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.

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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.

‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post


‘Born Bad’: How the idea that we’re all sinners has shaped Western culture – The Washington Post.

Read this book review by Michael Dirda and consider where the argument about original sin and the history of Christian doctrine errs.

Your observations are welcome. Feel free to share using the comments box below.

Reading about Choosing to Be in Love


Reading about love. The lovestruck will have no interest because being in love takes you out of being in any conceptual mode, such as reading about the sort of thing love is. Or is supposed to be.

Maybe this is a part of what Emily Dickinson was pointing to when she wrote:

That love is all there is,

Is all we know of love.

When you’re in love, all there is is love. Next question?

But then there are the unrequited lovers. Which may be most of us most of the time. Do they read about love?

It turns out that many may be reading about love these days. Certainly, more are writing about it philosophically. This is documented in Clancy Martin’s review of Berit Brogaard’s book On Romantic Love. Martin likes Brogaard’s book.

Book Cove-Berit Brogaard-On Romantic Love

From what I gather, the controlling idea is that love, though it is an emotion, may be rational or not. Brogaard means “rational” in a sense that permits some choice and control on the part of anyone with romantic love on his mind (and not just in his heart).

This suggests that if you’re in love and you wish you weren’t, you might be able to do something about it. And if you aren’t in love, maybe you can do something about that, too.

I see a problem here. While your emotional state may be under some measure of control, you have no control over the emotional state of another person. This is a real problem for the lovelorn. For romantic love is arguably reciprocal. Without reciprocation—that is, as long as love goes unrequited—the love you feel may not be the same thing it would be if reciprocated. It may not even be romantic love.

But then, what is it?

Notes:

[1] The Emily Dickinson quote is from her undated poem “That love is all there is.” Dickinson lived from 1830-1886.

[2] For Clancy Martin’s review of Berit Brogaard, follow this link: Choosing Love – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

An inalienable right to bear arms in the States: the enduring mystique of the Second Amendment » The Spectator


An inalienable right to bear arms in the States: the enduring mystique of the Second Amendment » The Spectator.

God’s Super-Apostles Reviewed in Thailand


Tim Challies’s review of our book God’s Super-Apostles: Encountering the Worldwide Prophets and Apostles Movement has been translated into Thai for those who follow the work of Karl and Sun Dahlfred in Bankok. It can be found here.

Here is a portion of the review in Thai:

 

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The original review by Tim Challies can be read here.

Reviews of “God’s Super-Apostles” and “A New Apostolic Reformation?”


For more information about our books on the New Apostolic Reformation, you may want to read these reviews:

Tim Challies

Brian T. Dempsey

George Paul WoodNAR Book Cover-Final-201 NAR Book Cover-101 final (6-6-14)

• “Young, Restless, and Reformed, here and here

• Amazon, here and here.

If you learn of reviews that should be included in this list, please say so in the comments box below.

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Both books, God’s Super-Apostles and A New Apostolic Reformation? can be ordered at Amazon here and here, or direct from the publisher here.

Tim Challies Reviews “God’s Super-Apostles”


Tim Challies, pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario, reviews God’s Super-Apostles, our recent book assessing the New Apostolic Reformation.

His review article begins . . .NAR Book Cover-101 final (6-6-14)

I didn’t actually intend to review this book. It showed up at my door and a brief glance turned into a quick skim turned into a full read turned into a review. As a committed reader always looking for something new and interesting, I just love it when that happens.

Tim, we just love when that happens!

Thank you for helping to expose the excesses of the New Apostolic Reformation. It’s clear from the comments your review has already gleaned that many of your readers have encountered the NAR movement and its extraordinary claims.

Update:

The Tim Challies review has been translated into Thai. Read here.

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Both books, God’s Super-Apostles and A New Apostolic Reformation? can be ordered at Amazon here and here, or direct from the publisher here.

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