Medical, environmental, political, economic and military problems seem to have joined forces to remind us that the story of humanity is, at some point, going to draw to a close.
Infertility Scenario from Children of Men
The philosopher Samuel Scheffler illustrates the problem with reference to the “infertility scenario” in the movie Children of Men. In the film, people have stopped being able to get pregnant, and the knowledge that there is no future for humanity has produced a world filled with equal parts catastrophe and indifference. We witness suffering on a massive scale, terrorism, genocidal racism—and none of it seems to really matter to anyone.
On the face of it, it is incredible that the simple knowledge that “we are the last humans” should lead to complete ethical and political collapse. Scheffler believes this is possible. He explains that so many of our practices—seeking a cure for cancer, building a new building, writing a poem or a philosophy paper, fighting for a political cause, giving our children moral lessons we hope will be handed down again and again—depend, in one way or another, on positing a world that will go on without us. The meaning of our lives, in the here and now, depends on future generations; without them we become narrowly self-interested, prone to cruelty, indifferent to suffering, apathetic ...
A lost sense of life
Just as the thought that other people might be about to stockpile food leads to food shortages, so too the prospect of a depressed, disaffected and de-energized distant future deprives that future of its capacity to give meaning to the less distant future, and so on, in an kind of reverse-snowball effect, until we arrive at a depressed, disaffected and de-energized present ...
The last generation is the linchpin of the whole system. But how can their lives have meaning, if the mere thought of the abyss sends a person collapsing into panic and depression? The answer is that the last generation is going to have to be composed of people better and braver than we are now—and it is our job to help them end up that way
On 9/11, some of the passengers on United Airlines Flight 93 did something very heroic: they rose up against the terrorists holding them hostage, with the result that their plane crashed into a field rather than the Capitol building. Viewed from a certain angle, you might wonder why this was so impressive: if you know you are going to die either way, why not do some good while you are at it? But this would be a mistake. It takes incredible energy, passion and conviction to rush at your captors, and mustering all that up in the face of the certainty of death is an astonishing feat. Courage means that things can still matter to you—a lot—even when you know you are going to die. Courage means seeing the value of your life as being about more than survival—living ethically, not merely biologically.
A sure End
Because here is something we know for sure: there will not always be future generations. This is a fact. If the virus doesn’t do us in, if we do not do one another in, if we manage to make everything as sustainable as possible, nevertheless, that big global warmer in the sky is coming for us. We can tell ourselves soothing stories, such as the one about escaping to another planet, but we are embodied creatures, which is to say, we are the sorts of things that, on a geological time scale, simply do not last. Death looms for the species just as surely as it looms for each and every one of us. ...
How long have we got? At a recent public talk, the economist Tyler Cowen spitballed the number of remaining years at 700. But who knows? ...
The role of hummanities
But it will not be through science that we come to reconcile ourselves to the fact that unlimited scientific progress is impossible.
For a long time, philosophy and the other humanistic disciplines have been concerned with how to achieve advances that might mirror those of the sciences. But it will not be through science that we come to reconcile ourselves to the fact that unlimited scientific progress is impossible.
The humanist was never really in the business of making progress. Her job is to acquire and transmit a grasp of the intrinsic value of the human experience; this is a job whose difficulty and importance rises in proportion to the awareness that all of it will be lost.
The final evidence of the author that the end is surely coming is that the sun is gonna die out. This might be