<!DOCTYPE html><HTML lang="en"> <head><meta charset="utf-8"> <title>Stewart-Williams (Steve) - On the Origin of Afterlife Beliefs by Means of Memetic Selection (Theo Todman's Book Collection - Paper Abstracts) </title> <link href="../../TheosStyle.css" rel="stylesheet" type="text/css"><link rel="shortcut icon" href="../../TT_ICO.png" /></head> <BODY> <CENTER> <div id="header"><HR><h1>Theo Todman's Web Page - Paper Abstracts</h1><HR></div><A name="Top"></A> <TABLE class = "Bridge" WIDTH=950> <tr><th><A HREF = "../../PaperSummaries/PaperSummary_20/PaperSummary_20796.htm">On the Origin of Afterlife Beliefs by Means of Memetic Selection</A></th></tr> <tr><th><A HREF = "../../Authors/S/Author_Stewart-Williams (Steve).htm">Stewart-Williams (Steve)</a></th></tr> <tr><th>Source: Martin & Augustine - The Myth of an Afterlife, Foreward</th></tr> <tr><th>Paper - Abstract</th></tr> </TABLE> </CENTER> <P><CENTER><TABLE class = "Bridge" WIDTH=600><tr><td><A HREF = "../../PaperSummaries/PaperSummary_20/PaperSummary_20796.htm">Paper Summary</A></td><td><A HREF = "../../PaperSummaries/PaperSummary_20/PapersToNotes_20796.htm">Notes Citing this Paper</A></td><td><A HREF="#ColourConventions">Text Colour-Conventions</a></td></tr></TABLE></CENTER></P> <hr><P><FONT COLOR = "0000FF"><U>Editors <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_1">Abstract</A></U><SUB>1</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_1"></A></U><FONT COLOR = "800080"><ol type="1"><li>Somewhere in the mists of the past, we somehow picked up the idea of an <a name="1"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>2</SUP> from our culture. So, where did this idea come from in the first place? </li><li>The problem is not that there aren t any plausible theories to explain it; the problem is that there are too many. <ol type="i"><li>Some claim that the belief in an <a name="2"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>3</SUP> is wishful thinking; </li><li>Others that it s a way of encouraging socially desirable behavior; and </li><li>Others still that it represents ancient people s best effort to explain strange phenomena such as dreams. </ol></li><li>More recently, it has been suggested that <a name="3"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>4</SUP> beliefs are the handiwork of evolution by natural selection, or by-products of various evolved psychological capacities. </li><li>According to one approach, <a name="4"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>5</SUP> beliefs are products of natural selection, but not natural selection operating on genes or any other biological entities. Instead, <a name="5"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>6</SUP> beliefs are products of natural selection operating among ideas or memes. </li></ol> </FONT><BR><U>Sections</U><FONT COLOR = "800080"><ol type="1"><li>Introduction</li><li>A Plethora of Theories <ol type="i"><li>Wishful Thinking</li><li>Social Glue</li><li>Social Control</li><li>Primitive Science </ol></li><li>Evolving an <a name="6"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>7</SUP> <ol type="i"><li>A Spandrel in the Works</li><li><a name="7"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>8</SUP> Beliefs as Selfish Memes </ol></li><li>Why Go There? </li></ol> </FONT><BR><u><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_9">Comments</A></U><SUB>9</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_9"></A></u> <ol type="1"><li><b>Introduction</b>: <ul type="disc"><li>Story of Granny packing her cases the day before her death having just been told by her dead parents it was time to go. </li><li>Do such-like stories add up to a  reasonable case for <a name="8"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">life after death</A><SUP>10</SUP>? They can all be picked apart and given a non-supernaturalist explanation. </li><li>If you didn t already have the concept of an <a name="9"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>11</SUP>, a supernaturalist explanation wouldn t occur to you and  it s time to go wouldn t be equated with dying (except coincidentally). So, where do such ideas come from? </li></ul></li><li><b>A Plethora of Theories</b>: <ul type="disc"><li>There are just too many explanations  as give in the ToC. So, how to choose between them? </li><li>Stewart-Williams would prefer not to, but to come up with an over-arching explanation. This is the memetic explanation of religious beliefs. </li><li>The plan of the paper is to whiz through the  theories and then outline the memetic approach. </li><li>We re referred to <a name="36"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_06/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_6400.htm">Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew</A>" for a fuller exposition.</li><li>The theories examined:- <ol type="i"><li><b>Wishful Thinking</b>: <ul type="square"><li>Stewart-Williams thinks there s more than a grain of truth in this. Not only  inter alia  does it help us to overcome the belief that a finite life has no meaning, it helps us to comfort others. But  in general  we don t invent our own account of <a name="10"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">life after death</A><SUP>12</SUP>, or of religion generally, but adopt one that s current in our culture. How did these arise in the first place?