Death and the Afterlife by Samuel Scheffler

We normally take it for granted that other people will live on after we ourselves have died. Even if we do not believe in a personal afterlife in which we survive our own deaths, we assume that there will be a ‘collective afterlife’ in which humanity survives long after we are gone.

Samuel Scheffler ( maintains that this assumption plays a hugely influential role in our lives. In certain important respects, the future existence of people who are as yet unborn matters more to us than our own continued existence and the continued existence of those we love.

Without the expectation that humanity has a future, many of the things that now matter to us would cease to do so. Also, the prospect of our own deaths does little to undermine our confidence in the value of our activities. Despite the terror we may feel when contemplating our deaths, then, the prospect of humanity’s imminent extinction would pose a far greater threat to our ability to lead value-laden lives – lives structured by wholehearted engagement in valued activities and pursuits.

This conclusion defeats widespread beliefs about human egoism and individualism. And it has striking implications for the way we think about climate change, nuclear proliferation, and other urgent threats to human survival. Scheffler goes on to argue the following. Personal immortality, would actually undermine our confidence in the values we hold dear. His arresting conclusion is that, in order for us to lead value-laden lives, what is necessary is that we ourselves should die and that others should live.

Scheffler’s position is discussed with insight and imagination by four distinguished commentators – Harry Frankfurt, Niko Kolodny, Seana Shiffrin, and Susan Wolf. Scheffler adds a final reply. “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; “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’ “; “A truly wonderful and very important book.” – Derek Parfit, Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, University of Oxford.

You can listen to Scheffler discuss his views on MP3 on the Web at
Accompany this with a listen to the Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 45 minute podcast on the subject of death in Western intellectual history. Available at the page   The discussion features Jonathan Dollimore, Professor of English, York University; Thomas Lynch, poet, essayist, funeral director and author of The Undertaking – Life Studies from the Dismal Trade; Marilyn Butler, Professor of English Literature and Rector of Exeter College, Oxford.
If stimulated to take a secular world view after reading Scheffler, follow up with this short selection of key works:

People believe in god/gods for a host of different motives and reasons. If you’re at all concerned with the intellectual credibility of belief in god, reach for Michael Martin’s Atheism: A Philosophical Justification (1990, Martin painstakingly and comprehensively demolishes all the arguments which have been offered over the centuries in support of belief.
A shorter exercise in the assessment of the arguments is found in J.L. Mackie’s 1982 book  The Miracle of Theism. (reviewed by me here ) Mackie’s view is that, given the arguments and evidence, it is a miracle that theism (in any of its guises) can survive. This book has the reputation of having rattled decades of Divinity students.
For an account of the loss of faith from the Enlightenment to the twentieth century get hold of A.N. Wilson’s God’s Funeral (reviewed by me here
For an account of the history of scepticism, a reliably informative guide is Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht (2004, An entertaining romp through science, philosophy and literature from Socrates to the present day, Hecht’s book opens up many avenues for further reading and research. A great pleasure.
Also recording the history of sceptical stances and the personal cost suffered by those brave enough to express them is Ludovic Kennedy in All in the Mind: A Farewell to God. (1999, Kennedy examines the origins of gods from the earliest times, questions the reliability of both Old and New Testaments. He records the growth of European atheism from before the Reformation to the present. Interspersed with this, the author offers his often witty insights into how his own upbringing affected his thinking; and, in the final chapter, tells how he has found his own way to non-theistic spiritual fulfilment.
Don’t miss reading the wonderful Cambridge Companion to Atheism (2007, Eighteen of the world’s leading scholars, including Daniel Dennett, Richard Gale and Keith Parsons present original essays on various aspects of atheism. They cover its history, both ancient and modern. The topic is examined in terms of its implications for a wide range of disciplines including philosophy, religion, feminism, postmodernism, sociology and psychology.
For something a whole lot more polemical the obvious choice is The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (2006, Though lacking the sophistication of other proponents of atheism, this upset and worried believers a great deal more because it reached a huge audience.
Should you prefer those more subtle (and I think on that account more devastating) arguments turn to Nicholas Everitt’s The Non-Existence of God (2003, Everitt argues that the very concept of God is incoherent.
Should you wish for an impassioned, yet still fully reasoned, full frontal attack on religion – Christopher Hitchens is your man. Treat yourself to God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007,
Sam Harris writes along similar lines in The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (2004, This is a stark analysis of the clash of faith and reason in today’s world. Harris offers a vivid historical tour of mankind’s willingness to suspend reason in favuor of religious beliefs, even when those beliefs are used to justify destruction and heinous crimes. He asserts that in an era of nuclear weapons we can no longer tolerate views that pit one ‘true’ ‘god’ against another. He argues that we cannot even afford moderate lip service to religion. This is a concession that only blinds us to the real perils of fundamentalism. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris also draws on new evidence from neuroscience and insights from philosophy to explore spirituality as a biological, brain-based need. He calls on us to take a secular humanistic approach to solving the problems of this world. This is the only way we can save ourselves.
For a generous parcel packed with insight, and entertainingly written, no bookshelf should be without The Portable Atheist (ed. Christopher Hitchens, first published 2007, 528 pages) Includes pieces by Lucretius, Benedict de Spinoza, Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Mark Twain, George Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Emma Goldman, H. L. Mencken, Albert Einstein, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. A treasure and a pleasure one returns to time and again.
Why is belief in gods and the supernatural so hard to shake? Despite our best attempts to embrace rational thought and reject superstition, people appeal to unseen forces that guide their destiny, wondering who might be watching them as they go about our lives, and imagining what might come after death. For answers turn to The Belief Instinct ( by Jesse Bering. In this lively and masterfully argued book psychology professor Bering (, and unveils the psychological underpinnings of belief.
If you can shake yourself free of these ancient impulses you may not be happier but you’ll be less deceived (book reviewed by me here Battle the gods and win.
For a lifetime of reading and thought in atheism, follow the bibliographies in the titles discussed above. Also follow the leads in the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy here  Also listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ episode on materialism (the bedfellow of atheism) here
Further online resources concerning a naturalistic world view can be found at secular web  here , the Brights website  here,  and The British Humanist Association here
224 pages in Oxford University Press
First published 2013
ISBN 978-0199982509
Professor Samuel Scheffler
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