Now-a-days, most folks will tell you that they don’t believe in “life after death”…and that’s a good thing because the phrase itself is an oxymoron. After all, death is defined as the absence of life. So if there is “life after death”, then either that ‘life’ is unreal (think zombies, kids!) or that ‘death’ is unreal. Either way, ‘life after death’ makes no sense.
Now-a-days, most folks will say something like this, “You live your life, then you die, and that’s all there is to it.” Funny though, they don’t always seem to believe that:
- “Everything happens for a reason.” (What reason? And where does that reason come from? What is a ‘reason’?)
- “I know Grandma (deceased) is really proud of you right now.” (How so?)
- “I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.” (Why?)
- “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look upon my works ye mighty and despair.” (May I remind you that “nothing beside remains.”) – P.B. Shelley
So what gives? Ever since 1700 (the beginning of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’) any serious discussion of God has for the most part been verboten in intellectual circles. Nevertheless, we instinctively sense that there is something that both transcends our lives and gives them meaning.
In the 1950’s Bishop Fulton J. Sheen had a TV program entitled, Life is Worth Living. Unless our lives have meaning, it is hard to see what would make them worth living. The Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes describes life without meaning as “vanity and a chase after wind” and adds, “Therefore, I detested life…”
Some folks today will say that life is inherently worth living, that it is its own purpose and its own reward. Every life…regardless of the suffering it entails?
When we were kids (50’s, 60’s, 70’s), our parents used to threaten us with punishments so dire that “you’ll wish you’d never been born”. However improbable, we never doubted that such an outcome was possible.
Now-a-days, millions each year decide that life is neither meaningful nor inherently rewarding. They decide that it is not “worth living” and they choose to end that life voluntarily and often violently.
Finally, nothing can give itself meaning; that too is an oxymoron. The signified is not the signifier. By definition, the meaning of an entity transcends the entity itself. If our lives do have meaning, that meaning must refer to something beyond the contents and boundaries of those lives. That’s what ‘meaning’ means. You can’t change the meaning (no pun intended) of words to suit the latest intellectual fad.
We might, for example, imagine that our lives derive meaning from the ‘works’ we leave behind (Ozymandias), from our decedents (Abraham), from our fidelity to God’s will (St. Paul), from our impact on the lives of others (Mother Theresa), or from any other of a myriad of transcendent ‘artifacts’.
For the most part, our homespun notions of transcendence embody the idea that the deceased somehow continue to ‘participate’ in temporal events: actively or passively, as participants or observers, directly or vicariously, consciously or unconsciously. Ozymandias, for instance, imagined that he would participate directly, albeit unconsciously, in the future. His physical and social legacy was to influence people and events indefinitely.
This sort of transcendence is what we mean when we talk about ‘immortality’: some way, somehow, we will continue to exert influence, ‘forever’. Our lives matter! If the universe lasts forever and if we introduce a novel pattern into that universe and if that pattern somehow endures, then sure, our lives might be said to have meaning.
This notion might have made some sense when we imagined the universe to be relatively small, globally static and geocentric and when we assumed that it would remain like that forever. Today, however, we know that that none of this is the case.
The universe is enormous and evolving and anything but geocentric. Most importantly, we know that it will not last forever.
Ozymandias’ legacy boiled down to certain ordered patterns, physical and social. We now know that all order decays over time (entropy). At some future date, the universe will reach (or infinitely approach) a state of maximal entropy. Time will no longer exist and no trace of any past ordered state will survive. Simply put, the novel pattern we introduce into the universe will be lost…as will all non-random patterns.
Think of the world as a giant computer simulation (The Matrix). At the end of time, all possible sequences of events converge at the same null point. Hugh Everett’s ‘many words’ (quantum mechanics) ultimately become one world again; Robert Frost’s ‘two roads’ lead to the exact same spot.
In other words, everything happens but nothing matters! (Perhaps nothing matters because everything happens.)
But you don’t have to wait for the end of the world to realize the futility of immortality. We learn from our Marxist friends that existence is radically ‘alienated’. Laborers rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor.
Consequences rarely match intentions. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous story, Le Mur (The Wall) a captured partisan misdirects his captors to search a place where he knows his comrades are not hiding. Unfortunately, fearing that under torture the captive may give them up, his comrades have decided to change locations…and they end up right where the gestapo is searching. That’s irony…and alienation!
