How Language Encourages Belief in an Afterlife

People believe in life after death for many reasons. A contributing factor, one that goes unnoticed, are certain characteristics of nouns and verbs in English and other languages. Essentially, the way nouns and verbs work help make it easy for us to imagine and talk about the dead as if they still lived.

One characteristic is that nouns don’t indicate whether the thing they name exists physically or not. Nouns do show other differences quite clearly, such as a difference in number: in English, for example, many nouns are plural if they end with an s sound and are singular if they are without it. But nouns don’t change in any way to show the difference between items that exist and those that don’t. Nouns and names (which are a type of noun) can, with no change at all, refer to objects and people right in front of us (Please meet my sister) or out of sight (my sister in Chicago) or existing only in our imagination (I wish I had a sister) or no longer alive (My great grandmother’s sister).

As a result, a sentence such as “Aunt Mary went to college when she was 16” sounds normal and clear even though the statement leaves out an important piece of information: we can’t tell from it whether Aunt Mary is living at this moment or not. In general, in fact, when we remember the lives of those who have died, we can—rather weirdly—think and speak about them with the same words we might have used when they were alive. In our imagination and conversation, thanks to the way nouns work, such people easily remain alive-in-the-past-tense.

A second bizarre characteristic is that even explicit assertions that a person has died have their own peculiarities. “Aunt Mary is dead” seems to leave no uncertainty about her current state. But not only is the noun phrase Aunt Mary by itself neutral about whether she exists now or not; the verb in the sentence, is, is in the present tense, not the past. The result, as I hear the sentence, is a subtext that allows us to imagine Aunt Mary retaining some of her reality in the here and now although she is deceased. After all, except for the last word, the statement is no different from countless statements that began with “Aunt Mary is…” when she was alive, such as “Aunt Mary is upstairs.” So, for speakers and listeners who were fond of Aunt Mary, the statement that she is dead can subtly suggest or leave open the possibility of  her other-worldly continuity as the same time that it delivers the hard message.

Finally, consider the other form of the same message: “Aunt Mary died.” No present tense verb here; “died” means died-in-the-past. But here the contradictory hint of her continuing animation is that she is the actor of the verb. Normally, the dead don’t do  things. Aunt Mary did something, so how dead can she really be? This is all very strange, but I think that such sentences tell us one thing and hint at something else. Despite the literal meaning of “Aunt Mary died,” the sentence, one might say, is whispering that she is still active. As a result, especially if we ourselves hope to live in some form after we die, we might feel quite comfortable with such statements as “Aunt Mary died. She has gone to heaven and continues to watch over us.”

Language is our human tool. It has no more or less accuracy and flexibility than we give it. We can talk about what is real and what is not real and we may not always need to be precise about the difference. One consequence is the ease with which we can “speak” the dead to life.

The Limits of Happiness?

I recently quoted some of Steven Pinker’s observations in How the Mind Works about an evolutionary perspective on happiness. Those ideas have stayed on my mind. The topic is comparatively new and it is complex: emotions are subjective, their names are approximate, and they don’t leave fossils. But the evolutionary viewpoint might shed added light on the nature of all the positive emotions that we put under the umbrella of happiness.

What I gather from Pinker is that we tend to think, inaccurately,  that the positive emotions such as happiness, pleasure, and contentment are similar to negative feelings such as fear and sadness in that all of them can range in intensity from mild to extreme and all of them, pleasant and painful alike, can range from brief to long-lasting. We know that people can be mildly sad for a couple of days or severely depressed for years. And in a parallel way, we think that people can be cheerfully happy for a few hours after a social event, which we can, or ecstatically happy for years—which, with rare exceptions, we cannot. “Happiness without limits.” Perhaps—my comment, not Pinker’s— our culture’s relentless messages about the “pursuit” and affordability of happiness have fostered an image of  happiness as a goal that we can reach, hold on to, and even get “better” at.  Not so, says Pinker.

happiness limits poster (

For starters, “There are twice as many negative emotions (fear, grief, anxiety, and so on) as positive ones.” This difference is one clue that the positive emotions are not exactly opposites of the negative ones. Another is that “[P]eople’s mood plummets more when imagining a loss in their lives…than it rises when imagining an equivalent gain.” There are not only more negative than positive emotions but the negative ones pack a stronger punch.

