Monday, 24 April 2017

Joshua W. Seachris on Cosmic Futility and the importance of narrative endings

Does it matter how the universe ends? Should we be worried by the naturalistic, scientifically grounded expectation that in a few billion years our solar system comes to an end and all traces that will then still be left of our existence (if there are any) will disappear forever? Should it affect the way we look at our life now? Does it make what we do now any less meaningful? Our intuitions are divided on this one: on the one hand it seems preposterous to believe that something that is going to happen so far in the future can have any bearing on the meaning of our present lives. Why should it? We will, after all, long be gone by then. On the other, to think that whatever we do, whatever we achieve, whatever we change, whatever good we may bring about, in the long run none of it will have made any difference, may well make us wonder why we bother doing it in the first place. It seems pointless. Futile. And we don’t want our actions to be futile. Ideally, we want them to make a lasting impact. Otherwise, what is the point of living?

In his 2011 paper “Death, Futility, and the Proleptic Power of Narrative Ending”[1], Joshua W. Seachris calls this second intuition the staying-power intuition (SPI), which he defines as “the idea that, ceteris paribus, worthwhile, significant and meaningful things last.” (461)[2] Actions that have no lasting consequences are futile. Deep or cosmic futility is the futility that results from the presumed fact that, because of the way the world works, there is ultimately nothing that has any lasting consequences. But why do we have this intuition in the first place: that only what lasts is meaningful? Seachris argues that the naturalistic assumption that we are making when we consider the meaning of our lives threatened or undermined by the way we think the world is going to end can and should be understood as a narrative or “meta-narrative”. In narratives, it always matters how they end. When we assess a story – emotionally, morally, aesthetically – the ending is particularly relevant. It not only matters to us what happens at the end, but also that it happens at the end. A bad ending is bad, just as a bad beginning is bad, but a bad ending is much worse than a bad beginning, precisely because it is a bad ending. It is the “narrative ending qua ending”, which “is salient in our broadly normative assessments of narratives as a whole”. (462) A lot of sad things can happen in the course of a narrative, but they don’t necessarily make the story as a whole a sad one. Yet a sad ending always makes for a sad story, and a happy ending for a happy story. “The ending relevantly frames the entire story.” (464) Cosmic futility is a threat because we look at life as a whole from a narrative perspective. If we didn’t – if we didn’t care so much about how things end -, we would not feel that our lives can be rendered worthless by what happens or does not happen in the far future of the world, seemingly nullifying all the good things that are actually happening in the present, all our accomplishments and achievements.

Of course whatever happens in the future, none of it can affect what has already happened. What we have accomplished, we have accomplished. If we have changed the world for the better, we have changed it for the better, at least for a while. Nothing is going to change that. Happy moments will still be happy moments even they don’t last, and they will forever remain happy moments. The past is what it is. It cannot be changed by the future. However, what we know or believe about the future can change how we understand and evaluate what is happening in the present. If you knew that your marriage was going to end in an acrimonious divorce, then whatever joy you might still experience would most likely be tainted and devaluated by your knowledge of the impending bad ending. Similarly, if we know or believe that humanity will one day disappear from the world without leaving a trace, then that is likely to make a difference to us now. Because endings matter. If they did not, cosmic futility would not be an issue. This is why the theist has an advantage over the naturalist. A theistic meta-narrative promises a happy ending. It promises an ending that gives lasting significance to our lives, and that promise may make a considerable difference to how we view our lives now.

The fact that for the theist life never really ends at all (because the theistic meta-narrative promises immortality), poses no serious obstacle to a narrative assessment. A narrative ending need not be a termination. It can also be closure. Ending as closure does not require that everything come to an end, but only that “a conflict or a series of conflicts that have arisen over the course of the narrative” (468) be resolved. The ending is contextual rather than absolute. The living-happily-ever-after formula stands for such an ending, which is all that is needed for the narrative appraisal of a life. This is because the life that we are worried about is this life, “with all its pain, suffering, and hardship” (468), which would be concluded and happily resolved in an after-life of eternal bliss.


