We write literary fiction that is often based on personal experience, and without hesitation we call it a work of fiction. We write literary fiction that is entirely a fantasy of the mind, and again we call this a work of fiction. We write literary fiction based on recorded history, weaving historical facts that are widely accepted and acknowledged to be actual fact with a story that has no basis in fact, and without hesitation we call this a work of fiction. Similarly, we write literary fiction based on recorded history, and we revise some of these historical facts so they no longer correspond to recorded history, and we still call this a work of fiction. Yet we also write literary fiction that weaves historical facts, revises historical facts, with stories that have no basis in fact, and the work is sometimes presented as gospel fact --- non-fiction. We sometimes call these works "sacred texts." The difference between fiction and non-fiction is blurred.
There is a book that has been on the top of the recent paperback best-seller lists for non-fiction. I have not read it, and so I am unqualified to discuss it. The book is entitled Heaven is for Real, and here is how it is briefly described on the New York Times best seller list: "A father recounts his 3-year-old son’s encounter with Jesus and the angels during an appendectomy." The "what the heck" question that must come to everyone's mind is how on earth did the Times decide to put this book in the category of non-fiction? This is fiction. We know it when we see it. Well, maybe that one sentence did not do it justice. Here is how the full-length article on the book describes it:
"Just two months shy of his fourth birthday, Colton Burpo, the son of an evangelical pastor in Imperial, Neb., was rushed into emergency surgery with a burst appendix. He woke up with an astonishing story: He had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus, who had eyes that 'were just sort of a sea-blue and they seemed to sparkle,' Colton, now 11 years old, recalled."
Now we know our initial reaction is correct. This is fiction. Well maybe not. Maybe the non-fiction part is represented by the objective facts that the boy had appendicitis; he went to the hospital and had surgery; that he had a dream about meeting Samson, John, and Jesus in heaven; and that this 3-year old boy told his father about the dream. OK. So a non-fiction story that contains a description of a fictional event. But hold it. The title is "Heaven is for Real." That suggests that the fictional part of this story is somehow real. On the totality of the evidence, I vote to move this book to the fiction column.
In The Believing Brain, (see June 12, 2011 post) Michael Shermer reports on polls showing that a substantial majority of religious people believe in the afterlife: the eternal survival of the soul, heaven, and hell. The numbers are not as high for Jews, something I will discuss further below. Belief in the afterlife is constructed on what Shermer refers to patternicity and agenticity and theory of mind: we imagine ourselves and others as intentional agents continuing indefinitely into the future. As Damasio describes (see April 8, 2011 post), our brain unconsciously monitors everything that is going on in our body and it is consciously aware of the objective "me" --- our limbs, skin, the noises we make in the context of the environment we are in that are senses make us aware of --- and when this core self is coupled with the consciousness of a subjective autobiographical self -- "I" -- that autobiographical self becomes an extension of our body schema. The Theory of Mind , and what Michael Gazzaniga refers to as the decoupling device in our brains, enables projection of our unseen essence into the future, and combined with the left hemisphere of the brain's storytelling capacity we have the capacity to assign meaning and intentionality to our unseen essence, what we call our "soul," which has the ability to survive our physical death. Shermer uses the phrase "decentering," whereby we "imagine ourselves somewhere else from the Archimedean point beyond our body . . .we envision ourselves in the afterlife as a decentered image removed from this time and space into an empyreal realm." This is the brain's same capacity that enables us to create works of fiction. (See May 22, 2011 post). Our belief in heaven, hell, the eternal soul arises from our brain's capacity to write works of fiction and tell stories about that things that do not exist.
Fernando Pessoa is an authentic person, a beloved poet of Portugal. He was particularly admired by Jose Saramago, the author of The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis. Pessoa invented "heteronyms" --- imaginary character(s) created by a writer to write in different styles --- one of which was Ricardo Reis. In Saramago's novel, Ricardo Reis arrives back in Portugal after sixteen years abroad in Brazil in mid-December 1939. Fernando Pessoa, the Portugese poet has just died on November 30, 1939 (a true historical fact). Reis is drawn to Pessoa's gravesite for a visit. Not long thereafter, Pessoa, who had been dead about a month, makes himself visible to Reis and they talk. "I have about eight months in which to wander around as I please," explains Pessoa. "Why eight months?" asks Reis, and Pessoa explains: "The usual period is nine months, the same length of time we spend in our mother's womb, I believe it's a question of symmetry, before we are born no one can see us but they think about us everyday. After we are dead they cannot see us any longer and every day they go on forgetting us a little more, and apart from exceptional cases it takes about nine months to achieve total oblivion." Perfect. So we have an "afterlife" of nine months that mirrors our "pre-life" of nine months duration. This is not illogical. But it's storytelling, no different than the storytelling in Heaven is for Real, and we do not place The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis in the category of works of non-fiction.
Alan Segal wrote a very good history of the human belief in afterlife entitled Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion. Segal cites the same polling data that Michael Shermer refers to about the substantial number of people who believe in an afterlife. Belief in afterlife is documented to go back as far as we have a written record of human culture --- to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Ironically, the culture that coalesced around a single god --- the founders of monotheism --- the Jews (First Temple Judaism) was devoid of a story of the afterlife in pentateuch --- the five books of Moses. The afterlife did not creep into the Jewish psyche until a couple of hundred years BCE, around the time of the Book of Daniel or the period of the Maccabees, and it later became a part of the rabbinical tradition. This probably explains why belief in the afterlife is significantly lower among Jews than among Christians and Muslims. Ironically, Spinoza was excommunicated by his Jewish community in Amsterdam in the late 17th century because, in substantial part, he professed that there was no eternal soul. Segal also singles out adherents of Confucianism for very low belief in an afterlife.
Segal's history of human belief in afterlife, and even Spinoza's experience, confirms the role of culture and social structure --- religion, government, and family --- in reinforcing beliefs such as belief in the afterlife. Shermer's list of biases do not seem sufficient to explain why belief in the afterlife is so engrained --- although one bias that Shermer only mentions in passing --- the authority bias. the tendency to believe the word of persons in positions of authority --- would go part of the way in explaining the strength of this belief. There is something more in the reinforcement of this belief than just the biases that Shermer explains are critical to confirming belief. Storytelling is part of our social nature, and our capacity for storytelling is clearly something that has a survival value for us, even when it is a work of fiction. Belief in the afterlife is part of the social reality that many have constructed for themselves,. Its origin has explanation in adaptive strategies for survival at some point in our past.