Is Life a Ponzi Scheme?
Jan 2, 2014
25 Min read time
Samuel Scheffler's Death and the Afterlife uses doomsday thought experiments to figure out what makes life meaningful.
Death and the Afterlife
Who knows what form the end of humanity will take? Will it come by extraterrestrial invasion, or by the erosion of the ozone layer, or by a large asteroid impacting the earth, or by mass starvation during a long nuclear winter, or by a bacterium running amok in the post-antibiotic age, or by a nomadic black hole sucking up everything in its path as it wanders toward us, or by a gamma ray burst from any one of the host of supernovas destined to occur within three thousand light years of the earth, or by the eruption of the massive volcano that now sits, waiting, under Yellowstone National Park? Or will it be as the apocalyptic literature of Judaism and Christianity describes it, with the last days consisting of the terrifying separation of the sheep from the goats? Even if humanity somehow avoids all this, and even if we escape the solar system before the inevitable heat death of the sun, eventually the universe will come to consist of a subatomic soup so thin that nothing recognizably human will be able to exist.
So we are doomed. There is no way around it. The hope is that doom is far enough away for humanity to flourish individually and collectively. The lights will eventually go out; the issue is just how brightly they will burn in the interim.
Here ignorance is not exactly bliss, but it is helpful. Unless you are professionally involved in existential risk assessment or in one of those fields, such as bio-warfare, where the resultant blowback could indeed wipe us out, it is wise to forget about our inevitable collective obliteration precisely because of its capacity to uselessly demoralize us. When it comes to the end of humanity, Spinoza’s advice to individuals concerning their own deaths seems even more pertinent: “A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death, but on life.”
But what if, as a brute psychological matter, we just cannot put the end of humanity out of our minds? There are two quite different cases in which the thought of our collective end might worry us: the case where we are demoralized because we really are, or take ourselves to be, in the last days, and the case where we are demoralized merely by the fact that there will be a last day.
While the first case is amply illustrated by a slew of end-time films from Deep Impact (1998) and Armageddon (1998) to Children of Men (2006) and Melancholia (2011), we have to look all the way back to Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977) for illumination of the second. There Allen’s character, the nebbish Alvy Singer, recalls a scene from his childhood.
Dr. Flicker: Why are you depressed, Alvy?Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker. [Young Alvy sits, his head down; his mother answers for him.]Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.Dr. Flicker: Something he read, huh?Alvy at nine: [His head still down.] The universe is expanding.Dr. Flicker: The universe is expanding?Alvy at nine: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!Alvy’s Mom: Why is that your business? [She turns back to the doctor.]Alvy’s Mom: He stopped doing his homework!Alvy at nine: What’s the point?Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding.Dr. Flicker: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. We’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here!
It is clear what Alvy’s response to Dr. Flicker would be: How can we enjoy ourselves when we know the universe will break apart and bring about the end of everything we value? In Alvy’s nine-year-old mind, real enjoyment—the kind that would make life have a point—is not possible if we know, as we do, that everything human is eventually going to come to an end.
Alvy’s visit to Dr. Flicker is a classic piece of metaphysical slapstick. Alvy’s Mom even gives the canonical Spinozistic response: “Why is that your business?” The episode invites us to smirk at Alvy’s silly, precocious Weltschmertz. But would Alvy’s reaction be silly if his authoritative physics book had proved that the universe would break apart in six months? In that case, Alvy’s plaintive cry—“What’s the point?”—might elicit fewer laughs. With the destruction of humanity looming in the near future, he would seem to have a good reason to ignore his homework, and much else as well. What makes the first response silly and the second understandable, even reasonable? It is not an easy question to answer.
Is it just that in the second scenario Alvy also knows that he will die, all too prematurely, in six months? No it isn’t, or at least it need not be just that. Consider this “doomsday scenario”: you are authoritatively told that you will have a normal life span, but thirty days after your death the earth will be completely destroyed in a collision with a giant asteroid. Believing this, you are dismayed and demoralized; you lose confidence in the point or worth of many sorts of activities; you cease to find it reasonable to engage in many familiar pursuits; you become emotionally detached from many things, perhaps even from the simple pleasures that do not point beyond themselves to future fulfillments. This sort of demoralization is understandable independently of your reaction to the fact that you too will die. It is a response to another catastrophe taking place after your death. What are we to make of this sort of demoralization?
Do we need to believe humanity will continue after our deaths?
