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ESSAY WINNER: Questions of Oblivion

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#1 Bruce Klein

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Posted 15 October 2005 - 04:24 PM

Essay Winner: http://www.imminst.org/contest

Questions of Oblivion
by Anthony S. Dawber

The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness... Nature expects a full grown man to accept the two black voids, fore and aft, as stolidly as he accepts the extraordinary visions in between. Imagination, the supreme delight of the immortal and the immature, should be limited. In order to enjoy life we should not enjoy it too much. I rebel against this state of affairs. Vladimir Nobokov, "Speak, Memory"


A fundamental question that concerns human beings is "what happens to a person after death?" Over thousands of years, people in different cultures have lived as if they knew the answer - that some new form of existence begins after death. Beautiful artwork, intricate doctrines and elaborate funeral rituals attest to the importance of a profound and believable answer to the question. But in the present day we must ask, more than ever, whether our present-day scientific understanding of reality support the claims of many religions and philosophies that there is an afterlife, or does science instead offer convincing evidence that life ends in Oblivion? And if Oblivion is a possibility, how do we come to terms with it? If science convincingly supports afterlife claims, there is no need to "come to terms" with Oblivion; some sort of afterlife will ensure personal continuity. But if science offers no clear conclusion - or actually shows Oblivion to be very possible indeed - then we must somehow endure this likelihood.

We can sometimes console ourselves, by degrees, because non-personal existence continues after death in different ways: the elements that constitute the body, like carbon and atoms, evidently persist after bodies decay; our personal influence through our children, works, or some other legacy can also persist after death. Many even believe that the personality may enter into an impersonal existence like a collective mind or Nirvana. But regardless of these facts and world-views, the problem of Oblivion persists with profound influence because we cannot completely deny the possibility of an absolute end to oneself. Whether we understand ourselves in terms of having a soul, mind, life-force, consciousness, or self, Oblivion is a question of what happens to the personal aspect of existence, and it is specifically a question of one's own personal continuity. (1)

Questions of Oblivion are part of the unique anguish of being human; we are the only animals who have imagined and insisted upon life after death. The following exploration into the origins of the death concept and funeral ritual, as well as a study of evolutionary psychology and physiology, should inform our understanding of why this is and how most humans manage to live their finite lives with only occasional bouts of dread and morbidity. What we should expect from death can come from this understanding, and provide some answers to the questions of Oblivion.

Origins of the Death Concept - Survival Instincts and Separation Anxiety

All animals have evolved with survival instincts. These are the reflexive withdrawals from threats that prove the vulnerabilities of any particular species. In addition, animals are instinctually motivated to obtain air and sustenance, to maintain adequate temperature, and also to reproduce. Many animals, especially mammals, have evolved the capacity to experience emotional feelings of separation anxiety and an awareness of absence. Should any separation become permanent, a sense of loss is also felt. Infant mammals and other animals will let out cries when separated from their caregiver to alert the adult to the danger of being too far from their vulnerable charge. But these emotions and behaviours do not express fear of death. Survival instincts help an animal avoid danger, not "death" as we human beings understand it. This does not mean that animals cannot recognize and respond to changes in other animals caused by death - they clearly can. For example: that a captive prey has stopped struggling in a predator's jaws indicates to the predator that the prey will be easier to eat; that one chick in the nest is not responding shows the parents that there is no point in feeding it; that one member of a group is missing means that it is time for the others to call for it. Some animals are especially good at realizing the loss of their conspecifics - some elephants, dogs, and primates appear to mourn lost friends, mates or relatives. But they do not understand nor conceptualize death, and neither did we Homo sapiens sapiens until a certain point in our evolution.


Animals' awareness of one-another through presence and absence is similar to the awareness of life and death. But seeing a dead body does not automatically allow animals, including humans, to understand death. This is the reason why a chimpanzee named Humphrey did not realize that he would never again meet his friend Gregor. Jane van Lawick-Goodall wrote about these two chimps in her book In the Shadow of Man: "For nearly six months he kept returning to the place where Gregor had spent the last days of his life, and would sit up one tree or another staring around, waiting, listening. During this time he seldom joined the other chimps when they left together for a distant valley; he sometimes went a short way with such a group, but within a few hours he usually came back again and sat staring over the valley, waiting, surely to see old Gregor again." (p. 224) Why would an intelligent animal do this? Humphrey probably did not realize his friend was lost forever, but he certainly knew he was missing his friend; there was an absence in his life and a change in his social group. In some way, Humphrey was wondering "Where is my friend?" and, once his more obvious feelings of bereavement had passed, he may have done so for the rest of his life.

Animate and Intentional Being

The basis of the concept of death is the animal knowledge, older than humans themselves, that others could not only be lost, but changed through being injured or killed. This awareness is possible through perceiving other animals in two different ways: as animate beings and as intentional beings. Animate being is the particular, mobile form that physically defines an animal; it spontaneously moves or is suddenly still, and is perceived to have particular physical capabilities, appearances, and limits. Intentional being is the expression of goals and choices through behaviour, and can thus be perceived and predicated by others. Mostly through these modes of being, hominid (2) individuals can recognize each other's appearance and character.


