‘No.’ That’s what Ed, my co-worker said when he saw the title of the worksheet I was preparing for a class of seventeen and eighteen year old summer school students, and a lot of people would probably agree with him. Couples break up, people die, civilisations fall and the entire universe is winding down to heat death, apparently, so how can love be eternal? It’s just wishy-washy mystic guff, nice in vampire movies, but evidently not a fact.
The lesson was on Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet, which famously declares that ‘Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks, But bears it out even to the edge of doom.’ After we’d played a few daft games, decoded the poem, read it out and written a sonnet on the subject of our choosing (titles including Murder in the ‘10 Items or Less’ Queue, Justin Bieber’s Secret Minotaur and McDonald’s Happy Meals*) we looked at this pesky idea, that love’s not time’s fool.
A couple of students believed that we have soulmates, eternally entwined through an infinite universe of ever ascending, ever brightening dominions of the Godhead, but most said it’s just poetry, nice words.
The odd thing is how confident they were — people are — that ‘The love I experience is eternal’ is nonsense when, prod just a little below the surface, and all is perplexity and doubt. What is love? What is the ‘I’ that experiences it? or anything at all? And what is time?
HOW CAN YOU RULE OUT ETERNITY
WHEN NOBODY KNOWS WHAT TIME IS?
Ed’s ‘common-sense’ reaction to ‘love is eternal’ is similar to popular opinionating on the subject of mind and body, or consciousness and matter. Many people believe that mind (or consciousness) arises from neurons in the brain—ultimately from the stuff of the universe — without anyone, scientists or philosophers, having the slightest clue what stuff is. As Galen Strawson points out, following Arthur Eddington, all we can know, intellectually, about the stuff of the universe, is, effectively, readouts from measuring instruments; and it’s the same with time. What we call ‘a second’ is really a measurement of space and speed (one swing of a pendulum or 9,192,631,770 oscillations of cesium 133 radiation), what the thing is that clocks measure is as mysterious as the stuff that our brains register as stuff.
In this respect science has caught up with Eddington’s intellectual granddad, Immanuel Kant, who demonstrated that time and space are entirely creations of the mind. We can never know what anything really is (the ‘thing in itself’), all we can know is what our minds report to us of what seems to be ‘out there’1. This is now quite a common belief — not to mention a sad, sickening existential reality — that we are all trapped in body-shaped capsules orbiting empty, empty rooms.
But, as explained here, there is one ‘thing in itself’ we can know, for certain; and that is our consciousness of our mind’s meter readings. I am a thing in itself, even if my own timespace ideas about me aren’t. This — the thinker of thought, the hearer of sound, the taster of monster munch — the objective scientist can never understand; because it is not an idea, or an objective fact, or even an emotion, and it never can be. It precedes the objective time and space of the mind.
This is why there is nothing in the universe like consciousness, and why all the facts that could ever possibly be gathered about the material universe would never lead ‘an objective scientist’ to conclude that consciousness could result from matter. Consciousness cannot be understood — as length, breadth and height can be understood, or dictionary definitions, or the news, or ‘what bothers me’ — because, secondly, these understandable time-space ideas are created by the mind, and firstly, ultimately (not a word that scientists like to use), conscious experience is that which the mind’s meter readings can only ever be of. Consciousness can only be experienced.
Which brings us full circle. What does it feel like to experience — to really, fully, widely, deeply, gladly experience — my own consciousness, that thing in itself which is conscious of the mind’s time and space?
It feels like not-space, and not-time.
It feels like, in a word, eternity.
And how would you describe a work of art, a sonnet for example, that really did justice to this rare and extraordinary experience? That outlasted the mind-made ideas of what art should be? That penetrated through the time-space net-curtain that the mind draws across the world to that which is not mind?
You’d describe it as timeless.