</li><li>However, it s an incomplete explanation for two reasons:- <ol type="a"><li>Belief in an <a name="11"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>13</SUP> doesn t always provide much comfort  we still fear death  so maybe it s like an addiction that  once acquired  provides little comfort in itself, but its withdrawal gives a lot of <em>discomfort</em>. </li><li>Lots of the beliefs about the <a name="12"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>14</SUP>  Hell for instance  are anything but comforting. On account of this  damnable doctrine (Stewart-Williams describes it as  a good candidate for the most unpleasant idea devised by human minds ) Darwin wrote that he could hardly see why anyone could wish Christianity true. Rather than providing comfort, <a name="13"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>15</SUP> beliefs provide fears that people would not otherwise have. </ol></li></ul></li><li><b>Social Glue</b>: <ul type="square"><li>Has the advantage that it explains both the positive and negative elements of <a name="14"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>16</SUP> beliefs  encouraging socially beneficial and discouraging socially harmful practices respectively. </li><li>Two objections:- <ol type="a"><li>Not all religions are socially cohesive, or at least they have not always been in practice. </li><li>While  once created  religious systems may be socially cohesive, how did they arise in the first place? </ol> </li></ul></li><li><b>Social Control</b>: <ul type="square"><li>Religious systems in general  and <a name="15"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>17</SUP> beliefs in particular  function for the benefit of their promoters. Parents control children, husbands wives, masters slaves, upper lower classes, rulers subjects, priests & </li><li>Many doubtless really do believe  examples of drowning  walkers on water  but sincere believers may be perpetuating beliefs invented by unscrupulous manipulators. </li><li>Objection: Religious systems are often  grass roots liberation phenomena. </li></ul> </li><li><b>Primitive Science</b>: <ul type="square"><li><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_18">Edward Taylor</A></U><SUB>18</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_18"></A>, and the suggestion that religious beliefs arose as an honest attempt to explain anomalous life-experiences in the pre-scientific age. <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_19">Dreaming</A></U><SUB>19</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_19"></A> experiences  eg. of leaving the body, or meeting the dead  may have given rise to beliefs in souls and <a name="16"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">life after death</A><SUP>20</SUP>. </li><li>Two objections:- <ol type="a"><li>If knowledge is the only goal, why are people so reluctant to give up their <a name="17"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>21</SUP> beliefs in the face of scientific evidence?</li><li>If religious ideas are to explain human experience, why are they often so disconnected from it? </ol> </li></ul> </ol> </li></ul> </li><li><b>Evolving an <a name="18"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>22</SUP></b> <ol type="i"><li><b><a name="19"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>23</SUP> beliefs as adaptations?</b> <ul type="disc"><li>The least plausible application of Darwinism to religious belief is the most obvious  that religious beliefs (in an <a name="20"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife)</A><SUP>24</SUP> supply a survival advantage. </li><li>So, they provide believers with confidence and purpose, or lower anxiety and improve health, or bind groups together. </li><li>The objections are:- <ol type="a"><li>The variety of <a name="21"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>25</SUP> beliefs  <a name="22"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_0/Notes_69.htm">disembodied existence</A><SUP>26</SUP>, bodily resurrection, reincarnation  how can they all be the result of the same adaptation? </li><li>Choice of belief is determined by where people grew up  which suggests culture rather than biology.</li><li>Millions make their way through life without religious beliefs. </ol></li><li>This makes such beliefs poor candidates for being adaptations. Real psychological adaptations  emotions, for instance  are universal, and you can t be talked out of them. </li><li>There might be an evolved tendency to conform oneself to the beliefs of one s community, but this is not specific to religious beliefs (and religious belief-acquisition might be a special case). </li></ul></li><li><b>A Spandrel in the Works</b>: <ul type="disc"><li>Rather that being a direct product of evolution, religious beliefs piggy-back on those habits of mind that are. The preferred candidate is the Theory of Mind, leading to the use of separate vocabularies for mental and physical phenomena. </li><li>This results in the thought that minds  not being obviously spatially extended  are distinct from bodies. </li><li>While not <em>forcing</em> the idea that minds might be separable from the body, and so might survive bodily death, it makes the notion come naturally. </li><li>So  Stewart-Williams claims  a by-product of the Theory of Mind is our proneness to believe  falsely  that the mind/soul is distinct from the activity of the <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_27">brain</A></U><SUB>27</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_27"></A>, separable