I was looking at a picture of a dog who passed away in February and feeling sad, and I tried to console myself in an interesting way, that for a while, it seemed, almost worked. I said to myself — what if you knew, or a sufficiently advanced intelligence — a computer, an alien, God — knew every molecule of that dog. Then in the mind of that being for a fraction of an instant everything that was that dog would exist. Because the dog is made of molecules and those are at bottom data, and if this pattern of data was reborn then the dog would be reborn. Just as when I write the letter “J” it is there again when I write “J” a second time.
But that is just the dog at a moment? Well that’s viewing the dog as a number. But in reality the dog is not just a number it is a function. When food appears eat it, when tired of running, sleep. It is a very complicated series of functions leading from one state of molecules to another. And then I thought, well if the dog is an algorithm, albeit a fantastically complicated one, then he is still here. Because algorithms and numbers never come into being or pass out of it. They are eternal. So my dog is eternal. Therefore I never lost him.
The problem with the consolation is that it preserves everything EXCEPT…everything. Because if the dog and my Mom and Dad (they’re gone too) and even me are all abstract structures then it doesn’t matter that we ever lived. We just always were and always will be. What does it matter then that we lived? It doesn’t.
Or perhaps more frighteningly we never did live. You can try to dance around this fact — that the viewpoint from eternity leaves out the actual life we all live — by saying as Stephen Hawking did that somehow there are the equations and then life gets breathed into the equations, or that the numbers somehow get instantiated in time and space. But what’s that? How? The thing that the consolatory viewpoint of eternity leaves out is very hard to say. But it’s the important thing or maybe the only important thing.
But what is it? If we knew that we’d know something! We’d know what it is we don’t want to surrender when we refuse to be consoled. And by knowing the secret of sorrow — what it is we lose when we lose — we would perforce know the secret of joy as well. What it is that we get when we get. Gain when we gain.
Not a number!
So what would it mean to know it? What would the answer to the question look like?
Part of me wants to say — it wouldn’t look like an answer at all, because an answer is always trying to put things in general, repeatable terms — the terms that make the lost dog into an ever-present equation. And if that’s what an answer is, then there is no answer.
But of course that’s probably not what an answer is, right? Because an answer is the response to a question, and if you look at a question’s ID card for place of birth it is a certain place and a certain time.
Eternity has no questions for us.
Though we may have one or two for it!