As a kid, I was never taught there was an afterlife, so I didn’t believe there was one. Until I was 30.
By the time I was old enough to know that some people didn’t believe what I believed — which was that when you die, you really are dead — the common image of the afterlife sounded ridiculous to me. The notion that death merely transports you to a better place, where you can once again chat with grandma and play fetch with all of your dead pets, sounded exactly as plausible as the rumor that my Christmas gifts were manufactured at the North pole.
When I was thirty or so, I discovered a slightly more sophisticated case for an afterlife. It’s a fairly common one in Spritual-But-Not-Religious circles: consciousness seems to be an intrinsic property of the universe, not just of the human brain, so there’s no reason to think your experience ends when the brain does.
In meditation groups, they often describe a human life as a drop of consciousness, splashing up from an infinite ocean for a brief moment of 70 or 80 years, before dropping back into its source. It sounded good enough to me. Suffice it to say, after a bit of pondering I ended up cashing out the “Dead means dead” belief for “Consciousness probably survives death.”
Sometimes you’re told something you don’t want to hear, but it makes too much sense to deny, and eventually you have to let go of a belief you cherished. This happened a couple of years ago, when I was watching a panel debate about the afterlife.
A neuroscientist on the panel, Sam Harris, whom I would later come to know as one of the more reasonable voices on the topic of belief, said something that took the air right out of my new afterlife belief.
He explained that science isn’t committed to the idea that there’s no afterlife; if we found good reasons to believe it existed, then science would support those findings. But we do have good reasons to believe that consciousness ends when the brain does. We know that if you damage certain parts of the brain, you damage certain parts of the mind. You can damage the part that recognizes faces, the part that understands language, the part that remembers your childhood, or any other aspect of your consciousness. By claiming that it makes sense to believe in the afterlife, we’re claiming that it makes sense to believe that if you were to damage all of the brain so that it ceases to function, all of these faculties would suddenly come back, and you’d be able to recognize your dead relatives and speak to them in English.
So while we can’t yet be certain that consciousness doesn’t survive death, it seems extremely unlikely that this consciousness would resemble anything like life as we know it, or the afterlife as we imagine it. If the light somehow stays on, our identities are almost certainly obliterated, and nobody’s playing Frisbee with their late family dog. And there’s still no good reason to suspect that the light stays on at all.
At first I resisted this explanation by doing something human beings so often do in defense of a cherished belief, which is to form other beliefs that aim to undermine the opposition. I asserted, as many people do, that science-minded people can be just as dogmatic and falsely certain as the religious can be, and that science in principle dismisses the importance of people’s internal spiritual experiences.
Science actually doesn’t do that (and in fact it is designed specifically to avoid false certainties) and Harris makes that clear in his response. Science is open to whatever realities the evidence suggests, and where there is none, it doesn’t take a leap. But given my desire to live forever, I’m not surprised I missed that important point the first time around.
As a final attempt to hold on to some semblance of an afterlife, I imagined that consciousness simply becomes totally impersonal and infinite (the “drop” rejoining the ocean) and that somehow this would mean death isn’t the end of me. But it was hard to deny at this point that I wasn’t being honest about whether there were good reasons to believe this. I was simply arguing for what I wanted to be true.
Eventually I let it go. I still don’t know what happens after death, but I have pretty solid suspicions about what doesn’t happen. And I’m increasingly concerned with why I believe what I do.
Truth vs. Comfort
This kind of self-fooling happens so easily because our beliefs serve two completely different purposes.
On one hand, beliefs are a way of trying to map out, in our minds, the way the world really is. We can then use them to navigate the world. If you’re correct in your belief that Home Depot sells Christmas trees, for example, then you won’t have wasted a trip in driving over there if that’s what you’re after. For this purpose, only true beliefs are useful.
The other purpose of belief is to comfort us and make us feel okay about our situation. And for that purpose, the belief doesn’t need to be true, you just need to think it is. For example, if I believe that my friends would all come to my aid if financial ruin were to befall me, then that belief can improve my sense of security and self-esteem on an everyday basis, even if it is (unbeknownst to me) not actually true. Of course, the moment that belief gets put to the test, I could receive quite a wake-up call, and wish I’d been more rigorous about finding good reasons to believe that.
In the same way, you could spend your whole life convinced that death isn’t real and that your eighty-or-so years on earth are just an appetizer for real life, which is eternal, problem-free, and missing none of your friends. Believing this has a benefit — it spares you from the pain of confronting certain unpleasant possibilities, such as that you will die one day, and that your lost loved ones really have been lost.
Yet, none of the benefits of believing something do anything to indicate that it is actually true.
The afterlife is a really convenient belief to bluff on, because by the time that belief truly gets put to the test, it no longer matters (to you) if you’re wrong, because in that case your experience is over anyway.
However, that doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for others. Religious suicide bombers clearly believe in the afterlife. Although they may never find out whether their hypothesis of martyrdom was right, they are so certain of it that they would bet the lives of other people on it as well.
As a slightly milder example, telling children that they will see lost loved ones later on is essentially telling them that death isn’t actually real. This will prevent them from fully coming to terms with what is probably a very important and likely possibility: that life actually ends.
Now, there may be good reason to shield children from alarming realities like violence, abuse and death — but only until the age when it no longer serves them to be unaware of these things. Nobody would argue that a 35 year-old is better off believing there’s no such thing as war and disease, yet many 35 year-olds believe that there is essentially no such thing as death.
What kind of beliefs do you want?
We all have both kinds of beliefs — true and untrue — and we all employ beliefs for both purposes: to comfort us, and to build a map of reality that is as close to the truth as possible.
This poses an interesting question that each of us has to answer. Which is more important?
We can’t have it both ways, but many people try. Conflicts between truth and comfort will inevitably arise, and in every case we will have to give up one for the other. If we claim that we really want to know the way things actually are, then we need to accept that we might not like what we find.
The problem is that we aren’t able to see, at a casual glance, why we believe what we do — all of our beliefs seem true to us, and it takes some pretty serious reflection to determine what we get out of them and whether we’re fooling ourselves in exchange for comfort or simplicity. It’s important to note that beliefs essentially just “happen” to us — they seldom first come to us as the product of careful consideration. If we justhear something that initially strikes us as true, we tend to believe it until it collides with something else we believe.
Do you really have a commitment to believing only what’s true? In other words, are you honestly looking for the beliefs that best represent reality, regardless of how comforting or unsettling they may be? Do you regularly reconsider what you already think is true? We tend to assume we put truth first as a default, but outside of the scientific community this kind of intellectual honesty and self-scrutiny isn’t common.
The habits of questioning your current stances and honestly considering opposing ideas are the only reliable ways to avoid fooling yourself, but they’re not things most of us are ever taught to do.
Supernatural views on the afterlife are only one example of what can happen when we put honest inquiry in the back seat. The idea that we die is, in many ways, unacceptable to us. For that reason, vast numbers of people simply won’t honestly consider the idea that death might be just what it appears to be: the end of someone’s life.
Maybe it can be sensible, sometimes, to believe something for its comfort-giving effect, rather than because it honestly appears to be true. You could make an argument for taking either approach to belief. But let’s not pretend we can have it both ways.