What is it Like to Be Eternal?

Creaturely occasions cannot cause other creaturely occasions to exist. How can we know this? Causal relations between two creatures cannot obtain until they both actually exist so as to have relations in the first place. X cannot be truly said to have caused y until there is a y, so that there can be a relation of causation that obtains between them. Until there is y, x cannot have caused y. But this means that before y has come to pass, x cannot stand in any causal relation to y; it cannot function as a cause of y. So, x cannot bring y to be.

When you think about it, this is obvious. How could x reach into the future and manipulate it so that it eventually developed in such a way as to include y?

The causal relations among creaturely occasions – which is to say, their spatiotemporal relations, their loci in the extensive continuum – must be secondary characteristics, deriving from their basic characters. Extensive relations among creaturely occasions must supervene upon their actuality. Thus, first there are a set of actual creaturely occasions, and then there are their extensive relations. Those relations arise as a result of their characters in respect to each other, which reveal the degree to which the characterological features of each has found ingression in others, so that it is possible to measure their influence upon each other (and thus their relative loci in the extensive continuum). 

Creaturely events cannot be generated by creaturely causes. Since there are such events, they must be generated by God. This means that the occasions of our lives arise in the first place from roots in Divine eternity. Their causal loci and functions in cosmic history, furthermore, are not basic to them, but supervene upon and derive from their “addresses” in the Providential apprehension of the Logos, sub specie aeternitatis. This is to say nothing more than that the order of the worlds derives from the order of the Divine knowledge.

Thus all creaturely occasions are procedures of eternity. To be in time is to be in eternity. In God we live, move, and have our being – literally.

What is it like to be eternal? Well, there is some aspect of our experience – of experience as such – that bears the character of eternality, the feel of eternality. This, in just the same way that, for men, experience as such is experience of what it is like to be animal, to be male, to be material, to be living, and so forth. As there is some part of creaturely experience that is what it is like to be temporal, caused, finite, so likewise is there some part of our experience that is what it is like to be eternal.

How can you tell which aspect of your experience is what it is like to be eternal? It’s pretty tough. A qualium that is characteristic of experience as such is not possible to tease out from experience. You can’t notice noticing per se. You cannot, for example, tell what it is like to be an animal, because for you what it is like to be an animal is just what it is like to be you, no matter what sort of particular experiences you may be having. So, likewise, you can’t tell what it is like to live, move and have your being in God, for because this is the only way it is possible to exist at all, living, moving and having your being in God feels like existing, and cannot feel like anything else.

Thus it is that when we drag our attention away from the particularities of life, and focus our attention on what it is like simply to be, we are led with fair reliability to an experience of sublimity.

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5 thoughts on “What is it Like to Be Eternal?

  1. Dear Kristor,

    Time literally means entropy. The main equations of physics are time-reversible, plain simply the very concept of the future means that direction in time in which entropy happens to increase. (Recommended reading: The Emperors New Mind.)

    An eternal being cannot have entropy. Therefore, an eternal being does not experience time in any of our usual senses.

    • As necessary, eternity is the environing factor of everything whatsoever. If temporality is somehow in contradiction to eternity, then there can be no such thing as temporality. But there is such a thing as temporality. So there is no such contradiction.

      This is not to say that creatures are the Eternal One. It is only to say something analogous to “quarks partake of particularity.” To be is to partake of eternality, but – except for one being – not to be coterminous with it.

  2. Creaturely events cannot be generated by creaturely causes.

    It would be helpful (at least to me) to illustrate chains of reasoning this abstract with concrete examples. I desire some cake. I will that there be cake. Consequently, I mix flour, eggs, sugar, butter, milk, vanilla, salt, and baking powder; put the mixture in the oven; and take it out a half hour later. Now there is cake.

    In the modern way of speaking, I caused the existence of the cake. Well, sort of: in the modern way of speaking nothing really happened and there is no cake, really—there were subatomic particle/wave thingies before and there are thingies now, just in a very modestly different configuration. Plus, of course, I didn’t really do anything and have no special place in the sequence of causation (whatever that is), being a mindless meat machine and all. But if we make an unprincipled exception or fifteen, I caused the cake.

    Nevertheless, even in pre-modern ways of speaking, I caused the cake in some sense. The chain of efficient causes goes back to me and thence to my will. My will apparently determines that there be a cake. My will apparently determines the material cause of the cake (I could have added cocoa powder or, if I were a true servant of Satan, substituted Crisco for some of the butter).

