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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 16-Mar-14


Sunday 16-March-14

Thinking about death

It's not something we do too much of. Even though we know we will die some day, we tend to ignore this and act as if we are going to live forever. In our deep need for identity, the thought of not existing is so painful we blot it out. Yet sometimes we have to think about death, most typically when somebody we care about dies. We look at the coffin and wonder, 'Where did the person go?' And we shudder at thoughts of our own mortality and hope to get out of there as soon as is decent.

I have seen something of death, as my mother and elder sister each died slowly of cancer, knowing that the end was in sight. My sister managed it very well. She separated death from dying, reasoning that while dying may not be too comfortable, she would either not experience being dead or be in some kind of heaven.

A typical response to being faced with death is to become more religious. In times of war, pestilence and other great threat, people flock to churches and pray hard for life. Jessica Tracy and colleagues did some interesting research that showed the way that thoughts of death changed people's thoughts of God. In particular, the idea of Intelligent Design appealed more (and the ideas of evolutionary theory less). The basic ID reasoning that the order in the universe can't have just happened, so there must be some intelligence behind it all.

Most, but not all, people are swayed by thoughts of death. The people who Jessica Tracy found kicked back hard were those trained in the natural sciences. Their beliefs in science had been so deeply embedded by their training that they saw ID as a threat, even when considering their own mortality.

I've long held the view that if God exists, it's not as an old chap on a cloud, but something beyond my understanding. So it would be a bit arrogant to deny the possibility of him/her/it existing. Yet by the same reasoning, it would also be rather arrogant to believe that I understood God. I also do not make direct correlation between God and death. The existence of a greater intelligence does not mean I will survive (in whatever form) after death.

Yet I also know that my views are not necessarily true as, ultimately, truth is a personal construct. Belief is assumed truth, and we each have the capacity to assume. And all this rambling is perhaps just another displacement, intellectualizing about beliefs in order to avoid thinking about death. My belief about death is that it is life's last great adventure. As I shuffle off these mortal coils, if I still have some form cognitive functioning beyond brain death, it'll be a new journey of understanding. And if there's nothing there, then as my sister concluded, that won't be a problem either.

Tracy, J., Hart, J., and Martens, J. (2011). Death and Science: The Existential Underpinnings of Belief in Intelligent Design and Discomfort with Evolution. PLoS ONE, 6 (3)

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