Sunday, May 24, 2015

Are You Afraid to Die?

Beware one-size-fits-all solutions. Be especially wary of people who pretend to know the meaning of life. Worst of all are those who believe that the meaning of life is death.

Those who do have chosen to believe that life’s pleasures and pains, life’s achievements and failures can all be explained by the fact that the human species, en masse, is terrified of death.

Some people believe that consciousness and the attendant knowledge is a boon. To those who believe that we are all terrified of death, consciousness contains a very dark side.

When social psychologist Sheldon Solomon first suggested that the fear of death could explain human cultures and motivations, his colleagues were skeptical, to say the least. They dismissed his theories as so much philosophical claptrap.

Solomon’s was not an original idea. It dated to the Greeks and the Romans. Freud had used it to attack those who practiced religion. And, many of today’s atheists proclaim their atheism as a sign that they are unafraid of death. They tout their non-belief as a sign of superior moral courage… the courage to face death without running screaming to the nearest pew.

If that’s all it takes to make you a moral being, we have a problem.

The argument about the fear of death offers a new definition of courage, one that trivializes most of your duties toward other human beings and allows you to live your life as an amoral narcissist.

It should go without saying but those who believe that the fear-of-death explains everything take it for granted that there is no afterlife, no Heaven, not even a Hell. Obviously, there is no way to prove or disprove the existence of an afterlife.

At least Pascal was willing to consider two distinct possibilities, that there might and might not be a Heaven. For a fuller discussion of Pascal’s wager, see my book, The Last Psychoanalyst.

Since Pascal took account of both possibilities, his was a more rational argument than the one offered by Solomon and his colleagues Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski.

The Chronicle of Higher Education summarizes their conclusions:

Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski have now spent a quarter-century studying how the fear of death shapes human affairs. The result is an empirical behemoth built on the foundation of a few simple propositions. One, that our awareness of death creates tremendous potential for anxiety or terror. Two, that we learn to manage that terror by embedding ourselves in a cultural worldview that imbues reality with order, meaning, and stability. Three, that we gain and maintain psychological security by sustaining faith in that worldview and living up to the values it conveys.

And also,

"The terror of death has guided the development of art, religion, language, economics, and science," they write. "It raised the pyramids in Egypt and razed the Twin Towers in Manhattan. It contributes to conflicts around the globe. At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it."

Of course, there is no reason to believe that the fear of death built the pyramids, any churches or synagogues. I do not want to be too cute, but these edifices were built by builders. Were I to be less cute, I would point out that the usual reactions to danger are flight or fight or freeze. It’s not the same thing as building a great building or even a high tech firm.

People might build great buildings because it is satisfying to accomplish something at such a high level. Fear is not a great motivator.

The fear-of-death theorists are not doing science; they are slandering those who believe in an afterlife. The social psychologists have found a way to defame the achievements of others. And also to persuade people to join their leftist crusade against civilization.

When the psychologists discuss the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, they describe it in highly politicized terms, but also in terms that are conventionally leftist.

By their lights the terrorists who committed the attacks were true believers who thought that they could transcend death.  They add that the outpouring of “patriotic zeal,” after 9/11, along with an “appetite to attack Muslims,” were signs of a fear of death.

Worse yet, for the authors was the fact that after 9/11 our nation supported a charismatic leader like George Bush.

In their words:

In a series of experiments, the psychologists found that death reminders increased support for charismatic leaders in general and for Bush and his policies in Iraq in particular. 

Unfortunately, most of this is inaccurate.

After 9/11 Americans did not develop an appetite for attacking Muslims indiscriminately. As everyone knows, no such backlash occurred in America.

Also, the authors might not have noticed, George W. Bush was anything but a charismatic leader.

If we imagine that this fear-of-death argument serves a purpose, how should someone who has overcome his fear of death respond to a terrorist attack on his major city?

Again, if we were not afraid to die, how would we behave? If we would have behaved in the same way, what's the point of it all?

The psychologists have their evidence, so let’s propose some alternatives.

Imagine a culture that was constructed on good atheistic principles. Presumably, the people who inhabit it are not afraid of death.

We know that such cultures have existed. Most recently they have been Communist cultures.

In point of fact, these cultures were so unafraid of death and so unafraid of any divine judgment of their actions that they were responsible for nearly one hundred million deaths. Whether Stalin or Mao or Pol Pot or Castro, the founders of atheist cultures acted with perfectly amoral impunity.