The reason, in terms of evolution, is that there are limits to the benefits of happiness that don’t apply to the negative emotions. Pinker: “The psychologist Timothy Ketelaar notes that happiness tracks the effect of resources on biological fitness. As things get better, increases in fitness show diminishing returns: more food is better, but only up to a point. But as things get worse, decreases in fitness can take you out of the game: not enough food, and you’re dead” (392).

In other words, the dangers of of injury, illness, and enemies call for variable levels of pain and emotional distress to signal the seriousness of the threat—emotional smoke alarms that can grow louder and last longer as the threat intensifies. On the other hand, the joys of health, sociability, creativity, and even spirituality don’t call for such an intensification. We would gain no improved fitness for survival from a growing intensity of feeling good to feeing joyful to feeling ecstatic for growing lengths of time. In fact, sustained joy at too high a level might mean letting our guard down; happiness with no limits could increase risks. The wisdom of  “too much of a good thing” seems more deeply rooted in our biology than we imagined.

This is a topic I hope to pursue again. Interesting related readings include a discussion over at Humanistic Paganism on the potential excesses of spiritual experiences. And this 2009 dissertation by Kenneth Lehman on Darwinian Happiness , while specialized, is informative in its opening pages about the definitions and assessment techniques that research psychologists work with in happiness studies.


Hindus Seek Detachment. Have Plants and Animals Already Found It?

Here in suburbia, next to a glassy corporate office, sits a Hindu temple, its white, ornate façade surrounded by parking lots. Curious, I removed my shoes and walked into the large room. Instead of chairs or benches I found a marble, white and gold room with altars placed throughout. Worshippers strolled from one garlanded deity to the next, circling them several times or standing before them with hands together, eyes closed, heads lowered.

hindu temple inside (


Along the walls was a frieze of passages from the Bhagavad Gita, the dialogue between the god Krishna and a warrior about to enter battle, Arjuna. I walked beneath Krishna’s words about detachment:

He who hates no creature, who is friendly and compassionate to all, who is free from attachment, balanced in pleasure and pain, and forgiving…is dear to Me.

He by whom the world is not agitated and who cannot be agitated by the world, who is freed from joy, envy, fear, and anxiety—is dear to Me….

He who neither rejoices, nor hates, nor grieves, nor desires, renouncing good and evil, full of devotion, is dear to Me.

He who is the same to foe and friend, and also in honor and dishonor, who is the same in cold and heat and in pleasure and pain, who is free from attachment, to whom censure and praise are equal, who is silent, content with anything, homeless, steady-minded, full of devotion—that man is dear to Me.

I left the temple soothed by the place and by the words, by the invocation of a calm that does not take sides or react or pursue.

In my backyard later, I wondered whether nature sends us the same message of the value of steadfastness that Krishna proclaims. Can the non-theist find in other living things a model of that centeredness that rises above dualities?



I’m not sure. The backyard is a calm place, but even in winter the creatures there are hardly without their “attachments.” Birds search constantly for food and for each other. The trees and bushes and grass, though less agitated, are hardly “content with anything.” They wilt in a drought and burst with life when the environment is kind. They are different in good circumstances and bad, very different. What would Krishna say?

He might observe that plants and animals follow their in-born programs with no distracting superstructure of plans, preferences, or judgments. He would probably say that, except for humans and some animals, other living things may struggle and even kill but they don’t hate, they may shy from danger but they aren’t riven by anxiety, they may react differently to cold and heat but only at the basic physiological level.

So perhaps in the backyard I am looking at an imperfect but good lesson in how beings can do the work of staying alive and yet remain undistracted and unconfused. Can the human non-theist find a model of detachment in other living things? Partly, yes.