from the body and capable of a variety of post-mortem adventures. </li><li>Stewart-Williams is a  big fan of the by-product approach, but now considers a third Darwinian alternative. </li></ul></li><li><b><a name="23"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>28</SUP> Beliefs as Selfish Memes</b>: <ul type="disc"><li>Stewart-Williams thinks memetics by far the most exciting recent explanation of religious belief. Brief discussion of what <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_29">memes are</A></U><SUB>29</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_29"></A>. The important point from the author s perspective is that there doesn t need to be  though there often is  anything  true or useful or pleasurable about successful memes  the important factor is just that they are  catchy . All they need are the attributes  whatever these might be  that keep them in circulation in the culture. </li><li>Rather than displacing the other explanations, memetics provides the overarching theory that draws together the elements of truth in the other theories.</li><li>The  selection pressures include:- <ol type="a"><li>Comfort,</li><li>Social cohesion, </li><li>Behaviour manipulation, and</li><li>Explanation. </ol> </li><li>These pressures may conflict  cultural evolution is much like biological evolution in this regard  and so  for instance  the more successful memes (that are in fact false) should not be too readily falsifiable. The  <a name="24"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">life after death </A><SUP>30</SUP> meme fits perfectly  it provides comfort, and there s nothing obvious in the ordinary run of things to explicitly contradict it, and it even makes sense of some anomalous experiences. </li><li>Stewart-Williams doesn t agree that the memetic approach is in conflict with the spandrel approach. He thinks the most successful memes are themselves by-products of evolved psychological tendencies of thought. The spandrel approach describes the environment in which all memes  including religious ones  must adapt. </li><li>We are now treated to a  just so story about the evolution of <a name="25"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>31</SUP> beliefs. <ol type="a"><li><b>Comfort</b>: Our large brains and intelligence were presumably selected for for the sensible reasons rehearsed. An unintended consequence of this development was that  uniquely amongst the animals  human beings developed the understanding that each individual is one day going to die. This in turn developed a psychological selection pressure for beliefs that allayed concerns about death. The evidence of costly burials going back to Palaeolithic times shows that such beliefs may be tens of thousands of years old. </li><li><b>Social Cohesion</b>: with the rise of agriculture, group-size increased so as to exceed the <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_32">Dunbar number</A></U><SUB>32</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_32"></A> (150) and cultural institutions are required to maintain group cohesiveness artificially, and <a name="26"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>33</SUP> beliefs  and religious beliefs generally  are <U><A HREF="#On-Page_Link_P20796_34">suitable</A></U><SUB>34</SUB><a name="On-Page_Return_P20796_34"></A> & already had a foot in the door. </ol></li><li>Stewart-Williams notes that memes compete against one another, and compares the rather shadowy and bleak <a name="27"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>35</SUP> of Hades and Sheol with the results of a fully-developed post-Arms-Race  Heaven & Hell . </li><li>Also, memes don t need to be advantageous to the believer, only to themselves. Why do people  contrary to what is actually found  believe that losing their <a name="28"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife-beliefs</A><SUP>36</SUP> would be terrible? Stewart-Williams answer is that the <a name="29"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>37</SUP> memes have themselves evolved to include the content that their abandonment would be terrible, hence resulting in their perpetuation. He admits this is pure speculation  which I agree  but suggests this is a fruitful area of new ideas about the origins and persistence of <a name="30"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>38</SUP> beliefs  which I doubt. </li></ul> </ol></li><li><b>Why Go There?</b> <ul type="disc"><li>Why bother to dislodge people s comforting illusions about an <a name="31"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>39</SUP>? Why promote the view that death is the end? Stewart-Williams thinks there s truth in the usual suggestion that facing the fact that our time is finite makes us focus on it better, but prefers the following four reasons for arguing that death really is the end:- <ol type="i"><li>Because it s true. </li><li><a name="32"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">Afterlife</A><SUP>40</SUP> beliefs are not always comforting, but cause grief and distress. </li><li>Getting rid of superstition allows us to get a more accurate view of the  sometimes starkly  beautiful world. </li><li>The importance of grieving a real loss (not just a  moving house ). </ol> </li><li>Even if <a name="33"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</A><SUP>41</SUP> beliefs are comforting, they aren t hugely so. It s not as though you