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Speakers

Keynote speakers

Mary Roach profile bwMary Roach

Science Writer
Mary Roach Tackles the Afterlife

“What happens when we die? Does the light just go out and that’s that _ the million-year nap? Or will some part of my personality, my me-ness persist? What will that feel like? What will I do all day? Is there a place to plug in my lap-top?”

In an attempt to find out, bestselling author Mary Roach brings her tireless curiosity to bear on an array of contemporary and historical soul-searchers: scientists, schemers, engineers, mediums, all trying to prove (or disprove) that life goes on after we die.

Friday 12 April 6:00pm - 7:30pm


Michael Shermer profile bwMichael Shermer

Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia

Bestselling author and skeptic Michael Shermer sets out to discover what drives humans’ belief in life after death, focusing on recent scientific attempts to achieve immortality by radical life extentionists, extropians, trans-humanists, cryonicists, and mind-uploaders, along with utopians who have attempted to create heaven on earth.

For millennia, religions have concocted numerous manifestations of heaven and the afterlife, the place where souls go after the death of the physical body. Religious leaders have toiled to make sense of this place that a surprising percentage of people believe exists, but from which no one has ever returned to report what it is really like. Shermer concludes with an uplifting paean to purpose and progress and what we can do in the here-and-now, whether or not there is a hereafter.

Sunday 14 April 1:30pm - 2:45pm

Panel 1 speakers: Kids, Death, and the Afterlife

Virginia Slaughter profile bwProfessor Virginia Slaughter

University of Queensland

How Modern Children Learn About Death

Over the last centuries, decreases in infant and child mortality, urbanization and increases in health care efficacy have reduced children’s personal exposure to death and dying. So how do children acquire accurate conceptions of death in this context?

In this talk, developmental psychologist Virginia Slaughter discusses three sources of children’s learning about death and dying, namely, direct experience of death, parental communication about death, and portrayals of death in media and the arts.

Saturday 13 April 10:30am–10:45am


Deb Kelemen profile bwProfessor Deb Kelemen

Boston University

Children’s Intuitions About Life Everlasting

Spirits are everywhere. In nearly every culture, mythologies and religious beliefs abound that speak of disembodied souls that persist after death, populate nature, send us signs, and influence our lives. But where do these beliefs come from?

One standard answer is that they are simply products of cultural learning; they derive from the narratives that societies tell and re-tell to each generation. However, Deb Kelemen’s research for the last 25 years has pursued another possibility: Perhaps such beliefs recur because of the way our minds are naturally inclined to reason about the world.

If that is so, young children should display intuitions about everlasting souls even when thinking about situations for which their culture has no stories. And, indeed, it turns out that from urban cities to indigenous Amazonia, children endorse notions of life everlasting–and not just in the afterlife. Children intuit that their own minds existed before they were even conceived on Earth.

Saturday 13 April 10:15am–10:30am


Jesse Bering profile bwAssociate Professor Jesse Bering

University of Otago

The Invisible Woman in the Room

A common feature of supernatural agents, including ghosts, is the presumed presence of a mind without a physical body. That is, they are invisible. And since they lack bodies, we can’t reason about what’s on their minds by inferring things from their overt behaviors, facial expressions, or words. Instead, we perceive the dead as communicating with us through symbolic events.

“What does this mean?” we may find ourselves asking when the emotional climate is just right. “What is she trying to tell me?”

In this talk, psychologist Jesse Bering describes the “Princess Alice studies,” a series of experiments in which children were told that a friendly invisible woman was in the room with them and trying to make contact with them. At what age, Bering asks, are children cognitively advanced enough to be superstitious, attributing deeper meaning to anomalous events?

Saturday 13 April 10:45am–11:00am

Panel 2 speakers: Built to Believe?

Azim Shariff profile bwAssociate Professor Azim Shariff

University of British Columbia

The Invention of Hell

Figuring out how to harmoniously cooperate has been the central challenge of human societies. Enforcement of moral norms—that is, punishment—has been a critical feature for enabling this cooperation. The belief in supernatural punishment may have thus emerged as a valuable cultural idea—one that contributed to the success of both the religions and societies it was attached to.