A great deal, if the philosopher Samuel Scheffler is right. His wonderful Tanner Lectures, recently published as Death and the Afterlife, attempt to extract several striking lessons from our supposed reaction to the doomsday scenario. In Scheffler’s self-consciously idiosyncratic use of the term, the “afterlife” is neither a supernatural continuation of this life, nor the result of a deeper naturalistic understanding of the kind of thing we are; it is what John Stuart Mill called “the onward rush of mankind,” the collective life of humanity after our individual deaths. Scheffler’s thesis is that the onward rush of humankind—the collective afterlife—is much more important to us than we are ordinarily apt to notice. But he ventures further, making striking comparative claims about what matters to us. After a subtle and nuanced discussion he concludes:
My argument has been that personal survival already does matter to us less than we tend to suppose, and that the survival of humanity matters to us more. In saying this, I am not underestimating our powerful impulses to personal survival or the deep terror that many people feel when contemplating their own deaths. Nor am I denying the importance of self-interested motivations in ordinary human behavior. My point is that despite the power of these attitudes, there is a very specific sense in which our own survival is less important to us than the survival of the human race. The prospect of the imminent disappearance of the race poses a far greater threat to our ability to treat other things as mattering to us and, in so doing, it poses a far greater threat to our continued ability to lead value-laden lives.
The argument for these conclusions begins with our supposed reactions to the doomsday scenario and to what Scheffler calls “the infertility scenario,” explored in P. D. James’s 1992 novel The Children of Men and in the Alfonso Cuarón film it inspired. The year is 2021. Human beings have become infertile; it has been more than twenty-five years since a human being was born. As the last die out, the prospect of human extinction is imminent. When we imagine ourselves inhabiting such a world, we anticipate feeling demoralized—psychologically unable to continue to value the things that have been important to us. Scheffler argues that the exercise of this ability is necessary for living what he calls “value-laden” lives. So we need to believe humanity will continue, and perhaps we need it to be the case that humanity will continue.
One of the many gems embedded in Scheffler’s lectures is a nicely observed contrast between our sense of catastrophic horror in the face of the doomsday and infertility scenarios, and our relative calm in the face of the fact that everyone now living will one day be dead. Few seem up in arms about this inevitable future scenario; there are no crisis meetings of world leaders to consider what to do about this impending disaster. While there are some notable exceptions, such as the author of Ecclesiastes, few see in the inevitable death of everyone now living a reason to believe that our worldly pursuits are vain or futile. But Scheffler—following P. D. James—maintains that finding ourselves in the infertility scenario would indeed undermine our confidence in the point of much of what we value and pursue:
In James’s vivid depiction, it is regarded as a catastrophe whose prospect precipitates an unprecedented global crisis and exerts a profoundly depressive effect on many familiar human motivations. . . . The implication [of the contrast] seems clear. In certain concrete functional and motivational respects, the fact that we and everyone we love will cease to exist matters less to us than would the nonexistence of future people who we do not know and who, indeed, have no determinate identities. Or to put it more positively, the coming into existence of people we do not know and love matters more to us than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love. . . . This is a remarkable fact which should get more attention than it does in thinking about the nature and limits of our personal egoism.
In their commentaries on the lectures, also included in Death and the Afterlife, Susan Wolf and Harry Frankfurt balk at Scheffler’s reference to the limits of our egoism. As they note, what Scheffler’s discussion actually discloses is not that we are surprisingly other-regarding, but that we have self-regarding reasons to avoid anything like the doomsday and infertility scenarios. For many of us, either of these scenarios would undermine the psychological conditions that enable us to value what we do. This undermining of our confidence in what we value would deprive us of the motivation to live value-laden lives. Each of us has a self-regarding reason to hope that this kind of personal collapse will not occur, so each of us has a self-regarding reason to hope that the scenarios will not come to pass.
Furthermore, whether that kind of reason translates into, or reinforces, a concern for distant future generations, as Scheffler suggests, depends in part on whether it is only the imminent versions of the infertility and doomsday scenarios that threaten our confidence in what we value. Each human being might simply have a self-regarding reason to hope that humanity continues for a few generations after his or her death. From the purely self-regarding point of view, horrible versions of global warming may be acceptable if they occur beyond the horizon of the next few generations. We would still need to exploit the limited resource of impersonal benevolence to motivate the protection of humanity over the long term.
Still, as Scheffler points out in reply to Wolf and Frankfurt, nothing much turns on the use of the term “egoism.” The remarkable fact—if it is a fact—that the coming into existence of people we do not know and love “matters more to us” than our own survival and the survival of the people we do know and love would still stand, and it would show that we are deeply psychologically vulnerable when it comes to the fate of our species, in a way that is independent of our attachments to particular human beings.
