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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #3 (part A)

We continue the presentation we began in previous columns, here offering:

Thesis #3: Human beings have the intelligence to think abstractly, and to use symbols (esp. complex language, which eventually allows a human person to think of himself/herself in the third person.) This is in essence what sets human psychology apart from animal psychology.

Here we begin to get into aspects of this Theory of Generative Death Anxiety that begins to raise flags of objection in the minds of many people; at least that has been my experience after some years of presenting some of these ideas to various individuals and audiences. My strong sense is that the flags of objection begin to arise in many people’s minds because this thesis points toward some deep and key differences between the human species and other species. Therefore, I want to make it very clear what I am saying in this thesis and what I am NOT saying.

I am saying in this thesis that a very clear difference between human beings and other species is the level of raw brainpower available to human beings. This difference is not simply incremental, but appears to be measurable on levels of magnitude. If we were to map this in terms of evolution, we might say that a very first leap forward in the differentiation of our world is the emergence of life itself. At the edges (for example, viruses) the difference between living organic matter and nonorganic matter. A highly trained molecular biologist or organic chemist might well cite many other fascinating instances and examples that straddle the organic/nonorganic line. Acquainting ourselves with such examples may lead to hours of absorbing discussion on exactly what elements must be present to distinguish truly between organic and nonorganic matter. For the rest of us, however, once we get beyond that edge, there is an undeniable intuitive sense of difference between, for example, a rock and a cornstalk, or between a brick and a mouse. At the other end, we have same kind of intuitive sense, even if we cannot adequately define it or pin it down to the exact moment when it occurs, there is a clear difference between our pet dog or cat, our parent, spouse, child or loved one, in the time before death and the time after death. That body has moved from the category of living, organic material to one of nonliving, nonorganic material. Hence, looking at the history of our world through the lenses of evolutionary history, the emergence of life in its many forms is a first leap forward. It would be vastly premature to claim that this emergence of life has only occurred, or at least endured, on our planet, at this one point in time no matter how improbable that appears to be, given the vastness of space and time; nonetheless, there is no solid empirical evidence to the contrary.

Again, returning to our evolutionary lenses, a next great leap forward is the appearance of consciousness. Consciousness is also very murky at the edges. It is very difficult to define in a scientifically defensible sense. Consciousness emerges as species become increasingly complex, and seems to have an inextricable connection to a brain. In general, we attribute consciousness at some level to fauna, but not to flora, to (brain-possessing) animals but not to plants. In a nutshell, I suppose we could say that we attribute consciousness to any animal we can imagine being stunned or “knocked unconscious” by a blow, shock or other event that over-stimulates that brain and nervous system of the organism, rending that organism in a living state, to be sure, but one in which its ability to perceive and react within its environment is severely limited.

The next leap forward from the evolutionary point of view is the development of a recognition of self. All species are living, brain-possessing species (for the most part) we think of as conscious. Very few species, however, have an ability to recognize themselves, for example, when seeing a reflection in water or (in captivity) in a mirror. We are literally down to a handful of species, all but exclusively mammalian (the jury is still out on whether octopuses have the ability), mainly higher primates and a very few aquatic mammals. Even with these species, there are serious questions raised about whether this self-recognition would ever occur in a wild state, or whether it really only occurs among captive individuals who receive massive training and attention, not mention tools designed for the purpose, from human beings. There is also some discussion about whether an intermediary step should be highlighted, that of recognizing specific others of the species (for example, mates, foes, friends and allies, etc.) Much of that discussion occurs within a context of what is called Theory of Mind: the recognition of specific other individuals within the species implies that an individual is learning to attribute aspects such as intention and reaction of circumstances to specific other individuals, that is, recognizing that other individuals in some sense “think” as you do in given situations. This leads then to the next step in a developing theory of mind, recognizing that others do not always think the same way because, for example, they may lack information about the situation. This step in the development of a theory of mind is required, for example, for purposefully deceptive behaviors to occur, which we do indeed observe in some higher primate species even in the wild. Such discussion, while worthwhile in itself, is moot as far as the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety is concerned. We only want to note that this ability to recognize oneself as an individual entity is very rare among species and occurs only in species who have very highly developed and complex brain structures.

Finally, we come to the next evolutionary leap forward, the development of what we might call a Reflective Symbolic Self. This appears to be unique to the human species. This is the sense of Self that experiences itself as having a narrative history, a self that endures through time (some specialists suggest that narrative is the very essence Reflective Symbolic Self – we are the stories we tell about ourselves.) Once again, this type of Self, not just reflective but self-consciously reflective, is elusive in the extreme, and some of our most delicate and learned investigators of human consciousness have concluded (though with very nuanced presentation and no doubt with some degree of purposely stated provocativeness, that such consciousness is an illusion, an image in a house of mirrors, perhaps not unlike a hologram, and not a real thing in the world.

Without taking sides for any particular view of what the Reflective Symbolic Self is in itself, for our purposes we only need to consider some of its results in the world. We will consider some of these results in the next installment. For now, let me end here by making clear what I am NOT saying in this thesis.

I am not saying that human beings are qualitatively different from other species. We do appear to have intelligence, sheer brainpower, quantitatively orders of magnitude beyond other species. Certain strains of Marxist philosophy suggests that at some point quantity morphs into quality, but as far as I am concerned, the view that human intelligence is quantitatively different from other species, and the view that it is qualitatively different, are both compatible within the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety.

I am definitely not saying that other species are not intelligent. If we define intelligence as environmental adaptation, there is much we humans need to learn from other species. There may well be other equally valid ways to picture the evolutionary development of species than the development of brainpower. One example I can think of off the top of my head is the developing immune system. Viewed through that lens, the human species may well be lower on the tree of evolutionary development than turtles, for example. Since we cannot view our species history teleologically (from the future backward), we simply flatter ourselves to insist that brain development is the leading edge of the evolutionary process. Some future species may be fascinated with the millennial immunological development in the history of turtles, and who if the pay any attention at all to that species called humans may well see us as an unimportant and very short-lived evolutionary dead end, a sort of blip on the evolutionary screen.

I am not saying that because we humans are more intelligent than other species, even if we picture that difference as one of quality, we are therefore in any way justified by Nature or by Nature’s God (to employ the old terminology) in subjugating, mistreating, commodifying, harvesting, ingesting, experimenting upon, or in any other way dominating and objectifying other species.

These disclaimers aside, there are more important points to be made about the emergence of a Reflective Symbolic Self in our species, which we will detail further in the next column.

Click here to see all Parts of this Series.

Review & Commentary