For atheists, the dead can live – but only if there’s no corpse

For atheists, the dead can live – but only if there’s no corpse October 12, 2011

In a fascinating new study psychologists Kurt Gray (University of Maryland), Anne Knickman and Daniel Wegner (Harvard University) have shown that people regard brain-dead individuals as less mentally aware than individuals who are completely, stone-cold dead. That’s weird enough, but the interaction with atheism is weirder still!

They ran a few experiments, all with a similar set up. People were told about two different dead people, one in a persistent vegetative state (i.e. brain dead), and the other one dead and buried. For example, David has a car accident, and then either dies, or his “entire brain was destroyed, except for the one part that keeps him breathing. So while his body is still technically alive, he will never wake up again.”

People tend to accept that the dead are likely to be mentally impaired. They’re less likely to be aware of their environment, have emotions, a personality, to remember events from their life, be able to influence current events, know right from wrong.

Bizarrely enough, however, the dead score higher on all of these than the brain dead. In the words of Gray et al, the brain-dead are more dead than dead!

Of course, not everyone thinks this way, and here’s where it gets really interesting.

Instead of just saying that David died in the car accident, they embellished the story to go into details of what happened to the body: “After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground.” And they also asked people how religious they were.

The graphic shows the results. For the religious, it didn’t matter whether they just said David was dead, or went into details about the corpse. Religious folks thought that David’s mind survived regardless – except course, if he was brain dead. Dead people have a mind, brain-dead people don’t.

For the non-religious, the corpse mattered. If there was a corpse, then David’s mind was dead – just as dead as if he was brain dead. That’s good – that’s what the non-religious are supposed to say. Dead people don’t think.

But if they didn’t mention the corpse, well then even the non-religious were tempted to say that David’s disembodied mind persisted somehow. They weren’t as confident as the religious, but there seems to be a nagging suspicion that David’s mind lingered on after death.

Gray and colleagues conclude that this is more evidence that we have an instinctive belief in mind-body dualism. Because brain dead people still have a living, breathing body, our instinctive thoughts about the mind become confused, and we get to thinking that the mind has been destroyed in some way that’s even more severe than actual death.

The non-religious, like the religious, tend to think of dead people having a mind. However, “Emphasizing the body of the deceased allowed non-religious participants to understand death as a state without mind”
Gray, K., Anne Knickman, T., & Wegner, D. (2011). More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state Cognition, 121 (2), 275-280 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2011.06.014

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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