Last Sunday’s New York Times (September 22, 2013)had a column by Samuel Scheffler, a professor of philosophy and law at New York University, titled, The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously. The column ran in the Times’ Opinionater section as well, which is supposed to be an exclusively on-line forum for opinion pieces. But I’m glad we got it in the print section. It gave the wife and me something to talk about over breakfast yesterday morning (we sort of dribble the Sunday Times out all week).
Scheffler questioned whether the idea of an afterlife is necessary to infusing the actions of today with purpose. He answered in the affirmative. I disagree. From the column:
I believe in life after death.
No, I don’t think that I will live on as a conscious being after my earthly demise. I’m firmly convinced that death marks the unqualified and irreversible end of our lives.
This is a dog whistle to the secular humanists/scientific materialists who presumably comprise the vast majority of Times readers. Scheffler is saying that he, like them, does not believe in heaven or hell, or in a deity parceling out awards and punishments based on one’s actions during life, which turns out to be a perfectly ironic preamble to the metaphysics he is about to construct, as his belief in the afterlife operates substantially similar to that imagined by Christ’s followers, except without the banal requirement that God must oversee it all.
My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone.
If we know, and surely any secular humanist/scientific materialist even thinly versed in the history of universe and of life on earth knows, so far as knowledge of the future can be gleaned from the past, that humanity won’t exist forever, then how is the assumption of its continuance after our own death relevant to ascertaining our purpose today? The assumption is logically and scientifically unsound. How could a robust, secular philosophy of existence be founded on an unviable assumption? Well, according to Scheffler, through belief, and one which is a close analog to the beliefs adopted by Christianity. We must believe to the point of assumption that humanity itself, if not our individual souls, will survive us, even as we know it can’t possibly survive forever.
Because we take this belief 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.
But everyone does not take this belief for granted. For one, while Christians believe in an individual afterlife, it is only for believers, and it does not depend on the temporal survival of humanity on earth. In that regard, Christian belief seems perhaps more reasonable than the belief in humanity’s survival that Scheffler claims for the secularists. At least Christians mustn’t believe right past something they specifically know is not true, so far as knowledge of the future is possible, as Scheffler’s secularists must do in believing that humanity will survive. And as for me personally, I have never considered that it mattered to my temporal existence whether or not humanity would eternally survive, but not because Christian belief in the afterlife resolved the issue. Rather because I don’t much care.
Then Scheffler really goes off the rails.
Consider a hypothetical 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?
If you are like me, and like most people with whom I have discussed the question, you would find this doomsday knowledge profoundly disturbing. And it might greatly affect your decisions about how to live. If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work. (It would be unlikely, after all, that a cure would be found in your lifetime, and even it were, how much good would it do in the time remaining?) Likewise if you were an engineer working to improve the seismic safety of bridges, or an activist trying to reform our political or social institutions or a carpenter who cared about building things to last. What difference would these endeavors make, if the destruction of the human race was imminent?
When my wife read the article she mainly agreed with Scheffler’s point, that in the scenario he proposed, we wouldn’t have a reason to get out of bed. My answer to her: That might be true on day one or two of receiving the knowledge that earth will be destroyed thirty days after one’s death, as the weighty nature of the knowledge settles on one’s soul. But after those first days pass, the body would start unbearably intruding into the mind’s thoughts of gloom, seeking the sustenance it requires to continue existing in the here and now. And then it would be back to doing whatever one was previously doing in order to secure the resources necessary to placate the body’s urges. The idea that motivation and purpose for today depend in totality on the notion of humanity’s survival through eternity could only be entertained by a gastronomically satiated populace. As my daughter might observe, it falls under the rubric of #firstworldproblems.
And the scenario Scheffler employs in attempting to prove his point is too absurd for conjecture, as it makes one’s death seem the precipitating factor for the demise of the whole earth. No one knows for sure when they will die—not even inmates on death row know when the last appeal will run. Given the inherent uncertainty, how could one’s death cause the clock to start ticking on the collision between the earth and an asteroid? If in fact the death of one person is known to start the clock ticking on the earth’s demise, imagine how immediately valuable to the earth would be the continuation of that life (if only that life). The whole world would begin searching for ways to extend it. Never mind the extravagance of hip replacements for ninety year old grandmothers, no expense would be spared to keep that death clock-initiating life alive. So actually my wife is correct, in a sense. There would be no need to get out of bed under such a scenario. The whole world would be at your beck and call. And the continuation of one’s life, which might have sometimes seemed to lack purpose and meaning in the ennui- inducing comfort of the first world, would be suffused with meaning so profound as to be nearly unbearable.
Scheffler goes on to embellish his theological arguments dressed in secular philosophies by pointing out that writers, composers, cancer researchers and presumably, philosophers, would have no reason to continue striving at their craft if they knew life on earth would soon end. But he’s just plain wrong.
