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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Byron burgers and bacon sandwiches: can any politician get away with eating on camera?

Memo to aspirant world leaders: eating in public is a political minefield.

Miliband’s sandwich. Cameron’s hot dog. Osborne’s burger. The other Miliband’s banana. As well as excellent names for up-and-coming indie bands, these are just a few examples of now infamous food faux pas committed by British politicians.

During his entire mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan refused to eat anything in public. When journalist Simon Hattenstone met him in his local curry house for the Guardian, the now-mayor didn’t eat a single bite despite “dish after dish” arriving at the table. Who can blame him? Though Ed Miliband had been pictured blunderingly eating a bacon sandwich an entire year earlier, the national furore around the incident had not yet died down. “He can make me look Clooneyesque or make me look like Ed eating a bacon sandwich,” Khan said of the photographer at the time.

Miliband’s bacon sandwich is now so infamous that I need offer no explanation for the event other than those words. There is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to the photograph of Ed, lips curled and eyes rolling, as he tucks into that fateful sarnie. Yet politicians frequently bite off more than they can chew – why did Ed’s mishap inspire multiple headlines and an entire front page of The Sun?

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“The momentum got behind the bacon sandwich story because he was awkward, it showed him in a light which was true - he was an awkward candidate in that election,” says Paul Baines, a professor of political marketing at Cranfield University. “He didn’t come across right.”

The photograph of Miliband fit neatly within a pre-existing image of the politician – that he was bumbling, incompetent, and unable to take control. Similarly, when David Cameron was pictured eating a hot dog with a knife and fork months later, the story reinforced popular notions of him as a posh, out-of-touch, champagne-swilling old Etonian. Though Oxford-educated, two-kitchen Miliband is nearly as privileged as Cameron, and Brexit-inducing Dave equally as incompetent as Ed, the pictures would not gain the same popularity in reverse. There are many, many less-than-flattering pictures of Cameron eating, but they didn’t fit into a workable narrative.

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No one, for example, focused on the price of Ed’s sandwich. Purchased at New Covenant Garden Market, it was undoubtedly more expensive than Greggs’ £1.75 bacon roll – but no one cared. When George Osborne was pictured eating an £8 Byron burger whilst cutting £11.5 million from the British budget, however, the picture spoke to many. The then-chancellor was forced to explain that “McDonalds doesn't deliver”, although, as it turned out, Byron didn’t either.

“The idea was to try and display him in a good light – here's a guy eating a burger just like everyone else. The only problem was it was a posh burger and of course he didn't look like everyone else because he was spending ten quid on a burger,” explains Baines.

But Dave, Ed, and George are just the latest in a long, long line of politicians who have been mocked for their eating habits. Across the ocean, Donald Trump has been lambasted for liking his steak well done, while in 1976, Gerald Ford was mocked after biting into the inedible corn husk of a tamale. Why then, do politicians not copy Khan, and avoid being pictured around food altogether?

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“Food connects everybody, food is essentially a connection to culture and the 'every person',” explains Baines. “[Nigel] Farage's appearance in the pub has definitely had a positive impact on how he's perceived by a big chunk of the working class electorate which is an important, sizeable group.” Though Cameron, too, has been pictured with pints, his undeniably weird grasp on the glass make the pictures seem inauthentic, compared to Farage whose pints are clearly at home in his hands. In America, Joe Biden managed to capture the same authenticity with an ice-cream cone.

“I think when it comes across badly is when it comes across as inauthentic,” says Baines. “If I were advising, I certainly wouldn't advise Theresa May to be seen in the pub having a pint, that would not shine with her particular character or style. But could Tim Farron come across better in that way? Possibly but it does have to be authentic.”

Food, then, can instantly make a politician seem in or out of touch. This is especially true when food connects to national identity. Tony Blair, for example, publicly claimed his favourite dish was fish and chips despite earlier saying it was fettuccine with olive oil, sundried tomatoes and capers. In the 1980s, Lord Mandelson allegedly mistook mushy peas for guacamole, insulting us all. In the States, you’d be hard pressed to find a politician who hasn’t been pictured with a hot dog, and there are entire articles dedicated to US politicians who eat pizza with a knife and fork. Again, the food fits a narrative – politicians out of touch with the common person.  

Then again, sometimes, just sometimes, no narrative is needed. We’d advise any candidate who seriously wants a shot in the 2017 General Election to not, under any circumstances, be pictured casually feeding a Solero to an unidentified young woman. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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