Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meaning, Value and the Collective Afterlife: Must others survive for our lives to have meaning?



Samuel Scheffler made quite a splash last year with his book Death and the Afterlife. It received impressive recommendations and reviews from numerous commentators, and was featured in a variety of popular outlets, including the Boston Review and the New York Review of Books. I’m a bit late to the party, having only got around to reading it in the past week, but I think I can see what all the fuss was about.

The book really does offer some interesting, and novel, insights into what it takes to live a meaningful life. The most interesting of those insights comes from Scheffler’s defence of the collective afterlife dependency thesis. According to this thesis, much of what makes our lives valuable is dependent on the existence of a collective afterlife. This collective afterlife is not, according to Scheffler, to be understood in supernatural or religious terms; it is to be understood in secular and naturalistic terms. It is the continued existence of beings like us in an environment which is roughly equivalent to the one in which we now live.

Scheffler is quite careful in his development of this thesis. He distinguishes three different versions of it, and clarifies (to some extent) exactly what needs to be preserved in this collective afterlife. I’m going to skip over some of this nuance in what follows. I’m just going to look at Scheffler’s defence of the unrefined version of the dependency thesis, as well as some criticisms of that idea. In particular, I’m going to look at Mark Johnston’s criticism, which claims that if Scheffler is right, then life is nothing more than a Ponzi scheme: it needs an infinite stream of future generations to “pay in” in order to make life meaningful for the current generation.


1. What is this “collective afterlife” you speak of?
Before looking at the argument proper, we need to clarify the central thesis. As I just said, it all hinges on the notion of a collective afterlife. Scheffler alludes to this idea several times in the book. He knows that his use of that term is contentious — “afterlife” brings with it a rich set of religious connotations — but that’s part of the fun. Here is a quick definition, based on my own reading between the lines:

Collective Afterlife: The continued existence of human-like beings in conditions roughly equivalent to those in which you now live, after your death.

A couple of points about this definition. First, note how it refers to “human-like beings”, not humans. This is my addition. Throughout the book Scheffler talks (or implies) that his imagined collective afterlife involves the existence of human beings, but I take it that it is not absolutely essential for the beings that exist in the collective afterlife to be human (i.e. genetic members of homo-sapiens). Human-like beings, with similar properties of personhood and similar goals and aspirations would be sufficient. That brings us to the other part of the definition, which is also mine, and which claims that they must live in conditions roughly equivalent to those in which we now live. It turns out that the precise conditions in which future generations must live is somewhat contentious as between Scheffler and his critics. It’s pretty clear that, in order to confer meaning on our lives, the lives of future generations must share at least some of our values, aspirations and needs, and that they must not live in a state of abject immiseration and deprivation, but they probably don’t need to have lives that are exactly the same as ours. I’ll return to this later when looking at Johnston’s criticism. Finally, note how the definition makes no appeal to the continued existence of humans that are particularly close to us (i.e. friends and family). This is important because one of things that Scheffler points out in his book is that, in order to confer value on our lives, the lives of future beings need not bear a close relation to us.

So much for that. What role does the collective afterlife play in our lives? Scheffler claims that it plays quite a big role. He claims that much of what we value in life (our plans, hopes, projects, activities and so on) depends for its value on the existence of a collective afterlife:

…our conception of a human life…relies on an implicit understanding of such a life as itself occupying a place in an ongoing human history, in a temporally extended chain of lives and generations. 
(Scheffler 2013, p. 43)

This is the dependency thesis:

The Collective Afterlife Dependency Thesis (CADT): The existence of a collective afterlife is an important condition for living a valuable life; without a collective afterlife our present lives would be denuded of much of their value.

To be clear, this is my definition of the thesis, not Scheffler’s. He is much more careful in his discussion. He distinguishes between an attitudinal, evaluative and justificatory version of the thesis. These distinctions look into whether the collective afterlife is something that merely affects our attitudes to our lives, whether it actually affects what is valuable about our lives, and whether the actual (as opposed to believed) existence of the afterlife is essential. I’m going to ignore these distinctions for now. You’ll also note that my definition refers to the collective afterlife as an “important” condition for value in life. I use that term because I don’t think Scheffler intends for it to be understood as either a necessary or a sufficient condition; but he does clearly think it has a significant impact on the amount of value in our lives. Hence “important” seems like the most appropriate descriptor.


