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  1. Culture
14 April 2008

The afterlife is an oxymoron

To look further into the theme of the current magazine issue "Belief is back," the Faith Column will

By Jesse Bering

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.

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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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