“Happy for infinity years”

“The problem with heaven” says Sean Carroll “is that it’s a place you can go to and be happy forever – For infinity years!” (see 42:16) This is impossible, however, since even under ideal circumstances boredom and lassitude set in. Any pleasure eventually loses its novelty and becomes stale, which applies just as much to the lower hedonistic pleasures as to the more refined pleasures of perfecting and exercising a skill. Even if we could go to heaven we would all eventually pine for annihilation. Borges speaks of being horrified by the prospect of immortality for similar reasons, and it isn’t hard to find older persons who are ready to die not out of desire to flee from pain or debilitation but simply because they feel they’ve lived long enough.

That Carroll describes a popular and to some extent even theological account of heaven is beyond doubt. What other heaven can there be for art, whether on the ceiling of a byzantine cathedral or a two-star movie? But to kill off such a heaven cuts both ways: we can either take it as Carroll wants to, as a call to return to the natural universe and to find our contentment there, or we can double down and try to articulate a more adequate account of how heaven could actually be something desirable. That said, to take Carroll’s suggestion is to see the natural universe itself as exactly the “heaven” of the popular imagination, as just one infinite entropy-cascade of time stretching from infinity to infinity in which all our pleasures eventually go stale. The critique of heaven, in other words, is just as much a critique of nature, though nature is presumably more pointless for lacking the ideal conditions of pop-heaven and since it isn’t created (pointlessly, as it turns out) for human happiness. Nature’s only advantage on pop-heaven is death, which everyone eventually would end up pining for in the face of the boredom and pointlessness of it all.

All this raises the ante for anyone who would insist that human life is meaningful in a way that is more ultimate than an opportunity to grab what pleasures we can before the boredom sets in. Meaning of this deeper sort requires human beings to have an amphibious life which exists now embryonically in time but only to develop its abilities to live outside of it. Failing to develop these abilities doesn’t lead to annihilation but to exactly the sort of “heaven” that is either immediately or eventually some ring of hell.

 

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4 Comments

  1. David said,

    February 14, 2017 at 11:14 am

    (His idea of heaven sounds like Star Trek Voyager’s description of the Q Continuum.)

    There are so many ways that the pop-description fails, and you’ve pointed out an important one. Another one that immediately comes to mind is this idea that the joy of heaven is found in a comfortable habitat, instead of being with God — the source of life, joy etc. It’s harder to imagine becoming bored with a truly loving relationship.

    As a child I remember asking if we will get bored in heaven with infinite time. My father asked me how would you get bored with an infinite God?

    But more than that, of all the things we are asked to take on faith, it seems quite easy to believe that “boredom” only applies to this cursed life.

  2. February 14, 2017 at 3:21 pm

    My first thought is that it would be an absolutely and infinitely perfect being which one enjoying beatitude would be contemplating, not something finite in all respects as is the case for the “refined pleasures of perfecting and exercising a skill” as well as the “lower hedonistic pleasures.”

  3. theofloinn said,

    February 14, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Then, too, eternity is not infinite time. As a friend of mine put it recently: “When we talk of the fall of Satan and a battle in Heaven, we are speaking about events that take place (if that’s a meaningful way to say it) in eternity – they are not something that happened in the past. Satan is falling now, has fallen in the past, will continue to fall in the future – that’s how events in eternity necessarily look to us living in time.”

    Carroll imagines eternity as an endless succession of days. But it would be better to conceive of eternity, since imagination has its limits, as an endless now.

    • February 15, 2017 at 7:55 pm

      Understanding how enduring events, like a fall or a battle, with distinct points of departure and arrival and the duration in between, can be in eternity would be wonderful.


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