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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.


Photo by Joe del Tufo

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ilknur November 24, 2014 at 2:16 am

As always, this post came when I need it! Just a perfect timing again. Thank you.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 8:49 am

Thanks ilknur.

BT November 24, 2014 at 2:38 am

I believe you.

Benedict November 24, 2014 at 3:01 am

David, I love you! What you write on this blog is really important, and I appreciate it every week.

Susan November 24, 2014 at 3:18 am

Personally, I do not believe in that neat little christian picture of an afterlife. It does not feel right.
I believe in rebirth, and I would have liked it if you’d also considered that in your post. There are many ways (beliefs so to say) to explain the ending of the current existence. You are only mentioning supernatural views i.e. afterlife and scientific views as a whole, the latter obviously the only ones worth considering.
Maybe I got it wrong, but your post seems to me like the scientific view (of Sam Harris) is the only true way, even though science is not able to explain everything so some things hang in the air as a theory.
I can not know if my belief is right until I die and find out. No one told me what happens after death, so I made my own conclusions. And what I found so far to me is the most logic idea I could come up with.

One topic you mentioned is also very important: What to tell kids about death. I can, of course, only mention personal experiences. When my grandpa died, no one explained anything to me. I was three years old and my grandpa was the best person in the world to me. I was not allowed to attend the funeral, since little kids would only be a bother at a place like this. My mind put a blank over this certain time in my life, and I am pretty happy about that. When I tried talking to my parents about death some years later, they were reluctant to talk about that. So I can imagine how it was after my grandpa died and a little kid wanted answers to what happened x.x
In my experience, it has to be talked about. A lot. It helps understanding.
I have to hear other beliefs, other ideas to find out if mine is still the one most logical to me or not. So I agree on debating this idea one has with other ideas. I do not agree on ridiculing other beliefs that are not supported by a scientific background.
But again, maybe I got that part of your post wrong.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:01 am

There are definitely many more ideas than what I’ve mentioned here, I’m just using the ideas I moved between personally as an example. I am not sure what is actually meant by rebirth (I assume you’re talking about Buddhist rebirth?) so I can’t say much about it.

Science is not able to explain everything, because for that we would have to be able to observe everything. But given that we can’t, what reasons do we have to propose that a particular thing happens when we die, with certainty, as many people do? The “scientific” approach I’m referring to isn’t necessarily implying that science has all the answers, only that when we’re trying to know what’s true, reason and observation are the only reliable ways to approach certainty.

I think there is also a fine line between ridicule and a frank discussion of different ideas. I certainly did not mean to ridicule anyone else’s beliefs here, but there really is no way not to offend people when you question cherished beliefs, and that’s precisely because of our emotional attachment to our beliefs. If we’re not allowed to offend people then we’re not allowed to talk about belief.

Dragline November 24, 2014 at 12:15 pm

“when we’re trying to know what’s true, reason and observation are the only reliable ways to approach certainty.”

But isn’t the problem here not finding ways to approach certainty, but ways to approach UNcertainty?

Here, the purely scientific view falls flat, because it requires a leap of faith, and a false assumption, that is implicit in your essay, namely that “absence of proof” can be equated with “proof of absence.” (In other areas, this is known as the “black swan” problem made famous by NN Taleb.)

Putting johnny-come-latelies like Harris and Taleb aside (there really is nothing new under the sun here — just forgotten works and wisdom), you probably really can’t explore this without reading into Karl Jaspers, the early 20th century German philosopher. See https://archive.org/details/philsophyofkarlj033381mbp

Building on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, Jaspers defines and recognizes the limits of science in that science requires that everything be turned into an object to be observed in order to have meaning, and therein reveals its inherent limitations. Interestingly, Jaspers posits that we may simply not be capable of understanding everything and that each definitive philosophy (scientism being one) may be simply defining its own limitations and ignoring what it cannot explain.

From the above reference: “Philosophy assists science to remain loyal to the truth about objects known in the world; science helps philosophy to concentrate upon the truth of Being, and deliverances of our awareness. The philosopher maintains a threefold freedom, in respect of science. He must have the freedom for the unrestricted study of scientific methods and findings. He must also secure his freedom from scientism and every plan to substitute an absolutized brand of scientific knowledge for philosophy. And above all, the philosopher has to maintain his freedom to contemplate the being of the world, of free human existence, and of Transcendence. Although he can never bring his awareness of these modes of being to perfect conceptual formulation, he can give it his complete, absolute belief, and can freely shape his life in response to its demands.”

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 12:46 pm

I urge you not to get hung up on the word science. What we’re really talking about is examining our reasons for believing what we believe, and philosophers who question science and our other methods of inquiry are doing exactly that.

George November 24, 2014 at 3:28 am

Great, very thought-provoking! I’d love for you to dig deeper into the whole “beliefs” thing:

One problem about beliefs, I “believe”, as they aren’t just thoughts-about something; beliefs actually structure your direct experience. We literally experience our beliefs.

Some beliefs sneak into you: you believe in tables, for instance, because you’ve encountered that pattern over time and certain arrangements of shapes and colours will now “snap-to” being a table-object experience (belief = “spatial form” > object experience). You believe that pushing something makes it move, because that has been your experience (belief = “temporal form” > narrative experience). Beliefs can arise passively.

Unfortunately, if you even think about things in a certain way, that also sets up a form which experience will “snap-to”. This is why it’s so hard to persuade someone on a philosophical point or a value proposition. The opposite view is obviously wrong, in their experience?

On Sam Harris, it’s going to be interesting to see where he goes, given his recent explorations of “identity” and subjective experience (here and here. He’s a good writer, and his views change and evolve over time, making him a good guy to watch.

A question to ask: Do people with brain problems have the same difficulties in dreams as they do in waking life? If your visual system gets knocked out materially, do you still dream with pictures?

(NB: Personally, I’m not banking on persistence of my identity following my next car crash/sleep in the bath/poor choice of market food/etc.)

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:07 am

[quote]One problem about beliefs, I “believe”, as they aren’t just thoughts-about something; beliefs actually structure your direct experience. We literally experience our beliefs.[/quote]

This is what makes it so interesting. Our beliefs are seldom chosen, they just kind of happen to us, and we couldn’t have them if they did not seem true in our world. We all have beliefs that are untrue and of course we can’t distinguish between them, because in our world they are true until they conflict with another truth.

You pose some really interesting questions. I don’t know if you’ve read the rest of Waking Up but when you look at how identity manifests itself in the mind and brain it gets extremely weird and counter-intuitive.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:01 am

Waking Up is on the reading stack, recently added. I’ve only read his pre-release articles and reviews so far.

Harris is always a good read, even though I disagree with him quite often – or, rather, with the boundaries in which he discusses a topic (e.g. ‘Free Will’). So I’m looking forward to it.

Filipe November 24, 2014 at 4:07 am

Blue pill, red pill.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:18 am

In an earlier draft of this article I was going to make a reference to the blue pill/red pill analogy from The Matrix.

For those who don’t know, the character is presented with a choice: take the blue pill and live on with a false idea of what reality is, or take the red pill and live in the real world, no matter how ugly.

I avoided it because it doesn’t represent how things actually happen in life. We don’t get a single choice between being right all the time or wrong all the time. If you believe you are someone who has “taken the red pill” then you’re prone to believing that you’re always seeing things clearly. Of course, we are at all times, right about some things and wrong about others. But if you think you’re a “red pill” person then you will assume that you’ve got it right and anyone who disagrees doesn’t, on any issue. This means no more self-scrutiny, which is exactly what allows us to fool ourselves.

For example, look at these self-justifying clowns who believe they are beyond reconsidering their ideas. They use this notion of having taken the red pill to take a dogmatic position on traditional gender roles. Anybody that agrees with them is a “red pill” person, and anyone who disagrees with them is a “blue pill” person. There is zero room for self-scrutiny and reflection, which is necessary for correcting erroneous beliefs as you learn more about the world and other people’s ideas.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:09 am

‘Self-Justifying Clowns’ sounds like the sort of character that appears in a philosopher’s scariest night-time dreams…

Is there a notion, though, there ‘taking the red pill’ could mean just giving up on one’s assembled thought structures, one’s pet ideas, and just decide: “oh screw it, I’m just going to let experience come at me as it is”.

George H December 3, 2014 at 2:48 pm

I think the red pill/blue pill analogy is quite appropriate, as long as we don’t use it to label specific beliefs. Anybody who does so, in my view, is completely missing the point.

The whole “red pill” thing is not about being always right. It is about having the courage to face reality as it is. And part of facing reality is realizing that *nobody* is always right.

bitterlemon November 24, 2014 at 4:57 am

I usually enjoy your posts, but I think this time you start with a fundamental logical error, which is to conflate the meaning of the scientific term “consciousness”, with the philosophical term of the same name.

I’m a scientist, and I have no belief in an afterlife, or rebirth for that matter. Because there is absolutely no evidence to support such things, on the one hand and considerable reason to lie to oneself or the broader population, I agree with your logic there.

