But even if you're a non-believer, there's a good chance that you still harbor notions of your continued existence.
Seemingly it's super tough, if not impossible, for the human mind to conceive of nothingness. We're hard-wired to imagine that we'll always be something, rather than nothing.
This is the premise of a fascinating Scientific American article by Jesse Bering, "Never Say Die: Why We Can't Imagine Death." Read it. You'll gain a fresh perspective on belief in an afterlife.
Bering says that new research casts doubt on the common notion that fear of death is what drives religious conceptions of immortality.
He presents evidence to support this thesis, including the fact that the younger children are, the more difficulty they have imagining that someone who has died really is dead -- meaning that the deceased has no awareness of anything.
If religion was the primary cause of belief in an afterlife, then we'd expect to find that people with more exposure to religious dogma would be less inclined to say, "After death, there's nothing" (and really mean it).
However, the situation isn't that simple. Bering says that our innate psychological inability to imagine non-existence forms the floor upon which forms of religiosity are built:
I've spent a lot of time pondering death. But there's one thing I can't conceive of: what's it like to be incapable of conceiving. Even the idea of "nothing" is much more of a something than nothingness actually is.
I liked this quote from philosopher Thomas W. Clark. I also found it deeply disturbing (guess I like to be disturbed).
There's a lot more to like in the article. It challenges some ideas I've accepted rather uncritically.
Like, that deep sleep gives us a foretaste of death. "Hey, I was asleep much of the night and wasn't aware of anything, so how bad could death be if it's just like a really long sleep?"
Some Eastern mystics liken enlightenment to the state of dreamless sleep. I've always wondered what's so great about not being conscious of an elevated consciousness. If I'm not aware of my expanded awareness, what's the point?
Bering points out that when you wake up and say to yourself, "I experienced dreamless deep sleep last night," you're not telling the truth.
For us extinctivists, it’s kind of like staring into a hallway of mirrors—but rather than confronting a visual trick, we’re dealing with cognitive reverberations of subjective experience. In Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno’s 1913 existential screed, The Tragic Sense of Life, one can almost see the author tearing out his hair contemplating this very fact. “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness,” he writes, “and you will see the impossibility of it. The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness.”
Wait, you say, isn’t Unamuno forgetting something? We certainly do have experience with nothingness. Every night, in fact, when we’re in dreamless sleep. But you’d be mistaken in this assumption. Clark puts it this way (emphasis mine): “We may occasionally have the impression of having experienced or ‘undergone’ a period of unconsciousness, but, of course, this is impossible. The ‘nothingness’ of unconsciousness cannot be an experienced actuality.”
So death is a mystery. We can't begin to imagine what not-existing would be like, because all we know is existence. Our imagination fills the can't begin to imagine void with beliefs about an afterlife.
Those ideas are comforting, and God knows, people need all the comfort they can get in a world that can be so harsh, painful, and cruel.
We just shouldn't fool ourselves: Nothing is the most likely non-something that we're going to be after death.
Since that is impossible to imagine, we should recognize our psychological blind spot for what it is -- and not mistake it for a grand spiritual vision.