I don't think the belief in life after death necessarily indicates a wish to live longer than we currently do. I think it is a result of the fact that it appears to people to be incoherent to expect your consciousness to cease to be: if you expect that to happen, what experience will fulfill that expectation?

Obviously none. The only expectation that could theoretically be fulfilled by experience is expecting your consciousness to continue to exist. This doesn't actually prove that your consciousness will in fact continue to exist, but it is probably the reason there is such a strong tendency to believe this.

This article here talks about how very young children tend to believe that a mouse will have consciousness after death, even though they certainly do not hear this from adults:

For example, in a study by Bering and Bjorklund (2004), children (as well as an adult comparison group) were presented with a puppet show in which an anthropomorphized mouse was killed and eaten by an alligator, and then asked about the biological and psychological functioning of the now-dead mouse. Kindergartners understood that various biological imperatives (e.g., the capacity to be sick, the need to eat, drink, and relieve oneself) no longer applied to the dead mouse. The majority of these children even said that the brain of the dead mouse no longer worked, which is especially telling given that children at this age also understand that the brain is “for thinking” (Bloom 2004; Gottfried & Jow 2003; Johnson & Wellman 1982; Slaughter & Lyons 2003). Yet when asked whether the dead mouse was hungry or thirsty, or whether it was thinking or had knowledge, most kindergartners said yes. In other words, young children were cognizant of the fact that the body stops working at death but they viewed the mind as still active. Furthermore, both the children and adults were particularly likely to attribute to the dead mouse the capacity for certain psychological states (i.e., emotions, desires, and epistemic states) over others (i.e., psychobiological and perceptual states), a significant trend that will be addressed in the following section. In general, however, kindergartners were more apt to make psychological attributions to the dead mouse than were older children, who were not different from adults in this regard. This is precisely the opposite pattern that one would expect to find if the origins of such beliefs could be traced exclusively to cultural indoctrination. In fact, religious or eschatological-type answers (e.g., Heaven, God, spirits, etc.) among the youngest children were extraordinarily rare. Thus, a general belief in the continuity of mental states in dead agents seems not something that children acquire as a product of their social– religious upbringing, because increasing exposure to cultural norms would increase rather than attenuate afterlife beliefs in young minds. Instead, a natural disposition toward afterlife beliefs is more likely the default cognitive stance and interacts with various learning channels (for an alternative interpretation, see Astuti, forthcoming a). Moreover, in a follow-up study that included Catholic schoolchildren, this incongruous pattern of biological and psychological attributions to the dead mouse appeared even after controlling for differences in religious education (Bering et al. 2005).

Yeah, in general, I'm sure part of it is that humans can't easily conceptualize true death in the first place (but that's even further grounds for not taking them seriously when they say they want to die). Just like part of it is our instinctive animism/anthropomorphism. I certainly don't want to minimize the role of "cognitive illusions" in the whole thing.

But I don't think it's a coincidence that these beliefs depict the universe as fairly utopian - the afterlife often resolves misunderstandings, rebalances moral scales, makes room for further ... (read more)

Why people want to die

by PhilGoetz 1 min read24th Aug 2015175 comments


Over and over again, someones says that living for a very long time would be a bad thing, and then some futurist tries to persuade them that their reasoning is faulty.  They tell them that they think that way now, but they'll change their minds when they're older.

The thing is, I don't see that happening.  I live in a small town full of retirees, and those few I've asked about it are waiting for death peacefully.  When I ask them about their ambitions, or things they still want to accomplish, they have none.

Suppose that people mean what they say.  Why do they want to die?

The reason is obvious if you just watch them for a few years.  They have nothing to live for.  They have a great deal of free time, but nothing they really want to do with it.  They like visiting friends and relatives, but only so often.  The women knit.  The men do yardwork.  They both work in their gardens and watch a lot of TV.  This observational sample is much larger than the few people I've asked.

You folks on LessWrong have lots of interests.  You want to understand math, write stories, create start-ups, optimize your lives.

But face it.  You're weird.  And I mean that in a bad way, evolutionarily speaking.  How many of you have kids?

Damn few.  The LessWrong mindset is maladaptive.  It leads to leaving behind fewer offspring.  A well-adapted human cares above all about sex, love, family, and friends, and isn't distracted from those things by an ADD-ish fascination with type theory.  That's why they probably have more sex, love, and friends than you do.

Most people do not have open-ended interests the way LWers do.  If they have a hobby, it's something repetitive like fly-fishing or needlepoint that doesn't provide an endless frontier for discovery.  They marry, they have kids, the kids grow up, they have grandkids, and they're done.  If you ask them what the best thing in their life was, they'll say it was having kids.  If you ask if they'd do it again, they'll laugh and say absolutely not.

We could get into a long argument over the evolution of aging, and whether people would remain eager to have kids if they remained physically young.  Maybe some would.  Some would not, though.  Many young parents are looking forward to the day their kids leave.

A lot of interests in life are passing.  You fall in love with a hobby, you learn it, you do it for a few years, then you get tired of it.  The things that were fascinating when you were six hold no magic for you now.  Pick up a toy soldier and try to play with it.  You can't.  Skateboarding seems awesome for about five years, and then everyone except Tony Hawk gets tired of it.

Having kids might be like that for some people.  Thing is, it's literally the only thing humans have evolved to be interested in.  Once you're tired of that, you're done.  If some of you want to keep going, that's an accidental by-product of evolution.  And there was no evolutionary pressure to exempt it from the common waning of interest with long exposure.

The way to convert deathists isn't to argue with them, but to get them interested in something.  Twist them the way you're twisted.