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An individual human existence should be like a river--small at first, narrowly contained within its banks, and rushing passionately past rocks and over waterfalls. Gradually the river grows wider, the banks recede, the waters flow more quietly, and in the end, without any visible break, they become merged in the sea, and painlessly lose their individual being. The man who, in old age, can see his life in this way, will not suffer from the fear of death, since the things he cares for will continue. And if, with the decay of vitality, weariness increases, the thought of rest will not be unwelcome. I should wish to die while still at work, knowing that others will carry on what I can no longer do and content in the thought that what was possible has been done. -Bertrand Russell, "How to Grow Old"
Russell lived to the age of 97. As a result, he had plenty of time to contemplate both his own mortality and his connection to the rest of humanity, which would continue to survive long after his death (assuming, of course, that the species did not wipe itself out--a possibility of which Russell was all-too-aware). As the quotation above demonstrates, Russell made good use of this time, but he never produced an in-depth philosophical investigation of these topics. He was not alone. Few philosophers since Epicurus have had anything truly interesting to say about human mortality, and arguably none have examined in depth our relationship with those who will live on after our deaths.
Samuel Scheffler hopes to correct this oversight. His new book, Death and the Afterlife, brings together the two Tanner Lectures on Human Values that Scheffler gave at the University of California at Berkeley in March 2012, as well as a third lecture given on a different occasion. The book is edited by Niko Kolodny, and includes comments by Susan Wolf, Harry G. Frankfurt, Seana Valentine Shiffrin, as well as Kolodny, together with a response to these comments by Scheffler. Clearly, this book brings together some impressive intellectual firepower. The target of all this firepower is the set of questions that Russell addressed in "How to Grow Old"--how should we think about both our own death and the continued existence of humanity? Unfortunately, despite the impressive effort expended, the answers offered by Scheffler's book offer little advance over those offered in Russell's essay.
The topic of Scheffler's book is the "collective afterlife," or "the continued existence of other people after one's own death" (64). Scheffler contrasts the collective afterlife with the personal afterlife, in which many people (but not Scheffler) believe. Scheffler argues that "the survival of humanity matters more to each of us than we usually realize; indeed...it matters more to us even than our own survival," at least in some respects (81). Scheffler believes that a fuller realization of this fact might motivate people to care more about the continued survival of the species--a goal that Russell, to be sure, would wholeheartedly endorse. Scheffler further argues that while the collective afterlife is critically important to human life, a personal afterlife, if it existed, would threaten our entire way of being. "Our confidence in our values," he concludes, "depends both on death, which is inevitable and which many of us nevertheless fear, and on the survival of human life, which is not at all inevitable and threats to which most of us do not fear enough" (110).
Scheffler structures his discussion of the collective afterlife around two thought experiments. The first experiment asks you to imagine the discovery of a giant asteroid that would obliterate the human race thirty days after your own death (18). (This would seem to require either knowing the date of your own death, or having an asteroid kind enough to wait for you to die before annihilating humanity. This thought experiment could use a bit more work.) The second experiment, borrowed from P.D. James' novel The Children of Men (1992), involves the outbreak of universal sterility, such that no new human beings will ever be born again. Using these thought experiments, Scheffler offers a series of reflections about the significance of the collective afterlife, and how this significance compares to that of our own mortality. (He offers no thought experiments regarding the latter subject, presumably because most people are already painfully acquainted with it.)
What conclusions does Scheffler draw from these thought experiments? Many of them, unfortunately, seem rather obvious, even banal, to me. He concludes, for example, that if you believe that the human race is coming to an end in the near future, you will probably lose interest in projects which will not come to fruition before the end (e.g., the search for a cancer cure). He also suggests that if an asteroid were going to hit the earth some day soon, this fact might affect your interest in having children (25). Scheffler seems to think that conclusions like these, as obvious as they are, matter because of their philosophical implications (26-27). But even these implications, at least the ones identified by Scheffler, are not very exciting. If we are bothered by the idea that humanity will cease to exist after our deaths, Scheffler argues, this must mean that our values are nonexperientialist--we care about more than just our experiences--and nonconsequentialist--we care about more than just the consequences of our actions (20-21). It also suggests that human beings are not purely egoistic (44). These are hardly startling claims; only a lunatic or a philosopher would deny that people care about things outside their immediate sensory experiences. And at times, Scheffler seems to admit as much. "There is very little," he says, "that I will be saying in these lectures that we don't, on some level, already know" (16).
Scheffler does attempt to draw less obvious conclusions about the collective afterlife. As noted above, for example, he believes that life without the collective afterlife would scarcely be worth living. But his arguments for controversial conclusions like these do not go very far. Indeed, Scheffler often seems to defend his position simply by denying the certainty of the contrary position--a form of "you can't prove I'm wrong." Consider his second thought experiment, for example. Scheffler hopes that "it will not strike you as outlandish...to suppose that such a [completely sterile] world would be a world characterized by widespread apathy, anomie, and despair; by the erosion of social institutions and social solidarity; by the deterioration of the physical environment; and by a pervasive loss of conviction about the value or point of many activities" (40). Scheffler does indeed show that this bleak picture of a sterile world is not "outlandish"--not a hard thing to do--but that's not exactly the same as showing that the picture is accurate, or even plausible. Later, Scheffler writes that "We cannot assume that we know what the constituents of a good life would be in such a world, nor can we even be confident that there is something that we would be prepared to count as a good life" (43). But a lack of certainty about the quality of life inside Scheffler's thought experiment in no way supports Scheffler's own views on the subject. And Scheffler doesn't really have more than this to offer in defending his rather extreme view regarding the importance of the collective afterlife.
To be fair, Scheffler admits that his lectures are "exploratory and speculative," even if his tone at times sounds more conclusive than speculative (177). As editor Niko Kolodny notes in his introduction, "Scheffler doesn't aim to have the final word, especially in an inquiry that...has only just gotten under way" (7). But I am skeptical that the line of inquiry opened by Scheffler will get very far. It's incredibly hard to say anything meaningful about the collective afterlife. A world without such an afterlife is totally outside human experience--no one has ever lived in such a word, or anything remotely like it--and so I see no reason to trust anyone's intuitions (including mine) regarding what life in such a world would be like. As the methodologists like to say, there's no observed variation in the independent variable, unless one counts highly-fanciful thought experiments. One can draw a few obvious conclusions about the collective afterlife (as Scheffler has done), but beyond that there's really little basis for distinguishing one idle bit of speculation from another.
According to Harry Frankfurt, the issues raised by Scheffler in Death and the Afterlife
are themselves pretty much original with him. He seems really to be raised, within a rigorously philosophical context, some new questions. At least, as far as I know, no one before has attempted to deal with those questions so systematically. So it appears that he has effectively opened up a new and promising field of philosophical inquiry. Not bad going, in a discipline to which many of the best minds have already devoted themselves for close to three thousand years (132).
Frankfurt is almost certainly correct regarding Scheffler's originality. Others, like Russell, have made suggestive remarks about the themes raised in Death and the Afterlife, but no one has tackled them with the level of rigor provided by Scheffler. But I am more skeptical than Frankfurt that this new field of inquiry will prove promising. To me, Scheffler's analysis demonstrates the limits of what can be said in this area. Perhaps Russell's suggestive remarks are as good as we are going to get.
© 2014 Peter Stone
Dr. Peter Stone, Ussher Assistant Professor of Political Science, Trinity College, Dublin, Ireland