A few thoughts, the first relating to the nature of futility: it seems to me that for our actions to be futile it is not sufficient that they have no lasting consequences. It all depends on whether we want them to be lasting and how lasting we want them to be. Generally speaking, futile is an action whose intended goal is not accomplished. Accordingly, we cannot judge whether an action is futile or not if we don’t know what goal it was intended to accomplish. If what I intend to accomplish by doing something is completely unrelated to the eventual fate of the universe, then what I am doing is not rendered futile by said fate. If I study hard to become a decent philosopher, then my labours have not been futile if I manage to become a decent philosopher as a result, not even if the whole solar system will perish in a few billion years, because that has got nothing to do with it. Seachris seems to agree with this understanding, suggesting that in order for an action to be futile, one must aim at some desired end that then proves impossible to attain (471). It follows that “in the case of the futility that is sometimes thought to characterize life in a naturalistic universe, the futility is largely a function of the discrepancy between our deepest desires and the nature of the naturalistic world which seems to ultimately prevent theses desires from being realized.” (472) However, this seems to presuppose that we do have a deep desire that what we do now will have an impact far beyond our own life span and even beyond the life span of our solar system. Is that really so? I may have some desire to be remembered after my death, mostly by my loved ones, and perhaps by others, for a while at least. But do I have a deep desire to still have an impact on things a few billion years from now? I cannot detect this desire in me, and it would seem a very odd desire to have.

Even if my desires are more far-reaching, more world-changing in their ambition, I doubt that we would seriously expect or even hope to make an everlasting impact. Let us say that I can make the world a better place in some way, and I also desire to do so, but that at the same time I am aware that it is not going to last. The world will only be better for a while. Would my plan, in that case, not be worth pursuing at all? Or would I at least feel that it would not be worth pursuing? No doubt, it would certainly be better if the world remained a better place, and the longer it remained a better place the better it would be, but from that it doesn’t follow that being a better place only for a while is not better than never to have been a better place at all. I don’t see why the impossibility to make any state of affairs last should make it pointless to help this state of affairs come about.

Still, we do want things to last, or more precisely we want the good things to last, as long as it is possible for them to last without ceasing to be good. And yes, endings do matter to us. Seachris connects our desire for good things to last with our preference for good endings over bad endings and our preference for good endings over good beginnings (or middles), and sees the former founded in the latter. I am wondering, however, granted that there is indeed a connection between these two intuitions, can we really be sure which comes first? Do we want things to last because endings matter (as Seachris suggests), or do endings matter to us because we want things (or at any rate the good things) to last? Consider: if an ending is good, then the good is going to last because it is that with which everything has ended. If it is indeed an ending, then we don’t have to fear that things will turn bad again. If, on the other hand, the ending is bad, then the good has not lasted and there is no chance that things will change: there is no hope that the good is ever going to come back because the story has ended. As long as the story has not ended, there is always a chance for things to change. So if we want the good things to last, then it is easy to see why endings often matter so much to us.  

Normally, however, endings matter to us only to the extent that they are an integral part of particular desires. To convince us that endings matter, Seachris uses the example of a romantic relationship. Clearly if I knew now that my relationship was going to end badly it would change the way I feel about it. It would lose part of its meaning and would appear pretty pointless, but only if I expected and wanted it to last. That is normally the case when we fall in love with someone. If I love I cannot help feeling or at least hoping that my love will last. If it does not, then my love wasn’t really what I thought it was. If my marriage ends in divorce my marriage has failed because it in my mind was meant to last, not forever, but perhaps “until death do us part”. There are hopes and expectations connected to being involved in a romantic relationship with someone, especially if it ends in marriage, which is yet another beginning: a beginning of something that can, once again, end well or badly. The end of a love affair, and perhaps even more so the dissolution of a marriage is a sad ending to an (for those involved) exciting story, but the eventual disappearance of all life from the face of the Earth is not really a sad or bad end at all, certainly not for us, if only because we never expected, nor had any reason to expect, that it would last forever.

[1] First published in Religious Studies 47 (2011): 141-163. Reprinted in: Exploring the Meaning of Life. An Anthology and Guide, Chichester: John Wiley 2013, 461-480.
[2] Seachris points out that there is also a second rival intuition, the “scarcity intuition”, according to which what we do is meaningful precisely because things will not last.

Saturday, 1 April 2017

George Pitcher on the Misfortunes of the Dead

Can the dead be harmed - not by their death, but by what happens after their death? It wouldn’t appear so since they are dead and therefore no longer around to be harmed. You cannot harm someone who does not exist. And yet, we may feel that some things that happen after our death are in some unspecified way bad for us. If I had spent my life writing a book that would have been hailed by generations to come as a philosophical masterwork if it hadn’t been destroyed shortly after my death and before anyone could read it, it does not seem to be entirely unreasonable to think that I have been harmed by being denied the posthumous fame that I so richly deserved. But how is that possible if I no longer exist when the supposedly harmful incident occurs? Or is it not possible? Should we say that there is nothing that can harm us after our death?

In his article “The Misfortunes of the Dead”, published in 1984, George Pitcher defends the idea that we can indeed be harmed after our death.[1] This is possible, he argues, because the one who is harmed is not the dead person or “post-mortem person”, but the formerly living person or “ante-mortem person”.

