There are a number of things that might concern one about death and the meaning of one’s life. Two related concerns are that in a million years nothing we do now will matter and, assuming there is no soul-like immortality, because life on earth is finite, nothing has any meaning. Something like these two ideas seems to be running through the following quote from Hans Küng regarding Simone de Beauvoir:
Simone de Beauvoir, the companion of Jean Paul Sartre, growing old, finished the third volume of her memoirs, Force of Circumstance, with a review of the life she had so passionately affirmed: “Yet I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did. I think with sadness of all the books I’ve read, all the places I’ve seen, all the knowledge I’ve amassed and that will be no more. All the music, all the paintings, all the culture, so many places: and suddenly nothing…. If it had at least enriched the earth; if it had given birth to…what? A hill? A rocket? But no. Nothing will have taken place, I can still see the hedge of hazel trees flurried by the wind and the promises with which I fed my beating heart while I stood gazing at the gold-mine at my feet: a whole life to live. The promises have all been kept. And yet, turning an incredulous gaze towards that young and credulous girl, I realize with stupor how much I was gypped.” (p693, From Hans Küng, Does God Exist?)
This is quite a depressing attitude. All those things and experiences will cease to mean anything once de Beauvoir ceases to exist. But why must their meaningfulness depend on her continued existence? Does it really? Let’s try to answer this latter question by looking at what might it mean to say that in a million years nothing we do now will matter? Here are some possibilities:
1) In a million years, even if there are humans, no one will be talking about, concerned about, know about what we did now (during our lives).
2) In a million years, all of the effects of the things we do now (during our lives) will have become so “dispersed” that they won’t really exist any longer.
3) In a million years, nothing we do now (during our lives) will have any value.
4) Nothing we do now (during our lives) has any value now (during our lives).
1)-4) are not likely not exhaustive of the possible meanings, but I take it that they are key candidates. Importantly, they aren’t mutually exclusive; they could all be true at the same time. As a matter of fact, I take it that the real worry is 4) and that possible reasons for believing 4) are 1)-3). So we ought to ask whether 1)-3) actually do give reason to believe 4) and whether 1)-3) are true. We then ought to ask whether there is another other reason that might support 4).
An all important question in this context is: What is supposed to be the source of value of what we are, what we do, what we believe, etc.? For in order to evaluate whether the truth of 1)-3) would negate that value, we need to have an idea of the source and nature of that value. For example, if the value of what we do is subjective in the sense that it comes solely from our emotional or cognitive response (or something similar), then if we are no longer around in a million years, then that would seem to mean that 3) will be true assuming no one is valuing what we did. However, in this case the truth of 3) does not seem to imply the truth of 4), that nothing we do now has value now.
However, it’s not so clear that that’s exactly right. A further point to keep in mind is that if in a million years nothing we do now has value, but it did have value now, then in a million years what we do now still has past value in the same way that even if this essay no longer exists in a million years, in a million years it will still be true that it existed now (million years past). This is important to note, since it seems that what should really concern us is whether what we do has value now, not whether that value will somehow persist continuously present into the future. This seems to point out an ambiguity in the formulation of 3) above. That is, 3) might mean 4) or it might mean something like, 5) In a million years, nothing we do now (during our lives) will presently have value. Under a subjective theory of value 4) is false. What about 5)? Let’s return to it in two paragraphs.
What about sources of value that don’t depend on our subjective responses? Ones that are, we might say, objective in the sense that they do not depend on any belief, thought, attitude, feeling, etc., from us to be what they are? For example, we might reasonably think that a human life (if not life in general) has objective value. Even if no one attributed value to another human being or had an attitude of valuing or anything else, that would not mean that a particular human life wasn’t valuable. Even if no one valued an innocent baby, it would still be wrong to boil it alive, and it’s being wrong would depend on its objective value. Trying to give an account of objective value is not particularly easy. Thankfully, we needn’t worry about doing so here. The point is simply that if there is such a thing as objective value and if some of the things we do have objective value, then it won’t be true in a million years that nothing we do now has value now. If writing a book has objective value and I write a book, then that act will have value now.
So the result we have is that regardless of whether value is subjective or objective 4) is false, i.e., it’s false that nothing we do now has value now. What about our 5): In a million years, nothing we do now (during our lives) will presently have value.? In a million years nothing we have done will still exist (at least according to presentist theories of time—theories of time that grant existence to the present moment alone). Whether in a million years what we had done will have present value seems to be a non-issue, since those actions don’t still exist. Worrying about whether they will presently have value in a million years would be akin to worrying about whether this piece of gold (which, say, ceases to exist in 20 years) will presently have value in a million years. The fact that it doesn’t is due to the fact that it doesn’t exist then. But, again, that doesn’t negate the fact that it has value now. The same with our actions, etc., that have value now. Thus, while 5) might be true, at least on presentist theories of time, that needn’t be a concern and it doesn’t make 4) true.
Some may worry about 1) and 2) from above. Those, again, are the claims that 1) In a million years, even if there are humans, no one will be talking about, concerned about, know about what we did now (during our lives) and 2) In a million years, all of the effects of the things we do now (during our lives) will have become so “dispersed” that they won’t really exist any longer. It seems to me that these might be a concern insofar as one seeks some sort of posthumous “existence.” One says, “I don’t have a soul, but at least I’ll live on in people’s hearts and minds, and by the good effects I’ve had on the world.” But in a million years it is unlikely that that will be the case. This might indeed be a troubling concern. But it seems to me not to be the main issue regarding the idea that nothing we do now will matter in a million years or that the finitude of our lives negates the meaning of our lives or what we do.
Turning explicitly to the issue of meaning, it seems it could go in various ways. One way of thinking of meaning is simply in terms of value in the senses already covered above. If that’s how it’s meant, then the finitude of our lives doesn’t negate the meaningfulness of our experiences, actions, etc. On the other hand, if meaning is thought of as significance or importance, then it seems to reduce to value, for something is significant or important insofar as it is perceived as having value. Given these considerations, it’s hard to see how the young de Beauvoir was gypped. The fact that her life, her consciousness will end and take all of those experiences with it does not make them valueless or meaningless. It “merely” means that there is a point in time at which they are no longer consciously remembered. And if Bernard Williams is right regarding what he says in The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality, it’s the fact that de Beauvoir’s life is finite that allows her life to have had (subjective) meaning, i.e., significance for her. An unending life is one where things lose their personal significance.
If the above considerations of value not being destroyed by finitude are correct, then even if the universe were to reach a state of death, i.e., uniform dispersal of energy where nothing lives, all is dark, then that would not make nothing matter now. This is surely a good thing.