The afterlife is an oxymoron

To look further into the theme of the current magazine issue "Belief is back," the Faith Column will

When I first began conducting psychological research on people’s concepts of the afterlife, I’ll confess that I did so from the perspective of a sceptic. The idea that the soul could be liberated from the physical body at death, float off into the sky like a helium balloon, be plucked off by demons somehow able to get their claws into something that lacked a physical substance, or cleverly inveigle itself into a brand new zygote to start all over again, was a little puzzling to me.

When I thought about it some more, the notion that somehow the soul could be conscious of the whole ethereal shebang without having the luxury of a physical brain, seemed positively odd. How could the soul see such miraculous sights while the visual cortex was rapidly decomposing under the earth, or embrace with immaterial limbs of bodiless loved ones who couldn’t be recognised by their formless physical appearance, or experience pain and pleasure in the absence of skin and sensory receptors? I couldn’t fathom how so many people throughout history could genuinely believe in something so breathtakingly bizarre.

Looking back now after a decade’s worth of data collection on people’s strong psychological bias to reason that the mind survives death (interestingly enough, even those who claim not to believe in the afterlife yet reify death as a “state” of non-being and interminable blackness), frankly I’m embarrassed to say that I was ever a sceptic at all. Scepticism, of course, leaves the door open for being proven wrong. It implies that one is waiting for better, more convincing data. Yet when it comes to something as fantastically illogical as the hereafter, there should never have been a door there to begin with.

There are some questions, you see, that science isn’t obligated to entertain, not because they’re unanswerable and sacred, not because scientists are “mere mortals” with limited knowledge, but because they’re not genuine questions. For a researcher to ask, “Is there a soul?” is tantamount to a psychiatrist spending time and effort trying to determine whether the voices in a patient’s head are real or imaginary. It’s a question that shouldn’t even occur to us to ask. Rather, we’re more than justified in asserting, on the most basic and defensible grounds of theoretical parsimony, that the afterlife is an attribute of the mind, not veridical reality.

Now that researchers are beginning to do just that, we can finally make some empirically informed headway in understanding how and why human minds cast such fantastical shadows. Surprisingly enough, people’s simple desire for there to be an afterlife is just part of the picture, it seems. Newly discovered cognitive factors, such as the inability to effectively imagine non-being, are also important.

But, for those averse to the most banal scientific reason, for those still made queasy by inconvenient existential realities, take heart, I’m certain there’s plenty of gobbledygook data out there to keep your dreams of an afterlife alive and well.

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There are risks as well as opportunities ahead for George Osborne

The Chancellor is in a tight spot, but expect his political wiles to be on full display, says Spencer Thompson.

The most significant fiscal event of this parliament will take place in late November, when the Chancellor presents the spending review setting out his plans for funding government departments over the next four years. This week, across Whitehall and up and down the country, ministers, lobbyists, advocacy groups and town halls are busily finalising their pitches ahead of Friday’s deadline for submissions to the review

It is difficult to overstate the challenge faced by the Chancellor. Under his current spending forecast and planned protections for the NHS, schools, defence and international aid spending, other areas of government will need to be cut by 16.4 per cent in real terms between 2015/16 and 2019/20. Focusing on services spending outside of protected areas, the cumulative cut will reach 26.5 per cent. Despite this, the Chancellor nonetheless has significant room for manoeuvre.

Firstly, under plans unveiled at the budget, the government intends to expand capital investment significantly in both 2018-19 and 2019-20. Over the last parliament capital spending was cut by around a quarter, but between now and 2019-20 it will grow by almost 20 per cent. How this growth in spending should be distributed across departments and between investment projects should be at the heart of the spending review.

In a paper published on Monday, we highlighted three urgent priorities for any additional capital spending: re-balancing transport investment away from London and the greater South East towards the North of England, a £2bn per year boost in public spending on housebuilding, and £1bn of extra investment per year in energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households.

Secondly, despite the tough fiscal environment, the Chancellor has the scope to fund a range of areas of policy in dire need of extra resources. These include social care, where rising costs at a time of falling resources are set to generate a severe funding squeeze for local government, 16-19 education, where many 6th-form and FE colleges are at risk of great financial difficulty, and funding a guaranteed paid job for young people in long-term unemployment. Our paper suggests a range of options for how to put these and other areas of policy on a sustainable funding footing.

There is a political angle to this as well. The Conservatives are keen to be seen as a party representing all working people, as shown by the "blue-collar Conservatism" agenda. In addition, the spending review offers the Conservative party the opportunity to return to ‘Compassionate Conservatism’ as a going concern.  If they are truly serious about being seen in this light, this should be reflected in a social investment agenda pursued through the spending review that promotes employment and secures a future for public services outside the NHS and schools.

This will come at a cost, however. In our paper, we show how the Chancellor could fund our package of proposed policies without increasing the pain on other areas of government, while remaining consistent with the government’s fiscal rules that require him to reach a surplus on overall government borrowing by 2019-20. We do not agree that the Government needs to reach a surplus in that year. But given this target wont be scrapped ahead of the spending review, we suggest that he should target a slightly lower surplus in 2019/20 of £7bn, with the deficit the year before being £2bn higher. In addition, we propose several revenue-raising measures in line with recent government tax policy that together would unlock an additional £5bn of resource for government departments.

Make no mistake, this will be a tough settlement for government departments and for public services. But the Chancellor does have a range of options open as he plans the upcoming spending review. Expect his reputation as a highly political Chancellor to be on full display.

Spencer Thompson is economic analyst at IPPR