    So what is the sense in which God and not I caused the cake? Is it that you could trace further back and eventually arrive at “God caused Bill, the flour, etc and thence the cake?” Is it that the cake would cease to exist, despite my best efforts, if God should choose to cease holding it in existence? I think you are saying one or the other of these, but maybe it is something else?

    Thus it is that when we drag our attention away from the particularities of life, and focus our attention on what it is like simply to be, we are led with fair reliability to an experience of sublimity.

    Therefore, contemplative prayer? My experience jibes with this. On the rare occasions in which I said the Rosary and was “doing it right,” I certainly thought I was catching a glimpse of the divine. On the other hand, I got the same feeling the first time I really understood the proof of the Implicit Function Theorem or the derivation of integration from measure theory, and for related reasons.

    • Is it that the cake would cease to exist, despite my best efforts, if God should choose to cease holding it in existence?

      Something like that; at least that; that, to be sure. God holds the whole causal order in existence; the causal order subsists in virtue of God’s existence and Providence thereof. Thus your intention and volition to make a cake could not result in any effect unless God provided a medium for that efficacy. What this means, among other things, is that your volition to make a cake is a sort of prayer to God that a cake should come to pass. That God routinely and gratuitously grants such prayers is the only reason we routinely discover that we have any efficient agency at all (or for that matter that there is any order or regularity in the world). If he did not, then we would sit there wishing that we might make a cake, desiring a cake, willing it, intending it, and no cakes would ever come to pass in such a way that we could possibly understand them as logically, rationally connected with our wishing, desiring, willing, or intending.

      But what I am getting at in this post goes a bit further even than that. What we are looking for when we say, “I made the cake,” is a way of connecting the causal dots between the state of affairs in which there is no cake, but only the intention of making one, and the state of affairs in which there is a cake. Unless those two states of affairs are both already actual, we will be missing one of the dots we want to connect, and there will be no possibility of such a connection. And in the order of time, the state of affairs in which there is a cake is to the prior state of affairs, in which there is no cake, simply and completely inaccessible.

      Put another way, the past cannot and does not actualize the present, or determine its character. If it could, then the present would be nothing more than a feature of the past, and would not therefore be disparate from that past. In that case, the present would not ever actually exist as a thing in its own right.

      In the order of eternity, however, of which the order of time is an image and derivate, both states of affairs are “simultaneously” actual. It is in virtue of this eternal provision of both states of affairs that a causal connection – a temporal, extensive relation – may ever obtain between the two states of affairs.

      Yet still it is in and by the state of affairs in which there is indeed a cake that the causal connection between the two states of affairs is realized. Only once there is indeed a cake can it be said that the prior decision to make a cake played a causal role in the actualization of that cake, and that some other potentiality was not actualized instead – that, e.g., the oven worked, there was sugar at the store, the sun didn’t explode while the batter was being mixed, and so forth.

      And this is in accord with quantum mechanics, under which it is in virtue of the act of measurement, whereby the actuality of the completed cake is ascertained as present in the worldline of the act of measurement, that the actuality of the cake is actually established in the worldline of the act of measurement (along with the causal chain that led up to the cake).

      Thus the state of affairs in which I intend to make a cake has no power in itself to bring about the existence of the cake. All it has is itself. We have no inherent power to shape events. Rather, we have power only to shape our responses to events, and so to constitute ourselves right now. This power to shape our responses is our power of decision, to be ourselves one thing, or another – e.g., to be willing to make a cake, or not. It is these responses that, as prolegomena dative to future events, allow for them to understand themselves as causally connected to their predecessors. If we so shape ourselves as not to desire to make a cake at all, we thereby make it less likely that some future state of affairs will discover that a cake has been made.

      This is all just a way of saying that only God has power to create.

      On the rare occasions in which I said the Rosary and was “doing it right,” I certainly thought I was catching a glimpse of the divine. On the other hand, I got the same feeling the first time I really understood the proof of the Implicit Function Theorem …

      I would say that “on the other hand” is not quite the apposite phrase. I get that sublime feeling at prayer, and when I understand mathematical truths, and when I understand metaphysical truths, and when I contemplate the natural world (including other people), and when I am immersed in music (of the right sort), and when I contemplate certain works of art or literature. I feel it when I am under the inspiration of the muse, and indeed sometimes when I am under the inspiration of strong spirits, and am thereby more opened to an apprehension of the sublime coherence of all things under Heaven.

  3. Pingback: God is the Window | The Orthosphere

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