Death is difficult to imagine.

There’s a fascinating article on the Scientific American website today titled Never Say Die: Why We Can’t Imagine Death:

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.

[…] Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

[…] Consider the rather startling fact that you will never know you have died. You may feel yourself slipping away, but it isn’t as though there will be a “you” around who is capable of ascertaining that, once all is said and done, it has actually happened. Just to remind you, you need a working cerebral cortex to harbor propositional knowledge of any sort, including the fact that you’ve died—and once you’ve died your brain is about as phenomenally generative as a head of lettuce. In a 2007 article published in the journal Synthese, University of Arizona philosopher Shaun Nichols puts it this way: “When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there’s an obstacle!”

This observation may not sound like a major revelation to you, but I bet you’ve never considered what it actually means, which is that your own mortality is unfalsifiable from the first-person perspective. This obstacle is why writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe allegedly remarked that “everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.”

While reading this I had one of those “Aha!” moments of understanding. There’s been more than one religious friend with whom I’ve had the how-can-you-not-be-a-believer discussion that said exactly the same thing to me to justify their religious beliefs. Paraphrased they all said “I just can’t imagine there being nothing after I’ve died. There must be something.” They were hitting up against the psychological wall that this article was talking about.

Some of us are able to get around the wall and recognize the finality of death, the article refers to us as “extinctivist”, but even we are susceptible to, as the article says, “psychological continuity reasoning.” From the article:

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.

Which, of course, is nonsense as a dead person doesn’t know anything anymore. Still it’s very hard to imagine ceasing to exist as a conscious entity simply because all of our experiences throughout life are a result of our consciousness and even when we’re unconscious there’s still a certain level of brain activity taking place which is far removed from no activity at all.

The article goes on to briefly describe some experiments they conducted to try and verify the idea that psychological immortality represents the intuitive, natural way of thinking about death as opposed to being something we pick up through cultural influences such as religion. I don’t want to quote too much from the article as it’s something you should read in full, but the results of the studies did support that premise. As it turns out religious belief tends to reinforce psychological-continuity thinking, but isn’t the main cause of it:

In fact, exposure to the concept of an afterlife plays a crucial role in enriching and elaborating this natural cognitive stance; it’s sort of like an architectural scaffolding process, whereby culture develops and decorates the innate psychological building blocks of religious belief. The end product can be as ornate or austere as you like, from the headache-inducing reincarnation beliefs of Theravada Buddhists to the man on the street’s “I believe there’s something” brand of philosophy—but it’s made of the same brick and mortar just the same.

In support of the idea that culture influences our natural tendency to deny the death of the mind, Harvard University psychologist Paul Harris and researcher Marta Giménez of the National University of Distance Education in Spain showed that when the wording in interviews is tweaked to include medical or scientific terms, psychological-continuity reasoning decreases. In this 2005 study published in the Journal of Cognition and Culture, seven- to 11-year-old children in Madrid who heard a story about a priest telling a child that his grandmother “is with God” were more likely to attribute ongoing mental states to the decedent than were those who heard the identical story but instead about a doctor saying a grandfather was “dead and buried.”

And in a 2005 replication of the Baby Mouse experiment published in the British Journal of Developmental Psychology, psychologist David Bjorklund and I teamed with psychologist Carlos Hernández Blasi of Jaume I University in Spain to compare children in a Catholic school with those attending a public secular school in Castellón, Spain. As in the previous study, an overwhelming majority of the youngest children—five- to six-year-olds—from both educational backgrounds said that Baby Mouse’s mental states survived. The type of curriculum, secular or religious, made no difference. With increasing age, however, culture becomes a factor—the kids attending Catholic school were more likely to reason in terms of psychological continuity than were those at the secular school. There was even a smattering of young extinctivists in the latter camp.

Finally the article goes on to address why we tend to think that the mind is freed from the body at death to go off into some form of afterlife:

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.

And so person permanence may be the final cognitive hurdle that gets in the way of our effectively realizing the dead as they truly are—infinitely in situ, inanimate carbon residue. Instead it’s much more “natural” to imagine them as existing in some vague, unobservable locale, very much living their dead lives.

