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Death and the Afterlife 1st Edition

3.9 out of 5 stars 17 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199982509
ISBN-10: 0199982503
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Based on the Berkeley Tanner Lectures given by N.Y.U. philosophy professor Scheffler, this volume offers an unusual conversation about our fear of death, and our hopes to live on in memories. Of Scheffler&'s three lectures, the first two explore humanity&'s possible reactions to two catastrophic scenarios. In the first, particular individuals would live normal life spans, but with the knowledge that all of humanity would be wiped out by an asteroid 30 days after their death. In the second, humanity is rendered infertile, so that the most recent generation would be the last. Scheffler (Human Morality) suggests that these scenarios cause distress because they mean the end of what he calls the afterlife—the knowledge that others will continue to live after I have died and that the human race will continue. As a result, he believes, many activities and projects that we find worthwhile (finding a cure for cancer, preserving cultural traditions) will feel worthless if life ended after our deaths. Thinking about the end of humanity provides insights into what we value, and why we value it. After the lectures, several philosophers weigh in on Scheffler&'s ideas, offering their own interpretations, to which he responds—an insightful look at what death means to us. (Oct.)


"...combined with Scheffler's eminently readable (and often humourous!) prose style, and the insightful and provocative exchanges that he has with his similarly-distinguished interlocutors, propels Death and the Afterlife into that rare class of philosophical books that are both valuable and enjoyable."

"Clearly, this book brings together some impressive intellectual firepower."
--Metapsychology Online Reviews

"With its careful arguments, counterarguments, and comparative evaluation of alternative hypotheses, this book is a superb example of the application of analytic philosophy to a subject that is of fundamental concern to everyone, not only to academic philosophers. Scheffler has opened up a new range of questions about life and death."
--Thomas Nagel, New York Review of Books

"Thinking about the end of humanity provides insights into what we value, and why we value it...an insightful look at what death means to us."
--Publishers Weekly

[Scheffler's] wonderful Tanner Lectures, recently published as Death and the Afterlife, attempt to extract several striking lessons from our supposed reaction to the doomsday scenario....One of the many gems embedded in Scheffler's lectures is a nicely observed contrast between our sense of catastrophic horror in the face of the doomsday and infertility scenarios, and our relative calm in the face of the fact that everyone now living will one day be dead."
--Mark Johnston, Boston Review

"Scheffler has produced a superb essay -- indeed it seems to me about as good as analytic philosophy gets. It is entirely free from obfuscating jargon and other tiresome tricks of the trade, yet it is meticulously argued and demanding in exactly the right way -- forcing us to think about hitherto unexamined implications of our existing beliefs. Though written with agreeable lightness and fluency, it is rich in psychological and ethical insight, and restores philosophy to its proper role of tackling the big structural concerns that are inseparable from the human condition." --John Cottingham, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews

"[Scheffler's] discussion of the issues with which he has concerned himself is fresh and original. Moreover, so far as I am aware, those issues are themselves pretty much original with him. He seems really to have raised, within a rigorously philosophical context, some new questions. At least, so far as I know, no one before has attempted to deal with those questions so systematically. So it appears that he has effectively opened up a new and promising field of philosophical inquiry. Not bad going, in a discipline to which many of the very best minds have already devoted themselves for close to three thousand years."--Harry Frankfurt, Princeton University, from "How the Afterlife Matters" (in this volume)

"This is some of the most interesting and best-written philosophy I have read in a long time. Scheffler's book is utterly original in its fundamental conception, brilliant in its analysis and argument, and concise and at times beautiful in its formulation."--Stephen Darwall, Yale University

"A truly wonderful and very important book."--Derek Parfit, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford

"Scheffler's book is a beautiful example of philosophical reflection on matters of great significance... He writes in a rigorous but engaging manner about things of obvious importance to us all. Death and the Afterlife is a model of how to make difficult philosophy intelligible to thinking people." --Times Literary Supplement

"Death and the Afterlife constitutes two remarkable achievements. The first is rare enough. Samuel Scheffler presents us with a set of reflections, the importance, and arguably the correctness, of which seem obvious in retrospect, but which most people will not have previously registered, let alone thought to be of considerable profundity. The second is even rarer. Scheffler appears to be the first person, in nearly 3,000 years of western philosophy, to get to grips, in a sustained and insightful way, with the particular questions his book raises." --Oxonian Review

"Scheffler's thesis has striking implications for the way we should think about the demands of our egos. Our self-interest doesn't merely extend, as we're used to thinking, to the preservation of ourselves and those we love. It extends to the lives of indeterminate future people we neither know nor love." -- London Review of Books

