Daily Archives: December 8, 2010

What is eternal?

In a recent post entitled “Everything matters or nothing matters: Original sin versus nihilism,” Bruce Charlton (whose blog has grown tremendously more interesting these days; I really can’t recommend it highly enough) makes the case that any coherent view of the world must fall under one of the two headings given in the post title.

The concept of “mattering” is a slippery one which I won’t even attempt to engage directly here, but I think I can say with some confidence that two of the necessary conditions for anything really mattering are (1) permanence and (2) consciousness. Whatever is fundamentally temporary, neither eternal in itself nor exerting any eternal influence on the cosmos, is nothing but a now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t illusion and cannot possibly matter. In the same way, nothing can possibly matter unless it matters to someone; in a world without consciousness — or with only temporary consciousness — nothing can possibly matter. These two conditions may not turn out to be sufficient, of course, but they at least give us somewhere to start. In this post I want to look at four possible answers to the question “What is eternal?”

1. Nothing

One possibility is that, as Utnapishtim told Gilgamesh, “there is no permanence” — that not even the universe itself is eternal, that everything will eventually come to an end and be as if it had never existed. Obviously, nothing could possibly matter in such a universe; nihilism would be inescapable, though I suppose we could console ourselves with the thought that, after all, it doesn’t matter that nothing matters.

2. Stuff

As Dr. Charlton puts it in a comment on the post linked above:

Of course an atheist can believe that everything is eternal, in the sense that stuff is eternal (like the steady state theory of cosmology). And most pagans also believe this – that the universe always has been always will be.

But in that world view nothing matters.

In such a world, there would be permanence but no permanent consciousness, so it would still be impossible for anything to really matter. This would, I think, be largely true even if the presence of non-permanent conscious minds were a permanent feature of the universe — that is, if the universe were such that it generated an endless succession of consciousnesses, no one of which was permanent. Did your tenth-great grandfather have a good life? Does anyone know or care anymore? Does it matter? If the line of his infinitely-great grandchildren continues for all eternity, will it matter then? The only way such a scenario could be consistent with mattering would be if each in the infinite series of transient minds cared about the same things — mind you, not corresponding things (I care about my happiness, you care about yours), but the very same things. And this they manifestly do not.

3. Souls

A world populated by deathless consciousnesses — immortal human souls and/or God — is the “everything matters” scenario Dr. Charlton has in mind. In this universe, “nothing is forgotten, we are never alone, souls are eternal, reality is endless, awareness is total.”

Would everything really matter in such a world, though? An eternal soul need not have eternal concerns, after all. Most of the things that “mattered” to me as a toddler, even as a teenager, later turned out not to have mattered at all. If my soul still exists a billion billion billion years in the future, will there be anything at all about my current life about which it will be able to look back and say, “This mattered. It matters still”? Will that soul even still be “me” in any interesting sense? Personal immortality isn’t actually so different from the endless succession of consciousnesses considered above.

God, to the extent that his course is one eternal round, would be an exception. If he exists and is the same yesterday, today and forever — if the same things have always mattered and will always matter to him — then then it is possible for everything to matter. (Of course, the very characteristic which makes God’s concerns permanent — the impossibility of anything changing or affecting him in any way — leads one to wonder what could possibly matter to him one way or the other, but I digress.)

4. Even this spider and this moonlight between the trees

The allusion is to Nietzsche’s Gay Science and the hypothesis of the eternal recurrence of the same events — not history repeating itself in some general sense, but the exact same sequence of events playing out again and again infinitely many times. If true, it means that everything has an infinite (if non-contiguous) duration — not just changeable abstractions like “the soul”, but every event, every moment, every feeling, every single component of existence. Dr. Charlton considers eternal recurrence a “nothing matters” scenario, but I’m inclined to think quite the opposite. At least it fulfills the minimal necessary conditions (permanence and consciousness) which we’re considering here.

Dr. Charlton is also of the opinion that no one has ever actually believed in eternal recurrence, least of all Nietzsche himself. This is probably correct. Nietzsche did take the idea very seriously, though, and referred to it in The Will to Power as  “the most scientific of all possible hypotheses.” According to Nietzsche, if (1) time is infinite and (2) space is finite, eternal recurrence necessarily follows. Actually, a third assumption (not recognized by Nietzsche) is also necessary: (3) that space is in some sense “digital” — that is, that there are only a finite number of positions any given particle could possibly occupy; otherwise, matter would still be able to form infinitely many non-repeating configurations even in a finite space (Georg Simmel proved this). I don’t believe in eternal recurrence myself, since I don’t think those three prerequisites are especially likely to be true, but it’s certainly possible. Physicists may yet discover that we live in such a world.

What I do believe in is eternalism — block time, McTaggart’s C-series, temporal antisolipsism. Time is just another dimension, all points in time are equally and permanently real, and the idea that time “passes” is an illusion. I reached this conclusion on my own, only to discover later that it is implied by Einsteinian physics (due to the relativity of simultaneity) and that McTaggart had also argued for it. Like Nietzschean eternal recurrence, eternalism means that everything is eternal and allows for the possibility that everything matters.

In fact, since eternalism’s implications are so similar to those of eternal recurrence, and since the latter is easier to visualize, I find Nietzsche’s hypothesis to be a useful mental hack, a tool I can use to keep myself looking at things sub specie aeternitatis. “You will live through this again and again and again, infinitely many times,” I tell myself from time to time — knowing that this is (probably) not literally true, but that what follows from it is the same as what follows from the truth. Since I am an antisolipsist in the more literal sense as well, I sometimes expand my memento aeternitatis to “You will live through this infinitely many times — as yourself, and as your wife, and as your neighbor, and as that cat over there, and as the cockroach you just killed,” and so on.

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