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

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 …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Subscription — $74.95

Purchase a print subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all articles published within the last five years.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.