But we didn’t need Marx or Sartre to tell us that. Ecclesiastes (see above) is one long meditation on the subject of alienation: “Whoever digs a pit may fall into it, and whoever breaks through a wall, a snake may bite. Whoever quarries stones may be hurt by them, and whoever chops wood is in danger from it.” (10: 8 – 9)
(Incidentally, these verses strongly inform my attitude toward any sort of physical labor – outside the workplace, of course!)
Patterns quickly become distorted; sometimes they turn inside out and become their own opposites; other times they cancel each other out (interference). Events always have unintended and unwanted consequences.
So if you are indeed searching to give your life ‘meaning’, all the various forms of ‘immortality’ inevitably come to the same dead end. Immortality is a bridge to nowhere. So is there any other avenue through which our lives might gain meaning? Fortunately, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”
Folks regularly confuse and conflate the notions of ‘immortality’ and ‘eternity’. Immorality denotes unlimited physical extension in infinite time. Not happening! Eternity, on the other hand, denotes existence ‘outside’ of time. Infinite time vs. ‘no time’ – the two concepts could not be further apart. And yet, we confuse them!
We have seen that the idea of immortality is a non-starter; wouldn’t the same be true of eternity? Far from it! In fact, every reader of this essay has already experienced eternity, possibly in multiple forms.
Most basically, when you experience something, your experience is in the present; in fact, when you experience something, you experience ‘presence’. Experience is what the present is and presence is what experience is. There is no present without experience, only past and future; but within experience, there is no past or future.
Experiences precede and succeed each other along the timeline. An experience may, actually must, occupy a ‘region’ on the timeline – a region, not a point. However, internally, there is no sequence within experience, only duration.
The phenomenon of experience literally ‘stops time’. A single ‘event’ is a quantum of experience (William James: a “bud”). ou cannot dissect an ‘event’ into a sequence of nanoseconds, you cannot dissect an experience. (Perhaps you can retroactively, as a memory, in analysis or as a narrative; but you cannot dissect it as you live it. If you can, then we’re not talking about ‘an event’ but a chain of events.)
Although the region occupied by an event is surrounded by time on both ends, within that region, time is suspended; and that is what eternity is!
The timeline is continuous (at least down to the Planck Scale); so without the phenomenon of experience, everything would ‘exist’ either in the past or in the future of a given infinitesimal ‘point’. Yet we know that everything that actually exists exists in the present. Nothing actually exists in the past or in the future. The past and the future exist only in so far as they are felt and exert influence in the present.
So without experience, nothing actual could exist.
We tend to think of experience as confined to human beings or higher forms of animal life. That is not the way we’re using the term here. Every event is an ‘experience’. The event ‘experiences’ (usually not consciously) the actual world from which it is emerging, itself (as it develops), and the actual world to which it aims to make a novel contribution.
Physicist Richard Feynman showed that there is no linear time within a quantum mechanical reaction. As in a drawing by M.C. Escher, when you trace the course of the reaction (Feynman diagrams), you find no beginning middle or end. That’s presence!
In human consciousness, a unit of experience typically occupies anywhere from 1/10th to 1/3rd of a second on the timeline. Isn’t much…but it is enough to provide a window on eternity.
If you have experienced ‘love’, you may have noticed that love can suspend the flow of time for a much longer period. Love can enlarge the region of timelessness (eternity) along the timeline. If you have engaged in mediation, contemplation, liturgical worship, prayer or other spiritual practices, you may also have experienced larger regions of timelessness (aka eternity).
We all know that events are embedded in other events. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of an event that it is embedded in other events and other events are embedded in it. The universal phenomenon of embeddedness ensures that every event is unique…another ontological requirement. The many become one and the one becomes many.
Normally, shorter duration events are embedded in longer duration events. From this we can deduce that there exists a single event (uber-event) in which all other events are embedded.
But it is a defining characteristic of an event that it must be embedded in other events just as multiple other events must be embedded in it. How does this apply to the uber-event? How can the uber-event be embedded in the events that are embedded in it?
Turns out, the uber-event is embedded in every other event, teleologically. First, the uber-event reflects the judgment of the universe on every actual world (what is). Second, the uber-event displays the values that stimulate novel events to come into being (concrescence). Third, the uber-event is the event by which all other events are measured; it is the ‘value-metric’ (the one and only). Fourth, participation in the uber-event is the goal toward which every event aims.
Like all events, the uber-event is internally timeless. Experience in the uber-event is the experience of eternity. As every event is ‘the present’, so the uber-event is the eternal present.
So do our lives have meaning? You bet they do! They acquire meaning from the values that motivate their genesis and from the uber-event in which they will ultimately be embedded, eternally.