Jesse Bering has an interesting article on why many people have so much difficulty holding a realistic view of death — why they imagine immortal souls wafting off to heaven, and why they can’t imagine their consciousness ceasing to exist. He’s trying to argue that these kinds of beliefs are more than just the result of secondary indoctrination into a body of myth, but are actually a normal consequence of the nature of consciousness. We never personally experience the extinction of our consciousness, of course, except for the limited loss of sleep — and we always wake up from that (at least, until the last time), so we at least have personal evidence that would inductively imply immortality.
It’s also a set of beliefs that are remarkably pervasive. Our language and culture and habits of thought make the idea of survival after death continually crop up.
Even when we want to believe that our minds end at death, it is a real struggle to think in this way. A study I published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture in 2002 reveals the illusion of immortality operating in full swing in the minds of undergraduate students who were asked a series of questions about the psychological faculties of a dead man.
Richard, I told the students, had been killed instantaneously when his vehicle plunged into a utility pole. After the participants read a narrative about Richard’s state of mind just prior to the accident, I queried them as to whether the man, now that he was dead, retained the capacity to experience mental states. “Is Richard still thinking about his wife?” I asked them. “Can he still taste the flavor of the breath mint he ate just before he died? Does he want to be alive?”
You can imagine the looks I got, because apparently not many people pause to consider whether souls have taste buds, become randy or get headaches. Yet most gave answers indicative of “psychological continuity reasoning,” in which they envisioned Richard’s mind to continue functioning despite his death. This finding came as no surprise given that, on a separate scale, most respondents classified themselves as having a belief in some form of an afterlife.
What was surprising, however, was that many participants who had identified themselves as having “extinctivist” beliefs (they had ticked off the box that read: “What we think of as the ‘soul,’ or conscious personality of a person, ceases permanently when the body dies”) occasionally gave psychological-continuity responses, too. Thirty-two percent of the extinctivists’ answers betrayed their hidden reasoning that emotions and desires survive death; another 36 percent of their responses suggested the extinctivists reasoned this way for mental states related to knowledge (such as remembering, believing or knowing). One particularly vehement extinctivist thought the whole line of questioning silly and seemed to regard me as a numbskull for even asking. But just as well–he proceeded to point out that of course Richard knows he is dead, because there’s no afterlife and Richard sees that now.
I guess I’m an extinctivist too, but I wouldn’t ever argue that the dead are aware of oblivion.
So people can hold contradictory views. The interesting stuff lies in examining child development, and seeing where these views arise. This rings true: I’ve had a few kids myself, and I know how sweetly naive the young ones can be.
In a 2004 study reported in Developmental Psychology, Florida Atlantic University psychologist David F. Bjorklund and I presented 200 three- to 12-year-olds with a puppet show. Every child saw the story of Baby Mouse, who was out strolling innocently in the woods. “Just then,” we told them, “he notices something very strange. The bushes are moving! An alligator jumps out of the bushes and gobbles him all up. Baby Mouse is not alive anymore.”
Just like the adults from the previously mentioned study, the children were asked about dead Baby Mouse’s psychological functioning. “Does Baby Mouse still want to go home?” we asked them. “Does he still feel sick?” “Can he still smell the flowers?” The youngest children in the study, the three- to five-year-olds, were significantly more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than children from the two older age groups were.
But here’s the really curious part. Even the preschoolers had a solid grasp on biological cessation; they knew, for example, that dead Baby Mouse didn’t need food or water anymore. They knew he wouldn’t grow up to be an adult mouse. Heck, 85 percent of the youngest kids even told us that his brain no longer worked. Yet most of these very young children then told us that dead Baby Mouse was hungry or thirsty, that he felt better or that he was still angry at his brother.
One couldn’t say that the preschoolers lacked a concept of death, therefore, because nearly all of the kids realized that biological imperatives no longer applied after death. Rather they seemed to have trouble using this knowledge to theorize about related mental functions.
Belief in the persistence of the mind after death might even be a side-effect of a useful cognitive trait, one that we try to inculcate in our kids. If you’ve ever played peek-a-boo with a toddler, you know what’s going on: the little ones can be actively surprised by the fact that people don’t disappear when they’re out of sight. We try to teach children that people still persist even when you don’t see them!
Back when you were still in diapers, you learned that people didn’t cease to exist simply because you couldn’t see them. Developmental psychologists even have a fancy term for this basic concept: “person permanence.” Such an off-line social awareness leads us to tacitly assume that the people we know are somewhere doing something. As I’m writing this article in Belfast, for example, my mind’s eye conjures up my friend Ginger in New Orleans walking her poodle or playfully bickering with her husband, things that I know she does routinely.
As I’ve argued in my 2006 Behavioral and Brain Sciences article, “The Folk Psychology of Souls,” human cognition is not equipped to update the list of players in our complex social rosters by accommodating a particular person’s sudden inexistence. We can’t simply switch off our person-permanence thinking just because someone has died. This inability is especially the case, of course, for those whom we were closest to and whom we frequently imagined to be actively engaging in various activities when out of sight.
I agree with Bering: belief in the persistence of the mind is almost certainly a property of normal consciousness, and is hard to escape. I’d agree too that these beliefs are not an invention of religion. As he puts it, the details of specific religious beliefs about an afterlife are produced by “an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief”.
However, I’m not going to let religion off the hook. What this means is that it parasitizes intrinsic and ultimately infantile tendencies, and builds on irrational tendencies rather than trying to overcome them. This is not a virtue; it’s an exploitation of a psychological weakness.
Bering also does not discuss (in this piece, at least) another important factor: we rapidly learn that death is not a game of peek-a-boo, it has significant differences from ordinary departures. We learn from our experience that death is permanent. As we get older, we experience this more and more often, and we learn fairly rapidly that there is something about the nature of death that makes it more tragic, since we feel grief and loss. We build psychological coping mechanisms there, as well, and once again, fraudulent religion is ready to leap in and take advantage of another normal human reaction: denial. Promoting denial is a short-term tool for deepening a dependency on superstition, but it is again no virtue to foster irrationality by using personal fears and heartbreak.
(Oh, and to answer the question in the title: I will have ceased to exist. I will be nowhere. There will be no “I” anymore. That’s the way it works: all I’ve got to live for is my life itself, with no deferred rewards or punishments afterwards.)