However, I do believe that consciousness, as a kind of self-awareness, is a property of the Universe. Species come and species go, and populations and individuals are even less important; but there is a clear direction for consciousness itself. As time, taken as the direction in which entropy increases, marks a parallel increase in sentience and sapience, broadly understood as consciousness.

Our consciousness, that emerges from a certain arrangement of atoms (our body), and changes as various things happen to this arrangement (experience), gives rise to a pattern that we think of as our self. This pattern disappears, but leaves behind the same atoms, and an increase in the self-awareness of the universe.

Seen in terms of the ocean, when seen as isolated drops, humans are transient, but our existence matters through our contribution to the ocean.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:30 am

which is to conflate the meaning of the scientific term “consciousness”, with the philosophical term of the same name.

You’ll have to elaborate here. By consciousness, I’m referring to experience. As in, “Does experience continue after death?” It would be hard to describe any kind of afterlife that does not involve experience continuing after the brain ceases to function.

Our consciousness, that emerges from a certain arrangement of atoms (our body), and changes as various things happen to this arrangement (experience), gives rise to a pattern that we think of as our self. This pattern disappears, but leaves behind the same atoms, and an increase in the self-awareness of the universe.

I would like to learn more about what you mean here. If there is some kind of consciousness intrinsic to matter, before and after it is arranged in a human body, what is it? Does it create any kind of experience? If we’re talking about any traditional form of afterlife, we’re talking about the continuation of experience for individuals. If you’re picturing something different, can you describe it?

Anon Follower November 25, 2014 at 12:46 am

I’m afraid I have the hardest time finding meaning in extremely abstract concepts like:

“consciousness…is a property of the universe”,

“there is a clear direction for consciousness itself”,

the correlation between entropy and the “increase in sentience”,

consciousness/self-awareness being tied to the atoms in our bodies (as opposed to their arrangement)

“an increase in the self-awareness of the universe.”

How do we reconcile this stuff with reality, in which every indication is that all experience is tied directly and entirely to the brain? Doesn’t it seem that the most likely explanation is that consciousness is an emergent property of our brains?

Julia November 25, 2014 at 11:05 am

Great article and great discussion here.

I agree with Anon Follower that consciousness is an emergent property of brains. But what are brains other than little chunks of the universe that have a certain organization? Our brains are made up of exactly the same elements that are found in the rest of the cosmos. So it takes the universe to produce life and sentience and consciousness, and if it is true that life etc. are inevitable consequences of the laws of nature then it seems fair to state that life and consciousness are both intrinsic properties of the universe.

We’re all part of this grand journey and we don’t know where it is going. Hopefully it will continue to produce consciousness over and over again; maybe consciousness that is far beyond what we are experiencing. Is that a kind of rebirth?

bitterlemon December 1, 2014 at 3:48 am

My apologies for not getting back to you sooner, I didn’t check back for replies.

The discussion here is indeed very thoughtful, and sparks many ideas for me. One thought experiment I would suggest is to think of human lives from the perspective of the Universe. In a sense we are the universe becoming aware of itself, perhaps it has already happened numerous times, and is still happening elsewhere.

I’m very rushed for time, and there are quite dense concepts involved, so I’ll just suggest some things you might want to read further, and perhaps David will write another blog post after he’s done reading these!

Relatively harmless discussion of life: http://aeon.co/magazine/science/stability-how-life-began-and-why-it-cant-rest/

The work of David Bohm is indispensable for thinking about consciousness and the Universe (from a scientific point of view). It’s rather dense, but there are a few secondary and much less complex works available (Self evolving Cosmos, for instance). For Bohm I would start with “Wholeness and implicate order” http://www.gci.org.uk/Documents/DavidBohm-WholenessAndTheImplicateOrder.pdf

See wikipedia entry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wholeness_and_the_Implicate_Order

Thank you David, Anon Follower and Julia for setting Monday off on an interesting start.

Camila November 24, 2014 at 6:21 am

To me, the notion of finity makes life, and all the experiences of perceiving life, even more precious and intense.
If I were to believe in an afterlife, that would take away my focus of the exhilarating privileged experience of the “now”.

“Contrary to the fantasies of the fundamentalists, there was no deathbed conversion, no last minute refuge taken in a comforting vision of a heaven or an afterlife. For Carl, what mattered most was what was true, not merely what would make us feel better. Even at this moment when anyone would be forgiven for turning away from the reality of our situation, Carl was unflinching. As we looked deeply into each other’s eyes, it was with a shared conviction that our wondrous life together was ending forever.” — Ann Druyan Sagan

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:33 am

Thank you for sharing this. I love Carl Sagan, and I take the same view about how finity makes life precious. Quite often the opposite case is made: “If there’s no afterlife, how can life have meaning?” I’ve never understood this. Why would it need to last forever to have meaning?

Heidi November 24, 2014 at 9:42 am

That is an excellent way to think of it and a good reason to work at being the best and doing the best we can today!

sally November 24, 2014 at 6:29 am

I think we way overthink death. We see it in animals and accept that as death, nothing more, nothing less. And yet somehow we think we’re different. I think we’re just animals with some more developed communication and social skills, so the answer follows. Just because we don’t like it doesn’t change it.

Appreciate the post as always, thank you David.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:36 am

Thanks Sally. Some people argue that nearly all of humanity’s problems and misbehaviors stem from our knowledge that we will die and our inability to just accept that. I’ve been meaning to read Ernest Becker’s “The Denial of Death”, which is about this “death anxiety.”


Susan November 24, 2014 at 6:39 am

BUT . . . don’t forget that what is true (real) is always changing because what we think is not possible today — as it is — someone will prove is possible tomorrow.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

Can you elaborate on this a bit? What is true is always changing, yes, but that doesn’t mean that there’s any reason to believe that any particular untrue thing will one day be true. Or am I misunderstanding you?

George November 26, 2014 at 3:12 am

Human flight wasn’t possible… until it was. What makes an untrue thing become true is a shift of context, of meaning, and extra information.

The sun stopped moving around the Earth at once point. In retrospect, it was never so, but at the time it was obviously true that the Earth was stationary. Otherwise we’d be blown off by the massive winds generated as it moved!

Mitja November 24, 2014 at 7:38 am

As usual, you make many great points, but there are certainly more than two kinds of beliefs. For example, “either there is an afterlife, or death is something horrible” is also a belief, but to me it doesn’t seem to be either truthful nor comforting.

It seems the underlying problem is another belief, “things are either good or bad/evil”. See, if death is good, everyone should obviously commit suicide ASAP. And if it’s bad, it should be avoided, but it can’t be, and so we’re frustrated. Neither choice seems very appealing, yet the problem is not death itself, it comes from trying to make that good/bad distinction.

Of course, when I say it’s a problem, I’m doing it again..

Everything just is, neither good nor bad. My actual life (not the concept) has no meaning, because only concepts/words have meaning. It’s also not “meaningless”, because that is just the opposite of “meaningful”, and it’s neither, because it’s not the type of thing that could have meaning in the first place (much like “renaissance” is neither “hard” nor “soft”, because it’s not something you can touch).

Anyhow, the point I want to make is that questions like “is there life after death?” are nonsense and we’d likely be better off if we learned to recognize them as such. They seem smart and important, but are really just a waste of time. For example, if you think about it, the one above is exactly the same as “is there life before birth?”. Well, there is, just not what you’d call “your life”. Yet, here you are anyway..

The really interesting question about the whole thing (imho) is this – if such questions really are stupid, why does Mother Culture try so hard to make us think they’re important? I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader, but here’s a clue to what I feel the answer is – they combine very well with “think before you act”.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 9:45 am

questions like “is there life after death?” are nonsense and we’d likely be better off if we learned to recognize them as such. They seem smart and important, but are really just a waste of time.

I don’t think they’re a waste of time, because they affect practical choices we make in life: How do we deal with grief? Should we obey religious institutions? Can you get to paradise by blowing yourself up on a bus? Should we act morally because we’re afraid of Hell or because we care about human suffering in this life?

These are super important questions, and people’s positions on whether there’s an afterlife have a primary role in how we answer them and how we behave in life.

Mitja November 25, 2014 at 7:44 am

Sure, but they have a primary role in how we behave exactly because we think they’re super important questions. On the other hand, if we thought they were nonsense, they wouldn’t have much of a role.

George November 24, 2014 at 7:50 am

This is a position I’ve been considering myself lately: that we tend to form beliefs based on what makes us feel safe and in control more so than based on what’s logical or quantifiably true.

I’m a homosexual Agnostic Atheist (or de facto Atheist, if you prefer), and according to many Conservatives, that’s a double strike against me. (I sometimes joke that if we still lived in a time when being left-handed was considered evil, I’d have a trifecta of blasphemous sin against me.) I’ve had many a Facebook argument with people who earnestly believe that I’m destined for Hell, people who believe and even DELIGHT in the “fact” that my finite transgressions deserve and will receive infinite punishment (though they can’t seem to prove to me the harm that I do by being how I am, other than it makes an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnijudicious entity cry for some reason).

