~ Eternity probably does not exist. Eternal things are not eternal. There is no ‘forever.’
Our understanding of the universe around us tells us that entropy eventually consumes everything physical. And there is absolutely no evidence anything spiritual exists currently, or survives us (or any other life) beyond the shedding of the mortal coil.
The concept of an everlasting eternal seems to be a fiction.
But let us imagine if it was not.
What would eternity look like? What would something eternal appear to us as? How could we perceive forever?
When I was a young boy, I used to consider eternity, in the context of an afterlife, for long bouts of what should’ve been sleep. Such ponderings likely played an indirect role in creating my propensity for my future sufferings from insomnia ~ that of my tendency to fall into mindless yet deeply conscious rumination serving to delay the onset of my dreams.
I was raised in a mildly religious environment, learning of ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ and their precepts. I simply could not wrap my mind around it (for obvious reasons), and thus would become increasingly fascinated with the idea of not being able to perceive even a basic understanding of this concept of eternity. Merely trying to would put me down a rabbit hole of contemplation. Honestly, it was exhilarating, just not so conducive to trying to put one’s mind to rest for sleeping. Eventually, my mind would flutter on to the more mundane considerations of my reality, I would tucker out, and drift off.
But I would jump into this mental exercise often. The train of thought always followed the same path: that of being in a place (always Heaven — huzzah!), and a time, not unlike the one we currently inhabit (I am eternally young!) — in which I am actively going about my (after)life, rewarded for living a good (mortal) life. I take up my time in this place (a paradise full of clouds and light and anything else I can imagine!) by saying things to the other people that are there and doing things, maybe even carefully planning out my time with mindful intention to do certain, specific things (like play basketball with Jesus, or watch spaceships and stuff in the far future from my eternal seat of time), or spontaneously decide to do random things every day, knowing I will eventually get to it all.
In this eternity — in this divine-reward-paradise — I am saying and doing and moving about in a space and in a time, as a humanoid agent with a mind and body. In these ways, this imagining was much the same as my waking reality, with the similar core components of physical spaces and movements within them and comprehensions of what makes up “a good time.” The only difference is that such activity never ends. Theoretically, it would just keep going on and on and on, forevermore. This would be the part where the train went off the rails. This halting comprehension of the forever part is why I would have to keep returning night after night.
(I would imagine this is how many kids, or even adults, might imagine an afterlife as — a giant party of our spirit-selves in the clouds. Who knows! The Good Book(s) doubtless leave it vague and open to interpretation for a reason.)
For some reason, as a kid (and even now), I used to imagine time quite vividly. More specifically, I would literally envision time in the context of the calendars of the years I was living through — as a winding tapestry, or even a pathway. This imagining had a particular structure to it, with each month and each year making up the constituent components of rather vivid imagery which I could track over time in my head. This visualization became my go-to when thinking of time, and when thinking of how long ago things happened in history or in thinking of the near and distant future I might be able to live within. It would be called up in all of my considerations of time and it’s movement about me.
It was strange to envision such a concrete image, and stranger still that it has stuck for all these years as a foundational and observable mental pillar to my understanding of time and its passage. Below, I have attempted to sketch out exactly how this visualization appears in my mind.
~ Such an image appears almost every single time I think about time in the context of longer than a single month.
And so, in my nightly reveries of eternity and of an afterlife within it, I would attempt to imagine a boundless arrow into the future — going out further and further into … something… way, way out there. I would necessarily try to envision a neverending horizon, one that I would be continually walking towards. As I make my way in the afterlife, doing whatever, I have in the back of my mind this movement towards the horizon. Somehow my movement towards it — even without making one iota of real progress towards reaching it (because of eternity yo) — resolutely marks my position in this place, providing for me a necessary reference point to continually build my sense of time and self around. i.e. Time is still passing, it just doesn’t ever end.
And in this fantasy, I am always focused, happy, looking forward to spending all of my endless time however I want, doing whatever I want forever; it is all just awesome, plainly and simply, and understandably so. This was all incredibly satisfying for me to think about. To know at the end of all this mortal chaos and uncertainty, there was this happy horizon waiting for me. All I had to do was be a good boy. 🙂
But eventually, in this afterlife, I feel I would have to confront the literal reality of this eternal landscape. Each time, I would keep returning to the horizon, defaulting to the concept of some kind of end or legacy or the completion of my works within this forever-paradise, whatever they may become. I couldn’t help but return to the idea that I would eventually get somewhere. Somewhat foolishly, my mind would keep coming back to this concept of mortality — of myself and my time — as the only mental framework I could consciously perceive for myself in good faith. It is a perspective rooted both within our biology and our culture, and it was ingrained within me even then. It was at this point in which the reflection would break down, and I would finally realize the impossibility of continuing down that horizon.
Because there was no horizon / there was no end to look upon, no ending to envisage.
For a moment, I would back up, shake it off, reset, and try to go at it again, with some new angle or a different perspective on the whole thing. But of course, it never went anywhere. I would commit myself to recurring in this loop for a spell, trying to crack the codes of existence. Ultimately, as I said, I would cool off and go to sleep.
Of course, I also never really broke down why being ‘alive’ forever would even be a net good thing. I only considered the good stuff. In truth, immortality would probably be bad. If we retained most of ourselves, like I imagined we would — it wouldn’t be something we would necessarily desire because we are not built for immortality, mentally speaking. People are not meant to live forever. I honestly believe that.