As a result of this perceptual inheritence, hominini (3) were able to notice how strangely an injured or sick fellow might be moving or acting compared to how s/he was normally animate and how s/he normally behaved. When a hominini noticed a conspecific was strange s/he was making note of another's physical transformation and behavioural unpredictability. At some point in history, hominini who felt this strangeness sought to understand this perceptual shift from normal to strange, and so examined the other hominini and thus recognized that the strangeness was a result of a physical change. Though another's body is initially encountered as a surface with which every sense can engage, vision takes on extra import in investigating injury and noticing strangeness. Vision then becomes the primary mode of investigation into the state of bodies as a material animate form, as physiology. Normally, the shifting visual form of another person does not imply anything within it, it is a surface, and oneself is not visually aware of a deeper materiality within ones own body either (though one can feel internal rumblings, twitches, contractions, movement, etc.). To see something strange is to notice something which is not normally perceived as part of another or of oneself - on the one hand, there is a familiar surface body, but there is also an alien inside, which is now exposed, bleeding or spilling out from the injured or dead body. What is seen here is unexplainable by the typical awareness of animate form.

Pliocene Medicine

Evidence of hominini responses to strangeness are found in the fossil record. In the Pliocene period of evolution (5 - 1.6 million years ago), there is evidence that members or a member of a hominini group apparently inspected and cared for the injuries and pain to another, as shown by a healed break-line in a femur of an East African Australopithecine (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, p213). Another example of this awareness has been inferred from a skull, nearly 2 million years old, found at Dmanisi, Georgia. The teeth of the skull had been absent for years before the hominini's death. This individual would have needed others to help to provide enough soft food (thought to be scarce in the area) so that s/he could eat and live. This early human must have been recognized by others as being strange and, upon investigation and observation, as unable to eat enough without help. Groups of hominini thus helped each other to survive by administering to physical needs. Human life may have been impossible without this early altruism that has developed over millions of years. These kinds of bodily attentions are the first evidence for the beginnings of medicine; a sophisticated form of altruism that was a necessary development in leading to the conceptualization of death.

Birth and Death of the Self

Medicine is one example of how social groups are vital to individual survival. Groups are also necessary to the development of the concept of the self, which in turn is necessary to the development of the death concept.

The self begins with bodily awareness

Awareness of oneself arises initially from the template of the lived human body that feels and moves - the tactile-kinesthetic body. All unimpaired human bodies are capable of some basic, uniform faculties, like suckling, eating, breathing, walking, noise-making, etc., and so humans are aware of their abilities: "I can suckle", "I can eat", etc. Such awareness is latent in bodily acts. I do not need to look in the mirror to know that I am opening my mouth, but I do need to look at others to see if they are. This awareness of “I can,” is the threshold of self awareness. “Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of “I think that,” but “I can"." (Merleau-Ponty, 1962, p429).

From this template of bodily "I cans", concepts are mentally formed and linguistically, ritually, or artistically developed and shared. For example: from eating comes the awareness of grinding/mashing food down, along with the necessary awareness of softness (lips, tongue, some food) and of hardness (teeth, some food). The hard teeth have their own properties like edges, bluntness, irregularity, etc. Because of this tactile-kinesthetic awareness, when early hominini ate they were also aware of hard food becoming soft mush and were thus on the threshold of understanding a concept of transformation. (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, p29). Basic concepts like this developed through increasingly abstract thinking and communicating with others.

The self requires others like oneself

Infants initially encounter others as animate beings with a substantial, moving presence that can be sensed and explored on the surface, looked at face to face, warmed-up against, or fed from. The child becomes aware of its individuality through corporeal interaction, by noticing physical separateness, differences vis-à-vis others, and awareness of private subjectivity. This self-awareness is increasingly structured by an autobiographical memory as the individual ages. With maturity, the body remains the medium by which relations between people in the group are established through the perception of intentional being. Language comes from the mouth, expressions are on faces, touchings have different characters, proximity and movement have their meanings and purposes. The individual self is further delineated by others through forms of identification like naming, placing the individual in a shared cultural world-view, and through significant modes of socialization like gender, and self esteem.

