Immanentizing the Eschaton
It's Closer Than You Think
A well meaning neophyte said that every cult needs, as its primary reason for existing, the looming threat of some variety of doomsday apocalypse. Something to galvanize and motivate its believers, to give them something to fear and to prepare for. Something to give them hope, to create a feeling of security and community. For surely only the true believers will survive the cataclysm. Or the aliens. Or whatever it is.
Now, please make no mistake about it: The Society for Putting Things On Top Of Other Things is not a cult! We are a perfectly ordinary and harmless social investigative society / dinner club that occassionally publishes newsletters and pamphlets with the express goal of furthering our own interests. And those interests are the putting of things on top of other things. No more, and no less.
But consider a thought experiment in which A) the Society were a cult, and B) the neophyte was correct in that every cult is in need of an apocalypse. In this hypothetical scenario, the Society would appear in want. Indeed, nowhere in any of our official or unofficial published or private material is there mention of any such thing. No rapture, no alien starships, no armageddon of any sort.
But that is only because one would be looking in all the wrong places. Or rather, in all the right places, but for all the wrong things. See, the Society does indeed have an official stance on the end of the universe. You just wouldn’t recognize it as such when we talk about. Indeed, the end of the universe is no tawdry, bawdy, gaudy thing to be celebrated with the fanfare of trumpets. No, it is in fact a mundane and routine affair, hardly worth commenting on. Yes, the entire universe is destroyed and recreated nearly constantly. It will have happened a practically unknowable number of times during the brief moment it takes you, dear reader, to come to the end of this very sentence.
Consider your hypothetical grandfather's hypothetical handaxe. He used it his whole life, took good care of it, and when it was time, he passed it on to your father. Your father also used it regularly and took good care of it. At some point, he had to replace the head of the axe. Thing couldn't hold a sharp edge any more. Eventually, he passed the axe down to you. You used it often and took good care of it. At some point, the handle split. It was old. And you replaced it.
An axe is a simple tool. It only has the two pieces: a head and a handle. At this point, after both have been replaced, is it still the same tool? Is it still your "grandfather's axe?" This is a common variant of the Ship of Theseus puzzle. It is a better version because most of us can imagine the whole of the complexity of a handaxe in our mind better than we can that of a ship. We are also more likely to be given an handaxe by our grandfather than a ship. Finally, most of us probably have a grandfather, and few know who Theseus is beyond his capacity as a ship-haver. All in all, it is a more relatable story.
Most people would say yes. And for good reason. The axe has taken on an identity that survives the replacement of any, or all, of its individual parts because you and your family have a chain of custody of memories that connect this current version of the axe to the original axe.
This is very nearly the same thing that allows the child version of yourself to be recognized as overall the same person as the young adult and elderly versions of yourself. There's a continuity of thought, experience, and memory.
Nonetheless, there's no denying that it is physically, literally not actually your grandfather's axe. In the same way, a sixty-four year old you is, strictly physically speaking (and emotionally and intelligently speaking), not the same person as two-year-old you. In fact, the only thing that connects 64yr old you to 2yr old you is your chain of memories. (You can remember who you were yesterday. Yesterday, you could remember who you were the day before that. And on.) The only thing that connects your handaxe to your grandfather's is the memory of it being passed down through the generations. You, and the axe, are different entities. There is an illusory but conveniently believable concept of "you" that transcends the impermanence of your identity over a lifetime.
When you sleep, and indeed whenever you fall unconscious or get blackout drunk, there forms a gap in the chain of custody of memories. After a night's sleep, in the instant you wake up, you cannot remember who you were one hour ago, or two hours ago, or three hours ago. You were unconscious. There is an unaccounted for period of time separating your morning self from your self from the previous evening.
Our minds readily accept the illusion of continuity of self in these cases in exactly the same way that our minds accept the illusion of motion when shown individual images at 30 frames per second. The truth is if you slow down the tape, you can see the individual still frames. And in the same way that you can be many different people over the course of a lifetime, you are also many different people over the course of much shorter periods of time. A week, a day, an hour, and less.
Here is a practical exercise: find a secluded space where you will have some time to yourself without being interrupted. Not a silent space. You will need the sensations. Close your eyes, and start to sense your surroundings. Take a moment to warm up. Note a particular sound. A physical sensation, an itch, a breeze. A smell. Another sound.
Good, now that you're warmed up, speed it up. The goal is velocity. You should easily be able to experience 3 - 5 sensations per second. With a little practice and effort, you will likely achieve a dozen or more. Eventually, once you're really cooking, you may start to perceive the world around you as a flickering series of sensations. A pulsing. A humming vibration.
Now here's the intuitive leap, my little cabbage: no matter how good you get at this, no matter how fast you can perceive things, you will never be able to perceive more than one thing at a time. Fluid motion is an illusion. It's a large number of frames per second, but it's still a stack of still frames. No matter how quickly they follow one another, each experience, each sensation, is discreet.
Do you see it now? If there is no continuity from moment to moment, there is no version of yourself that can remember the self you were a fraction of a second ago. It's not possible to close that gap, no matter how small it is. No matter how convincing the illusion. No matter how much your mind rails against the thought.
You die and are reborn hundreds upon hundreds of times every second. That is not your grandfather's axe. Not because its parts were replaced, but because it cannot continue to exist from moment to moment.
And not just you, my little carrotcake. Everything that shares the quality of "existing" alongside you is subject to the same flicker of impermanence. The entire world, the whole of the universe is constantly being destroyed and recreated countless times every breath.
And so there is no desire nor need in the Society for grand eschatologies. The eschaton is not merely imminent, it is constant and ongoing. If the world actually ends in a dramatic fashion, it will be by our hands, and that will be a terrible day. In the meantime, the Members of Society will continue to experience the liberation and freedom of perpetual rebirth.