Regardless of how paradise is set up, I strongly suspect immortality would be this banal continuity, stripped of all its expectation and patience and genuine change and probably devoid of intentionality and motivation and very likely meaning and all the other things that make everything about existing intriguing. But that’s another conversation, for another day, and was nothing I included within these nascent reveries on the nature of my own potentially endless existence as a young boy.
Given this naive line of thinking from my own past, let me again return to consider this concept of eternity with a different perspective. Through my recent readings of Stoic philosophy, I have come across the concept of eternal return, or eternal recurrence. It has me again consciously boarding this eternal train of thought.
“[Eternal return] is a theory that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space… Eternal return is based on the philosophy of pre-determinism in that people are predestined to continue repeating the same events over and over again.”
Alright, so let’s run with this for a moment.
Realistically speaking, taking this concept at face value — you might say there is not much to seriously consider given we are all in some futile, unconscious loop. What’s the point! It cannot be proven and presumably, cannot be changed through any of our own meddling, even with this knowledge in hand.
Metaphysically speaking, however, I believe there is considerable value in such a conception as this. And it is in part due to that first sentiment. Given that our every action is destined to repeat ad infinitum, and we have some conscious knowledge of this — and we are incapable of changing such a fate — it might change our perspective on how we are living our life. At least, it should. It could very well come to inform one’s entire life philosophy.
Given we are each within our personalized Sisyphusean state — eternally rolling the rock up and down the hill — there are at least a couple of ideas worth examining:
- To begin with, in order to do anything at all, we would need to overcome the perhaps immobilizing knowledge that everything is pre-determined — everything you will be doing is already set in stone because it has already happened — an infinite number of times before. In an examination of this kind of thinking, we are in effect trapped by our own self, acting out our life hinged entirely from some unknown source point deep within our own primordial past, and without the capability of truly changing anything in the context of that single referencing criterion. Depending on your mindset, and your own will, this is damning. For beings that thrive on and seemingly require agency and meaning to live — it certainly is.
- To continue persisting, acting with some kind of purpose and in line with our own code — we have to simultaneously think of this infinite future of projected repetition. If what we do now resounds throughout both retrospective and prospective Time, then there are serious consequences to consider, to say the least. Every single word we say, every motion we make, every thought that crosses our mind on its way to becoming realized in our life — it is forever. Each moment of life is eternalized, in returning eternity. The after-images and after-effects of how we operate within the world have their own eternal reverberations through time and space. Such a reality cannot help but make one deeply conscientious of their own actions — with or without agency’s presence.
- To go down another related and inevitable path, what if the predestination aspect of eternal recurrence was actually absent? Then everything would change. Then, everything could be changed. With agency in hand and pre-determinism no longer doing its banal work, the eternal return of our lives loses its absurd restrictiveness and its antagonism to our desire for ultimate freedom. We would then become capable of creating our own eternal reality, making impossibly meaningful decisions every step along the way, affecting sincere and demarcating changes in the purview of our lives in recurrence. In fact, such conditions might very well be maddening. At surface, it highlights the vital importance of cultivating good habits. Every decision — whether minute or monumental — is consequentially a masterpiece, an opus resounding through infinity, recurring and returning to lionize us or haunt us forevermore. Given our complete understanding of our position here, every moment of existence becomes conscionably crucial. In truth, a different kind of existentially arresting immobilization might take place.
Given these considerations of a past and future which stretch on infinitely in this way — predestined or no — one may draw the conclusion that the impetus of existence falls entirely on the present moment. Thinking in terms of sheer logic, with Occam’s Razor in hand, this has to be the answer. The present moment is all that would exist.
A moment, each moment becomes like a person standing betwixt two mirrors, looking forward and looking back and then moving with some kind of purpose and seeing all the endless consequences of that action in the dual reflections.
Under eternal return — together, all of us, are this passenger in between the mirrors. Everyone and everything happening in tandem then becomes a chaotic march of decidedly preordained yet incredibly meaningful and impactful actions and inactions. Not to be redundant, but you would have to posit that because of the nature of infinity and this recurrence of the present moment across the full spectrum of time, every single moment is the most important moment. Every single thought and word and action is as significant as all the others — across persons as well as internally of the same person. Life in eternal return becomes a staggering collective of poignant moments without the need for progression because they are already fully realized; Existence then, one long meta-narrative of narratives which together and individually are equivalently significant, with each individual part constituting the sum ~ being equal to the sum.
Of course, it would appear this line of thinking is still partially anchored through a standard time sense — that of a past, present and future existing with some kind of separation. In truth, an eternal recurrence, a true eternity would boil down to that ultimate source point within our primordial past (whether collectively as a species, or individually). That single moment would be the only moment. In essence, Everything is that single moment.
Thusly, eternity is already here, pervading everything and making up all of the reality we see around us.
The past, present and future are all one, there is no distinction to be made between them.
The sense of an eternal thing lies both within the details and within the full picture — within the leaf on the tree and within the full forestry — within the cell and the organism — within the planet and the universe — within the plane and the multiverse.
It is all the same under this eternal landscape of Time.
“All is one and one is all.”
It’s quite simple, in fact. Forever is actually easy to imagine because we are already doing it; we are already operating under its effects and it’s all we have ever known. All of this is true because it’s true, whether we are capable of comprehending it or not.
Except we are all mortal and so is the universe and there is no forever. Probably. So this isn’t true.
But maybe if there was an eternity, and maybe given a little perspective, then maybe it would go something like this. ~