Mental Being

This dynamic illustrates that, in the case of human beings, cultural groups are fundamental units of social organization from which a sophisticated self concept and sense of consciousness emerges. This concept of self is built on the awareness of animate and intentional being, which in turn enables the understanding of other humans as mental beings - beings who are understood to have a consciousness like one's own (con-scious = to know with). Though we can easily understand mental being as we mature within a modern culture, this awareness was not fully formed in the rudimentary cultures of the prehistory before Homo sapiens sapiens. This understanding of mental being is probably a survival adaptation - in understanding mentality, an individual could not only recognize and predict the behavior of others through awareness of animate and intentional being, but s/he could become adept at manipulating the thoughts and feelings of others so as to have a greater influence over them. As Nietzsche (1887) put it:

"Consciousness is really only a net of communication between human beings; it is only as such that it had to develop; a solitary human being who lived like a beast of prey would not have needed it. That our actions, thoughts, feelings, and movements enter our own consciousness - at least a part of them - that is the result of a "must" that for a terribly long time lorded it over man. As the most endangered animal, he needed help and protection, he needed his peers, he had to learn to express his distress and to make himself understood; and for all of this he needed "consciousness" first of all, he needed to "know" himself what distressed him, he needed to "know" how he felt, he needed to "know" what he thought."

This would provide a great motivation to express oneself beyond body language and physical interventions, probably influencing the development of language and art.

Consciousness allows humans to learn from each other, from the past, and to plan for the future. Being thusly aware, we can also imagine new things and turn them into reality, being truly creative and changing the physical world to meet our desires (Solomon, et al., in press).

The self is finite

In order to survive, social animals would be in a better position to help each other by perceiving strangeness in their conspecifics. This strangeness is defined by a lack or limit in another individual who is basically the same as oneself. At its most extreme, strangeness is defined by a stillness and a silence that is more strange than illness or injury: before the living observers is a body without the animation, sociality, or mentality that partially constitute hominini self-awareness. The still, silent body evokes a feeling of the absence of self in another - far beyond the temporary absence of sleep or unconsciousness. Because the self is perceived to be absent in the strange body, there is a reduced sense of self in the living observer, similar to the experience of abandonment, of aloneness. The absent self that characterizes a dead body becomes something of the past, never again to be present in togetherness - the dead silently rot and fade. Unique and individual life is thus perceived to end for others and, by the process of analogy, understood to end for ones self - who is just like the others that have died (Sheets-Johnstone, 1990, p229).

Thus the concept of "self" arose from bodily awareness and physical individuation within a group of alike others who understand each other as mental beings that exist with the same tactile-kinesthetic uniformities as oneself does, meaning that consciousness is recognized in others analogically. The concept of death is the limit of this concept of self, enabling humans to be aware that one's self is finite and will one day be perceived as absent and lost for others in the strange event of bodily stillness and silence that we call death.

Death is thus a human concept which describes an inevitable event for all living things, which is absolute (no-one has ever returned from death), universal (everyone dies), and personal (I will die). For this conceptual insight to continue in human history, primitive humans had to transmit the concept of death to future generations (Tomasello, 2003, p4). Since then, it has been necessary for cultures to deny the possibility of Oblivion implied by the death concept. This is due to the experience of death anxiety engendered by self consciousness and self finitude.

Death Anxiety

Our survival instincts and separation anxiety joined with the knowledge of mortality means that in thinking about death we can feel terrified by it. This terror is characterized by the psychologist and thanatologist Ernest Becker as death anxiety. Death anxiety can be experienced once a human being is old enough to have an individuated sense of self, and is taught or realizes that 'death' refers to an inevitable ending of that sense of self, and to the ending of others.

Death anxiety is not the same as fear of Oblivion. People who believe in an afterlife still fear death, and some of the general reasons for this is that death leads to the unknown, that people usually doubt their beliefs, and that continued existence may be scary or painful (especially if a person believes they might go to Hell or be divinely judged). Anxiety over Oblivion is more specific than this, but everyone must feel that to some degree. The same death anxiety must have been felt by the prehistoric people who understood the concept of death, thus lending impetus to Oblivion-denial.

Culture and Oblivion-Denial

A primary means of Oblivion-denial within a culture is afterlife belief, partially expressed in funeral ritual. Like the concepts of death and self, the denial of Oblivion has historical origins, and it is the elucidation of these origins that will show us, using the scientific means of paleoanthropology, how people have coped with the threat of Oblivion.

Funeral Ritual and The Afterlife

The advent of funeral ritual is a fairly clear indication of when hominini came to conceptualize death because it is the most obvious means of coping with death anxiety. But death is not something we came to understand easily, quickly or generally in our prehistory; funeral ritual is a recent development in the 6 million year old hominid fossil record. This is probably because the ability to share experience and teach knowledge (like a concept of death) is only possible through sophisticated cultural transmission like language, art, and ritual, and only when these resources were available could there have been a collective sharing of the death concept, resulting in death anxiety and a ritualized response to it. Perhaps there were early hominini who understood death but may not have been able to explain it to others, nor consequently pass their realizations on to the following generations. This could be due to a number of factors, like unimaginative art and ritual, or too primitive a language, or (more fundamentally) underdeveloped vocal organs that inhibited language development. Based on the current evidence, the death concept must have manifested in early cultures shortly before the advent of funeral ritual, which would otherwise have had no psychological basis for its creation.