Again this is something that even people who recognize death as the end still engage in. Just this morning, for no apparent reason, I found myself thinking of my best friend Bill Owen who was killed suddenly in an auto accident over five years ago. The pain and sadness of that loss has softened enough after all this time that I didn’t even remember to mention the anniversary of his death on SEB this year as I had done every year previously, but when I do think about him these days (and it’s still fairly often) I still have a hard time believing he’s really dead even though I know it beyond a shadow of a doubt as I was one of the people who identified his body. Had I only seen him at the funeral it would’ve been even harder because the corpse laying in the casket didn’t look quite like Bill did in life, but the one I saw laying on the hospital gurney certainly did. He didn’t have any outward signs of injury and might have been sleeping except for the complete and utter stillness of his form. It’s a sight I won’t soon forget. Yet in spite of all that I still entertain thoughts of what Bill would be up to today. Granted I manage to tack on a “if he were still alive” to the thought process, but it’s the same sort of thinking none-the-less.

It’s important, I think, to realize that this is a natural thought process that everyone tends to have and that while religion certainly encourages it, it would be wrong to say that religion causes it. When people say they can’t imagine there being nothing after death they’re speaking literal truth and for many people that’s a good reason to accept religious beliefs as true. When arguing about religious belief we need to be aware of the hurdles we all have that make religious ideas seem believable if we are to formulate good arguments against them.

14 thoughts on “Death is difficult to imagine.

  1. Having studied a lot of existentialism with my philosophy I got a lot of the idea that immortality is a workaround technique to keep us from dealing with our own inevitable deaths. Heidegger, of course, is a shining example of that thought. Reading this, though, really has me thinking if indeed it is a far more natural phenomenon, especially in one’s youth. Perhaps as you get older Heidegger’s points become more valid.

    But then that’s an issue I’ve always had with a lot of philosophy, and even some psychology: people forget that we were once infants, grew through being children, and eventually end up as adults. The whole early development phase of things tells us a lot about why we are the way we are.

    I’m going to have to read through the original article a few times now. smile

  2. This is the reason I’ve never feared death. Issac Asimov said something like this a few decades ago but I cannot find the quote. Another quote from Mark Twain:

    I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.

    Being dead is no different than what we experienced pre-birth (pre-conception anyway).

  3. That is a great article, and I like your commentary as well.  I filed both at delicious, not under science, but philosophy.  What is especially hard to accept about this view is that it negates any purpose to life as we know it.  Why would anything matter?  Any achievements in this life are meaningless.  Why would anyone feel guilt for wrongdoing?  Any doing, wrong or right, would be simply for the sake of itself in the now.  Where would a conscience come from, why, and for what purpose?  No purpose, that’s what.

    This is all real food for thought.  I think if it is compatible with another belief that provides a way out of non-existence, it would be reincarnation.

  4. Its not the death I fear, but the non-existing, and yes I know that is irrational as it can not be painful.  The thought of missing my children grow up, even though of course I won’t know.

    Its one of those ‘laying awake at night’ train of thoughts, along the lines of “if a different sperm had won, would I still be me?” and “is it a different egg and sperm that makes my brother different” (though thinking about your parents like this tends to put a crimp in the thought processes).

  5. I truly don’t get this point-of-view. Every night I am aware of falling closer and closer to being asleep, and the next thing I’m aware of is being awake again. I’ve had no conscious experience of this sleep, but I seem to have no trouble reconciling that fact in the morning. My awareness was ‘turned off’ for that time. What’s the difference to me between that and death, other than duration?

    Furthermore, does everyone not have an understanding of this concept, as indicated by universally understood phrases such “the big sleep”, “never woke up”, etc.?

    (I’m categorising dreaming (lucid or otherwise) as another matter, feel free to disagree and bring it into the mix smile)

  6. The difference is that even in sleep there is plenty of brain activity and even a certain level of consciousness. If there wasn’t then your alarm clock wouldn’t wake you in the morning and you’d have to hope you woke up on time on your own. A lot of people can even estimate how long they’ve slept without looking at a clock (I’m one of those people) which shows an awareness of the passage of time. With death there’s no mental activity at all. It’s impossible to be aware that you’re dead because, well, you’re dead!

    Furthermore, does everyone not have an understanding of this concept, as indicated by universally understood phrases such “the big sleep”, “never woke up”, etc.?

