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.


Filed under Philosophy, Time

5 responses to “What is eternal?

  1. Bruce G Charlton

    That’s very useful – very clarifying!

    Contemplating your description of recurrence/ block time – I find myself wondering if more needs to be added to permanence and consciousness for anything to matter; and that is free will.

    (Or, at least, something to do with personality – the process of recurrence etc sounds rather like a permanently-running computer program.)

    And, maybe it would have been clearer to say ‘is significant’ instead of ‘matters’. What I think is correct is that for a universe where anything is significant, everything would be significant – unless significance was restricted to acts of free will, of choice.

    I think this is indeed probably implied by the Christian world view: that (roughly speaking) the only ultimately significant things in the universe are the free choices of humans (and any other sentient beings, such as angels). Everything is else ia background to these choices.

    (Free will is non-negotiable for Christians. Indeed I suspect that skepticism about the reality free will is a species of nihilistic mental pathology – and not a legitimate philosophical position: self-refuting. But we could just say, as Aquinas seems to have done, that free will is possible to humans because God made it possible. Whether we understand it is irrelevant.)

    Then comes the ‘original sin’ problem that – assuming this is true – human are set-up such that they simply cannot consistently choose well.

    So, we know what is significant: free choice. And we also know that humans will sometimes, often or usually fail to choose well, because of their nature.

    Hence the general perception of incorrigible sin that spontaenously permeated all refelctive minds in traditional societies (before about 1700).

    It is one of the great mysteries of modernity to know what happened to sin! Certainly I never used to have a perception of objective sin of which I was aware – so there must be aspects of modernity which render sin invisible – presumably part of its general nihilism.

    Indeed, it is likely to be a prime reason for the nihilism of modernity: i.e. the psychological need to get rid of, to expunge the perception of sin was so strong that sin was obliterated depite that doing so also obliterated the meaning and purpose of life.

    Like Pascal, I tend to think that (leaving aside its truth for a moment) only Christianity actually provides a coherent answer to the problem of sin. My understanding of the other major world religions is that (like atheism/ communism/ political correctness) they do not solve the problem, even in theory.

  2. Thanks very much for your comments, Bruce.

    I had tried to avoid the question of free will (though of course I will have to address it sooner or later) because when I try to think clearly about it I hit a brick wall. I’ve pondered it long and hard, both as a Mormon and as an atheist, but the only conclusion I’ve ever been able to reach is that it is an incoherent concept — not something which happens not to exist in this materialistic world of ours, but something which could not possibly exist in any conceivable universe. I do take seriously the possibility that this opinion may be pathological, though. So many brilliant people have believed in it, or at least argued against it as against something coherent (I’m thinking of Spinoza and Nietzsche here), that — well, when you can’t see something which everyone else can see, you do have to consider the possibility that you’re blind.

    I wrote a bit about free will several years ago, on a website which was later hacked into and destroyed; maybe I should repost that essay here.

    Sin, on the other hand, is an easy concept for me to understand and accept — even original sin, which neither Mormons nor atheists are really supposed to believe in.

  3. Bruce G Charlton

    The Mormon attitude to Original Sin is very interesting, and has many consequences at a theological level.

    In practice, it seems to make much less difference than might be suspected, because the near-universal lay priesthood in Mormonism diminishes the importance of systematic theology.

    Or, as McMurrin has written, Mormon theology remains (at this point) incomplete and somewhat incoherent – as indeed did Christian theology for some hundreds of years AD (well, hundreds of years if you are Orthodox, but at least a thousand years if you are Roman Catholic).

    My impression is that Mormons live and seek salvation rather like the ancient Jews, by following the Law and prescribed practices; except that Mormons believe that this is possible for humans to do and is sufficient for ‘salvation’ (or at least sufficient to move up to the next evolutionary stage of exaltation after death).

    By contrast, I understand that Jews recognize they will fail to follow the Law, due to Original Sin. Ancient Jews seemed to believe that this failure consigned them to Hades/ Sheol almost inevitably (presumably with the exception of a few prophets such as Isaiah, who joined God in heaven)

    Mainstream Christians also believe that humans cannot follow the Law, due to Original Sin – and that even if they did so this would – of itself alone – be worthless. Salvation is purely by Grace and undeserved.

    The mainstream Christian position is, in fact, very complex and sophisticated – hence hardly anybody understands it (not sure if I do) except a few brilliant and holy Saints – whose witness we ordinary mortals rely upon.

    Mormon theology is pitched as a level comprehensible to the kind of skilled working class people who made up the early Mormons – whereas Christian and Jewish theology is pitched at tiny minority of elite professional specialist intellectuals – that is probably the main difference. When mainstream Christian theology is reinterpreted at the simpler and more comprehensible level of Mormon theology, the differences are much less.

    In practice, I think that Mormons are similar to mainstream Evangelicals in their general approach to life – but Mormons are considerably more effective at getting people actually to do what they profess to believe.

