What Children Know of Immortality


In a January news release from Boston University, Barbara Moran writes of a study led by Natalie Emmons that examined children’s beliefs about immortality. All of the children in the study claimed they could remember a time before they existed; what they remembered was not thoughts expressible in language, but emotions. “Her research suggests that we often think the part of us that is eternal is not our ability to reason, but our desires and emotions…” The study, published in the journal Child Development, concludes, “our hard-wired belief in immortality may be the root core of religious belief.”


In the classic Tragic Sense of Life, Miguel De Unamuno writes about both the belief in immortality, and the longing for it in every human heart—including those who do not believe. Empiricists want verifiable, repeatable proof of a spiritual reality. Unamuno claims that the desire for immortality is enough to sustain belief in it. Does it? How does desire relate to knowledge, and how does that affect belief?


Unamuno quotes Aristotle’s dictum “all [people] desire to know,” but from there Unamuno goes his own way. He differentiates between unconscious knowledge, which all beings have to some degree, and reflective knowledge, or “knowing that we know.” The desire to know comes before the knowing, and the knowing comes before, and sometimes in the absence of, “knowing that we know.” Unamuno takes issue with Descartes’ “I think therefor I am.” He writes, “[T]he primary reality is not that I think, but that I live, for those also live who do not think… The truth is… I am therefor I think…”


I feel and desire before I know, and I know before I think. Must I think before I believe? Where does this hard-wired belief in immortality come from?


Emmons admits that her interest is more than just scientific. “I study these things for a living,” she says, “but even find myself defaulting to them. I know that my mind is a product of my brain but I still like to think of myself as something independent of my body.”


I think of mystics I’ve read, how it seems to me that the more mystical they are, the more trouble I have making sense of their words. Is it because they are moving deeper, to this place where emotion and desire move, where knowing thrives outside the “knowing that we know”? Is it knowledge that transcends our ability to think clearly about it, much less express it?


Is it enough to justify belief?

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