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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As crime moves online, the police need the investment in technology to follow

Technology offers solutions, not just threats.

It’s perhaps inevitable that as the world becomes more digital, so does crime. This week Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, recognised that online crime is as serious as face-to-face crime. “Hate is hate,” Saunders wrote referring to internet abuse, and the police should protect people from it wherever they are. This will add demand to under-pressure police forces. And it is only the tip of the iceberg. 

Forty-seven per cent of crime involves an online element. Police recorded 30,000 instances of online stalking and harassment last year. People are 20 times more likely to be a victim of fraud than robbery, costing businesses an estimated £144bn a year. On a conservative estimate, 2,500 UK citizens use the anonymous dark web browser, Tor, for illegal purposes such as drug dealing, revenge porn and child sexual exploitation.

The police need new technology to meet demand, a Reform report published today finds. Some progress has been made in recent years. West Midlands Police uses an online portal for people to report incidents. Durham uses evidence-gathering software to collect social media information on suspects, and then instantly compile a report that can be shared with courts. Police have benefited from smartphones to share information, and body-worn cameras, which have reduced complaints against police by 93 per cent.

Yet, Theresa May’s 2016 remarks that police use “technology that lags woefully behind what they use as consumers” still stand. Officers interviewed for Reform’s research implored: “Give us the tools to do our job”.

Online evidence portals should be upgraded to accept CCTV footage. Apps should be developed to allow officers to learn about new digital threats, following the US army’s library of knowledge-sharing apps. Augmented-reality glasses are being used in the Netherlands to help officers identify evidence at digital crime scenes. Officers would save a trip back to the station if they could collect fingerprints on smartphones and statements on body-worn cameras.

New technology requires investment, but forces are reducing the resources put into IT as reserves have dried up. Durham plans to cut spend by 60 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-20. The government should help fund equipment which can meet demand and return future productivity savings. If the Home Office invested the same as the Department of Health, another department pushing “transformative” technology, it would invest an extra £450m a year. This funding should come from administrative savings delivered through accelerating the Government’s automation agenda, which the think tank Reform has previously calculated would save Whitehall £2.6bn a year.

As crime moves online, police must follow. Saunders is right to point to the importance of meeting it. But technology offers solutions, not just threats. Installing the next generation of equipment will give police the tools to do their jobs, addressing online hate and more. 

Alexander Hitchcock is a senior researcher at reform