Category Archives: Death & Philosophy

Summary of Samuel Scheffler’s, Death and the Afterlife

In his recent book, Death and the AfterlifeSamuel Scheffler offer two imaginative thought experiments in an attempt to understand our attitudes toward death and meaning.

In the first, the doomsday scenario, we are asked to imagine that we will live out our normal lifespan, but that thirty days after our deaths an asteroid will destroy the earth and all life on it. Needless to say most of us would find this a depressing prospect, independent of the fact that we would not die prematurely. Scheffler argues that this shows that the lives of others who live on after we die, what he calls the “collective afterlife,” matter more to us than we ordinarily think, and that our individual survival matters less to us than we normally suppose.

In the second, the infertility scenario, we again live out our normal lives but must do so with the knowledge that the species is infertile. With the last human death, humanity dies out. Scheffler argues that this knowledge would demoralize us, undermining our attempt to live happy lives. Again we see that the collective afterlife is more important to us than we usually realize.

Scheffler then contrasts the relative calm we feel about the fact that all those now living will one day be dead, with the horror we experience thinking about either of the above scenarios. This suggests that the fact that we and those we love won’t exist in the future bothers us less, than that some unknown people won’t exist in the future. As Scheffler says:

the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.

MARK JOHNSTON REPLIES

But is it true that we really care more about the existence of potential people than the survival of our loved ones? This idea was challenged in a piece in the Boston Review by Mark Johnston entitled, “Is Life a Ponzi Scheme? Johnston asks us to imagine that the population of our tribe is half of humanity, and our tribe is also infertile. Would we really prefer the death of our tribe if we knew that the remaining half of humanity will repopulate the planet to its previous levels in a few generations, and then all of them will die a few generations later? Johnston thinks most of us would answer no to this question, and that his thought experiment belies Scheffler’s claim that we care more about unknown future persons than our present loved ones.

Johnston also argues that it is not just any future for humanity that matters to us, but valuable ones. Thus a future in which gangs fight for cosmic space or we are food for aliens is not better than one in which we perished altogether. Johnston prefers we perish rather than suffer such fates. This leads him to consider whether our lives have meaning: a) if humanity has a future or; b) only if humanity has a valuable future. The problem with either of these is that if value depends on the future, then value will eventually be undermined—since the universe will ultimately end.

To avoid such a depressing conclusion Johnston advises us to value our lives now rather than holding them hostage to some future. And we should not be demoralized by the thought of our own or humanity’s death: “The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future.”

MESSERLY REPLIES

I challenged Johnston’s views in my recent book: The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific PerspectivesThere I argue that what I call complete meaning is not possible without both individual and collective immortality. That is not to say that mortal beings can’t live meaningful lives, just that such lives would be completely meaningful only if they possessed both infinite quantity and quantity—only if they didn’t end. In my view this is possible because future technologies may make death optional and grant us immortality if we so choose.

This argument for immortality provided by future technologies is buttressed by Scheffler’s insight that we care about future people. We care about the future because without it life is (nearly) pointless. Johnston is right that without a future there is little meaning to life. But if there is a valuable and meaningful future—made possible by science and technology—then acting to bring about the future gives life meaning. As for the eventual death of the universe, this is uncertain given considerations of the multiverse and the possibility of powerful, advanced intelligences determining the fate of the universe.

Without the prospect of a good and lasting future for our descendants, there is little or no meaning to our present lives. And that is what Scheffler’s thought experiments so beautifully and artfully illuminate.

Death and the Afterlife

The Denial of Death

The Denial of Death is a 1973 work by Ernest Becker. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1974,  a few months after his death. (In the above scene Woody Allen’s character Alvy Singer buys the book for Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall in the Academy award-winning movie “Annie Hall.”)

The book’s basic premise is that human civilization is a defense mechanism against the knowledge that we will die. Becker argues that humans live in both a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of meaning. The symbolic part of human life engages in what Becker calls an “immortality project.” People try to create or become part of something which they believe will last forever—art, music, literature, religion, political movements, institutions, nations, etc. This connection with the eternal, they believe, gives their lives meaning.

Becker argued that mental illness, especially depression, results from lacking a project that gives people lives meaning. Without one we are reminded of mortality and meaninglessness. He also argued that schizophrenia results from a lack of defense mechanisms against mortality, causing sufferers to create their own reality. These notions are reminiscent of Victor Frankl’s claim in Man’s Search for Meaning that mental illness often results from a lack of meaning.

