Meaning and Eternity

Douglas P. McManaman
June 29, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

There is nothing like an argument with an atheist to help unpack some basic ideas on the meaning of things, in this case the meaning of "meaning" and its relationship to time and eternity. I've been blessed to have a friendship with a very bright, persistent, and stubborn atheist who has provided much grist for the mill over the past 25 years or so. Meaning has nothing to do with eternity, he insisted recently, among a number of other interesting claims. I zeroed in on this one, because "meaning" is an interesting idea. The word is from meninge, which indicates "what is intended to be expressed". It also refers to the act of remembering. When we ask: "What did you mean by that?", we are asking what it is that you intended to say. When a person says: "I didn't mean for that to happen", he is saying: "I didn't intend for that to happen", i.e., the gun to go off. Meaning has to do with intention. Moreover, intention is from entencioun , which means "purpose, aim, or design". It goes back to the Latin intentionem , which means "a stretching out", or effort, attention, or "to turn one's attention to". And so without question, meaning has to do with motion, that is, a tendency, a movement with specific direction.

We only really understand the meaning of a movement when we understand its end, or "that for the sake of which" a thing moves or acts. That is why we fail to understand a communication when we miss its intended end, i.e., "I thought you meant this, but it seems you meant that". No movement or action is meaningful without an end; for it is the end that gives specific meaning to a particular act--that is why the act of murder and the act of self-defense that results in a death do not have the same meaning, for they have a different end or intention. If I am stuck in the mud and my wheels are spinning, I'm not going anywhere, for there is no direction to this motion, and so the motion is without meaning. Some people have even used the expression "I feel I'm spinning my wheels" to indicate that their life is going nowhere. Spinning your wheels is "pointless"; it is a frustration of intent.

Time is the measure of motion, and so if meaning has to do with motion, it will have something to do with time. And of course we speak of wasting time, which usually means that someone is not doing anything meaningful. Leisure, of course, is meaningful, at least leisure in the true sense of the word, which involves the contemplation of the beautiful as well as production and play (i.e., sculpting, or playing a game of chess). Here there is movement towards an end, such as aesthetic experience. We live in time, because we move, and meaningful movements are directed to an end. In fact, our life is constituted by a series of movements towards various ends, which from one angle are means to more ultimate ends. For example, why did you get out of bed this morning? To go to school. Why are you going to school? To get my high school diploma. Why are you pursuing a high school diploma? In order to get into university. Why are you pursuing a university education? In order to get a job in such and such a field. Why are you pursuing work in that field? Etc. Each end is really a means to a further end. Of course, this series of ends cannot proceed ad infinitum . The reason is that each end is a cause of movement, and an infinite series of movers would mean that nothing moves. For example, think of a high school diploma as an arm that reaches out and lifts you out of bed. But the high school diploma is not the ultimate end, rather, you want your diploma in order to get accepted into university. So, the end of getting a university acceptance is the same arm that reaches out and lifts you out of bed, only it is longer than we might have realized. But your pursuit of a university education is a means to a more ultimate end, i.e., getting a job in a particular field, and so this end shows that it is an even longer arm that is lifting you out of bed in the morning, etc. If there were an infinite series of causes, then you would never get out of bed, but would be forever waiting to be lifted out of bed (an arm that must cross an infinite gulf to get you up out of bed would leave you forever unmoved). But you do get out of bed, so there is an ultimate end, an ultimate or first motivating cause. Socrates referred to this as happiness.

