Saturday, August 06, 2005

Afterlife and object permanence

In a conversation with Dr. Gill the other day, I made a passing reference to the Neanderthals having religion (because of burials in the fetal position). He correctly fine-tuned that to mean that the Neanderthals had a belief in the afterlife. He was right, of course, since some religions don't have a belief in the afterlife.

I began thinking about what other kinds of things we can intuit from this information, and started thinking about the idea of object permanence. Most of you who have children will know what the concept of object permanence is, but for those who don't, I'll give a very simplified explanation.

Object permanence is the concept that when we do not perceive an object, it continues to exist. Babies are apparently born without the concept of object permanence, believing that if they don't see/hear/feel/smell/taste something, it ceases to exist. Every mother knows that pathetic cry of a young baby when it wakes and she is not there; the baby thinks his mother is no more. Every mother also knows how annoying it can be when the baby learns that it can cry, and "summon" his mother back into existence. You can tell a child is developing a concept of object permanence when he finds the game of peek-a-boo immensely entertaining -- he is learning that when you cover your face and "disappear," you will reappear shortly.

The idea of an afterlife, i.e. a non-material world that is a continuation of the material world, seems to me to be a version of object permanence. The subconscious reasoning goes something like this:

I see John. John leaves the room. I no longer see John, but he continues to exist. Later, if I go into the room he is in, I will see him again. John dies. I no longer see him, but he continues to exist. If I go into the place he is in, I will see him again.

In Bede's account of the conversion of King Edwin, the pagan high priest Coefi is convinced of the right of Christianity, and describes the image of a bird flying through a meadhall through two windows on a winter's day. The bird, a soul, passes quickly through the meadhall (the material world, life), yet we know that the time flying through the meadhall is only a brief moment in its flight. Though there are obviously some other things going on here as well, it seems to me that part of the idea he is expressing is object permanence. Just as we know that the bird continues to fly once it exits the window and is no longer visible, so also do we know the soul continues to exist after it flits out the window of life. The allegory of the Bird and the Meadhall is rather like Plato's Allegory of the Cave, with the idea of object permanence overlaid on top of it.

I wonder if any of this is suggestive of the psychology of material atheists, believers that all that exists is the material world (this is not to be expanded to all atheism, since Buddhism is an atheist religion, yet still has ideas that might be considered a type of object permanence). It may very well be that material atheists, believers in reincarnation, and believers in an other-worldly afterlife are in some small way nudged toward their beliefs by experiences as infants.


  1. Anonymous9:00 PM

    hey, i wrote a long theory on the origin of religion based on this.

  2. Anonymous5:12 PM

    sorry didn't have time to finish what i said last time.

    my opinion is that object permanence is just a premature notion of conservation. in ontogeny, object permanence (or mommi permanence) of the infant evolves into the idea of conservation (of "amount") of the child and finally into the law of conservation that s/he learns in college physics. a parallel evolution in phylogeny is: "ancestor permanence" (as in ancestor cult, the precursor of religion) then evolves into "nothing comes from nothing, something always comes from something, and nothing disappears from something" philosophical insight (as seen in presocratics, daoism, etc.) and finally into the law of conservation in physics (from religion to philosophy to science: sort of Comtean but common sense too). see the diagram at the bottom of