As I pondered this month’s Credidero topic over the past thirty days, it occurred to me fairly early on that there’s a “one of these things is not the like the other” facet to this particular concept, in that “Eternity” is the only one of the twelve topics that cannot be tangibly experienced by human beings in any way, because it does not actually exist in the natural world.
I could go take a walk right now and experience complexity, or hostility, or curiosity, or any of the other eight topics I’ve considered and written about before this one, but there’s no way for me to experience an infinite span of time — unless I put my absolute faith in the premise of eternal life after death, snuff myself, and evaluate never-ending time as a tree in Dante’s Forest of Suicides. Or, conversely, if I was unexpectedly squished by a bus, and all was well with my relationship with my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, at that moment, in which case I could be granted eternal bliss in the presence of the The LORD and all of His angels, world without end, amen, amen.
I certainly don’t intend to do self-harm in the name of research, and I hope that there’s not a bus grill in my immediate future, so those avenues for exploring the concept of endless time are not on the table at this point. And even if they were, do I believe that my incorporeal soul would tread one of those paths when my incredibly fleeting time as a sentient seawater sack plays out? No, not really. I’ve formally directed that my bodily remains be cremated when that time comes, and they’ll presumably be scattered somewhere (informally, I’ve suggested that they should be put in a fire ant nest at Stoney Creek Cemetery), so the closest thing to eternity that the constituent bits which once were me will likely experience is a slow dispersal of elements which will be reintegrated into other living things (most likely plants, or fungi), which will feed other living things, until such time as life is exterminated from our planet’s face, or the planet itself ceases to be. And even then, some of those bits may travel through interstellar space, landing who knows where, who knows when, until the universe itself collapses, leaving behind . . . something? Maybe?
That will take a long, long time, for sure, but not an eternity, in the normal use of that word. While the earliest moments of the universe are mind-bogglingly complex and confusing, and its final moments will likely mirror that incomprehensible chaos, time as human beings understand it will have started at one point, and ended at another, a finite (though immense) period, short of the infinity required to accurately capture the core concept of eternity. Scientifically and objectively speaking, the story arc of every other human being, and every other living thing, will be exactly the same on a macro basis, and even if we aggregate all of the life spans and all of the experiences of all of things that have ever creeped, crawled and croaked across our planet’s surface, we’d still come up with a time span that approached infinity, but never actually reached it.
Eternity is, therefore, a non-existent physical state in a non-metaphysical universe. And yet, it’s a cornerstone concept of most global faith traditions, where gods always have been and always will be, and human souls are presumed to endure over never-ending time spans, once they are sparked into being. (One of the quirky things about infinity is that a thing that has no beginning and no end exists for the the same amount of time as a thing that has a beginning, but no end). A logical corollary of such belief systems is that the periods of time when our souls are resident in their physical forms are essentially non-existent in the grand scheme of things, as ~80 years of corporeal life divided by an infinite number of life-after-death years equals zero, mathematically speaking. If we go to hell after death, then eternity is suffering, always. If there’s a paradise, then eternity is bliss, always. Everything that we are, and everything that we do, in our physical lives, condenses down to a single, timeless point, a toggle-switch in which the indeterminacy of forever is resolved into one of only two possible eternal states.
While I wouldn’t have understood or stated it quite that way, I can tell you that few concepts were more terrifying to me as a young person than this one, having been raised in an evangelical Christian household. The concept of The Rapture — when all believers, alive and dead, would rise to meet The LORD in glory — made eternity even more terrifying, as it could happen any time, and if it occurred during that one little moment of doubt, or that one little second after temptation had become sin, then I would be left behind to bear the tribulation, the Second Coming and the Last Judgment, after which eternal damnation or eternal salvation awaited. All I knew as a young person was that if I had been bad, I could wake up one morning to find that my parents and all of the “good” people in my life were gone. In theory, that should have helped me to behave. In practice, I sinned with great aplomb, and was just scared all of the time that I wouldn’t be quick or thorough enough in my prayers for forgiveness to dodge that incoming Rapture bullet.
This was real enough in my world that I can remember having deadly earnest conversations with friends in middle school church youth groups about what we would do if didn’t make the cut when the Rapture came: where we would meet, how we would hide, what we would do, when finally faced with the undeniable reality of eternity, to ensure that we made the next cut together, and weren’t cast into eternal darkness and suffering. We saw it as some sort of post-apocalyptic action movie scenario, where we’d live on the run, protecting our little community at all costs from the Beast, and the Whore, and the Antichrist and their minions, faithful in our hidden catacomb headquarters, desperately repentant that we didn’t get it right the first time, determined to make amends if only given one more chance. And we had those conversations, more than once, because we all knew that we were woefully inadequate in our abilities to maintain sin-free, fully faithful lives, 24/7/365, so that the odds were stacked against us that we might all be right, true, and squared up in our faith at the precise moment when the virtuous souls began ascending. None of us pondered eternity with any expectation that it would be a positive experience, at bottom line. At least not without a whole lot of suffering before we got there, anyway.
