Around the age of fifty, Tolstoy began to be obsessed with the idea that death brings everything to an end. He was driven by despair to start believing that there is more after death – an infinite something to become united with. The afterlife struck him as a precondition for living with a sense of purpose, value, meaning, and enthusiasm. Why, though, such a focus on the ethereal, if there is an afterlife right around here, in the form of life going on for other people once we’re gone? The mundane afterlife, as a cure for meaninglessness, is the subject of Samuel Scheffler’s recent book Death and the Afterlife, reviewed by Stephen Luper in TPM issue 64.
Many achieve some sense of immortality by having children whose lives will continue when they’re gone. (Tolstoy didn’t feel this way, despite having nearly a dozen children.) But Scheffler thinks being survived by our children isn’t as important to us as the thought that, once our children are gone, there will be even more life for lots of other people. Billions of humans will keep enjoying the human way of life. We need to believe that, Scheffler thinks, not so much that we’ll have direct descendants, much less that a gauzy heaven awaits us.
How much do we owe our sense of positive meaningfulness and engagement (if we have it) to the assumption that life is going to continue for lots and lots of others, long after we’re gone? A way to test this out is to consider people who don’t think life is going to continue. We wouldn’t want to focus on delusional people or on dour pessimists, so what’s needed is a coherent and plausible fictional world in which normal people reasonably believe we’re a doomed species. Fortunately, novelists and filmmakers have been helpful in this regard, producing one end-of-the-world concoction after another. The latest is Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s movie about an imminent extinction caused by a problem in earth’s soil. Do the seemingly final humans in the movie go around in a Tolstoyan funk?
The answer (and some spoilers) in a minute. But first a few words about the book The Children of Men, by much loved and recently deceased novelist PD James. Scheffler uses this fictional world to support his contention that we need to believe in the afterlife – that is, life continuing for others long after our own lives end – to find our own lives meaningful and valuable. In the novel, humankind has mysteriously lost the power to reproduce, so that at the time the drama opens, the youngest person in the world is 25 years old. The protagonist, an Oxford history professor, lives in an England and a world completely altered by the anticipation of extinction. People so desperately miss babies that they push around dolls in baby carriages and hold christenings for kittens. Sex no longer holds much interest for anyone, so the government has had to set up porn shops to keep people having it (in the hope someone will turn out to be fertile). Tyrants have come to power.
That all hints at ennui, but the central plot of The Children of Men is extremely inconvenient for Scheffler. Theo, the protagonist, is bored, numb, uncaring, unloving, and fairly indifferent even when he accidentally kills his own young child; but all that’s before infertility befalls the world. Once it becomes clear humanity has a very short future, Theo remains just as bored, numb, and indifferent. Then he awakens and helps save the world, but this isn’t because, Tolstoy-like, he realises he must find meaning in life and must believe in an afterlife. Rather, he wakes up simply because he falls in love. It so happens he falls in love with Julian, a member of a band of rebels, and the woman who ultimately saves the day, but it could have been anyone. Once in love and ready to care about things, he tends to care about the injustices wrought by the tyrants in power, not so much about human survival. The message of the novel, that love creates meaning, is not the proposition Scheffler is trying to support.
So how about Interstellar? Does it give us a believable world in which finding meaning and engagement requires believing in an afterlife – that is, long-term human survival? In the movie, human extinction is successfully headed off by the intergalactic spacetime adventures of NASA pilots Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and Brand (Anne Hathaway). Certainly, Cooper does very much want to save the world. In fact, he wants to save the world even more than he wants to remain on earth with his adored daughter Murph (Jessica Chastain). But why is that? Cooper wants to save the world because it’s just obviously the right thing to do. It would be a terrible tragedy for humanity to be wiped off the face of the earth. But that’s not to say his sense of personal meaning, value, or engagement depends on human existence continuing. Saving the world is what Cooper has to do, as a matter of duty, but at the core the movie is about his intense desire to be reunited with his daughter. That by itself would save him from a Tolstoyan sense of meaninglessness, even if he couldn’t pull off the species-saving spacetime trick.
It’s at least conceivable that we do have to believe in perpetual humanity to find our own lives meaningful, but it’s hard to find a movie or book that conveys that message. Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road is another possibility. There the problem isn’t infertility but a nuclear disaster. The last people roam the earth looking for food and succumbing to nightmarish cannibalism, but the novel focuses on the hopeful remnants of a family. They’re propelled along despite knowing the future looks bleak and there is engagement and care throughout. Why? Once again, perhaps love is the answer. With love we seem to have engagement, whatever the long-term future holds.
Alas, end-of the-world novels and movies don’t seem to side with Scheffler, but he makes his own case. He writes: “Humanity itself as an ongoing, historical project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters. Remove that frame of reference, and our sense of importance – however individualistic it may be in its overt content – is destabilised and begins to erode. We need humanity to have a future if many of our own individual purposes are to matter to us now. Indeed, I believe that something stronger is true: we need humanity to have a future for the very idea that things matter to retain a secure place in our conceptual repertoire.”
If we thought humanity had no long-term future, that would no doubt be appalling, and we would do many things differently, but would the whole idea of mattering fall to pieces? Or would we continue to love, and would the people and things we love still matter to us? It’s hard not to be swayed by good movies and novels, not to mention songs. Just possibly, when it comes to things mattering to you, all you need is love.
For more novels and movies bearing on the Big Questions of philosophy check out the speculative fiction list recently compiled by Eric Schwitzgebel, based on the recommendations of over 36 philosophers (goo.gl/CvlDRe). The Children of Men is one of the most frequently recommended novels.