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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood