Updated: Apr 24
“If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” — LUDWIG WITTGENSTEIN
But where else exactly is one supposed to live? We say that Jill lives in the past…but we don’t mean it. She may be focused on the past but that focus exists in the present. Likewise, we say that Jack lives for tomorrow (the future); but again, whatever that means, it is happening here and now, not then and there.
In fact, it is logically impossible to live in the ‘there and then’ because if you did, it would be the ‘here and now’. There is no difference between ‘there and then’ and ‘here and now’ other than your ability to live in one and not in the other. Even time travel does not change this; it merely disjoins the flow of your life from the flow of events around you. Wherever you are and whenever it is, it’s always ‘here and now’.
We take it as an article of faith that every ‘there and then’ was or will be a ‘here and now’. If a ‘there and then’ in our past was never a ‘here and now’ then it never would have been in the first place. Likewise, a ‘there and then’ thought to lie in our future will only be real if it eventually becomes a ‘here and now’. Think ‘President Romney’.
Now let us return to Wittgenstein’s proposition: “…eternal life belongs to those who live in the present”. He might just as well have said, “He who lives in the present lives eternally.” And since it is impossible to live anywhere BUT the present, we can deduce a simple corollary: “Everyone who lives lives eternally.”
So now we have ourselves a dilemma. To live is to live eternally; but most people imagine that they will die someday. If they do die, then perhaps they did not live eternally and if they do not live eternally, then apparently they did not live at all. Hmm.
Death is typically defined as the loss of life. If everyone who lives lives eternally, how can there be a ‘loss of life’? Our definition needs to be modified: death is the loss of life, not from our perspective in the present (here and now), but from the perspective of space-time (there and then).
Life is what happens in the present; but life also actualizes a past and potentializes a future. Death is the cessation of that process: no more memories, no more dreams! So what dies? What stops?
When we speak of death, we assume that the individual ceases to be and the world continues on; but in fact, the opposite is the case. When I ‘die’, the past and future (aka time) will cease to exist for me; I will not cease to exist because my life is always in the present and therefore eternal. Nor will the present cease to exist since presence and eternity are synonymous.
What we call death is not our death vis-à-vis the spatio-temporal world but the death of the spatio-temporal world vis-à-vis us. Eternally present, we enjoy the experience of space-time. But eventually, for each of us, the space-time candle flickers out and we are left with our essential selves, timeless, present, eternal.