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What Sort of Collective Afterlife Matters and How

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In Death and the Afterlife, Samuel Scheffler argues that the assumption of a “collective afterlife” (i.e., the assumption that the human race and humanity lives on after our own individual deaths) plays an essential role in us valuing much of what we do. If a collective afterlife did not exist, our value structures would be radically different according to Scheffler. We would cease to value much of what we do. In Part I of the paper, I argue that there is something to Scheffler’s afterlife conjecture, but that Scheffler has misplaced the mattering of a collective afterlife. Its significance lies not in the realm of axiology but more importantly in coming to terms with the fact of death and in viewing our lives as having meaning. In Part II of the paper, I outline three views on the sort of collective afterlife that matters and argue in favor of the view that it must involve creatures that recognize our existence, reasons, values, and contributions (“The Recognition Thesis”) and the view that it must involve creatures that value similar things to us (“The Valuers Like Us Thesis”)—but argue against the view that it necessarily be a human collective afterlife (“The Human Form Thesis”).

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    Scheffler ties this point to the axiological thesis, discussing the importance of passing our values and traditions on to the collective afterlife, or having a “value-based relation to those who come after us.” (p. 33).

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    Again, there are stronger and weaker versions of this. I only mean to adopt a weaker version whereby for many of us the collective afterlife plays a central role in our existence having meaning or mattering. Moreover, meaninglessness/meaningfulness are concepts that admit of degrees. The claim does not have to be one of absolute meaninglessness to have import.

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    Nagel would likely not be convinced. On the notion that our lives matter because we are part of a larger ongoing historical biological cycle, he writes (p. 229): “That is no more consoling to someone about to die than it would be to a mouse about to beaten by a hawk.”

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    Incidentally, the fact that Scheffler describes this as “depressing” nods towards my analysis in the first part of this paper. Namely, that the significance of the collective [human] afterlife is in some ways more of an affective - subjective significance than a values significance. Note that Scheffler’s reaction to this scenario is not to point out how tragic this would be for what we value, but for us.

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    Although I have focused my analysis in this section on the Acceptance of Death and Existential Meaning Theses, arguing that they have more promise for capturing the significance of the collective afterlife, it is interesting to briefly consider whether the Valuers Like Us Thesis is true with respect to the Axiological Thesis. On the one hand, it seems to me that so long as creatures would continue to exist that would see the value in what we value (i.e., understand the reasons why we valued it) then we would continue to value what we value even if those future creatures would value different things. For example, I value things that I doubt that my children’s children will value (e.g., hand-written letters), but that does not motivate me to stop valuing them. On the other hand, if we knew that what would exist long after us was radically different with very different values, then we might very well start to value radically different things than we do now—things that would make us stay relevant in a world filled totally or mostly with these beings. Interestingly, these “sort of afterlife” thought experiments offer more support for Scheffler’s version of the Afterlife Conjecture than the “disappearance of afterlife” through infertility or doomsday thought experiments. That is, it is fairly plausible that if we knew that no humans would continue to exist 30 days after we died, we would still engage in many of the same [value-based] activities that we do now, but if we knew that what would exist long after us was radically different, we may indeed start to value radically different things and abandon much of what we value now.

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    See George Sher, Beyond Neutrality: Perfectionism and Politics, (Cambridge University Press, 1997), Chapter 9. For Sher, the source of the value of these things is in the fact that they are all linked to human capacities that fundamental (meaning virtually all humans possess and cannot avoid exercising—near universal and near inescapable).


  1. Frankfurt, H. (2013). Commentary on Scheffler. In N. Kolodny (Ed.), Death and the afterlife (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  2. Nagel, T. (1989). The view from nowhere. New York: Oxford University Press.

  3. Scheffler, S. (2013). In N. Kolodny (Ed.), Death and the afterlife (1 edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

  4. Wolf, S. (2013). Commentary on Scheffler. In N. Kolodny (Ed.), Death and the afterlife (1st ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Correspondence to J. S. Blumenthal-Barby.

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Blumenthal-Barby, J.S. What Sort of Collective Afterlife Matters and How. Philosophia 44, 87–100 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11406-015-9659-6

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  • Death
  • Collective afterlife
  • Meaning
  • Value theory