    That seems to be the case, though I’d argue that we use those terms to help soften the realization that someone else has passed away. It’s one thing to think of someone who’s sleeping and can’t wake up and it’s another to think of someone who’s dead even when we know deep down that they’re really dead.

  7. I’m the opposite of you from the sounds of it.

    Sometimes I can wake up feeling fully rested after just a couple of hours, and other times I can sleep for 12 hours and still feel tired. Whenever I wake up – be it after either of those extremes or just a normal night’s sleep – I have no idea how long I’ve been asleep without clues such as amount of daylight, sounds etc.

    From the last moment I’m aware of falling asleep until the first moment of awareness in waking, there is nothing for me. Zip, zilch, nada – I haven’t even remembered a single dream since I was a kid (which I’m aware is unusual).

    Maybe it’s a matter of perspective (and I happily admit that I’m probably allowing more personal bias than is reasonable to creep in), but I still question just how much awareness people actually have when they’re asleep. Apart from anything else, it’s got to be insanely difficult to confidently distinguish between what you feel you’ve experienced and what you’ve actually experienced.

    You being able to estimate how much sleep you’ve had, for example, doesn’t necessarily show that you’re aware of the passage of time. It could also be down to subconsciously taking cues, for example from the amount of daylight and outside world sounds. You’d need to have a fair few runs of estimating it after sleeping in some kind of sensory deprivation tank to rule that out, and conversely, if you were to emerge from such a tank after a random amount of time, you may be accurate at guessing the time of day from those same clues.

    I’ve got a vague inkling that it’s outdated now, but I remember one line of thought on dreaming being that the dreams we think we remember are actually made up as we ‘recall’ them. We think we’re replaying them because they seem familiar, but that familiarity is an artifact of something else. If that’s so, any awareness we have during sleep could be the result of a similar process. (I can’t find any reference to this anywhere – I’ve been looking on and off for a while for my own curiosity.)

    Anyhoo, that’s where I get my perspective on it from – maybe my lack of any awareness whatsoever during sleep is more unusual than I thought, and maybe it explains my inability to grasp why this concept is such a problem for other people… but there’s still a whole shower of “if”s and “but”s out there smile

  8. …to justify their religious beliefs. Paraphrased they all said “I just can’t imagine there being nothing after I’ve died. There must be something.” They were hitting up against the psychological wall that this article was talking about.

    Isn’t this sort of a straw man?  I am a Christian, but I have never heard this as justification for religious belief.

    The simple response is “can’t you imagine the nothingness BEFORE you came into the world?”  We all know that the world (and people) existed before we did… so, it isn’t hard.

    I find this topic fascinating with regards to “near death experiences” after one is resuscitated from clinical death.  Interesting studies in this regard that I’m reading in a book called “The Spiritual Brain.”

    It’s important, I think, to realize that this is a natural thought process that everyone tends to have and that while religion certainly encourages it, it would be wrong to say that religion causes it. When people say they can’t imagine there being nothing after death they’re speaking literal truth and for many people that’s a good reason to accept religious beliefs as true. When arguing about religious belief we need to be aware of the hurdles we all have that make religious ideas seem believable if we are to formulate good arguments against them.

    Good point…

  9. The only one who explains death logically is Leucedendra.  Lucy is one of the Antarean visitors who landed in Roswell on July 4th, 1947.

    Her husband Hyaluronidon built the Georgia Guidestones, an alien monument in a small park which calls for the death of 6,200,000,000 people in the world because only 500,000,000 “eligibles” are allowed to inherit the earth.

    In her web site, http://www.betweendeath.com, Lucy states that God did not create the physical universe, WE did.  Lucy says that God who is perfect and good would never create a world where every time you have to eat, some plant or animal has to die.  Makes sense to me.

    Just thought I would pass on the information to contribute to this topic.

    May Hughes

  10. Dear Les,

    I haven’t taken even an aspirin since I was 5.  I eat my spinach with sprinkles of blue green algae and lots of natural raw kelp and go for a high colonic three times a week.  They say I could live to be 120 like that.

    May

  11. I haven’t taken even an aspirin since I was 5.  I eat my spinach with sprinkles of blue green algae and lots of natural raw kelp and go for a high colonic three times a week.  They say I could live to be 120 like that.

    With a lifestyle like that why would you want to?

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