Eternal recurrence and brainjam
January 15, 2021. In a previous post, I advanced a four-dimensionalist version of eternal recurrence which I call “brainjam”. In this post, I discuss the moral dimensions of eternal recurrence, its relation to fatalism and free will, and end by discussing some subtle but important differences from brainjam.
In a previous post, I argued that it was possible to reconcile four-dimensionalism (a belief that all times exist) with our peculiar experience of time. Put simply, each moment is always being experienced, a sort of “brainjam” by which our life is pickled into the spacetime continuum. The sense that time passes and the impression of sequence are (and must be) cognitive artefacts rather than incorrigible metaphysical data. For arguments in favour of this view, and other elaborations, I refer to that post. Here, I want to compare brainjam to the doctrine of eternal recurrence, that time is cyclic and we are doomed to repeat ourselves. I’ll discuss some of the broader philosophical aspects of eternal recurrence, such as how it relates to fatalism, free will and identity, and in the last section, compare and contrast with brainjam.
A cyclic model of time is, evidently, an archetypal thought, popping up everywhere in classical antiquity from Egypt to India, Greece to Mesoamerica. Cycles have a certain economy of pattern, and even today, cyclic views of the universe remain popular. In many cases, time is allowed to change radically between cycles (or at least vary on themes), but recurrence is the idea that the cycle must strictly repeat itself. For all its metaphysical prettiness, recurrence has fundamental implications for human life. The Stoics taught a “love of fate”, or amor fati. Take the aphorism of Marcus Aurelius (Meditations):
Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.
Almost 2000 years later, Friedrich Nietzsche would combine eternal recurrence and amor fati into a similar ethic, a love of reality beyond the stale, life-denying categories of European thought. In Ecce Homo, he states
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.
For Nietzsche, the love of life in all its supra-moral necessity came first, and eternal recurrence was the brilliant afterthought, less a metaphysical insight than a moral heuristic for guiding one towards a love of fate. But I find Nietzsche’s formulas, and the parallel to the Stoics, ambiguous and problematic. Both made a virtue of necessity. For the Stoics, however, the emphasis is on the fati, the powerlessness of human beings to intervene in the operation of the universe. The amor is merely the adaptive reaction. As Epitectus writes (Discourses),
Being educated is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens.
This Stoic “will of reality” seems radically different from Nietzche’s infamous (and perhaps infamously misunderstood) “will to power”. When co-opted by the Nazis, it was solely about power over others , but in Thus Spake Zarathustra, it is very obviously about power over the self, or “self-overcoming” as he would write elsewhere, an “unexhausted procreative will of life”. This almost seems like the opposite of Epitectus’ “will of reality”, and the Stoic acceptance of whatever comes your way a kind of will to powerlessness, a maladaptive reaction.
But Nietzsche’s enthusiasm for what is necessary sometimes verges on the indiscriminate, differing from the Stoics more on aesthetic than moral grounds. Take this famous passage from 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 makes things beautiful. Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly. I do not want to accuse; I do not even want to accuse those who accuse. Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.
Should we really say yes to everything? To suffering, to cruelty, to forces which are explicitly against life? It’s hard not to see Nietzche the invalid peeking through here, scribbling madly in his sister’s garret and saying yes to his own suffering because like the Stoics, he has no choice in the matter and would prefer to love rather than hate it. But not every necessity is virtuous, and a healthy creature can tell the difference between what is good and what is bad for it. This is part of the very “will of life” that Nietzsche exhorts, but could not himself exercise. There is a sickness in loving what is bad.
I think the doctrine of necessity and Yes-saying has things to recommend it. Suffering, privation, and doubt are not always or necessarily unhealthy, a point I will return to below. But appraising them in the scheme of a healthy life, on which one trains the “unexhausted procreative will”, is more complex and potentially individual than an undifferentiated Yes.
A digression on free will
Both the Stoics and Nietzsche seem to subscribe to some form of fatalism, that the course of events is fixed and inevitable. To my definition of sickness, a fatalist might object that, life or anti-life, you can’t argue with reality. As is often the case, Nietzsche’s ideas on the topic are fuzzy and contended by scholars, but as this line from the The Gay Science shows, he seemed to believe both in fate and the individual as constituted by self-creative acts:
What does your conscience say? — ‘You shall become the person you are’.
In a sense, who we are is our fate. This does not prevent our choices from being meaningful, and in fact, the whole point of eternal recurrence is that it makes them more meaningful! You will be constituted by this particular set of self-creative acts, and no others, forevermore.
But can these decisions be meaningful if they are fated? This leads us naturally the problem of free will, the most hopelessly confused of philosophical quandaries. Here is one low-brow version: if I have a choice between $A$ and $B$, and I am free to choose either option, then I have free will. If my choice between $A$ and $B$ is predetermined, then it seems I am not genuinely free. But what does being “free to choose” really mean? There seem to be two reasonable interpretations: if things were different, I could have chosen $B$; and if they were the same, I could chosen $B$.
