If something is temporary does it matter? I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and it has been on my mind a bit more the past 24 hours as my brother in law lies in a hospital bed in an induced coma after a terrible motorcycle accident.
I’ll warn you ahead of time the tricky part about answering this question is agreeing on a definition for “matter.” What does it mean to say something matters? If it matters does that mean it’s important? Is there any objective standard for whether something matters, or is it entirely subjective? It’s easy enough for me to say that if something is temporary it doesn’t matter to me, but can I tell you what matters to you? I can certainly tell you what I think should matter to you, but aren’t you the final arbiter as to what really matters to you?
Perhaps a better way to frame this discussion then is to frankly admit these are my opinions, and that to me, things that are temporary do not matter, I believe things that are temporary should not matter to you either, and that I believe that in the long run things that are temporary will not matter to any of us.
Next, let us discuss what it means for something to be temporary lest someone misunderstand me. We might say a blade of grass is temporary. Does that mean it doesn’t matter? Not at all, because it’s not quite correct, in my opinion anyway, to say that a blade of grass is temporary. If we define a blade of grass as being a temporary alignment of particles of matter forming an object which we refer to as a blade of grass and that’s all a blade of grass is, then yes, that is temporary and does not, in and of itself, seem to matter. But if we define a blade of grass as the green light which, rather than being absorbed by the plant, is reflected and stimulates certain thoughts in my mind, however minute, and those thoughts have eternal consequences, however minute, then that blade of grass is not temporary. Or we could say that while the blade of grass is temporary, the consequences of its existence are not temporary, and thus its temporary existence is not void of meaning since the effects of that existence are permanent or eternal.
If one argues for the fundamental interconnectedness of all things, also known as butterfly effect, then it could be said that everything has meaning, since everything has an effect on everything else, and those effects are felt throughout all time on some scale.
Fair enough, but meaning to whom? I would argue that meaning or mattering has no significance without the existence of rational, sentient beings with a certain level of intellectual ability. Were there no humans to populate the world but only plants and animals, would would care? If the consequence of blade of grass dying is that 20 years later a dolphin feels a poke on his tail from a sea urchin as he swims close to a reef, whereas if the blade of grass had lived for one more day the dolphin would have felt no poke, then there would be a consequence, but would the dolphin really care? The dolphin might feel a slight annoyance, but the kind of caring humans are capable of is, in my mind, a far cry from anything exhibited by animal life. Animals do seem to be capable of emotion, but I don’t see much evidence for objective, rational, intellectual thought in the animal kingdom beyond perhaps the most rudimentary levels. Granted, there are humans who seem to be lacking in these capacities as well, but that’s a different discussion. Inasmuch as it’s me asking the question here, I will say that it’s my opinion that only humans care, only humans are capable of attributing meaning to things, and therefore without humans to observe the world or the universe there is no meaning or purpose to any of it.
Now, what if humans are temporary? Is there meaning if who we are, that is, our consciousnesses, end at death? I am still influenced by who my grandmother was, even though she has died. And my grandchildren will be influenced by me when I am dead, and therefore they will be influenced indirectly by my grandmother. In a sense the dead live on for as long as the actions of their lives are felt, which is to say, virtually forever. So yes, even if there is no life after death, as it were, or no continuation of consciousness, no heaven or hell, no God, etc., we could still say that life has meaning because the effects of any life are at least semi-permanent. Or are they?
What of someone whose posterity are completely destroyed? Let us imagine a society living on a tropical island for 2,000 years. Civilizations are created and destroyed, without anyone else outside that island knowing. Finally, the people are all destroyed, their bones rot away, and when the island is finally discovered by outsiders, there is no trace that anyone ever lived there. Did the lives of all those people matter? Perhaps they mattered for a time, the time in which they lived, but do they matter anymore? How can they? To the outsiders they don’t even exist. There is no more meaning in their lives, if their lives are not observed. You could extend this not just to an island, but to an entire planet. If aliens discover our world a million years from now and there are no humans on it, nor any trace of humans, would the lives of the billions of humans that lived on this earth matter at that point?
You could say that this is part of what makes life so precious, because every individual is unique, and when their life is taken prematurely it is to cut off the full impact of what their life could be on countless millions of people for many years to come.
To me, this would seem to indicate that meaning or mattering are not merely subjective. Or rather, any meaning that is temporary is subjective, but any meaning that is to be objective must be permanent. Objective meaning must exist outside of time and independent of it. Therefore I may want my life to have meaning in the here and now, but if I want my life to have objective meaning, there must be a permanent aspect to it. I believe this is inherently understood and is the reason why many keep journals, write autobiographies, commission statues of themselves, or create 10,000 year clocks. There is an innate desire for one’s life to have meaning, and if one can create something that lasts forever, whether it is an object or a legacy, one comes a step closer to a form of immortality.
From the Mormon perspective this is all child’s play. The Mormon perspective is that every individual, every consciousness, is a spirit, and that the spirit is eternal. The body is temporary, although we will all receive permanent bodies soon enough. We believe God has a permanent body. There is no need to seek immortality through a legacy, a statue, a book, or big clock, because 10,000 years from now every one of us will still exist, possessing the same personality we do now, more or less, and having a perfect recollection of all our experiences and all our history. We will still be the same people we are today, except we will have progressed a bit. Legacies and books and even statues can matter, but only when they affect human behavior. And the effects are that much more powerful because they may have large effects upon individuals for millennia to come.
Seen from this perspective, this is why I ask whether things that are temporary matter. When I look at things this way, I look at my house and think “This is no big deal. Yes, my body needs shelter. Yes, it’s nice to have a place to do things. But it holds little to no meaning in and of itself.” What matters a thousand times more are the interactions I have with my wife and children in that house. These are eternal beings who are permanent. The house is a temporary and fragile arrangement of atoms that only matters in how it affects what those permanent beings do. Likewise cars, clothes, money, jewelry, etc. These things have no meaning in and of themselves, only the meaning we permanent beings give to them.
What are your thoughts? Do we value the things we should value? Do things that are not permanent have true meaning?