February 06, 2007

The Art of Non-Compromise

The universe is getting bigger.

The galaxies are all flying further and further away from each other; eventually, the stars that we see will simply fade away, leaving our Milky Way alone among the vastness.

And it's speeding up even as we watch, the space between filling with something we can't see and don't yet even know how to detect: dark matter and dark energy.

The universe will eventually come to an end, finally, when all the energies that were unleashed at the cataclysmic origin use up their fuels and die out: entropy, the ultimate balancing act, will prevail. There will be no movement of any kind, not even molecular; no surviving life because there will be no change, an essential ingredient.

So, what's that to me? Fair enough question. The answer is: not much.

Now, don't get me wrong: I find the size of the universe astounding, and the visions from it even more so (what can I say? I picked up Discover's "The Universe" special); but in the running of my life, there's just not much there that's going to be influencing what I do here for my tiny little span of breath.

If I, and by extention my species, get tremendously lucky, focused, and talented, then there could be probes landing on one of Saturn's oddly Earth-like moons; or samples being bored from Neptune's ice. Maybe, just maybe, there could be people rotating to and from the Moon.

I may not even see this little modicum of progress in my lifetime: it could be that we take an entirely new direction, exploring unvisited depths of land and sea in an effort to further understand the world that spawned us. Maybe physical exploration will be relegated to secondary status while genetics stays to the fore.

I don't know.

Trying to predict the future, any future, is a mug's game, to misquote Douglas Adams slightly. Unless you put it far enough into the future: I know that sooner or later, my species isn't going to be here any longer. We'll either have killed each other; killed ourselves; something else will have done the job for us; or we'll be far beyond anything that would be considered Homo Sapiens, but we, humans, will be gone.

Dinosaurs are all from the Mesozoic Age, which lasted about 175 million years. I'd be amazed if we make it to 1 million. I'd be even more amazed if I were still around to blow out the candles.

Because I don't think I will be.

I don't believe in an after life. No Heaven, no Hell, no Valhalla. No cheating with reincarnation, either. The reason I don't beleve is that, well, I don't feel like I could know what's there, so I'm not inclined to make something up I don't call "fiction". For all I know, it's genetic: I've never felt religious at any point in my life, despite the Lord's Prayer still being dully chanted by hundreds of us little drones every school assembly (I stopped reciting it when I was seven). My family's pretty much a pack of atheists as well, so there could be something in that... In any case, if there is an afterlife, arguing about it before dying is like having an opinion on Degas when you've never heard of art.

So, every now and again, I get the strange question from True Believers:

"Why don't you just kill yourself? I mean, your life has no purpose, right?"

Or better still:

"You must be terribly unhappy. I feel so sorry for you. :("

Or funner than that, rather Glauconic statements like this:

"The main reason that so many atheists are criminals is that they reject the presence of a higher power that is a source of absolute morality. They do not believe that there will be any final consequences for their actions. After all, when they die, they die. End of story. So why not shoplift, and use drugs, and go on a killing spree, and read Harry Potter books, and rape as many people (of arbitrary gender and age) as possible? After all, in the end, it isn't going to matter, is it? This sick worldview is one of the biggest problems with society today."

Granted, these sorts of ststements tend to end up in places like this one, and few folks who have thought about their faith instead of following it blindly have actually bothered to ask these obviously stupid questions. But these opinions have an odd habit of returning, like the watchmaker argument, to amuse and annoy me.

So I think I'll answer.

To begin, understand that there is no such thing as eternal. There is no infinity that you can point to, no limitless, endless, or countless. (There is, to be sure, an inability to count, but that is not the same thing. End of aside.) Think the grains of sand on a beach are uncountable? What if I worked out the volume of the beach and gave you a quick estimate? We could get the same volume delivered right to your door. Count away at your leisure.

"Infinity" is a concept, only a concept, for an excellent reason. You know the example of ten typewriters and ten monkeys creating the complete works of Shakespeare? Well, they'd also create, word for word, the complete works of Hunter S. Thompson (Where'd Fridays go, Gaz?), Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and all the love poetry written by 15 year old Bobbi Jo Kopechnik ("i"s dotted with little hearts) of Tulsa, Alabama.

"Infinity" doesn't mean "for a long time". It means "until everything, and we mean EVERYTHING, happens".

So why is the allure of an unending life so strong? The varieties that appear all resound with a distinct lack of planning for the future. How to get there is made startlingly clear; what happens then is... uh...

"You're happy and stuff" seems to me to be the most pointless existence one could ever dream up. Think of the folks around you: how many of them seem to know what they're doing with their lives? What do you think they're going to do with an eternal one?

And more pertinent to my point, what would it matter?

Seeing people deprive themselves of joys in this world for ones they desperately want to have happen in the next simply breaks my heart. It strikes me as a willful insanity to not learn how to ride a motorcycle if that's what you really want to do when your reasoning is "there will be time enough when I'm dead".

What else are you going to do? Write the most beautiful sonnets in the world? Compose the first perfect haiku? Build your dream house? See if you can ride a single sustained orgasm's peak for a year or two?

Okay... Then what? Then you find out the monkeys beat you to it in all four cases, perhaps (who gave them hammers, anyways?). But even if not, then what? It's eternity: you'll do whatever you do, and it will be exactly what you intended, or not; it'll be perfect, or not; but you'll be happy with it. But... Then what?

"Eternity" doesn't mean "for a long time".

Some of us humans are known beyond our life spans: some far beyond them. But it wasn't for the eternal that these people became memorable. It wasn't because they were desperate to leave some kind of impression on the universe that they are known. It may be that the only immortality we have lies in the memories of our people, but it's not to the distant future that the few, tiny slivers of humanity were aiming.

No: these few, these giants whose works we can still see and still feel resonating within us through the span of aeons changed first the lives of those around them. It may be something as small as a town's local hero, or someone who felt the need to fight for his people or her nation, or someone who changed the very way the humanity thought about itself.

They're heroes, or villians, or often both; but they are made of the same stuff as you and me and the people surrounding them. And it's for those people, those they saw and heard and felt every day, that they went and acted. Those people, whose lives they touched, elevated them first; then future generations rose and fell, and picked their heroes from the past, and decided who should be immortal even as we are deciding now.

We're picking and choosing, on whim and judgement, who is worth keeping in our collective memory and who will be cast aside. And maybe someone from now will be remembered, and maybe not, and maybe so for only another generation before they fade.

Of all the meanings of "generation", it mostly signifies a cycling, a creation, a change; change is essential for life; and life, eventually, ends. This cannot be considered a tragedy!

Eternity is utterly trivial; immortality means nothing. What matters, in any way you wish to look, is the world around you now. These people, alive now, are the only ones who matter, just like every generation before it, and just like every generation to follow.

What's more important to you: eventually dying and being granted an inert, unchanging afterworld; or being remembered lovingly by one person, here and now?

Eternity? It can wait.


posted by Thursday at 11:44 pm


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just Excellent!Amen!

9:03 am  

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