Monday, 24 April 2017

Joshua W. Seachris on Cosmic Futility and the importance of narrative endings

Does it matter how the universe ends? Should we be worried by the naturalistic, scientifically grounded expectation that in a few billion years our solar system comes to an end and all traces that will then still be left of our existence (if there are any) will disappear forever? Should it affect the way we look at our life now? Does it make what we do now any less meaningful? Our intuitions are divided on this one: on the one hand it seems preposterous to believe that something that is going to happen so far in the future can have any bearing on the meaning of our present lives. Why should it? We will, after all, long be gone by then. On the other, to think that whatever we do, whatever we achieve, whatever we change, whatever good we may bring about, in the long run none of it will have made any difference, may well make us wonder why we bother doing it in the first place. It seems pointless. Futile. And we don’t want our actions to be futile. Ideally, we want them to make a lasting impact. Otherwise, what is the point of living?

In his 2011 paper “Death, Futility, and the Proleptic Power of Narrative Ending”[1], Joshua W. Seachris calls this second intuition the staying-power intuition (SPI), which he defines as “the idea that, ceteris paribus, worthwhile, significant and meaningful things last.” (461)[2] Actions that have no lasting consequences are futile. Deep or cosmic futility is the futility that results from the presumed fact that, because of the way the world works, there is ultimately nothing that has any lasting consequences. But why do we have this intuition in the first place: that only what lasts is meaningful? Seachris argues that the naturalistic assumption that we are making when we consider the meaning of our lives threatened or undermined by the way we think the world is going to end can and should be understood as a narrative or “meta-narrative”. In narratives, it always matters how they end. When we assess a story – emotionally, morally, aesthetically – the ending is particularly relevant. It not only matters to us what happens at the end, but also that it happens at the end. A bad ending is bad, just as a bad beginning is bad, but a bad ending is much worse than a bad beginning, precisely because it is a bad ending. It is the “narrative ending qua ending”, which “is salient in our broadly normative assessments of narratives as a whole”. (462) A lot of sad things can happen in the course of a narrative, but they don’t necessarily make the story as a whole a sad one. Yet a sad ending always makes for a sad story, and a happy ending for a happy story. “The ending relevantly frames the entire story.” (464) Cosmic futility is a threat because we look at life as a whole from a narrative perspective. If we didn’t – if we didn’t care so much about how things end -, we would not feel that our lives can be rendered worthless by what happens or does not happen in the far future of the world, seemingly nullifying all the good things that are actually happening in the present, all our accomplishments and achievements.

Of course whatever happens in the future, none of it can affect what has already happened. What we have accomplished, we have accomplished. If we have changed the world for the better, we have changed it for the better, at least for a while. Nothing is going to change that. Happy moments will still be happy moments even they don’t last, and they will forever remain happy moments. The past is what it is. It cannot be changed by the future. However, what we know or believe about the future can change how we understand and evaluate what is happening in the present. If you knew that your marriage was going to end in an acrimonious divorce, then whatever joy you might still experience would most likely be tainted and devaluated by your knowledge of the impending bad ending. Similarly, if we know or believe that humanity will one day disappear from the world without leaving a trace, then that is likely to make a difference to us now. Because endings matter. If they did not, cosmic futility would not be an issue. This is why the theist has an advantage over the naturalist. A theistic meta-narrative promises a happy ending. It promises an ending that gives lasting significance to our lives, and that promise may make a considerable difference to how we view our lives now.

The fact that for the theist life never really ends at all (because the theistic meta-narrative promises immortality), poses no serious obstacle to a narrative assessment. A narrative ending need not be a termination. It can also be closure. Ending as closure does not require that everything come to an end, but only that “a conflict or a series of conflicts that have arisen over the course of the narrative” (468) be resolved. The ending is contextual rather than absolute. The living-happily-ever-after formula stands for such an ending, which is all that is needed for the narrative appraisal of a life. This is because the life that we are worried about is this life, “with all its pain, suffering, and hardship” (468), which would be concluded and happily resolved in an after-life of eternal bliss.