I have run into people who believe, beyond any shadow of a doubt, that everyone moving to the USA from Mexico intends to destroy our country through gang violence, drugs, and rape. Every last person, of the millions crossing the border.

I have heard from people who believe with complete conviction that our current President of the United States is more than just ineffective, but morally corrupt and is consciously and maliciously TRYING to destroy our country from the inside out through Satan-spawned political policies.

I have argued with people who flat-out refuse to admit that the Political Right has EVER unjustly and fallaciously attacked the Political Left, and that ALL attacks in the political arena are from Left against Right.

After a while, I began to see the same patterns you presented here: it’s not a matter of pursuing beliefs for the sake of truth, but a matter of pursuing beliefs for the sake of comfort. And it’s entirely disheartening, because these people are voting on policies or representatives that would impose a theocratic, discompassionate set of laws, and to witness the mental gymnastics these people go through just to justify their own positions is frightening.

The problem with believing something for the sake of your own comfort is that it eventually can lead to implementing policies that hurt other people, simply because you refuse to empathize with or learn about these other people you have been taught to demonize without a second thought. And as far as Conservatives are concerned, I’m one of those demons. There are even some who have openly supported the idea of genocide against all gay people…here, in the USA, in this day and age. I just wish there was a viable solution to FORCE people to comprehend their own fallacies while being forced to understand the world from the point of view of the people they have come to hate with such vehemence and injustice.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 10:04 am

This is why I am critical of religious belief in particular: because it isn’t expected to provide reasons. Nobody is expected to explain why homosexuality is a bad thing, or why it’s “right” to persecute people for it — they just have to point to the Bible. And there’s a bizarre support for the legitimacy of this way of arguing, even among the non-religious. It is politically incorrect to point out that this is ridiculous; we’re supposed to respect people’s religious beliefs, and if we don’t we get called a bigot. Sam Harris talks about this problem all the time — in every topic other than religion, we’re not expected to respect preposterous ideas. We don’t respect a holocaust-denier’s “view” of history, but when it comes to religion we are shamed for suggesting that it’s out to lunch and that there are no sensible reasons to support it.

It is extremely frustrating, and I don’t think there’s any way of forcing a more insightful view of morality. All we can do is talk about these ideas, and try to convince people of the value of self-scrutiny. It seems hopeless, but if you look at history, we are steadily improving on the moral front. A hundred fifty years ago a large proportion of the US population would argue to their graves that slavery is okay. We now do not accept that view. We are also seeing a much broader acceptance of homosexuality, in real-time around the world. Almost every week there’s another precedent. We have a long way to go, but we are moving.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:14 am

(Ah, the 2nd George. I need to change my name to something else. This one – me – is UK based. And much less thoughtful!)

StarA November 24, 2014 at 8:19 am

Doesn’t resonate with me.

vimal November 24, 2014 at 8:45 am

On the margin, I think more truth oriented thinking is good.

One interesting exception is with love. Couples who hold delusional beliefs about their partner tend to have happier relationships.


David Cain November 24, 2014 at 10:13 am

This is really interesting, thank you. I’m not sure that it proves much though: “They then compared the self-ratings of respondents in terms of intelligence, creativity, athletic skills, etc., with how their spouse rated their attributes.”

This could be because we are conditioned to be charitable about our spouses (and others) and deprecating of ourselves, simply because it is safer to do so. There are more consequences for being too critical of others than too kind, and in the same way we’re more comfortable underselling ourselves than overselling. This is not necessarily delusion.

But the larger point may be true: that we can benefit from being dishonest with ourselves.

Free to Pursue November 24, 2014 at 8:55 am

“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.”

I’ve found it’s possible to receive this education in books – a learning medium available to all. Reading has lead me to question so many things in life that I “understood”. As a result, my perceptions have steadily moved along the spectrum of understanding from black and white to various shades of grey. Being exposed to an increasing number of ways of looking at an issue or a state of being somehow makes being uncertain about many things in life, well, comfortable.

Thank you for another great post David.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 10:16 am

Thanks FTP. I have noticed the same thing, and it makes a case for reading articles that contradict your current thoughts on something. Many issues really are grey, with good points on both sides (or many sides.) I find myself doing something now that I didn’t always do, which is reading the work of detractors of people that I tend to agree with. If there are good counterpoints to beliefs I like, I want to hear them. It can only make me wiser!

Dave November 24, 2014 at 8:59 am

Science is only good at understanding that which our consciousness can handle. Isn’t that the purpose of science – understanding the world. There is another dimension that we so often fail to tap into here on earth – the spirit – energy- light. I would say that the Universe is infinitely more complex than we are ever able to understand thru that which we make sense of the world – scientific method. Also stating this b/c, I don’t think the spirit is the same thing as consciousness – brain bound.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 10:22 am

I used to take a similar view — that there are topics where we just have to put science down altogether and navigate by some other means.

Science certainly has its practical limits, but that doesn’t give us permission to abandon the obvious value of having good reasons for what we believe. Spirituality can absolutely be investigated without abandoning reason, and without pretending to know anything we don’t actually know.

Heidi November 24, 2014 at 9:35 am

I agree with what you said and have bee through many periods of disillusionment with various religious beliefs. The one I tend to accept for now, because it is comforting and I can live with that, is that we are energy and science does say that energy never ends but it can leave, move and transfer to other forms. So it tend to lean towards a Buddhist view that we are all connected because we are energy and that when we die, our energy goes back in to the earth in some form. Even if that form is as food energy for little creatures. And because I have a deep trust and respect in the way the natural world works, I am ok with knowing that my conscious self will be gone but the energy that gave me life will continue to provide for other lives, however small!

Very thought provoking post, I really do appreciate your honesty and bluntness about important issues.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 10:26 am

I agree with you here. We know that the matter and energy that make up our bodies will be redispersed into the universe once we die. We are made of the dead of many before us — dead people, dead stars, and who knows what else. This perpetual interconnectedness is hard to deny, if we recognize that the boundary between ourselves and the rest of the universe are arbitrary. It is a beautiful thing to think about.

Lorrie B November 24, 2014 at 10:42 am

We know only what we know until we know differently. That’s the only truth that I can accept without question. The rest is open to debate and discussion, obviously.

Everything that we “think” is a result of input via our sensory system (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, touch) being processed and categorized according to our experiences and environment. We create our own beliefs and our individual “egos” with guidance and influence from our peers; without the rest of the pack to mimic and mirror, a human being would learn and grow differently.

As we evolve, we integrate learning into the collective conscious, which has the ability (as energy) to make quantum leaps. This is all according to recent science, as I have consumed and interpreted it. Determining what is “right” or “wrong” is subjective, not objective, and therefore judgement should be suspended. It is what it is.

So what’s the point of supposition? You say it very well – it’s comforting. It feeds a primal need to be competitively superior, which was possibly a survival advantage at some point during our evolution.

The rest is a guessing game. However, a thought experiment by physicist Erwin Schrodinger showed that a bowl can be both empty and full at the same time. “It is the observation alone that turns possibility into reality.” So presumably, if we weren’t confined to our human physiology (there are no colours in nature, we just “see” colours thanks to our intricate eye mechanisms), all we would experience would be the dynamic energy of molecular motion, perpetual in nature and without form.

It would seem that the biggest lesson we need to learn is how significantly insignificant we really are. The more I think about it, the more amusing it becomes. And laughter truly is the best result, as the Buddhists have reminded us…

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 11:22 am

Really well said, Lorrie, thank you.

Miguel November 24, 2014 at 10:56 am

Believing means considering something as true without proof.
Many religions call it “faith”.
And to me, faith is beautiful. Is to be sure of something without having to prove it, without even pondering.
Many people believe just because it suits them, but others really have faith.
I consider very important the fact of going to the bottom of many believes and be humble enough to accept if they’re wrong. But there are some deeper believes that is better just to have faith to be at peace.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 11:27 am

Faith certainly allows you to “feel” sure about something. And that feeling can certainly have value.

But you can see how this leaves you open to feeling certain about things that are simply not true. If there’s no interest in finding support for your belief, then you are giving up an interest in knowing whether it matches reality or not, in favor of the the emotional value of “feeling” sure.

It is entirely possible that the benefit of feeling sure outweighs the benefit of being correct to any given individual, but for the big questions I think it is even more important to put comfort on the backburner in favor of being careful not to fool myself.

Julia November 25, 2014 at 8:26 pm

Faith: to be sure of something without having to prove it.

With all respect I find that horrifying. The terrorists of Boko Haram have exactly that kind of faith. The extremists who (let’s face it) courageously flew planes into the World Trade Center and thereby ensured their own demise did so out of faith. Faith is a strong personal conviction that leads us to believe we are right, and that can be comforting but it also throughout history has led to dreadful cruelty. Need I mention the faith that led various Christian sects to brutally murder each other?

Martin Dimitrov November 24, 2014 at 10:58 am

It is good to spend time and think about those bigger questions (e.g. life and death), and I think that your view is very well articulated!

By the way, there is a very nice treatment of this topic by a professor at Yale. The whole philosophy course is available for free on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p2J7wSuFRl8

It is called “Philosophy of Death” and tackles this exact question (among a couple of others related to death) pretty thoroughly. I recommend.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 11:27 am

Great, thank you Martin. I’m excited to watch this.

Donna November 24, 2014 at 11:30 am

This reminded me so much of my middle child, aged 6 or so, wanting to know if Santa was real. I deflected and evaded a little, but then I said, “do you really want to know? ” and he nodded emphatically. I told him that his dad and I filled the stockings, and he nodded sagely and accepted it….but I looked up a few minutes later and he was sobbing silently. He said, “I knew it wasn’t real…but I so wanted it to be.”
I think we both cried then.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 12:54 pm

Aw! I once told my friend’s little brother there was no santa because I thought he was “too old” to be believing it anymore. I thought he probably did know, but he turned white and I could see him processing this. I felt horrible, and I still feel horrible about it sometimes. He’s 30 now so I assume he would know anyway. But it made me more sensitive to that possibility from then on.

cheri November 24, 2014 at 11:31 am

you seem to hold a very naive view of the purity of science – a dogmatic belief closely held in our western culture. science is the end all be all of TRUTH in most people’s minds, seemingly ignoring the fact that scientists are people, prone to to bias and hugely influenced by funding, narrowing significantly the scope of research possibilities.

the idea of non-local consciousness (in other words, our brains/minds do not create consciousness, but rather broadcast an aspect of it) is not controversial in cutting edge, honest, non-commercial consciousness research.

I strongly suggest you get out of the mainstream (I respect Sam Harris and his writing, but he keeps himself caged in mainstream thought channels, in my opinion) and read some Thomas Campbell (My Big TOE is a excellent, though heady, place to start) and anything by Dolores Campbell.

and be careful of getting caught in the trap of assuming someone else has to validate a “truth” for it to be true. objectivity is a product of material reductionism, which puts blinders on experience and “reality”, ignoring anything that is not testable and repeatable. a childish view of reality. no one can test or replicate in a lab my love, yet I know it’s true, don’t I?

cheri November 24, 2014 at 11:32 am

EDIT: that’s Dolores CANNON, not Campbell

cheri November 24, 2014 at 5:10 pm

one more fantastic read:
Science Set Free, by Rupert Sheldrake (goes by a different original title in the UK, but obviously the author is the same)

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 1:04 pm

What you are describing is a common caricature of science. I used to subscribe to it too, because I thought science didn’t recognize the usefulness of subjective experience, for example. That isn’t necessarily true, and Sam Harris in particular makes an explicit case that subjective experience is crucial and that we can learn a lot from it.

Nor is anybody saying that any particular scientific conclusion should not be questioned. In fact, that questioning is exactly the name of the game. Science is dogmatic only to the degree that it is being done badly.

We should be clear here that using the term science we’re not referring to “ways of understanding the universe using lab equipment” we’re talking about a philosophical perspective on the best way to find beliefs that correspond to reality — that is, looking honestly at what support there is for a particular claim, and also what support there is against it. This does not exclude individual subjective experience. The claim that “Science is always right” is not a claim anyone is seriously trying to represent here. We’re only arguing for the application of reason to our inquiry. Even people who dismiss science altogether make use of reasons and value evidence (when it’s available.)

Scientists are as aware as anyone that they are human and that they have biases. That’s why peer-review exists, why academics try to falsify their own claims. They want to know what stands up to scrutiny and what doesn’t. None of them argue that all scientific conclusions are infallible or that money or personal bias is never a part of the picture. But good science is designed to produce the best usable knowledge in spite of these well-known human failings.

cheri November 24, 2014 at 5:08 pm

one thing I notice in the comments, and in many discussions about science, is the unspoken agreements (about which we may or may not agree) about the meaning of the word “science”. it’s Latin root means “knowledge”. in western culture, the acquisition of verifiable knowledge must follow a very narrow path, or it is thrown out as nonsense. the material reductionist viewpoint is astoundingly neglectful of other important perspectives, notably holism. in regards to another commenter about indeed measuring love in a lab, that is from the reductionist viewpoint. love is much more than chemicals in the brain or measurable behaviors, just as knowledge is more than neuronal connections or test results. sometimes the sum of the parts is less than the whole.
also, faith is something we could not do without as humans in society. we have faith when we drive down the road that oncoming cars will not careen into us. we have faith that when we toss an object in the air it will fall back to the ground. we have faith that the good we do in the world will eventually, somehow, come back to us. faith, and belief, grow out of subjective experience, careful study and research, and deep and quiet introspection, among others things I’m sure.
lastly, and this is a bit of a nonsequiter, the tendency to frame something as “either/or” is endearingly and understandably human, flawed though it may be. good/bad, right/wrong, belief/truth, black/white. we want so desperately to put things in their proper place, to ease and simplify understanding in this highly complex universe. religion loves this game, as does science. if only it were that simple!
(and for the record, I meant no condescension in my post – as was suggested by another commenter- nor do I feel any. I enjoy this blog and the fearless posts and discussions. thanks)

Lorrie B November 27, 2014 at 12:15 pm

@cheri You seem to have strong opinions. How do you know love is more than chemicals running around our brains?

cheri November 24, 2014 at 5:25 pm

one more thing – reality is not so easy to define, either. hugely depends on the paradigm you subscribe to

Julia November 25, 2014 at 8:46 pm

Our view of reality, our beliefs and convictions, are certainly dependent on the paradigm we subscribe to.

Reality itself, however, is what it is — regardless of our views and convictions. We can only discover it. We cannot make it other than it is by the strength of our convictions.

If ” love is much more than chemicals in the brain or measurable behaviors, just as knowledge is more than neuronal connections” we need to find evidence of this in the reality we inhabit, otherwise it it just something dreamed up in human imagination.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:18 am

Julia – The problem is that “reality” is never experienced directly, it is inferred. All experience is structure by our senses, memories, beliefs, and expectations – our history is embedded within us, and even the objects we see around us are in-formed by past experience. It’s just that we absorbed those experiences while very young.

Spatial and temporal forms, embedded within us, that we cannot access directly, only infer from the thoughts and experiences that appear to us.

That’s why it’s so hard to persuade people of things: They literally experience their beliefs as true, as self-evident; the evidence is all around them!

The strength of our convictions, then, perhaps does change our experience of reality – – –

Duska Woods November 24, 2014 at 11:43 am

Thank you David, I agree with the fact that we humans tend to dany the truth that seems unpleasant. I alwayes find it very strange when people after someone dies say ‘they have gone to a better place’. What evidence do they have of ‘that better place’? It’s only a denial of the truth that we humans find hard to accept that when we die it’s the end of life. The Buddhist however do believe that when our body dies consciousness does not, it trnsforms to a different manifestation over and over again? Life is ONE manifestation many of the same life? I often thought about how the humanity in the past…even now in certain parts of the world… lived under most difficult circumstances throughout history and survived because their religions convinced them that they will be enjoying better life after death.. There was almost a useful function to that belief just as the churches keept the masses from aquiring knowledge keeping them in darkness and in fear of God. To still hold this notion of life after death in the light of what we know I think has to do with fear and not accepting ones life and its true meaning.

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 1:12 pm

Hi Duska. It is confounding to think about how many people lived and died with the idea that life is just a small part of an eternal experience. I don’t doubt that there are uses for this belief, one of which is to make sense of suffering and injustice. If we believe that there is a whole system outside of life that makes sense of senseless violence, for example, it can be easier to live in a world that contains senseless violence. This can be both good and bad, of course.

John N November 24, 2014 at 12:01 pm

“What does it feel like to be wrong? It feels like being right” ~ TED talk presenter and author of “Being Wrong” Kathryn Schulz

David Cain November 24, 2014 at 1:06 pm

Hah… that is an excellent insight

Kajetan November 24, 2014 at 1:48 pm


Cheri, nice. I agree with you a lot and will look upon suggested reading.

As you say, science is not to be cherished like some religion and scientists (researchers) are only people, but in average more adept at methodical thinking. Their mistakes and money driven research are another 2 important topics, I will not get into here.

One major down point to your post is condescending attitude and apparent paradox. I am sure you see it now, if not I can point it out for you.

I wouldn’t say personal experiences and stories are ignored, especially in human sciences. But they are of “limited” (little?) value and in my opinion rightly so, because of unreliability.

I liked your post and your seriousness about whole matter. The annoyed “prophet” touch was out of place, though. I do want you to make a case for personal stories where science can’t help directly, as I am assuming you didn’t just write those things because you felt like it. Hope to read from you.

Thanks for bibliography!

P.S.Don’t be so sure about not testing your love in laboratory.

Phil November 24, 2014 at 1:53 pm

Another great post. Thanks for showing an example, from your own experience, of having he intellectual honesty to question your own beliefs and abandon those that don’t correspond to reality. It’s a discipline that’s far too rare.

neal November 24, 2014 at 2:43 pm

Life after death. Maybe some complexity there. Dreamless sleep, consensus dreaming, recycling, relocation.

Of course, there are a very few that have literally been raised from the dead, and might be nostalgic for the usual speculations. Cannot participate in the conversation. I think the many worlds theories would invite some of that, if the mathematicians gained more synethesia, and stuck around for a bit.

Dragline November 24, 2014 at 2:52 pm

Following up on the exchange above (replies are limited), the reason I focused on science is because you have made an implicit assumption that science = truth, full stop. Which I don’t disagree with that for things that are objectively measurable, although even science is still a just a quest for better and better explanatory models (e.g., Newtonian physics is “true enough” for most purposes, and even though we now know its actually wrong, we still use it because its close enough). But therein also lies the limitation that I mentioned — absence of proof does not equate with proof of absence.

Stepping away from that though, positing that all beliefs are based on either “truth” or “comfort” presents both a false choice (it could also be both, neither or a lot of one and a little of the other), and a limiting assumption. Unless of course, you re-define those two terms to encompass every reason for believing something.

Take as an example someone who honestly believes that black cats are bad luck and runs away from them. That belief would appear to be neither true nor a source of comfort. Sometimes delusions are just delusions.

In my view, most beliefs are not arrived at by considering objective truths (scientific or otherwise), but simple the result of subjective experience or exposure. I agree that once formed, especially the longer the belief is held and the more someone self-identifies with it, the ordinary human tendency is to simply exclude new facts that conflict with the belief so as to avoid cognitive dissonance. This is explored at length in Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow.”

As for your question “Do you really have a commitment to believing only what’s true?” — it simply begs the question as to “how do you know what’s true?” Which then tells you whether you ought to seek truth through science, meditation, wandering in the desert, some other means or some combination thereof.

Or perhaps we should simply accept the fact that there will always be uncertainty and try to be a little humble about what we believe? This is what Jaspers was getting at — there may be ultimate truths, but that does not mean that they are necessarily and completely knowable.

In the end, complete certainty about “truth” often leads to vanity and sometimes to destruction. I agree with you that a willingness to change beliefs in the face of new information is the healthiest course, but unlikely to be followed by many.

Lanie November 24, 2014 at 11:45 pm

I enjoyed this post. Very well said.

David Cain November 25, 2014 at 8:24 am

… the reason I focused on science is because you have made an implicit assumption that science = truth, full stop.

No I didn’t, and nor did I claim we have “proof of absence.” I said several times we don’t know what happens after death.

You do have a point, though, when you say truth and comfort motivations for beliefs present a false dichotomy. I think the problem is that the word comfort is too specific a word to describe “emotional reinforcement of some kind or other motives aside from a desire to know the truth,” although even in your black cat example, not letting black cats cross your path is an attempt to control the uncontrollable (luck), which obviously carries emotional rewards to the believer that you could describe as comfort.

The bigger question is still the same though: do you believe something because you have really examined it, or do you believe it for other (probably emotional) reasons? It’s a meaningful enough dichotomy to encourage us to take a second look at our beliefs.

Again, don’t get hung up on the word science. I have used it here as a catch-all phrase for rational inquiry, which does not exclude philosophy or contemplation. Part of this is the humility and acceptance of uncertainty you are arguing for.

I’ve got Thinking, Fast and Slow on the shelf next to me and I’m excited to read it.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:21 am

Is science about “truth”? That’s philosophy. I think science is about observing regularities and creating conceptual frameworks to correspond to them, with predictive power. Those frameworks are never “true”, just “accurate”.

As Indiana Jones says in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

“Archaeology [science] is the search for fact … not truth. If it’s truth you’re interested in, Dr. Tyree’s philosophy class is right down the hall.”

Ori November 24, 2014 at 3:41 pm

Hi David, and thank you for another great post.

I particularly like your last paragraph, and the notion that we can’t have it both ways, and we should not pretend that we can. This idea is one that I find very interesting, and also one that I’ve been struggling with for quite a while now.

Most people I know would say that it’s always better to believe what is the most “true” (i.e. best supported by evidence or logic), that it’s lazy or childish to fool yourself and believe something just because it’s easier or comforting.
They’ve already chosen the TRUTH side of the spectrum, assuming it’s the obvious choice.

This school of thought is of course not all bad, but to my opinion, it’s not such an obvious choice at all. All “truth” seeking misses something very big.

Using the map analogy, you of course want your map of reality to be the most accurate possible. You wouldn’t want any mistakes in there. But ultimately, the purpose of the map is NOT to correctly represent reality! it is to help you NAVIGATE through the world effectively. a map that is 100% correct would be utterly useless, since it would have to be 3-dimensional and huge, whereas a simplified, elegant version is far more useful.

when you only focus on what seems to make logical sense and discard everything else as comfort-driven, you completely ignore all the benefits of things such as stability, faith, security, simplicity. Faith gives us hope, and hope is essential to our well-being. And just like a child needs something stable to rely on – so do we, the overgrown children that we are.

I envy people who believe in god, and in times of uncertainty or despair can pray, and immediately receive an injection of true hope and strength. God may be imaginary, but the hope and strength are real. And very powerful too. The knowledge that everything is going to be OK, that something powerful and good is watching over us – that’s not something you can achieve through critical thinking.

Sometimes it’s not such a bad idea to have an imaginary friend who can give you advice, reassure you, hold you accountable, and guide you. Even if you were just talking to yourself the entire time. Or rather, talking to a metaphor.

There’s a Jewish song saying “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, and the most important thing is to always have no fear”. Which makes a lot of sense, because if you let your fear get the best of you, you will probably fall and die.
Now, the truth is that the danger is real. No doubt about it. But it’s also true that thinking about the danger is really not helpful to the simple task of remaining calm and walking in a straight line. Unfortunately, knowing that you must not fear is really not going to help you ignore the fear. It’ll probably only make things worse and drive you further into anxiety. So when having to cross such a bridge, it may be a good idea to “fool” yourself, maybe with the help of others, into believing that there’s an invisible safety net protecting you. Then all you have to do is walk.

My latest thoughts on the subject is that you don’t need to really BELIEVE something, in the religious sense of the world. You just need something that you know is OK to wholeheartedly pretend is real, and rely on that imaginary model. Like a child believes in the tooth fairy. He doesn’t REALLY believe it exists. Yet he does.

I think we can all enjoy this game of pretend if we allow ourselves and others to do so.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the subject, maybe in another post

David Cain November 25, 2014 at 8:41 am

Hi Ori. Very well said. You make a lot of great points here, and I agree with you. That’s why I pose it as a question (why do you believe what you believe) instead of “You should believe only what’s true. I have not always been interested in approaching things that way — I just wanted the best life possible, and you make good arguments here why certain beliefs may aid a person to that end even if they are untrue.

How to best navigate life really depends on who we are and what we do. I’m a writer and I plan to be writing for the next 40 or so years, so an emphasis on factual truth and logical consistency will probably serve me in a way it might not serve, say, a minister or even an aid worker.

I also have made use of entertaining unproven or unlikely claims, in order to gain benefits. For example, I wrote a post on the Law of Attraction, and argued for the benefits of acting as though it were true, even though nothing indicates that it is. My argument is that if you go about your day as if your positive thoughts do somehow create positive outcomes in the outside world, it allows a career pessimist (like me) to see positive possibilities that he wouldn’t have otherwise, and it allows him to avoid the stress of fearing negative outcomes, as is his normal habit. And I would still argue for that and I still make use of it. But it doesn’t work unless you can entertain that scenario, and there is enough uncertainty in my mind about causes and effects that I can.

Paul Anthony November 24, 2014 at 10:07 pm

I was first raised in a Roman Catholic household until my parents converted to a Christian fundamentalist religion. Over time I began to see the ‘non – sense’ of believing in an anthropomorphic, capital ‘G’ God who sports a big, fluffy white beard and speaks with a deep, resonant voice. Having said this, though, I never could totally distance myself from esoteric notions and investigations about life and death. So, I will readily admit that ‘spirituality’ is somewhat my bias, but then so is science and the scientific method. The problem I have with your post, though, is when you use universal grammar distinctions such as, ‘we’ and ‘our’.
I’ll explain.

A few years ago my almost twenty year old son suddenly died of heart failure. A few days following his death BOTH my wife and I had an extra-ordinary experience; and this same or very similar experience happened two days in a row at the same time of day (but with only me having the experience on the second day). I won’t go into the details of this experience and I will spare you the use of expressions like “a sacred experience” or anything like that. In fact, I would be more inclined to use the expression ‘spooky’. But still, that would NOT be an accurate description of both what resulted in our amazement and wonder. Suffice to say, ***I know my son survived his mortal death***. Both my wife and I 100% triple plus KNOW this to be fact. I don’t (we don’t) know all the details of where, how, or what this ‘survival’ is, but we KNOW that it is in fact a reality being just as real as our own current, mortal lives.

I know this is the Internet and I am pretty sure that there are going to be a lot of people rolling their eyes and discounting what I have related, but you know what? I don’t care. It doesn’t matter to me one whit what anyone thinks. I can relate that I (we) had this experience here on this blog because it’s anonymous, but when I have told the full story to those I felt were close to me, to my surprise it went over like a lead balloon. Hence, I never speak of it any longer to anyone.

You can read books (a LOT of books) on NDEs and SDEs (shared death experiences), and other elements of the paranormal, but NOTHING comes close to an actual experience. You are never the same afterwards. Time does dull the full impact of the experience in memory, but the significance of having had such never fades.

At the present moment, my wife and I are very interested in the movement called “Science and Nonduality” and have already attended a one weekend event not too long ago. It was a great conference with a lot of physicists, mathematicians, and other scientists presenting very interesting stuff with regard to quantum physics and spirituality. You might was to check it out at:

In any event, history is replete with both men and women in both secular and religious camps rejecting theories, evidences and what have you only to eventually be proven that they were wrong. Hence, I sincerely hope that those who reject any notions that there is any sort of existence (be it at least collective awareness, or consciousness, if not individual) will one day know to the same degree (or even more so) as my wife and I now know that there is some sort of life after life.

David Cain November 25, 2014 at 8:50 am

Hi Paul. Thank you for sharing this. I can’t deny that you had the experience you had, but I don’t think it should be surprising that it “went over like a lead balloon” when you shared it with people. The moment you say “It doesn’t matter to me what anyone thinks,” then the conversation is over because it’s obvious to the listener that the window for reinterpretation has closed for good.

Thanks for the link to Science and Nonduality. I also don’t think science and spirituality need to be incompatible, and that’s the premise of Sam Harris’s latest book, which is currently being reviewed on the front page of scienceandnonduality.com

cheri November 25, 2014 at 11:33 am

I think what Paul means by ” I don’t care what anyone thinks” is that people will try to rationalize what he and his wife experienced in ways that “make sense”, and he’s not looking for that. he doesn’t need a reinterpretation, and only people who believe life ends at death would even question or demand a need for reinterpretation.
I’m with Paul. as a recovering catholic, I was a staunch atheist for many years. then I experienced some things that shook my belief structure so severely I had to reevaluate EVERYTHING I thought I believed. I clung to the rational ideas I’d become so comfortable with for quite some time, only to finally release them as the subjective evidence kept piling up. I have absolutely no doubt that life/consciousness extends beyond death. those who have undeniable experiences don’t need approval or interpretation, often they want to share with others the amazingness of it, but unfortunately it’s one of those things that humans won’t believe until they know from 1st hand exposure. it’s why it’s called belief, while those of us exposed to this otherworldly truth know it’s more than mere belief.
I can feel the internet eye rolls from here :)

Dragline November 25, 2014 at 11:18 am

@ PA While I can’t speak to the meaning of your experience, I don’t doubt its validity.

JR November 25, 2014 at 7:22 pm

I think that 100% security about something is just not something that can be obtained. Even the fact that I am writing this right now, or that I am who I think I am, could be hallucinations that I’m having at this moment. An experience can be undeniable for the one who is having it, but no interpretation of that experience can be affirmed with a 100% security. Sorry for being blunt here, but no personal experience can prove the existence of life after death with any probability (least of all 100%). There are circunstances that conceivably could prove this with more or less probability, let’s say the communication of information only known to the deceased person that could be checked later, but I think it is quite telling that, while stories of ghosts and mediums have been common since antiquity, not in a single case have they been proven beyond all doubt to convey information that could not easily have been obtained by other means. Experiences may be undeniable. Interpretations not so, unless there is uncontrovertible proof.

Lanie November 24, 2014 at 11:33 pm

I think as humans beings we intrinsically gravitate towards what I like to call ‘patterns of comfort’. We pick up beliefs along the way that enforce our current way of life usually because it’s easy. It’s convenient, comfortable, doesn’t push any buttons, and it requires no effort or change. It’s quite irrelevant if the beliefs are true or even harmful. This, of course, isn’t very useful in growing as a human being. I think questioning beliefs is so painful because they seem to become part of our identity. Each time they are threatened, we feel like a part of our very being is being attacked. Just watch two people in an argument. They’re really just having a debate over conflicting beliefs.

As for the afterlife, there are those who believe that Consciousness ( the Universal Kind, not the thinking brain of a human being kind) is essentially just a never ending, vast life force. This life Force creates forms ( within itself) and then those forms ( part of itself) take on identities of their own. This is how this Force is able to have experiences. Kind of like your finger no longer remembering that it is part of your body in order for you to experience all that comes along with being a finger. It’s still you, but you just only now identify with the finger and are unable to see the entire body until after the finger ‘dies’ and the Force makes it into some other form. If you believe this, then the answer to ‘is there an afterlife’ is yes and no. No in the sense that no, you as you define yourself to be right now( the form), will not remain the same with the same experiences etc.. But you will also not cease to exist because essentially you are part of that Force that doesn’t die but just continues to take on different forms. The ‘Consciousness” experience varies with the form undertaken by the Force.

David Cain November 25, 2014 at 8:54 am

Beliefs really do become a part of our identity, and this can be so strong it makes us do strange things. Have you ever had this happen: you’re debating something with someone, and at some point during the discussion you realize that you don’t actually disagree, but you still have that emotional alignment against the other person and what they’re saying? By that point both people have lost sight of the intention to make a case for a particular position, and it’s all about out-rhetoricking the other person.

JC November 25, 2014 at 12:57 am

Perhaps this irreverent book can help clear up some of your questions…

A Newcomer’s Guide to the Afterlife:
On the Other Side Known Commonly as “The Little Book”
-by Daniel Quinn & Tom Whalen

“A who’s who, where to go, and what to expect guide to the next world.”


GrandmaDarling November 25, 2014 at 7:57 am

I am truly grateful for the insightful post and comments. I appreciate the comment from Ori and consider it a kind, humble, and practical view of the subject only because my brain structure is inadequately equipped with the focus of science and my emotional structure is too fragile to resist the path of least resistance. I do try to take as many views and try to compare them with my own and enjoy looking at the multi faceted versions of life’s complexities. I am very OCD in many ways and I have an urge to dwell deep and deeper into a bottomless pit.

I did come across an Indian story of the three blind men and an elephant. Three blind men each stood in different parts of an elephant and each were trying to figure out what was in front of them. Assuming also that each of them have never encountered an elephant before, the one in front of the trunk will have a completely different reality with the one in the back of an elephant and the one near its side. And in reality, all of them may be completely or partly wrong, and completely or partly right at the same time! Truth and logic seem to be what you experience but the bigger picture is truly hard to grasp or fathom at this time.

I do believe that coming to terms with your own reality does help you cope with Ori’s “narrow bridge” of life as well as help and enlighten another’s. Still we know that we are not all equipped with the same mental and emotional faculties and abilities, factor in hereditary and environmental backgrounds, we are all as unique as a leaf on a tree. The tree though mighty and can sometimes seemingly live forever, will one day fall to the ground and become ashes in the eternal (my view) circle of life…

holly November 25, 2014 at 8:24 am

Thank you for initiating this discussion. I grew up in a fundamental Christian household but of course began questioning. Now, as I approach an older age and have had so many losses I WANT to believe there is an afterlife but I don’t really believe it because I’m also a psychologist and understand consciousness. I think that believing in an afterlife is very comforting and helps us to stave off existential despair at the thought of our own, or loved ones, demise.

cheri November 25, 2014 at 11:45 am

when you say “I understand consciousness” I’m very curious what that means. quantum physicists who make their lives work around studying consciousness are unlikely to say that, because we know so little about what it is and how it works.
care to elaborate?

Dan November 25, 2014 at 8:30 am

“Astronomy is not the study of stars, it is the study of the human experience of what we call ‘stars.’ Bacteriology is not the study of microbes, it’s the study of the human experience we call ‘microbes.'” – Stanislov Grof

StephInIndy November 25, 2014 at 11:08 am

“the universe is not only queerer than we imagine, but queerer than we CAN imagine” – J. B. S. Haldane, apparently.

i apply this to afterlife, and look at the evidence that i have: what i see, observe and experience. i have observed/experienced much that suggests an intricate order resembling afterlife or consciousness, even if such awareness is not something we can understand, and may or may not relate to our present dimensional experiences of reality.

Bilash November 25, 2014 at 2:05 pm
George November 26, 2014 at 3:28 am

And his article, here. It’s wrong, but it’s a good read. :-)

David Cain November 27, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Appreciate this, thank you!

