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Immortality of the Soul as an Intuitive Idea: Towards a Psychological Explanation of the Origins of Afterlife Beliefs

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AbstractThis study tried to investigate if intuitive ideas about the continuation of the Self after death determine the way people represent the state of being dead, and, in this way, investigate possible psychological origins of afterlife beliefs, which constitute a recurrent cultural phenomenon. A semi-structured interview and a self-report questionnaire were used to obtain information on the experience of imagining oneself as dead and the representation of the dead-I of young adults. The results suggest that (1) there is a tendency to imagine the state of being dead as a continuation of the I, even in the absence of explicit afterlife beliefs; (2) perceptual, emotional, epistemic and desire experiences are associated to the dead-I; (3) the representation of the dead-I seems to be determined by an interaction between cognitive processes related to self-awareness and theory of mind, and the cultural afterlife beliefs explicitly learned. A previous alternative hypothesis, suggesting that simulation constraints were responsible for the emergence of non-reflective afterlife concepts (Bering, 2002, 2006) is not completely supported by our results. The data presented here suggest that immortality of the soul might be an intuitive religious concept, connected to the experience of the Self and to the implicit theorization that the experienced Self is independent from the body. Future studies should focus on the collection of cross-cultural and developmental data.

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