Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Is Death Imaginable?

I recently came across another interesting article from Scientific American. It explores why people of all cultures, education levels, trades and religions acknowledge an afterlife, even though they believe on many levels that the mind ceases to exist upon death. Here are some possible reasons:

1. When we are alive, our mind creates the "illusion" that life continues after death. Why? Hopefully, this helps deter us from being overly afraid of death, to the extent that we can lead our normal lives without constant worry.

2. It's impossible for the human brain to comprehend "non-existence". According to philosopher Shaun Nichols, "When I try to imagine my own non-existence I have to imagine that I perceive or know about my non-existence. No wonder there's an obstacle!" Sounds like Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" argument.

3. From Mr. Darwin's perspective, there is no evolutionary value in having the ability to distinguish psychological death from physical death. In the wilderness, it is simply enough to know that a biologically dead lion will not suddenly spring to life and make you its meal.  Studies have shown that humans are very good at distinguishing what is alive from dead, even when we are just children. However, there is scarcely a need to develop a comprehension of mental death.

4. Finally, there is the concept of person permanence: just because we can't see someone does not mean he ceases to exist. This truism is exactly what hinders our ability to imagine death. We can't simply switch off person-permanence thinking when someone we know dies. This is especially true for those who are closest to us, as we frequently picture them engaging in various activites when out of sight.

I think the reasons above are quite compelling. They present various interesting perspectives at analyzing the question at hand. What do you think?


-PTS

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