Not long ago I had a conversation with someone about meaning in life. They presented a view that I believe I have run into many times in various forms. I call it the “100 Year Thought Experiment.” Here is how they put the point;
“Philosophers may worry about the meaning of it all, but we have to be honest and ask – will any of this matter 100 years from now? I’ll be dead and so will everyone I know. 100 years from then hardly any of us will be remembered at all. Even if our Facebook profiles are still around, they won’t really mean any more to the future people than do old black and white portraits mean to us now. It is more than that. If nothing survives and is only temporary, then what meaning does any of it have? If the sun were to randomly explode tomorrow, the entire human race would disappear as if we had never been here. What difference would any of our plans, aspirations, ideals, worries, desires, and plots make to the universe then? If someone can show that anything has lasting value, then we can say that there is objective meaning. Otherwise (and I think it is rather obvious that nothing has lasting value – on Earth anyway) what we call “meaning” is just a subjective feeling.”
Here is the reply that I gave;
You raise a very interesting thought experiment. Here is how I understand it (note: what principle is in use here?). Please tell me whether I have it in the way that you mean it:
Imagine the world 100 years (or 1000) from now. To do this it is useful to think of the world a century or millennium ago. There must be lots and lots of people with plans and ambitions and worries in that distant past. Most of them are entirely unknown to us. We have no awareness of them or means to think about them (except just to imagine). Since those plans, hopes, and fears do not exist now – they do not have any value now. [have I got this pretty close so far?].
It is the same for most of us living now and the future. A century or millennium from now, what seems important and significant to us (you and I) will most likely be completely lost to time. What does any of it matter if it all eventually reduces to nothing?
If I have a version of your view accurately (please tell me if I do not), this involves a sort of comparative argument. The small and short-lived loses value when subsumed in the large and vast. This is related, I think, to your idea that ”If the sun were to randomly explode tomorrow, the entire human race would disappear as if we had never been here.” I have two thoughts about this:
- It seems to me that the question “what does it matter?” has to be answered within the contextof the person or event as IT IS in existence. If something has value in the present, then the passage of time will not change that. In other words, my answer to “what will it matter 1000 years from now?” is that we do not need to be valuable to the future in order to be valuable in the present. What this really raises is an important issue as to what value is. That remains an open question here. I am not certain that my actions do have any value, but I am certain that IF they do, then the passage of time won’t negate that.
Some examples: If a joke is funny now, the fact that people 100 years from now don’t get it won’t change the fact that it is funny now. If a sunset is beautiful this evening, its does not become unbeautiful in a billion years when the sun is gone. If love is real, then it does not become unreal just because it comes to an end. If it matters what kind of person we choose to be, then it does not become meaningless just because we die.
- The wisdom of your point seems to me to be in inviting us to reflect on how we value andjudge our present conditions. Asking the “100 years from now” question does not (in my view) demonstrate that value is absent in the present. It does, however, call into question the degree of importance that we often place on our present concerns. In our daily lives we can build up a tremendous degree of self-importance. As is the meaning of all things revolves around our momentary desires.
I observe some remarkable incongruities in this. David Hume (1711-1776) observed “Tis not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” (An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, 1751) I did not include his whole quote here, but there is an interesting point in this. It sounds odd to think that a person would care more about a scratched finger than for the whole world. After all, if the world is destroyed, then don’t we die too?
Well, that’s part of Hume’s point. The passions (emotions) and desires are not rational. They are neither reasonable nor unreasonable. Hume argues that our passions and desires, which form such a major basis of our choices and beliefs, are more the results of habits than by reason.
Hume’s point here is deep and is part of a larger argument. In this context I want to note the actuality of his observation. For instance, I suppose that most people around us are somewhat aware that the world contains some real horrors. Millions of children die of hunger every year. War results in more casualties among non-combatants than among combatants. It would cost less to cut malaria deaths in half than the Pfizer drug company profits each year from Viagra.
Someone may dispute these claims and so on. OK. My point is that there is plenty of preventable suffering in the world. Still, acknowledging this fact causes minor disturbance in most of us. Compare this to the intensity of outrage you have witnessed in drivers who did not get the parking space or lane change they wanted immediately. The examples proliferate. Or at least please tell me if you see it differently. Just about every day I see someone totally lose their temper over an incredibly insignificant event. At the same time we remain nonplused by flat out atrocities and absurdities. —-
‘The life support system of the entire planet is changing’; “Well, we will see.”
‘People at a wedding were obliterated by a drone missile”; “Collateral damage happens”
‘11 million children die from preventable causes each year’; “We can’t take care of everyone.”
‘That car did not move immediately when the light turned green’; OMG! ARE YOU KIDDING ME!!?? HOOOOOONK. GET A CLUE!!! IDIOT!”
Am I exaggerating here? Well, maybe but not by much. You can tell me from your own experience. It is at those points that it may be useful for them to ask “what will this matter 100 years from now?” In this context the idea is an invitation to compare and weigh passionate attachments in terms of scale. Even here I am not suggesting that a missed parking spot is absent of value; just that on the big picture, it is hard to rate it as the highest value. When people express more outrage over parking than they do over the lives of children, something is out of whack.
On the other hand my analysis is based on an analysis of value, which is wholly different from the view that there is no genuine value (i.e. nihilism). Still, I hope that my analysis opens some options.
Does anything matter when 100 years from now it may not even exist in reality or memory? It all depends upon whether anything really does matter now. If so, if anything now has real value and meaning, then it will have had that value 100 years from now and 1 million years from now.
What is real does not become unreal just because time passes and change happens.
What do you think?
- Develop the two positions presented in the above essay in your own words andexamples. Roughly those are:
- (1) that in 100 years none of this will matter.
- (2) that the value that exists now does not cease to exist now even if it will changewith the passage of time.
- Explain your version of these positions to two people, one whom you know well andone whom you do not know well. Ascertain from them whether they have encountered these views before and what they think of them.
- Write up your results for submission including:
- – Your experience in conversing with the person that you know well and they theirreaction to the ideas that you presented.
- – Your experience in conversing with the person that you do not know well andthey their reaction to the ideas that you presented.
- – Your own thoughts on the 100 Year Thought Experiment.