Thursday, 30 April 2015

What is it like to be dead? The Philosophy and Psychology of Afterlife Beliefs

Helen De Cruz
In today's post Helen De Cruz reports from The Philosophy and Psychology of Afterlife Beliefs workshop which took place on 10 March 2015 at the VU University Amsterdam.

Most religions affirm an explicit belief in an afterlife, that is to say, that biological death is not the end of a human being’s existence. Recent research in the cognitive science of religion indicates that the cross-culturally widespread belief in a life after death is cognitively natural for humans: it arises spontaneously, without explicit instruction, and sometimes even in the absence of any cultural input. By contrast, the belief that everything (including a person’s beliefs and desires) ends at death is cognitively effortful and emerges later in development than the belief that at least some processes, such as psychological processes, continue.

In the workshop The philosophy and psychology of afterlife beliefs, held at the VU University Amsterdam on 10 March 2015, we brought together psychologists and philosophers to study the psychological underpinnings of beliefs in the afterlife, and philosophical views on the afterlife.

In The philosophy and psychology of afterlife beliefs, Helen De Cruz (VU University Amsterdam) and Johan De Smedt (Ghent University) argued that theological concepts of the afterlife are influenced by several cognitive biases, such as an intuitive mind-body dualism and optimism about the future. They focused on Mormon and Christian views of the afterlife, which each provide a coherent theological solution to the problem of how people can survive the physical death and decay of the body. Christians initially had a physicalist solution, i.e., the person dies when the body dies, then gets resurrected, that was quite counterintuitive. This was followed by a more intuitive solution where the immortal soul survives the body, until it is reunited with a renewed body upon the general resurrection. Mormons provided a radical monist solution where souls are all material entities, which have a pre-existence before birth. This view is in line with intuitive beliefs of young children that they have always existed.

In Heaven: Is it a place where nothing ever happens? Christina Van Dyke (Calvin College) explored the problem of an eternal afterlife, where it seems that everything we would end up doing, no matter how initially exciting it is, eventually gets boring. Eternity is, after all, a long time. She examined a solution to this puzzle forwarded by Thomas Aquinas: our happiness is so complete, and the activity of being in union with God has a flow-like character that makes us unaware of time that passes, so that we would never get tired of union with God: we will be like “like the angels in heaven,… and in that state of happiness the human mind will be joined to God in one continuous, sempiternal activity.” While this solution provides a coherent response to the worry that we’d get bored in heaven, the question remains whether such timeless beings in eternal union with God would still be anything like us (i.e., human).

In Afterlife concepts across cultures and development Rachel Watson-Jones (University of Texas at
Austin) presented a study with participants from Vanuatu (Oceania) and the United States on what they think happens to a person after death. Previous research has consistently found that in both Western and non-Western cultural contexts participants endorse the continuation of psychological processes over biological processes following death, especially when primed with a supernatural rather than a biological narrative. In this study, ni-Vanuatu and Americans were given a story about a man who had died, in a secular narrative (no mention of God) and a supernatural narrative (explicitly saying the person was with God). For the supernatural narrative, American participants gave more “still works” answers for the psychological processes (e.g., “Can he still think now he is with God”, whereas ni-Vanuati participants provided more “still works” answers for biological processes (e.g., “Can he still feel thirsty now he is with God”). This study indicates the importance of cultural factors in the representation of the afterlife.
Detail of Sir Stanley Spencer,
The Resurrection, Cookham, 1924-7

Claire White (California State University, Northridge) presented empirical research on reincarnation beliefs in her paper The natural foundations of reincarnation with Jains in India and American spiritual seekers. She aimed to explain how people conceptualize the continuation of personhood in reincarnation, i.e., how we think we can recognize people who have reincarnated. She argued that representations of reincarnated agents are informed and constrained by cognitive intuitions we use to identify all intentional agents, in particular episodic (personal, autobiographical) memories and distinguishing physical marks.

Why Afterlife Beliefs? In a Cultural Evolutionary Approach Azim Shariff (University of Oregon) proposed that afterlife beliefs provide adaptive benefits to individuals and groups. He presented empirical evidence that suggests that belief in Hell makes people more cooperative. For instance, societies that have belief in Heaven but not Hell have higher crime rates (controlling for various factors) than cultures that have only belief in Heaven. From an adaptationist perspective, belief in Hell thus makes sense, but belief in Heaven does not. Why then is belief in Heaven more cross-culturally prevalent than belief in Hell? Shariff suggests that belief in Heaven is attractive for individual believers, as it helps them to manage fear of death and presents an attractive picture of the future. By contrast, belief in Hell is costly, and people who believe in Hell are less satisfied with life than people who only believe in Heaven. Successful religions thus meet the collective needs of their adherents (belief in Hell makes them more cooperative, which is important for the viability of groups in the long terms), as well as being attractive enough to attract new members (among others, by an alluring picture of the afterlife in Heaven).

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