Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Forever

Looking into the future, being able to predict and plan for future events is something fundamental to human nature. For one, it enables us to predict the consequences of particular behaviours and thus make decisions. We aren't the only species to do this, but it seems that we do it to an extent unmatched in the animal kingdom.

This opens up a new problem though, time itself becomes largely illusory. Academically we can think of a month, a year or even a decade ahead, but we have no idea how to grasp onto that. Having lived 25 years now, I can't really say what it feels like to live for decades. Memory is fragmented, a childhood memory can be as vivid as something I experienced yesterday yet I have no mental means to appreciate the length of time that can be externally measured by the movement of the earth around the sun.

Yet without being able to grasp the time frames associated with our own life, somehow we often think in terms of the eternal. That there is hang-ups over the certainty of death, and the futility of action thereof. Somehow the ultimate overtakes the proximate and the fear of existential nihilism becomes overwhelming.

Being able to project into the future brings academic fears as distinct possibilities. We know that in the next two billion years the earth will be uninhabitable. In another 5 billion years or so, the sun will die. Yet before that, there is always the possibility of a massive caldera or a giant meteor hitting the earth. And yet I have to look both ways when crossing the street.

In the before-time, risks could be seemingly mitigated by a strict moral code. If there was an earthquake or flood, it was because of the actions of the people in the society and it was a form of divine retribution for such behaviour. Thankfully this kind of thinking is merely a vestigial reflex these days. Even when there is intentionality of malevolent action on the part of the agency the reflex rears up. But that's another story.

Back to this notion of forever. That the notion of futility comes hand in hand with the inability to put our projections into perspective. The desire for ultimate meaning, for permanent vindication or admonishment for particular actions belies finite nature of our existence and influence.

Consider the following statement: "What's the point in giving to charity? You're not going to solve world hunger." This to me is the problem of the expectation of the infinite. The action seems to need an ultimate solution in order for some to think it valid. Not that it might help provide food and / or medicine to those in need and act to slightly alleviate their suffering, but it has to be ultimately meaningful instead of fleetingly significant.

Yet why do anything at all? It's ultimately futile, it's ultimately for nothing. The disparity as to how we experience time and how we project final significance is part of modern religious apologetics. Especially in the Creation / Evolution controversy, there are many who use the threat of nihilism to get people to shy away from "Darwinism" and towards God.

Each of us represents a 3.5 billion year unbroken chain of replication, that is to say our ancestors were the lucky few throughout history that were able to take all that the environment threw at it. Of all the species that died out, of all the individuals within surviving species that didn't reproduce (necessarily so), each one of us is that unbroken sequence of survivors.

3.5 billion years is a long time. A really long time, a really really long time. It's unfathomably long. Your life is but a fraction of that. Even in terms of homo sapien, the species has survived for about 200,000 years. For less than 10% of that time, homo sapien has been able to farm and domesticate livestock. For less than 10% of that time, there has been the concept of 0. For less than 10% that time, we have known that germs cause disease. And for less than 10% of that time, we have had the internet in the average person's home. The average life constitutes ~0.0004% of the entire length of our own species. In terms of life as a whole it's ~0.00000002%!

To think in terms of ultimates has the problem of not being able to adequately grasp time scales. To think of our actions any more than a few generations down the line is projecting into total inadequacy. Even if the sun will make the earth uninhabitable in a billion years, a billion years ago there wasn't multicellular life. It was only 400 million years ago that land vertebrates emerged, 200 million years ago that mammals emerged, 50 million years ago that monkeys emerged, and only 5 million years ago that our ancestors came down from the trees.

The point being that projecting that far into the future makes no sense. Just as it makes no sense that what we do now affects what happens on a similar planet to earth that may exist in the Andromeda galaxy. We are finite beings occupying a finite place where our actions have finite consequences. That we can affect the continuum of life in other species, that we can affect the quality of life for individuals - these are things that are in our control.

It must be recognised that we don't have the ability to make ultimate actions, but that doesn't mean that our actions are meaningless. Even if one wanted to transcend their life with particular actions, there is cause for that now. We are all indebted to the first people who made primitive tools, over 2 million years and ~50,000 generations benefited. We are all indebted to those who first mastered fire, around 1 million years and ~25,000 generations have benefited.

I could go on with all different inventions that one time or another have immensely benefited subsequent generations. The person who first domesticated grain might not have any descendants nor do we know their name, it's lucky that we can even attribute any of these early inventions to a culture let alone a person. The action has transcended the individual and culture and is now at the heart of civilisation.

Countless people have benefited from certain actions in the past, evidence that actions live beyond the self and into the world around and through time. And that's taking the most extreme examples. Even in our daily lives our actions are recognised not only by the self, but by those they affect. An insignificant life is still one that can't help but flourish in meaning. We are intentional agents so we can't help but find meaning in action!

If nothing else, I hope I've made the case that we should be wary of thinking in ultimates as it goes against our finite nature. That time is a fuzzy concept and that there is no difference between 1,000 years and 1,000,000,000 years when projecting. Part of losing this sense of ultimates is losing the sense of absolute responsibility, which might be comforting but gravely erroneous. There is the here and now, and even the not to distant future where the immediacy of actions makes them meaningful.

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