If there is no afterlife, I will forget everything I know, so what is the point of knowing anything?
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
Amazingly, in the 21 years that ‘Ask a Philosopher’ has been running, I have never encountered this question. And it’s a good one, George.
At first sight, the question just seems a particular example of, ‘What is the point of achieving, striving, hoping for, etc?’ When I die, everything I have, everything I have achieved, comes to dust.
But then you realize that that’s not so. If I have done something of lasting benefit to others, anything, then that continues after I die. Just as my material possessions will pass to the beneficiaries of my Will. If I have made a positive difference to the world, then that doesn’t depend on my being around to enjoy the thanks and praise, etc.
On the other hand, my pleasures and enjoyments are real, just because they are happening now. I might relish the memory of a really great pint of real ale. But that is not the same as actually drinking and enjoying it. In other words, the hedonist, or refined hedonist — Epicurus, for example — has nothing to fear from death. The quality of life is a function of the quality of pleasure. All that matters is that I maximize that quality, using all the technical knowledge at my disposal.
The notion that if I die I am somehow being ‘deprived’ of future pleasures is nonsense. I don’t bemoan the fact that there are many fine examples of real ale that I will never get to taste, not even if I lived for ever. That’s simply because around the world today, new beers are being created faster than I would have the physical capacity to drink them, even if I was granted indefinite life. (If you are more of an intellectual sort, substitute ‘reading books’ for ‘drinking beers’.)
There’s a lot to be said for hedonism, I’m not knocking it.
But knowledge is something very different. I am talking about my personal knowledge, rather than knowledge which will have lasting benefit for the human race. I want to know, regardless of whether or not that knowledge will ever be passed on to others.
But why? What’s the point of it? You can take pleasure in knowing something, or the prospect of getting to know something, but that isn’t it’s point. There are things that it would give me pleasure to know, and I would love to know. And there are other things I would hate to know, such as what Donald Trump looks like in the nude, or what people I walk past in the street are thinking. (Telepathy would be sheer hell, extrapolating from Sartre.)
Knowledge just for its own sake is rubbish. You fill your mind with so much useless information. And yet, there are things I am desperate to know, and things that after a great effort I have come to know. And when I die that will all be gone!
Let’s consider another sort of example. It would be great to learn Russian. That’s something I would love to do if I had the energy and time. Or nuclear physics. Unfortunately, that will never happen. But suppose I have been sentenced to death, and given just six months, with nothing else to do than learn Russian or nuclear physics. The activity might be pleasurable, it might help to distract me. But it would be so obviously pointless. And yet, there is another kind of knowledge which I would strive for with every fibre of my being: Why am I here? What am I? What is this ‘world’, really?
I suspect — and it is no more than a suspicion — that in this lies the germ of a thought that, somehow, though one can’t explain it, knowledge can save me. I mean, literally and not just metaphorically. To know something that would render the prospect of death of no consequence whatsoever. Easy, if you are looking for evidence or proof of an afterlife. More difficult if, like Epicurus, you hold that my death is ‘nothing to me’ because I won’t be around to experience it.
My question, and maybe yours too, George, is are those the only options?