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Death and the Afterlife (The Berkeley Tanner Lectures) Hardcover – 14 Nov 2013
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combined with Scheffler's eminently readable (and often humourous!) prose style, and the insightful and provocative exchanges that he has with his similarly-distinguished interlocutors, propels Death and the Afterlife into that rare class of philosophical books that are both valuable and enjoyable. (Analysis)
About the Author
Samuel Scheffler is University Professor in the Department of Philosophy at New York University. He works primarily in the areas of moral and political philosophy and the theory of value. His books and articles have addressed central questions in ethical theory, and he has also written on topics as diverse as equality, nationalism and cosmopolitanism, toleration, terrorism, immigration, tradition, and the moral significance of personal relationships. He is the author of The Rejection of Consequentialism, Human Morality, Boundaries and Allegiances, and Equality and Tradition.
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Dire, eh? We would feel bad, of course, and we would perhaps ask ourselves about whether what we have up to that point been doing with our lives is worth continuing with. And there can be no doubt that there would be changes in our ways of thinking about whether or not this or that project was worthwhile. We would have to acknowledge that our sense of what matters to us often does unthinkingly take for granted not just the lives of our own children and grandchildren but generations of people we will never know. As Scheffler says, "our confidence that there will be an afterlife is a condition of many other things mattering to us here and now" (32). One can agree with this, broadly . . . but is belief in an afterlife a NECESSARY condition of things mattering here and now?
Scheffler's strongest claim is that such a belief is indeed a necessary condition of our valuing. Here's how he frames that strong claim: "We need humanity to have a future for the very idea that things matter to retain a secure place in our conceptual repertoire" (60). I read this as meaning that we could not possibly provide good reasons for our valuing ANYTHING without a belief in a communal afterlife. Notice that we might still prefer some things or courses of action to others; we might like some things better than others -- but we could not possibly give good reasons for our judgments of value, absent an afterlife in Scheffler's sense. ("I just like X or Y or Z" not being a good reason, or indeed a reason at all.)
The rest of the book seems to be a clarification of what that claim entails -- about temporality in relation to value, for example -- rather than an argument in support of the claim. The claim in its strongest form (p. 60) remains, I think, just a claim, provocative to be sure, because the relations of our values to time are worth thinking about, even without the dire contexts of the doomsday and infertility scenarios. It seems to me that what Scheffler is also wanting to get at is the idea that his thought experiments show that our values are not at bottom egoistical or individualistic. The very act of valuing, he would like us to believe, is finally a commitment to a communal rather than a purely selfish end. This amounts to an extension of the strong claim, and it is worth pondering, but it doesn't GROUND the claim, which, as I said, remains asserted and elaborated rather than argued.
In the group with which I read and discussed the book, there was discussion of reasons why we might continue valuing (keeping the notion of value in our conceptual repertoire), one of which started from the Aristotelian distinction between process (kinesis) and activity (energeia), the former being goal-oriented and the latter being a matter of "valuing in the act of doing." (My thanks to my friend Jim Edwards for the distinction). Certain very long-term goal-oriented projects might come to seem less valuable. But would our sense of the value of artistic appreciation or musical performance be diminished? Might the value of such activities not be heightened? You get the idea . . .? Lots of food for thought here, and the book includes not just Scheffler's three essays but some responses from philosophers and Scheffler's response to them. Recommended.
Scheffler approaches this problem by way of two thought experiments. How would we feel about our lives if we knew that mankind was going to be exterminated en masse by an asteroid strike thirty days after our death? And then: how would we feel if we knew that, due to some environmental catastrophe, mass infertility would gradually lead to species extinction as all living human beings enjoyed a full life but died without heirs?
The tentative answers to Scheffler's what-ifs prove to be interesting and not immediately obvious. The book's format divides between Scheffler's original lectures and the responses of his professional peers, who are unanimous in seeing the problem as novel and interesting, but uncertain of its significance, or the validity of Scheffler's own conclusions. A final chapter allows Scheffler to address their caveats without closing the discussion.
The question of how our human sense of meaning and our values are to survive the modern scientific perspective on individual death, species demise and the eventual destruction of the universe has become steadily more urgent, particularly for those of us who cannot fall back on religious belief. Scheffler's book is an interesting one, bringing long-suppressed problems to the surface of consciousness. The second half of the book, in which four of Scheffler's colleagues raise their doubts, is somewhat drier than Scheffler's exposition, but may be particularly interesting to those who wish to see at first hand how contemporary philosophers engage in debate.
Serious philosophy, but accessible to the intelligent general reader.
Several other contributors including Harry Frankfurt and Susan Wolf comment on Scheffler's work and Scheffler, in turn, presents his rejoinder to those comments.
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