As I get older my philosophies become less hypothetical and more palpable. So instead of asking myself, “What if this were true?”, I’m asking: “Since I believe this to be true, what are the implications?” Inquiries of this nature can hit pretty hard because mentally it’s no longer a drill, it’s the real thing – life – and you have to decide how you’re going to live it given what you believe. This is why philosophy is so weighty: because it’s the recognition that beliefs have massive implications for our existence. And the philosophy I’m writing on has greater implications for me than anything I’ve ever encountered or written about before. I know I have to write this, to lay this all out before me, to even move forward. It’s that heavy. I’ve never faced anything like this. For me, it supersedes the question of whether there is a god because it answers the question of what happens after death.
The philosophy is known as “Eternal Return” or “Eternal Recurrence”. In short, it’s the idea time is a flat circle and life is a wheel, going round and round, repeating itself, forever and ever. This may not sound compelling yet, but as I explain it further, I think you may find it is one of the most compelling arguments you’ve ever encountered. It’s certainly nothing new, as many ancient cultures, from the Egyptians, to the Hindus, to the Buddhists, to the Aztecs, all believed in some version of this. It wasn’t until Christianity that we moved away from this idea, but before I get into the ancient origins of Eternal Recurrence and why Christianity moved us away from it, allow me to explain it from my modern viewpoint.
13.7 billion years ago, the big bang happened – the sudden appearance of everything from nothing, from a single point, an initial singularity, wherein everything was compressed into a single mass without any laws of physics, which scientists estimate to have been somewhere between the size of a soccer ball and a skyscraper-filled city block. Since we know the speed of light, we can measure how far away everything in the observable universe is, and we can see that it has been expanding since the big bang. Based on that expansion, many scientists believe the universe will eventually reach a point where the gravitational pull of things will cause the universe to collapse onto itself. This is known as the big crunch. Together, the big bang and the big crunch form the big bounce, which is a cyclic model of the universe that states we could be living “at any point in an infinite sequence of universes, or conversely the current universe could be the very first iteration.”
The big crunch is just one cyclic or oscillating model of the universe. Einstein theorized “a universe following an eternal series of oscillations, each beginning with a big bang and ending with a big crunch; in the interim, the universe would expand for a period of time before the gravitational attraction of matter causes it to collapse back in and undergo a bounce.” The first photo of a black hole, produced by Katie Bouman’s team from MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and the MIT Haystack Observatory, is an image of light from 55 million light years away, meaning, we are looking at that specific black hole 55 million years ago, since that’s how long the light took to reach us. This photo proves Einstein’s century old theory about black holes and how light would behave around them. As Space.com says, “Don’t bet against Einstein.” I bring this up to make this point. What I’m telling you is not pie in the sky stuff. It’s very likely the big bang is neither the first nor the last.
From my own first-principles thinking, the mere appearance of anything means it is possible, and in the words of Elon Musk: “The first step is to establish that something is possible then probability will occur.” So, if it’s possible to have a big bang, then it’s probable to have another. What that probability looks like is relatively unknown, but physicists Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University and Neil Turok of Cambridge University estimate that each cycle of the universe lasts a trillion years.
“Once the universe is emptied out, a weak attractive force brings our universe’s two branes together in a cosmic collision. Each collision is essentially a new Big Bang that infuses the aging universe with new matter and energy.”
An alternate study from theoretical physicists Andrei Linde and Renata Kallosh at Stanford university estimates that the universe could collapse in a “mere” 10-20 billion years.
Billions of years or a trillion years, you say, well, how irrelevant to me… only, if that multi-billion year or trillion year cycle passes while you are dead, you have no awareness of it. So if you die and trillions of years later, there is another big bang, then the next thing you know, you are born again. Of course, who is to say that the next big bang will produce the same conditions and the same DNA that led to you being born; however, if we zoom out further, on infinite big bangs, then just as the possibility of a big bang establishes probability of it happening again, so too does the possibility of you being born. So maybe it’s trillions of big bangs later. It doesn’t matter: you still come into existence again – and since the time between existences is passed in death or non-existence, then to you, subjectively, there is no gap between them.
This likelihood obviously poses some questions.
As Neitzche writes of the eternal recurrence in his book ‘The Gay Science’, under the heading “The heaviest weight”:
“What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you, all in the same succession and sequence – even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned over again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!’ Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god, and never have I heard anything more divine.’ If this thought gained power over you, as you are it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal?”
There’s a passage in psychologist Irvin D. Yalom’s novel, ‘When Nietzsche Wept’, where a patient, Dr. Breuer, is in therapy with “Nietzsche”, who encourages him to reflect upon the possibility of eternal recurrence:
Breuer: You suggest, that every action I make, every pain I experience, will be experienced through all infinity?
Nietzsche: Yes, eternal recurrence means that every time you choose an action you must be willing to choose it for all eternity. And it is the same for every action not made, every stillborn thought, every choice avoided. And all unlived life will remain bulging inside you, unlived through all eternity. And the unheeded voice of your conscience will cry out to you forever.”
What the author is conveying is that by making choices, we are establishing probability for their recurrence. So if one believes in the eternal return or eternal recurrence, then we must be aware that everything we do – that our life, as we live it now – we must be willing to choose for all of eternity.