"A brilliant example of how a thought experiment can make us rethink our values." -- David Edmonds, The Big Issue

"Death and the Afterlife provides a challenging new insight into the psychology of climate change. If you accept Scheffler's arguments, climate breakdown offers more than a threat to civilization and ecosystems. It is a threat to meaning itself." -- Resurgence and Ecologist


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (October 7, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199982503
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199982509
  • Product Dimensions: 8.1 x 0.9 x 5.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #488,429 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
In his review of this book, Thomas Nagel describes it four times as "highly original" or novel. This is echoed by Harry Frankfurt's description of it, quoted in the reviews section above, as "fresh and original" and by Stephen Darwall's claim, also quoted above, that it is "utterly original." But its main themes are not original. In The Fate of the Earth, published in 1982, Jonathan Schell argued at length that the expectation that there will be many generations of people to come after us is essential to our present well-being. Future people, he wrote, are important to us "as the audience for our works of art, as the outstretched hands to receive our benefactions, ... as the minds that will provide us with immortality by remembering our words and deeds, and as the successors who will justify us by carrying on with the tasks that we have started or advanced." Without the expectation that they will exist, our lives would "become progressively more twisted, empty and despairing." Another of Scheffler's central themes is that "our lives are so pervasively shaped by the understanding of them as temporally limited that to suspend that understanding would be to call into question the conditions under which we value our lives and long for their extension." This theme too was to some extent anticipated by the philosopher Richard Wollheim, who wrote that if we were immortal, "questions whether we should do this rather than that would rewrite themselves as questions whether we should do this before or after that, and answers to those new questions would be found by considering not the intensity of our wants or the ends to which they are directed, but the favourable opportunities that the present provides." Scheffler's book is well argued and interesting but it also seems to have been written without awareness of much of the extensive philosophical literature on the issues it discusses.
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Format: Hardcover
Central to this series of Tanner lectures at Berkely and following commentary are the concepts of personal and collective afterlife. The personal afterlife offered by religions promises the prospect of personal survival, of relief from the fear of death, of being reunited with loved ones, of seeing justice done, of receiving explanation of life's perplexing questions and assurance of a larger meaning for one's personal life. The collective afterlife is the continuation of human life on earth. The author ( a Philosophy professor at NYU) argues that belief in the collective afterlife is necessary to give value to our activities (the value of which depends on their place in an ongoing human history) in order for life to have value. He argues that without confidence in such a collective afterlife (that others will live on after us) the things that now matter to us would cease to do so. Scheffler posits that most of humanity believes in the collective afterlife. Interestingly, he argues that those who believe in their own personal afterlives (e.g. religious suicide bombers) are less concerned about the collective afterlife.
Following Scheffler's lectures is a set of commentaries by 4 prominent Philosophy professors. These seemed to be rather pedantic and overly concerned with the relationship of his idea to the current literature of the field. For me, an applied physicist who has spent the last 40 years working on the energy source of the next century, nuclear fusion, Scheffler's main point-- that the value of much of human effort depends on there being a future for mankind-- resonates strongly, as it would for most people working on energy research, medical research, space research , etc.. Their lengthy criticisms notwithstanding, the authors of these commentaries seem to acknowledge that Scheffler has put his finger on a new question for philosophical discussion.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This well-written, short book purports to be a contribution to a theory of value. Scheffler asks us to imagine as a thought-experiment two grim scenarios and then asks us to think about how these possibilities would affect the way we think about what we value or, as he says more often, "what matters to us." The two scenarios involve a world without a human future, the "afterlife" of the title being the continued life of the human race (a communal afterlife) and not the "personal afterlife" that some religious traditions offer. Scheffler is not interested in the latter possibility. The two scenarios are "The doomsday scenario" --"Suppose you knew that, although you yourself would live a normal life span, the earth would be completely destroyed thirty days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid" (18) -- and "the infertility scenario" -- everyone alive now would live out his or her normal life span, but in a world where no children are being born to create a future generation and future generations beyond that.

Dire, eh? We would feel bad, of course, and we would perhaps ask ourselves about whether what we have up to that point been doing with our lives is worth continuing with. And there can be no doubt that there would be changes in our ways of thinking about whether or not this or that project was worthwhile. We would have to acknowledge that our sense of what matters to us often does unthinkingly take for granted not just the lives of our own children and grandchildren but generations of people we will never know. As Scheffler says, "our confidence that there will be an afterlife is a condition of many other things mattering to us here and now" (32). One can agree with this, broadly . . .
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