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.
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.
The third of Scheffler’s essays, “Fear, Death, and Confidence,” though also quite original, deals with more familiar questions. Much of the discussion responds to Bernard Williams’s famous essay “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality,”2 but it refers to an extensive literature going back to Epicurus and Lucretius, and takes up topics such as whether death is an evil if there is no personal afterlife, why we find our future nonexistence alarming but are not disturbed by our past nonexistence, and whether it would be a good thing to live forever. Williams argued that while death is usually a bad thing for the person who dies, endless life would not be a good thing. He also suggested that we have reason to fear death. Scheffler defends his own versions of these three claims, whose compatibility is not obvious.
Williams held that an endless life would eventually collapse into infinite boredom. Scheffler has a different objection; he believes that mortality is a condition of the meaning of our lives. “The basic point,” he says, “is simple. Our lives are so pervasively shaped by the understanding of them as temporally limited that to suspend that understanding would call into question the conditions under which we value our lives and long for their extension.” Scarcity, in particular scarcity of time, is, he believes, a condition of the value we place on most of the things we want and do. So although (except in cases of terminal agony) death whenever it occurs is an evil because it deprives us of more of the life we value, we wouldn’t be able to value life in the way we do if death never occurred. Scheffler is eloquent about how bizarre noncelestial immortality would be:
We are somehow imagining creatures who are meant to be like us but who are not embodied in the way we are, who pass through no stages of life, who know nothing of the characteristic challenges, triumphs, or disasters associated with any of those stages, who need not work to survive, who do not undergo danger or overcome it, who do not age or face death or the risk of it, who do not experience the reactions of grief and loss that the death of a loved one inspires, and who never have to make what they can of the limited time and opportunities that they have been given.
More generally, we are trying to imagine creatures who have little in their existence that matches our experience of tragic or even difficult choices, and nothing at all that matches our experience of decisions made against the background of the limits imposed by the ultimate scarce resource, time. But every human decision is made against that background, and so in imagining immortality we are imagining an existence in which there are, effectively, no human decisions.
All this is true. Eternal lives would not be just like mortal lives, only endless: they would have no shape. But does that imply they would be devoid of meaning altogether? Couldn’t they be composed of an endless sequence of quests, undertakings, and discoveries, including successes and failures? Humans are amazingly adaptable, and have developed many forms of life and value in their history so far, in response to changing material circumstances. I am not persuaded that the essential role of mortality in shaping the meaning we find in our actual lives implies that earthly immortality would not be a good thing. If medical science ever finds a way to turn off the aging process, I suspect we would manage.
Still, Scheffler could be right, and if he is right, that would have interesting consequences for the structure of our values. He holds that much of the value in our lives depends on the fact that they will end in death, but death is almost always a bad thing for us because it brings to an end so much of what we value. This may look like a contradiction, but it is not. It just means that good is inseparable from evil in human life.
Scheffler is also very good on the fear of death. He quotes Philip Larkin—“This is a special way of being afraid/No trick dispels…”—and he insists, convincingly, that the debates about whether death is a misfortune for the one who dies, and if so why, are beside the point when it comes to the assessment of this fear. It cannot be explained as a manifestation of regret that one will not see one’s grandchildren grow up, or will never visit Angkor Wat, or by any deprivation of specific future experiences or activities that one will miss. The fear of death is sui generis and does not, in Scheffler’s view, require any such justification:
Although I have had the experience before of losing things that mattered to me or of having good things end, it is I who have had those experiences…. But I take death to mean that the very I that has had those experiences is what is now going to end. The egocentric subject—which is what has provided the fixed background for all my previous endings—is itself to end.
My only resources for reacting to this prospect seem to involve turning back on myself a set of attitudes—such as sadness, grief, rage, anxiety—that are tailored to circumstances in which the self endures and undergoes a loss. But those attitudes become unmoored when directed toward their very subject. And this induces, or can induce, panic. It can seem completely incomprehensible and terrifying, even impossible.
