24 November, 2014Issue 26.4PhilosophyPolitics & Society

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Our Collective Afterlife

Paul Sagar

Samuel Scheffler, edited by Niko Kolodny
Death and the Afterlife
Oxford University Press, 2013
224 pages
ISBN: 9780199982509

Death and the Afterlife constitutes two remarkable achievements. The first is rare enough. Samuel Scheffler presents us with a set of reflections, the importance, and arguably the correctness, of which seem obvious in retrospect—but which most people will not have previously registered, let alone thought to be of considerable profundity. The second is even rarer. Scheffler appears to be the first person, in nearly 3,000 years of western philosophy, to get to grips, in a sustained and insightful way, with the particular questions his book raises.

Those questions relate to how and why it matters that although all of us will die, we live our lives—and die our deaths—against the background of believing that other people will go on living for a long time after we are gone. This is the “afterlife” of Scheffler’s title: not a personal continuation of the self after the expiration of the organic body, but the “collective afterlife” of human beings as an ongoing species. Scheffler has some remarks to make about those who believe in a personal afterlife, although he primarily addresses modern secularists who believe (like himself) that organic death really is the end of the individual. But in either case, his central contention is that what really matters to us is the collective afterlife.

Scheffler proceeds by deploying two thought experiments. The first is a “doomsday scenario.” Imagine that 30 days after your natural death a meteor will hit the earth and wipe out all human life. How would we respond to such a piece of information? Scheffler suggests that for the vast majority of people it would generate a deep and powerful despondency. Even though our own personal life would already have come to its natural end, the prospect of all life ending on earth would fill us with abject horror. This itself is an important result. It seems to show that what we value is not simply a function of our personal experiences. Likewise, it implies that we are not straightforwardly consequentialist in our thinking: if somebody responded to the doomsday scenario by adding up all the “costs” on one hand (mass death and suffering, end of all human projects, loss of all art and culture, etc.) and the “benefits” on the other (no more future death and suffering; no more pain, torture, deprivation; no more X-Factor and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!; etc.), our healthy response would be that they had fundamentally misunderstood the nature of the cataclysm that was about to occur. An aversion to the doomsday scenario is rightly an aversion as such, not the outcome of a calculation of consequences. Finally, Scheffler suggests that the doomsday scenario implies that we are conservative about the things that we value. We want them to go on existing, and to go on existing independently of us and of our enjoyment or appreciation of them.

Anticipating the objection that what really horrifies us about doomsday is the prospect of billions of present human lives being cut short, and in particular the loss of our loved ones, Scheffler switches to a second, more powerful, thought experiment. The “infertility scenario” is taken from P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men (later adapted into a very different film by Alfonso Cuar√≥n) and posits that human beings simply stop being able to reproduce. The species will go extinct in about 80-100 years, but everybody alive now will go on to live the natural lifespan they would have anyway.

In the infertility scenario, one’s friends and family will go on living as before. And yet Scheffler rightly contends that this does not reduce the horror of the proposition. At a very basic level, the notion that humanity is simply going to stop existing fills us with dread—and appears to have severe knock-on effects for what we value. Most obviously, highly specific goal-orientated projects which aim at the improvement or prolongment of human life would in this scenario appear to lose their point. Why expound huge amounts of time, effort, and money on trying to find a cure for cancer if soon everybody will be dead anyway? But Scheffler’s more interesting claim—and in this I think he is essentially right—is that even non-goal-specific, but nonetheless ongoing, projects and activities will come to be undermined and risk seeming pointless in a world where there will be no collective afterlife. Writing books of philosophy, doing archival history, painting works of art—activities that are typically considered to have substantial ‘intrinsic’ value—also appear peculiarly vulnerable to the thought that if everybody will soon be dead, what’s the point? (This is well illustrated by P.D. James’s character Theo Faron, an academic who loses the motivation to engage in his research and general enjoyment of living in a world without new human life). Intriguingly, however, it’s not only projects that involve ongoing work and achievement, and what we might call deep intrinsic values, which appear to be threatened. Scheffler plausibly suggests that the point and purpose, as well as the sheer enjoyment, even of activities like listening to music or reading novels, would be severely undermined in significant part if not entirely, by the mass and individual despondency likely to accompany the infertility scenario (in James’s novel even activities like sex and game-playing somehow lose their enjoyment against a background of hopelessness at what is to come).

