Time, Death, and the Meaning of Life

In my last post, I reviewed Sabine Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics: A Scientists Guide To Life’s Biggest Questions. However, I failed to comment on one of its essential passages concerning time, death, and meaning. It involves the block universe or eternalism, the Einsteinian idea that “there is no basis for singling out a present time that separates the past from the future because all times coexist with equal status.”1 Hossenfelder explains what this means with this simple image,

… once your grandmother dies, information about her—her unique way of navigating life, her wisdom, her kindness, her sense of humor—becomes, in practice, irretrievable. It quickly disperses into forms we can no longer communicate with and that may no longer allow an experience of self-awareness. Nevertheless, if you trust our mathematics, the information is still there, somewhere, somehow, spread out over the universe but preserved forever. It might sound crazy, but it’s compatible with all we currently know.

In other words, as Hossenfelder writes later,

According to the current laws of nature, the future, the present, and the past all exist in the same way. That’s because, regardless of what you mean by exist, there is nothing in these laws that distinguishes one moment of time from any other. The past, therefore, exists in just the same way as the present. While the situation is not entirely settled, it seems that the laws of nature preserve information entirely, so that all the details that make up you and the story of your grandmother’s life are immortal.

Now I have been aware of the idea of the block universe since I was a graduate student in Richard Blackwell‘s seminar “Concepts of Time.” I also mentioned how eternalism was significant in my latest book, Short Essays on Life, Death, Meaning, and the Far Future,

Some might still find it distressing to think that their individual consciousness, despite its role in creating cosmic meaning, will have faded into oblivion long before new heights of meaning are reached. But maybe this view of time is mistaken and future meaning is already a part of us, and we are a part of it… now. After all, Einstein’s theory of special relativity implies that objects and events from the past, present, and future all exist eternally and are all equally real

I didn’t explore the idea further but Hossenfelder has reminded me how such a pursuit might be fruitful. I have hesitated to explore this idea further because 1)I don’t have the mathematical background to really understand physics at more than a basic layperson level and 2) I have always found it hard to reconcile the strong intuition of time’s passing (presentism) with Einstein’s block universe. Let me explain.

Much of modern science is counterintuitive. Who really can conceptualize atoms much less subatomic particles? Other than experts, who really understands quantum mechanics or relativity theory? I can say that the electrons in my hand are repulsed by the electrons in the wall thus preventing them from passing through, and I’ve said this in class. But as a non-expert, I have only a vague understanding of such ideas.

Now I accept all this because I understand the power and truth of modern science but eternalism has always been hard to grasp. My parents and grandparents just seem as dead to me as I will seemingly be to my children and grandchildren. It is just a hard intuition to avoid. Now again I know that intuition is a poor guide to truth. If it were a good guide I’d think that the planet was flat and motionless beneath my feet—both ideas false though intuitive. But the past and future being as real as the present—that’s a hard idea to feel in your bones.

Of course, Hossenfelder and others continue to remind me of this and I’ll hopefully have time to think more about this in the next few years. I’d better do so soon because it feels as if I’m running out of time!


1.”The quantum theory of time, the block universe, and human experience,” in The Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A, Joan A. Vaccaro,


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11 thoughts on “Time, Death, and the Meaning of Life

  1. I cannot imagine how Hossenfelder can reconcile this position with the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, which most definitely DOES distinguish the past from the future, and which DOES show that the information content of any closed system (such as the universe) must decline with time.

    On a completely different dimension, I can finally announce that Le Morte D’Arthur, my storyworld about death and the meaning of life, is now presentable. It requires a large time investment, perhaps five hours, but is the successful culmination of a career devoted to the pursuit of genuinely interactive art. You can find it at http://www.erasmatazz.com/LeMorteDArthur.html.

  2. The continuum framed by Einstein’s special theory is that which I have called temporality, I think. No beginnings and no end. Seems to me, this is Carroll’s Big Picture, reduced to a non-physics; non-mathematics layperson’s level. Insofar as most of us will never understand higher math, much less the quantum world, it is probably well that we kiss it…keep it simple…as a practical matter. I am still absorbing the question of whether authenticity is coherent. After initial confusion, I have a preliminary thesis, which aligns with my attorney friends answer(s) on questions of law: it depends.

  3. ” Now I accept all this because I understand the power and truth of modern science but eternalism has always been hard to grasp. My parents and grandparents ….”.

    I completely agree. I completely trust science: it’s the best I can get. But it is as if science is an entity itself that looks at us and goes : “These are just atoms.”. But to us, our mother wasn’t a bag of atoms. It was something that can never be replicated, for all eternity. And even if it will, which I doubt (would that be her, or a “copy” ?”, I’ll be VERY long gone by the time it happens.

    I think that science is similar to philosophy, in that, as Schopenhauer noted, things are seen in their “generality”. But we see and experience things as unique to us.

    ” I’d better do so soon because it feels as if I’m running out of time!”. I am 50 (though strangely I look 12 years younger, but this won’t fool me) and I think the same, everyday.

    It’s as if we were journeying on the same ship! Thank you!

  4. This may be off-topic. I could neither recall nor trace whether I had mentioned it. Within the last few days, I read something on ‘existential inertia’. This bears at least a superficial similarity to Hossenfelder’s Existential Physics, insofar as the authors were discussing such matters and how they bear upon life, consciousness and so on. It appeared on another blog I sometimes read. Feel free to delete this if it is irrelevant.

  5. Perhaps you are thinking of my previous reply to one of your comments,

    “I only know the bare outline of Schimd’s argument in defense of the EIT after looking just now online. But from what I can gather, and having a layperson’s understanding of modern cosmology (I don’t have the math to understand this like Hossenfelder or Carroll) I would definitely accept the EIT against Aquinas and others. In fact, the idea that a God is needed to keep the universe going didn’t make sense to me even in high school when I first encountered Aquinas’ 5 ways more than 50 years ago. To argue that all change and motion must rely on some immutable, necessary/purely actual being (or however they describe it) strikes me as almost self-evidently absurd. Of course I’m no expert on the topic.”

  6. I agree with Chris Crawford. Given that Sabine Hossenfelder has been quite harsh in her criticism of other physicists for pursuing “beautiful” mathematical theories without supporting empirical evidence (e.g., string theory), it seems odd that she would put forward the notion that if we “trust our mathematics” the “information” about our long departed ancestors is “still there, somewhere”, “preserved forever”. I’m sure she would be quick to say that she is not doing science when making such statements. And in that sense, you need to be careful when promoting such views as “the power and truth of modern science”.

  7. The book contains an entire chapter titled “Is Math All There Is?” explaining her views on the matter.

  8. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and shall ever be, world without end.” This is the concept of eternalism I grew up with. Not sure what it means anymore. On the material level, one that we can quantify, I can imagine infinite, indivisible atoms; some which seem can communicate with each across the Universe (spooky behavior, indeed). This gives me hope as a bag of atoms, in the author’s description, that one day we may learn to turn on these atoms in a way through telepathy to communicate across distant space itself. This seems far more doable than the process involved in reducing anyone and things into their elemental atoms and teleporting them across space, although, this too many come to pass. My intuition still screams that everything in this Universe is somehow connected. We are not alone; we are part of a whole. That’s my belief and I’m sticking with it until proven wrong.

  9. I reviewed the comments, as I eventually do with most blogs I read. Reading Chris Crawford’s initial remark, something occurred to me. …’information content of any closed system (…) must decline over time…’ But does the second law really say that?
    As I understood it, the Universe tends towards entropy (chaos). Depending upon how one views chaos, it could (does?) mean too much information, which, in a practical sense, does constitute chaos. I once had a math teacher (algebra) who claimed he could ‘walk on his hands’ when it came to equations. I never knew what he meant. Until now.

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