Pitcher first seeks to establish that the dead can be wronged, which appears to be less controversial than that they can be harmed. If I promise to you that I will do a certain thing after your death and then, once you have died, don’t do it, then I have clearly broken my promise to you, and by breaking the promise that I gave you I have wronged you. I would also wrong you if I, say, falsely accused you of a crime after you’re dead. Examples such as these make it “abundantly clear” that the dead can indeed be wronged: “they can be the victims of injustice, slander, betrayal, and so on.” (183) However, it is not, strictly speaking, the dead that are thus being wronged, but the once living. It is you, the person that now exists, that I would wrong if I broke my promise to you after your death, the ante-mortem person (who does or did exist), not the post-mortem person (who does not exist and never did). “All wrongs committed against the dead are committed against their ante-mortem selves.” (184)

Yet just as we can wrong someone after their death, we can also harm them. Pitcher defines harm as a violation of someone’s interests. An event or state of affairs is thought to be harmful (or a “misfortune”) to someone “when it is contrary to one or more of his more important desires and interests.” (184) Since we do have, or at least can have, interests and desires regarding what happens after our death, what happens after our death can clearly be contrary to our interests and, accordingly, harmful to us. If I now wish to be buried rather than cremated - if this, for whatever reason, is really important to me -, then I would suffer a harm if, after my death, my wishes were ignored. The fact that I wouldn’t know about it is irrelevant. It is quite obvious (Pitcher argues, as did Thomas Nagel and Joel Feinberg before him) that we can be harmed without being aware of it. If, for instance, I take a strong interest in my son’s existence and well-being, then his death would harm me as soon as it occurs even if I only learn about it much later, or not at all. Pitcher finds this example so persuasive that he feels justified in confidently declaring that “it is just false that in order to be harmed, the victim must be aware of the harm.” (186)

Pitcher then invites us to consider the following case: Bishop Berkeley had a son called William who died at the age of 14. Let us now suppose that William died of a genetic disposition that made his early death inevitable. In other words, he was always going to die young. If Berkeley had known this, he would have been miserable. Since he loved his son and consequently did not want him to die young, the fact that William was going to die young was contrary to his interests and therefore harmful to him. However, it would also have been harmful to him if he had not known this. What harmed him was, after all, not his knowledge of the fact that his son was going to die young, but the fact that he was going to die young. Now imagine that Berkeley had died before his son. In that case he would not have witnessed William’s death, and would forever remain unaware of both the fact that William did die young and the fact that he was always going to die young. Even then, though, Berkeley would, while still alive, have suffered the misfortune of having a son who was going to die young. In this way, Pitcher concludes, “the shadow of harm that an event casts can reach back across the chasm even of a person’s death and darken his ante-mortem life.” (187)

Even though this metaphor seems to suggest some kind of backward causation, Pitcher denies that this is the case. Believing in backward causation would be just as “absurd” as believing that “instantaneous causation at a distance” (186) would be required for me to be harmed when, unbeknownst to me, something just happened that very much goes against my interests (such as the death of my son, which Pitcher claims harms me the moment it happens, and not the moment I learn about it). The reason why we can accept that I can be harmed by what happens after my death without having to assume backward causation is that what harms me is not exactly the future event itself, but rather the fact that this event is going to take place in the future. In other words, what is going to happen in the future may happen in the future, but it is already going to happen now. “On my view, the sense in which an ante-mortem person is harmed by an unfortunate event after his death is this: the occurrence of the event makes it true that during the time before the person’s death, he was harmed – harmed in that the unfortunate event was going to happen.” (187)

And in case there is any doubt about what “making true” means in this context, Pitcher adds the following clarification: “If the world should be blasted to smithereens during the next presidency after Ronald Reagan’s, this would make it true (…) that even now, during Reagan’s term, he is the penultimate president of the United States.” (188)


It seems to me that the plausibility of Pitcher’s argument depends on whether or not he manages to safeguard his account against the rather unpalatable implication of backward causation. I don’t think he succeeds in doing that. Why, according to Pitcher, does my being harmed by some event occurring after my death not involve backward causation? Because that event was already going to happen during my life time, and it is the going-to-happen of the event (which is co-existent with the ante-mortem me) that harms me. But consider the example with which Pitcher concludes his paper: Reagan being the penultimate president of the USA. Let’s update the example and use the current president, Donald Trump, and his predecessor Barack Obama. If Trump should turn out be the last American president, it will be true that Obama was the penultimate president. That much is certain. However, what Pitcher is suggesting is that in that case it would already be true now that Obama was the penultimate president of the USA. But it cannot be true now, because if it were, then it would not be possible for there to be another president after Trump. It would mean that everything that is going to happen in future is going to happen necessarily. We would have to commit to a logical determinism (first discussed by Aristotle) that denies the openness and relative indeterminacy of the future. If it still remains to be seen how things develop, if there is still a chance that Trump may end up not being the last American president, then even if he will be, it is not the case that this is what he already is now. That a particular event is going to happen in the future does not imply in any way that that event’s going-to-happen must be already taking place in the present. Whatever happens in the future, in the present it is still only a maybe. Accordingly, even if my great book gets destroyed after my death, then it is still not true now that it is going to be destroyed. So I can only be harmed by that event if the future can causally affect the past, which is backward causation. The problem with backward causation is that it makes no sense: what hasn’t happened yet cannot influence and change what has already happened. If it could, then what has already happened may turn out to not have happened. What I do today, I will have done tomorrow, and if what I do today can be undone by what I do tomorrow, then I won’t have done it, which contradicts the fact that I already have done it. As I said, it makes no sense.

