By Samuel Schaffler in NYT
“My belief in life after death is more mundane. What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone”
“Consider a hypothetical scenario. Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?
If you are like me, and like most people with whom I have discussed the question, you would find this doomsday knowledge profoundly disturbing. And it might greatly affect your decisions about how to live. If you were a cancer researcher, you might be less motivated to continue your work. (It would be unlikely, after all, that a cure would be found in your lifetime, and even it were, how much good would it do in the time remaining?) Likewise if you were an engineer working to improve the seismic safety of bridges, or an activist trying to reform our political or social institutions or a carpenter who cared about building things to last. What difference would these endeavors make, if the destruction of the human race was imminent?”
The explanation for this may seem simple: if the earth will be destroyed 30 days after we die, then everyone we care about who is alive at that time will meet a sudden, violent end. Spouses and partners, children and grandchildren, friends and lovers: all would be doomed. Perhaps it is our concern for our loved ones that explains our horror at the prospect of a post-mortem catastrophe.
But I don’t think this is the full story. Consider another hypothetical scenario, drawn from P. D. James’s novel “The Children of Men.” In Ms. James’s novel, humanity has become infertile, with no recorded birth having occurred in over 25 years. Imagine that you found yourself living in such circumstances. Nobody now alive is younger than 25, and the disappearance of the human race is imminent as an aging population inexorably fades away. How would you react?
As in the case of the asteroidal collision, many activities would begin to seem pointless under these conditions: cancer research, seismic safety efforts, social and political activism and so on. Beyond that, as Ms. James’s novel vividly suggests, the onset of irreversible global infertility would be likely to produce widespread depression, anxiety and despair.
Some people would seek consolation in religious faith, and some would find it. Others would take what pleasure they could in activities that seemed intrinsically rewarding: listening to music, exploring the natural world, spending time with family and friends and enjoying the pleasures of food and drink. But even these activities might seem less fulfilling, and be tinged with sadness and pain, when set against the background of a dying humanity.
NOTICE that in this scenario, unlike that of the asteroidal collision, nobody would die prematurely. So what is dismaying about the prospect of living in an infertile world cannot be that we are horrified by the demise of our loved ones. (They would die eventually, of course, but that is no different from our actual situation.) What is dismaying is simply that no new people would come into existence.
This should give us pause. The knowledge that we and everyone we know and love will someday die does not cause most of us to lose confidence in the value of our daily activities. But the knowledge that no new people would come into existence would make many of those things seem pointless.”
“I agree. But there is also another side to the story. Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. We have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.”
Posted By F. Sheikh