May 29, 2022
Do our lives have meaning? You bet they do! But what is that meaning, and from where does it come?
Nowadays, 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. 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 (think ghosts).
Either way, ‘life after death’ makes no sense.
Nowadays, most folks will tell you they believe something like this, “You live your life, then you die, and that’s all there is to it!”
Funny though, it doesn’t always seem as though they believe the ‘that’s all there is to it’ part.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible to believe ‘that’s all there is to it.’ Shortly, we’ll see that Nietzsche and Wittgenstein believed exactly that; but judged by their actions, not everyone who says it, believes it.
In fact, it’s become fashionable for folks to say, “…And that’s all there is to it,” just before they tell you what it is they really believe:
“Whatever happens, it happens according to God’s plan.”
“Whatever happens, it is the will of God.”
“Whatever happens, happens for a reason.”
“I know that Grandma (deceased) is really proud of you.”
“I want to leave the world a better place than I found it.”
“I do believe in reincarnation, of course.”
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings; look upon my works ye mighty and despair.” – P.B. Shelley
Where’s Waldo? Can you spot the hidden appeal to transcendence in each of these seemingly innocuous taglines?
When most folks, certainly not all folks, but most, say “…and that’s all there is to it,” they mean anything but that.
The taglines quoted above, for example, have two things in common:
Each of these tags introduces an element of transcendence (ontological hierarchy) into what was pre-defined as a totally ‘immanent,’ perfectly ‘flat,’ ontologically ‘democratic’ universe.
Each of these tags suggests that we somehow continue to participate in the temporal world even after our death…or at least we imagine we do.
So, what gives? Ever since 1700 (the early days of the so-called ‘Enlightenment’) any serious discussion of God has been verboten in most intellectual circles.
Nevertheless, we instinctively sense that there is something that transcends our daily lives and gives them meaning, and we want to find a way to express that intuition without attracting the attention of our new, secular Inquisitors.
And make no mistake about it: the Inquisition is alive and well among today’s cultural and intellectual elites.
In the 1950’s Bishop Fulton Sheen had a popular TV show, Life is Worth Living, but unless our lives have meaning, it is hard to see what would make them worth living. Do the pleasures of flesh outweigh the inevitable suffering that follows? Knowing what we know now, in the absence of ‘meaning,’ would we choose to be born?
People who say that life is its own reward, that life gives itself all the meaning it needs, are usually people basking in the glow of youth, good health, and economic sufficiency.
‘Take a message to Michael:’ people who are young, healthy, and prosperous become people who are old, infirm, and financially insecure. Ecstasy is agony’s foreplay.
On the other hand, people are remarkably willing to endure serious pain if it can lead to a meaningful end. For example:
A woman in labor hopes to give birth.
A martyr hopes to see God.
A patriot endures torture out of loyalty to his country.
A ‘lover’ chooses to ‘lay down his life for a friend.’
Now imagine these same sufferings if they were entirely gratuitous, if there was never any hope for a meaningful outcome!
The author of the Book of Ecclesiastes describes life without meaning as “vanity and a chase after wind” and adds, “Therefore, I detested life…”
Consider, too, these words of despair from Job: “Let the day disappear, the day I was born…Let darkness, dead darkness, expunge it.” Job does not pray for a quick end; he prays never to have been born at all!
Nowadays, many folks decide that life is neither meaningful nor inherently rewarding. They decide that it is not “worth living” after all and so they choose to end their lives voluntarily, and often violently. Nothing can give itself meaning. The ‘meaning of an entity,’ by definition, must refer to something that transcends that entity. If our lives do have meaning, that meaning must come from something outside those lives themselves. That’s what ‘meaning’ means!
The meaning of an event cannot be found in the event itself; if it could, it would be the event itself, not the meaning of the event.
We might imagine that our lives derive meaning from the ‘works’ we leave behind (Ozymandias), from our descendants (Abraham, David), from our service to God (St. Paul), from the impact we have on the lives of others (Mother Theresa), etc.
For the most part, our homespun notions of transcendence embody the idea that we somehow continue to have a ‘stake’ in temporal events, even after death. What will happen after our deaths is often critically important to us while we are living.
But why? According to the ‘secular’ models, we will no longer exist in any form, so why do we behave as if we had some stake in the future?
According to some secular models, seemingly in answer to Job’s prayers, the lives we’ve lived don’t just end, they are ‘expunged’ (retroactively), ‘at the hour of our death’ (particular judgment) and at the end of time (general judgment), i.e., ‘when Hell freezes over,’ quite literally. As the universe hurtles toward its frigid fate, it appears that Job’s ‘prayer of annihilation’ has been answered.
(Note: in The Riddle of Job, another essay in this issue of AT Magazine, we find that Job ultimately finds purpose and overcomes despair...but that’s outside the scope of this article.)
We’ve gotten ahead of ourselves. Many of us apparently believe (though most of us would not admit it) that those who die somehow ‘retain a stake’ in the spatiotemporal world; they continue to participate, actively or passively, as actors or observers, directly or vicariously, consciously or otherwise.
Ozymandias, for instance, imagined that he would participate directly, albeit unconsciously, in the future. His physical and social legacy was meant to influence people and events for all time. (But note, “nothing beside remains.”)
This sort of transcendence is what we mean when we talk about ‘immortality.’
Obviously, however, no one is immortal (i.e., infinitely extended in spacetime). So, do our lives really matter after all?
If the universe was expected to last forever, and if we had introduced a novel and beneficial pattern into that universe, and if that pattern was conserved and guaranteed to impact future events, then sure, we might be justified in saying that our lives had meaning. But this ontological utopia bears no resemblance whatsoever to the world we actually live in!
