Thursday 14 December 2023

Life is neither cumulative nor futile - but some "events" are (potentially) eternally significant

It seems to me that we have to make a decision about the significance of life: more exactly we need to discover what it is that we personally really feel about the significance of the "events" of this our mortal life. 

There are various "philosophies" of this life that are knocking-around; but none of the standard ones that we are likely to encounter seem to be validated by my own deepest and most lasting intuitions, insofar as I am conscious of them. 

For instance; some people sometimes talk as if life is a cumulative process, a matter of building towards - so someone might look back on their life as if it was all working towards who (and what) he is now. 

This is often a way used for structuring obituaries and biographies (whether informal and verbal, or written) - the idea of encapsulating what somebody's life was "about"... but it is hard to say how seriously it is taken by most people. 

It often seems like an as-if and ironic kind of activity; just "something to say", as in a funeral eulogy. 

On, the other hand; it does seem like some people actually live in order to make what they regard as an impressive obituary - the idea that their lived-life is validated by their post-mortal official reputation. 

(I should note, here, that (even just five years into retirement) the various academic/ scientific/ educational achievements of my own working-life, seem hollower, and are experienced as far less satisfying, than I had ever imagined at the times they happened!) 

At the opposite extreme is the idea that each person's life is ultimately futile; amounting to nothing and ended by annihilation of the self. 

This may be softened by stuff about "living-on" in the memories or hearts of others... But even to the extent this is true, it merely "kicks the can" a generation or two downstream; since we cannot thus survive beyond the lifespan of those who really-knew the real-us.  

The annihilation story is the underlying official and global metaphysical assumption; the one that lies behind all modern social institutions. It goes with the idea that individual people exists to serve the social systems. 

But the idea that an individual life is futile is also the implication of oneness spirituality in its various manifestations; including such ideas that this mortal life is an illusion, a deception, a simulation. That we are not really individuals at all, we only think we are. I mean the idea that we never really had or have an independent reality as "agents" as beings with the capacity for freedom...

People quite often talk in this way; although, again, it is hard to say how deeply they really believe what they are saying - often it just seems like a social status game.

My own deepest intuition is that this life is not futile; or rather that life is not necessarily futile - although we can choose to make it so. 

But that is merely a double-negative: I would go further and say that life is purposive and meaningful - but not in the way of an obituary. 

Rather; some events in life strike me as innately "of eternal significance". 

That feeling or belief is a kind of psychological fact-of-life for me - some things that happen in my life, combined with the way I responded to these happenings, are experienced as having a quality that seems to stretch-out into the eternal future; as if (from my point of view) everything has been changed by them.

I said a "psychological" fact, but part of this psychological fact is that this significance of some "events" goes beyond my own psychology, that the significance is objective - it is part of reality. 

Now this is a strange intuition! at least when compared with the kind of interpretative explanations that are knocking around the world nowadays. 

It is a strange thing to suppose that an-event-as-I-personally-experienced-it might form one of the building blocks of eternal reality; yet that is indeed how it seems. 

It is a secondary matter, coming after this intuition, to devise some model of the world in which this is possible; a moving-picture of the world in which it makes sense that an-event-as-I-personally-experienced-it could have a real, eternal significance.

Furthermore, this intuition includes that the significance is both objective and personal - that is, both important to me personally (so that, somehow, "I" am still going to be around to appreciate this importance) - as well as of continued, everlasting significance to "reality in general".* 

And that is one of the motivators behind my philosophical, metaphysical, activity - and also a reason why the theology to which I adhere - Romantic Christianity, as I call it - has ended-up being different from all the mainstream options. 

That is, in sum: None of the mainstream explanatory options make coherent sense of my intuition that an-event-as-I-personally-experienced-it could be a thing of eternal, and indeed personal, significance. One of my (self-motivated) tasks is therefore to devise a scheme by which the validity this intuition is explained. 

*I should emphasize that I do not have this intuition of eternal significance for every-thing that happens, but only for some things that happen. 


Stephen Macdonald said...

If life were utterly futile, we could not know it. The primordial insight is that we live in a meaningful cosmos. Another insight that I've gleaned from Dr. Charlton is that the Person is the deepest reality. To me this rules out futility in the broad sense. Even those who ultimately choose "No" to Christ are making a deeply meaningful choice, though they are blind to that meaning.

Like Dr. Charlton, events in my life that the world would consider "high points" (a certain level of success and wealth stemming from a Silicon Valley venture in the original dotcom era) are today of almost no importance to me whatsoever. Rather, it is many of the most painful events that, in concert with "simple joys" related to child-rearing, nature rambles, and friendships, that together feel to me like a coherent existence -- an existence drawn inexorably toward the Great Attractor of Jesus Christ. Suffering and joy. Without Christ I cannot imagine I would experience this feeling of coherence and "mass", but today I cannot imagine a world without Christ any more than I could imagine a world without qualities (the materialist delusion).

Bruce Charlton said...

@Stephen M


"a world without qualities"

That's a question that I have thought about a lot. Our culture takes qualities for granted without ever asking how we know about them, and which are valid.

In practice, most people focus so completely on quantification and measurement, that they simply accepts whatever they are told is a valid quality; and regard any attempt to clarify or critique the assumption as airy-fairy-nonsense. Yet, the choice of qualities determines "everything".

Cody Emcreed said...

Hey Dr. Charlton,

This jives with my own speculations. My current thought is that most of the experiences we have during this temporal existence are largely "horizontally" inclined. That is to say, there is no "rupture" into divinity. However, I think that some of our actions have a "verticality" to them, which to me represents a qualitative state change that has eternal and divine significance.

I also think most of the vertical ruptures are internal, and stem from having either mystical experiences, or are changes in our perception that allow us to see more closely God's plan - even if this occurs in a way that is very difficult to verbalize.