The earliest evidence for funeral ritual is the 300,000 year old "Pit of Bones", discovered in Atapuerca in northern Spain. This ritual took the form of a mass burial of 32 individuals belonging to a species of hominini called Homo heidelbergensis (4). The inclusion of a carved, pink axe-head among the corpses placed into the pit means that there was probably some creative purpose to the burial other than disposal of dead bodies because, in recorded history, funerals have always included earthy objects symbolizing some element of a belief in the afterlife, therefore the inclusion of a beautiful axe-head probably meant the same thing. Hence the Pit of Bones is the earliest evidence of afterlife belief expressed through funeral ritual, and perhaps around the same time the concept of death became a part of human culture in art or as a word or sign. However, the Pit of Bones is exceptional as hominini usually just cast their dead aside, as evidenced by the scattered bones of the deceased found in excavations of rubbish heaps older than 150,000 years. Evidentally, funeral ritual took another 150,000 years since the Pit of Bones to become a more general practice, and by then Homo heidelbergensis were extinct. Funeral ritual was more widely enacted by two different species of hominini - Neanderthals (5) and we Homo sapiens sapiens.

Neanderthal and human funerals show different kinds of symbolism employed in ritualizing the disposal of the body, especially preparing it for the afterlife. The cave of Moula Guercy, South-East France, contained the remains of 6 individuals, from 100-125,000 years ago, with signs of flesh-removal on their bones indicating that these people preserved their dead as fleshless skeletal remains, perhaps similar to the bone piles of medieval charnel houses and ossuaries. The Atapuerca and Moula Guercy cave burials were mass graves; later burials were made for individuals alone. A site in the Teshik Tash cave, in Uzbekistan, revealed the remains of a child 9 years old, from approximately 70,000 years ago, buried with the feet towards the entrance of the cave; around to the skull were 6 braces of horns of the Siberian Ibex and a small fire had been ignited beside the body. In the Shanidar cave in northern Iraq, the pollen of several (medicinal) flowers were found on a buried Neanderthal from 60,000 years ago. Other funerals have involved bodies found in a fetal position or facing the rising sun. Cave bear bones at Drachenloch, in the Swiss Alps indicate the symbolic revering of the bear; perhaps because a bear's hibernation abilities were seen as a resurrection from death. The use of bear bones and skulls in funerals in other parts of the world (like the Regourdou Cave in Southern France) indicate that this was a common perception. Funeral ritual becomes yet more complex as human culture became more sophisticated. 28,000 years ago at Sungir near Moscow, humans buried three dead children with numerous bracelets, a pendant with an animal shape and other carefully decorated ivory objects, and the three bodies were covered with a thick (protective?) layer of mammoth tusks. Like the Pit of Bones, the Neanderthal and human burial of the dead with useful, representative, and beautiful earthly possessions indicates the likelihood of a belief in an afterlife.

There have since been no culture that has not espoused an afterlife belief - indeed, all Homo sapiens sapiens cultures appear to have done so and this seems to be because the death concept is older than Homo sapiens sapiens, a concept probably formulated by our extinct ancestors Homo heidelbergensis, providing one of the most important legacies of human history.


Funeral ritual would not only have been meaningless without a concept of death, it would have also been pointless without a place in a wider understanding of reality and shared ways of life. Before conceptualising and ritualizing death, hominini needed an understanding of their place in reality, a world-view, so that they could effect the rituals that gave them the sense that they had some control over reality. Language, tools and art (6) provided the resources and ability to share knowledge and to collaboratively create and sustain beliefs in a mutual and lasting way of life (i.e. a cultural world-view). Primitive cultures would have transmitted their knowledge of reality through the progressive sophistication of an explanatory world-view using language, art, and ritual - all before the death concept entered the prehistoric scene.

As culture became more complex, the world-view would have given humans a sense of transcendence over their animal heritage by living meaningful roles, which gave them a sense of security and organized utility in a world that was often hostile and unpredictable. Because of the seemingly random and brutal reality of nature, an orderly view of the world is of profound psychological significance, as evidenced by creation myths which universally describe or imply the emergence of order from chaos (Leeming and Leeming, 1994, pviii). Thus world-views give people a sense of stability from which they can growth and expand their power, their life-force, through controlling the perception of reality.

Like any other knowledge, the concepts of self and death were culturally transmitted through language, art, ritual, enabling them to be fully realized and sustained over time. As this happened, these concepts became part of the rudimentary world-views, making them more sophisticated in their explanatory power because humans needed increased psychological tools - not only to feel powerful and enduring in life, but in death too. Rituals became methods for creating and sustaining existence, dealing with the minutiae of everyday life, through to the vastness of the cosmos (in whatever way it was perceived). Of course, people could not do this alone, they needed others to help effect their rituals because people cannot generate life all by themselves. The concepts of self and death thus lead to greater attempts to understand existence by making it meaningful, controllable, personal and lasting. The death concept was thus an important catalyst for cultural evolution, self-consciousness, and the importance of meaning - of which our lives are a consequence.

