Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Death Denial, Death Drive

Content warning: suicide, depression

If you’re at all aware of my online presence, you’ll know that I have great respect for Richard Beck’s work at his blog Experimental Theology and in his books known sometimes as the Death Trilogy. (You may be more aware of this than you'd like to be, since I doubt a month goes by before bringing his work up in some comment thread or another.) In particular I appreciate his work on Terror Management Theory and how it pertains to religious authenticity, hospitality, and the creation of culture. He gets the bare-bones of his theory from Paul Tillich’s The Courage to Be, but adds to it using experimental psychology that was unavailable to Tillich. I’ll give a summary.

Humans fear death. We fear particular threats of death, but we also experience anxiety from the knowledge that we will necessarily die one day. In order to manage the terror of death, we create systems of meaning which promise us some kind of immortality. This might be a promise of an afterlife, but it might simply be the idea that our lives had meaning—we were remembered, or we descendants, or our actions contributed to the creation of some great cultural work (like the progress of science or what have you). However, these cultural projects, or worldviews, can only eliminate our fear of death if we believe in them fully. Therefore we react to anything which threatens our belief in these worldviews in the exact same way that we would react to the possibility of death, because the loss of our worldviews is identical to the loss of immortality. And the mere existence of other plausible worldviews might constitute a threat to one’s own worldview. This is why most people defend their worldviews and reject other people’s worldviews so violently; violent defense of worldviews makes things like hospitality, charity, and justice difficult or impossible. Even a religion like Christianity, which is founded on the idea that we should side with the oppressed, became and in some cases remains violently oppressive because of these forces. Some people, however, do not use their worldview and cultural projects to shield themselves from the reality of death. These people, instead, face their fears of death directly; they also face their doubts about their own worldviews directly (these are, after all, the same thing). These people are in the minority, but they exist. Thus there are two things a person must do in order to prevent themselves from violently defending their worldviews: they must be willing to face the possibility of their own death (which means they must be willing to face doubt, the possibility that their worldview is false and their actions meaningless), and they must try to adopt a worldview that is not easily threatened by competing worldviews (which doesn’t necessarily mean relativism, but at the least worldviews should be easy on people who don’t adopt them).

I find this theory very compelling, not just because Beck marshals a lot of evidence for it in his work but also because I can use it to explain so many things. In particular, it seems to explain why so many religious people can be so hostile, and why their hostility seems to come from their religion, but at the same time religion motivates others to be hospitable instead. The theory can’t explain why people choose one religion over others, but that’s OK: other theories can do that. Beck’s work simply explains why people need to choose a worldview of some kind (even if that’s not a religion) and why they behave the way they do in relation to their own worldview and in relation to other people’s worldviews. And it is powerful when it does this.

However, I think there might be a problem with it. It presupposes that all people fear death.*

Now, I readily admit that most people fear death, and that complaints that certainly cultures do not fear death simply confuse the effects of a highly successful worldview with the lack of a natural fear of death. But I do not admit for a second that all people fear death. Some people actively desire death (that is, they exhibit marked suicidiality), but others simply have neither fear nor desire for death. When my depression is at its worst, this is me: I am generally unperturbed by possibly dangerous situations (unsafe driving, for instance). Moreover, however my mental health looks, I feel no anxiety at all about the fact that I will inevitably die. This does not scare me; it relieves me. There is little that gives me more comfort that the thought that I will one day die. I cannot state this emphatically enough: the only emotion I feel when contemplating my eventual death is relief. Of course I realize this might be pathological, but it means I fit into neither of Beck’s populations: I am not a person who denies death and my fear of it, and I am not a person who faces my fear of death. I face death and simply have no fear. I am surely not the only one, either.

Perhaps you object that I do not fear death because I have a fairly successful meaning-making worldview. And I do think my life probably has meaning. But, if that were true, my response to doubt would be fear of death. Contemplating the possibility that my life might be meaningless should, if Beck is right, cause me to grasp for life more readily. But the opposite happens: when I contemplate the possibility that my life has no meaning, I am even less interested in living out the full allotment of my life. If I came to believe that my life was meaningless, I would probably tip over into actively wanting to die. That’s opposite the prediction you would make if what Beck said applied to me. And I’m in good company as far as that goes; Camus felt the same.

