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After You’ve Gone

Death and the Afterlife

by Samuel Scheffler, edited and with an introduction by Niko Kolodny, and with commentaries by Susan Wolf, Harry G. Frankfurt, Seana Valentine Shiffrin, and Niko Kolodny
Oxford University Press, 210 pp., $29.95
nagel_1-010913.jpg
Hermann Buresch/Oskar Reinhart Collection, Winterthur, Switzerland/Art Resource
Caspar David Friedrich: Chalk Cliffs in Ruegen, 1818–1819

1.

We are all going to die, and the world will go on without us. In this highly original book Samuel Scheffler explores the powerful but often unnoticeable ways in which these obvious facts affect the values that govern our lives and the motives that shape them.

The afterlife referred to in the title is not the personal afterlife, the continued existence of the individual in some form after death. Scheffler does not believe in a personal afterlife, and some of the book is taken up with the question of how we should feel about our own mortality if death is the end of our existence. But his main topic is what he calls the collective afterlife, the survival and continued renewal of humanity after our personal death—not only the survival of people who already exist, but the future lives of people born long after our deaths. Scheffler argues that the collective afterlife is enormously important to us—in some respects more important than our individual survival—though its importance escapes our attention because we take it so much for granted.

The book derives from Scheffler’s two Tanner Lectures on Human Values, together with a third lecture about death delivered at a conference on the work of Bernard Williams. In keeping with the usual format of the Tanner Lectures, these are followed by a set of comments and a response by Scheffler.

To reveal the place of the afterlife (henceforth I’ll generally omit the qualifier “collective”) in the structure of our concerns, motives, and values, Scheffler employs the classic philosophical method of counterfactual thought-experiments: to understand the significance of something, imagine its absence and see what else changes. He offers two imaginary situations, the doomsday scenario and the infertility scenario.

In the doomsday scenario, you are to imagine that, although you will live a normal lifespan and die of natural causes, the earth will be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. In the infertility scenario (taken from P. D. James’s novel The Children of Men (1992), later made into a film by Alfonso Cuarón), the human race has become infertile, so that after everyone now alive has died of natural causes, there will be no more human beings. These are both terrible possibilities, but the interesting question is, exactly how are they terrible? What values are at work in our reaction when we contemplate the extinction of humanity?

Part of our response, of course, concerns the fate of people now living. In the doomsday scenario, those who survive your own natural death would have their lives cut short in a mass catastrophe. In the infertility scenario, those who are now young would see the population of the world gradually dwindle until there were only small numbers of lonely old people unable to maintain a civilized existence. But this is not the aspect of our response that interests Scheffler. He believes that if we think about the cases carefully, we will notice that the prospective absence of future persons would itself have major negative consequences for the living. And this reveals that the afterlife, the survival of humanity far into the future, has great importance for our lives in the present. As he summarizes his conclusion:

In certain concrete functional and motivational respects, the fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people whom we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities. Or to put it more positively, the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love.

Scheffler’s ground for this paradoxical claim is that the disappearance of the afterlife would undermine our sense of the value of most of what we do in the present, in a way that our own personal extinction does not. The value of our actual expiration-dated lives and activities depends on their being situated in a history of human life that stretches far beyond us into the future.

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Some examples of the dependence of present value on the existence of future persons are obvious: it would make no sense to pursue a long-term project like the search for a cure for cancer, or the reversal of global warming, or the development of an effective system of international law, if humanity were going to be extinguished shortly. But Scheffler believes that the prospect of extinction would probably undermine the motivation for many other types of activity as well: procreation, of course (in the doomsday scenario); but also artistic, musical, and literary creation, humanistic scholarship, historical and scientific research—even though these seem to be temporally self-contained. Their place in traditions that extend greatly beyond our own lives and contributions, Scheffler believes, is a condition of the value we assign to them, and of our motivation for pursuing them.

In part, what he says here is foreshadowed by his discussion of the relation between value, time, and history in an earlier essay, “The Normativity of Tradition.” There he wrote:

Traditions are human practices whose organizing purpose is to preserve what is valued beyond the lifespan of any single individual or generation. They are collaborative, multigenerational enterprises devised by human beings precisely to satisfy the deep human impulse to preserve what is valued. In subscribing to a tradition…, one seeks to ensure the survival over time of what one values. And in seeking to ensure the survival over time of what one values, one diminishes the perceived significance of one’s own death.1

But this exploration of the comprehensive impact of the future on the present through the afterlife greatly expands the topic and gives us something entirely new to think about. It isn’t just that we want what we value to survive our deaths. Rather, even the present value of much that makes up our lives depends on its continuation and development long after we are gone.

Scheffler grants that some things would be exempt from this decline into pointlessness, such as friendship, personal comfort and pleasure, the avoidance of pain, and perhaps some activities that are in a sense pointless already, like games, which he says create “self-contained bubbles of significance.” But a life whose value is limited to the quality of immediate personal experience is an impoverished life. We care about much more than our own experiences, or the course of our personal lives. This, says Scheffler, is one important way in which we are not individualists: we are dependent, for much of what we value in our own lives, on the survival of humanity into the future. Scheffler goes further. He finds “not implausible” the idea, taken from the P. D. James novel,

that the imminent disappearance of human life would exert a generally depressive effect on people’s motivations and on their confidence in the value of their activities—that it would reduce their capacity for enthusiasm and for wholehearted and joyful activity across a very wide front…. We cannot simply take it for granted that the activity of, say, reading The Catcher in the Rye, or trying to understand quantum mechanics, or even eating an excellent meal would have the same significance for people, or offer them the same rewards, in a world that was known to be deprived of a human future.

In spite of its tentativeness, this broader speculation invites skepticism. Indeed, the prospective end of humanity might heighten rather than diminish the value of many experiences. Think what it would be like to listen to Don Giovanni knowing that it was one of the last times anyone would ever hear it—that it would soon vanish forever because there were no longer any humans. One might feel the same about many aspects of human life—a desperate wish to give them an intense final realization in experience before the lights went out for good.

On the other hand, Scheffler seems right that motivation for the kind of work that contributes to our culture, our knowledge, our economy and society would be hard to sustain under these scenarios, and that this would drain a good deal of meaning from our lives, and might well result in a general social breakdown. Yet this is most plausible with regard to creative activities of a kind that most people don’t engage in. Would it be natural for an electrician, a waitress, or a bus driver to think of what they are doing as essentially part of the collective history of humanity, stretching far into the future—so that it would lose meaning if there were no future?

Except for the link to their direct descendants, I suspect that for most people, horizontal connections with their contemporaries are far more significant in underwriting the value of their lives and activities than vertical links to the distant future. But while the exact scope of the effect may be hard to determine, it is clear that Scheffler has succeeded in posing a genuinely new philosophical question of great interest and importance. Value evidently has a long-term historical dimension.

  1. 1

    See Samuel Scheffler, Equality and Tradition: Questions of Value in Moral and Political Theory (Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 305. 

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