Is There Life After Death? Essays & Opinions
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Stephen Cave

The Great Mortality Paradox

Stephen Cave holds a doctorate in metaphysics from the University of Cambridge. He has written extensively on philosophical and scientific subjects, and is the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.

The belief that we each have a soul that can survive the death of our bodies is extremely widespread. Ideas of the soul can be found in civilizations from ancient Egypt to the shamans of Siberia. Most Christians, Muslims, and Hindus alive today—nearly five billion people—profess to believe in something like it. Anthropologists have therefore called this belief a “human universal,” meaning it is found in every known society.

This is surprising, given no one has ever seen one. (Unless, that is, you believe people see ghosts, and that ghosts are departed souls.) Your soul is by its nature supposed to be non-physical and so presumably invisible—light, after all, only bounces off physical objects. That makes it a difficult thing for which to collect convincing evidence.

Now we could argue that the fact that so many people believe in a soul is itself evidence for its existence. It certainly seems natural for us humans to have the idea. We might therefore speculate that humans are gifted with a special faculty for sensing spiritual presences or an innate, God-given knowledge that this body and this world are not all there is. 

But there is another way of looking at the pervasiveness of the soul concept. This other way delves deeper into our minds in order to ask how this idea might arise and what work it might be doing in our belief systems. And the answer rests on a paradox.

This paradox arises from two of our remarkable intellectual capacities. First, we have a sophisticated sense of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait found in only a handful of large-brained species. Second, we have a sophisticated idea of the future. Most species live for the moment, but we are so obsessively focused on planning for what is to come, that we go on expensive meditation courses to help briefly bring us into the present.

The survival benefits of these faculties are obvious: from mammoth-hunting to supermarket shopping, they enable us to plan and co-operate so that our needs are met—and not just today, but for weeks or years to come. But these faculties also have a high price. When we peer into the future, beyond the threats of coming storms, pests, predators, or the thousand other things for which we must plan, one figure awaits us: the Reaper. We can see that it is our mortal lot to ail and die.

Those creatures that lack our foresight live only in the moment; but we who live with our minds on the future must live with the presence of death. We are cursed to know that all our striving will one day be for nothing; that the worst thing that could possibly happen one day surely will: the end of all our projects, our hopes and dreams, our individual world. We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse.

This, the seeming inevitability of death, is the first part of our paradox. The second part, however, is its opposite: the seeming impossibility of our own obliteration. Because whenever we try to imagine the reality of our own deaths, we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing. Try it: you might get as far as an image of your own funeral, or perhaps a dark and empty void—but you are still there: the observer, the envisioning eye. The very act of imagining summons you, like a genie, into virtual being.

We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves; our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction. Sigmund Freud saw this clearly: “It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators,” he wrote, concluding that therefore “at bottom no one believes in his own death … in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.”

And thus we have what I call the mortality paradox: the same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that death is inevitable and that it is impossible. This is a very uncomfortable position for us to be in. We do not like this kind of cognitive dissonance, and evidence shows that we will do what we can to resolve it. And so we tell ourselves stories by which, in the words of George Santayana, “the observed fact of mortality and the native inconceivability of death are more or less clumsily reconciled.” The most widespread of these stories is that we have a soul.

The belief that we each have a non-physical, immortal soul neatly dispels the paradox. On the one hand, it can happily grant the first part: that our physical bodies die. But this belief then says: Aha! You nonetheless continue to exist, only in a different form—that of the spirit. It therefore also confidently accommodates the second part of our paradox: our inability to conceive of ceasing-to-be. The initial tension between death and continuance becomes instead a story of spiritual transformation.

When considering the popularity of belief in a soul, it is important to note that the first part of the paradox—the perceived inevitability of death—is no mere intellectual puzzle. It is a constant source of fear; the “worm at the core,” as the great psychologist William James put it, threatening the very possibility of happiness. We are therefore strongly motivated to believe stories that assuage this fear and tell us that death is not the end that it seems to be. Social psychologists have since built up a huge body of evidence that our religious (and other) views are shaped by the need to manage this existential terror.

Cognitive psychologists, on the other hand, have studied the second part of the paradox: they have shown that this inability to conceive of our extinction can cause even young children to develop a belief in something like a soul. When we put the two parts together, we can see that the perceived threat of death gives us a powerful motivation to develop a story of an immortal soul, and the intuition that we do not cease to exist when our body dies, gives us a handy peg on which such an idea can be hung.

So indeed a belief in a soul comes very naturally to us. But not because we have evidence to support it nor because we have some special faculty for divining the spirit world. Rather it is because of our distinct capacity to mentally project ourselves into the future and the paradox that this creates. The soul belief succeeds in both resolving this paradox and assuaging our existential fears. No wonder it is so popular.

But the hard evidence that we have about our nature tells a different story. The evidence suggests that our minds—our true selves, if you like—are very much a product of our brains. Although we have brains that are super-sized and inclined to fancies, we are nonetheless physical organisms, just like beetles and daffodils. And like all such organisms, we come from and return to the Earth. There is beauty in this view too—and the more we focus on this one life, the more likely we are to see it.

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