But isn’t it now against my interests that I will be forgotten after my death? Yes, in the sense that I don’t wish to be forgotten. But harm, even for Pitcher, despite his definition, means more than just the thwarting of someone’s interests. Pitcher claims that my life would have been better if my aforementioned masterwork had not been destroyed after my death (thus making sure that I will quickly be forgotten rather than be remembered “as the greatest philosopher who ever lived”). The claim is that it is better for me (i.e., the ante-mortem me) to be remembered as a great philosopher than not to be remembered at all. Yet since the remembering will or will not take place in the future, after my death, how is that not backward causation? Certainly, I would now, while I’m still alive, prefer to be remembered, but it won’t matter to me once I’m dead. So how can my life be made better or worse by what happens after my death? Apart from the backward causation problem, this would mean that my life would never be complete. I may now and right up to my death have every reason to believe that my masterwork will secure me a place in the philosophical pantheon. If that makes my life good, then my life is good now. But then, after my death, the book is destroyed, so my life now has taken a turn for the worse. What appeared to be a good life is now revealed to have been, in fact, a bad life. Now imagine 200 years later someone discovers and publishes a copy of my book that nobody (me included) knew existed (my wife made it, secretly). I become famous. So now my life was a good one after all. Unfortunately, however, even fame does not last forever, so one thousand years in the future I will once again be forgotten, and once again my life will have been wasted (provided I care deeply about still being remembered in a thousand years’ time). And so on and so forth. The point is that if we take Pitcher’s claim seriously, then there is no end to it. If we can be harmed by future events, then something that happens in a million years may still inflict harm on me if my desires reach that far and make my life a bad one. I find this implication very counter-intuitive.

Note that in this respect wronging someone is very different from harming someone. I can wrong you just as I can remember you, talk about you, praise you, vilify you, or do right by you, and I can do all of these things without affecting you in any way, and without requiring you to be there or even to still exist. And I can, in theory, still do these things a million years from now. There is no problem here. But I cannot kick you if you are not there, and I cannot kiss you either. If wronging someone is, in terms of the postulated relation, like remembering them, then harming someone is like kicking or kissing them. They need to be there in order for me to be able to do it. They need to be affected by it. I cannot kick or kiss someone who is dead, and neither can I harm them. (I can of course do these things to their bodies, but that is not the same.) It seems to me that this difference also applies in cases where I am supposedly harmed by something that I am in no way aware of. Let’s say my wife is cheating on me. Does she harm me? No, not if I never find out. This does not make it okay, though, because she most certainly wrongs me. The reason I can be wronged, but not harmed, by her actions is that wronging someone is as much a relation to the (or a) moral law as it is a relation to that other person. I am wronging you because I am doing what is wrong (say, breaking my promise), whether you are aware of it or not. But I cannot harm you if what I do doesn’t do anything to you. Harm and wrong are separate issues. They can even diverge. You may actually benefit me by stealing from me. It would still be wrong to do so. If my wife cheats on me she wrongs me, but need not harm me. In fact, some of our most common moral dilemmas concern the difficult choice we have to make between harming someone and wronging them (or more precisely between ‘doing right by them and harming them’ or ‘protecting them from harm and wronging them’). My wife for instance may want to spare me the misfortune that would result from telling me about it and decide, for that reason, not to tell me. In this she might of course wrong me even more by lying to me on top of the cheating. But at least she wouldn’t harm me. Similarly, if I go against your wishes after your death, I may very well do you a serious wrong, but I won’t do you any harm.

In conclusion: it seems to me that nothing that happens after my death can make my life better or worse than it is (or, for that matter - to finally make the connection to the issue I am currently most interested in, namely meaning in life -, more meaningful or less meaningful). Once my life is over it is everything it can ever be. My life is what it is, whatever happens after I’m gone: good or bad, meaningful or meaningless.

[1] George Pitcher, “The Misfortunes of the Dead”, American Philosophical Quarterly 21/2 (1984): 183-188.