I think most people will agree that if things were different, our choices could change; they depend on circumstance. I don’t think this is what people are really talking about when they debate free will. The second version imagines that, in some world where everything prior to the decision is the same, I choose $B$ instead of $A$. For this to be possible, two things need to hold: first, the laws of physics must be indeterminate, so the state of the world now does not determine the state of the world in the future; and second, the future does not already exist. We need both, since indeterminacy by itself might still give rise to a fixed (but not physically determined) future, and the non-existence of future times is moot if their contents are determined in advance by physical law.
Meaning and choice
Sometimes, people invoke the randomness of quantum mechanics to ground the possibility of choosing $B$. As we’ve just argued, quantum indeterminacy isn’t enough to buy free will; you also need the non-existence of the future. But it’s also clear that, if free will is about meaningful choice, rolling a quantum dice doesn’t cut it, any more than rolling a classical dice to make your decisions for you. Rather than saving free will from determinism, the quantum dice provides a reductio ad absurdum.
Why should the freedom to choose $B$ be tied to the meaningfulness of choosing $A$? I think the traditional free will debates rests on the same sort of category error affliciting presentism. Roughly speaking, in the case of presentism, cognitive properties are mistaken for metaphysical ones. Similarly, in the free will debate, a problem of ethics or existentialism — the meaning of human choice — has been transplanted into the metaphysical realm. The idea that rolling quantum dice into a non-existent future could be the source of human meaning is clearly absurd.
For decisions to be meaningful, we don’t want them to be random, but rather, to play a role with respect to a much bigger ensemble of decisions: the ones (call them $A_i$) that make up my life. If that sequence is “reflectively stable”, in the sense that I would happily make those choices again, why would the freedom to choose $B_i$ matter? To scratch that analytic itch, I’ll define a choice $A$ as reflectively stable if, at some later point $t$, for all (or perhaps most) $t’ > t$ we would will ourselves to make the same choice. If $A$ is reflectively stable, you may regret it in the short term, but not in the long. This ties the loop between Epitectus’ willing of reality and Nietzsche’s willing of life.
This notion of long-term stability helps us reach a more nuanced view of how choices contribute to who we are, since it is not “local” or short-term effects that matter, but rather, their “global” role in the ensemble. Suffering, privation, and doubt can be “character building”, and as James Joyce said, mistakes sometimes become “portals of discovery”. To act with creative self-regard and “procreative will” is to make errors, deliberate, and explore, and for those things to change you in the process. This is the source of human meaning, not the counterfactual ability to choose $B$.
In contrast to eternal recurrence, brainjam does not posit that time is cyclic. Instead, we get one life, which we are doomed to live, moment by moment, in perpetuity. This is like a “parallelised” version of eternal recurrence: each conscious moment is replayed in parallel, rather than in the serial repetitions of cyclic time. Both brainjam and eternal recurrence give a heuristic for optimising reflective stability, and hence some suitably life-oriented notion of amor fati, that is, loving who we are or are to become. But brainjam draws attention to another aspect of human life: the moment of experience itself.
According to brainjam, each point in time becomes an eternity, and life an experiential preserve made up of these points. Amor fati is a love of the collection, the whole four-dimensional worldslug in Minkowski space. In contrast, brainjam promotes “brainjamor” (if you’ll excuse the pun ), a love of each moment in addition to the whole. With eternal recurrence, you might view something like doomscrolling as a mere bump on the road to full and healthy personhood. But brainjamor instructs us to ask the question: do we want to pickle these moments into our jam, forever? Maybe we should go outside and watch sunset instead. Keats wrote “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Similarly, moments of unnecessary ugliness and boredom, like morbidly reading articles about Trump or trawling Facebook, are so forever.
Brainjamor suggests we should avoid these unless they are likely to become reflectively stable. In principle, this is hard to assess, but in practice it’s clear that there are no long-term benefits to reading the sixth article about the collapse of democracy, and immediate benefits to going outside. And who knows, being the sort of person who appreciates a sunset and curbs their doomscrolling probably has long-term benefits as well . So, like eternal recurrence, even if brainjam is wrong, it may be right anyway.
Nietzsche does discuss power over others, but unlike the creative "self-overcoming" or "will of life", it is more often in naturalistic terms, and I'm not sure to what extent he makes a virtue of it. Whatever the case, here I just want to focus on how it relates to amor fati.
I was also considering "momento amori", which is groan-worthy and half-baked. Consider yourself lucky.
Doomscrolling is just an example. The point is that brainjam provides a useful heuristic for assessing our decisions and encouraging mindfulness. Of course, it is maladaptive to obsess over the moment, in the same way it is maladaptive to obsess over your eternally recurring life journey. I think this is why the "will of life"—which discourages this sort of unhealthy obsession—is usefully viewed as a separate component from *amor fati* or brainjamor.