Why do we think the soul persists after death?

Why do we think the soul persists after death? June 8, 2012

Connor Wood


Quick: imagine what happens after you die. Will you still be able to think and feel? Will you experience pain, pleasure, or sensations, and will you still develop, change, and grow? Around the world, people seem to be hardwired to think about humans dualistically, or as composed of physical bodies and nonphysical minds or spirits. This means that ideas about the afterlife and the soul may come as naturally to us as breathing. But a pair of psychologists from California think that the situation is more complicated – we may be innately predisposed to differentiate not just between body and mind, but between mortal mind and immortal spirit.

Read MoreThe relationship between the body and mind has been a thorny problem for ages, commanding the attention of philosophers from Aristotle to William James. But until the 19th century, most thinkers and non-experts alike assumed there was a basic difference between mind (which was thought to be non-physical and, usually, immortal) and body (which was physical and would eventually perish).

The most famous example of this dualism was articulated by René Descartes, who differentiated between physical matter and “thinking stuff,” or res cogitans. Descartes’ thinking stuff was very real, but it had no volume and took up no space in physical reality. This description seemed reasonable because, after all, you can see plainly where your arm is, and how much space it takes up – but where exactly is the thought of your arm? How big is that thought? A couple of inches?

Of course, modern cognitive science has moved beyond mind-body dualism, arguing that all thoughts and feelings are products of material processes in the brain. But most people who aren’t cognitive scientists or philosophers of mind still believe that there’s something essentially different about mental experience. In fact, in recent years, cognitive and behavioral research has suggested that humans may be naturally primed to see mental functions as fundamentally different from physical ones. That is, mind-body dualism may not be just a product of culture, but instead is likely an inbuilt function of the way human minds work.

However, psychologists Rebekah A. Richert (UC-Riverside) and Erin Smith (California Baptist University) have published a number of papers indicating that people may differentiate not only between body and mind, but also between mind and soul. That is, both adults and children seem to assume that cognitive functions such as thinking, solving problems, and planning for the future are somehow different from spiritual functions such as surviving death and remaining connected with God – even though both are separate from the physical body. In several research papers published over the past few years, Richert, Smith, and others have shown that the functions associated with the mind are usually thought to begin at birth, develop and change over a person’s lifetime, and stop at death. Spiritual functions, on the other hand, are typically described as unchanging and being unaffected by death.

In a new paper published recently in the journal Religion, Brain & Behavior, Richert and Smith investigated a new hypothesis: the fairly stable assumptions people have about spiritual functions may arise from a natural tendency among humans to essentialize concepts. In layman’s terms, this means that people are cognitively predisposed to intuit underlying “essences,” or unchanging identities, behind changing realities. Thus, we sense a basic, persisting sameness within ourselves and others, even as we all grow old, change appearances, and take on different life roles. There’s nothing mystical about this process – we do it because it helps us use concepts clearly. Without essentializing, for example, would the same name still apply to our friend Bob if he lost weight and grew a beard? Essentializing helps us to make sense of our constantly changing world by extracting stable, abstract concepts from a dynamic, shifting reality.

If essentializing is the reason that people have intuitions of unchanging, immortal souls, Richert and Smith expected that investigations should find several results: first, ideas of what the soul is should be largely the same across religious traditions, since essentializing is an inborn cognitive process that all humans share. But concepts about what the soul does should be different between religions, because essentialized concepts have more to do with ontology – what things fundamentally are –  than with function. Finally, the soul should be seen as very different from the mind, since the mind has more to do with changing, temporary states than with eternal, unchanging ones.

Surveying more than 400 undergraduates at a Californian university, Richert and Smith measured participants’ religiosity, spirituality, religious affiliation, and concepts of the mind and the soul. As expected, the students claimed that the soul changes less than the mind over the course of a person’s life, and that it’s more likely than the mind to survive death. Conversely, the volunteers saw the mind as carrying out more functions than the soul and as most likely ending with death. These attributions were mostly stable across religious groups (Christian, Buddhist, and agnostic).

Richert and Smith also investigated the practical ramifications of essentialized soul concepts by surveying participants about their acceptance of controversial beginning- and end-of-life decisions, including abortion, stem-cell research, euthanasia, ending life support, and suicide. Predictably, Christians were much less likely than Buddhists or agnostics to support abortion, ending life support, or allowing euthanasia. Buddhists joined with Christians in not supporting stem cell research. However, across religious traditions, people who saw the soul as beginning before birth and persisting after death showed much less support for abortion, stem cell research, and the acceptability of suicide. Importantly, these ethical decisions were affected by ontological but not functional concepts of the soul. In other words, people were influenced by their ideas of what the soul is, not what it does – supporting the essentialist hypothesis.

Richert’s and Smith’s study adds to the growing body of research showing that people are innately predisposed to sense that humans have an unchanging, undying essence that survives death and is unaffected by events during life. Importantly, this “soul sense” is fundamentally different from the intuitions people have about the activity of the mind, a contrast that diverges from Descartes’ simple mind-body dualism. And the soul sense may be a product of people’s instinctive tendency to essentialize their concepts of others, intuiting an unchanging reality behind shifting appearances in order to usefully apply ideas and names.

Of course, this research suffers from some of the same flaws that have dogged other studies in the social sciences. Most obviously, the research subjects were all undergraduates at an American university. It could be that even agnostics and Buddhists acquire concepts about the soul from living in American culture that override or change any inborn cognitive defaults. In other words, it’s hard to make concrete claims about humans across cultures and times when your research sample is all 21st-century American young adults. However, other research has suggested that some of the basic intuitions about souls and the mind-body relationship may, indeed, be found in radically different societies. For now, it may be best to take these findings as compelling hints that an idea of the soul may be found across the world – and may, indeed, be a product of the very way we make sense of reality.


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