According to 20th century cosmology, the spatiotemporal universe, its information, energy, and matter, will all disappear in the ‘Big Freeze’ (the opposite of the ‘Big Bang’). And Hawking Radiation won’t save us this time because there is no longer a ‘universe’ to conserve it.
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 (zero order).
Time will no longer exist, and no trace of any past ordered state will survive. Simply put, whatever novel and beneficial patterns were introduced into the universe along the way will be irrevocably lost. In the words of Job, they will be ‘expunged.’
Cosmology has made Ozymandias of us all.
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; Robert Frost’s ‘two roads’ end at one and the same destination.
Patterns quickly become distorted; sometimes they turn inside out and become their own opposites (inversion); other times they cancel each other out (interference).
So, if you are indeed searching to give your life ‘meaning,’ all forms of ‘immortality’ inevitably come to the same dead end. Immortality is a bridge to nowhere.
Is there any other scenario that could give our lives meaning? Fortunately, the answer is, resoundingly, “Yes!”
Folks regularly confuse and conflate the notions of ‘immortality’ and ‘eternity.’ Immorality denotes unlimited physical extension in infinite spacetime. Not happening!
Eternity, on the other hand, denotes existence entirely outside of spacetime.
Compare the infinite time of Immortality with the timelessness of Eternity – all time vs. no time – the two concepts couldn’t be much farther apart. They almost qualify as antonyms; and yet, we confuse them!
We have seen that the idea of Immortality is a non-starter; shouldn’t the same be true of Eternity? Far from it!
A grandchild, age five at the time, once explained it to me this way: “Santa Claus is in the numbers, but God is outside the numbers.” Bingo! (Yes, I have very precocious grandchildren.) Talk about putting the City of God (Augustine) on a bumper sticker!
When you experience something, you don’t experience it in the present. That experience is the Present. In fact, experience is what Presence is, per se.
Outside of ‘experience,’ there is no present, only past and future, but within experience, there is no past or future, only Presence.
Experiences precede and succeed one another along the past/future timeline. However, there is no such sequencing of events ‘within’ an experience (‘the eternal Now’).
One ‘event’ = one quantum of experience (William James called these quanta “buds”), and all experience takes place outside of time.
Without the phenomenon of experience, every event would lie in either the past or the future of a given infinitesimal ‘point’ on the timeline. There would be no Present.
We know that there is no such a thing as Presence, and therefore no such thing as Experience, on the timeline. Yet we also know that there is in fact such a thing as Experience, and therefore Presence: Cogito ergo est!
In fact, everything that exists, exists in the present. Nothing exists in either the past or in the future per se. Events in the past or future may be said to ‘exist’ only insofar as they are felt in the Present, through the medium of the Experience.
So, without experience, nothing actual exists. Therefore, Being is Experience. In the words of Parmenides, often called the father of Western philosophy, “what is given for being is also given for thinking,” - i.e., for experiencing.
We tend to confine the phenomenon of ‘experience’ to human beings (or all higher forms of animal life). That is not the way we’re using the term here. Every event is an ‘experience.’ Per William James, every event is a ‘bud.’
Per Parmenides, Being and Experiencing are one!
Often unconsciously, every event experiences its own unique ‘actual world,’ the world out of which it is emerging. In fact, it is that experience that transforms the undifferentiated spatiotemporal background (a mere multiplicity) into a relevant actual world (a nexus).
Likewise, every event experiences itself in the process of emerging; and finally, every event experiences itself experiencing itself in the process of emerging, so:
I experience myself experiencing.
I experience myself experiencing myself experiencing.
This ‘hierarchy of experience’ adds a dimension of depth to our experience of the world.
Physicist Richard Feynman showed that there is no linear time within quantum events. As in the drawings of M.C. Escher, when you trace quantum level events (‘Feynman Diagrams’), you find there’s no beginning, middle or end.
That’s Presence, that’s Eternity - the annihilation of past and future!
Events are embedded in other events. In fact, it is a defining characteristic of an ‘event’ that it must be embedded in other events and that other events be embedded in it.
The universal phenomenon of embeddedness ensures that every event is unique. No event can have the same embedded structure as any other event. This is another defining characteristic of ontogenesis.
Is ‘time’ then just another word for ‘embeddedness?’ Is embeddedness the deep source of what we call ‘spacetime?’ Does ‘Beta is embedded in Gamma’ mean that Beta occurs before Gamma and that Gamma occurs after Beta?
From this, can we infer that there must exist a single uber-event, call it Omega, in which all other events are embedded and another uber-event, call it Alpha, the source of all value, that is embedded in every other event.
And now here’s the key: drum roll please, Alpha and Omega are one and the same event! They are two different aspects of a single uber-event.
In such an uber-event, time dissolves. That’s what we call ‘Eternity.’
As we’ve just seen, it is a defining characteristic of an event that it be embedded in other events and that other events be embedded in it.
How does the uber-event meet this test?
Like all events, the uber-event is internally timeless. The experience of that timelessness is the experience of Eternity. From its own limited perspective, every event is the ‘local Present;’ therefore, from its universal perspective, the uber-event must be the ‘eternal (universal) Present.’
We grasp intuitively how all local events can be embedded in the uber-event, but how is the uber-event embedded in other events, i.e., embedded in the very same events that are embedded in it?
First, the uber-event judges every actual world (what is) according to the values that the uber-event embodies.
Second, the values that the uber-event embodies are the values that incent novel events to emerge.
Third, the uber-event is the event by which all other events are measured and judged.
Fourth, meaningful participation in the uber-event is the goal of every event: i.e., Eternal Life.
So, do our lives have meaning? You bet they do! They acquire meaning from the values that motivate them and from the uber-event in which they will ultimately be embedded, eternally!
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at email@example.com.