Woody Allen had things about right when he said, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work, I want to achieve it through not dying.”
The here and now is all that anyone, except an ennui-besotted philothogian (a philosopher/theologian, my word), needs. My wife thinks her purpose in life depends upon some version of the future she hopes and expects may come to pass, but in reality she trudges off to the salt mines (actually banker’s lair) each day because of the here and now. The dream of a better future simply helps her rationalize why she needs to put up with the bullshit of everyday life even as her daily needs are easily met. If the truth be known, she relishes the every day social engagement that her job entails, and relishes the opportunities it presents to occasionally complain about the same. All told, the striving for a better future provides the hardship she needs in order to satisfactorily infuse her life with meaning and purpose.
But if all that doesn’t work for you, simply remember that human beings are animals. Does a wolf, perhaps man’s closest kin in its social ways (tribal/pack mentality, aggressively territorial, willingness to kill others of its kind, etc.), need the idea of eternal wolf existence to chase a bison herd for days on end until its weakest member falters and becomes food for the pack? No. All it needs is the fact of its own existence and the hunger in its belly to compel it forward. Wolves can’t have any inkling whether the existence of their kind might last eternally or not. Their relatively undeveloped reasoning capacity can’t think much further than a few moments out. It is primed by evolution to instill in them the capacity and desire to chase bison herds for days, one moment at a time, but only for the reason at hand, which is that the wolf needs to eat.
But human beings aren’t wolves. We are unique among animals. We have the ability to follow a line of causation forward, allowing us to modify and modulate our instinctive impulses in the now, for long-term advantage in the future. We can also build on the past, recording and accumulating knowledge through the progression of years. But still, we are temporal beings, and we fully well know it. This unbearable lightness of being, of knowing that we must relentlessly seek eternity, like all the rest of life, yet uniquely aware that we, along with all the rest of life, have no hope of achieving it, is the source of our mad excesses. It built the pyramids in Egypt and the terra cotta soldiers in China. It is why we crave belief in some sort of eternity, either of Scheffler’s secularized humanity or through another divinity of some sort. The lightness is the most unbearable when the being is the easiest. The mothers of starving children in Somalia do not worry over eternity. They’ve got quite enough to worry over in the here and now. The blessing of Western Civilization, and its curse, is the comfort and security its successes allow us to enjoy. It is a uniquely human attribute that an easy life is often the hardest to live. We are designed for hardship, and question our purposes in ways other animals don’t when it is found to be lacking.
When life is a struggle, it is like slow motion combat. The focus is survival. It compels cooperation. Concern over ultimate purposes vanishes. All that matters is the moment.
When it becomes easy, once the dust settles and the smoke clears, then come the questions. Why? What is the purpose for all this pain? After a pitched battle in war, if the purpose for the fighting proves fallacious (e.g., Vietnam), the soldier feels betrayed. But what of human beings, once their purpose of daily survival is momentarily filled? If they are honest with themselves (most aren’t, but if they are), they find there is no clear and knowable ulterior purpose for enduring the pain of struggling to survive, or at least none that is discernible to the temporal and finite faculties of a human being. So they create purposes, Scheffler’s column providing a perfect example of their ruminations, so that they might continue the struggle unabated. Because in the end, the purpose for existence is to exist so long as one is able, and belief in an ulterior, overarching, eternal purpose for one’s existence through time aids in the struggle to continue existing in the here and now. Thus has nature selected among humans for belief, both secular and divine.
I haven’t the faintest idea what my (or humanity’s) ulterior purpose on this planet and in this universe might be, or if there is one. I only know that for however long I exist, if I am to be true to myself, I must do what I must to continue to exist for so long as I can, because that is how I, and all other living creatures, were designed. I must strive for eternity though knowing I must fail. Reason and experience have taught me that treating others well aids immensely in the striving. So that is what I do. I haven’t a thought that any of what I do has any eternal resonance. So far as the facts allow, the only eternal certainty about my life is the fact of its existence. I am, therefore I can never not have been. For me, that has to be enough.
There is a certain loneliness to acknowledging the ambiguities in life’s ultimate purpose, and one that is magnified without a belief system to rationalize them away. The human mind is designed for passionately cataloging and categorizing the things and ideas it encounters. It loathes uncertainty. So it seems that everyone around me has adopted some sort of belief system about life’s ultimate purpose and how their life fits within it. They confidently rush hither and yon seeking fulfillment of their purpose, while I stand idly by, wondering at how they can be so confident. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t resent their confidence, or the beliefs they employ to acquire it. I just marvel at how effectively they seem able to resolve the ambiguities that I must drag around all day in my head. And then I get hungry, and join them in the mad dash of the moment to ensure my belly gets filled, and my purpose thus fulfilled.