Zeno’s Paradox: A Modern Instance

A friend writes about the Doomsday Clock, which is maintained by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an old-time lefty group:

The Doomsday clock website seems torn on how to factor in what’s going on in Ukraine without making Joe Biden look bad.

And while the new US administration made progress in reestablishing the role of science and evidence in public policy, corruption of the information ecosystem continued apace in 2021. One particularly concerning variety of internet-based disinformation infected America last year: Waves of internet-enabled lies persuaded a significant portion of the US public to believe the utterly false narrative contending that Joe Biden did not win the US presidential election in 2020. Continued efforts to foster this narrative threaten to undermine future US elections, American democracy in general, and, therefore, the United States’ ability to lead global efforts to manage existential risk.

In view of this mixed threat environment—with some positive developments counteracted by worrisome and accelerating negative trends—the members of the Science and Security Board find the world to be no safer than it was last year at this time and therefore decide to set the Doomsday Clock once again at 100 seconds to midnight. This decision does not, by any means, suggest that the international security situation has stabilized. On the contrary, the Clock remains the closest it has ever been to civilization-ending apocalypse because the world remains stuck in an extremely dangerous moment. In 2019 we called it the new abnormal, and it has unfortunately persisted.

Seems to me that any reasonable look at how the situation has changed in the last month would at least shave off a couple seconds.

What gives?

It’s Zeno’s paradox: an arrow shot at a target can never hit it. Because before it can get to the target it must get halfway there. And from that point it must get halfway to the target again. And again and–the key point–again, ad infinitum. So the arrow can never hit the target, it can only draw closer. One pictures it screeching to a virtual halt as it approaches. In an alternate version, a hare can never catch up to a tortoise if you give the tortoise a head start.

That is what is going on with the Doomsday Clock. Back in 1947, it was already seven minutes to midnight. Alarmingly close! They were trying to scare us. Sometimes Doomsday recedes a little and time is added to the clock; in 1972 is was back to 12 minutes to midnight. Something the arrow can’t do.

But since then, time has ticked inexorably off the clock. It was three minutes to midnight in 2015; still three minutes in 2016; two and a half minutes in 2017; two minutes to twelve in 2018; still two minutes to midnight in 2019; 100 seconds to Doomsday in 2020 and again, as my friend noted, in 2021. You see what is happening: as the arrow approaches the target, its progress is slowing down toward zero. The few remaining seconds must be parceled out with care.

The clock can never strike midnight, because then the whole enterprise would fall apart and its stupidity would be revealed. So it will continue to hang in space, approaching Doomsday ever more slowly, like Zeno’s arrow.

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