As the Wikipedia for Eternal Return tells us, “If the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is nonzero. If space and time are infinite, then it follows logically that our existence must recur an infinite number of times.”
I’ve provided a scientific model above for it based on the big bang. It most certainly “follows logically”. And I’m not writing this as a sci-fi thought experiment, but as a model for what I believe; however, long before we had a scientific model for an expanding and contracting universe, humans believed in Eternal Return. In ancient Egypt, the symbols of the snake eating its tail (The Ouroboros) and the scarab (dung beetle), both represented the concept of eternal return. The Aztec and Mayan calendar wheels represent this. The ancient greeks called it Palingenesis (From palin, again, and genesis, birth). The ancient hindus called it Reincarnation. The Buddhists called it Samsara. So what happened to this timeless idea?
Enter Christianity. A new myth is formed that says Jesus came down from heaven and saved humanity. Well, if you save humanity it doesn’t need to happen again. So, eternal return was done away with. While pre New Testament texts like Ecclesiastes tell us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”, giving us something that seems like it could hint at eternal return; only a few verses earlier, we read that “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” (Something science tells us will not be true, for the sun will run out of hydrogen and die a heat death in 5 billion years, and the universe will collapse long after). I feel like I’m pandering to religious people by even mentioning these things, but my point is not to establish what the bible says as evidence for anything other than what it represents, and the Judeo-Christian myths do not give any validity to the idea of eternal return. If god created the world, he doesn’t need to do it again and he certainly didn’t create it to be mortal like us, which science tells us it is; however, the importance is not the difference between religion and science but the impact of religion on the collective consciousness of belief. For it wasn’t until Nietzsche that the idea of eternal return came into widespread discussion in the West again. Following Nietzsche, Albert Camus resurrected the ancient Greek myth of sisyphus in his philosophical essay of the same title, telling us the story of a man who is fated to push a rock up a mountain only to have it roll down again, for all of eternity.
“If this myth is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works everyday in his life at the same tasks, and his fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it becomes conscious.”
So, is it a tragic fate, to know, to be conscious, that you might repeat everything forever?
As Camus concludes his essay:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
“The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” What a sentiment. It’s certainly heroic.
Nietzsche similarly adopts a heroic attitude in ‘The Gay Science’:
“I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things; then I shall be one of those who make things beautiful. Amor fati: let that by my love henceforth!”
And in his last book ‘ Ecce Homo’, Nietzsche writes:
“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.”
Amor fati is a Latin phrase that means “Love of one’s fate”. As Wikipedia explains:
“Amor fati (lit. “love of fate”) is a Latin phrase that may be translated as “love of fate” or “love of one’s fate”. It is used to describe an attitude in which one sees everything that happens in one’s life, including suffering and loss, as good or, at the very least, necessary, in that they are among the facts of one’s life and existence, so they are always necessarily there whether one likes them or not. Moreover, amor fati is characterized by an acceptance of the events or situations that occur in one’s life.
This acceptance does not necessarily preclude an attempt at change or improvement, but rather, it can be seen to be along the lines of what Friedrich Nietzsche apparently means by the concept of “eternal recurrence”: a sense of contentment with one’s life and an acceptance of it, such that one could live exactly the same life, in all its minute details, over and over for all eternity.”
I find it telling that Camus also adopted a love of fate as a solution to life, writing in his journals:
“There is thus a will to live without rejecting anything of life, which is the virtue I honor most in this world.”
For to reject anything is to establish the probability to reject it forever and ever.
I don’t necessarily subscribe to predeterminism but I think if we believe in eternal recurrence, we have to accept that it is we who are establishing anything that will occur again. So we must choose our actions and choices as if we are to live with their occurrence and their consequences forever.
So I suppose the jaw-dropping shock of this leads me to conclude that I will write this again, maybe in billions or trillions of years. And I sit here thinking what I did last night, which is that if I am fated to live this life again and again, I want to do everything I can to decrease my suffering and to help others decrease theirs. For if I don’t manifest my gifts, which is to say, if I don’t utilize the unique talents that I have, then I will neither decrease my suffering nor that of others. But if I do, then I will forever and ever. And thus nothing is of more paramount importance than that – than contributing what I am able to contribute to improve life for myself and others on as large of a scale as is possible.
Postscript: It should be noted that within my philosophy, I currently have a few potential models of reality, which I wrote on here. The idea of eternal recurrence; however, has so far only existed in my ‘base-reality’ option; for if we are living in a simulation run by AI or a training program, then the arguments of the big bang etc, don’t have the same validity; although, it could be argued that even in a simulation, eternal recurrence will lead to the existence of the simulation again, so I guess it does hold for each of my theories. I think the neatest thing about this idea is that we are essentially immortal, but it’s entirely up to us how we are to spend our cycles of eternity. And even then, having written this, I’m still processing and digesting this big heckin’ philosophy in a meaningful way that I believe will bring me increased peace, acceptance, and drive for the life I am here to live.
Footnote: Eternal Return and Eternal Recurrence are the same, but I prefer the word ‘recurrence’ as it has a more specific, programmatic meaning for me.