Psychological and physical continuity in the afterlife

A later series of studies with children and adults suggests that in certain cultures, at least, people represent the body as continuing after death. These studies were conducted by Harris and psychologists Rachel Watson-Jones, Justin Busch, and Cristine Legare in Tanna, Vanuatu (a Melanesian island in the South Pacific).8 Vanuatu maintains indigenous supernatural beliefs but also increasingly embraces Christian doctrine. In particular, participants in Vanuatu often adopt a literal interpretation of scripture. They are exposed to the Christian concept of resurrection, the belief that bodies will be raised from the grave at the time of Final Judgment. Researchers also conducted the studies in Austin, Texas, which is characterized by diversity in religious affiliation with a majority of liberal Christians. Participants were asked whether or not different biological and psychological processes continue to function after death, and these questions were framed in a theistic (e.g. “now that David is with God”) and non-theistic (e.g. “now that David is dead”) narrative.

Commensurate with previous studies, younger children did not discriminate between biological and psychological processes and were likely to say that both continued after death. From age seven, participants reasoned in the non-theistic narrative that living processes ceased at death, and in the theistic framed question, those processes continue after death. Further, US adolescents and adults were likely to endorse the continuation of psychological processes over biological processes. Participants in Vanuatu, however, provided more physiological than mental processes following the theistic framed question. In other words, when people were told that David was with God, they tended to assume that David’s eyes and ears still worked, that his legs could move, his heart could beat, and so on.

Participants also tended to offer as many supernatural types of explanations for the continuation of biological and psychological processes, for instance, claiming that God gives his legs the power to work. From their results, the authors concluded that the participants in Vanuatu were reasoning as though the people in heaven were not disembodied, but rather, required their bodies to be with God. They propose that in specific contexts, at least, the representation of people in the afterlife as physically embodied is as intuitive as the representation of people as psychologically immortal.

In summary of the chapter thus far, Bering proposes that children’s intuitive stance is towards psychological immortality and that with increasing age, they become more efficient at materialist reasoning. For instance, they are better able to incorporate their acquired scientific knowledge about the relationship between the brain and mind into their views about psychological functioning after death. When intuitions about life after death are culturally elaborated upon, they produce beliefs in the afterlife. Thus, psychological immortality of the dead is the natural stance, and this enables beliefs about the afterlife to be quickly adopted. By contrast, Harris and colleagues propose that older children first come to understand death in terms of the breakdown of biological processes. Thus, their first systematic theory of death is extinctive. With increasing exposure to ideas and practices surrounding the afterlife, children come to adopt a view of people as existing elsewhere. The afterlife includes beliefs about personal immortality but is also characterized by the continuity of the soul and in specific contexts, continuity of the physical body. Both accounts explain why particular ideas about the afterlife (e.g. that the mind and soul continue), are readily endorsed by ordinary people. Harris and colleagues also propose that people do not abandon their biological concepts of death in fftvor of culturally learned ideas about the afterlife. Instead, they hold two parallel concepts of death.

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