In his book Death and the Afterlife (Oxford 2013), Samuel Scheffler speculates that the prospect of humanity’s imminent extinction shortly after our own death (“doomsday”) would affect us more than the knowledge of our own mortality currently does. If we knew that all human life would disappear from the face of the earth 30 days after we die, then this would render much of what we do today meaningless. We would react with ennui and despair, which, Scheffler believes, shows “the limits of egoism” or in other words that we not only care for things that do not directly affect us (we won’t, after all, be there to experience the end of humanity), but also that we actually care more for what happens to humanity than for what happens to ourselves as individuals (in the sense that we find the idea of all human life coming to an end in the foreseeable future more disturbing and more destructive of life’s meaning than the idea of our own certain death).
I don’t want to go into the details of the argument (which relies rather heavily on the plausibility of Scheffler’s prediction of certain reactions to hypothetical situations such as the doomsday scenario), nor the problems that it faces. John Danaher has already, as usual, done an excellent job at analysing the logical structure of the argument and also discussing some of the objections raised: http://philosophicaldisquisitions.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/meaning-value-and-collective-afterlife.html Suffice it to say that what I take to be the core of Scheffler’s “afterlife conjecture”, namely that we do care about the ongoing existence of humanity (what Scheffler calls the “collective afterlife”), rather persuasive. It may of course be difficult to predict how exactly we would react if we knew that the human world would definitely come to an end very soon after our death. Some people might despair, some might rediscover the value of human solidarity, some might feel licensed to live even more ruthlessly (freed of any concern for the well-being of future generations), some might remain largely unaffected and continue to enjoy their life, ignoring what they cannot change and what doesn’t directly affect them, and some might even positively welcome the eradication of human life as an opportunity for Mother Earth to heal her wounds or something to that effect. But I think whatever our reactions may be, it is pretty clear that few of us are entirely indifferent to the fate of humanity. We do care about the collective afterlife. The question is why.
Now it may be the case that when contemplating the doomsday scenario and feeling disturbed by it, we are actually suffering from a delusion that is similar to the one that Epicurus thought was responsible for our fear of death. Just as we may fear death mostly because we imagine ourselves being dead and somehow experiencing our own state of being dead (lying in our coffins, in the dark and cold, for all eternity), which of course we won’t, we may also fear doomsday because we imagine ourselves still being there when it occurs, and either being destroyed in the process or, perhaps even more disturbingly, being the sole survivor, the one who witnesses it all and is left all alone in an empty world. However, even though such a confusion may play a role here, I don’t think that is all there is to it. It seems to me that by emphasising the “limits of egoism” in the context of his afterlife conjecture, Scheffler really is on to something. We not only care for ourselves, for our loved ones, and perhaps for particular people that we happen to know. We also care for people in general. To a certain degree we tend to identify with humanity as a whole, tend to see ourselves in others. We tend to perceive humanity as a project that we all take part in.
At least that is how I feel, and since I have no reason to think that I’m unique in this respect, I am assuming that many others share those feelings. When I look at my seven-year old son, I see myself in him, as I was when I was a boy, and it gives me comfort to think that he still has his whole life ahead of him, with all its opportunities, its rich fabric of experience, its joys and wonders. And although I’m aware that there will also be suffering, that there will be real losses and frustrations and disappointments, I cannot help feeling that on balance life is well worth living, an adventure well worth having, and that it is imperative that it continue (as Hans Jonas has argued in his 1979 book The Imperative of Responsibility). And it seems to me, when I look at my son, that in him I’m getting another opportunity at life, that he will be living life for me, that in him I will have a part in the future of the world. Now this feeling is not restricted to my son or my children in general. I also have it, though perhaps less poignantly, when I see other children at play, or lovers embracing, people chatting and laughing, students engaging with new ideas, and old couple walking along the street hand in hand, my dog chasing a ball, fully immersed in the sheer joy of running, of being alive. I identify with all of them, in the sense that I feel my own life extended in and through them. I feel that, in some way that I cannot fully understand, they are me. Even my dog. Or any other dog. Or other animal. So perhaps it is not humanity alone that we feel connected with and in whose survival we take an interest. Perhaps the project of humanity is itself part of an even larger project, the project of life. And if we imagine another doomsday scenario, one in which not only humanity vanished from the face of the earth, but all living creatures, so that not only the history of humanity came to an end, but the history of life itself, then we may find this even more disconcerting, even more destructive of meaning than if it were only humanity that came to an end.
So why do we care about doomsday? I think it may be because we realize that with the extinction of humanity (or even more so life itself), we would die all over again, and this time for good.