“There will be no future experiences that will be related, in certain ways, to these present experiences” is a compelling remark about death. It comes from Derek Parfit, renowned Oxford philosophy prof, who died only a couple of days ago, on New Year’s Day, January 1, 2017. It’s a lovely description he coined that gave him incentive to live meaningfully in a world where death is guaranteed, effectively closing the door on life and any thought deemed credible concerning an afterlife. However, where Parfit negotiated his existence without belief in a future self, I’ve always intuited his sentiment as a means of being open, in principle and in belief, to the possibility of such a future X.
Philosophers as Parfit model their answers to what matters in life—to use his expression—based on reason, namely, what falls within the parameters of reason. It’s a Promethean form of self-transcendence that is laudable and which I find magnanimous of Parfit to hold. I mean, by eliminating discussion of any future X, Parfit could easily embody a stance that is completely minimalistic—nihilistic, we might say—affirming nothing but the value of affirming nothing. To what end, one only knows! Parfit is recognized as great, however, because he shuns such an understanding. He uses his insight about death as an aqueduct for minimizing the needs and concerns of the self and affirming those of the other. He writes,
My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and at the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer. I am less concerned about the rest of my own life, and more concerned about the lives of others.
As a philosopher, I am prone to agree. But as a philosopher of religion, I am also prone to see things differently. My bible doesn’t end or begin with the Enlightenment (which is not to suggest that Parfit’s does). There is wisdom (potential reasonable reasoning?) in the symbols, beliefs, practices, thoughts of religions. Self-validation and self-authorization, in other words, is not exclusive to religion. Parfit’s desire to see things otherwise suggests as much. The philosophical tradition is no stranger to self-centered concerns, self-legitimization, and what have you. Religions’ affirmations about the importance and/or insignificance of present X’s aren’t always trumped by some imagined future X. As many argue, religions’ future X or future presents, besides providing an existential tourniquet, also provides alternative means of seeing things; to deconstruct false assurances, limiting, self-aggrandizing perceptions. It is not without reason that philosopher Max Horkheimer turned to the Jewish tradition and its idea of God as a rational way to critique society:
Jewish religion allows no word that would alleviate the despair of all that is mortal. It associates hope only with the prohibition against calling on what is false as God, against invoking the finite as the infinite, lies as truth. The guarantee of salvation lies in the rejection of any belief that would replace it: it is knowledge obtained in the denunciation of illusion.
Of course, Horkheimer wants an idea of God released from a positive religious framework. Perhaps like Parfit, he can’t imagine religious or metaphysical claims as offering anything more than a self-validating logic. At the risk of name-dropping, the idea of a modal logic, espoused by my colleague, Joseph McLelland, also recently departed, escapes their imagination. The claims of religion, even if absolute in nature, are incomplete, that is, they envision a state of affairs that cannot be limited to planet earth, as oddly “sci fi” as this sounds. Their logic attends to “possibilities on a cosmic scale” (his words). Standard forms of logic fail here. The modal form, by contrast, aims at a path through the dilemmas provided by standard paradigms, the not-I in death, for example, and its trans-terrestrial I eluding present experiences. Parfit’s idea of death contains a limit principle for focusing on present experiences. Modal logic exploits what in principle Parfit’s principle may accordingly exclude, but for no other reason than it is unknown and unrelated to present experiences. “There will be no future experiences that will be related, in certain ways, to these present experiences.” There may be no future relatable experiences, that is, those experiences, if they “exist,” transcend standard categories of logic; however, to say there will be no future experiences, and moreover because they are unrelatable, begs their possibility.
Modal logic cultivates this space in thinking. Yes, another interstice! Religious and metaphysical ideas are its playground. They offer avenues for thought we are wont to consider. Our reflex to recoil from thinking past our noses is mitigated. We are encouraged to explore states of affairs, from which dilemmas typically bar us. The call is nothing short of what McLelland describes as “a renewal of youth.” Parfit’s call is, as I said, more than honorable. But I wish to keep my options open. Modal logic dictates that imagining future experiences can be related, in certain ways, to these present experiences. Lucky for Parfit and McLelland, they no longer need to bother about such things. RIP.