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.