Feelings of Infinity

I grew up in a small suburb of a mid-size city. The suburb was my world — regular, recognizable, bounded. The city was a vastly richer world. Going downtown meant leaving what I knew to experience something infinitely bigger.

It is a great feeling, the feeling of infinity. It is the feeling that anything is possible. That you can lose yourself in something greater than you are. It is, I think, a precious feeling.

Eventually I went to school in a more urban part of Quebec City. I gained more autonomy, and explored more of the city, and met more of its people. The feeling of infinity subsided. Now it was just a place, and one that I knew fairly well.

I moved to Montreal. Montreal is the core of Quebec’s culture, its nucleus, the city where all the important and interesting people live, the place that you see on TV. It is three to five times more populous than Quebec City, depending on how you count. When I began university, Montreal felt big. It was bustling, overwhelming, brimming with people (and more diverse people, linguistically and ethnically and politically and economically and so on). It was incredibly alive. It was the Place Where Things Happen.

Montreal was the place you saw on TV — but TV gives you just a glimpse of anything, and lets your imagination fill the rest. And yet imagination is limited, so when you move there, it feels gigantic, truly infinite.

I’ve lived in Montreal for about ten years. Today it doesn’t feel infinite at all. It doesn’t quite feel small, and it objectively isn’t. It just feels finite.

Quebec City feels even more finite. Quebec as a whole feels finite now — because Montreal is by far its biggest place, and so there’s nothing else to “conquer,” so to speak. To get the feeling again, I would need to move someplace else. I could move to Toronto, the biggest place in Canada. I could move to the US — a big country, with big cities, surely able to sustain the feeling for a while. Perhaps I should try living in the giant metropolises of Asia.

Maybe focussing on cities isn’t the answer. I love cities, because they offer a far richer experience than other places, but there is plenty of nature to lose oneself into, too. Yet that doesn’t ring very true to me. In part because I’m not a very outdoorsy person, but mostly, I think, because the closest we can get to infinity is through interaction with other humans. After a while, the natural world gets a little boring, a little predictable, in a way that grand landscapes can’t compensate for. I suppose that’s why I eventually quit biology.

When I traveled to a sparsely populated region of Quebec, earlier this month, I was struck by the finiteness of it all. The villages there often have about 200 inhabitants. With such small populations, everyone is the cousin or the sibling of everyone else — there is no illusion of an infinite number of people. The territory was big, and felt more infinite, but not very much more. After all, we have good maps of everything, so there is very little room for the unknown. And the landscapes, while grand and beautiful, are rarely surprising.

In any case, both living and traveling somewhere “consume” your feelings of infinity. After you have known a place, it’s impossible for that place to generate the feeling again. No longer does Europe, where I lived for a year and a half, feel overwhelming. Gorgeous, interesting, yes, but not infinitely so.

And outer space won’t save us. The universe certainly is infinite in space and time, at least relative to the scales of a human life, but it is also mostly empty. What isn’t empty is mostly homogeneous: star plasma and smaller rock. After reading about astronomy for a bit, there isn’t that much new stuff to see. The vastness of the universe can grant you feelings of infinity, but only for a time, like everything else.

In a finite world, the supply of infinity is necessarily finite.

Geography is the easiest way to illustrate what I’m talking about, but it generalizes far beyond that.

There is a meta layer to every human experience. Traveling to Paris and traveling to Tokyo may feel like two very different activities, but they’re both traveling. Recall the first time you traveled somewhere far and different (of, if you never did that, imagine the first time that you will). The excitement of being in a plane, right before takeoff, for your first flight; the exoticness of seeing everything written in a language you don’t understand. Those things can only be lived once. So even though I have traveled only in a limited part of the world,1a quadrilateral whose extremes are Vancouver in the west, northern Sweden in the north, Israel in the east and Nicaragua in the south I don’t get a strong feeling of infinity anymore when I travel (I still love travelling, however).

And so it goes with every human activity — watching a movie, going to a party, having sex with someone, making a new friend, learning a language, practicing a sport, writing a blog post. You can do these things infinitely many times, and there will always be variations, but they will not provide you with an overwhelmingly new experience each time. For every new type of activity you experience, your world gets a little more finite.