Scheffler’s thought experiments are well handled and subtly deployed. Unlike many philosophers who use this sort of device, he does not demand that we share one “intuition” that is presumed to be singularly correct and then tell us what we must therefore conclude about some highly abstract scenario that is supposed to tell us something direct and specific about how we live in the complex real world. This is because Scheffler is not fundamentally engaged in an exercise in justification, but is rather attempting to make sense of what we value and how we think about value; in so doing, he works through some of the presuppositions of the rich complexity of actually-experienced human life. This goes against the grain of the vast majority of contemporary moral and political theory—and is precisely why Scheffler’s book is so much richer and more interesting. With most intuition-driven philosophy, to reject the purported intuitions which one is “supposed” to have in the proposed hypothetical situation is simply to end the game being played, at least until a new intuition is asserted in the old one’s place. With Scheffler, we are instead invited to think much more carefully both about what it is that we are doing in our real lives, and also what it is we are up to when we interrogate those lives through the practice of philosophy.

In particular, Scheffler invites us to think more carefully about his most puzzling of apparent conclusions. His point is not that we secretly do philosophy, or history, or art, or whatever, in the hope that somebody will remember us after we are gone. It is that we appear to value a great many things without any regard to our own personal recognition, sincerely valuing them for their own sake, and yet believing that such intrinsic value would somehow be lost if humanity as a collective endeavour were coming to an end. This is something of a puzzle: the intrinsic value of doing philosophy, listening to music, etc., appears predicated on something extrinsic to it—i.e. humanity continuing to exist. But the correct response, implicitly urged by Scheffler, is not to conclude that our valuing practices are therefore somehow confused and in need of purging via the power of philosophy. It is that our values are much more complicated than we might otherwise have realised them to be.

Scheffler is keen to press a connected point—what he calls the “limits of our egoism.” If he is right about how we would respond to the doomsday and infertility scenarios, then it seems that in important dimensions human beings value things based not simply on their own personal gain or self-interest, but against the background of caring about what happens to other people. Of course, it does not follow that people’s day-to-day motivations must somehow be more “altruistic” than we previously thought: that selfish bastards aren’t really so because they’d lose interest in their selfish projects on the eve of destruction. Rather, it shows that it is just unhelpful and confused to reduce examinations of human life to a dichotomy between “egoistic” versus “altruistic” motivations. Human life is much more complicated than that, and one of Scheffler’s points is that we get something seriously wrong about the complex nature of value if we try and reduce it to a mere function of patterns of psychological motivation; although those, of course, will still have their own particular place.

The final, major, part of Scheffler’s case is to suggest an important contrast between the roles that personal mortality and a collective immortality play in our thinking and valuing. He argues that whilst we are quite reasonable in fearing death, it would be a mistake to desire personal immortality. Although I am not convinced that Scheffler is specific enough on what the desire for immortality really amounts to—I suspect it is a desire to choose and control when one will die, not simply a desire never to die—his conclusion is surely right: a life that never ends would be unbounded and hence lack the shape that could give it definition and meaning. It would certainly not be a life of the sort that creatures like us could coherently desire and value, because built deep into our understanding of our own existences and values is the knowledge that we will die, and that means we have a finite, and for the most part somewhat indeterminate, amount of time of which to make the most. We need to die in order to know what it means to try and live, even if most of us will die sooner than we would like, and are reasonably disturbed and afraid of the prospect of our doing so.

In a different way, however, Scheffler shows that the usually unrecognised and unquestioning assumption of a collective afterlife operates in something like the opposite direction. The fact that others will go on after us also gives shape and definition to our lives, and without knowledge of this we would lose our grip on what makes our lives worth living. This in turn opens up another puzzle, though one that may have its answer built into our understanding it properly. Whilst many people are deeply concerned about their own deaths, even though this is a precondition of giving their life meaning and something that cannot in the end be avoided, we appear strikingly blasé about the prospect of the end of the collective afterlife—something we also need in order to give our lives meaning, although the end of this certainly can be avoided (at least for a long while yet). Why then are we not more collectively motivated with respect to the threat of climate change, to pick only the most obvious current example? The answer, with regard to Scheffler’s concerns, must surely relate to one of the striking features of the issue: that for the most part we simply take the collective afterlife for granted. It might seem that the best response is therefore to stop taking it for granted. Maybe. But we may also find that if we don’t take it for granted, it stops doing quite what it once did for us. Or that after all it’s the sort of thing that creatures like us simply cannot help but take for granted, and that’s perhaps an important reason why we’ve managed to get as far as we have. The assumption that others will come after us, coupled with our finding this deeply meaningful in a variety of ways, may have been an indispensible pre-requisite for our ongoing success as a species. After all, human beings do not simply survive, we create, and we value. But being valuers and creators in turn makes us better at surviving, not least because we become more invested in doing so, both individually and collectively.

As Scheffler puts it, with self-confessed over-simplicity, his most arresting conclusion may be that “what is necessary to sustain our confidence in our values is that we should die and that others should live.” Quite why this is ultimately so—rather than just realising that it apparently is so—is a question Scheffler raises rather than answers. But that is itself a measure of the rich seam that he has opened up. I hope that others continue to mine it—whether or not I am around to see the results.

Paul Sagar is a Junior Research Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge.