Afterlife beliefs - general questions (2008) | Perception | Psychology & Cognitive Science


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? Theory Pascal Boyer [1] has argued against Piaget’s 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 – 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’s 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’s [1, 5] arguments to the contrary). This is explained in terms of the simulation constraint hypothesis – 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 ‘fear of the watchful dead,’ which they postulate to have been an adaptive force in human history. Evidence 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’ 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

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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’ 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 lateelementary-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’s 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 & Giménez [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’s afterlife beliefs for a longer time than the latter. These authors attribute the discrepancy with Bering’s 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’s 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 – including the pragmatics of the questions asked and the stimuli used – and participant samples – notably age – 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’s development of afterlife beliefs.

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Cross-cultural variations in adult conceptions of the afterlife have also been neglected. The extensive religious traditions and philosophical literature on this matter do not necessarily reflect the commonsense views of adults in different cultures. Individuals in cultures that take reincarnation seriously may be more likely to attribute survival to biological, psychobiological, and perceptual traits than the US undergraduates in Bering’s [4] study. Finally, the conflicting evolutionary proposals – that afterlife beliefs are by-products and emerge from the clash of different intuitive systems [1]; or that they are adaptive because of their pro-social effects [3] – need to be disambiguated.

See also Mind-body dualism (coming soon) References 1. 2. 3. 4. Boyer, P., Religion explained: the evolutionary origins of religious thought. 2001, New York: Basic Books. Barrett, H.C., Adaptations to predators and prey, in The handbook of evolutionary psychology, D.M. Buss, Editor. 2005, Wiley: Indianapolis. Bering, J.M., The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2006. 29: p. 453-498. Bering, J.M., Intuitive conceptions of dead agents' minds: the natural foundations of afterlife beliefs as phenomenological boundary. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2002. 2(4): p. 263-308. Boyer, P., Are ghost concepts "intuitive," "endemic" and "innate"? Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2003. 3(3): p. 233-243. Astuti, R. and P.L. Harris, Understanding mortality and the life of the ancestors in rural Madagascar. forthcoming. Harris, P.L. and M. Giménez, Children's acceptance of conflicting testimony: the case of death. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2005. 5: p. 143-164. Bering, J.M., K.A. McLeod, and T.K. Shackelford, Reasoning about dead agents reveals possible adaptive trends. Human Nature, 2005. 16: p. 360-381. Barrett, H.C. and T. Behne, Children's understanding of death as the cessation of agency: a test using sleep versus death. Cognition, 2005. 96: p. 93-108. Bering, J.M. and D.F. Bjorklund, The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity. Developmental Psychology, 2004. 40(2): p. 217-233. Bering, J.M., C. Hernández Blasi, and D.F. Bjorklund, The development of 'afterlife' beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 2005. 23: p. 587-607. Shariff, A.F. and A. Norenzayan, God is watching you: supernatural agent concepts increase prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science, 2007. 18: p. 803-809.

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