2. Scheffler’s argument for the CADT
Scheffler doesn’t present a formal argument for the CADT in his book. Instead, he presents a series of thought experiments and reflections upon those thought experiments. As always, I would like to recover as much formal structure from these reflections as possible. So in what follows I’ll try to show how those thought experiments can be used as part of a semi-formal defence of the CADT. There are two thought experiments that are particularly important for this purpose.

The first thought experiment is:

Doomsday Thought Experiment: Suppose that you will live a long, normal human life, but that 30 days after your death, all human life will be destroyed in some catastrophic event (for example, an asteroid collision). Suppose, further, that you know this catastrophic event will take place as you are living your life. What effect would this have?

Scheffler suggests, in a long and thoughtful analysis, that it would have a pretty devastating affect on your life. It would rob many of your projects and activities of their value, and would probably induce a significant amount of despair, grief and existential hand-wringing. He further contends that it is not really plausible to react to the scenario with indifference. As he puts it:

[F]ew of us would be likely to say… “So what? Since it won’t happen until thirty days after my death, it isn’t of any importance to me. I won’t be around to experience it, and so it doesn’t matter to me in the slightest.” 
(Scheffler 2013, p. 19)

Of course, it’s always dangerous when philosophers play these intuition-mongering games. There may be some people who do react with utter indifference (think Kirsten Dunst in Melancholia - if you think life is pretty pointless anyway you might not be too bothered). But I still sympathise with what Scheffler is saying. I certainly don’t think that I would react with utter indifference. The possibility of the doomsday scenario after my death would probably change my attitude to life.

Scheffler thinks these likely reactions tell us something interesting about what it takes to live a valuable life. In particular, he thinks they suggest that there is a strong nonexperiential aspect to what makes life worth living. In the doomsday scenario, your life and experiences are unaffected — you do not die prematurely — but nevertheless the value of your life is, somehow, affected. He also thinks that these reactions suggest that there is a significant conservatism to what makes our lives valuable. In other words, we want the things we currently value and care about to continue to exist after we die. Combined, these two implications provide some support for the CADT. They point to the need for the continued existence of beings like us, living lives like ours, in order for our lives to have as much value as we seem to think they do.



One problem with the doomsday thought experiment, however, is that it conflates the continued existence of beings with lives that are close to our own with the continued existence of beings with lives like our own. What do I mean by this? I mean it could be, for all the doomsday thought experiment suggests, that what induces all the despair and existential angst is the fact that our children, friends and family, or any other being close to us, will die. Although Scheffler thinks the continued existence of such beings is an important part of what confers value on our lives, he thinks that their existence alone does not do justice to the CADT. This leads to the second thought experiment:

Collective Infertility Thought Experiment: Suppose that the entire human race is infertile. In other words, the current generation of humans is the last generation of humans that will ever live. (A situation depicted in the novel and film The Children of Men). What effect would that have on our lives?

Again, Scheffler suggests that it would have a pretty devastating effect. It would induce a significant amount of despair and existential angst. Indeed, this is something that the Children of Men tries to illustrate in some rich, imaginative detail. We are shown a world in which anarchy and anomie reign supreme, and in which only an extremely authoritarian government can keep control. In the book, it is said to give rise to ennui universel, and that only those who “lack imagination” or who are in the grip of an extreme egotism are immune from the negative effects.

In these respects, the collective infertility scenario is similar to the doomsday one. But there are some crucial differences. As Scheffler points out, the despair in the collective infertility scenario is not just caused by the prospective deaths of ourselves and people we care about. In fact, we already know that everyone we know and love will someday die and yet this, in and of itself, does not induce the same degree of existential angst. The despair in the collective infertility scenario is caused by the fact that everyone — including those with whom we have no special or personal connection — is gradually going extinct. The fact that we feel despair at this generalised extinction tells us something interesting. It tells us that there is a strong altruistic element to the role of the collective afterlife in our own lives. We care about the general fate of humankind, not just the fate of people we know and love. Once again, this seems to support the CADT.



To summarise all this in a simple formal argument, we could construct the following:


  • (1) If our intuitive reaction to certain thought experiments suggests that the continued existence of human-like beings in conditions roughly equivalent to those in which we now live is an important condition for meaning and value in our lives, then we are warranted in accepting the CADT.

  • (2) Our intuitive reactions to the Doomsday Thought Experiment and the Collective Infertility Thought Experiment suggest that the continued existence of human-like beings in conditions roughly equivalent to those in which we now live is an important condition for meaning and value in our lives.

  • (3) Therefore, we are warranted in accepting the CADT.