    Also, Mormons need to be astonishingly energetic and organized – and I feel sure there must be a big selection process at work. Anyone who is significantly lazy, chaotic, impulsive, slobbish (etc) would find it very difficult to function as a Mormon, and would probaby be excluded from full participation in Temple rituals, marriage etc. Similarly, any man who was not reasonable intelligent and literate would find it hard to function as a Mormon – with the many teaching responsibilities of Priesthood.

    Such constraints do seem to create a certain (and mostly very positive) homogeneity among devout Mormons which is not seen in mainstream Christian denominations.

    It may also make it easier to believe in the absence of Original Sin, since (apparently) most devout Mormons can actually achieve what they *want* to do, and set-out to do. Perhaps they do not feel personally the constraints of sin?

    Of course this might well be argued to be the operations of Grace, but personality and intelligence might also have a role.

  4. It’s a bit too simplistic to say that Mormons believe that following the law is both possible and sufficient for salvation. As in more conventional Christianity, Christ’s atoning grace plays an essential role — but so does obedience to the law. The third Article of Faith reads, “We believe that through the Atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.” Or, as an oft-quoted passage in the Book of Mormon puts it, “It is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do” (2 Ne. 25:23).

    The Mormon approach to salvation is illustrated in Elder Boyd K. Packer’s famous sermon “The Mediator,” which presents a familiar Christian parable: A man foolishly incurs a debt (representing sin) which he is unable to pay. When the payment falls due, the debtor begs for mercy, but his creditor insists on justice. In order that both justice and mercy might be satisfied, the titular mediator (who of course represents Christ) steps in and pays the man’s debt for him — but, in a distinctly Mormon twist, Packer has the mediator say, “If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor? . . . you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way.” The debt is not forgiven but renegotiated so that it will be possible to pay.

    To sum up the Mormon doctrine of salvation as I understand it: The law which God requires us to obey (which is nothing less than absolute moral perfection) would be sufficient for salvation if we were able to keep it, but we are not. Therefore Christ steps in and, through his sacrifice (how exactly this works is not clear), allows us to obtain salvation by obedience to a different law, one which it is possible for mere mortals to keep — one which instead of moral perfection requires baptism and other “ordinances” (sacraments), continual repentance, and an honest effort to do our best.


    If Christianity is true, does it really follow that everything is significant? It seems, on the contrary, that nothing really matters except the “one thing needful.” In the long run, the only things in this life that have any lasting significance are those few which can spell the difference between salvation and damnation. Nothing else — what you do for a living, who you marry, whether you have a happy life — has any eternal significance at all.

  5. Bruce G Charlton

    Thanks for the clarification of Mormon theology.


    “It seems, on the contrary, that nothing really matters except the “one thing needful.” In the long run, the only things in this life that have any lasting significance are those few which can spell the difference between salvation and damnation.”

    My understanding is that all decisions in life affect our soul, which is eternal (whether it is saved or not).

    We choose whether or not to be saved – as C.S Lewis says : “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ ”

    To be damned means to be given what you want/ have chosen: pride, self-sufficiency, the exclusion of love, distraction, short-termist pleasure/ pain-avoidance etc. I would imagine ‘damnation’ something very approximately like a solo but depersonalized soul nursing its grudges and trying to distract itself with self-satisfaction in its achievements – for eternity…

    But among the ‘saved’ the state of the soul will (I guess) vary widely – we are still ourselves, but what that self is, is a product of our orientation.

    Sin is not really doing the right things/ not doing the wrong things (these are ‘merely’ a kind of training of the soul), because the Saints have often been almost entirely passive and living in solitude. Presumably they are working on their orientation to God, not on sticking to ethical laws.

    (This is why Mormons and Protestants do not recognize these types of ascetic contemplative Saints – because they see salvation as doing and not-doing stuff).

    Rather (I think) our choices are significant in that they reveal and reinforce the kind of person we are becoming – salvation is possibly quite easy and straightforward in terms of actual living – except that there is a strong tendency to drift away from the necessary perspective or get distracted from it, or (especially) lapse into pride.

    A person of advanced holiness is (I think) someone with a powerful habit of holiness, which can persist in their other-worldly perspective through many trials and distractions (and can thereby assist others) – they have a sureness-of-touch which is not possible to people who are saved but vestigial in their holiness.

    A big difference between Mormons and mainstream Christians is (I think) that Mormons believe in the continued development of the soul after death (an infinite number of ‘second chances) which does indeed (at least in theory – tho’ devout Mormons don’t act this way) render the choices of this life rather irrelevant in the long term; whereas most other Christians believe that (perhaps except for a finite period after death) the die-is-cast on death; and the soul does not develop further in the after life.

    So the reason ‘everything matters’ in this life is that everything is remembered and therefore we (our soul) will be stuck with it forever…

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