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.

‘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.

Dodgy Ruminations about an Afterlife


“God bless non-scientific narratives,” writes Jacques Belinerblau, a professor at Georgetown University. Of course, this is with tongue in cheek, since, though he’s Jewish, Berlinerblau is an atheist.

He speaks sincerely, however, about a hopefulness grounded in certain non-scientific narratives, for he’d like to believe that there’s an afterlife. Actually, he finds it hard to believe that there is not an afterlife of some kind.

So he believes that God does not exist, and sorta-kinda believes that there is an afterlife.

This lede sets the context for Berlinerblau’s review, titled “You’re Dead. Now What?” of four books on the topic:

Berlinblau is a touch dismissive of D’Souza. But Berlinblau, I believe, is right that there really isn’t good strictly scientific evidence for an afterlife.

If Berlinerblau’s review of Frohock is rooted in a reliable summary of the book, I’d say it’s worth a look. But it sounds like Frohock is working from some sort of pantheist or neo-pagan metaphysics (or worldview). I wish Berlinerblau had said more about this.

This reviewer makes Casey’s book sounds especially dull. But he has positive things to say about it. And I must say that the pages of this book are cloaked in the most impressive cover of the bunch.

Johnston appears to be one of those philosophers who has to be brilliant simply because it’s frequently impossible to understand what he’s saying. I suspect he’s of the “continental” variety. Berlinerblau’s sample quote from the book is almost a dead give-away.

I probably will read Frohock, eventually. He’s supposed to be ambivalent about whether science could yield evidence for an afterlife. And yet, says Berlinerblau, he’s a materialist. Like Berlinerblau, I find this confusing. If an individual person is completely constituted by material stuff and its physical organization, and this stuff dissolves—or its structure breaks down—following death, then what is the nature of the life beyond death?

The review is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, of all places. This indicates re-entry of the possibility of an afterlife into academic surmise. Until recently, most scholars would rather die than enter a conversation about such things. Possibly, most scholars still have this preference. (It has not always been so.)

It’s equally fascinating that the traditional Christian doctrine of the afterlife is waved off with an almost pious flick of the wrist. (Check out the review and see if you agree.)

Berlinerblau’s book review enters a general conversation that is cautiously making its way back into serious discourse. But this discourse is dominated by a distinctly secular hope for a pleasant afterlife. Does this sound to anyone else like whistling past the graveyard?

Afternotes:

1. Berlinerblau adorns his essay with a choice literary quote:

The flesh would shrink and go, the blood would dry, but no one believes in his mind of minds or heart of hearts that the pictures do stop.

—Saul Bellow, Ravelstei

2. Christopher Benson reviews the Casey book, together with A Very Brief History of Eternity, by Carlos Eire, for the Christian periodical Books and Culture. Benson titles his review “Without End—Changing conceptions of the afterlife.” Indeed.

***

What do you think?

  1. What is the best evidence for an afterlife?
  2. If you believe in an afterlife, what will it be like?
  3. What is the best argument that there is no afterlife?
  4. Would there have to be a God for there to be an afterlife?
  5. Are you hoping for an afterlife?
  6. Are you expecting an afterlife?

Audio Post: A Commentary on Four Novels


This is my first podcast or audio post. It’s kind of an experiment—a discussion of four novels that I read the past week during a refreshing vacation in Washington and Idaho.

Here are the books with links to Amazon:

Julian Jackson on Daniel Cordier on the French Resistance


Anyone interested in the history of the French Resistance should become familiar with the memoirs of Daniel Cordier. To be convinced of that, I recommend Julian Jackson’s recent critical review of Cordier’s book (here). Read more of this post

The Apologetics of Jesus


What would Jesus do if he was alive on the earth now and facing the skeptics of our day? The same thing he did in the first century. And what was that?

This question is answered with great clarity in the new book by Norman Geisler and Patrick Zukeran—The Apologetics of Jesus: A Caring Approach to Dealing with Doubters.

I want to recommend this book for several reasons: Read more of this post

Gearhead Philosophers


Book Cover.Crawford.Shop ClassWhat would you expect from a book by a trained philosopher who quit his job as a Washington think tank shill (I almost said “tankard”) to work as a motorcycle mechanic?

If you know anything about the academic job market, you might think I have things backwards. It wouldn’t surprise to hear that a professional philosopher ended up—or rather, started out—rebuilding motorcycle engines. But philosophers do strange things. And Matthew Crawford, with a Ph.D. in political philosophy, is a good example.

