Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Concern for the post mortem future

I’ve just started reading Samuel Scheffler’s new Death and the Afterlife. Here’s the first thought experiment that drives the discussion of the first part of the book: 
Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal life span, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect your attitudes during the remainder of your life? (p.18) [1]
No doubt this is a horrific thought. In part, it is horrific because the scenario imagines a painful and violent death for all humanity, including one’s own loved-ones. And it is horrific because it is so soon after one’s own death. So the world being destroyed and the people being destroyed are those we ourselves knew. It is also important that the horror is felt even if one’s own life is guaranteed to be full and normal. Only the deaths of the other people are premature. 

Of course, the timing is important. It is true that at some time in the distant future the earth will be destroyed. But that is less horrific since it is so far distant an outcome that it is hard to think we have any investment in the well-being of whatever and whoever will be around then. 

Nevertheless Scheffler concludes, to put it crudely, that the difference such knowledge would make to our pursuits and values during life shows that we in fact care more about various events and states of affairs after our deaths than we do about many events and states of affairs during our lives. And those cares affect our current personality and values. So in many ways there are various aspects of the post mortem future (Scheffler’s ‘afterlife’) that are more important to who we are now and what we care about than are many facts about the present. 

What’s interesting to me is that Scheffler’s argument is a mirror-image of part of Epicurus’ discussion of the fear of death. Scheffler argues from what we value and what we find horrific about the asteroid scenario to a conclusion about the significance of the post mortem future to our present. Epicurus, on the other hand, appears adamant that the post mortem future will not affect us after our deaths and therefore no concern about it should affect us in the present. In that case, it seems to me, Epicurus ought advise us to jettison those cares and concerns that Scheffler’s scenario tends to bring to light. And the more persuaded we are that these concerns for the post mortem future are essential to our living recognisably worthwhile lives, then the less attractive might be an Epicurean life free from all fear of death.

[1] I had a go at an asteroid-based thought experiment some time ago.  That one was intended to think about whether it might be possible to complain that one was harmed by not being born earlier.  Here it is.

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