5:37pm

Wed October 9, 2013
What Comes Next? Conversations On The Afterlife

A Philosopher's 'Afterlife': We May Die, But Others Live On

Philosopher Samuel Scheffler doesn't believe in a traditional afterlife — that is, he doesn't think that a spirit or soul survives the body's physical death. But he does believe in another kind of afterlife: Regardless of what we think about our own life after death, Scheffler tells NPR's Robert Siegel, we all trust that others will continue to live after us. And, much like faith in a spiritual afterlife, that belief changes what we choose to do with our days on earth.

Scheffler presented his understanding of life after death in a series of lectures, now published as a book called Death And The Afterlife. As part of All Things Considered's series on what different faiths believe comes after death, Scheffler talks to Siegel about what it means to know that humanity will outlive us. He says without that assumption — often taken for granted — much of what we do would lose its meaning.


Interview Highlights

On the assumption that life goes on after our individual death

Because we take it for granted that other people will live on after we ourselves have died, we don't normally reflect much about the significance that that assumption has for us, and if we call it into question — if we thought that human beings were not going to live on earth for very long after our own deaths — my thought is that that would have quite profound effects on how we live the rest of our lives, that many of the things we now regard as worth doing would no longer seem to us worth doing. And in that sense, it seems as if the assumption that others will live on is more important to us than the belief that we will survive our own deaths.

On why it's not a crisis that we will die — unless everyone else will, too

I mean, it's a mundane fact that everyone around us will die someday, including us and everyone we love and care about. And people aren't exactly happy about that fact, and many people fear death greatly, but it's considered an unremarkable fact. It wouldn't be an unremarkable fact if we thought that no more people were going to be born, that this was it for the human race.

On how long-term research projects rely on this "afterlife"

One thing that happens when you start to think about how you would feel if you knew that life would end shortly after your own death, lots of the things that you now do might come to seem pointless. Like, if you're a cancer researcher, will you still find it meaningful or valuable to pursue cancer research? Quite likely not. I think we implicitly take it for granted that our activities belong to an ongoing temporal chain of human lives and generations, and that if we imagined that, you know, a giant asteroid were going to destroy the earth so there was no future for humanity, suddenly lots of what we now regard as valuable would seem pointless.

On the knowledge that human life on earth will eventually end

Many of your listeners may remember the scene in Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall where the 9-year-old Alvy Singer — it's a flashback scene — is being taken by his mother to a doctor, and Alvy is refusing to do his homework on the grounds that the universe will end someday ... and the doctor assures Alvy that this won't happen for billions of years. And the scene is funny. It seems comical to suggest that just because the universe is going to end in billions of years you shouldn't do your homework, and yet I'm suggesting that if the universe were going to end in 10 or 20 years, Alvy might have a point. ...

It's an interesting question why we react differently to the prospect of imminent extinction than we do to the prospect of eventual, long-term extinction in billions of years.

On how his idea of the afterlife encourages certain choices, much like a spiritual afterlife

It's actually an interesting comparison. Many people who believe in the afterlife as traditionally understood think that if there isn't such an afterlife then the value or purpose or meaning of what we do here and now is diminished, or perhaps lost altogether. I'm suggesting that if there isn't an afterlife in my sense, that really would diminish the point and value and meaning of what we're doing. The nice thing about my kind of afterlife is that we're actually in a position to take steps to make it more likely that human beings will survive long into the future — or, unfortunately, less likely. ...

I think we don't take sufficiently seriously the importance of insuring that human life continues. And, you know, some people are trying to change that, but often they do it by appealing to some sense of moral obligation — "we owe it to our descendents." I'm suggesting that it's not just that they're dependent on us — there's also a sense in which we depend on them. Without them, if there are no future generations, the value of what we're doing here and now is threatened.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

All this week, we've been indulging in a little escapism from the worldly cares that typically preoccupy us here. We're asking what people of a variety of faiths believe about what comes next.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHEEK TO CHEEK")

LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Heaven, I'm in heaven.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Everybody now alive will die someday.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: We will retain an awareness beyond this life.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Whatever the soul wishes for and desires, in paradise that will be there.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: There will be no more suffering and tears.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: We will finally learn to be reconciled with God and each other.

SIEGEL: Today, philosopher Samuel Scheffler, he doesn't believe that we survive our physical death. But he has written a book called "Death and the Afterlife." For Scheffler, the afterlife means our confidence that after we are gone, life goes on.

SAMUEL SCHEFFLER: Because we take it for granted that other people will live on after we ourselves died, we don't normally reflect much about the significance that that assumption has for us. And if we call it into question - if we thought that human beings were not going to continue to live on Earth for very long after our own deaths - my thought is that that would have quite profound effects on how we live the rest of our lives, that many of the things we now regard as worth doing would no longer seem to us worth doing. And in that sense, it seems as if the assumption that others will live on is more important to us than the belief that we will survive our own deaths.