Scheffler therefore endorses a strange combination of attitudes. He believes it is reasonable to fear death, and to regard its occurrence as an evil in most cases; yet personal immortality would be undesirable. By contrast, the collective afterlife is very important:
Although our fear of death may be reasonable, our confidence in our values depends far more on our confidence in the survival of other people after our deaths than it does on our confidence in our own survival. Indeed, our own eternal survival would itself undermine such confidence. To put it a bit too simply: what is necessary to sustain our confidence in our values is that we should die and that others should live.
He makes the interesting further point that belief in a personal afterlife, of the kind associated with some religions, “may reconcile people too readily to the disappearance of life on earth, and make it seem less urgent to prevent this from happening.” (This surmise may be supported by the fact that some believers in a personal afterlife not only expect earthly life to end in the Apocalypse, perhaps in the near future, but welcome the prospect.) Scheffler contends that for those of us who do not believe in a personal afterlife, recognizing the importance of the collective afterlife should motivate us to do more to avert global catastrophe:
We are not unreasonable for fearing death, even though it does not threaten our confidence. But we may be unreasonable if we fail sufficiently to fear, and so do not try to overcome, the ever more serious threats to humanity’s survival, upon which our confidence does depend.
The motivation is not an altruistic concern for future persons, but a concern for the meaning of our own lives. We want the future to be in some respects our future—a place in which we could be at home, even though we will never get there.
Among the commentators in this volume, both Wolf and Frankfurt are unconvinced by Scheffler’s suggestion that the prospect of human extinction would result in a general erosion of our confidence that anything matters. Frankfurt insists that many things are important to us for their own sakes—not only pleasure and friendship, but music, artistic creation, the pursuit of scientific and historical understanding—and would not lose their value if there were no afterlife. Yet Scheffler is clearly right that the value of some of these things is not contained in the individual’s experience. Wolf is more sympathetic to the view that we conceive of our activities
as entering or as being parts of one or another ongoing stream—of the history and community of art or of science; of an ethnic or religious culture; of legal, political, industrial, technological developments, and so on.
But she thinks that if humanity had no future, our commitment to the care and comfort of others would be undiminished and perhaps enhanced, and would give our lives meaning.
Wolf also takes up an interesting question posed by Scheffler: we all know that humanity will not last forever, yet that doesn’t affect us in the way that the doomsday or infertility scenario would. Most of us, Scheffler points out, are not susceptible to the despair of Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer, in Annie Hall, who at the age of nine sees no point in doing his homework because the universe is expanding and will break up billions of years from now. Wolf suggests that if we reject Alvy’s reaction, consistency may require that we also reject the reaction of pointlessness to the doomsday or infertility scenarios. But Scheffler responds that the cases are not comparable, because our judgments of value are simply baffled by time scales like that of the breakup or heat death of the universe; we can’t take them in, so we can’t take our lack of response as a reliable guide to the relevance of human extinction to the meaning of our lives.
Shiffrin is generally sympathetic to Scheffler’s position, but suggests, in a Kantian spirit, that perhaps the future existence of other rational beings who would continue the practice of valuing would be enough to sustain us—that the survival of humanity is not essential. (We might die out like the Neanderthals and be replaced by another rational species.) Scheffler replies:
Although I don’t have firm views about this, my feeling is that we are more attached to the specifically human than Shiffrin is inclined to suppose. That may partly be because I think history counts for more than she does, and partly because I think biology counts for more.
Kolodny concentrates on the third essay, and doubts that it makes sense to fear one’s own impending nonexistence per se. I find Scheffler’s sympathetic interpretation of this special form of panic plausible, but these disagreements are not easy to settle, and Scheffler himself is reluctant to claim that only one set of responses is objectively correct. Whether there could even be such a thing as the right way to feel about our own deaths is itself a difficult question. Perhaps there are irreconcilable differences between the reactions and attitudes of different persons to the end of life.
That does not diminish the value of the inquiry. With its careful arguments, counterarguments, and comparative evaluation of alternative hypotheses, this book is a superb example of the application of analytic philosophy to a subject that is of fundamental concern to everyone, not only to academic philosophers. Scheffler has opened up a new range of questions about life and death. The debate about his answers will certainly continue, but the book provides a lucid introduction to a fascinating set of problems.