Agnes Callard encourages UChicago students to reflect on humanity’s distant future.

In her speech, Callard embarked upon a theoretical experiment she called the “infertility scenario,” borrowing from philosopher Samuel Scheffler’s book “Death and the Afterlife.” In this hypothetical situation, humanity discovers that every single person alive has been made sterile by a virus that has spread to every corner of the earth, meaning the current population is the last generation of humans.

“One of the perks of being in the thought experiments business is that you get to just posit stuff,” she quipped, drawing laughs. “If you think poetic license is good, you should try philosopher’s license.”

But the objective of this thought experiment was to feel the full, somber impact of humanity with no future and to unpack the question: Why do we care about future generations?

“I’ll tell you about my reaction: When I really start to vividly imagine us being the last humans, the last generation…when I envision the vast silence blanketing our once chattering globe because the human story has come to an end… my reaction is that I feel sick.”

According to Callard, this response extends beyond an innate fear of death and speaks to something broader: the dread of an unfinished “human quest.”

“The way I would paraphrase the horror is: It only came to this. It only got this far. We didn’t get a chance to finish. We didn’t get there. What’s sickening to me is the thought that the quest we are on—all of us, everyone in this room, but many others for thousands of years now—thousands of years at least, but probably longer, because history only records a fraction of human. thought—this human quest has not been brought to its proper endpoint.”

To Callard, this quest is not self-evident, and it may be confusing as people determine what to do with their lives. She said a sense of inquisitiveness about big ideas–like language, literacy and human rights–keeps that quest going. Ideas of this size require the collaboration of many people, she argued, and through their own specialties and interests, UChicago students will contribute to these ideas and influence future generations.

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