Drawing on psychological and sociological evidence, I’ll argue that the belief in Hell and other forms of punitive morally-dependent afterlives were innovations that allowed us to cooperate in larger and larger groups.

Saturday 13 April 1:30pm–1:45pm


Claire White profile bwAssociate Professor Claire White

California State University-Northridge

Why Do We Perform Mortuary Rituals?

When an ant dies, it lies ignored for a few days by others in the colony until the smell triggers another ant to carry the tiny decaying intruder out of the midst and dump it onto a pile of corpses. Unlike ants, humans do not simply discard the dead, but first engage in time-consuming, regulated, elaborate and costly behaviors. Why?

Psychologist Claire White has been investigating this question by surveying the dazzling array of practices around the world surrounding the corpse in communal ceremonies. In this talk, she shares her discovery that underlying the apparent diversity in practices are basic similarities in how people treat the dead.

Drawing on functionalist theory, she proposes that rituals surrounding the corpse continue because they serve important functions for the living.

Saturday 13 April 1:45pm–2:00pm


Quentin Atkinson profile bwProfessor Quentin Atkinson

University of Auckland

The Evolution of Sacrifice and the Afterlife

Sacrifice of time, goods, animals or even human life are among the most widespread and puzzling aspects of religion and are intimately connected with beliefs about the afterlife. Why do people make sacrifices, what possible function could they perform, and why do they so frequently involve the afterlife?

Psychologist Quentin Atkinson has built a career around applying methods and theory from evolutionary biology to test ideas about the evolution of human culture, including religion. In this talk he maps out the diverse ways people around the globe use sacrifice to shape their fortunes in this life and the next. He then presents work using computer models of evolution to infer how such a diversity of forms could have arisen and what function they might perform for individuals and their groups.

Saturday 13 April 2:00pm–2:15pm

Panel 3 speakers: Hard Not to Believe

Josh Jackson profile bwJosh Jackson

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

To Be Immortal, Do Good or Evil

Is the human soul immortal? Many people believe that it is, but less is known about which souls get to be immortal and how they live on after death.

Social psychologist Joshua Conrad Jackson argues that both religious and non-religious people intuitively view good and evil souls as more likely to survive death than morally neutral souls. Good and evil souls appear to persist after death in folktales, rituals, and in people’s perceptions of historical figures—Attila the Hun is seen to be more immortal than Amelia Earhart. People also report “feeling” good and evil souls more than morally neutral souls in an experimental séance.

Nevertheless, good and evil souls are perceived to persist in very different ways: good souls transcend physical location whereas evil souls are bound to specific places such as caves or forests. These simple intuitions may underlie a wide range of afterlife beliefs, explaining everything from our belief in hell to our fear of haunted houses.

Sunday 14 April 10:15am–10:30am


Jamin Halberstadt profile bwProfessor Jamin Halberstadt

University of Otago

Implicit Fear of Ghosts and the Meaning of “Belief”

People vary in their understanding of death, and none of us knows what if anything lies beyond it. Yet many of us – possibly all of us – behave as though we do. People are, for example, reluctant to sell their soul for cash even if they don’t believe they have a soul, and are careful to speak well of the dead, even when they don’t think the dead know the difference.

In this talk, Jamin Halberstadt, an expert in social and religious cognition, discusses cases in which people’s emotions, decisions, and morality are shaped by an afterlife they disavow, and what such phenomena might mean for the nature of belief itself.

Sunday 14 April 10:30am–10:45am


Justin Barrett profile bwProfessor Justin Barrett

Fuller Theological Seminary

Why Ideas about Ghosts are Common, Believable, but Rarely Important Parts of Theological Systems

Ideas about ghosts, spirits, ancestors, and other forms of afterlife beliefs appear in almost every cultural context. Setting aside whether these beliefs are true, features of how human minds typically work may make such beliefs fairly natural for individuals and almost inevitable for human groups. And yet, only occasionally do they occupy central places in formalized religions or theological systems. In fact, afterlife beliefs of laypeople commonly deviate from the orthodoxy of religions.

This presentation suggests reasons why this is and identifies strategies for scientific research concerning this apparent disconnect.

Sunday 14 April 10:45am–11:00am

Hosted by the University of Otago
Centre for Science Communication

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