You might think it’s silly to spell out the argument in this level of detail. But one thing I like about this semi-formal reconstruction is that it renders transparent the type of inference that is taking place. Scheffler is defending the CADT on the basis of our reactions to certain thought experiments. Though this is a common methodology in philosophy, there are no doubt people who will worry about inferring such a significant thesis from such a limited set of reflections. All I can say to such people is that Scheffler’s reflections are much more detailed than I am making them out to be in this post, and even if his argument is ultimately lacking, it provides much food for thought.


3. The Ponzi Scheme Problem
There are several criticisms and commentaries on Scheffler’s argument. Some of them are modest in nature. For example, Susan Wolf — in a response contained within the original book — argues that much of what we value (e.g. certain intellectual and artistic pursuits) could still retain value in the face of the Doomsday scenario. This is modest insofar as it doesn’t completely deny that the collective afterlife plays a role in conferring value on our present lives. But there are also critics who take issue with the CADT as a whole. One of them is Mark Johnston who, in his review of the book, argues that if we take the CADT seriously, life ends up being akin to a Ponzi Scheme. And since he feels that this is implausible, he rejects the CADT.

Let’s try to make sense of this criticism. As best I can tell, it works as a reductio of the CADT:


  • (4) If the CADT is true, then the possibility of our lives being full of value and meaning is dependent on the existence of future generations living lives full of value and meaning.

  • (5) If the possibility of our lives being full of value and meaning depends on the existence of future generations living lives full of value and meaning, then life turns out to be a Ponzi scheme: we need an infinite stream of future generations to pay into the system in order to make our lives meaningful.

  • (6) But we are not going to have an infinite stream of future generations paying into the system.

  • (7) Therefore, our current lives are denuded of much of their value and meaning.

  • (8) It is implausible to think that our current lives are denuded of much of their value and meaning.

  • (9) Therefore, the CADT is implausible.


Johnston’s argument appeals to the “rough equivalence” concept that I introduced earlier on. As you’ll recall, I said that in order for the collective afterlife to confer value on our present lives, it cannot be the case that future generations live in a state of abject immiseration and deprivation, and that they must live lives that are roughly equivalent to those that we now live. Johnston is taking this a step further and arguing that their future lives must be very similar to our own, at least with respect to the amount of value and meaning in them. He then combines this with a transference principle for the conferral of value:

Transference Principle: If human generationn (Gn) lacks value and meaning in their lives, then so too does Gn-1, and Gn-2, all the way back to G1.

In other words, the lack of meaning and value in one future generation transfers back to the present generation. As Antti Kauppinen puts it, Johnston here seems to be endorsing a kind of Recursive Afterlifism. The question is whether this is itself a plausible construal of the CADT.

Kauppinen thinks that it is not, and I have similar feelings. While I appreciate the metaphor of the Ponzi scheme, I have a hard time accepting the transference principle upon which Johnston’s criticism is based. Kauppinen suggests in his commentary that future generations need not match us in terms of value and meaning in order for our activities and projects to have value conferred upon them by the existence of those future generations. For example, finding a cure for cancer in the present generation would be a valuable activity if it benefitted some future generations (e.g. 10 future generations). It would not be robbed of its value simply because there won’t be an infinite stream of happy future generations. What we end up with is a modified version of the transference principle. Instead of the amount of value and meaning in Gn being entirely determined by the amount of value in Gn+1, we have a situation in which the amount of value and meaning in Gn is partly determined by the amount of value and meaning in Gn+1. This more modest form of collective afterlifism has some disturbing implications. It suggests that life for the final generation of humans will indeed be devoid of much meaning and value, and that things won’t be much better for the second-to-last generation. But this is entirely consistent with the CADT. It simply suggests that the impact of the eventual demise of the human race attenuates as we go back in time. I find that to be a plausible construal of the CADT.


4. Conclusion
I’m going to leave it there. To quickly recap, Scheffler’s book argues that the amount of value and meaning in our lives is highly dependent upon the existence of a collective afterlife. He defends this by analysing two thought experiments, in one of which the human race goes extinct 30 days after your death, and in the other of which the human race is collectively infertile and dying out. One thing I have not covered in this post is the role of our deaths in conferring meaning on our lives. This is another, probably more controversial, aspect of Scheffler’s book. He thinks that our deaths are important for conferring meaning on our lives, and that the collective afterlife is more significant than our (individual) continued existence. I hope to cover that argument in more detail another time.

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