"So we just die and we're gone? Forever? Nothing?" she asks, as we pick our way around a vengeful-looking cholla cactus. I could offer up something about living on in good works or the memories of loved ones or whatever, but she is talking about the individual soul, so I don't bother. I just shrug. "Pretty much."
"But why would you choose to believe that?" she asks. She has asked this more than once. Her own afterlife-belief is very comforting and lovely. Clearly, therefore, it is the better one to choose. I mean, you don't choose the ugly dress over the pretty one, right?
I don't know what to tell her. I don't recall ever choosing this particular belief. It's more something that seems unshakably obvious to me. If my unbelief seems baffling to her, I find equally baffling her conviction that belief is something one chooses. Maybe it is that way for some people — belief, like a light switch. On-off.
But I'm not sure we have much agency over our beliefs. We inherit certain beliefs when we're young and easily convinced, and other beliefs we accrue through direct experience — these two kinds of beliefs are the hardest to shake. The beliefs we acquire from books and schooling are not so deeply set, unless our experience pours around them and freezes them into place. I believe some things provisionally (salt makes water boil faster, there's a black hole in the center of our galaxy, cats always land on their feet), but if evidence came along to the contrary, I could change my mind. These are light beliefs, without much riding on them. Other beliefs are heavy, kept firmly in place for many reasons. Fear. Hope. Indoctrination. Inertia.
Something like "the afterlife" is tricky, since there's really no way to know. Perhaps this leaves it open for Pascal's Wager more than other beliefs: if you don't know, you may as well choose the nice story. But I can't shake the evidence at hand: Consciousness appears to be dependent on the brain, and the brain does not survive death. I can't flip the belief switch just because I don't like the direction the evidence is pointing.
As it happens, sometimes really unpleasant things are true: veracity is not dependent on how much we want to believe a thing. When I was 16, I was in a car crash with my best friend. I was in the ICU for four days, and after two days my parents came to tell me my friend was dead. Since she'd hung on for a bit, I'd been pretty sure she was going to make it. The bad news was an incredible shock, and I reacted the way people do when they get horrible news: I literally could not believe it.
Which changed nothing.
It would be nice if beliefs actually changed reality — and they can, when they direct our intentions and actions. But they can't make a true thing untrue. They can't undo death.
So I run headlong into two conclusions that seem inescapable: the first, reality doesn't mold itself around our beliefs. Our beliefs must mold themselves around reality. The second: most of our beliefs happen to us, without us even being aware we've acquired them. That inclines me to be more sympathetic to people whose beliefs are different then mine. It also makes me want to double-down on my own skepticism. There are so many reasons to believe things that are factually wrong: because we want to believe, because it's tradition, because we learned it at school, because it feels good, because everyone else seems to believe it. I don't want to believe wrong things about the world, so I try to go with where the evidence leads me, rather than where my wishes lead me. Sometimes that's a dark road to take.