• • •
But is it a fact that anonymous others filling out the future of humanity matter more, or is it instead that we have come to care about those we know and love sub specie mortis—as mortals with that all-too-familiar finite form of life, the one that my Irish grandmother used to reductively characterize as embedded in the cycle of “hatching, matching, and dispatching”? In his third lecture and in his reply to Nico Kolodny, Scheffler emphasizes the psychological centrality of the view of our own lives sub specie mortis when it comes to articulating what is worth caring about, and he consequently struggles to assign any real value to the prospect of personal immortality.
Here Scheffler may have inadvertently highlighted an alternative, indeed contrary, explanation of his own central motivating contrast. In caring for those we know and love, we care for them sub specie mortis, but our concern for the human species is not of this sort; we don’t think of the species as having some familiar finite limit built into it, and so our contemplation of its imminent end presents a catastrophe of a different character from the catastrophes of our own deaths and the deaths of those we love. Those deaths, when they are not premature, are already partly accommodated by the way we have come to care about our fellow mortals as mortals. This fact does not mean that the anonymous others who fill up the future of humankind matter more to us than those we know and love.
Perhaps the human future is a kind of Ponzi scheme where the value of our own lives is always dependent on the well-being of future generations.
More generally, we should resist the temptation to infer that a mere necessary condition on our living value-laden lives matters more to us than the things we actually do value. Otherwise the same could be said, absurdly, of the Big Bang, the sine qua non of everything. Perhaps there is, to use Scheffler’s terms, a “very specific sense” in which the Big Bang (or the presence of oxygen, or the cosmological constant’s having roughly the value it does) is important to us, but this is just the sense in which it is a background necessary condition for everything we care about. Such conditions matter derivatively; their importance derives from their role as background conditions for the whole enterprise of valuing things. Comparing the importance of such conditions to the importance of what we care about is not at all a straightforward comparison. At the very least it is comparing things of derivative importance with things of non-derivative importance, things that directly matter to us. What then of the allegedly necessary condition of there being anonymous others who fill up the onward rush of humankind? What non-derivative value does that have for me, and how does it compare to the non-derivative value of the lives of those I know and love?
To answer that crucial question we must address another methodological worry about Scheffler’s comparative thought experiment. If we are to rely on the method of cases—the method of using our intuitive reactions to outré imagined scenarios in order to illuminate what we do and should care about—then we must proceed evenhandedly. In Scheffler’s thought experiment, the test cases aren’t controlled for distorting biases: the death of those we know and love is not imagined as vividly as the doomsday and infertility scenarios. We merely see that the death of all those we know and love follows from the fact that all who are now living will one day be dead.
A more evenhanded comparison would take the following form. In option one, all of your loved ones, indeed all the people you care about, have been placed in a high security prison, which will be bombed to total destruction in sixty minutes. In option two, you can save them—they will be released and live lives of normal lengths—but after all of them die their natural deaths, a doomsday device will wipe out humanity. Here the survival of humanity needs to be purchased at the cost of the imminent death of all those we know and love.
Now we are closer to a pair of cases that together might test the relative psychological strengths of our attachments to, on the one hand, those we know and love, and, on the other hand, to our reliance on the onward rush of humankind.
But we are not there yet. For, unless I am incredibly well connected, my loved ones, friends, and familiars will be massively outnumbered by those who turn up in the onward rush of mankind. As a result, even a low level of impersonal benevolence on my part might swamp my response to the pair of cases.
So the genuinely evenhanded comparison has to be something like this: I am deeply connected to a large tribe of people who presently constitute half of humanity. My tribe, however, has become infertile. Suppose that if my tribe is now totally destroyed, the others who remain will replenish the population to its present level after, say, four generations, and further suppose that humanity will continue to have a future for, say, another three generations after that. Would I prefer saving the present members of my vast tribe to the destruction of humanity a few generations after all my tribe members are gone? How do the extra generations of humanity weigh with me, when by hypothesis they are purchased explicitly at the cost of the obliteration of the large tribe of everyone I know or care about?
How would I react to the choice—or to the range of choices, since we can vary the parameters? I don’t know. I do know that in this kind of test situation there is likely to be a systematic difference between how I think I would react and how I would in fact react, a difference that, among other things, has to do with subconsciously putting myself in a good light. How would we react? Here, I am even more in the dark, since I don’t have any non-tendentious way of drawing the boundaries around “us.” I do know there are tribalists who would find the destruction of their tribe under these circumstances more demoralizing than the subsequent destruction of humankind. But what does that tell us about the relative importance of anonymous others filling out the onward rush of humankind? Here as elsewhere, the effectiveness of the method of using outré imaginary cases to test the relative weights of our deepest values seems to give out very near the point at which the cases are appropriately matched for a valid test.
