Contemplating the mortality of our species

Imagine two scenarios: in one, humans go extinct approximately 150 years after you die. In the other, humans go extinct 100,000 years after you die. Is there reason for you, here and now, given the things that you do in fact value, to care which of these comes to pass?

One hundred and fifty years after your death, all your loved ones will be dead. Even many of the first and second-generation descendants of your loved ones will be long gone. So there is little danger that the fate of those whom you care about will be affected by this imagined extinction. All your loved ones will have lived lives of a reasonable length, and will have been unwitting of the catastrophe that ultimately ends humanity.

Many of the projects that we engage in, the enterprises that we carry on, have very long lives, however. Humans have been creating art, arguing about philosophy, designing better technologies, and playing competitive sports and games, for centuries. All these activities will end when the species goes extinct. Is it possible that we will be somehow worse off if these activities end a mere 150 years after we die, rather than much later?

Samuel Scheffler has argued that for this sort of reason, those living in the final generation, immediately prior to human extinction, will certainly suffer a terrible loss of value – even if they do not live to see the day on which humans go extinct. Scheffler thinks that all of the activities that we value are threatened if we cannot rely on others carrying out similar projects after die. Indeed, Scheffler thinks that even simple pleasures that arise from satisfying our appetites may come to be less satisfying if we knew that shortly after our lives, there would be no “afterlife”, as he teasingly calls it.

Evidently, Scheffler’s view could be a basis for preferring that extinction be deferred to the later date. This is for (at least) two reasons. First, perhaps our own projects are threatened by extinction 150 years away. Second, even if our own projects are safe, perhaps our junior loved ones will suffer a loss of value, because some of them may be sufficiently close to the end of the species that they are unable to properly benefit from the collective enterprises in which they hope to participate. We may therefore reasonably be dismayed that the sooner extinction will adversely affect those that we care about.

How plausible is the first of these reasons? How much of an “afterlife” do we need, to ensure that our own valued projects are safe?

Presumably this depends on the nature of the projects. Notwithstanding Scheffler’s claims, enjoying the pleasures of fine food, or engaging in a diversion like solving a Sudoku, do not seem to be projects whose value is tied to any larger collective enterprise. But other activities, like discussing current politics, or writing a post for a blog, or participating in a Faculty committee, do indeed seem to be deeply rooted in the belief that there will be an afterlife. These activities would seem much less worthwhile – I suspect – if we knew that humanity was about to end, in five, ten, maybe even fifty years’ time.

If the loss of value suffered by the final generations depends upon what projects they have, this suggests that the final generations can choose their projects and attachments, so as to make themselves more or less affected by the species’ imminent extinction. Rather than assuming that because our projects will have lost their meaning, the lives of those in the final generation are futile, we might instead think that if they were to abandon our, relatively long-term projects, and embraced a more short-term, hedonistic lifestyle, they would do better. They would make the most of what they have.

And if that is right, perhaps we can lead the way for them, right now. By becoming more short term and hedonistic in our orientation, we might be endowing future generations with a greater protection against the ultimate harm of extinction. What would be the error in this?

It is a familiar idea that living with an awareness of our mortality, as individuals, may sharpen our appreciation of what is valuable, rather than dull it. I think that something similar may be said for extinction. Humans will all be gone eventually. Maybe they will be gone much sooner than you assumed. But there is still plenty that we can value, here and now. If what we are doing is premised on the possibility that humans will live forever, we are most likely making a practical error. We would do better to avoid it.