Cecilia November 25, 2014 at 2:51 pm

Hi David,

Two comments:
– you might enjoy reading “The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins;
– the other thing we have very strong, and often extremely false, beliefs about is ourselves. Probably the subject of a different posting though.


Samantha November 25, 2014 at 3:28 pm

Hi David:

This is a really wonderfully written article and a topic that I appreciate you writing about. I feel that death & the afterlife are topics that are not discussed openly enough because they tend to stir up feelings of discomfort in many people – yet they’re the one thing that all of us will have to face at some point in our lives.

Having a background in neuroscience, I find myself battling back and forth between scientific accounts on the existence of consciousness VS my spiritual beliefs on the possibility of a persistence of consciousness without a physical body.

Science relies on observable outcomes and measures of data, whereas consciousness is a really difficult thing to measure concretely because it isn’t a physical thing (or even something that we can really define at this point). Consciousness seems to involve a subjective experience that cannot be fully measured through an experimenters view (Ie. we cant completely access the first persons conscious experience without asking them to report it).

Im drawn toward beliefs that the body and mind share a relationship that is similar that of a television and a cable signal. When the TV is malfunctioning or broken, the signal cannot be transmitted, however, that doesn’t mean that the signal does not exist. Similarly, the end of our body through death may not indicate that our mind doesn’t exist. Death is the end of the physical body, the end of our consciousness’ link to the physical world. However I feel that there is a possibility that consciousness itself could persist, in such a way that science couldn’t possibly measure based on data collected from our body’s physical senses.

Thank you again – great topic of discussion,

JR November 25, 2014 at 6:46 pm

I don’t think that’s a good analogy. What happens to the “cable signal” when you are in deep sleep? Even small chemical changes in the brain can cause complete changes of personality or consciousness so, in what way could the persons that we are survive its complete destruction?. Yes, if we destroy the TV the cable signal continues existing, but in that analogy you are not the cable signal, you are the program that the TV is emitting (in deep sleep the “cable signal” still would exist, buy you have no awareness). Moreover, what you are suggesting is that the brain “machinery” is redundant except as a receptor. I don’t have a background in neuroscience, but I think that’s a hypothesis that can be positively proved wrong. To say the contrary would be to postulate that the brain is still a black box to neuroscience and that no mental functions have been found that can be explained in terms of neurons reacting to signals from other neurons. Seriously, I don’t think that’s the situation in neuroscience right now, in spite of being a layman on the subject.

medithi November 25, 2014 at 4:41 pm

This is a complicated issue, because too little contact with reality is often dangerous, but being too inflexible or “scientific” can be too.
Science is always discovering and rediscovering. We can never be sure. Probability, aproximations, that’s all we have in some of the most relevant aspects of our lives and deaths. Very few are comfortable with that degree of uncertainty. That’s what’s unacceptable to us. Uncertainty is more unacceptable than death. That is what our parents protect us from when they tell us about paradise. Some parents tell children the dead “rest” or “sleep” which is very close to the non-existence theory. Even you, David, are so uncomfortable with uncertainty, that you prefer calling death a reality than accepting we humans really don’t know for sure. That acceptance of the unacceptable uncertainty is, to me, the real challenge in the spiritual and intellectual realm. The believer or the non-believer, they’re never right, we only have facts enough to give reason to the agnostic.

David Cain November 27, 2014 at 7:03 pm

I admit uncertainty of what happens after death in the article, several times. I describe death as a reality because it is: we see very clearly that people die.

But this “uncertainty” does not mean that every hypothesis is equally likely. There just isn’t much reason at all to believe there is any kind of life after death if you don’t think holy books are trustworthy. When I eat and digest an apple, do we wonder if it reappears on a tree somewhere else, intact and ready to live again? We might, if there were a tradition of believing such a thing. But in the absence of a tradition, or of a culture in which we worry greatly about losing particular apples forever, there is no conceivable reason at all to suspect that such a thing happens. Yet still, I admit there is uncertainty about whether it does.

JR November 25, 2014 at 6:23 pm

Apart from the fact that there isn’t any logical reason to believe in the continuation of consciousness after death, I find very surprising that somebody could even desire this to happen. Even the naive beliefs of traditional religions include the possibility that the afterlife may be bad for at least some people. For those who are not limited by dogma and are therefore able to consider rationally all the possibilities, the perspective of entering a totally unknown situation should be quite frightening. Religious people should be even more worried, because most of them believe there are situations in the afterlife in which you can be tortured for all eternity. Yet nearly everybody (well, except Buddhists at least) thinks about the afterlife as something presumably good. Given the choice, I have few doubts about what I would choose. Extinction would be returning to the point before my birth, no problem there. “Waking up” I know not where? No, thank you. (Even waking up in heaven could be frightening. What if it is just a deception to make you suffer all the more when you realize that you are really in hell. Just joking, or am I?).

David Cain November 27, 2014 at 7:11 pm

Apart from the fact that there isn’t any logical reason to believe in the continuation of consciousness after death, I find very surprising that somebody could even desire this to happen.

This is part of why Christopher Hitchens called religion a “Celestial dictatorship”. He said it made life into a sort of divine North Korea, except that you can escape North Korea by dying.

George November 26, 2014 at 3:25 am

Can’t remember if I posted this earlier, can’t find it, but good on Sam Harris’ book and its importance, here.

SirEvidence November 26, 2014 at 10:31 am

Two Reasons to Believe Something – Thank you David for this fabulous insight. Your stimulating post does a lot to stir up the human critical faculty. One crucial question to ask oneself, it seems to me, is whether Nature, Reality, the whole of that which exists is something objective, something that the human brain can comprehend (science) and from which humans can derive principles for living a rational, self-fulfilling life. Although “believe” is a verb subject to multiple interpretations (closer to the idea of having an opinion rather than possessing knowledge of a fact of reality), if one regards beliefs in the sense of suppositions, an honest person would have to ask oneself what is the reason for holding an idea, what supports the concept that one has accepted. The evidence provided by the senses, and then the fact that such evidence can never contain a single logical contradiction, would give the person a fair amount of certainty in what he thinks to be true and factual about life. The universe operates by laws. To hold ideas that contradict and violate the laws of Nature means to attempt to live by whim and to delude oneself that it may be possible for humans to achieve a life of peace and comfort by means of contradicting the facts of reality.

David Cain November 27, 2014 at 7:23 pm

One crucial question to ask oneself, it seems to me, is whether Nature, Reality, the whole of that which exists is something objective, something that the human brain can comprehend (science) and from which humans can derive principles for living a rational, self-fulfilling life.

Yes, this is an open question. But it seems that way, and almost everything we talk about, religious or not, is talked about in the context of this paradigm. There are always other metaphysical possibilities: solipsism, computer simulation, etc.

Anca November 27, 2014 at 5:48 pm

There is a quote that is attributed to Nikola Tesla:
“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”
If this is true, by damaging certain parts of the brain, you only damage the receiver, not the consciousness itself. So consciousness won’t be able to express itself in the same way trough this receiver, but it doesn’t mean that it is broken. It’s like damaging a radio: the broadcast is still there, you just can’t access it through that radio.

SirEvidence November 27, 2014 at 6:09 pm

“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength and inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know that it exists.”

This idea is “comforting” for some people. But as the whole of David’s post suggests, where is the evidence of its truth? What are the reasons to believe it’s a fact of reality and not another delusional opinion?

If knowledge is already “out there” in some presumed form of consciousness and we are simply receptacles of that knowledge, what is the relationship between us, the entity that receives? (discovers?) that knowledge and the all-knowing universal consciousness which already has it? Do we wish to FEEL we, too, are part of that consciousness because, alas, ours is too limited and leaves dissatisfied with ourselves?

David Cain November 27, 2014 at 7:20 pm

Grasping onto the “receiver” concept was my first reaction to hearing Sam Harris’ comments. But there are problems with it, and I realized I didn’t have a reason to believe it except that I preferred it to the thought that the mind ends with the brain.

JR left a good explanation in a comment above:

Yes, if we destroy the TV the cable signal continues existing, but in that analogy you are not the cable signal, you are the program that the TV is emitting (in deep sleep the “cable signal” still would exist, buy you have no awareness). Moreover, what you are suggesting is that the brain “machinery” is redundant except as a receptor. I don’t have a background in neuroscience, but I think that’s a hypothesis that can be positively proved wrong. To say the contrary would be to postulate that the brain is still a black box to neuroscience and that no mental functions have been found that can be explained in terms of neurons reacting to signals from other neurons. Seriously, I don’t think that’s the situation in neuroscience right now, in spite of being a layman on the subject.


Anca November 30, 2014 at 8:40 pm

It is indeed more comforting..and a more poetic view of the universe I would say. I am not saying it’s a fact of reality, rather that it is just another philosophical idea that would still hold for Sam Harris’ comments.
I would say that the consciousness in this case is only the awareness, while the body is a way for that awareness to have a direct experience of the world (sensory, emotional). The brain processes and interprets the experiences, records them and compares them with the existing ones
and creates a ‘response’. The entity that receives or discovers helps enrich and add more complexity to the not-all-so-knowing consciousness by experiencing reality from its unique point of view. The complex interpretation and processing that a human brain is capable of only creates a more complex experience – a rock, a plant, an animal also experience the world and add to that awareness. By damaging a part of the brain the experience will be limited or altered.
As I said it is just an idea, and indeed it helps with our need of giving meaning to life.
I would argue though that sometime a false belief can help you have a better life (from your subjective point of view of course). The placebo effect certainly seems to prove that believing something that is untrue can make you feel better.

SirEvidence November 27, 2014 at 6:13 pm

EDIT: Do we wish to FEEL we, too, are part of that consciousness because, alas, ours is too limited and leaves US dissatisfied with ourselves?

Mark November 27, 2014 at 10:43 pm

Interesting post and discussion. Before tackling the problem of death it is helpful to know who or what you really are. We know that we are not the body because science has shown that it is completely renewed several times over our lifetime. The concept of a physical body that ends at our skin is all the more dubious when we consider that we need the air, water, sun, etc to live. Taken to its logical conclusion, we are forced to concede that we need the entire universe to live, and in fact it is our body. So first we must not take ourselves for that which we are not. Recommended that you investigate headless.org for probably the easiest way to see who you really are. (David has done several great posts on the subject of Douglas Harding’s Headless Way)
Hindu culture has dealt with this topic for millenia and anyone serious about understanding it would do well to consult the Vedas, Upanishads, etc. The philosophy known as Advaita Vedanta is about becoming aware of the nature of reality (to the extent a finite mind can conceive). Here we are given tools to understand, not dogma to believe. The goal of Vedanta is knowledge, not belief. Truth is that which IS. Stated another way, Truth is that which cannot be negated. At the foundation of Truth is that you know that you are, that you exist is self-evident. Investigate the difference between satyam and mithya and you will know.

Dan November 28, 2014 at 12:02 pm

“The concept of a physical body that ends at our skin is all the more dubious when we consider that we need the air, water, sun, etc to live. Taken to its logical conclusion, we are forced to concede that we need the entire universe to live, and in fact it is our body. So first we must not take ourselves for that which we are not.”

This cannot be emphasized enough, and, even when considered, is rarely adequately grasped (and, ultimately, almost impossible to do so). We are very well familiar with (and comfortable with the concept of) “having” “internal” organs, but rarely are we aware that we have “external” organs in the form of rocks, oceans, the sun and other planets/stars…even other animals and micro-organisms (which perform services that help regulate, maintain, and perpetuate ecosystem health, growth, and stability). Only, we’ve cut ourselves off from those organs to identify with a very narrowly circumscribed version/sense of “ourselves” (as “skin-encapsulated egos”). In the words of Alan Watts, “rocks are just as much a part of you as your fingernails.” We inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, while trees (and other vegetation) “inhale” carbon dioxide and “exhale” oxygen – of which our existence is entirely interdependent. Quite literally half of your “lung” is “out there” in the form of a tree – it/we exist as one continuous organism.

We may seem like the living tip of the iceberg, but you don’t poke your head out of the water without the rest of the berg beneath lifting “you” up. The Earth (and Solar System/Universe, really) is the sufficiently complex organization that makes “humans” possible. In the same way that Aldous Huxley had delineated a “Mind-at-Large” that was accessible through various means (whether or not true, it should be said that – as shown – if you believe yourself to be conscious, then you believe the entire universe to be), this can well be understood as our “Body-at-Large.” As Watts, again, puts it:

“As the ocean ‘waves,’ the universe ‘peoples.’ Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe. This fact is rarely, if ever, experienced by most individuals. Even those who know it to be true in theory do not sense or feel it, but continue to be aware of themselves as isolated ‘egos’ inside bags of skin.”

Or, more directly:

“There is no way of separating what any given organism is doing from what its environment is doing, for which reason ecologists speak not of organisms in environments but of organism-environments. Thus the words ‘I’ and ‘self’ should properly mean what the whole universe is doing at this particular ‘here-and-now’ called ‘John Doe.'”

So then, when “you” die, the vast majority of “your” “body” still lives on (and is continually regenerated as other “forms” of life, at that). It may not provide a complete answer as to what the felt experience or awareness is of the cessation/transition/transformation of this localized and concentrated (relatively speaking) aspect/expression of “self” (during and after what we refer to as “death”), but it should give us another perspective of lifedeath (it being a total field/continuum like spacetime, for we don’t have “life” here and “death” there cleanly separate and demarcated). If nothing else, from a purely “physical” standpoint.

“Life and death are not two opposed forces; they are simply two ways of looking at the same force.” – Watts

Mark November 29, 2014 at 10:28 am

“So then, when “you” die, the vast majority of “your” “body” still lives on (and is continually regenerated as other “forms” of life, at that).”

Good point, and yes Watts’ work is well worth investigating. I realize I neglected to say anything about the persistence of our experience after death in my last post. Actually I don’t know, and wonder if that is even knowable. Going on present evidence it would seem that awareness continues but not the personality since that is bound up in the body/mind/sense complex. We can’t really go on near death experiences of people who “came back” since death is when you don’t come back! Nevertheless the point that the universe is consciousness itself follows from the investigation of the self. Our true nature is Satchitananda if only we can realize it. Sat=truth/existence, Chit=knowledge, Ananda=wholeness/bliss.

Dan November 29, 2014 at 6:49 pm

Wow, that sums up my thoughts almost exactly. Well put! And, if you’re interested, there was a great book released recently that deeply explored the nature of Satchitananda called “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss” by David Bentley Hart. He’s a practicing Greek Orthodox, but the book covers and cites (and shows reverence towards) a wide range of traditions and, for my money, is one of the best plain books on philosophy from the past few years (he’s a philosopher by profession).

Dan November 28, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Haven’t listened to it in awhile, but I seem to recall this being an excellent program/discussion on death from Alan Watts (about half an hour long, recorded in the late ’50s but incredibly relevant and interesting):

Alan Watts: Death

That entire series (various related topics, recorded for public television) is actually worth watching.

RB November 29, 2014 at 7:50 pm

Kind of late to the party but given a background in Physics and Divinity I thought I would chime in.

Christians ought to think that when someone dies they are just dead.

The early Christian view going back at least to Saint Paul was that consciousness did not survive death, that no one “went to heaven” when they died, and that it is nonsensical to talk of a non-physical spiritual “life after death.” On the contrary at the second coming of Jesus the dead would be “resurrected” (an important distinction vs resuscitation in Christian theology).

Christians anticipate that the resurrected dead will have physical bodies like the resurrected Jesus had a physical body, in his case nail holes and all, capable of eating fish etc. But this new body will be materially different as it is uncorrupted by the fall/sin (See the resurrected Jesus teleporting, passing through walls, and flying). The people of God would be given eternal life in this new body and everyone else would be punished with eternal destruction.

This life would also not be “in heaven” but on the New Earth after God destroys the present earth in his judgement. The new heaven/heavenly zion would descend to the new earth for God to reign without his new regenerate creation being in rebellion to him through sin.

This is contrary to the views of many (seems to be most) greco-romans at the time who held a view very much like the default nominally christian view of modern westerners. They held that at death one’s spirit continued on to a spiritual realm (varying from Tarturus to Elysium in proportions to one’s evil/virtue, baseness/greatness) and considered the Christian conception of physical resurrection ridiculous (see Paul’s speech to the Areopagus) after all they had seen dead bodies rot.

Anyway, in popular christianity the pagan view won out (perhaps people’s worldview was never really converted out of paganism in the first place) but the Christian view is that modern science is right the dead are dead and their consciousness is gone but what God did once to Jesus he will do again to all. Christianity is much weirder than most christians know.

George H December 3, 2014 at 2:19 pm

David, as a person who always preferred “true” over “comfortable”, I appreciate the general lesson your post conveyed. Yet, after learning what modern science has to say about consciousness and thought, I’ve reached a conclusion quite different than yours. A 100 years ago I would have probably agreed with you, but with the huge advances in modern biology, physics and information theory, I find the view of “science points to no afterlife” to be obsolete. At the very worst, it is an open question.

Of-course, the “afterlife” hinted by modern science has very little to do with what traditional religions teach. It isn’t particularly comforting, either. You see, simply ceasing to exist would be far less scary than embarking on this great voyage into the unknown. A voyage during which, in all probability, a person is stripped into his very core essence before being transformed to something completely different. Scary, huh?

So here is a thought for you: Perhaps the real reason most science-oriented people reject the notion of the afterlife, is because it scares them half-to-death? Perhaps they are just as guilty of “choosing comfort over truth”, as those who believe in heavenly roses and simply eternal bliss.

David Rodriguez December 9, 2014 at 10:03 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 do 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 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


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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