Getting your head out of the clouds

Jesse Bering looks into reasons why people believe in the afterlife despite "scientifically derived

In my post yesterday, my intention was to show that asking whether human beings have a soul that ascends after their biological expiration (or descends, transmigrates, slumbers, hovers, recycles, take your culturally applicable pick) is a sure-fire way to keep a decadently vacuous debate burning. I’ve no illusions, of course, of making converts of the deeply religious. If this classification applies to you, then by the time you’re reading this, you’re already well-enough inoculated against secular reason that this isn’t registering any more to you than another run-of-the-mill atheistic assault on your beliefs. You’ll see me, at best, as just one of a lot of lost souls corrupted by menial rationality. Even worse, you’ll see me as an ambassador to the Devil himself.

But, more than that, you’ll trust your “gut feelings” that there’s an afterlife more than you will trust some psychologist telling you that it’s all really in your head. I don’t know about you, though, but if there’s one person I don’t trust to give me objective, reliable, unbiased information about the reality outside my head, it’s me. I do, on the other hand, trust controlled, scientifically derived data. I suppose that’s why I got into psychological science in the first place. It’s the best (and perhaps only) way to cut through that egocentrically tilted, cognitively blemished, emotional jalopy of a conscious mind and arrive at the sterile, factual, clinical reality of why we think, feel, act and do.

When it comes to believing that the human mind spirals out of the brain at death, launching off into eternity, this is such a wildly baroque way of conceptualising our individual existence that it just cries out for a proper scientific theory. You may be surprised to discover, for example, that after almost a century’s worth of correlational research on the topic, investigators have uncovered no correlation (negative or positive) between expressed death anxiety and belief in the afterlife. In other words, those trembling with death anxiety are no more or less likely to say that they believe in life after death than those who aren’t particularly rattled by the grave.

Does this mean that emotions play no role at all? That’s probably too strong a statement. But it does mean that it can’t be reduced to a simplistic “people-believe-because-they-want-to-believe” explanation. After all, there are lots of things that people would like to be true but don’t actually believe to be true. My own research in this area has focused therefore not on emotions, but rather the lesser studied cognitive factors underlying afterlife beliefs. It’s here, in cognitive science, that I’m convinced we’ll find the real meat of the soul.

One very telling example of this is the fact that, contrary to our casual philosophising that people believe because of religious indoctrination or anxiety, younger children are actually more likely to reason that the mind survives death than are either older children or adults. That is to say, it’s the four and five year olds who have been less exposed to religious teachings and who are oblivious to their own mortality, who tell you that the dead are just as psychologically intact as they were in life. With increasing age, reasoning about the afterlife becomes more ‘sophisticated’. University students will tell you, for instance, that the capacity to experience emotions survives death while the capacity for more viscerally salient states, such as tasting the breath mint you put into your mouth right before you died, goes with the corpse.

The thing is, you don’t need a Ph.D. in neuroscience to recognize that the body (i.e. the brain) causes mental states, so why the disconnect between logic and starry-eyed faith? The hypothesis that I favour is called the simulation constraint hypothesis, which simply implies that when we try to imagine (or ‘simulate’) death, we are constrained by the fact that death is not ‘like’ anything we’ve ever consciously experienced and can use as an analogous ‘state’. When I asked disbelievers whether someone who died knows that he’s dead, many of them thought I was a numbskull for even asking. “Of course he knows,” they’d say. “There’s nothing after death. He sees that now.” Even when we’ve acquired the biological knowledge and theoretical framework to escape from the soul, our minds still leap to simulate death — even death as a state of unending blankness — and get ensnared by the illusion all the same.

If you want to read more, start with my recent article in American Scientist, the work of philosophers Shaun Nichols or Thomas W. Clark, or the excellent book Descartes’ Baby by developmental psychologist Paul Bloom.

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Ukip's "integration agenda" is another lurch away from the mainstream

Ukip's only chance of survival is on the nativist fringe. It won't be a happy - or successful - existence. 

After Ukip leader Paul Nuttall failed to steal a famous by-election victory in Stoke-on-Trent, his party’s militant tendency offered a prompt and simple diagnosis: the party was just too nice.

Two months on, with Nuttall now pledging to ban the burqa, sharia courts, new Islamic schools, subject girls from at-risk backgrounds to yearly female genital mutilation checks and make race an aggravating factor in some offences, they are unlikely to making those same complaints. Of the many criticisms one can make of the controversial policy blitz, a surfeit of niceness isn’t one of them – even if Nuttall is comparing himself to Gandhi. But what explains Ukip’s lurch deep into Breitbart territory – and what does it mean for the future of the party?

It’s tempting to chalk this one up as a victory for the hardliners who derided Nuttall – who, absurd though it seems now, was Ukip’s unity candidate – and his attempts to court women voters with a softer, “Nicekip” platform. It’s true that Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, loathed by the fags-and-flags wing of the party for their wet anti-Faragism and prim sensibilities, are safely gone. Liberated from the strain of, erm, having an MP, the true believers have taken back control.