Moreover Becker believed that conflicts between contradictory immortality projects, especially religious ones, is the main cause of wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism. Our particular immortality projects are so important to us, that we can’t tolerate others suggesting that they are misguided. He also believed that religion no longer offers convincing arguments for immortality or meaning in life. But science does little better.

So Becker suggests that we need new comforting “illusions” to enable us to feel eternally important. He doesn’t tell us what these new illusions will be, but he hoped that an honest look at our innate motivations might help to create a better world. For now though we feel mortality deep in our bones. As Becker put it:

This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

Death Is Like A Ticking Time Bomb

(This article was reprinted in Humanity+ Magazine, November 20, 2014)

I have written extensively on why death: 1) should be overcome; 2) is one of the greatest tragedies to befall us; and 3) makes completely meaningful lives impossible. In a recent post I summarized Nick Bostrom’s fable about the dragon-tyrant that makes similar points. In response I received this perceptive comment:

Love that story. Given that we now see death as a result of genetic programming. Literally, programmed cell death. You could tell a similar story but have everyone born with a ticking time bomb strapped to them—same point but more accurate. People of the religious or “death gives life meaning” crowd would be arguing against disarming this bomb.

The “ticking time bomb” conveys the sense in which death is always with us, not merely at the end of the road like the dragon-tyrant. In Bostrom’s image you stand in line awaiting your fate—which is bad enough—but strapped to a ticking time bomb you can blow up anytime. This is a more accurate description of our situation—death is always near.

The deathists—the lovers of death—often don’t disarm the bomb because they believe that dying transports you to a better address—from a slum to a mansion. And in the mansion your mind and body are eternally bathed in a salve of peace, love, and joy. That is a prominent justification for opposing the bomb’s removal.

The problem is the story that dying is moving to a better neighborhood  is that it is almost certainly fictional. And most people agree because, as I’ve said many times in my blog and books, when humans conquer death—learn to remove the bomb—they will. Those who have the option to live forever will be eternally grateful that they have the real thing, instead of the empty promises they now pay for in church.

Consciousness has come a long way from its beginnings in a primordial soup … but there is so much farther to go. Let’s put our childhood behind us, and make something of ourselves.

I say no man has ever yet been half devout enough;
None has ever yet adored or worship’d half enough;
None has begun to think how divine he himself is,
And how certain the future is.

O strain, musical, flowing through the ages—now reaching hither!
I take to your reckless and composite chords—I add to them,
And cheerfully pass them forward.

~ Walt Whitman

The Fear of Death

Last month the American comedian and actor Robin Williams died. A massive outpouring of public grief followed but now, a little more than a month later, it has all but vanished. What then, I wondered, was all that grief about? And for someone we didn’t even really know.

While thinking about this I came across an insightful article on by Peter Finocchiaro. He first considers the idea that much of this grief was not earnest—that it was more about the person expressing the grief. All the twitter and Facebook activity was mostly about one’s favorite films and how much one was grieving. Finocchiaro thinks egotism is part of the explanation for the public outpouring. After all how many of our lives were really changed by a Robin Williams movie? Still Finocchiaro thinks there is more to it. “Why, exactly, are we making it about us?”

He next considers that our concern for celebrities is a manifestation of the psychological phenomenon called “Basking in Reflective Glory.” By associating with celebrities we feel special, and when they die some of that specialness disappears. Thus we cling to them as best we can by telling everyone how much we loved them or their work. Again Finocchiaro thinks this is a part, but not all of the answer.

At the deepest level Finocchiaro believes this grief is about something deeper—it is about our own fear of death. And I think he is right. In this context Finocchiaro reminds us of the main thesis of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker‘s 1973 bestseller and Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction, “The Denial of Death.” There Becker argues:

that the refusal to accept our mortality—a fundamental but nearly invisible pathology, baked right into the human condition—is the literal cause of all evil in the world … This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die.

In response, Becker contends, we make heroes of famous people and cling fanatically to the ideas of religion, nationalism, sports teams, alma maters, and other group loyalties. Becker also argues that while deifying our heroes and social structures may ameliorate our existential dread, it also leads to prejudice, inequality, and war—our attraction to celebrities and ideologies is a double-edge sword. But all of this emanates from our desire to transcend death, and this is why we feel grief when kings or presidents or celebrities die—it reminds us of the existential dread we all feel but don’t want to talk about.

Finocchiaro concludes by talking about his own death in an honest and moving way.

Something I don’t like to admit about myself, except in the company of very close and trusted relations, is that over the past few years I have become increasingly obsessed with the prospect of death, and regularly consumed by the terror of it.