A few thoughts, the first relating to the nature of futility: it seems to me that for our actions to be futile it is not sufficient that they have no lasting consequences. It all depends on whether we want them to be lasting and how lasting we want them to be. Generally speaking, futile is an action whose intended goal is not accomplished. Accordingly, we cannot judge whether an action is futile or not if we don’t know what goal it was intended to accomplish. If what I intend to accomplish by doing something is completely unrelated to the eventual fate of the universe, then what I am doing is not rendered futile by said fate. If I study hard to become a decent philosopher, then my labours have not been futile if I manage to become a decent philosopher as a result, not even if the whole solar system will perish in a few billion years, because that has got nothing to do with it. Seachris seems to agree with this understanding, suggesting that in order for an action to be futile, one must aim at some desired end that then proves impossible to attain (471). It follows that “in the case of the futility that is sometimes thought to characterize life in a naturalistic universe, the futility is largely a function of the discrepancy between our deepest desires and the nature of the naturalistic world which seems to ultimately prevent theses desires from being realized.” (472) However, this seems to presuppose that we do have a deep desire that what we do now will have an impact far beyond our own life span and even beyond the life span of our solar system. Is that really so? I may have some desire to be remembered after my death, mostly by my loved ones, and perhaps by others, for a while at least. But do I have a deep desire to still have an impact on things a few billion years from now? I cannot detect this desire in me, and it would seem a very odd desire to have.

Even if my desires are more far-reaching, more world-changing in their ambition, I doubt that we would seriously expect or even hope to make an everlasting impact. Let us say that I can make the world a better place in some way, and I also desire to do so, but that at the same time I am aware that it is not going to last. The world will only be better for a while. Would my plan, in that case, not be worth pursuing at all? Or would I at least feel that it would not be worth pursuing? No doubt, it would certainly be better if the world remained a better place, and the longer it remained a better place the better it would be, but from that it doesn’t follow that being a better place only for a while is not better than never to have been a better place at all. I don’t see why the impossibility to make any state of affairs last should make it pointless to help this state of affairs come about.

Still, we do want things to last, or more precisely we want the good things to last, as long as it is possible for them to last without ceasing to be good. And yes, endings do matter to us. Seachris connects our desire for good things to last with our preference for good endings over bad endings and our preference for good endings over good beginnings (or middles), and sees the former founded in the latter. I am wondering, however, granted that there is indeed a connection between these two intuitions, can we really be sure which comes first? Do we want things to last because endings matter (as Seachris suggests), or do endings matter to us because we want things (or at any rate the good things) to last? Consider: if an ending is good, then the good is going to last because it is that with which everything has ended. If it is indeed an ending, then we don’t have to fear that things will turn bad again. If, on the other hand, the ending is bad, then the good has not lasted and there is no chance that things will change: there is no hope that the good is ever going to come back because the story has ended. As long as the story has not ended, there is always a chance for things to change. So if we want the good things to last, then it is easy to see why endings often matter so much to us.  

Normally, however, endings matter to us only to the extent that they are an integral part of particular desires. To convince us that endings matter, Seachris uses the example of a romantic relationship. Clearly if I knew now that my relationship was going to end badly it would change the way I feel about it. It would lose part of its meaning and would appear pretty pointless, but only if I expected and wanted it to last. That is normally the case when we fall in love with someone. If I love I cannot help feeling or at least hoping that my love will last. If it does not, then my love wasn’t really what I thought it was. If my marriage ends in divorce my marriage has failed because it in my mind was meant to last, not forever, but perhaps “until death do us part”. There are hopes and expectations connected to being involved in a romantic relationship with someone, especially if it ends in marriage, which is yet another beginning: a beginning of something that can, once again, end well or badly. The end of a love affair, and perhaps even more so the dissolution of a marriage is a sad ending to an (for those involved) exciting story, but the eventual disappearance of all life from the face of the Earth is not really a sad or bad end at all, certainly not for us, if only because we never expected, nor had any reason to expect, that it would last forever.

[1] First published in Religious Studies 47 (2011): 141-163. Reprinted in: Exploring the Meaning of Life. An Anthology and Guide, Chichester: John Wiley 2013, 461-480.
[2] Seachris points out that there is also a second rival intuition, the “scarcity intuition”, according to which what we do is meaningful precisely because things will not last.

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