Our Place in Eternity

After an all-night reading binge, I finished re-reading Isaac Asimov's "The End of Eternity" -- one of my favorite books by my favorite author.  I hadn't read it since, I don't even know, high school?  In the nearly twenty years since it's always stuck with me.  Like all of Asimov's work, I think he wraps an adequate story around some core, brilliant concepts.

In this case it's exploring the consequences of humanity inventing, in essence, a "time elevator" -- step in at one year, and step out at any other.  It can go backwards through time as far back as when it was created (in this case, around 2400), and forward as as far as when the sun becomes a supernova.  The story centers around a group of people called The Eternals who manage and use the elevator, ostensibly for the purpose of enabling trade between times (your century have deforestation? import wood from the future!), but secretly also to tweak time for the greater good of humanity: something as simple as shifting a jar from one shelf to another could prevent disease, war, and the ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse.  Wrap in a mystery (why can't you get out of the elevator between the years 10M-10.5M, and why aren't there any people after 10.5M years?) a romance (between an Eternal and a Timer), and enough paradox-management to make Primer seem sensible, and you've got yourself a heck of a book.

The first time I read it all those years ago, I was most interested in the ultimate consequences of a well-intentioned organization devoted to the ostensibly positive goal of mitigating the worst disasters of human history and ensuring trillions of lives achieve the happiest possible existence.  (Read the book to learn how that all ends up.)  

But this time I was more interested in the minutiae of time alteration itself: the so called "ripple" of small changes having profound long-term consequences.  This isn't a remotely new concept, but a few other recent developments made me think more on it.

Jumping to the present: I'm writing this from a balcony overlooking a river full of long, low boats in Hoi An, Vietnam.  I'm here with my company for our annual month-long retreat, where we leave the real world behind for some foreign location far removed by space and time(zones) to work hard, get to know each other, and ultimately get a new perspective on all the things we take for granted -- in both our personal and professional lives.  This is our fifth annual trip, spanning this startup and the last, and it's always a very interesting experience.

Most of it involves a of sitting around in cafes working on our laptops, but on weekends we typically head out on some adventure.  Yesterday was such a day, and we rented moto-scooters and zipped over to the Marble Mountains -- five tall pillars of rock jutting out of an otherwise perfectly perfectly flat region.  Atop the tallest of the five is an active Buddhist monastery, with tall pagodas and stunning vistas in all directions.

But more interesting still were the caves worn into this rock over the millennia, each of which was repurposed into a different temple -- turning the entire mountain into a single huge temple, with awe-inspiring statues nestled deep within the earth.  The improbable size of the underground caverns and their enormous carved-in-place statues was, at times, overwhelming.  It's almost inconceivable to imagine the manpower required to first haul the materials for such a monastery up the near-vertical mountain trail, by hand, and then continue an equal distance back down into the earth to build within the caves.  As a foreigner who doesn't share the religion (or in my case, any religion), I couldn't help but wonder: Who would do such a thing, and why?

The "who" part of that is of of course clear: the large  number of Buddhists in the region built the temple at enormous expense over a tremendous period of time.  But the "why" is what captured my attention.

Why spend so much energy on such a magnificent creation, in a region that clearly could have benefited by that energy being spent elsewhere?

Now again, there are a host of obvious answers, each of which plays a part.  For one, there's the allure of earning favor from the gods.  When trying to influence your fate in this life (or position in the next), there are obvious advantages to participating in such an exercise.

And of course there's the political and religious order that depends on the physical show of strength such imposing structures create.  If we can cause this to happen in this world, so the reasoning goes, imagine what we can do in the next.

But I think these are only symptoms of something more fundamental and universal.  After all, imposing structures aren't the exclusive work of theistic religions.  Athiestic ancestor worship nearly always includes lavish shrines or temples to honor the dead -- the people least likely to benefit from the attention.  And this isn't just a religious desire.  Nations, businesses, and even individuals invest in physical structures rich in symbolism: the national monuments, the stone facades of banks, or even a marble headstone to carry your name forward into history long after you're gone.

What is it with the universal desire to transfigure the temporary into the permanent using tangible symbology?  And why is the primary medium used almost always stone?

And this brings me back to the book: I think there's a strong desire in nearly all people to create a "ripple in time", as big as they can.  It's almost literally like dropping a stone into a river: the bigger the stone, the bigger the ripple.  After all, diamonds may last forever, but they tend to move without your permission once you turn your back.  A giant stone statue has a bit more permanence, especially when hidden on top of a giant pillar of rock, down in a deep cave, elevated on a tall platform out of reach, and physically larger than all openings.  *That's* forever.  

So I could take this thought experiment in a few directions.  One would be to challenge whether stone is the best medium for creating a splash.  Other common ones include DNA, religion, ideology, myth, lore, legend, teaching, post-dated letters, memoirs, commissioned artwork, family heirlooms, etc.  You can't help but create a ripple of some sort, or avoid being a product of the ripples that came before you.  But you *can* take action in your life to maximize the extent of your ripple.

(And there are high tech solutions like Kiva.org enabling micro-loans that re-invest to people in need when repaid.  This has the effect of identifying people with entrepreneurial spirit, giving them the capital to grow their business and improve their standing in the world, enabling them to spread the entrepreneurial spirit through all the same ways everyone else has -- but with more means at their disposal.  A single Kiva investment could be re-invested every 6 months for 50 years (based on a 2% default rate), meaning a single investment can help a hundred people over a major fraction of your lifetime.  *That's* a ripple. -- Thanks to Matt McNamara for pointing this out to me!)

I could also question why we have this innate need to make a splash, and whether it's universal or limited to a subset, whether this desire to make a splash can itself be taught (making the biggest ripple of all), or even whether that's something anyone might want to do.

And I'm sure there are a dozen other interesting directions.  But the direction I want to go with is to expand on an idea I wrote about previously, regarding the relationships between consciousness and tools.

Now, you can read all about it in a rambling essay even longer than this one.  But in short: I feel what separates humans from all other creatures is our exceptional ability to invent and use tools.  (Yes, other animals do this too, but I think it's safe to say we're the best.)  Furthermore, it's my belief that using a tool doesn't merely extend your reach, it physically -- in the most literal sense -- extends *you*.  When you hold a hammer in your hand, the hammer is every bit as much a part of you as your hand, your spleen, or any other tool.  We are in fact nothing but a collection of tools, all under some miraculous and ambiguous and sort of "conscious" control.

Building on this notion, with tools being literal extensions of yourself, what are the ideas you have, the books you write, or the stone statues you build  -- other than more tools?  Sure, like any tools they're not all equally effective at achieving whatever intent you set the tool upon.  But the right tools, maintained in the right context, might continue to be effective even after your body dies.

And if the tools are literally a part of you, and if those tools continue to achieve your desired effects long after you die, did you really die at all?

So long as there's some part of you -- some tool of you that's still functioning -- you're still alive.  And if "life" is measured as the scope of your tools, is it possible that you might grow *more* alive over time?

After all, the Buddha was just one guy in his day.  But now he is a vast organization of billions of people.  Maybe the secret to eternal life isn't through the supernatural, ascending to Heaven or Nirvana.  Maybe it's just leaving a part of you -- the best part of you -- behind as your body degrades,  such that it can grow eternally, freed from its confines?

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