Sunday, September 12, 2004

Is the Value of Life a Function of its Brevity?

Our days are numbered, and the older we get the more obtrusive this fact becomes. For some,the brevity of life is what makes our days precious: the fewer we have left, the more each one counts. This suggests that believing ourselves to have an infinite supply of time would render our days valueless. But suppose that, as a matter of contingent fact, we have an infinite number of days before us, and we believe this to be the case. Each day might still have value due to the possibility of any given day being our last. For if it is a contingent fact that we have infinitely many days before us, then it is possible that any given day be our last. This possibility of nonexistence would seem to be enough to render our days valuable. In other words, our existential precariousness would consist not in a limited supply of time, but in our limited mode of existence, namely, our contingent mode of existence, a mode that allows our nonexistence at any time, not just some future time.

Part of my point is that brevity/longevity is not to be confused with contingency/necessity. These distinction-pairs ‘cut perpendicular’ to one another inasmuch as there could be something that lasts forever but is nonetheless contingent. Suppose the universe exists at every time, and that time is infinite in both past and future directions. The universe could still be contingent. This is why it is no explanation of a thing’s existence to say that it always existed. Now consider something that is ‘sempiternal’: it has a begining in time, but no end in time. It is clear that sempiternality is consistent with contingency. Just because I exist at every future time in the actual world, it does not follow that there are no possible worlds in which I do not exist at these future times.

My point, then, is that our appreciation of the value of our lives does not require a belief that our time is limited. All it requires is a belief that our existence is contingent. The point stands whether theism or atheism is true. But the point can be rendered more graphic within a theistic perspective. Suppose X is sempiternal: it comes into existence, but never passes out of existence. Suppose further that God creates/conserves X’s existence at each time at which X exists such that, were God to cease creating/conserving X at t, X would cease to exist at t. X would then be contingent not just in the modal sense of being possibly nonexistent, but also in the sense of being contingent upon God, i.e., ontologically dependent upon God. Now if X is a theist who believes he is sempiternal, he will still have a reason to find each day precious: he will ‘apperceive’ each day as a contingent gift of God.