Survival of the Imaginative

The success or failure of a world-view depends on whether it is believable and useful. The failure to motivate people by capturing their imaginations may well be one of the reasons why early hominini became extinct. Without a meaningful, death-denying culture it is possible that death-aware hominini like ourselves would be too afraid of the threat of Oblivion to take the kinds of risks (and especially self-sacrificial acts) that could help the survival of the group and its culture. In this sense human evolution was a matter of the survival of those with good imaginations. With no convincing comforts to assuage the terror of death, with no profound sense effected by meaningful rituals, the early hominini species that have died out may have done so out of fear of death. Too afraid to hunt, they starved. Too afraid to explore, they never grew in number. Too afraid to fight, more self-assured hominini were brave enough to kill them - and be killed. Homo sapiens sapiens survival could have been aided by our ability to quell death anxiety by convincing ourselves of our shared cultural creations and be willing to enter "the next life" by dying meaningfully. The fear of Oblivion is thus driven into the heart of the human psyche and fundamentally defines human culture.

Terror Management Theory

Death anxiety encapsulates Becker's overall theory of how the awareness of death affects the psychology and culture of the living, and Terror Management Theory (TMT) is the scientific validation of Becker's ideas by experimental psychologists through manipulative, laboratory testing, using a sophisticated program of analysis under peer review. For Becker and terror management theorists, the unbearable terror of death that self-aware mortal beings would normally experience in understanding death is "managed by the construction and maintenance of cultural worldviews: humanly constructed beliefs about the nature of reality that infuse individuals with a sense that they are persons of value in a world of meaning, different than and superior to corporeal and mortal nature, and thus capable of transcending the natural boundaries of time and space, and in so doing, elude death" (Pyszczynski et al. 2003, p27).

But it is not enough to simply maintain a world-view - an individual must succeed within it also. The most obvious result of success is the feeling of self-esteem. Esteem is assigned to individuals as a result of success within the culture by attaining expected goals, structuring living around cultural values, upholding the prescribed world-view, and so forth. Each group member has a social memory and access to recording media (orally transmitted stories, writings and pictures, rites of passage, etc.) thus documenting and interpreting individual lives in a lasting way, allowing a group to praise or criticize the lives of individual members. Esteem provides an individual with a sense of success and value within a system of consensual meaning, which is essential to individual health and psychological well-being.

The terror of mortality and the avoidance of this reality is an unconscious and, until recently, largely unexamined element of human psychology and cultural meaning, despite that mortality is self-evident to humans today because we quickly learn about death through our culture. This knowledge does not necessarily correspond to a belief in personal Oblivion; but despite belief that "death is not the end" direct confrontation with death is avoided by many people - death is taboo. The psychologist Robert Kastenbaum noted this avoidance even in the field of psychology: "Number of editions of the "Annual Review of Psychology" before the first review of death-related topics: 27. Of the 1,128,000 words in the "Handbook of General Psychology", 166 are devoted to death-related topics. This is .0001% of the total coverage... No death mention occurs under such major sections as The Human Organism, Perception, Learning, Language, Thought and Intelligence or Personality." (Kastenbaum, 1992, p58).

Though Oblivion-denial is probably not universal, it is widespread. TMT illustrates that human beings generally deny Oblivion by believing in ideas and values that give meaning and continuity to life. In one of many varied and repeated TMT experiments, subjects were tested on how strongly they identified with their group’s world-view. The subjects not in the control group were then reminded of their mortality by being asked to write one paragraph about their imminent death. After that the subjects were re-tested on their in-group values. In every case, respondents identified more strongly with their group’s world-view than previously (Castano, et al, 2002).

In another experiment, American court judges were presented with a hypothetical legal case brief, stating the arresting charge of prostitution (a crime which violates moral convictions for most people in U.S. culture). The case brief included the unusual information about the arrest and the defendants personal information, and a form which asked the judges to set a bond for the defendant. The judges, who are rigorously trained to make rational decisions, set an average bond of $455 following a subconscious reminder of death, compared to the control group (not reminded of death) who set average bonds of $50! This experiment, and follow-up experiments which clarified and rebutted criticism, show that moral transgressions are more severely punished after mortality is made psychologically significant (Pyszczynski et al. 2003, p44-50).

A final example from the many TMT experiments shows how "cultural icons function as concrete manifestations of the more abstract meanings and values of the cultural worldview, which constitute the individual's primary sources of psychological equanimity" (Pyszczynski et al. 2003, p52). The American participants were asked to complete two tasks: sifting sand out of black dye with only an American flag available to do so, and nailing a crucifix to a wall with only the crucifix itself available to do the hammering. THe control group were not reminded of death, but the experimental group were. It took the latter group twice as long to complete the task, and they reported feeling much more uncomfortable in doing so than their counterparts. This experiment lends weight to the idea that physical symbols are used to confirm the "truth" of a worldview, giving people a tangible focus for their beliefs (Pyszczynski et al. 2003, p51-52). This is probably why a dead body is treated symbolically during a funeral ritual.

