The aim of this paper is to attempt to argue against a few of Samuel Scheffler’s claims that human life is only valued if there are others to come after our deaths, and to try to prove the possibility of our actions having value despite an apocalyptic event occurring, if we can look at our lives from an existentialist point of view. In his paper, Scheffler uses a scenario known as the Doomsday Scenario to justify why he believes value of life is dependant on our collective continuance. The Doomsday Scenario goes as follows: o You will live a long and full, healthy life.
However, 30 days after your death, the world and everyone you love will be hit by an asteroid that wipes out humankind on earth. You have knowledge of this tragedy throughout your life. How would such knowledge affect your attitudes and actions in life? (Scheffler, pg. 134) Now, the thought of humanity being wiped out and having nothing to look forward to seems really depressing to the clear majority; however, I want to propose an existentialist perspective towards the doomsday scenario, as I feel it could still provide some hope that our actions can still hold value in a situation where all life is lost.
I am going to attempt to use this viewpoint to explain how one’s actions can still be valued without a human collective afterlife in the future. The idea will be explained further on below, but first I will summarize the Afterlife lectures. The main theory discussed in Scheffler’s lectures is the significance of the value that we put into the activities we do, how our anticipations for a successful future generation drive our contributions to the future, and why much that value is particularly dependant on the flourishing of future human generations.
Scheffler uses the phrase collective afterlife to describe what he considers to be the continued existence of other people after one’s own personal death (Talisse, 2015). He also claims throughout his lectures that without a humankind “collective afterlife” – as is the case in his various end-of-life scenarios – the things we currently value and hold meaningful to us become obsolete, as there is no hope for future human beings to flourish based on our actions and contributions (Talisse, 2015). In other words, without a thriving future human population, no actions we value will matter even at this point.
I want to attempt to prove otherwise. I will be using existentialism and its various components to aid me in disproving that an afterlife of any kind matters little when living with this perspective, but first I will explain what existentialism is and some of its proposals. The notion of this perspective is striving to find a person’s self, and their purpose in life through their free will and various life choices. It clarifies that although we exist, we are not given a pre-written destiny or path to follow in life, but rather we must create our own essence, or purpose in life for it to have meaning (Crash Course, 2016).
Those who look to “God” to aid them in their path will be disappointed to find that even the theist version of this theory advises us to never expect guidance from those who created the universe. When looking at this concept, I came to believe that each of us is solely responsible for bringing about our essence through actions which are valuable – but since we all value different things, it makes sense to think that every and any activity or thing can have value.
From this point came another thought that if values are subjective, then they can be found in the smallest of actions, if one so chooses to see their action as valuable to themselves. So, in this sense, what comes after you die doesn’t matter – whether there is a future for humanity or not should not be of consequence to you, because what happens after we pass on cannot be controlled by us. It can be safe to say that human beings are desperate to find purpose for our actions and our lives – as Scheffler has attempted to in his works – but the universe just does not have answers for us; this is a major point of the existentialist view, nown as the Absurd (Crash Course, 2016). As a way of dealing with the Absurd, I can see why people would try to justify how well they’ve lived their lives by having an extensive history of value-laden actions/activities, which could possibly (but most likely won’t) have any significant impact on people in the future. I could even go as far as to say the idea of a collective afterlife is just another way of attempting to cope with the Absurd; where believers of this afterlife cling desperately onto the hope of the human race’s never-ending existence to somehow memorialize themselves in history’s books and be remembered forever.
It is not as farfetched of an idea as some of the one’s Scheffler’s proposed thoughts. If you are choosing what activities are valuable based on the government, churches, schools, or your friends, these can be considered acts of bad faith – as the decision was not intended by you, but by others who directed you on what you should do. Self-made decisions are the core of good faith activities and furthermore help you to distinguish your values from others around you; essentially helping you find out your sense of self and meaning.
The significance of your activity should matter only to you, as no one is living your life, and you are living no one else’s. Another key aspect that the existentialist perspective proposes that we aim to live our lives by is to act with true authenticity. This concept plays with the thought that activities can only have meaningful value if done based on your own free will, not based on what has been considered valuable in society, and any actions thought to be made based on what another would do, is an inauthentic act, thus providing no value to you, or anyone else for that matter (Crowell, 2016).
