Death and the Afterlife, by Samuel Scheffler, edited by Niko Kolodny with commentaries by Kolodny and Susan Wolf, Harry G. Frankfurt, and Seana Valentine Shiffrin (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013, ISBN 978-0-19-998250-90) 224 pp. Hardcover, $29.95. Also available on Kindle.
Much of the appeal of religion has to do with the prospect of an afterlife, which promises not only life after death but also that justice will be properly meted out and the inequities of this world rectified for all time. While New York University philosopher Samuel Scheffler rejects this kind of wishful thinking, he believes that there is indeed an afterlife, the existence of which is not so much comforting as necessary if we are to make the most of whatever our present life grants us.
Scheffler does not believe in any form of personal immortality. He argues for what he calls the “collective afterlife,” or the importance to us of our awareness that the human race will endure long after each of us is gone. In Scheffler’s words: “. . . The survival of people after our deaths matters greatly to us . . . because it is a condition of many other things that now matter to us continuing to do so. In some very significant respects, we actually care more about the survival of others after our deaths than we do about the existence of a personal afterlife, and the imminent disappearance of the human race would have a more corrosive effect on our ability to lead . . . value-laden lives than does the actual prospect of our own death. . . .”
Readers are asked to imagine two scenarios, each of which would rob them of a collective afterlife. In the Doomsday Scenario, Earth and all life upon it will be obliterated by an asteroid sometime in the next thirty days. The Infertility Scenario, borrowed in part from a novel by P. D. James, offers up the prospect that everyone on Earth has suddenly become infertile, so that, while everyone then alive would be allowed to live out their earthly life spans, beyond that lies nothingness, for individuals as well as the race. Scheffler wants us to consider how we might spend those last remaining days.
Would there be any point, for example, in searching for a cure for cancer, for developing more efficient superconductors, or for creating less expensive biofuels? Would any scientific endeavor be worthwhile, especially considering that science tends to advance in minuscule increments over long periods of time and often must take three steps backward to advance one step forward? What would be the point of studying history if no one will be around to care about, much less assess, your conclusions? Why bother endeavoring to create the next literary, artistic, or musical masterpiece? For that matter, why (at least in the Doomsday Scenario) should electricians or plumbers care about the quality of the repairs they are making to your home? According to Scheffler, the valuing process always has a temporal component. What we value is that which we care to see preserved over time. The collective afterlife is, therefore, essential to our valuing most of what we in fact value.
We find ourselves, then, deeply invested in the lives of people we shall never meet or even identify, valuing their existence above our own personal survival and even above the survival of those whom we cherish in our present life. As the volume’s editor Niko Kolodny puts it, there are apparently limits to our egoism in that we are “. . . Emotionally vulnerable to what happens to other people, even people as distant from us as other human beings can be.”
Death and the Afterlife is based largely on the author’s Tanner Lectures on Human Values, delivered at the University of California at Berkeley in March 2012. Scheffler presents his thoughts tentatively; he knows that they need further development and vetting. The structure of the book is a testament to Scheffler’s commitment to seeing that his claims are thoroughly tested. The main portion, in which Scheffler elaborates and expands upon his main thesis, is followed by contributions from four scholars, each of whom presents his or her own analysis of the book’s central thesis. The text ends with the author’s response to these critiques.
While much of philosophical discourse seems to amount to ruminations over ideas that were sufficiently chewed over twenty-five hundred years ago, Scheffler’s effort brings us an original idea that is well worth further contemplation and is not only accessible but immediately useful to the lay reader. Death and the Afterlife offers a new perspective on how we go about making meaning and cultivating values in the course of a fleeting and thoroughly earthbound existence.
Wayne L. Trotta is a psychologist and frequent contributor to Free Inquiry. His last review, of Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, appeared in our April/May 2014 issue.