Eternity is a very long time, especially towards the end.
During my freshman year of college, a friend asked me if I wanted to live forever and was shocked when, after five seconds of thought, I had not yet given an answer of “No” (an answer that would come after another five seconds). Everlasting life has been an object of intellectual fixation for millennia and has been addressed in countless works of art and mythology – think of Gilgamesh, the Monkey King and the Peaches of Immortality, the Flying Dutchman- most of which reach the inevitable conclusion that immortality is ultimately undesirable. The finiteness of our lives allows them to have meaning, the standard thinking goes. And an infinite life would get awfully boring. The fact that it took me, a reasonably well-educated eighteen-year-old who had undoubtedly read Tuck Everlasting in an elementary school classroom, ten whole seconds to reach this conclusion was remarkable.
In the years since this dorm room conversation, my thinking on this topic has not exactly become clarified. It would certainly take me longer than ten seconds to answer the question today, and I’m not sure I would finally come up with the same answer. And so, in a probably futile attempt to illuminate some of the murky corners of the issue, or at least to enjoy engaging with some fun problems, I will be writing a series of posts dedicated to immortality, to infinite life, drawing inspiration from literature, philosophy, psychology, and, yes, mathematics.
Immortality is unappealing to many, but to some, the prospect of an infinite life (or afterlife) is terrifying. This fear of eternity is known as apeirophobia (note the Greek root ‘apeiron‘) and, according to some anecdotal evidence in this article from The Atlantic, it might not be particularly uncommon. Apeirophobia has not been very well studied, but the article puts forward one explanation by Martin Wiener, a George Mason neuroscientist and psychologist. His idea is that, as children enter adolescence and develop the capacity for long-term planning, they realize both that they themselves will become adults and, one day, die and that this newfound ability for long-term planning would become somewhat useless in the context of eternity. It is impossible to mentally project forward through an infinite stretch of time, and the realization of this fact creates a fear.
The article also highlights an illuminating quote from Pascal:
When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then.
-Blaise Pascal, Pensées
And here’s a nice companion video The Atlantic made for the original article.
A bonus morsel this week: a piece published last week at The Millions about Richard Burgin, who is best known for his book of conversations with Borges. The piece ends with Burgin recounting talking with his son, a budding filmmaker, about infinity:
He asks me why anyone would waste their time with such an idea when there’s so much work to do.
-John Burgin, quoted in “Burgin, Borges, and Infinity”
Cover Image: Joseph Cornell, Soap Bubble Set