128: Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler

by Gerard


128.5: Scheffler, Samuel. Death and the Afterlife. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2013. 207 pp. ISBN 978-0-19-998250-9.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 100: Philosophy and Psychology
  • 120: Epistemology
  • 128: Humankind
  • 128.5: Human death

One of the headiest question that you can ask is: what happens after we die? Is there a place or perspective where our consciousnesses go to live on in another form? Or is this it? Are we doomed to a single existence in a single body? And, moreover, how do our answers to these questions affect the way in which we go about our lives? Noted philosopher Samuel Scheffler was asked to deliver the Tanner Lectures on Human Values at the University of California at Berkeley and engage in a conversation about what it meant to envision an afterlife. In Death and the Afterlife, his lectures and the commentaries of other philosophers investigate the nature of catastrophic events, the value of the preservation of life, and the values that an afterlife brings with it.

Scheffler’s first scenario involves the reader imagining that they knew that humanity, through some cataclysmic event, was going to be wiped out thirty days after their death. How much would that knowledge effect the reader’s life and choices? Would everyday actions and experiences be enhanced knowing that the end is nigh? How would this affect what you value? Scheffler’s “afterlife” is the totality of life continuing after an individual’s death, not a spiritual one. We take it for granted that other people will continue to live after we die and that humanity has a nearly infinite future. Can we even comprehend a end to humanity since we’ve been inundated with the knowledge that the actual Solar system will last for another 4ish billion years? The concept of a potential afterlife is embedded so deep into our other constructs (justice, morality, creativity, etc.) that without it, the world becomes a very different place. His second deals with a world where the reader never dies. Can one still lead a value-laden life without the fear of death?

The commentaries on these lectures from Susan Wolf, Harry Frankfurt, Seana Shiffrin, and Niko Kolodny further tackle the complex, implied meaning of an afterlife. Since these are direct responses, there’s a bit of nitpicking and word-parsing here, but the overall back-and-forth is interesting. The philosophies are inherently egoistic as they involve how important or value-driven the decisions of the “I” are in the face of either imminent death or immortality. The conjectures the contributors draw are still worthwhile nonetheless and lead the reader to a few different perspectives on how we think about death and the afterlife. A thought-provoking book.