Stephen Rosenbaum (2004) makes an interesting observation with regard to Lucretius’ symmetry problem concerning why we regard our death as bad, but our previous, pre-vital, non-existence indifferently (i.e., why we do not seem to care about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception or birth, yet care so much that we will die). Rosenbaum posits that because we so habitually identify ourselves with our bodies that we have a psychologically difficult time not doing so even when we think about our “dead” body. This is to say that when we think about what happens to our bodies after our death, we have a hard time psychologically disassociating ourselves from the fates of those bodies. Thus, whatever misfortunes (e.g., our bodies being mutilated or treated as carrion post-mortem) our bodies might suffer after our death, we imagine that we (the person) experience those misfortunes.
This seems to me to be such an obvious and intuitive answer to Paul Bloom’s (2004) query as to why we treat the body of the deceased so well. Bloom’s answer, because he was arguing for intuitive Cartesian substance dualism such that we view ourselves as only our minds and not our bodies, was that we, the living, viewed the decedent’s body as their most prized possession, and therefore, out of respect for the decedent we take good care of their remains. I (Hodge, 2008, forthcoming-a, forthcoming-b) have argued contra Bloom, however, that our respect for the dead body is because we still envision the deceased as embodied, specifically socially embodied such that the deceased can maintain their social roles from this life in the next. We continue to envisage the deceased as embodied because that is how we knew them while they were living (i.e., we never imagined them, even in their periodic absences, as disembodied).
Putting together my arguments concerning our imagining the deceased (wherever they might be, and whatever they might be doing) as embodied with Rosenbaum’s suggestion seems to suggest that there might be a fundamental, but forgivable, confusion on the part of the living as to with which body the deceased are now to be associated (i.e., the physical, but dead, body, or the imagined body with which we supply the deceased). Since we so closely associated the deceased with the physical body, it would make sense that we, because of our caring for them, would not want to see a misfortune befall them (in which we have confused “them” with their now insensate corpse). This confusion produces the belief (or alief, (Gendler, 2008a, 2008b)) that the dead can somehow still feel what is happening to their body.
I know that I have intuitively felt this when I have seen corpses “mistreated.” For instance, I recall seeing a film clip of deceased victims of the Nazi’s concentration camps having their decimated remains bulldozed into a mass grave. I winced at the sight—somehow I had an empathetic reaction to what they must have felt at having their bodies roughly handled in such a way.
To empirically demonstrate this, however, will require overcoming Bering and colleagues (J. Bering, 2002; J. Bering, Blasi, & Bjorklund, 2005; J. M. Bering, 2006) experimental findings that people seem to think that the dead no longer have biological, psychobiological, or perceptual functions. But, as I (Hodge, 2008, forthcoming-a) have argued, I think that we do intuitively believe that the dead can still experience things if those things are socially relevant. Thus, I would argue in this case of confusion concerning the decedent’s body, that if the treatment of the decedent’s body has social implications (the body is socially honored or socially disgraced), then participants should respond that the decedent could still experience such embodied treatment.
This, I think, is an idea worth pursuing in answer (psychologically) to the long-standing philosophical question of whether the dead can be harmed.
Bering, J. (2002). Intuitive Conceptions of Dead Agents’ Minds: The Natural Foundations of Afterlife Beliefs as Phenomenological Boundary. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 2(4), 263-308.
Bering, J., Blasi, C. H., & Bjorklund, D. F. (2005). The Development of ‘Afterlife’ Beliefs in Religiously and Secularly Schooled Children. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587-607.
Bering, J. M. (2006). The Folk Psychology of Souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 1-46.
Bloom, P. (2004). Descartes’ Baby: How Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human. London: Arrow Books.
Gendler, T. S. (2008a). Alief and Belief. Journal of Philosophy, 105(10), 634-663.
Gendler, T. S. (2008b). Alief in Action (and Reaction). Mind and Language, 23(5), 552-585.
Hodge, K. M. (2008). Descartes Mistake: How Afterlife Beliefs Challenge the Assumption That Humans Are Intuitive Cartesian Substance Dualists. Journal of Cognition and Culture, 8(3-4), 387-415.
Hodge, K. M. (forthcoming-a). On Imagining the Afterlife. Journal of Cognition and Culture.
Hodge, K. M. (forthcoming-b). Why Immortality Alone Will Not Get Me to the Afterlife. Philosophical Psychology.
Rosenbaum, S. E. (2004). How to Be Dead and Not Care: A Defense of Epicurus. In D. Benatar (Ed.), Life, Death, & Meaning: Key Philosophical Readings on the Big Questions (pp. 173-187). Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.