These results (and results from over 150 peer reviewed experiments in 9 different countries) show that when anxiety about death is high, belief in cultural meanings are also more strongly asserted, illustrating the unconscious attempt to quell death anxiety by affirming meaning in life. In addition, TMT has plenty of supportive evidence that shows that anxiety about death increases when people feel low esteem and insecure in their relationships. Essentially, when the threat of death is salient, belief in group meanings can be emboldened.

These group meanings are not experienced as ways of suppressing death anxiety, but have a mundane, real-life meaning for people who accept and live them. Because cultural meaning is very important for anxiety-reduction, investment in particular world-views can be great. As a result, group values are often asserted to the detriment of outsiders whose incommensurable world-views offer the threat of contradiction and critique. If a person's method of controlling and understanding existence is shown to be flawed, then a pointless life and meaningless death threatens the individual with anguish, powerlessness and finitude. This is why cultural meanings and beliefs are defended by the members who sustain them. As Becker put it: "No wonder men go into a rage over fine points of belief: if your adversary wins the argument about truth, you die. Your immortality system has been shown to be fallible, your life becomes fallible." (Becker, 1975, p64). The personal investment that individuals may make in their group's cultural values can be so intense that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the world-view that sustains their meaning in life. Deaths with self-sacrificial meanings can be quite ironic. The meaning which assuaged death-anxiety leads to an embrace of death, usually with the understanding that such a death in not final but leads to an afterlife and posthumous recognition; religious martyrs and military suicide missions serve as good examples.

The afterlife is not only an aspect of a world-view that denies death, it is also a point of transcendent reference for a hierarchy of morality, buttressed by the absolute claims of a religion or a philosophy. Heaven (or the equivalent place of eternity, reward, pleasure, peace, righteousness, etc.) belongs to the people who have lived good lives by following the values defined by a world-view. Hell (or similar places of limbo, punishment, pain, torment, sinfulness, etc.) is the afterlife place of those who have failed to live in an acceptable way, or worse, lived against the prescribed way. Any afterlife expresses what people believe, in their particular time and place, regarding what it means to be good or evil. Examining afterlife belief is a good way of understanding how individuals members of a culture are expected to live their lives.

The Body and Death

It is the body from which the sense of self grows, and it is the body which revealed to early humans the fact of death. Few people will argue against the perception that when the body dies, the self is no longer a part of it. Perhaps this means that the self survives bodily collapse and decay, moving undetected towards some unseen dimension of existence? As we have seen, this comforting thought is an ancient one, but a scientific understanding of the human body and of reality generally debunks this primitive hope. Though the scientific method cannot prove anything, strictly speaking, science can show us what the most likely and consistent possibilities are, by providing observable evidence and predictable, repeatable results to support a theory that has been examined by the scientific community.

As a part of their cultural afterlife belief, many people believe in a separable and immaterial mind or soul which contains the essence of our personality; including our thinking, consciousness, memories, beliefs, and emotions. One of the reasons why the body and mind seem separable is because the brain is not the same as the mind; after all, you are not aware of mental processes like thoughts and dreams as brain processes, instead they seem to be something different, non-spatial and subjective. What appears to be the separability of the body and the self supports the idea that life after death is something like waking up from sleep with our personality intact, but the body left behind as an unessential, earthly thing.

Essentially, the belief in a soul is a belief in a bodiless self, but it is already clear from the evolutionary account of human existence that the concept and sense of the self arose out of bodily interaction with others and from the tactile-kinesthetic body. The intimacy of self and body is supported by science; with impaired tactile-kinesthetic qualities, impaired thinking/feeling occurs. This is evidenced by the observations that when parts of body or brain are damaged the personality is also affected (Hohmann, 1966). Head trauma, lesions, tumors, excisions, and the like, impair the mental functions that people attribute to the soul. For example, damage to the frontal lobe can result in loss of spontaneity, flexibility in thought, or result in mood swings and reduced problem solving abilities as well as many subtle or obvious changes to personality. Damage to the temporal lobe can result in increased aggression, memory problems, difficulty recognising words, faces, or objects, and sexual dysfunction. When drugs are administered to the body, the chemical changes create personality or perceptual changes. There is a direct causal link between bodily events and mental experience, including matters as simple as driving fast, eating lots of sugar, or having a conversation.

But is there not alternative evidence that suggests the persistence of the self beyond the physical body? What of religious texts and paranormal events that describe or involve disembodied personalities? The evidence in these cases is not scientific in nature; it is not observable (except by the claimant), testable, repeatable, or predictable. Furthermore, the claims involve people who are enthusiastic and not very critical in their belief in these ideas, or people who are frauds. Many of these claims are the result of mistakes, and none of the claims can be convincing without a certain amount of faith or credulity. The claims of ancient religious texts are especially dubious as the evidence they present is thousands of years old, past down in writings that often have been translated and edited many times. The onus of proof is on the believer to show that their claims regarding unobservable, vague, and capricious disembodied entities are true, compared to the claims of other believers or the objections of skeptics and atheists.