Crawford is the author of  a new book called Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. I learned about his book from a “Tweet” (i.e., a Twitter post) linking to a review of the book by a  Slate contributor named Michael Agger. The article, titled “Heidegger and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” praises the book and suggests that a copy be given to everyone you know who is graduating from college and about to “commence real life.” (Never mind that a majority of college graduates postpone commencing real life, some of them indefinitely.)

Every year, grads take jobs they’ve dreamed about, then become so absorbed in them that they are absorbed by them, little noticing that their work is not particularly absorbing in the sense that matters most. Crawford’s book is supposed to get office grunts, from secretaries to CEO’s, to consider more carefully the work they’re doing.

Of course, this year a much higher percentage of college graduates will look in vain for jobs that they believe will satisfy. Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe they’ll have time for some profitable reading. A book like this could help them get their heads together. Soulcraft versus bank draft. It’s an interesting contrast. Leave it to a philosopher to subvert the values of our age.

Two questions. What does any of this have to do with motorcycle maintenance? And what does it have to do with Heidegger?

The first question, presumably, is answered in the book. Crawford the philosopher became Crawford the disillusioned “knowledge worker,” which led him to become Crawford the motorcycle mechanic. And Crawford the motorcycle mechanic, who had apparently dropped out of the knowledge enterprise, learned what was of real value where life intersects work.

The answer to the second question isn’t obvious from reading the Slate article. There’s no attempt in the article to tie Crawford’s ideas and conclusions to the work of any philosopher named Heidegger. One naurally assumes that Agger is thinking of the Heidegger, as in German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976). But Agger doesn’t connect the dots. Maybe he just latched onto the name of the first philosopher he thought of. Heidegger is not known for his luminosity—nor for motorcycle expertise. So Agger’s choice of a title may be bad in more ways than one. On the other hand, there’s the possibility (admittedly remote) that Crawford draws valuable concrete lessons for life from one of the most austere philosophers of the past 100 years.

So far I’ve only read about the book. But I’m definitely interested. And if Crawford leaves Heidegger out of it, even more so.

***

Notes:

  1. Michael Agger is also playing off the title of Robert Pirsig’s 1973 classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Maybe there’s a subtle connection between Heidegger, Zen, and motorcycle maintenance that escapes me just now. If so, my apologies to Michael Agger.
  2. As I write this, Shop Class as Soulcraft is #30 in sales rank at Amazon.
  3. Kudos for Crawford’s book include the following by Harvard professor of government, Harvey Mansfield: “Matt Crawford’s remarkable book on the morality and metaphysics of the repairman looks into the reality of practical activity. It is a superb combination of testimony and reflection, and you can’t put it down.” (Source: Amazon.com)
  4. As long as we’re onto Heidegger here, I should note that there’s an interesting BBC documentary on the man that’s available on YouTube, starting with this 8-minute installment here.

Related Posts:

John Updike as Book Reviewer


Encountering John Updike as book reviewer is to witness something akin to the 8th wonder of the world. I calculate that the time it takes for him to write as much as he dupdikedue-considerationsoes (speaking here of volume) leaves no time for reading, much less reviewing, books written by other people. My calculations have to be pretty far off the mark. He reviews like a fiend. (I mean this in the most positive sense of the term.) And reviewing is but one of the many grooves his writing follows. Is there any form he does not indulge?

I might not be so impressed by the monumental volume of his output if it were not for the other, more fundamental impression Updike makes. He is a master writer. People who write better than I, and not nearly as well as Updike (by their own confession), have been saying this about him for decades. With Updike, you need not begin with an interest in any topic he takes up to be delighted with his perspective.

For example, in an essay titled “Groaning Shelves,” he reviews the book The Book on the Bookshelf, by Henry Petroski. A book with a title like that would tempt me. In the scope of five pages—seven paragraphs—by Updike, I experience at least as much pleasure and add every bit as much to my fund of knowledge as I would expect from reading Petroski himself (279 pages). Come to think of it, the relish of reading Petroski firsthand is converted to relish in not having to read it because of the relish of reading Updike on Petroski.

In the first paragraph, Updike describes the publishing niche of this professor of civil engineering and history, mentions two of his previous books, The Pencil (1990) and The Evolution of Useful Things (1992), identifies the primary sources for Petroski’s third work, here under review, and demonstrates that The Book on the Bookshelf (1999) would not have been much of a book without the use of stretching devices, since the territory (“the history of book housing”) has been pretty thoroughly scampered over by others before Petroski.

petroskithe-pencilpetroskibookonthebookshelf

petroskievolution-of-useful-things2What we learn from Updike in this first paragraph is technique in the art of book reviewing that requires having something to say about a book that says little more on its topic than what others have already said in earlier books. We also learn something about Updike—that this is no reason to leave the book alone or end a review having said as much. Something else about Updike: he judges that arranging the books in one’s personal library in accord with the Dewey decimal system is “whimsical” rather than “obvious.” (It seemed obvious to me several years ago when I adopted the system. Ironically, perhaps, this gentle chastening by Updike, for being whimsical when I thought I was being practical, was reinforced the day before reading his review; I learned with mixed emotion that the latest version of bibliographical software I use—namely, Bookends—enters the Library of Congress call number in the designated field for each new book reference. I’m now in engaged in a tedious cost-benefits analysis of switching over to the LC system from this point forward.)