As the influence of my parents’ Catholicism has ebbed over time and drifted into the resignation of a mostly unspoken atheism, the gravity of that change has slowly come into focus: Someday I will be dead, and my subjective self lost forever. That same fact holds true for all of us, and eventually for the prospect for any life, anywhere. Over time, the universe will eventually rend itself apart, piece by piece, one final prolonged act of atomic torsion borne out over the course of eons. When all is said and done, we won’t just be gone; any trace of us will as well.

Reflections

I have stated my own desire to live forever—to experience infinite being, consciousness, and bliss—in many posts and in my most recent book on the meaning of life. As I’ve said many times I believe that death is an ultimate evil and should be optional. Thus we should strive to enhance and preserve human and post-human consciousness. I also agree that the fear of death is the source of much of the evil in the world. I do recognize that this desire for immortality may be narcissistic, and that we do best to overcome the fear of death by realizing that we are not that important and that life will go on without us. We need to allow the walls of our ego to recede as Bertrand Russell taught me long ago. Still death is such a waste of consciousness, and in an ideal world we wouldn’t need to be resigned to our extinction, to nothingness.

I’ll finish with a moving quote by that wonderful African-American novelist James Baldwin. It captures some of the deepest feeling I have about death.

Life is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.[i]

[i] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Vintage, 1992).

The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Nick Bostrom is a co-founder of the World Transhumanist Association (now called Humanity+) and co–founder of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He is currently Professor, Faculty of Philosophy & Oxford Martin School; Director, Future of Humanity Institute; and Director, Program on the Impacts of Future Technology; all at Oxford University.

Bostrom’s article, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” tells the story of a planet ravaged by a dragon (death) that demands a tribute which is satisfied only by consuming thousands of people each day. Neither priests with curses, warriors with weapons, or chemists with concoctions could defeat the dragon. The elders were selected to be sacrificed, although they were often wiser than the young, because they had at least lived longer than the youth. Here is a description of their situation:

Spiritual men sought to comfort those who were afraid of being eaten by the dragon (which included almost everyone, although many denied it in public) by promising another life after death, a life that would be free from the dragon-scourge. Other orators argued that the dragon has its place in the natural order and a moral right to be fed. They said that it was part of the very meaning of being human to end up in the dragon’s stomach. Others still maintained that the dragon was good for the human species because it kept the population size down. To what extent these arguments convinced the worried souls is not known. Most people tried to cope by not thinking about the grim end that awaited them.1

Given the ceaselessness of the dragon’s consumption, most people did not fight it and accepted the inevitable. A whole industry grew up to study and delay the process of being eaten by the dragon, and a large portion of the society’s wealth was used for these purposes. As their technology grew, some suggested that they would one day build flying machines, communicate over great distances without wires, or even be able to slay the dragon. Most dismissed these ideas.

Finally, a group of iconoclastic scientists figured out that a projectile could be built to pierce the dragon’s scales. However, to build this technology would cost vast sums of money and they would need the king’s support. (Unfortunately, the king was busy raging war killing tigers, which cost the society vast sums of wealth and accomplished little.) The scientists then began to educate the public about their proposals and the people became excited about the prospect of killing the dragon. In response the king convened a conference to discuss the options.

First to speak was a scientist who explained carefully how research should yield a solution to the problem of killing the dragon in about twenty years. But the king’s moral advisors said that it is presumptuous to think you have a right not to be eaten by the dragon; they said that finitude is a blessing and removing it would remove human dignity and debase life. Nature decries, they said, that dragons eat people and people should be eaten. Next to speak was a spiritual sage who told the people not to be afraid of the dragon, but a little boy crying about his grandma’s death moved most toward the anti-dragon position.

However, when the people realized that millions would die before the research was completed, they frantically sought out financing for anti-dragon research and the king complied. This started a technological race to kill the dragon, although the process was painstakingly slow, and filled with many mishaps. Finally, after twelve years of research the king launch a successful dragon-killing missile. The people were happy but the king saddened that they had not started their research years earlier—millions had died unnecessarily. As to what was next for his civilization, the king proclaimed:

Today we are like children again. The future lies open before us. We shall go into this future and try to do better than we have done in the past. We have time now—time to get things right, time to grow up, time to learn from our mistakes, time for the slow process of building a better world…2

I agree, we should try to overcome the tyranny of death with technology.

1. Nick Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” Journal of Medical Ethics (2005) Vol. 31, No. 5: 273.
2. Bostrom, “The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant,” 277.