Camus begins The Myth of Sisyphus as follows: 
There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.
Notice that the question of life and death is contingent on the question of meaning and meaninglessness; if life is meaningless, there is no reason to live. If life has meaning, there is a reason to live. This exhibits causality reverse to Beck’s. Camus’s answer was peculiar to him, a last-minute dodge from nihilism: suicide is the refusal to face the meaninglessness of life, and we must face the meaninglessness of life. This smuggles meaning back into absurdism, however, and creates a contradiction.** Camus’s answer doesn’t interest me, however; what interests me is the fact that the absurdists and existentialists seemed to have experiences parallel to mine, which suggests that Beck’s theory cannot describe all people. That is, it does not apply to the admittedly small population of people who simply don’t fear death in the first place.

Of course, it doesn’t have to address those people (us). As a theory of religion and culture in general, its failure to describe a small subset of the population, one which has not had much hand in shaping either religion or culture, is hardly a fatal error. In fact, this disjoint explains the general hostility most cultures and religions have shown towards suicide (as distinct self-sacrifice): suicide, as a repudiation of the meaningfulness of life, threatens the culture’s worldview and thereby exposes people to the fear of death. And since worldviews are designed to assure people that death isn’t real, they don’t have much to offer people who mostly fear that life is worthless and all meaning is uncertain, except to simply insist on their own validity in a louder and angrier voice. Maybe this is why it is difficult to find resources in Christianity which are at all effective at dissuading people from suicide or ameliorating their depression without making things so much worse (fear of damnation, sense of shame, etc.).

It is worth noting that I do have a fear of death, but it’s a different one: I fear other people’s deaths. I fear the deaths of those who matter to me. Perhaps Beck’s theory can be applied to that? The attempt to understand another person’s life as meaningful, in order to deny their death? Or the attempt to honestly face another person’s death or our fear of it?

So my complaint is not that Beck’s theory is wrong because it omits the population of which I am a part; my complaint is simply that I find it difficult to use Beck’s theory to determine what I should do, in regards to my own worldview, or to predict or understand my own anxieties regarding the meaningfulness of my actions, the role of doubt in hospitality, and how to face my particular anxieties (of meaninglessness, but also of the deaths of people who matter to me) without harming others.

For more on my depression and assorted philosophy I've worked through in response to it, see this index post.

If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please contact a local suicide hotline. In BC, call 1-800-784-2433, or 1-800-SUICIDE. If you are feeling depression generally, get therapy. I am serious about this: it helps so much.


*There are other problems I can think of: for instance, Beck does not seem to account for a desire to believe that which is true. However, I won’t deal with it here; it’s possible that we do have a reality principle in our psychological make-up which competes with the meaning-creating and death-fearing components, but I’m not entirely sure that we do; if we do value truth for its own sake, that value is likely nonetheless a product and component or our worldview and appears after we choose a worldview to manage our fear of death. Beck, however, found some inspiration for his work from the American pragmatists, whose sense of truth is different from the intuitive one: a proposition which works, which bears fruit, which makes you the person you think you should be, is true and is true precisely for those reasons. Truth is not about correspondence between a proposition and an external reality or about coherence within a system of propositions. While Beck might not sign off on American pragmatist epistemology, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Beck’s work focuses on whether beliefs make you a hospitable or inhospitable person rather than on whether beliefs meet some other benchmark of truth.
**This paradox may be resolvable, in the sense that it may be cognitively impossible for us to truly acknowledge meaninglessness. Any attempt to do so might smuggle meaninglessness in somehow; an absurdist might therefore say that absurdism is simply the philosophical system which gets closest to acknowledging meaninglessness, even though it smuggles in the imperative “You must authentically acknowledge meaninglessness.” As it stands, I prefer existentialism to absurdism, since it acknowledges that meaning can be created and only asks that you acknowledge that you created that meaning yourself; it still contains the paradox (you did not yourself create the imperative “You must acknowledge that you created all meaning yourself”), but it contains a more hospitable version of that paradox.

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