The second paragraph begins with a sentence that must have been a relief to Petroski: “Nevertheless, we need to be reminded that people did not always live surrounded by books arranged on shelves, with their spines outward and stamped with the title, author, and publisher.” On this point, I take issue with Updike. I’m not sure we “need” to be reminded of such things, or even that we ever “needed” to learn such things. This may be Updike’s way of persuading himself that Petroski’s book is worthy of review. He surely needs to convince his readers, given the mediocre assessment implied in Updike’s first paragraph.

The balance of paragraph two re-traces the earliest stage of “book” production (papyrus rolls) and the practical solutions that were devised for the problem of their convenient storage. One sentence, albeit parenthetical, glistens: “In truth, only in certain circles, smaller than academics like Petroski might imagine, could people be said [even today] to be surrounded [by books]; I am frequently struck by how many otherwise handsomely accoutered middle-class American homes have not a book in sight.” I know that experience—the experience of not only seeing this to be the case, but also the experience of being “struck” by the fact. I am, of course, an academic. (Not that being struck by the absence of books in the homes of other people is a sufficient condition for being an academic, except in that “special” sense of being eccentric.)

The next four paragraphs carry on the exposition, in chronological sequence, of book production and storage adjustments, leading up to the present, when the volume of books at institutional libraries, it is estimated, doubles about every sixteen years. Updike boils down, in five paragraphs, the history of this transmigration of the souls of books. Even to the layman, it is an interesting history, if told well and in no more than five paragraphs.

I knew nothing before of “chained libraries.” I’m not sure I quite have an adequate picture in mind of this invention that served for several centuries. The most interesting fact I learned is that “even after books came to rest on shelves, their spines were unlabelled and faced inward.” Updike surmises that “when books were few, they did not need to be labelled, any more than do familiar people.” I’m not about to experiment with this technique of book arranging with my several thousand volumes (although the storage of many hundreds in boxes is hardly more satisfactory).

pepys1The eighteenth-century member of Parliament, Samuel Pepys (pronounced “Peeps”), most famous for his Diary, was apparently compelled (by his wife?) to constant winnowing of his own book collection, so that it never exceeded the manageable limit of 3000 volumes. He ensured efficient use of space for his books by arranging them in two rows, tall books in front, shorter books behind on raised shelves, a strategy that is “impressively harmonious, though somewhat forbidding to a would-be browser.” You can see this for yourself at Magdalen College in Cambridge, where twelve cases of the Pepys collection are preserved.

As always, after reading Updike, my vocabulary is much improved. I now know how to identify the “fore edges” (not “four edges”) of a book. I’ve got a sprinkling of new Latin terms under my belt, which should come in handy next time I cross paths with Seneca: volumina, capsae, armarium commune. Speaking of Seneca, he opined that those who ostentatiously surround themselves with books as mere ornamentations of their digs make themselves ridiculous, or something to that effect.

“Groaning Shelves” appears in a 700-page collection of John Updike’s writings over a period of eight years, third in a series of such collections. This volume is called Due Considerations: Essays and Criticism (2007). It contains nearly 150 brief essays. Since yesterday, I’ve read eight of them, including: “On Literary Biography”; “A Case for Books”; “Looking Back to Now” (not unlike Jorge Luis Borges); “Against Angelolatry”; a tribute to Eudora Welty; Updike’s Introduction to Seven Men, by Max Beerbohm; “Groaning Shelves”; and one other whose title I’ll withhold, lest you infer something disagreeable and false about my (or Updike’s) character.

I purchased my copy yesterday, after browsing the entry on “The Future of Faith” (pp. 27-41). I excluded this from my count in the previous paragraph because I haven’t yet read it closely. But I know that I will, and soon.

updikedue-considerations1

Amazon Paperback

In Defense of Miracles Reviewed


Albert McIlhenny briefly reviews my book In Defense of Miracles here, and gives it a strong recommendation. Thank you, Albert!

Doug’s other posts on the subject of miracles:

Stuff I Have to Read (Not That I Don’t Want To)


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