I and many – not all – of the people I know feel quite sure that life ends at death. And yet we rely on an afterlife of a natural kind: other people’s lives will continue after we have gone. If people did not believe that was so, life would lose much of its meaning.
So argued philosophy professor Samuel Scheffler in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times back on September 21, 2013.
Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.
To make his point, Scheffler offers this doomsday scenario. “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, to reform society, to compose music, and perhaps even to have children.
Scheffler’s discussion has personal relevance for me. I’ve written about my occasional flashes of panic that when I die, not only will my life cease but so will my past, along with the lives of everyone I know and perhaps the entire universe. I described the fear thus:
These flashes of annihilation come at me seemingly out of nowhere. My gut tightens and there is an instant of blur and panic until I catch something else to think about. The suddenness is like the flash of some frightening memory from childhood or like the imagining of a car crash. The odd thing is that the sudden blankness sometimes includes my surroundings along with me.
I compared my experience to that of the child who closes his eyes and thinks that because he can’t see anyone, no one can see him. Except that my reaction is fear, not delight.
I haven’t had such panicky moments now for several years. A couple of thought streams have helped. The first I mentioned in the early post. I bring my attention to all the significant people – from family members to national leaders – who have died without the world ending. In fact, I wrote, “Every year we are surrounded by the deaths of plants and animals of every description and beyond counting, death on such a scale there might well be reason to fear an apocalypse. Yet none occurs.” And among the benefits of a funeral, I suggested, is the opportunity for the living to be reassured that the death of one of their own will not jeopardize the existence of the others.
I’ve also been reading about how the activities of any organism, even a bacterium, consist of refueling, protecting, repairing, and reproducing itself. Each living thing is alive by virtue of the fact that it – we all – try to avoid harm, seek out energy sources, reproduce. So it is not just that organisms prepare for the future. It is that being alive in the first place is to be a mechanism for continuity.
Learning about such basics of biology puts the existence of life on a solid ground that I hadn’t quite felt before. And it helps me understand why believers in traditional religions seem so confident about their afterlives.
It is terrible to think that everything may be no more one day, but I think that should not stop as from finding satisfaction right here, right now. As long as we are happy and can make others happy for our short time here, then we have lived.
Why should we be concerned with anything else?
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I agree that helping others in one way or another is what gives life joy and meaning. But doing so almost always helps them with their future as well as the immediate present: helping an ill person recover, raising a child, teaching, listening to a friend’s problems. Thank you for commenting.
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Yes. I’m talking about the future way beyond our own lives. Even if it seems that what we can leave a long lasting impact, what matters is that we made an impact – even a temporal one.
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As long as that impact provided happiness for a few people after we are gone, we did all we can.
Seems that we can’t
You might be interested in Samuel Scheffler, whom I quote in the post. The ethical question of what, if anything, we should do for those who come after us is a lively philosophical topic. His recent books are very readable. The debate is strongly relevant to the problem of climate change.
I’ll see if I can find them. My reading list is gigantic at the moment too. But it’s worth it. You can never read too much.
Very thoughtful post. Thank you. Imagine each of us has ” designed” a response one can live with. That life continues without us may be reassuring especially for those with a line of offspring. I have no line. It would be nice to think some of my genes would continue for generations after my death and that I would be
awarded ancestor status as our cemeteries stonely declare, but perhaps having taught younger generations might compensate for a while. Now that we are living in the sixth extinction caused by our species I am not too
Pleased to have been incarnated as a rapacious book reading ape. Mea culpa! Perhaps clinging to a rock as a modest lichen or as an ocean wave skipping petrel would more justifiably suffice. Less destructive. I agree with our now gone Hawking that our species may be short lived since we are undermining and poisoning and savaging our living matrix( mother earth). I have recently tirned to secular Buddhist embrace of no self, interdepence arrising, snd the embrace of wonder and mystery. Only don’t know changed everything when science questioned the certainties of religion. I celebrate my cellular organism among all others in a Whitmanesque
Kind of sensory democracy. Still, like you, Brock, I fear the throes of dying, the gasping, the agony of an incurable illness- life itself.