• • •
As well as making a striking comparative claim about the greater importance to us of the anonymous others who will fill out the onward rush of mankind relative to the continuation of our own lives and those of the people we know and love, Scheffler endorses certain “dependency theses” involving necessary conditions on avoiding reasonable demoralization and on not forfeiting the possibility of leading a value-laden life. For example, he writes:
Our concerns and commitments, our values and judgments of importance, our sense of what matters and is worth doing—all these things are formed and sustained against a background in which it is taken for granted that human life is a thriving, ongoing enterprise. . . . Remove that frame of reference and our sense of importance—however individualistic it may be in its overt content—is destabilized and begins to erode. . . We need humanity to have a future for the very idea that things matter to retain a secure place in our conceptual repertoire.
He doesn’t say we only need to believe that humanity has a future, but that we need humanity to have a future. Which is it?
In fact it appears that Scheffler accepts both claims. At the beginning of his second lecture, he distinguishes what he calls “the attitudinal dependency thesis”—that things mattering to us depends on our having a belief in the existence of the afterlife in his sense—from “the justificatory dependency thesis”—that we are justified in attaching importance to things, or that there is good reason for us to care about them, only if there is such an afterlife. He then observes that his main conjecture, that people faced either with the doomsday or with the infertility scenario would lose confidence in the value of many of their activities and hence cease to value many things, provides direct support only for the attitudinal dependency thesis.
However, he offers an interesting argument connecting the two dependency theses:
Suppose that our activities ceased to matter to us because we believed that there would be no afterlife. Suppose now that an all-powerful being offered to make things matter to us again in either of two ways. Either the being could restore both the existence of the afterlife and our fully justified belief in it, or it could simply give us a drug that would induce in us a false belief in the afterlife. I take it that we would not regard these as equally good ways of making things matter to us. We might feel that if we took the drug, then, although our activities would in fact come to matter to us, we would be mistaken in valuing or attaching importance to them. There would not be good reasons for them to matter to us, and there would be good reasons for them not to. Perhaps we might express the point by saying that, if we took the drug, then our activities would seem to matter to us but they wouldn’t really matter to us.
That is not only an argument for the claim that we are implicitly committed to the justificatory dependency thesis, it is also strong evidence that he, Scheffler, is committed to it too. Throughout his discussion, the reactions Scheffler anticipates on our part are invariably his own reactions writ large. (That method will irritate believers in a personal afterlife, who from the outset are effectively excluded from community with “us.”) Scheffler clearly thinks our demoralization in the face of either the doomsday or the infertility scenario would be more than a typical psychological reaction; much of his discussion suggests that it would be a reasonable or justified response to the fact that the end of humanity looms. If things really matter only if we can be, in the light of all the descriptive facts, justified in believing that they really matter then we get a further result. Things really mattering depends on the end not being nigh. This “evaluative dependency thesis”—as Scheffler styles it—seems to amount to the claim that we need humanity to have a future in order for the very idea that things matter to “retain a secure place.”
If that claim can be established by Scheffler’s method, namely by reflection on the conditions of reasonable demoralization, then something stronger would seem to follow. We not only need humanity to have some future or other; we need it to have a certain sort of future for the very idea that things matter to “retain a secure place.” (Hence, perhaps, Scheffler’s own hopeful description of humanity as “a thriving and ongoing enterprise.”) There are many versions of the onward rush of humankind that might produce demoralization. If the future of humanity just came down to Mafia-like families battling it out on a galactic scale, or to our being fully pacified fodder for the hungry aliens, or to our universal participation in “reality” shows to the exclusion of anything else—in other words, if the human future did not contain some value-laden lives—then it would not provide the larger horizon of sustaining value that makes many of our present small efforts matter.
I am unsure whether Scheffler would endorse this stronger claim—that unless there is a human future containing some value-laden lives then the very idea that things now matter is threatened. The weaker claim obviously does not imply the stronger claim, but I find it hard to see how rejecting the stronger claim and holding to the weaker claim—that unless humanity has a future the very idea that things now matter is threatened—could provide a stable resting point. For each claim is driven by a plausible observation about how a certain sort of ostensibly reasonable demoralization indicates that our whole pattern of valuing gives significant hostages to futurity. Speaking for myself, I do not find the observation that drives the stronger claim less plausible. I feel just as demoralized, and in some moods even more demoralized, by humanity having a future devoid of value-laden lives as by humanity not having a future at all.