The most important question at this point is: "What is happiness?" Is it pleasure, fame, or eternal union with God? If it is pleasure, or renown, or a mixture of both and nothing more, then the nihilist is right, the ultimate end of all things is death (nothingness). In the end, we are all dead, including the planet, and there is nothing hereafter. What does that really mean? It means that our lives are ultimately meaningless, and the reason is the following: it is the end that gives meaning to a movement. What this means is that the present gives meaning to the past. In other words, the past has meaning to you by virtue of the present moment; for in that present moment, you remember the past--certainly not all of it, but some of it. You look back and are mindful of all you've done, and hopefully you delight in its meaning as one would delight in a story. For example, you worked hard, raised a family, watched your kids grow up, you retired, travelled, studied history, etc. In that present moment, the rich meaning of one's entire life is to some extent manifest. But if you completely lost your memory and the loss was irretrievable, then your own past--at least for you--would have no more meaning. It might have meaning to your children, but only on condition that they have their memories. But let's imagine that everyone you've ever had any kind of interaction with has lost their memories and there is no record of anything you've done. In that case, your past has no more meaning to anyone. In other words, your life has only a relative meaning. Hence, nihilism's fundamental dictum: life has no ultimate meaning. In the end, when everyone including the planet itself has fizzled out of existence, all meaning comes to naught.

But if there is an eternity, an eternal present, then it is not the case that all meaning comes to naught. Moreover, if there is something in you that will never die, a sort of consciousness, then it is possible that the meaning of your own existence will endure forever. If your mind and its memory are indestructible, then your past, which includes every decision you made and everything you have accomplished, will have a meaning that endures forever, because the present endures--and it is the present that gives meaning to the past.

Is there something in you that is indestructible? Yes, without question. In knowledge, we apprehend ideas, or concepts. The word "apprehend" is analogous. For example, I apprehended my puppy today; I grabbed her with my hands, held her, carried her along, etc. But we also use the word in the context of knowledge; for example, I apprehend (understand, comprehend) what it is you are trying to tell me. In other words, "I get the idea". But what is the instrument that possesses the idea? Whatever it is, it is not a material organ; for the very idea "meaning", for example, is not a sense perception. I can perceive a man pointing, and my puppy as well can perceive a man pointing. However, I apprehend the meaning of the gesture, what that pointing means to convey. My puppy does not; she just stares at his fingers, but I look in the direction to which he is pointing--away from himself. That finger pointing has a meaning that goes beyond the physical structure of his hand, which has taken on the specific configuration, namely pointing. The meaning, in other words, is not physical, but intentional, as is the meaning of spoken and written words. Words and gestures direct the mind away from themselves, and thus the mind tends to the end which the words or gestures intend, i.e., that fire over yonder. But what is intentional in this way is immaterial. For example, a pile of sticks is one thing, but a pile of sticks that has been configured in such a way as to spell out the word "help" is quite another. In the latter case, matter has not been added to the pile, it remains the same quantity of sticks, but something has indeed been added, something immaterial, namely, a configuration, a meaning, or a word.

Concepts are not physical things; they have no matter. For example, take the idea of "meaning"; it has no color, size, or position in space. The idea of "movement" does not move, and the idea of "quantity" has no quantity. The idea of "appearance" does not appear, and the idea of "perceptibility" is imperceptible--albeit intelligible. So there is something in us that apprehends these immaterial ideas, and that something is the mind. Hence, the mind is immaterial; for a material thing can only apprehend material quantified things, such as one's hands apprehending a puppy, or an eye covering a limited visual range. But the mind apprehends ideas that have no corresponding matter or quantity, such as the idea of "infinity", or "indetermination", or the very idea of "immateriality" itself. In fact, the mind is capable of complete self-reflection (self-transcendence), something impossible to material things, which are only capable of partial self-reflection (i.e., a piece of paper folded onto one part of itself). For example, I know something, but I also know that I know something, and I know that I know that I know something, and so on ad infinitum . Furthermore, I know that I don't know, that I am ignorant of many things, but I also know that I know that I don't know. That is why Richard Feynman could rightly say that science is an ever expanding frontier of ignorance--the more we learn, the more we come to know how much more there is that is left unknown.

The mind is an immaterial power, and if it can act independently of matter, it can exist independently of matter. The body, the brain, the heart and liver, etc., are made of matter and they will be destroyed in due time. But there is something in us that is simple, indivisible, and immaterial, akin to the ideas it possesses, and which cannot be destroyed by matter. That is why meaning is not relative, but absolute.