I don't think that the prospect of death saps life of meaning. People dread death, to be sure, especially a premature death. But that does not mean that they want to live forever. But dreading death is consistent with living with purpose and determination, even in the face of death.
What is it
Imagine that the world will end in thirty days. Would your life have meaning anymore? Would anyone’s? It seems that there would no longer be any point to making technological or medical advances, developing new forms of art, or even taking good care of ourselves. Imagining the doomsday scenario shows that there is something particularly disturbing about the prospect that not only we, but also everyone else, will die. Why is this? Would our lives be nearly as meaningful if others did not live on after our death? Could our “collective afterlife” through the lives of others actually be more important than the “personal afterlife” with which we are so often preoccupied? John and Ken live on through Samuel Scheffler from NYU, author of Death & the Afterlife. This program is part of our series Visions of Immortality.
Would the life of the last human being on Earth be meaningful? Is immortality desirable? John opens the show by saying that literal immortality would get quite boring after a while. Death is what gives life meaning. People dread death, but dreading death is consistent with living with purpose and determination. If we knew that nothing and nobody would live on after we died, that would strip our existence of meaning. Why should I care if other people – people I am not close to, people in a distant future – live on after I die, asks Ken? John says what Ken thinks is that he has no personal stake in the well-being of future generations, and he does a thought experiment. Would Ken keep writing his books if he knew the world was soon going to end? Ken says he would for himself, for closure. So Ken has a future stake in subsequent generations. But Ken disagrees that everything revolves around future stakes. Things like a beautiful sunset give meaning to our lives but have nothing to do with others. But could there be a life that consisted solely of those pleasures, asks John? Ken says it’s a question of proportions: how much of life is bound up in working towards the well-being of future generations?
John and Ken welcome guest Samuel Scheffler, University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Law School at New York University and author of Death & the Afterlife. John asks Samuel why he thinks people currently care more about their own survival than about collective survival and also why he believes they should care just as much, if not more, about the survival of future generations. Samuel explains that people do care more about future generations than they realize, and they do so in one respect more than they care about their own survival: in that the prospect that we ourselves are going to die does not make us feel as though our current activities are worthless, but if the prospect that civilization were soon going to die out were true, it would have the capacity to diminish the range of worthwhile activities that we would partake in. This suggests that, at least in this respect, we are much more dependent on the survival of our species than we are on our own personal survival. Ken wonders why philosophers have not addressed this issue before, and Samuel suggests that part of the answer is we know we, as individuals, are going to die, and we become preoccupied with that fact as we get older. The existence of other people after we die is taken for granted.
Ken digs into the central argument and asks Samuel about different scenarios, such as that found in The Children of Men, regarding near extinction and collective immortality. He wonders if Samuel’s claim is that people in such situations could not live meaningful lives at all. Samuel says his is not quite that strong a claim, but that surely the possibilities for living a rich and meaningful life would be considerably diminished. Activities that people currently pursue would become meaningless. The range of activities people would find rewarding would be significantly lessened, and the fact that no new people would come into existence would deprive activities of value. This situation would be just as forceful for those with and without children; values and actions would change for every single person. The effect, Samuel explains, does seem to diminish with increased projection of time – for example, the problem seems less pressing if the expectation is that the world will die in 300 years than it is if the world is to end tomorrow. The problem lies in the numbers being too big for us to comprehend.
Samuel, John, and Ken welcome questions from the audience, and they continue the discussion by tackling questions such as: does belief in God impact how people perceive the question of personal and communal immortality, to which Samuel explains that while some are insulated from some of the worries he discussed by their spirituality, that certain individuals would not be troubled by the imminent disappearance of the human race because they would be expecting an afterlife. However, this answer is not so obvious – many events would still seem pointless regardless of spirituality if the world were to end. Religious beliefs, Samuel explains, complicate the issue, but they certainly don’t make it go away.
Roving Philosophical Reporter (Seek to 6:29): Shuka Kalantari explores the question: what would you do if the world was ending in 30 days? She talks to Dr. Tamara McBride from the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center and to Philosophy Talk producer Devon Strolovitch.
- 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:25): The immortally – we mean, impossibly – fast Ian Shoales speeds through our living process of immortalization (and Billy the Kid).