Christian Belief, Autism, and Bering’s Cognitive Suite

In what follows I raise questions for further investigation into the relationship between autism and concept acquisition, particularly as it would relate to Christian witness.

–After reading Jess Bering’s “The folk psychology of souls,” That article is available on JSTOR. I am also happy to email a pdf to anyone interested.

Respondents Stephen Flusberg and Helen Tager-Flusberg have picked up on the strain in Jesse Bering’s “The folk psychology of souls” related to people with autism. Admittedly for the respondents, there is no systematically tested data related to whether people with autism are less likely to consider mental states surviving death. The suggestions of these respondents make up for what they lack in hard evidence by being explicit in their call for further work and study. This does not mean however that their inclinations and hypotheses are not unfounded. To begin, I would like to layout the proposal by Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg.

From the abstract of this response to Bering we learn that (on the basis of anecdotal evidence in the place of tested data) people with autism, despite lacking in some mechanisms which Bering identified as supporting a folk psychology of the soul, do indeed believe in life after death. First, what are these mechanisms which individuals with autism lack? Bering argued that individuals most likely to believe in a soul and afterlife are those with the most intact theory of mind. Recognition, or conceptualizing, of mental states seems to be near the heart of the matter. It is no secret that this particular domain of human cognition is underdeveloped or lacking entirely in individuals with ASD. The respondents point out that people with ASD have difficulty representing the mental states of themselves, let alone the mental states of others. Since Bering cites consideration of the mental state as a prerequisite to a concept of the mental state’s existence post-mortem, Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg wonder if this means those with ASD have little to no likelihood of holding such existential beliefs.

The reality of belief in a soul or afterlife among individuals on the ASD spectrum is more complex than all or nothing. The respondents cite Bering’s view that belief in an afterlife is in part an affective response to the death of loved ones. People with ASD do not, in general, form as many deep emotional attachments evoking of affective responses. Since people with ASD lack the emotional attachment, the severing of that relationship is less likely to form the sort of existential crisis required for the formation of a belief in a soul. On the other hand, some people with autism do claim beliefs in a soul or an afterlife. Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg thus make a linguistic proposal.

Their hypothesis is “that a person with autism may acquire the belief in an afterlife via language, in the same way as they can learn to pass false belief tasks.” Studies have shown that children with autism can be predicted to pass theory of mind tasks on the basis of their linguistic knowledge. This argument for language and grammar as an explanation of concept acquisition might seem to work more in favor of socio-cultural indoctrination as the cause of belief, rather than underlying cognitive mechanisms. For Bering, this depends on the belief. He readily concedes that specific and distinctive religious concepts can be attributed to the socio-cultural cause. But general dualistic concepts are a result of cognitive mechanisms according to Bering’s theory. Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg pushback and wonder “given people with autism can hold dualistic beliefs,” that is people without the cognitive mechanisms Bering cites as the cause of dualistic belief, “might language play a more significant role in the folk psychology of souls?”

The respondent’s’ proposal is not unfamiliar territory for philosophers. The notion that conceptual and linguistic confusion encourages the separation of mind and body rather than anything cognitive or innate to human beings is an argument I was first exposed to in Wittgenstein. Importantly, the respondents note that their argument in favor of language over Bering’s argument for cognition are completely compatible. All of Bering’s evidence may work just as well for Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg since “language and cognition are intimately tied together.”

Bering, I suspect, would not be entirely displeased with this suggestion for further work by Flusberg and Tager-Flusberg. Bering’s own insistence upon an evolved cognitive suite points towards a variety of functions capable of producing belief in a soul or afterlife. In my own experience (which will have to do in the case of a lack of tested data), the prerequisite of language and grammar for concept acquisition is essential. It is not clear to me that my three year old sibling Sawyer knows what it means to be ashamed. In the first place he has no sense of shame, or perhaps I really mean he has no sense of nudity versus clothed-ness. The argument about language preceding concepts might be interesting to compare alongside Deborah Keleman’s “Are Children Intuitive Theists?” It would seem that children at least have a sense of function (teleology) prior to their have an adequate vocabulary and grammar to explain that concept. As Bering, Flusberg, and Tager-Flusberg all concede: more research ought to be done. Further, I consider myself fairly aware of the work being done in Christian academia. Thought related to the autistic community is almost entirely lacking. If it is true that religious concepts, the holding of which most religious adherents would consider quite valuable with implications for the afterlife, are less likely to be held by those with autism then it would seem that theologians should be working through their own level of explanation regarding this phenomenon. Bering’s work seems an excellent place to start.


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