Letting the thought of the eventual end of humanity demoralize us would be a terrible mistake.
In any case, the stronger claim, however initially plausible it might be, is one that we should hope is false. For if it were true it would imply that the human future is a kind of Ponzi scheme where the virtual horizon of genuine value would have to recede forever if the human enterprise is to be valuable at all. It is a matter of the logic of the claim. I was recently at a dinner party where a philosophically inclined supermom announced that unless one has children who flourish, one can’t flourish oneself. I do understand the impulse, but the problem is that since we are doomed—since the human future will come to an end—her claim implies that no one has flourished or ever will. For, take the last human beings who have no children. Being childless, they will fail the condition for flourishing, but then so do their parents, and their parents, and so on back though all the generations of men and women. Call anything with that kind of implication a “Ponzi condition” on human beings living value-laden lives. A Ponzi condition is consistent with us living value-laden lives only if there is an infinite continuation of humanity.
The claim that human beings can live value-laden lives only if their future includes some human beings who live value-laden lives is just such a Ponzi condition. Since we are doomed— since the human future will come to an end—we can argue backward as before. Consider the last human beings, facing their imminent collective demise. Since they are not followed by a future in which any human beings live value-laden lives, they do not live value-laden lives themselves; but then the same is true of their immediate predecessors, and their immediate predecessors, and so on back through the whole history of humanity. Alvy Singer would thus be vindicated. Given the stronger claim, the fact that the universe is eventually going to break apart or come to consist of subatomic soup would imply that there is no point in doing one’s homework, or in pretty much anything else. What is the point of anything if there are no value-laden lives to be found anywhere in the history of humanity?
• • •
How are we to avoid this consequence? By recognizing that our actual pattern of valuing gives fewer hostages to futurity than Scheffler’s enlightening discussion, and even his weaker claim, implies.
As well as our longer term plans, future commitments and ongoing projects, many of which do presuppose some kind of continuing human future, there is simple human joy, the joy that comes from eating, drinking, sensing, moving one’s body, engaging one’s intellect, conversing, hanging out with friends and family, making love, raising children, playing games; enjoying nature, music, dance, and art; and telling and listening to stories. This kind of joy is wholly legitimate, a proper response to these activities, and also self-standing, in that it does not give hostages to futurity as a condition on its legitimacy.
Then there is the value of trying to find a reasonable way of living together in the here and now, and of being helpful to those now in distress.
Finally there is the continual effort—itself valuable—to appropriately value things as they are, which includes trying to being thankful (though perhaps not to anyone in particular) for what one and the rest of the human race have already been given. After all, there might have been no consciousness; the world might not have been intelligible either by way of sense or intellect; legitimate joy might never have arisen in the world; there might have been almost no accumulation of social and cultural capital; and our fellow human beings could easily have been much worse than they actually are.
The fact is that however the future of humanity goes, human life has already been a natural miracle. Indeed, it is against this established background that we find the great historical human evils to be atrocities—horrific violations of an existing order of appropriate valuing and caring.
Letting the thought of the eventual end of humanity demoralize us would thus be a terrible mistake. It is in large part because many human lives have been flooded with self-standing goods that humanity is not a Ponzi scheme. The kind of value that properly calls forth joy is not something that waits to be validated by the collective life to come. As a consequence, we already live in a rich ecology of value that surrounds us here and now, no matter what happens in the future. Take a look and see: both the weaker and the stronger claim seem refuted by manifestly legitimate joy, which is one form, indeed a highly valuable form, of the recognition of value here, already, in our lives.
Even in the last days our descendants might be sustained by a joyful thankfulness for all the goods that have filled human lives. No doubt this response will be muted by the looming horror, but this does not mean that it is the wrong response. Here there is an analogy with the thankfulness that can set in at the hour of one’s own death.
Alvy Singer’s real problem is that he is neurotically joyless and so unable to appreciate the true significance of the accumulation of joy throughout human history. Dr. Flicker was exactly correct, at least when the right emphasis is added: we gotta try to en-joy ourselves while we’re here. Spinoza, himself a great advocate of joy, would have said much the same thing, albeit in a different key, for he would have emphasized the purest joy that comes from the comprehension and intellectual love of Deus sive Natura (God; that is, Nature).
Even if just a few human beings come to approximate that, then this achievement, all by itself, may mean that the lights have by then burnt brightly enough for the human enterprise to have been worthwhile. After that, the rest of the human future would be a well-earned bonus.
Photograph: Gino Santa Maria / 123RF
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January 02, 2014
25 Min read time