Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Forever. Forever Ever. Forever Ever?

The concept of forever is a funny one.

We all know that nothing lasts forever. When first falling in love - and in the special rare cases where it lasts, for several decades afterward - we have the gut feeling that it will last forever. Marriage, if we go down that road, makes this explicit. But rationally, we know that one day, one of us, then the other, will die.

Those fancy renovations on the house we buy together, part of us thinks they'll be a permanent improvement in our lives. But one day we'll get sick of the colour and repaint, or we'll sell the house, and surely, one hopefully distant day, the whole building will be rubble. An artist's life's work, her greatest masterpiece, will one day be dust, or worse, forgotten. We make investments with time and money for the future, building a foundation for the lives of our future selves, our children, our grandchildren, our grandchildren's children, ad perputuum. But we know now more than ever that banks collapse, dynasties end, nations crumble. One good nuclear war, or one good blast from some unimaginable future weapon, and seven billion lifetimes of preparing for forever are sunk.

Let's float up to an even wider view. This planet, this solar system, this galaxy, they're just tiny drops in the pond of the universe. We don't know if time flows off forever into the past and the future, but we do know that the parts relevant to life as we understand it were formed at a definite starting point and, unless something drastic happens, have a definite end point. In between, any number of unknowns could cause a ripple in spacetime that washes our galaxy into the same irrelevance it had before it was formed. There is no room for forever in our universe.

We're left, then, with the conclusion that when someone expresses that something - anything - is forever, they are making a poorly reasoned guess at best, and outright lying at worst. What's incredible is that we even have a word for it, and that we can even fathom the concept in our minds. It's one of those words, like forever's cousin infinity, that is immediately understandable on the surface but a terrifying void underneath. Like swimming out too far in the sparkling ocean and suddenly there's just blackness all the way down. We invent ways to allay this terror - marriage, religion*, the afterlife - but it's just maintaining that surface illusion. Perhaps a necessary illusion - would we ever start to create anything if we knew it would soon be gone? - but an illusion nonetheless.

"If what they say is, 'nothing is forever,' then what makes (what makes), what makes (what makes), love the exceeeption."
--Outkast, Hey Ya!


* Footnote: Buddhism excepted.

Related uplifting post: Coffee and the heat death of the universe.


sarah said...


Chris L. Travers said...

These are words, thoughts, concepts that had significantly more meaning when Christendom was happily romping around the globe such as it did and now in much more smaller pockets, churches and church goers who take to the task of remembering for a world that has forgotten about forever.

These words, thoughts, concepts - forever & infinity - belong rightly in the hands of God whom is Himself the embodiment of those very things. Having just stepped out of the Easter celebrations and remembrances of another year, this becomes very clear.

Perhaps the harder question is not about their meaning, but the possibility that there are certain things that only make sense to the believers in our society and have been forgotten by the non-believers. Memories that, like the written word and stories of another era, were held in the memory of monasteries by monks, in the same way that in this age, they will once again be safe guarded until the next time human beings are ready to be reminded.

Phronk said...

Sarah: Yeah...

Interesting thoughts, Chris. I considered the idea that God is the embodiment of these ideas that can be unimaginable for humans. Whether it's as a metaphor (as in my view), or as literal fact (as perhaps in your view), that's certainly true.

I do question whether there are things that only make sense to believers. Other than the subjective experience of believing, I have trouble with the proposal that there are concepts that depend on belief for understanding.

Shora said...

Totally a male post. You're just afraid of commitment ;)

Honestly, I resent being called a "nonbeliever". It sounds so negative. I believe in things, just different things than those who call me a "nonbeliever".

Chris L. Travers said...

I can certainly understand the hesitancy towards a proposal that there are concepts that depend on belief for understanding Phronk; yet I would further posit that there are many things in science that require just that, belief for understanding - take dark matter for instance.

Just some initial thoughts! I'll throw in a side story for further thought: When translating the bible for an Inuit community, one itinerant preacher discovered that the community was unfamiliar with the concept of bread and wine, upon living with them he soon discovered that what sustained life there was whale meat and oil and thus the substitutions were made in the conceptual realm such that belief and understanding could occur.

Chris L. Travers said...

Shora - certainly no malice intended, a deficiency in language perhaps, more likely, as a Christian an oversight in typing before fully thinking it through. ;)

It was merely meant as pointing out a dichotomy found in society that has widened rather than narrowed over time.

Phronk said...

Shora: Hehe, hey now, I'm perfectly happy with the blissful illusion of commitment. Although I also think "I'll love you until the day I die" has a lot more meaning than "I'll love you forever."

I'm fine with "nonbeliever" in a specific context where it's important to distinguish belief in a given god vs. lack of that belief (as I think it's used here). But yeah, as a summary of a person's entire belief system, nonbeliever is meaningless and insulting.

Chris: I'm not sure if I agree with that, whether in the realm of science or religion or anything.

In your example, I think one can understand dark matter regardless of one's belief system. One may not believe dark matter exists (a tenable belief given that it's dark!), but if given the proposed mass of the dark matter, the proposed equations relating it to other matter, etc., they could fully understand what dark matter would be like if it did exist.

There might be motivation issues in getting someone to learn about something they don't believe in, but I think that if they did obtain enough information, they could understand it without believing it.

(in your other example, it may have been harder to execute, but the community could certainly come to understand what wine and bread were if a few examples were brought in and explained)

Sadie said...

Forever? For ever ever? For ever Ever????

Outkast seems to like forever...I do too haha. :]

Harry said...

Sounds like fear of our mortality and the unknown.

The last thing I want to consider when I give my fiance Valentine's Day chocolates is my shortened, alcoholic, family history of cancer & heart attacks, life. Plus, I don't think Hallmark prints that one.

Religion is great for those that want to believe death is the beginning and that their life has meaning.

We'd all like to have answers, but our brains are happy with whatever connections it makes with hopes to ease our lack of comfort.

Blogger needs a larger window for typing comments, and maybe one of those "oh crap I shouldn't have hit send" things GMail has. :P

Anonymous said...

I think the concept of forever is linked to our concept of, and need for, hope (one of the few things left to humanity after Pandora). If you remove the far reaches of forever (and of eternity), then it follows that, at some point, hope must end....

Very morbid post. I approve :)

Phronk said...

Sadie: Hehe yeah, Outkast can be surprisingly deep sometimes.

Harry: Yup totally. A healthy fear, I think; keeps us trying to conquer mortality and uncover the unknown. Yet the illusions we put in place to cover them up help keep social relations, like Valentines Day, running smoothly.

Anon: Good point! "Forever" definitely includes hope. And yeah it does seem a bit morbid eh? I was gonna go on an point out that I don't think any of this is necessarily a bad thing, but it was already too long. :)

Yvonne said...

As a "non-believer" - I have definitely been grasping at the concept of permanence (in relationships, goals, life, etc...) and it's not just commitment issues that stem from my experiences.

Having thrown 10 years of University away, sometimes I wonder if I should even bother starting over, or just wait to become part of the food chain again (and being buried near an organic farm to become mulch).

But it's not the end I find scary, it's the fear of becoming that little piece of dust, and having no other impact...

Great post man, made me think... and now back to rainbows and lollipops and latex and food.

TS said...

Great post.

... yeah, I'm keepin' my comment short and sweet.