That neat analysis quickly falls down when one takes a look at the chippiest defenders of Ukip’s new “integration agenda”: Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn. Once the pair were at the vanguard of the push to unseat Farage and chart a friendlier tack into Tory seats in the Shires. Now they try and spin policies that could be justly criticised with a favourite Carswell slur – “ugly nativism” – as a sort of noble muscular secularism. That they of all people are endorsing the new line underlines just how much trouble Ukip are in. Deprived of their ownership of Brexit, the party has little, if anything, left to offer the political mainstream.

The consequences have been felt more keenly inside the party than in the country, where Ukip has plunged to below 5 per cent in some polls. Plenty would argue that the party – even at their high watermark around 2014 – never operated within the mainstream currents of political thought anyway, instead dragging the Tories to the right. But it was always an uneasy and at times barely coherent coalition between the authoritarian and libertarian right, united only by their rejection of Europe. For the latter, Ukip isn’t about opposition to the sensibilities of polite society but compatibility with them. Theirs is a focus on grammar schools, hard graft and flat taxes, not smearing Romanians and hanging child murderers.

Whatever the likes of O’Flynn and Evans say, though, Ukip has now ceded that libertarian ground it once had claim to. Disgruntled and departed Kippers point to Nuttall’s loss in Stoke-on-Trent Central as the reason why.

“Since the focus on the EU has gone, and after the election in Stoke, there have been people within the Ukip NEC trying to drive the party towards the far-right,” says Tariq Mahmood, a practicing Muslim and self-styled libertarian who stood for the party in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent South in 2015. He has since joined the Conservatives, and complains that efforts to court the aspirational middle classes and British Muslims (among whom he says Ukip are now “100 per cent” finished) have been jettisoned in favour of what an essentially nativist platform. While Ukip stress that their beef is with cultural practices and not Islam, Mahmood believes that argument is a mere figleaf - and Ukip, he says, know the distinction will be lost on many people. 

“It was an uphill struggle even previously to try to persuade individuals that we were a libertarian party and that we were not hostile to any individual belief,” he adds, ruefully. “Now, with what Peter Whittle and Paul [Nuttall] have said on integration, and with the prevailing mood with the NEC, the strategy seems to be to create division.”

The logic behind this ideological retrenchment is clear enough. Though Ukip stood in 624 seats at the 2015 election, insiders acknowledge that they are unlikely to reach anywhere near that total this time. Its chances of winning even one seat are perilously slim, as is painfully clear from Nuttall's prevarication as to whether he'll stand or where exactly. Resources will instead be poured into a handful of target seats that broke heavily for leave last June, and the party’s (white) core demographic courted much more ruthlessly. 

But those resources, historically scant anyway, have been depleted by its rightward lurch: both Mahmood and Owais Rajput, a former parliamentary candidate in Bradford East, speak of a flight of Asian members from the party. “There’s nothing left for me, other than to resign. It’s not only me – there are lots of other British citizens of Muslim faith who are following me as well,” he told me on the day Ukip dropped its new policies. “Their policy, long-term, is to try to create division in local communities, which is very, very dangerous.”

Both agree that Ukip’s future is as an ethnic nationalist party, which Nuttall and those around him have vigorously denied. But if that is the party’s strategy, it’s a witless one. Ukip has already swallowed most of those votes already, as the decline of the British National Party shows, and the electoral ceiling for those politics is a low one. The party may well tighten its grip on its small demographic core, but will hasten the flight of softer members and voters to the Tories.

Its breakneck change of pace will also bodes ill for its survival as a cohesive fighting force. There will inevitably be further tension among its febrile cohort of elected politicians. Nuttall’s foreign affairs spokesman, West Midlands MEP Jim Carver, this week resigned his post in protest at the burqa ban proposal (“I’m an old liberal,” he told me. “You’ve got to have that freedom of choice.”). He insists he won’t be quitting, and likened Ukip’s internal wrangles to those in other parties. “What you’ve got to is call out people you disagree with,” he said. “Look at the stick that people like Tom Watson is getting from Momentum! This isn’t just happening in Ukip. There’s a tug of war going in all political parties.”  

But Carver is a Ukip member of abnormal vintage, having joined the party in 1996. For others the allegiance cannot and will not hold as the party’s public face gets uglier and its electoral positioning even more uncompromising.  As the exodus of its 2015 supporters to the Tories shows, Ukip’s electoral cachet is a much more ephemeral thing than the parties of old. Senior figures protest that policing Brexit remains key to its policy platform.

Its new strategy underlines how the party cannot remain a broad church defined entirely by its opposition to Europe. “All I know,” Carver told me, “is that I’ve got to be true to my principles”. Recent events prove for most of the wetter wing of his party, that will mean leaving.

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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