can tell by looking at how the berieved are coping whether they are atheists or not. </li><li>The reason for this is that even those who profess belief can t really walk the walk. </li></ul> </li></ol><BR><HR><BR><U><B>In-Page Footnotes</U></B><a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_1"></A><BR><BR><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_1"><B>Footnote 1</B></A></U>: Taken from <a name="W2496W"></a><A HREF = "https://philpapers.org/rec/STEOTO-2" TARGET = "_top">Link</A>, numbering mine. <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_9"></A><BR><BR><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_9"><B>Footnote 9</B></A></U>: <ul type="disc"><li>My first thought is that this paper ought to be an afterword rather than a foreword. </li><li>The reason being that the presumption of this paper is that any belief in an <a name="34"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</a> is unsupported, and that the burden is to explain how such false beliefs arose, give that they are false. </li><li>But, it is the burden of the book as a whole to argue that belief in an <a name="35"></a><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_9/Notes_978.htm">afterlife</a> is indeed unsupported; so, this paper is somewhat cart before horse. </li></ul> <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_18"></A><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_18"><B>Footnote 18</B></A></U>: I m not clear who this is. No reference is given. <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_19"></A><BR><BR><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_19"><B>Footnote 19</B></A></U>: This is the only example given, and is a bit feeble  though dreams have had important religious significance from shamanism onwards. <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_27"></A><BR><BR><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_27"><B>Footnote 27</B></A></U>: <ul type="disc"><li>The central role of the brain in thought is a relatively recent discovery, though maybe known to Descartes if not to Aristotle.</li><li>Though maybe Descartes had a lesser role for the brain, as the immaterial mind was the thinking thing - though if needed to be connected to the brain (via the pineal gland) to get sensations in and motor commands out. </li></ul> <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_29"></A><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_29"><B>Footnote 29</B></A></U>: <ul type="disc"><li>See <a name="W3320W"></a><A HREF = "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme" TARGET = "_top">Link</A> </li><li>I have the following books that discuss memes in the context of religion:- <ul type="square"><li><a name="37"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_00/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_904.htm">Blackmore (Susan) - The Meme Machine</A>", </li><li><a name="38"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_05/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_5050.htm">Collins (Francis) - The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief</A>",</li><li><a name="39"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_01/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_1610.htm">Dawkins (Richard) - The God Delusion</A>", </li><li><a name="40"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_04/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_4904.htm">Dennett (Daniel) - Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon</A>", </li><li><a name="41"></a>"<A HREF = "../../BookSummaries/BookSummary_02/BookPaperAbstracts/BookPaperAbstracts_2074.htm">McGrath (Alister) - Dawkins' God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life</A>". </li></ul> </li></ul><a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_32"></A><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_32"><B>Footnote 32</B></A></U>: See <a name="W3321W"></a><A HREF = "https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number" TARGET = "_top">Link</A>. <a name="On-Page_Link_P20796_34"></A><BR><BR><U><A HREF="#On-Page_Return_P20796_34"><B>Footnote 34</B></A></U>: This section seems a bit feeble, and doesn t follow up the four-fold map onto  selection pressures that I d expected. <BR><BR><FONT COLOR = "0000FF"><HR></P><a name="ColourConventions"></a><p><b>Text Colour Conventions (see <A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_10/Notes_1025.htm">disclaimer</a>)</b></p><OL TYPE="1"><LI><FONT COLOR = "0000FF">Blue</FONT>: Text by me; &copy; Theo Todman, 2018</li><LI><FONT COLOR = "800080">Mauve</FONT>: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); &copy; the author(s)</li></OL> <BR><HR><BR><CENTER> <TABLE class = "Bridge" WIDTH=950> <TR><TD WIDTH="30%">&copy; Theo Todman, June 2007 - August 2018.</TD> <TD WIDTH="40%">Please address any comments on this page to <A HREF="mailto:theo@theotodman.com">theo@theotodman.com</A>.</TD> <TD WIDTH="30%">File output: <time datetime="2018-08-02T09:25" pubdate>02/08/2018 09:25:39</time> <br><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_10/Notes_1010.htm">Website Maintenance Dashboard</A></TD></TR> <TD WIDTH="30%"><A HREF="#Top">Return to Top of this Page</A></TD> <TD WIDTH="40%"><A HREF="../../Notes/Notes_11/Notes_1140.htm">Return to Theo Todman's Philosophy Page</A></TD> <TD WIDTH="30%"><A HREF="../../index.htm">Return to Theo Todman's Home Page</A></TD> </TR></TABLE></CENTER><HR> </BODY> </HTML>