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Two Very Different Reasons to Believe Something

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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 just hear 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.

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Photo by Joe del Tufo
David Rodriguez December 9, 2014 at 10:04 am

The article is an honest attempt at confronting the need to investigate one’s personal belief systems, which in itself is a noble pursuit. However there is more at stake than merely being wrong on the truth of death. The Christian ethic (which I was raised yet at the age of 32 fervently am in the process of investigating and rooting out customs from beliefs and truths from myths) teaches that eternal damnation is a plausible outcome.
So as I agree with you that life may end with our carcasses, however the outcome may not be as innocuous as eternal silence, but perhaps may end in eternal misery. Unfortunately we as humans have no definitive answers on death, yet this does not demean the pursuit of truth, rather it increases its importance of the choices and theories we come to believe while we are alive.

David Cain January 3, 2015 at 3:18 pm

Why does it not worry you that the Aztecs had it right, or the ancient Greek pantheon is what really exists, or that the real truth is contained in one of the thousands of dead religions whose claims about the afterlife you’ve never heard? They are all damning all of us, all the time. Live right by one and you’re wrong by all the others.

If you want to root out truths from myths, consider the source material. If an ancient book tells you something is true, and there’s nothing to corroborate it, how seriously can you take it, knowing there’s an endless supply of such ancient books, making incompatible claims about all kinds of things, many of which we know are wrong? It seems to me like a categorical error in logic to seek certainties about the afterlife from books written by people who didn’t even know the Earth orbited the sun, or that slavery was wrong.

Kevin December 14, 2014 at 1:06 am

Karen Armstrong’s discussion of mythos vs logos introduced me to a new way to appreciate different ways of believing and different approaches to what it means for something to be true. I first read it in The Battle for God, though the idea can be found in many other sources. That book gave me a new (to me) perspective on fundamentalism.

F Suleiman December 15, 2014 at 1:51 pm

After have reading a few of your articles, I think a set of lectures I found on the internet might take to your liking (if you can take time of the rat race which you’ve joined again ;-) Google “Negative suffering”, the lecturer is called Khalil Jaffer.

Kind regards

Akram Hamed January 2, 2015 at 10:51 am

I find your article really interesting, I really feel happy when seeing that type of thinking and approaching this subject. I am a muslim, and I can tell you I really liked the article.

Please try giving a thought to the following questions.
1- If it is too hard to believe that after being dead as in “dead”, still exists anything beyond this, or something is recreated out of no where, try giving a thought to how did we exist in the beginning out of no where. and why not the same thing can happen once more after death.

2- After giving a thought to this, try giving a thought to how did we get “formed”. how did the process of giving birth or any other things, what made it, and how does it work, what made these things work like this to get this result.

3- because of the way our mind functions, it is always seeking causality, our mind believes that everything happens for a reason, and for every action there is a reaction, things just do not move unless someone or thing moved them. after this being said, now how come everything in this universe moves and functions. how does this “framework” spins, who made these parts, and put them in these places, to make that sequence, and hence things happen. there is no way things happen by themselves. if water exists because of hydrogen and oxygen combine together to form water, then the question is, how does hydrogen exists, who put it there, and who made the hydrogen and oxygen combine in the way that they form water. why do we get fever if body temp is above 37 degrees. why not 38..who made it 37..and why..because things work better at 37?? then who made it work better at 37??

BUSHRA January 2, 2015 at 1:07 pm

THE ONE AND ONLY.

David Cain January 3, 2015 at 3:08 pm

I don’t really know the “prime cause” of all events, but a big-bang-like singularity seems like a better explanation to me than a supernatural Creator.

As for your other question: why is normal body temperature 37 and not something else? I don’t know that either. It had to be something though, and you could ask the same question about whatever it happened to be.

You can look at last week’s lottery numbers, and ask yourself “What are the odds of that number coming up?” and know that they are astronomical. But you could say that about any possible number that comes up — in reality there is a 100% chance of the result appearing unlikely in hindsight.

