. I'm sure there's ample literature regarding how and why individuals sometimes make choices against their own best interests.

I think part of this is the perception of distance for any given danger. It's difficult for a person who feels healthy and well to imagine the experience of cancer treatment, as they're enjoying yet another slice of thrice-weekly pepperoni pizza out on the restaurant's sun-filled deck. There is an inertia of thought that laws and public service announcements are intended to overcome, with varying degrees of success. People become acclimated to the status quo, and conditions often must become intolerable for them to take action. Perhaps this is why preventive measures in the areas of public safety and illness usually require social and governmental coercion?

There are also moral questions. How ought we to assess various risks, and how should we deal with those who don't agree with our assessments? For example: Are government officials who inadequately prepare for natural disasters more or less culpable than the citizens who fail to insure their own safety to the best of their abilities (including their inattention to the job performance of those elected officials)?