So that’s what “eternity” meant to me through a good chunk of my formative years, a fraught concept fully anchored in an arcane belief system, and not in any observable reality — but terrifying nonetheless. That fear has abated over the ensuing decades, thankfully, and when I ponder the definition of eternity as “infinite time” now as an adult, I find that I can only perceive it at arm’s length, far more so than I can with any of the other Credidero concepts, as it has no meaningful impact or import in how I live my daily life and interact with other human beings. If I have any adult fears related to the concept, they spring from the knowledge that there are a shockingly large number of death cult zealots in positions of national leadership who are actively fomenting unrest in the Middle East in a misguided effort to hasten Armageddon and bring on the end times described by John the Revelator. I suppose eternity isn’t as frightening to them as it was to my young self, so secure are they in their faithful infallibility in the face of some final judgment. Must be nice.
Interestingly enough, the generally accepted definition of eternity as “infinite time” is (in relative terms) somewhat recent, having emerged only in the late Sixteenth Century. The ancient roots of the word are (possibly) found in the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European language’s aiw, meaning “vital [life] force.” From there we pass through the Latin aevum (age), aeviternus (great age), and aeternus (enduring). That latter form morphed into eternité in Old French, and thence into eternity in Late Middle English. The concept certainly captured long time spans over the aeons, if not infinite ones. There is also a specific philosophical usage where the word “eternity” means “outside of time,” as opposed to “sempiternity,” which is used to describe objects or concepts that exist now, and will continue to do so forever.
The crux of any discussion of eternity’s nuances, therefore, really hinges on whether the word is being used to describe very, very long time spans (which exist in our material world), or infinite ones (which do not). Which begs a second level question: does anything infinite really exist in the observable world? If there is no infinite time, is there an infinite distance, or an infinite mass, or an infinite number of some particular object(s), or anything else that has no beginning and no end when we attempt to count or measure it? Or even anything else that has no beginning and no end and exists somewhere else in the material world beyond our view or understanding?
I’m probably going to create a vision of myself as a most terribly neurotic child by sharing this, but I have to admit that “infinity” was another concept that kept me up at night as a young person, some years before fear of eternal damnation moved to the forefront of my existential anxieties. As a child of the ’60s, I was deeply fascinated by space exploration, and read voraciously about the topic. Our understanding of the solar system was a bit simpler then, with nine planets, and a readily countable and nameable number of natural satellites, plus some junk in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Beyond Pluto, there was Deep Space, which went on (we presumed) forever. I have specific memories of laying in bed thinking about that: I’d fly my mental space ship to Pluto, and then go further. And then further. And then further. And there would still be further to go. I could make myself woozy if I kept at it long enough, trying to comprehend space with no edge and no end. (Honestly, I could probably make myself woozy today if I thought too long about what’s out there 13.7 billion light years away from the center of the universe, at the very leading edge of the Big Bang’s reach; it’s just as mind-numbing to ponder now as it was then, if less scary).
Despite its questionable existence in the real world of tangible human experience (or our questionable ability to perceive it), infinity is a readily accessible, and useful, concept in higher mathematics, which fascinated me to no end when I was studying advanced calculus and differential equations in college. The key kluge to tangibly dealing with infinity is captured in the concept of mathematical limits, where the value of a function (or sequence) approaches some limit as the input (or index) approaches some other value. So we can say that the limit is zero as an input approaches infinity, or we can say that the limit is infinity as we approach zero, or any number of other possible permutations that can be framed by various formulae and equations. We can’t actually get to infinity, but we can understand what happens as we approach it, in perhaps simpler terms. We can also accept that anything divided by infinity is zero — but not that anything divided by zero is infinity. (I’ve seen various explanations and proofs of that concept over the years, and I accept them, though there’s still some sense of logical incongruity there for the casual mathematician).
