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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