The question becomes: are there enough sufficiently distinct types of activities to sustain a person’s feelings of infinity for their entire life?

It’s possible that there is. Unless something major happens, I expect to be alive for 50 to 60 more years. There are still plenty of experiences I’ve never tried, like raising a child, going to space, trying almost any drug, or leading a company, and it’s conceivable that these things have the potential to fill the rest of my life.

But sometimes, especially when I’m feeling down, I worry that they won’t. That eventually, perhaps soon, I’ll have exhausted my supply, and will almost never feel infinity anymore. It scares me.

I don’t want this post to be depressing, though. Let’s explore some possible ways out of this.

One first path is to manage the resource. If a person’s lifetime feelings of infinity come in a limited supply, it implies that we can decide when and how to consume it, like we can manage a limited supply of money.

This suggests that we should be smart about seeking new experiences. We shouldn’t try to sample all the foods and visit all the countries too fast — lest we become jaded and feel the world shrink. We should carefully manage how much we are exposed to the vastness of the world, so that it remains vast for a long time.

This sounds… fine, I guess. Smart management is good, but it’s also kind of lame. Carefully managing a small amount of money is better than spending it all and cornering yourself into a bad situation — but if you can, it’s far better to make more money.

But perhaps the analogy with money isn’t good, because while money is necessary for good living, feelings of infinity are only a luxury. You can simply accept that at some point you will run out. So another path to dealing with the finiteness of the world is to embrace it. Find beauty and meaning in smallness. Enjoy the minute variations between different instances of an experience — movies, travels, sex, whatever you want — instead of seeking completely novel types of experiences.

I think in general it’s smart to be able to find happiness from a variety of sources, including the mundane. But feelings of awe, of infinity, can be transformative experiences; it would be sad if we got less and less of them as we grow; it would be a great loss.

Maybe there is a way to engineer infinity, to add it to our lives when we lack it. Psychedelic drugs, which I’ve never tried, sound like they may be able to do that. Meditation, too. In fact that may be the main purpose of religion: to construct stories about something so much greater than we are — the divine — in which we can get lost.

Another possible way to engineer infinity is through art. Each new piece of literature, of film, of painting, can be a little fragment of infinity that we get to experience. And there is more art being created than we can consume; it is like the expanding universe, growing faster than we could ever travel even if we reached the speed of light.

Art forms are finite and can feel so after a time. But one great thing about art is that it attempts, by its very nature, to surprise and expand our experiences. The most successful artists make us see in ways we couldn’t before. New forms of art get invented, providing the new types of experiences I was talking about. So art is in some sense infinite — at least as long as artists make sufficient amounts of it.

And this brings us to the only true way to avoid shortages of infinity: expanding human civilization. Make more art. Invent more things. Make more humans, too.

Children seem like a good way to vicariously get feelings of infinity (among other things). Everything is big and impressive for a child; watching them experience the world can give us a glimpse of what we once felt. But the impact of having children is far greater than this.

Having children means continuing and augmenting human civilization. It means more people who will make art and create new ways to experience life. It means more people who will create new subcultures and colonize planets and make more children in their turn to keep the cycle going, until one day we have reached all the stars that we can.

I didn’t expect this essay to become a defence of pronatalism, but here we are. More people is a good thing for many reasons; creating infinity may not be the main argument, but it’s a poetic one, which is maybe more convincing than any of the others ones.

It is night, at the end of summer.

I am at my computer finishing an essay, or perhaps, rather, a meditation, about infinity.

I sit in a fairly small room, with only one window. It doesn’t get enough sunlight, but that doesn’t matter right now.

Outside is a city. Several million people, living complex and beautiful lives. I will never meet all of them.

The city is on a big rock. That rock is the Earth. It is finite, but it is also vast. I will never see all of it.

The Earth is set in a mind-bogglingly large universe. I will never even know what happens in most of it.

Inside my computer is a portal to a vast hypertext library of human knowledge and art. I will never read or see all of it.

I am feeling infinity again. It is a good feeling; I hope I can sustain it for a while.