On the Origin of Afterlife Beliefs by Means of Memetic Selection
Stewart-Williams (Steve)
Source: Martin & Augustine - The Myth of an Afterlife, Foreward
Paper - Abstract

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Editors’ Abstract1

  1. Somewhere in the mists of the past, we somehow picked up the idea of an afterlife2 from our culture. So, where did this idea come from in the first place?
  2. The problem is not that there aren’t any plausible theories to explain it; the problem is that there are too many.
    1. Some claim that the belief in an afterlife3 is wishful thinking;
    2. Others that it’s a way of encouraging socially desirable behavior; and
    3. Others still that it represents ancient people’s best effort to explain strange phenomena such as dreams.
  3. More recently, it has been suggested that afterlife4 beliefs are the handiwork of evolution5 by natural selection, or by-products of various evolved psychological capacities.
  4. According to one approach, afterlife6 beliefs are products of natural selection, but not natural selection operating on genes or any other biological entities. Instead, afterlife7 beliefs are products of natural selection operating among ideas or memes.

  1. Introduction
  2. A Plethora of Theories
    1. Wishful Thinking
    2. Social Glue
    3. Social Control
    4. Primitive Science
  3. Evolving an Afterlife8
    1. A Spandrel in the Works
    2. Afterlife9 Beliefs as Selfish Memes
  4. Why Go There?

  1. Introduction:
    • Story of Granny packing her cases the day before her death having just been told by her dead parents it was time to go.
    • Do such-like stories add up to a “reasonable case” for life after death11? They can all be picked apart and given a non-supernaturalist explanation.
    • If you didn’t already have the concept of an afterlife12, 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?
  2. A Plethora of Theories:
    • There are just too many explanations – as give in the ToC. So, how to choose between them?
    • Stewart-Williams would prefer not to, but to come up with an over-arching explanation. This is the memetic explanation of religious beliefs.
    • The plan of the paper is to whiz through the “theories” and then outline the memetic approach.
    • We’re referred to "Stewart-Williams (Steve) - Darwin, God and the Meaning of Life: How Evolutionary Theory Undermines Everything You Thought You Knew" for a fuller exposition.
    • The theories examined:-
      1. Wishful Thinking:
        • 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 life after death13, or of religion generally, but adopt one that’s current in our culture. How did these arise in the first place?
        • However, it’s an incomplete explanation for two reasons:-
          1. Belief in an afterlife14 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 discomfort.
          2. Lots of the beliefs about the afterlife15 – 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, afterlife16 beliefs provide fears that people would not otherwise have.
      2. Social Glue:
        • Has the advantage that it explains both the positive and negative elements of afterlife17 beliefs – encouraging socially beneficial and discouraging socially harmful practices respectively.
        • Two objections:-
          1. Not all religions are socially cohesive, or at least they have not always been in practice.
          2. While – once created – religious systems may be socially cohesive, how did they arise in the first place?
      3. Social Control:
        • Religious systems in general – and afterlife18 beliefs in particular – function for the benefit of their promoters. Parents control children, husbands wives, masters slaves, upper lower classes, rulers subjects, priests …
        • Many doubtless really do believe – examples of drowning “walkers on water” – but sincere believers may be perpetuating beliefs invented by unscrupulous manipulators.
        • Objection: Religious systems are often “grass roots” liberation phenomena.
      4. Primitive Science:
        • Edward Taylor19, and the suggestion that religious beliefs arose as an honest attempt to explain anomalous life-experiences in the pre-scientific age. Dreaming20 experiences – eg. of leaving the body, or meeting the dead – may have given rise to beliefs in souls and life after death21.
        • Two objections:-
          1. If knowledge is the only goal, why are people so reluctant to give up their afterlife22 beliefs in the face of scientific evidence?
          2. If religious ideas are to explain human experience, why are they often so disconnected from it?
  3. Evolving an Afterlife23
    1. Afterlife24 beliefs as adaptations?
      • The least plausible application of Darwinism to religious belief is the most obvious – that religious beliefs (in an afterlife)25 supply a survival advantage.
      • So, they provide believers with confidence and purpose, or lower anxiety and improve health, or bind groups together.
      • The objections are:-
        1. The variety of afterlife26 beliefs – disembodied existence27, bodily resurrection, reincarnation28 – how can they all be the result of the same adaptation?
        2. Choice of belief is determined by where people grew up – which suggests culture rather than biology.
        3. Millions make their way through life without religious beliefs.
      • 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.
      • 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).
    2. A Spandrel in the Works:
      • Rather that being a direct product of evolution29, 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.
      • This results in the thought that minds – not being obviously spatially extended – are distinct from bodies.
      • While not forcing the idea that minds might be separable from the body, and so might survive bodily death, it makes the notion come naturally.
      • 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 brain30, separable from the body and capable of a variety of post-mortem adventures.
      • Stewart-Williams is a “big fan” of the by-product approach, but now considers a third Darwinian alternative.
    3. Afterlife31 Beliefs as Selfish Memes:
      • Stewart-Williams thinks memetics by far the most exciting recent explanation of religious belief. Brief discussion of what memes are32. 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.
      • Rather than displacing the other explanations, memetics provides the overarching theory that draws together the elements of truth in the other theories.
      • The “selection pressures” include:-
        1. Comfort,
        2. Social cohesion,
        3. Behaviour manipulation, and
        4. Explanation.
      • These pressures may conflict – cultural evolution33 is much like biological evolution34 in this regard – and so – for instance – the more successful memes (that are in fact false) should not be too readily falsifiable. The “life after death”35 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.
      • 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.
      • We are now treated to a “just so” story about the evolution36 of afterlife37 beliefs.
        1. Comfort: Our large brains and intelligence38 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.
        2. Social Cohesion: with the rise of agriculture, group-size increased so as to exceed the Dunbar number39 (150) and cultural institutions are required to maintain group cohesiveness artificially, and afterlife40 beliefs – and religious beliefs generally – are suitable41 & already had a foot in the door.
      • Stewart-Williams notes that memes compete against one another, and compares the rather shadowy and bleak afterlife42 of Hades and Sheol with the results of a fully-developed post-Arms-Race “Heaven & Hell”.
      • 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 afterlife-beliefs43 would be terrible? Stewart-Williams’ answer is that the afterlife44 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 afterlife45 beliefs – which I doubt.
  4. Why Go There?
    • Why bother to dislodge people’s comforting illusions about an afterlife46? 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:-
      1. Because it’s true.
      2. Afterlife47 beliefs are not always comforting, but cause grief and distress.
      3. Getting rid of superstition allows us to get a more accurate view of the – sometimes starkly – beautiful world.
      4. The importance of grieving a real loss (not just a “moving house”).
    • Even if afterlife48 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.
    • The reason for this is that even those who profess belief can’t really walk the walk.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Taken from PhilPapers: Stewart-Williams - On the Origin of Afterlife Beliefs by Means of Memetic Selection, numbering mine.

Footnote 10: Footnote 19: I’m not clear who this is. No reference is given.

Footnote 20: This is the only example given, and is a bit feeble – though dreams have had important religious significance from shamanism onwards.

Footnote 30: Footnote 32: Footnote 39: See Wikipedia: Dunbar's number.

Footnote 41: This section seems a bit feeble, and doesn’t follow up the four-fold map onto “selection pressures” that I’d expected.

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)

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