We may not believe that our life will continue after we die, but we certainly do count on an afterlife of a different kind: We rely on other people living on after we are gone. If we thought that for some reason they would not do so, our own lives would lose much of their meaning.
So argues Samuel Scheffler, professor at New York University, in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times, Sept 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 two doomsday scenarios. In the first, one knows that the world will be destroyed by an asteroid. “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, reform society, compose music, and perhaps even have children.
In the second scenario, imagine a world in which, although no one dies suddenly, no one is born. Humans have become infertile. There is no global apocalypse, but there is also no human future. “Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.”
Scheffler’s point is a provocative one, and I asked myself whether some version of this assumption of living continuity is true of plants and other animals as well as humans. In a weaker form, I think it is. Plants and most animals, although they lack consciousness of the future, are propelled forward by their bodily design to grow, survive and reproduce. The very arrangements that make a thing alive—all its systems and their coordination—reflect their success in providing the organism with a future. Without a future, their capacities for life, like ours, would be pointless.