Kevin January 24, 2015 at 7:45 pm

I like your perspective and I think that your views on consciousness are the two most rational ones that are out there. I think our views on spirituality, reason, and organized religion are similar. However, I think that Akram has touched on one of the stronger arguments for there being some ultimate “meaning” of life and I don’t think your answer completely addresses it. The number of coincidences that make life possible in our universe at an atomic level, at a molecular level, and at macroscopic level are enormous. The argument comes up that if you have a trillion monkeys on a trillion typewriters you would eventually get the works of Shakespear, but I think that argument is flawed. I think that because extremely complex systems show an intelligence in the way they are put together. If you had a bunch of tornados in a scrap yard filled with individual car parts, it is theoretically possible that they would assemble a Ford Taurus, but if you saw that Ford Taurus, you would know that something aside from entropy intervened. In the same way, there is an elegance to the natural laws of our world that seems to speak to this “universal consciousness” that you mention. The Big Bang Theory is an explanation for “how” things happened, but I think the complexity of the universe makes one think there may be a “why” to be answered as well. And if there is a purpose to the universe, then to me it stands to reason that the things that we learn as complex beings in our extremely short lives, might be part of that purpose. I we have a “soul”, then perhaps the experiences we have and the choices we make in life are iterations designed to help that portion of the “universal consciousness” become a more perfect version of what it is meant to be. This makes the most sense to me if there is actual “meaning” to our lives. Whether I am right or wrong it helps me to lead a more thoughtful and “kind” existence. If I am right, then you are making the right kind of “progress” with the questions you ask on this blog. :-)

David Cain January 25, 2015 at 4:12 pm

…because extremely complex systems show an intelligence in the way they are put together.

No. This is begging the question. Unintelligent, natural processes can create refinements in life forms and even landscapes that allow them to do their “jobs” better.

Water flowing over stones in a stream bed will eventually wear them down into smooth, hydrodynamic shapes, as if the stones are attempting to “get better” at letting water pass them by. But clearly this process doesn’t require anyone to plan it. The rounding of stones is just a pattern that emerges over time, given the involved forces. The stones are being refined here, just as well-used shoes become more comfortable (better at “being shoes”) because the resistance has been beaten out of them by the forces they are subject to every day. This refinement process doesn’t require a designer either.

The same can be said about more complex systems like natural selection, which can yield extremely complex forms. Does it not make sense that natural selection would yield life forms with increasingly complex ways of reacting to their environment, given that we know the driving force behind it is competition? The only reasons we would suspect intelligent design as a necessary factor is if 1) we really don’t understand this concept of natural refinement, or 2) that we already like the idea of God and want to find a way to fit it into reality.

If you want a more thorough argument in this vein, physicist Lawrence Krauss has just published one: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/astrobiology-made-case-god

Adam McDonald January 19, 2015 at 11:37 am

After reading the first few paragraphs of this post, I was instantly reminded of that Sam Harris bit about the afterlife and the argument against the idea of the soul. I was excited to comment about it and share it with you and then when I continued reading, I saw that it impacted you the same way it did me. I’ve always been pretty skeptical of any sort of afterlife, especially in the religious sense, so when I listened to Sam Harris’s argument, I was so taken with it because it just makes perfect sense to me. It’s the strongest argument I’ve heard that death is likely “the end”.

Guest January 28, 2015 at 7:06 am

I think it’s vanity to believe we can know anything about what happens after death, whether that’s to believe in an afterlife or total annihilation of consciousness. We have no information about the subjective phenomenon of death, by definition.

Given that, believing in an afterlife, so long as you acknowledge you can’t prove whether it’s true, is a relatively harmless delusion that brings a lot of comfort.

Yes, relatively harmless. Leave suicide bombers out of this: it’s awfully simplistic to reduce that phenomenon to belief in an afterlife. Consider the Buddhist monks who burned themselves in protest of war, or the kamikaze fighters of Japan… do you chalk up those sacrifices to a religious emphasis on martyrdom or the afterlife? Seems unlikely. Some people are willing to give up their lives for a principle or for the hope of accomplishing a larger goal, not merely for the promise of a glorious life after death.

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