Our modern culture in the first world has hidden death which is natirally omnipresent- our dying cells, bacteria, bluejays, mayflies, annuals, family, friends. My dad who died in his 99 th year said how strangely alone he felt now that all his contempories were gone. Who are we without witnesses to our stories?
I wonder how we can embrace cosmology to extend our specialness in the universe( universes?). Now we know there are numerable exoplanets that surely have life forms we can only dream of. If we are made of stardust can we take solace in the stars’ lives? Joel Primack in his fascinating The View from the Center of the Universe suggests we can( he has done foundational work in cosmology). My dad dying in hospice blurted to an anglican priest mumbling last rites by his bed- you guys need to include the cosmos
Now if your beliefs are to survive.
Dad’s last words were I am dying. I am dying. Please take me home( he was in a facility). Home may mean many things. Tomb to womb? Our own place of the imagination?
I feel that because of our contingency and ” irrelevance” it is left to our imagination to tell a story or dream up a workable strategy to help us let go into the nothingness we came from. Bleak? Not at all.
As my dad often said in the last years of his life as I was saying goodbye” See you somewhere in the cosmos, my son”
Mark, thank you for this generous and open comment. It’s a lot to take in and it’s thought-provoking. Your father seems to have had a keen sense of the cosmos, how it subsumes all else, and, I would think, makes it difficult to assess our small individual lives and hoped-for influences. Who knows what kind of heritage–children, students, friends, readers–would count for much if the finale for all is a fade into the cosmos.
It all smacks of hard science and religious reverence touching at the edges. It’s unsettling and reassuring at the same time. I just finished (most of) Richard Dawkins’ Ancestor’s Tale as he plays Host to a Canterbury Tales in reverse, tracing species from today backward to the beginning of life. At the books close, Dawkins describes his reverse tracing of evolution as a pilgrimage, Canterbury as a mysterious and sacred place, and his mood throughout as true reverence. Part of the cosmos.
Great post! I am also much relieved when I ponder the exciting and myriad “lives” my atoms will have after being part of me. Noting, of course, that “my” atoms come and go every day; I don’t have to wait for my dying day to send my atoms out into the universe to live wondrous lives after me.
Some of the atoms participating in typing this comment will tomorrow be rivers on their way to become ocean, tumultuously joining with atoms from uncountable other way-stations like me. Some will take part in hurricanes, rainbows, warm spring rains. Some will become part of a giraffe’s retina, a whale’s tail, the wafting scent of a rose, or the nose which breathes it in, or the brain that sighs in appreciation. Afterlife? My atoms are already having it!
By the time this patterned flow of atoms I call “me” finally dissolves, the matter that flowed through me will already be a wide and diverse stream of after-living unity and fullness. More on this here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iGQXPTQmV0U&t=397s. Thanks for a great blog post.
JD, a wonderful eulogy/talk on the video. Thanks. And thanks for your vision of our “atoms” living their lives within and without us. Just yesterday, I was reading about the size of atoms– the distance from the probable location of the single orbiting electron in a Hydrogen atom to the nucleus (where most of the mass is) at the center. If the nucleus were a golf ball, the electron would be about a mile away. And other comparisons along those lines. Everywhere else “in” the atom would be vacuum.
So, in a gloomy mood, I wondered, in what sense is there “life” in such a barren nucleus/orbit thing? In fact, what does it mean to say that the patterned autogenerating mass called a cell or an organism is “alive”? Is a living thing merely a patterned assemblage of almost-entirely-empty-space atoms that sustains and reproduces itself and, if it’s human, calls itself “alive’? Well, perhaps. But from this perspective, aliveness doesn’t seem to amount to much. Unless, of course, the assemblage is me or you or others.