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Afterlife beliefs - general questions (2008)

Afterlife beliefs - general questions (2008)

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Published by: api-3695811 on Dec 03, 2009
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\u00a9 2008 University of Oxford
Afterlife beliefs
General questions

How are the minds of dead agents represented? Specifically, which traits and characteristics are perceived as surviving death? Do the patterns that emerge suggest that this capacity is adaptive?


Pascal Boyer [1] has argued against Piaget\u2019s notion that children are simply unable to grasp the concept of death, proposing instead that human corpses are perceived in a unique way because of conflicts between several specialized inference systems \u2013 notably the intuitive psychology and animacy systems, and the person-file system that holds details pertaining to a specific known person. Seeing the corpse of a family member, Boyer suggests, causes unease because the animacy system tells us that they are not living, but the person-file system refuses to stop producing inferences about the dead person\u2019s wants, needs, and beliefs.

Boyer builds part of his theory on the work of Clark Barrett [2], who has suggested that the agency detection system includes a further specialized mechanism whose role it is to distinguish between living and dead agents on the basis of whether they can act or not. This mechanism is postulated to have evolved in the context of predation, both by humans and of humans.

Jesse Bering [3, 4] and colleagues have proposed that beliefs of psychological immortality are the cognitive default (but see Boyer\u2019s [1, 5] arguments to the contrary). This is explained in terms of the simulation constraint hypothesis \u2013 since no living person has experienced what it is like to be dead, this should be very difficult to imagine. Therefore, children (and some adults) should tend to attribute psychological survivals to dead people. Further, since mental states such as hunger, thirst, seeing, and hearing are closely tied to physiology, they should be less likely to be attributed to the dead than knowing, thinking, and feeling emotions or desires. The absence of the latter states is also farther from experience than the absence of the former.

Paul Harris and colleagues [6, 7] conversely argue that the fact that children encounter and assimilate beliefs about the afterlife as they grow results in a developmental increase in judgements of continued activity after death.

Bering and colleagues [3, 8] have further proposed that these representational constraints engender a \u2018fear of the watchful dead,\u2019 which they postulate to have been an adaptive force in human history.


Barrett & Behne [9] provided causal information about the death of an animal and a human to groups of 3- to 5-year-old German and Shuar children. By age 4, children from both samples tended to use this information to correctly infer the cessation of the stimulus\u2019 physical activity, and to recognize that sleeping does not result in the same outcome. The absence of cultural differences suggests that the development of this capacity is significantly independent of degree of exposure to animal life and death.

Bering [4] presented US undergraduates with stories describing an individual dying after engaging in a series of thoughts and actions and asked them to make inferences about whether any biological or mental traits would continue after death. Bering also had participants assign themselves to one of six possible groups with regards to their overall view

\u00a9 2008 University of Oxford

of what survives death, ranging from extinctivists, who stated that personal consciousness ceases at death, to immortalists and reincarnationists, who stated versions of the opposite. This general explicit measure was found to correlate with participants\u2019 responses to specific questions about the stories. While participants in all groups were significant more likely to state that biological and psychobiological functions would cease at death than emotional, desire, and epistemic states, the difference was much less extreme for extinctivists and agnostics than for the other groups.

With regards to development, Bering & Bjorklund [10] found that kindergartners tend to ascribe continuity to the mental (but not physical) features of a dead mouse, while late- elementary-school children and adults do not. In particular, continuity judgements concerning emotional, desire, and epistemic states were not found to significantly increase with age. If religious education were responsible for children\u2019s beliefs, younger children should produce fewer continuity judgements than older children and adults. Bering et al. [11] replicated this in Spain, where the same overall pattern was found, although children attending Catholic school were found to be more likely to make continuity judgements than children attending secular school.

Harris & Gim\u00e9nez [7] instead found that 11-year-old Spanish children were more likely to make continuity judgements about human beings than 7-year-olds, and argue that the reason for this is that the former have been exposed to their community\u2019s afterlife beliefs for a longer time than the latter. These authors attribute the discrepancy with Bering\u2019s findings to choice of target; as they develop, children are taught that humans enjoy an afterlife, whereas other animals, such as mice, do not. Context effects were also shown to affect children\u2019s judgement; religious narratives triggered more continuity judgements than secular (medical) ones. Astuti & Harris [6] replicated this among the Vezo of Madagascar. The priming was again effective, as more participants gave fewer mental process discontinuity judgements when asked about a religious burial than about a person who had died in hospital. Children were more likely than adults to state that mental processes ceased at death. In an additional experiment (without prime manipulation), 7-year-olds were more likely to see death as the cessation of physical and mental activity than 5-year-olds, perhaps because they have direct experience of bodily death and decomposition, while they struggled to understand the significance of ancestral and burial rites.

Regarding the watchful dead hypothesis, Bering et al. [8] found that US college students were more likely to attribute positive character traits to people they did not know when they were informed that they had died. They were also less likely to cheat on a computer task when told that it had been developed by a recently deceased experimenter whose ghost had been seen in the room they were in. Shariff & Norenzayan [12] tested the effect of supernatural agent and social contract word primes on a sample of Canadians and found that both tended to cause participants to be more generous in their allocation of money to anonymous others than control participants; the supernatural cue was found to be most effective for theists.

Outstanding issues

Perhaps the most pressing issue to be resolved is that which emerges from the contrasting findings of the Bering and Harris research groups. Inconsistencies in experimental procedure \u2013 including the pragmatics of the questions asked and the stimuli used \u2013 and participant samples \u2013 notably age \u2013 could each be responsible for the discrepancy in results. The available findings are ambiguous as to what role religiosity and exposure to animal and human corpses play in children\u2019s development of afterlife beliefs.

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