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.

Taking the Afterlife Seriously

We may not believe that our life will continue after we die, but we certainly do count on an afterlife of a different kind: We rely on other people living on after we are gone. If we thought that for some reason they would not do so, our own lives would lose much of their meaning.

So argues Samuel Scheffler, professor at New York University, in “The Importance of the Afterlife. Seriously” in the New York Times, Sept 21, 2013.

Because we take this belief [that the human race will survive after we are gone] for granted, we don’t think much about its significance. Yet I think that this belief plays an extremely important role in our lives, quietly but critically shaping our values, commitments and sense of what is worth doing. Astonishing though it may seem, there are ways in which the continuing existence of other people after our deaths—even that of complete strangers—matters more to us than does our own survival and that of our loved ones.

asteroid destroys earth

Imagine there’s no future.
(theguardian.com)

To make his point, Scheffler offers two doomsday scenarios. In the first, one knows that the world will be destroyed by an asteroid. “Suppose you knew that although you yourself would live a long life and die peacefully in your sleep, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed 30 days after your death in a collision with a giant asteroid. How would this knowledge affect you?” It is reasonable, he says, to imagine people losing the motivation to research cancer, reform society, compose music, and perhaps even have children.

In the second scenario, imagine a world in which, although no one dies suddenly, no one is born. Humans have become infertile. There is no global apocalypse, but there is also no human future. “Even the egotistic tycoon who is devoted to his own glory might discover that his ambitions seemed pointless if humanity’s disappearance was imminent. Although some people can afford not to depend on the kindness of strangers, virtually everyone depends on the future existence of strangers.”

Growing implies the future. (freeorganicgardening.com)

Growth presupposes a future.
(freeorganicgardening.com)

Scheffler’s point is a provocative one, and I asked myself whether some version of this assumption of living continuity is true of plants and other animals as well as humans. In a weaker form, I think it is. Plants and most animals, although they lack consciousness of the future, are propelled forward by their bodily design to grow, survive and reproduce. The very arrangements that make a thing alive—all its systems and their coordination—reflect their success in providing the organism with a future. Without a future, their capacities for life, like ours, would be pointless.