Near Death Experiences

To emphasize this point, the paranormal occurrence of the near death experience (NDE) can serve as a specific example. NDEs involve dying patients whose bodies have failed but whose brains still live. The patient has an experience of disembodiment and of floating upwards, perhaps through a tunnel towards light, and filled with serene feelings; people have interpreted this as the soul taking flight towards some sort of continued existence. But the more obvious explanation, based in scientific fact, is that these patients are not only suffering from the disorientation and pain of being in extremis in an emergency room, they are also under the influence of hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) as well as a cocktail of tranquilizers, painkillers, and stimulants which have been administered to them as part of the attempt to keep them alive. The experience of the NDE is explainable in terms of brain activity which is much like a dream or hallucination. This is because the brain is still alive and the person is still having experiences. No patient has ever returned to describe any kind of experience when their brain is dead and has no electrical-chemical activity.


Another popular defence for the idea that the self exists beyond the body, is the philosophy of dualism. Dualists maintain that the self is distinct from the body, somehow connected to and controlling it from a distance. This means that even if bodily damage disables the living, the distant mind remains intact, and only appears damaged. But there is no proof for this idea and it is at odds with the evolution of self-awareness. On the contrary, damage to the brain can reveal correlations with mental function, and people recovering from brain injury can tell us how they felt, but they never say that no mental functions were impaired - which is what you would expect if the mind existed separately from the body.

Aside from the scientific evidence, we can execrate the idea of the "bodiless self" as absurd with a few rhetorical questions: How could a bodiless self perceive and feel? How would it know in which direction it should orient itself? How is it even recognized? If this bodiless self exists in a realm so radically different that these questions do not matter, how could it be possible that this bodiless self is the same as the person who died? Such an existence would alter a person's character and experience beyond recognition and so belie the whole point of personal continuity in a bodiless afterlife.


We seem to be in a position where we can confidently answer the questions of Oblivion. We have a good understanding as to how people cope with the knowledge and terror of death regardless of whether they expect Oblivion or, like most people, imagine some sort of afterlife. We have seen that when the body dies, the self is not present and, for all we know, it will never be present anywhere, ever again. The weight of evidence we have drawn from the study of human existence through the sciences, philosophy, history, and psychology, overwhelmingly points to the strong likelihood that my self, your self and everyone else will meet with Oblivion; the evidence to the contrary relies on vagaries, or faith. Yet though we can deny that any theology, religion, or philosophy has explained life after death in a way that makes sense with the rest of our knowledge of humanity, we cannot deny that there are things of which we are not aware that could prove our immortality. This is because the question of whether there is existence or Oblivion after death is essentially a theological question. Even though science and philosophy can illustrate that we can be fairly certain of the physical and finite nature of human life, the persistent and powerful religious experience of humanity re-emphasizes the importance of theology in answering ultimate questions of reality. Because we cannot philosophically or scientific disprove the possibility of a divinity, force, or intelligence that can ensure our continued existence, we must remain intellectually agnostic about the possibilities inherent in the vastness and complexity of existence of which we are a tiny, and perhaps insignificant, part. Sociology and anthropology can show us how human cultures cope with the knowledge of death through their beliefs and rituals. Psychology and history can offer explanations as to why people act the way they do and the impact that such actions have in human affairs when death is a significant factor. Philosophy can address the questions made pertinent by the threat of Oblivion: questions of existence, of meaning, and of God; but philosophers may have presuppositions about the reality of God that rule out an afterlife. Only theology is in a position to properly address the question of an afterlife because only theology must maintain the question of life after death as an open one. Any insistent claim for or against the afterlife is premature - we can only possibly know once we are dead.

The importance of this open question is why recent scientific insights and philosophical ideas have been synthesized to form modern organizations that seek to satisfy the religious experience of people who are also informed by scientific knowledge. These new movements are becoming more well known and are similar in their inclusive and syncretic scope to the likes Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Zen Buddhism, Baha'i, or Universalist Unitarianism. The difference that characterizes these newer movements is their greater faith in and reliance on scientific progress, and their broad adoption of the rough-hewn philosophy of transhumanism. For example, the Society for Venturism espouses "immortalism"; the belief that eternal life is possible through science (Pizer, 2005, p42). The Society for Universal Immortalism espouses a similar philosophy, and there are many modern thinkers who have written about the possibilities for longevity and improvement inherent in advanced science. These organizations address the possibilities implied by the vastness of known reality, explaining their own ideas about the reality, purpose, and continuity of human existence. Other organizations have less emphasis on particular beliefs, but also rely on possibilities inherent in the future (similar to an afterlife belief), like Alcor or the Cryonics Institute, whose members hope - or expect - that science will find a way to re-animate frozen cryonics patents. Though these organizations are not the same as traditional religions, they express the openness that people maintain towards unknown possibilities that could offer continued existence.

