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.

Survival Poem: Bukowski’s ‘Tough Motherfucker’

The History of One Tough Motherfucker
by Charles Bukowski
 he came to the door one night wet thin beaten and
terrorized
a white cross-eyed tailless cat
I took him in and fed him and he stayed
grew to trust me until a friend drove up the driveway
and ran him over
I took what was left to a vet who said,”not much
chance…give him these pills…his backbone
is crushed, but is was crushed before and somehow
mended, if he lives he’ll never walk, look at
these x-rays, he’s been shot, look here, the pellets
are still there…also, he once had a tail, somebody
cut it off…”
I took the cat back, it was a hot summer, one of the
hottest in decades, I put him on the bathroom
floor, gave him water and pills, he wouldn’t eat, he
wouldn’t touch the water, I dipped my finger into it
and wet his mouth and I talked to him, I didn’t go any-
where, I put in a lot of bathroom time and talked to
him and gently touched him and he looked back at
me with those pale blue crossed eyes and as the days went
by he made his first move
dragging himself forward by his front legs
(the rear ones wouldn’t work)
he made it to the litter box
crawled over and in,
it was like the trumpet of possible victory
blowing in that bathroom and into the city, I
related to that cat-I’d had it bad, not that
bad but bad enough
one morning he got up, stood up, fell back down and
just looked at me.
“you can make it,” I said to him.
he kept trying, getting up falling down, finally
he walked a few steps, he was like a drunk, the
rear legs just didn’t want to do it and he fell again, rested,
then got up.
you know the rest: now he’s better than ever, cross-eyed
almost toothless, but the grace is back, and that look in
his eyes never left…
and now sometimes I’m interviewed, they want to hear about
life and literature and I get drunk and hold up my cross-eyed,
shot, runover de-tailed cat and I say,”look, look
at this!”
but they don’t understand, they say something like,”you
say you’ve been influenced by Celine?”
“no,” I hold the cat up,”by what happens, by
things like this, by this, by this!”
I shake the cat, hold him up in
the smoky and drunken light, he’s relaxed he knows…
it’s then that the interviews end
although I am proud sometimes when I see the pictures
later and there I am and there is the cat and we are photo-
graphed together.
he too knows it’s bullshit but that somehow it all helps.

(austenreveries.wordpress.com)

Stephen Pinker on the Decline in Violent Deaths

Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature may be a more upbeat book than most people can accept. Pinker argues that the rate of violent human deaths of all kinds across the globe has been declining for several thousand years. The 20th century was a bloody horror, but it is also an example of our selective memory; we forget that the second half of the century was relatively peaceful. Humans, as David Hume observed, tend to “blame the present and admire the past.”

Pinker:

Pinker: “To maintain the credibility of their deterrent threat, knights engaged in bloody tournaments and other demonstrations of macho prowess, gussied up with words like honor, valor, chivalry, glory, and gallantry, which made later generations forget they were bloodthirsty marauders.”

Violent deaths declined in stages. Judging from skeletal remains thousands of years old, the violent death rate among the earliest humans was roughly 15%. That dropped as the first governments began to constrain local murders, feuds, raids, and battles. Then in 17th and 18th century Europe, the “humanitarian revolution” reduced the frequency of forms of violence that had been common for centuries: slavery, torture, cruel punishment, even dueling. Since the end of World War II, the world has seen a “long peace” with no wars pitting major nations against each other and no nuclear holocaust. Most recently, the “Rights Revolution” has reduced violence against minorities, women, children, gay people, and animals.

The prominence of death stories in the modern media is misleading. In the 20th century, only .7% of all deaths occurred in battles, or about 3% if indirect war deaths from famine and disease are included. In Europe and most of America today, the violent death rate is 1% at its highest.

What has caused this steady reduction? In a word, government. Even bad government is better than no government for reducing violence. And expanding education that enables people to glimpse the lives of others seems to have been crucial as well.

The Better Angels of Our Nature has received high praise and some hard criticism. Reviewers have questioned Pinker’s comparison of six-year-long modern wars with the century-long Mongol conquest and have noted the book’s omission of Mao, Stalin, and the impact of colonialism. Many reviewers seem admiring of the book but not convinced; the modern world still seems very dangerous and the bad news never stops.

One reason for the skepticism is demographic. Until 1800, the world numbered fewer than a billion people; it reached 2.5 billion only around 1950 and today soars over 7 billion. This curve skews comparisons of violent death numbers. Ranked by death rate at the time, the deadliest event in world history was the 8th century An Lushan revolt in Tang China, resulting in 36 million deaths, a sixth of the world’s population of about 250 million. But today, despite the global billions, even a handful of deaths rate as “breaking news.”

About the future, Pinker makes no predictions. By implication he suggests that we need to understand ourselves as well as we can and learn from the past to sustain the decline. At a time when ideologies and technologies seem beyond the control of government and decency alike, The Better Angels is sobering and steadying.