SIEGEL: You do observe, at one point, that we all know that we will die someday and yet that is not regarded as a crisis. There aren't United Nations conferences on how shall we avert universal death or it's just something we accept.

SCHEFFLER: That's right. I mean, it's a mundane fact that everybody now alive will die someday, including us and everyone we love and care about. And people aren't exactly happy about that fact.

SIEGEL: No. No.

(LAUGHTER)

SCHEFFLER: And many people fear death greatly, but it's considered an unremarkable fact. It wouldn't be an unremarkable fact if we thought that there were no more people who were going to be born, that this was it for the human race.

SIEGEL: You cite the example of, say, the cancer researcher who, if he or she is working on a project that may not yield results for decades, is in effect working for the afterlife, is doing something that - whose value extends beyond his or her years on Earth.

SCHEFFLER: That's right. And one thing that happens when you start to think about how you would feel if you knew that life were going to end after - shortly after your own death, lots of the things that you now do might come to seem pointless. Like, if you're a cancer researcher, would you still find it meaningful or valuable to pursue cancer research? Quite likely not.

I think we implicitly take it for granted that our activities belong to an ongoing temporal chain of human lives and generations, and that if we imagine that, you know, a giant asteroid were going to destroy the Earth so there was no future for humanity, suddenly lots of what we now regard as valuable would seem pointless.

SIEGEL: We do learn at some point that deep into the future, the sun will be extinguished or the Earth will become inhospitable to life and that'll be the end.

SCHEFFLER: That's right. Many of your listeners may remember the scene in Woody Allen's movie "Annie Hall" where the 9-year-old Alvy Singer - it's a flashback scene - is being taken by his mother to a doctor, and Alvy is refusing to do his homework on the grounds that the universe will end someday.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANNIE HALL")

JONATHAN MUNK: (as Alvy) The universe is expanding.

CHRIS GAMPEL: (as doctor) The universe is expanding?

MUNK: (as Alvy) Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything.

JOAN NEUMAN: (as Alvy's Mom) What is that your business? He stopped doing his homework.

MUNK: (as Alvy) What's the point?

SCHEFFLER: And the doctor assures Alvy that this won't happen for billions of years. And the scene is funny. It seems comical to suggest that just because the universe is going to end in billions of years you shouldn't do your homework. And yet I am suggesting that if the universe were going to end in, you know, 10 or 20 years, Alvy might have a point. That's an...

(LAUGHTER)

SIEGEL: Yes. Why get into medical school at that rate?

SCHEFFLER: Exactly. And it's an interesting question why we react differently to the prospect of imminent extinction than we do to the prospect of eventual long-term extinction in billions of years.

SIEGEL: In some ways, your afterlife, which is to say the continuation of humanity after we as individuals are gone, is something that encourages certain kinds of actions and enhances certain values while we're living in ways not altogether different from the way that a believer in a spiritual afterlife would be directed to behave in some ways because of what she anticipates will be her fate there in some other place.

SCHEFFLER: Yes. It's actually an interesting comparison. Many people who believe in the afterlife, as traditionally understood, think that if there isn't such an afterlife, then the value or purpose or meaning of what we do here and now is diminished or perhaps lost altogether.

I'm suggesting that if there isn't an afterlife in my sense, that really would diminish the point and value and meaning of what we're doing. The nice thing about my kind of afterlife is that we're actually in a position to take steps to make it more likely that human beings will survive long into the future or unfortunately less likely.

SIEGEL: And you think we do?

SCHEFFLER: I think we don't take sufficiently seriously the importance of ensuring that human life continues. And, you know, some people are trying to change that, but often, they do it by appealing to some sense of moral obligation. We owe it to our descendants. I'm suggesting that it's not just that they're dependent on us. There's also a sense in which we depend on them. Without them, if there are no future generations, the value of what we're doing here and now is threatened.

SIEGEL: Well, Samuel Scheffler, thank you very much for talking with us.

SCHEFFLER: Thanks.

SIEGEL: Philosopher Samuel Scheffler of New York University. His book is called "Death and the Afterlife." It came out this week.

Tomorrow, a conversation with Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. He says focusing too much on the afterlife is risky. It can distract us from living a righteous life here on Earth.

RABBI JOSEPH TELUSHKIN: Historically, when - if you look at the depictions of heaven and hell and other things, they usually were a reflection of good and bad things, hell, in particular, bad things that people could do to people, and I'm not interested in seeing that because I think the sort of people who have vivid depictions of hell in their mind often ended up making life hell for people down here.

SIEGEL: You can join our discussion on Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram. Use the #nprafterlife.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: You can follow ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on Twitter, @npratc. You can also let us know what you like about the program and what you don't. Go to npr.org and click on the word contact. It's at the bottom of the page. We may read your comments on the air.

SIEGEL: And if you want to hear something again or catch up on what you missed, just go to our webpage. It's all online at npr.org/allthingsconsidered. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.