Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: on the significance of a human future

Samuel Scheffler, a philosophy professor, poses a conundrum:

What I believe is that other people will continue to live after I myself have died. You probably make the same assumption in your own case. Although we know that humanity won’t exist forever, most of us take it for granted that the human race will survive, at least for a while, after we ourselves are gone….

He asks the reader to imagine that we could not take the continued existence of the species for granted and asks, how would this change how we live now? Would we continue to engage in activities that amount to adding to the sum total of human culture, like cancer research, or bridge building, or political activism?

Scheffler thinks the mental exercise reveals that nearly everyone would live at some loss for purpose if we couldn't be confident that someone would still be around when we are gone.

However self-interested or narcissistic we may be, our capacity to find purpose and value in our lives depends on what we expect to happen to others after our deaths. Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.

When I was a child in the 1950s, the possibility of thermonuclear war incinerating all civilization hung over many of us. I don't remember taking this on heavily, even when Gov. Nelson Rockefeller sent us home from school with brochures for our parents about fallout shelters. (No kidding!) But I certainly know at least one person who grew up in Washington DC who went to bed in fear of the bomb every night. Nuclear fear is not so acute these days, though maybe it should be.

The current challenge of the same absolute sort is obviously anthropogenic climate devastation. We really don't know whether the excess carbon our species has already unleashed and the future amounts that we seem determined to put into the atmosphere might carry the climate over some tipping point that will make this planet uninhabitable by our sort of animal. It's hard to believe; it is outside our experience. But scientists who've been right about climate so far think this can happen. And soon.

Are we already beginning to live as if humanity had no future? I think for many of us, the temptation to such despair is great. I do not doubt that despair about the future hangs over many people -- perhaps most those whose education and power in society make them responsible for doing something about carbon pollution. Is the despair of not believing in a future responsible for some of mad antics of our so-called leaders?

I still believe in the resilience of the species. Humans are imaginative, feisty, even if not very wise. Some of our descendants are liable to endure with the consequences of our foolishness for a long time. But if we keep on the current trajectory, their lives are going to be very different.

Back to Scheffler's conclusion, an inversion of how we usually think about the human future:

Yes, our descendants depend on us to make possible their existence and well-being. But we also depend on them and their existence if we are to lead flourishing lives ourselves. And so our reasons to overcome the threats to humanity’s survival do not derive solely from our obligations to our descendants. 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.

Graphic via an article on climate scientist James Hansen's predictions, here.


George Waite said...

After you're dead, there's nothing.
"Transcendence" is a sugar coating of values onto ego to pretend you're of value to anyone but yourself.

janinsanfran said...

Hi George: I'm pretty agnostic about what, if anything, has meaning beyond the grave -- certainly nothing we are capable of knowing anything about.

But we can usefully think about what effects our assumption that the species will outlast individuals has on our limited lives ... or so I think.

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