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I am a pretty anxious person, and for most of my twenties I have thought a lot about dying. This trait manifests pretentiously and tech-bro stereotypically: to get through cold plunges, I recite Phillip Larkin’s “Aubade and Auden’s “Fall of Rome; I think a lot about being in the tail end of my time with my oldest friends; I imagine endings, all the time. 

My friends don’t mind too much. Some even offer help. Jamie Ryerson, an editor at The New York Times, recommended that I read a piece he’d edited by the philosopher Sam Scheffler. Scheffler’s thesis was striking: we all believe in an afterlife

But Scheffler’s afterlife is not the personal paradise of the pious. Rather, it’s the simple, but profoundly important belief that other people will live after you. He calls this the “collective afterlife”. 

Our projects, fantasies, relationships, and attachments draw much of their meaning from the idea that people will exist after us, says Scheffler.

In fact, our deepest wells of meaning are critically dependent on this reservoir of belief. When it dries up, the hum of energy that drives even our most mundane routines threatens to dissipate. We are all believers in an afterlife, Scheffler argues, whether we know it or not.

Scheffler’s work shows us that the future does not just depend on us to exist: we depend on the future to exist. It’s an intertemporal symbiosis, a projective mutualism. “If we find this surprising,” says Scheffler, “it is less because we have been blinded to our own altruism than because we have overestimated our independence and self-sufficiency.” We aren’t just doing the good we can because we are obliged to. No, Scheffler argues, “we have another reason to try to ensure a flourishing future for those who come after us: it is simply that, to an extent that we rarely recognize or acknowledge, they already matter so much to us.”

In a series of lectures given at Berkeley and published in a collection titled Death and the Afterlife, Scheffler develops a persuasive case. The philosopher Niko Kolodny summarizes it like so: 

“In the doomsday scenario, everyone dies thirty days after your death. In the infertility scenario, suggested to Scheffler by P. D. James’s novel, The Children of Men, no babies are born. It is hard not to find these scenarios, as Scheffler finds them, unsettling. But why? In the doomsday scenario, you don’t die prematurely. And in the infertility scenario, no one at all dies prematurely. Everyone now alive lives on as long as she otherwise would. What is unsettling, then, is just the end of humanity itself, the not-coming-to-be of mere strangers.”

Importantly, the infertility or doomsday scenarios could leave our existing relationships with all our loved ones intact, and still be devastating. As Scheffler writes, “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.” We need people we will never know and never meet to exist for critical aspects of our own existence to be meaningful, or even just bearable. 

In my experience, we rarely take time to contemplate this type of interdependency. We need the people of the future as much as they need us. 

I don’t think I’m the only anxious one about what’s to come. We are, on the whole, pretty freaked out these days. Makes sense – ours is a state of profound vulnerability. But, even beyond our and our loved ones’ susceptibility to the specters of geopolitical instability, technological disruption, biological catastrophe, and/or climatological disaster, we are vulnerable to future causes we will never understand and cannot predict. 

The meanings of our lives, then, are bound to people and circumstances that we will never encounter or know or witness. “Like the biblical Moses,” writes Scheffler, “denied access to the Promised Land, we stand gazing through the lens of shared values and history toward a future we will not enter.” With our faces perennially pressed up against the limits of our lives, our breath fogging up the cool, frosted glass of a future without us, all we can see is an ever-shifting blur. 

The closer we get to this precipice, the less we try to make out what’s beyond it. In 1999, the Stanford psychologists Laura Carstensen, Derek Isaacowitz, and Susan Charles published their “socioemotional selectivity theory.” They argue that as we find ourselves experiencing the last sand grains of our hourglass, our mindsets shift. We don’t seek knowledge, but emotional comfort. Old relationships, not new. We look for familiarity, eschewing excitement. One evocative study that collected data from a Hong Kong sample in the run-up to its political handover showed this trend didn’t just apply to individuals as they aged, but could hold for an entire diversely-aged community moving towards a precipice. 

But being the last generation of a polity is different from being the last of a species. No human being has the strength to manage being among the last generation, as Masha Gessen put it. One paper describing people who have a sense of a “foreshortened future” notes that their symptoms are typically associated with torture. Per the Istanbul Protocol, the UN’s guide for identifying torture, a survivor of torture may have a “damaged self-concept”, including “a sense of foreshortened future without expectation of a career, marriage, children, or normal lifespan”.

At least, we cannot withstand such torture today. As Agnes Callard, a student of Scheffler’s opines, each of us has a role in helping forge a human spirit that can. “The Last Generation. Scientists and politicians must work to delay their arrival as long as possible; humanists, by contrast, must help prepare us for them.” 

(Callard, an alumnus of our workshops, once said, “Over time, I came to write for a larger and larger audience. When I started, I wrote only for Sam Scheffler”.) 

Humanists like Scheffler make it possible to appreciate how the finitude of time enlivens our inner worlds with meaning. Just as Rawls spoke of moderate scarcity as one of the ‘conditions of justice’, the background situation in which both the need for and existence of justice arises, Scheffler thinks of the moderate scarcity of time—we typically don’t have too much, nor too little—as one of the ‘conditions of value’. In this view, it is the time-bound scope of our agency that gives weight to our choices about what to value. Our impending deaths create the need for us to believe in a viable future, and the conditions under which we can attempt to fill that need. 

Despite it being very real, the collective afterlife eludes fixity, stability, reliability. We will never know its residents, living as they do (or not) on the other side of our deaths. And death still terrifies, no matter how much poetry or philosophy or practice I throw in its hungry maw. It is less terrifying to look back and remember the familiar, friends and loved ones. We can draw on meaning from a blurry future, but only with sensibilities shaped by the past. 

After all, it is not the abstraction of a not-yet-existing person that we actually depend on for our everyday lives. The future person’s putative existence sustains us, but they do not shape us and our values. It is the known mentor, colleague, friend, lover, partner who shapes our sense of what projects are meaningful and worthwhile, of what it is worth spending one’s energies on, of what trees are worth planting for the future.

As we draw nearer to the unknowable future, it is the known which we are drawn to. I still imagine endings, but I am trying to enjoy the middle, and to remember beginnings. One of them is crystal clear: I was moving into my college dorm room, meeting new friends, touring their rooms. One’s wall was covered in quotes, scrawled in black Sharpie, all-caps on taped-up printer sheets of paper. I glanced and all of a sudden, I read one that stays with me forever: “There’s life after death. It’s just not yours.”

Editor’s note: Joseph Fridman is a member of the Beyond the Ivory Tower, a writing workshop supported by the John Templeton Foundation.  You can read more about his work here.