Gotham Diary:
The 150
27 December 2013

It was only after I’d read almost everything else in the latest New York Review that I condescended to look at Thomas Nagel’s review of a book whose title, which I completely misunderstood, put me off: Death and the Afterlife. It didn’t take long to clear up my mistake. Here is Nagel’s second paragraph:

The afterlife referred to in the title is not the personal afterlife, the continued existence of the individual in some form after death. [Samuel] Scheffler does not believe in a personal afterlife, and some of the book is taken up with the question of how we should feel about our own mortality if death is the end of our existence. But his main topic is what he calls the collective afterlife, the survival and continued renewal of humanity after our personal death — not only the survival of people who already exist, but the future lives of people born long after our deaths. Scheffler argues that the collective afterlife is enormously important to us—in some respects more important than our individual survival—though its importance escapes our attention because we take it so much for granted.

This, I could see, was thrilling stuff. Somebody writing about a matter that is much on my mind.

Schefflin’s book collects two Tanner lectures with a third paper, and wraps them up with commentary by other philosophers (among them Harry Frankfurt) and a response by Scheffler. I don’t intend to say more about Death and the Afterlife, which I’m not sure I’ll read, because the philosophical tone of the writing, at least as quoted here, sounds tedious, and also because I don’t require Scheffler’s thought experiments to reach his conclusions. But I do want to copy a few more extracts from Nagel’s review, because they pull the discussion of leisure and cultivation that I began yesterday onto an interesting tangent.

Some examples of the dependence of present value on the existence of future persons are obvious: it would make no sense to pursue a long-term project like the search for a cure for cancer, or the reversal of global warming, or the development of an effective system of international law, if humanity were going to be extinguished shortly. But Scheffler believes that the prospect of extinction would probably undermine the motivation for many other types of activity as well: procreation, of course (in the doomsday scenario); but also artistic, musical, and literary creation, humanistic scholarship, historical and scientific research—even though these seem to be temporally self-contained. Their place in traditions that extend greatly beyond our own lives and contributions, Scheffler believes, is a condition of the value we assign to them, and of our motivation for pursuing them.

As I read this, I paused critically to note that very few people — sadly — are engaged in artistic creation and scientific research. And even fewer, I daresay, in humanistic scholarship. Later in the review, Nagel considers this explicitly.

On the other hand, Scheffler seems right that motivation for the kind of work that contributes to our culture, our knowledge, our economy and society would be hard to sustain under these scenarios, and that this would drain a good deal of meaning from our lives, and might well result in a general social breakdown. Yet this is most plausible with regard to creative activities of a kind that most people don’t engage in. Would it be natural for an electrician, a waitress, or a bus driver to think of what they are doing as essentially part of the collective history of humanity, stretching far into the future—so that it would lose meaning if there were no future?

Except for the link to their direct descendants, I suspect that for most people, horizontal connections with their contemporaries are far more significant in underwriting the value of their lives and activities than vertical links to the distant future. But while the exact scope of the effect may be hard to determine, it is clear that Scheffler has succeeded in posing a genuinely new philosophical question of great interest and importance. Value evidently has a long-term historical dimension.

So while Scheffler’s argument certainly holds for these special people — and holds, as I say, for reasons that don’t depend on his argument — it is more tenuous where ordinary people are concerned. But that is what has to change if human beings are to become democratic stewards of Planet Earth.


Over the years, I’ve abstracted a general observation from casual experience. Most mature people, even most educated people, live at the center of a sphere of consciousness whose diameter is about 150 years. Although there are plenty of facts in the litter of the past 75, and nothing but hopes and probabilities in the future, the two halves are homogenous, because, at least in peace time, healthy people operate on the assumption that the future is going to resemble the past. At a distance of 20 years, I’d say, the past begins to blur, but there are clear landmarks — parents, grandparents, houses lived in, schools attended, perhaps even the schools attended by parents and grandparents. For most people, these living links to the past 75 years persist after the death of parents. Living links to the future are only speculative, but we extend what we know from the past into our imagination of what’s to come. Beyond this range, from the youth of grandparents to the old age of grandchildren, our sense of the living planet falls off the continental shelf of everyday awareness into an abyss that, if not impenetrable, remains unpenetrated. Beyond the lives of grandparents, there stretches an undifferentiated past that, again, for most people, is not altered by contact with history textbooks. Beyond the lives of grandchildren, it may almost be said that the world ceases to exist, imaginatively, except as the matrix for escapist science fiction.

Regular readers will know that I take a great interest in histories of all kinds, and I’ll aver that the objective of my mental cultivation, the fruit of my intellectual husbandry as it were, is an enhanced historical sensibility. I confess to being interested in history in much the same way that you might be interested in racecars — I like the details. But I get more than pleasure from history; I get insight into the future. No, I have no more idea of what’s going to happen next than anyone else does. But I have a lively sense of what might happen if what’s happening now continues. Thanks to my knowledge of history, I know that terrible catastrophes can erupt from nowhere. I also know that, so far, there has never been a catastrophe of complete devastation. These are everyday realities to me; I don’t go for more than six months without reading something new that bears on the Black Death that swept through Eurasia in the Fourteenth Century.

And I can see that we’re living in a crisis now, one that began with the first reliable steam engines nearly two centuries ago. This crisis has a dizzying variety of ramifications. One, obviously, is the lasting damage that we might have caused to the world we live in. Another is the increasing amount of labor that is performed by mechanical devices. A third is the state-change in human society that has been unfolding throughout the crisis, which has been marked by savage revolutions and unprecedented wars. Two hundred years ago, most people were illiterate farm workers. Now, most people have television sets. How does a society bear such transformation? It is so obviously much nicer to watch television than to plow a field that no one can be seriously expected to give the question the critical attention that it requires. That’s a fourth ramification. There’s no immediate payoff in understanding the crisis. There’s every human-nature reason to ignore it altogether. That’s why the crisis is met with general disregard, punctuated by dustballs of media-induced panic.

This crisis is not going to resolve itself pleasantly. Nor is it going to come to a stop within the lifetime of anyone currently breathing — barring a possibly human-induced natural catastrophe that we lack the perspective and the political will to foresee. Faute de mieux, I assume that it will continue for half of its duration so far, roughly another century. By then, either we will have begun to bring it under control or it will metastasize into something truly unmanageable. If we do begin to control it, that will be as the result of a plan, a plan developed sooner rather than later. We shall plan for a world in which we use less and cleaner energy, for both our devices and our own bodies. We shall also have to plan for a world of massively reconfigured resources. A world in which most people enjoy leisure.

Yes, that’s right: a world in which most people don’t have jobs, but don’t experience material want. That’s what we ought to plan for, anyway. We could always give the default model another spin, returning most people to peasantry. But if what we want to plan for is not always clear, planning against a collapse into agrarian autocracy is surely a no-brainer.

This planning can’t be done by some smarty-pants elite of thinkers and scientists. It must be embraced by everyone — so it must be understood by everyone. That’s why we have to break the 150.