Faculty Scholarly Dissemination Grants


The Cognitive Science of Early Chinese Afterlife Beliefs


Honors College


Brooks College of Interdisciplinary Studies

Date Range





Cognitive studies of afterlife beliefs suggest that belief in life after death is intuitive and founded on pan-cultural cognitive processes. In the past decade, researchers have established that as children increasingly understand biological death, they also increasingly attribute continued mental functioning to dead people yet are less inclined to attribute continuing biological attributes to the deceased. Thus, Bering and others argue that natural cognitive mechanisms incline us to believe in psychological immortality. Research on afterlife beliefs has been conducted primarily in cultures that have historically dominant afterlife beliefs, not in those Asian contexts that are alleged to be skeptical of an afterlife, those alleged to be Confucian. If a culture as vast and influential as China's were not to evidence afterlife beliefs, some foundational claims of the cognitive science of religion would, very likely, be refuted. Graham claims that pre-Han philosophy knows nothing of a mind-body dichotomy, arguing that it emerged in China centuries later through the influence of Indian Buddhism. Rosemont and Ames claim that the Chinese have a relational, not substantial conception of the self or soul. Jullien claims that for the Chinese no dualism is possible." If the Chinese lacked a conception of mind-body dualism, then they likely lacked a standard conception of the afterlife. If intuitive dualism is pan-cultural and is instigative of afterlife beliefs, we should expect to find representations of disembodied spirits in the earliest Chinese historical texts. We take Slingerlands work as our starting point. Rather than focus on xin, however, we focus on Chinese terms associated with soul or spirit--hun and po--and their movements in life, death and the afterlife. We construct an intuitive database from pre-Qin texts to determine the nature and prevalence of soul/spirit terms and the relationship of soul/spirit to body, and discuss whether these representations correspond to claims to intuitive dualism and afterlife beliefs argued for by cognitive science.

Conference Name

American Academy of Religion

Conference Location

San Diego

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