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The folk psychology of souls

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  08 December 2006

Jesse M. Bering*
Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen's University Belfast, BelfastBT7 1NN, United


The present article examines how people's belief in an afterlife, as well as closely related supernatural beliefs, may open an empirical backdoor to our understanding of the evolution of human social cognition. Recent findings and logic from the cognitive sciences contribute to a novel theory of existential psychology, one that is grounded in the tenets of Darwinian natural selection. Many of the predominant questions of existential psychology strike at the heart of cognitive science. They involve: causal attribution (why is mortal behavior represented as being causally related to one's afterlife? how are dead agents envisaged as communicating messages to the living?), moral judgment (why are certain social behaviors, i.e., transgressions, believed to have ultimate repercussions after death or to reap the punishment of disgruntled ancestors?), theory of mind (how can we know what it is “like” to be dead? what social-cognitive strategies do people use to reason about the minds of the dead?), concept acquisition (how does a common-sense dualism interact with a formalized socio-religious indoctrination in childhood? how are supernatural properties of the dead conceptualized by young minds?), and teleological reasoning (why do people so often see their lives as being designed for a purpose that must be accomplished before they perish? how do various life events affect people's interpretation of this purpose?), among others. The central thesis of the present article is that an organized cognitive “system” dedicated to forming illusory representations of (1) psychological immortality, (2) the intelligent design of the self, and (3) the symbolic meaning of natural events evolved in response to the unique selective pressures of the human social environment.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2006

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1. This is as in various physical resurrectionist beliefs, such as the Anabaptist doctrine of “soul-sleep,” in which the soul is said to hibernate, or lie in wait, until it may reanimate the physically reconstituted body.

2. The simulation constraint hypothesis is indirectly supported by recent findings of egocentric social cognitive biases in adults (Epley et al. 2004). Epley and his colleagues found that participants’ eye gaze preferentially moved to privileged visual space in response to an experimenter's ambiguous referential communication. For example, the command “move the bunny” elicited automatic eye gaze toward a stuffed bunny that could be seen by the participant, but which was occluded from the experimenter's perspective, over a chocolate Easter bunny to which both the participant and experimenter had visual access. The authors argue that these findings show that egocentrism is just as prevalent in adults as it is in young children. Adults, however, more rapidly correct their egocentrism to adjust for others’ limited knowledge (e.g., by quickly shifting their gaze and moving the chocolate Easter bunny). If, as Epley et al. (2004) reason, individuals do become better with experience at making adjustments to correct for their initial egocentric views, but then rely on simulation to revise their social attributions, then even the best perspective-taking skills should falter when it comes to reasoning about dead agents’ “perspective-less” minds. This is because any attempt at correcting for egocentrism by using simulation would still run up against simulation constraints (e.g., “does he know that he's dead?”) and generate attributions of continued psychological functioning. Indeed, this is what is generally found.

3. The atrocities of the Holocaust forced many survivors to question God's “benevolent” intentions, apparently prompting some Jews to revise their theological views to accommodate the possibility that God is in fact morally corrupt. Nowhere is this theme more salient than in the semi-autobiographical chronicles of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. In Gates of the Forest, Wiesel (1966, p. 197) writes:

In a concentration camp, one evening after work, a rabbi called together three of his colleagues and convoked a special court. Standing with his head held high before them, he spoke as follows: “I intend to convict God of murder, for he is destroying his people and the law he gave to them… I have irrefutable proof in my hands. Judge without fear or sorrow or prejudice. Whatever you have to lose has long since been taken away.” The trial proceeded in due legal form, with witnesses for both sides with pleas and deliberations. The unanimous verdict: “Guilty.”… [But] after all, He had the last word. On the day of the trial, He turned the sentence against his judges and accusers. They, too, were taken off to the slaughter. And I tell you this: if their death has no meaning, then it's an insult, and if it does have a meaning, it's even more so.

4. In his Bridge of San Luis Rey (1927/1955), Thornton Wilder fictionalizes the sad tale of a collapsed bridge in eighteenth century Peru that brought five travelers to their deaths in the abyss below. In two chapters, one titled “Perhaps an Accident” and the other titled “Perhaps an Intention,” Wilder describes how the resident monk, Brother Juniper, troubled by the seeming arbitrariness of this horrific event, embarks on a “scientific experiment” to reveal why God chose to end the lives of these five people rather than some other five, by collecting and analyzing the facts and details of each person's value in terms of goodness, piety, and usefulness. Alas, “the thing was more difficult than he had foreseen” and his quest for spiritual understanding went unresolved. In a case of life imitating art, 14 people lost their lives in 2001 when a runaway tugboat rammed two barges into an interstate bridge and caused about a dozen cars to collapse into the Arkansas River. One of the victims was a young army captain and father of four from California on his way home to Virginia. The Oklahoman newspaper reported that his commanding officer, echoing the thoughts of Brother Juniper, “pondered the odds of making a 2,929-mile drive and landing on a 500-foot stretch of bridge that, in the most bizarre of accidents, plummeted precisely as he crossed it. ‘If [he] just stopped at a rest stop or stopped to get gas… There's just so many variables—and the timing.’” (Owen 2002).

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