Nevertheless, these new organizations have difficulty establishing themselves in a world still influenced by older and more powerful religions. Traditional beliefs are psychologically gripping partly because the terror of death can arise from the suspicion that one may have wasted ones life in living the "wrong" way; consequently people have a compelling reason to accept their "tried and tested" social roles and adopt the ready-made cultural meanings that their parents, schools, government, media, and other authorities teach and valorize. Such a non-critical embrace of culture can result in what can often be an over-identification with the group and resultant loss of individual potential. This lack of skepticism and this over-investment in a cultural world-view causes perceived external threats to a culture to seem greater. The animal response of violence is then more likely and the self-aware response of tolerance is overwhelmed by death anxiety.

History proliferates with examples of atrocities committed by people opposed in their claims to sanctity and righteousness. The suicidal attacks against the US on September the 11th, 2001, were planned by men who believe in a certain kind of Muslim heaven. They killed around 3,000 people and expected to be transported through the destruction to a garden of tranquility and sensual delights as a reward for their actions. Similarly, Jewish afterlife belief is one of the reasons for Jewish claims on Israel. Many Jews believe that their martyrs urge the fighting to continue from beyond the grave. In the US today, as in other countries, religious values are closely aligned with politics. This is why it is not enough to say that people want an afterlife of a particular kind to deny Oblivion, they also want a particular kind of afterlife that affirms that the actions of individuals within a culture are good and right.

However, progress is possible because culture is something we can all influence. Critical philosophical tools and the findings of science provide insights which can guide our personal decision making and social organization. Especially pertinent to the questions of Oblivion and their influence on human cultures are the findings of TMT. These indicate that the terror mitigating factors of "high self-esteem, a liberal political orientation or salient reminder of the value of tolerance, a confident belief in symbolic immortality, and secure attachment style all serve to reduce the... pernicious effects of mortality salience." (Pyszczynski et al, 2003, p85). These pernicious effects include all kinds of prejudice and the aggressive defense of world-views by individuals and groups that lead to conflict, prejudice, and warfare. TMT shows that when death is not threatening, conflict is less likely. Wars, genocide, intolerance, fear, and bigotry are less likely to occur in cultures that are structured by esteem, honesty, tolerance, and symbolic immortality.

One of the ways a culture could foster self-esteem and a more peaceful and tolerant world-view is through liberal education about, and increased employment in, scientific work on longevity medicine and cryonics. If these forms of education and work were successful they should encourage tolerance and help to secure relationships because death would be less threatening. Successful longevity techniques within such a culture could be expressed in similar terms to symbolic immortality, as advanced scientific knowledge should allow us to postpone death indefinitely so that it would only occur in cases of devastating accident or killing. A progressive world-view would emphasize that the medicines and technologies that help us to survive are the best tools we have in postponing Oblivion, and more effort and resources should go into their developed. Even if we must ultimately accept death, longevity would offer the chance to be more fulfilled during a longer life and gain the wisdom to face the possibility of Oblivion with less terror and conflict than we usually do.

A culture whose goal is longevity through liberal science would not only be concerned with individual life, but with human life and the planet as a whole, because long-term longevity requires not only overcoming individual death, but delaying the possible destruction of the species and our environment. In a culture like this, people's understanding that science provides the most likely route to longevity should reduce death anxiety. This kind of culture would allow us to be confident that we need not destroy each other before we can extend our life-spans indefinitely and perhaps even escape the cosmic destruction that awaits everything in the distant future.


(1) To emphasize the personal importance and absolute nature of Oblivion, I have personified the word.

(2) Hominid is controversial (and an often revised) classification of humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans, as members of the biological family Hominidae.

(3) A hominini is a taxonomical term classifying members of the biological "tribe" of Homininae that includes humans, chimpanzees, and the extinct species in between.

(4) Homo heidelbergensis lived roughly 600,000 years ago and were very similar in appearance and build to Homo erectus (taller and more muscular than modern humans, but with smaller brains). Homo heidelbergensis had more advanced tools and behaviour and probably controlled fire and had a rudimentary language.

(5) Homo neanderthalensis lived from 230,000 to 29,000 years ago and had larger brains than modern humans with short muscular bodies.

(6) The earliest evidence for tool use is from 2.52 and 2.60 million years ago, discovered in the Afar region of Ethiopia in 1992. The earliest evidence for art (ocher powder, traditionally used in art and found with the remains of Homo erectus, Homo heidelbergensis, and Homo neanderthalensis) is only 70,000 years old (found in Blombos cave near Stilbaai, South Africa in 2002). We can assume language developed when hominini evolved the lingual ability to form sounds beyond howls and grunts after 2 million years. After this time they had evolved the necessary physical organs for rudimentary speech, as typified by Homo erectus. During the time language evolved, hominids were thinking representationally because a particular sound referred to something else; here was part of the basis for abstraction and symbolism.


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