Does this mean that they were not afraid of death?

Or does it mean that they were so afraid of death that they preferred to feed the beast with the lives of others, lest Death lust after their lives?

Perhaps those who tout the concept of the fear of death are really those who most fear death.

Consider the case of Dr. Freud.

Freud believed that human beings had concocted the afterlife because they feared death. But he also believed that human existence was a Greek tragedy, one in which you were doomed from the outset, regardless of what you did or did not do.

This made Freud something of a stoic, but his thought can also lead to a conclusion that is perfectly amoral. If the human condition is a Greek tragedy, it does not really matter what you do. Your fate will play itself out inexorably. Thus, what really matters is what you can get away with.

For all we know people like their lives because they like their lives. They might even enjoy their lives… not because they are afraid of death but because they are unafraid of it.

One must add that some people would willingly trade their lives for the lives of their children. Whether someone fears or embraces death must be a function of age and experience.

Besides, if you think about it more clearly, you would be well within your rights to see the worst torment as: living forever.


Ares Olympus said...

I'm not sure what to make of this question. I'd imagine reactions can swing both ways, whatever people believe about death or an after life.

I found a wikipedia article on these "thinkers", and the intro paragraph looks sensible.
In social psychology, terror management theory (TMT) proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning. The theory was originally proposed by Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski.

Like I'd propose that the ideal of "scientific progress" represents one defense against death. Individually we know there's an end, but if you believe your culture is moving towards ever greater power over nature, ever greater knowledge about how the world works, and a future of ever greater potential for our descendants that sounds like a very effect protective myth.

And in the "swing both ways" sense, you can see the material value of "scientific progress" as in direct opposition to the early Christian values that have been called a "death cult", at least a willingness and perhaps even desire to become a martyr, and something perhaps also not unlike some of the ferver within Muslim fundamentalists.

Perhaps myth is a better word than culture, in Joseph Campbell's sense of "living beliefs" that allow us to function together in a culture. And there's two primary myths to consider - collectivism that individuals don't matter (except to the degree they serve the greate culture), and only individuals matter, which isn't just a libertarian position, but a reasonable one given all morality has to be expressed through the actions of individuals.

My own personal relationship with death is to see its not something I fear exactly, but not something I plan to encourage an early arrival.

But fear is also central, like I don't want to find myself in a place as a burden, so "living beyond my usefulness" is a concern for me. And its a dangerous line of thinking, like I can see someone could easily convince me to take my own life if I was old and useless, and I don't have any clear defense against that message.

And if you look at suicide statistics, you'll see single older men is simply off the scale compared to women, looking at the State maps for instances.

So we might ask whether men or women are more afraid of death? Are men less afraid because they're willing to kill themselves? Or are they more afraid of life for the same reason? (Or they also say women attempt sucide as much as men, but pick less violent ways of death that fail more often.)

I've also heard the idea that there's two mythic ways of seeing the world - directional or cyclic. And women might be more connected to the cyclic aspects of life, so when the directional efforts (like scientific progress) fail for men's psychic protection, maybe woman are less concerned, and perhaps relieved, because the crazy fast pace of life might slow down for her children and grandchildren?

Myself, I follow the Prometheus myth of progress, and I approve of foolish beings who would steal fire from the Gods, and the willingness to pay an external personal price. You never want to ask for such sacrifice, but when it is given, all you can say is "I hope I'm worthy of what was given to me that I've not earned."

Hey, a good thought now with Memorial day weekend too.

priss rules said...

I don't know if the theory is right but with stuff like 'gay marriage' and Jeff Koons as art, it appears death is what our culture wants.

Ares Olympus said...

priss rules said... I don't know if the theory is right but with stuff like 'gay marriage' ... it appears death is what our culture wants.

Is "gay marriage" really about death?! That suggestion surprises me.

You'd think "gay marriage" would be about life-long communal partnerships like every other couple aspires. You'd think this would reduce self-destructive choices, assuming you're up to the challenge anyway, as all couples must discover.

David Foster said...

I've never been very impressed by Pascal's Wager: implicitly he is assuming that there are only 2 possibilities: (1) Christianity is true, and (2) There is no God and no afterlife.

So what if you bet on (1) and it turns out that the Muslim religion is the correct one?...or the religion of some little-known American Indian tribe...or some religion which has not yet been revealed?