My math studies in college were one place where contemplating the infinite, the imaginary, and the irrational — and the ways in which they can modeled — was actually a positive, pleasurable experience. One of the most sublime intellectual moments of my life was seeing the derivation and proof of Euler’s identity:
“π,” as most know, is the ratio of the circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number (e.g. it cannot be written as a fraction), and to the best of our knowledge, it continues irrationally infinitely; it has currently been calculated out to 31.4 trillion digits, and it never repeats in any predictable or discernible fashion. “e” is Euler’s Number, the base of natural logarithms. It has been calculated out to about 8 trillion digits, as best I can ascertain, also continuing irrationally in perpetuity. “i” is the imaginary number unit, which is the square root of -1. It cannot be calculated as it does not exist in the set of real numbers, but it’s a cornerstone concept in complex number theory. “0” is of course, zero, the opposite of infinity, and 1 is the first non-zero natural number, and the first in the infinite sequence of natural numbers. The fact that these five numbers — discovered and/or calculated and/or understood in different times, different ways, and different places throughout history — are provably related in such an ultimately simple and elegant way still utterly blows my mind with wonder and awe, both at the natural order that produces such relationships, and at the human powers of observation that divined and codified it.
Those mathematical studies also inspired and spilled over into my creative life at the time. Around 1983, I wrote a song called “Anathematics” (there’s a demo version of it here), which included these lyrics, among others:
There’s a school of thought that is so large, it can’t be learned by one.
Six hundred monks are studying it now, but they have just begun.
The more they think, the less they know. They less they know, they’re not.
The more they’re not, the less I am. There’s more to me, I thought.
The limit is zero as we approach infinity.
The future’s uncertain, as only the past can’t be.
Anathematics explains what cannot be . . .
It’s less elegant than Euler’s Identity, certainly, but it was an attempt to try to capture the awesome confusion of the infinitely big and the infinitely small and the ways in which they overlap, taken from the viewpoint of modeling that which cannot be, rather than that which can. So essentially a poetic (and much shorter) version of what I’m doing here in this article, with a stiff beat that you most certainly cannot dance to.
There’s another way, in my life right here and right now, that I find myself reflecting on the limits of eternal time and eternal distance. My wife, daughter, and I all have the Drake Equation tattooed on our right forearms. Here it is, if you’re unfamiliar with it, along with an explanation of the terms embedded within it:
The Drake Equation was written in 1961 by Dr Frank Drake as a probabilistic argument to estimate the number of active, communicative extraterrestrial civilizations in the Milky Way. We know a lot more about some of the variables today than we did when Drake postulated this argument (e.g. rate of star formation, fraction of stars with planets, etc.), but for most of the variables related to life, we’re obviously still operating with an observable set of one species on one planet with the ability to cast electromagnetic signals outward to the stars, and we haven’t been doing it for very long, at all.
“L” in some ways is the most interesting variable to me, since we have no idea how long we’re going to be able to keep broadcasting before we destroy ourselves, or something else destroys us. I suspect in the grand scheme of things, it’s likely going to end up being a relatively small number. Imagine, though, if L for human and other civilizations was vastly large, approaching eternal, meaning that once a planet began broadcasting, it would broadcast forever, or at least until the collapse of the universe. I believe that were that the case, we’d be picking up myriad signals from across the galaxy, since I also believe that we are not the first planetary civilization to develop broadcast capabilities since the Milky Way emerged some 13.5 billion years ago. (Compare that to the current estimated age of the universe at 13.7 billion years . . . our galaxy was born about as early as it was physically possible for it to, if our understanding of those ancient events is accurate. Wow!)
Given the immense distances at play, I’m not sure that we’d ever actually meet any of the other civilizations, but it would be transformative for humans on a planetary basis to know that we’re not alone, rather than simply believing it. It would also be truly revelatory to know that our sentient non-human colleagues in our universe are not metaphysical in nature (e.g angels, demons, gods and goddesses), but exist instead in the knowable, experiential world of real things. I’m not a dewy-eyed optimist about how that knowledge would instantly make everything better on earth (we’d likely still be prone to inhumanity in our dealings with others of our species), but it would certainly answer a lot of big questions, and it would certainly present some big opportunities.
After we got the Drake Equation tattoos, my wife summarized what she thinks when she looks at hers thusly: “It reminds me that we are small, but special.” True that, for sure, for now. Given the fact that a longer “L” for humanity means we would have a higher probability of eventually demonstrating that “N” is greater than 1, I’d be most inclined to adopt and hew to a belief structure and practice that’s anchored in managing our lives, our cultures, our civilizations and our planet in ways that increase the likelihood of extending “L” for as long as humanly possible. It seems to me that a belief in and commitment to the tangible (though as yet indeterminate) time span “L” is of greater utility than being afraid of and/or longing for a metaphysical eternity and what it might (though probably doesn’t) represent and contain.
So is anybody up for starting The Church of Maximum “L,” with a defining core belief that “N” is greater than one, if we can only stick around long enough to establish contact and connect? I’d be a darned good early apostle if you need one.
Note: This article is part of an ongoing twelve-part writing project. I’m using a random online dice roller to select a monthly topic from a series of twelve pre-selected themes. With this ninth article complete, I roll the die again . . .
. . . and next month I will consider Topic Number Five: “Authority”
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