After the Meteor Strike

Amia Srinivasan

  • Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler
    Oxford, 210 pp, £19.99, November 2013, ISBN 978 0 19 998250 9

What’s really so bad about death? Unlike heartbreak, debt, public speaking or whatever else we may be afraid of, our own death isn’t something we experience. ‘Death,’ Epicurus said, ‘is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.’ Death is not an event in life. It isn’t, properly speaking, something that happens to us. It is, rather, the nullification of the self as experiencing subject. How then can death be a bad thing for the person who dies? What is there to be afraid of?

We tend to speak of ‘the fear of death’ as if it were a single particular thing, but that is to obscure the diverse terrors death evokes. For some, no doubt, the fear of death rests, as Epicurus suspects, on the mistaken notion that there is an experience of being dead – a nightmarish paralysis, perhaps, or an utter aloneness. That way of fearing death doesn’t make much sense. (Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t make sense as a way of fearing dying. Dying is very much an event in life, and often a painful one.) But not everyone fears death because they anticipate, however inchoately, the experience of being dead. For some, Epicurus’ neat proof of the triviality of death can feel like sophistry, an irritating evasion of the point. After all, many things we never experience are of great importance to us. We care that our lovers are genuinely faithful and not just excellent dissemblers (hence the cruelty in the defence ‘what he doesn’t know can’t hurt him’). And we care about things that happen after we die: that our children are happy or that our friends remember us fondly. More things matter to us than we can or will ever experience.

In Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler asks what matters to us more: the experienced facts of our lives, or the never to be experienced facts of what happens after we die? Common sense suggests the former, but Scheffler insists that what really matters to us is what happens once we are gone. Our own lives matter to us less than the lives of those who will come after. Perhaps parents, thinking of their children, will be unsurprised by this. But Scheffler isn’t pointing out merely that we tend to care a lot about other people. Rather, he is suggesting that what matters to us most is that humanity should have a future beyond our own. More important to me than my own continued existence, or the continued existence of the people I love, is the continued existence of the human species. This is the ‘afterlife’ of Scheffler’s title: not the heavenly afterlife of religious imagining, but the earthly afterlife of a collective human future. That we seldom think about its importance shows only how much we take it for granted.

How could this be? Surely the continued existence of an undifferentiated humankind can’t figure so largely in my concerns – can’t, that is, trump the forces of self-love and tribalism. It sounds a bit treacly. An earthly afterlife might be a fine thing, but in the end isn’t it a poor substitute for what really matters to us: that we survive, and that our loved ones do too? In an attempt to persuade us otherwise, Scheffler asks how we would feel if we knew there wasn’t going to be any earthly afterlife. (And no heavenly afterlife, either; Scheffler is assuming that we, like him, are good atheists.) Suppose you knew, ahead of time, that thirty days after you died of natural causes, all human life would be destroyed in a meteor strike. Or suppose, as in P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men (loosely adapted as a film by Alfonso Cuarón in 2006), you learned that the human species as a whole had become infertile. Scheffler predicts that we would react to either scenario with what he calls (‘with bland understatement’) ‘profound dismay’. We would suffer, he thinks, a general draining of meaning from our lives. The projects we previously valued would cease to matter. Joy and happiness would evade us. We would be overtaken, as James puts it in her novel, by an ennui universel.

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