Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology

Death is a big deal. Most of us know it, or acknowledge it. Those of us who don’t are in denial—a fairly typical way of coping with unpleasant or unwelcome realities.

A handful of psychologists have developed a theory about how the fear or anticipation of our personal demise influences the way we make sense of our world.

On their view, our notions about death drive much of our behavior, and in ways we little suspect. This may seem obvious for some people, organizations, religious groups, and such. But these psychologists propose a completely general thesis with universal application. What is most controversial is their claim about each of us as individuals:

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.

This movement within the field of psychology has come to be called “terror-management theory.”

Some who demand an evolutionary explanation for our psychological constitution, in all of its rich complexity, apparently feel some uneasiness about the proposal. But Sheldon Solomon, one of the theory’s chief architects, doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He has no trouble referring to a human person as a “breathing piece of defecating meat.” I would imagine we have evolution to thank for that.

His book, a co-authored treatise, is called The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. William James (1842-1910), the philosopher and psychologist, provided the authors with their title in his own reference to death as “the worm at the core” of the human condition. I suspect, though, that similarities between their conception of human persons and William James’s don’t extend much further than this borrowing.

Also, I wonder if they’ve thought very deeply about how the Christian religion locates the problem of our mortality within the total picture of human meaning and purpose. More likely than not, they would explain the hold of a Christian worldview on the minds and psyches of so many people as a fear-of-death management-system. That would make for an ironic parallel and discontinuity between their perspective and that of the Christian Bible.

That the anticipation of death reverberates throughout our sensibilities and actions has been thought before. The authors themselves credit Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death, for setting them on this particular research path. But the notion may have special appeal in a social context dominated by scientific naturalism. In such a context, one advantage of their theory is that it lends support to convenient debunking of claims about life after death. Doctrines of immortality are reduced to coping mechanisms. And that’s about all there is to it.

If belief in immortality provides a person with psychic support in the face of death, it may be supposed, then we have a psychological explanation for his belief in immortality.

Or not. The trouble is, the move made in this explanation for belief is a non sequitur. For a doctrine might actually be true and a believer in immortality might actually be justified, on reasonable grounds, for affirming that doctrine, even if immortality does provide believers with psychic support. In fact, belief in immortality would be a triple advantage if (1) the doctrine of immortality is true, (2) there’s good reason to affirm the doctrine, and (3) the doctrine provides powerful psychological support (in the form of hope, for example) in a world of mixed blessings.

Of course, the believer must reckon with the specter of a modus tollens reversal:

  1. If the doctrine of immortality is true, then the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false.
  2. The doctrine of scientific naturalism is true.
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of immortality is false.

This isn’t a serious obstacle, if the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false. It isn’t an obstacle if there is little evidence or argument that scientific naturalism is true. And since the evidence for scientific naturalism is ambiguous at best, the doctrinaire naturalist still has reason to consider the significance of his life within the framework of the possibility that some doctrine of immortality is true. And this may induce fear for anyone clinging to scientific naturalism.

No naturalistic explanation for the psychic power that derives from hope for an afterlife can dispense with this challenge to naturalism.

So what if belief in immortality aids in managing the fear of our eventual earthly demise? I suppose it’s as likely that the denial of immortality could also be a terror-management strategy. How convenient to think that death is not a threshold of crossing between the known and the unknown, but just the end of it all?

The Stoics advised composure in the face of death on the grounds that when it comes there will be no regret because no one left to regret it. Or at least no basis for fearing it. Why fear now what you won’t fear when it actually happens? But that isn’t the problem, is it, this side of the fatal divide? The real problem is knowing whether there is something in it for us beyond the threshold of death, and knowing, if there is, what it might be, and whether there are different possibilities, depending on your existential and doxastic commitments here and now.

There is room, I think, for more than one version of “mortal motivation theory” in psychology. There is the secularist-naturalist version promoted by the authors of The Worm at the Core. And there is the religiously serious version according to which death is a fitting device for contemplating our place in a super-naturalistically haunted universe and reflecting on where it might all be leading.

***

For a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here: Mortal Motivation – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Direct quotations in this post are from the Chronicle review by Marc Parry.

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About Doug Geivett
University Professor; PhD in philosophy; author; conference speaker. Hobbies include motorcycling, travel, kayaking, sailing.

One Response to Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology

  1. Jeff Tomes says:

    Seems these folks need to find another name for what they do as psychology is the study of the soul/spirit which by definition is distinguished from our body and is the part of us that lives beyond our natural death.

    Like

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