“Death and the Afterlife” – Samuel Scheffler

In his 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.


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.”


I challenged Johnston’s views in my 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 intelligence 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

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4 thoughts on ““Death and the Afterlife” – Samuel Scheffler

  1. I’ve always liked the observation that the Past is past and we have no control over it; that the Future is a promise; while the present is just that–a present. Enjoy it! Whenever I view old, historical photos of crowds from the past, I can’t repress the thought that all those folks are dead, but instead of depressing me, I secretly feel lucky that I’m not yet among them. If medical technology succeeds in the future in extending our lives indefinitely, something not improbable, I have no doubt it will open a pandora’s box of new concerns: will it be for the few, those rich enough to benefit? How will we cope with reproduction if patients remain fertile indefinitely. Would I really want to live long if those I love die by accidents or disease? Will we have to lock up criminals for eternal life? Think of all the mischief they can plan while incarcerated indefinitely. This so much reminds me of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”. We might need a lot of Soma to cope with all the social and societal changes a long life will necessitate. Thank you for posing these thought provoking articles.

  2. I have the same thought when watching documentaries about the past—all those people are dead. You are right there will be new questions arising when we conquer death but I argue that “Death Should Be Optional“. I also have a number of essays addressing some of your questions but briefly – I hope the benefits are available to all; whether posthumans will even want to reproduce is an open question; sufficiently advanced technology should have backup copies of us in the event of accidents; we should have a rehibilitation model not a punitive model for outliers; and I don’t think long lives will depress most of us. But I try to answer most of these questions in greater detail in my essays under futurism and death.

  3. What seems to be conspicuously absent in all the above lines of thought is the finding of profound meaning in the seemingly eternal and renewing Nature in itself; the Planet; the Cosmos.
    All the above thinking is heavily anthropomorphic, finding meaning only through some forms of human survival.
    But how about the magic meaning in Nature without a single human being?

    Aren’t we falling into the narcistic trap of putting ourselves into the centre of the cosmos as if it was revolving around humanity, so that without us the Universe is meaningless?

    But what if Nature was magic, meaning ful and beautiful even before humans appeared and therefore why can’t it survive splendidly, after a nuclear winter, even if we are stupid enough to blow ourself off the face of this Planet?

    And another point – what if everyone’s soul is an empirical reality; a soul that was never born and will never die because it has simply always have existed and will exist.

    There seems to be ample empirical evidence for the independent existence of both non material life and consciousness without a material brain.

    What if all such souls are mere microcosms of a macrosomic Spirit that is eternal.
    In this line of thinking eternal life gains a different meaning from your materialistic, reductionistic thinking John.

    In this line of thinking, life on earth is just part of the the eternal conscious and living journey of the soul, so that artificial intelligence is pretty irrelevant to it as it would merely extend or perpetuate the material experiences of an eternal life journey; sometimes embodied and sometimes disembodied.

    And before you material reductionists begin to roll your eyes, remember that even the materialist idol, Carl Sagan had to admit, that there is far too much evidence for reincarnation not to take it seriously, let alone the massive evidence for disembodied consciousness from near death reports and studies.

  4. People with descendants want the world (as we know it) to survive, as their descendants are their genetic future. If their descendants aren’t going to survive, then their own genes will, naturally, not survive.…so it comes down to self-interest…

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