I believe that authenticity can be used to challenge the idea that a collective afterlife must exist for values to remain strong despite an impending doom. For example, one can participate in cancer research because it is considered a “valuable” activity to perform for the future. Though, if one has inauthentic reasons for committing to this work – the pay is good, the credit they get feeding into their ego – then the worth of the activity diminishes significantly, as the person is not acting in good faith.
In this sense, I can say that any activity initially seen as valued could be corrupted by the bad faith of other people, so it is up to the individual to see the worth in that activity and to commit to it based solely on its personal value to them. Now that I’ve explained the basics of existentialism, the Absurd, and how authenticity plays a key role in values, I want to attempt to prove that the existentialist view of death throws any ideas of collective afterlives out the window, all while preserving the strength of personal values.
I felt that existentialism was the best theory I could find when it comes to justifying why our actions during life matter more than our actions’ impacts after death, for it considers that death is ultimately just a part of life in general. From what I’ve gathered through my research, I have come to understand that human beings take death to be quite personal to them – I take this to be because maybe we cannot fully comprehend the reality of death, so we dread its impending arrival.
Existentialists command for people to attempt to detach from death in a personal sense, and to step back and look at it as a vital step in life – and not just human life, but all – and urge people to see death “neither as a friend nor as a stranger” (Gray, 119). What | believe is meant by this is not to look at death in a hopeful or despairing sense, but to just look at it neutrally and to just be aware of its existence as a way of life.
Our death as a whole should not be seen as wasted, but as a necessary and natural part of life and the existence of the universe, so we should exist to the fullest while we are able to enjoy existence as it is in the present. I would like to further explain how existentialist views dismiss meaningful living in relation to humanity’s endurance or perfection, in favour of a “living in the face of death” approach to it. This idea ties in nicely with authenticity and its significance in providing our actions with value. Existentialists insist only those ho are not genuine will set long-term goals for themselves to attach some value to it’s completion in the end, whereas genuine, authentically-living individuals find value in everything they do, living in the moment if I may call it that (Gray, 121). You are not guaranteed one moment from the next, the present is all you can experience fully, as the past is gone and you can only re-live it, and the future is uncertain (even in the face of an impending asteroid, anything could happen in the time before that). Therefore, why would one attempt to aspire to a goal if they are unsure of if they will be able to reach it?
It would seem like an automatic disappointment, to be focusing on one goal while your current reality passes you by, only to realize you’ve either completed the goal but missed a lot going on around you (family, friends), or you were unable to even reach for that goal, in the end having it lose its value entirely. It would make more sense to me to learn to find value in small joys (reading, small talk conversations), than to concentrate on “highly valued” goals and risk sacrificing the meaning of that goal if it cannot be completed.
I strongly agree that life has a lot more meaning when lived through a carpe diem attitude, and found through my research that theorists of this concept also take the idea of time and alter the way it is viewed so that it can have a more immediate impact on a person’s actions. What these philosophers perceive is time as a personal thing for us – our time, as opposed to the time on the clock or the date on the calendar.
Looking at time as an internal component, we can better appreciate our lives and how we choose to act because we are making conscious decisions for ourselves based on the circumstances of that moment, rather than fretting over what impact the activity or action will have on others in another time. In conclusion, I trust that adopting to this type of life and learning to see life as a large system, not just consisting of us, can prove our actions meaningful while we breathe, regardless of a collective afterlife or not.
The whole collective afterlife concept seems to be just a way of overcoming the fear of death and lack of answers for what will happen to us in the future. Given that much of Scheffler’s lecture work seems to be based on thought experiments and what-ifs, I feel that the Existentialist perspective can provide more sound comfort that our lives aren’t just useless and pointless in the vastness of space, and provide us with a reason for living besides just being a solid backbone for the next generation.
Humanity is meant to thrive, yes, but that can only be a possibility if humanity commits to living as if every moment is the last, to embrace the full invigoration of our existence as it happens. Thriving and enduring are two different things: we can either seize the moment and run with it, or we can wring our hands over the survival of our future offspring. I personally opt for thriving and living my life as it happens to the fullest, thank you very much.