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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #3 (Part B)

In the last column, we began our discussion of Thesis #3. Just as a reminder, Thesis #3 states:

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.

In the first part of our discussion, we took a quick romp through the evolutionary history of species, outlining as important signposts along the way: 1) the emergence of life, differentiating between organic and inorganic material; 2) the emergence of consciousness, associated roughly with the development of lifeforms with brains; 3) the emergence of self-recognition, intimately connected to the theory of mind, which allows an individual to assume that others of her species think and react to circumstances similar to her own reaction, then slowly recognizing that her thoughts may be private (based, for example, on information not available to all others – thus facilitating deception) and thus leading to an internal differentiation of self from others of the species, demonstrated in the ability to recognize oneself, for example, in ones reflection in a mirror; 4) and finally in human beings (alone as far as we know) the development of a full blown Reflective Symbolic Self, enduring through time as an integral entity with an individual and personal history and set of experiences not fully shared by any other member of the species.

It is a fact that we humans experience this Reflective Symbolic Self at the very root of what has facilitated our survival as a species. Based on the ability to symbolize, to make one thing stand in for another (without which language and mathematics would not be possible) it allows us to capture time, to reflect on past experiences and project ourselves imaginatively into the future. A species without fierce teeth and claws, an easily penetrated hide, no particularly notable facilitation in running, swimming, hearing, eyesight, no venom – one might well assume our only purpose as a species was as a scavenging food source for the big cats (which of course we were for by far the better part of our species history.) Yet we were able to not only survive, but to prosper and spread around the earth and into extremely hostile environment, thanks all but exclusively to the development of our brainpower and the eventual emergence of the Reflective Symbolic Self. It is through this facility that we were slowly able to start reflecting on survival needs and not simply adapt ourselves to a changing environment, but actually begin to adapt the environment to our needs.

There are a number of species, for example, among whom individuals of that species may have learned by experience that a cave yields protection from storms and other hardships. Individuals of other species may know by experience that warmth is found in proximity to fire. But only human beings could take those two pieces of information, mentally synthesize them into an imaginative picture of a fire within a cave (something most likely never actually encountered in nature itself) and then act volitionally to bring this about in the real world. Once this process began (perhaps some 60,000 years ago, give or take, but in any case VERY recently in evolutionary time) these successful active adaptations could be taught, learned and improved upon in succeeding generations, and thus slowly we see the emergence of cultures of knowledge within tribal families and between tribal families. All of this was made possible only by the emergence of the Reflective Symbolic Self within our species. It has been an enormous survival mechanism unlike that of any other species.

This development of a Reflective Symbolic Self finally is what sets us apart from other species, at least as far as we know. As we have seen, there is an as-yet uncounted number of living species. Many of these are brain possessing and have some measurable element of consciousness (they can be knocked out or stunned, made ‘unconscious,’ in various ways.) A fewer but still significant number of conscious species have a developing theory of mind, among whom the most developed have powers of individual self-recognition. It is, however, only in humans, as far as we know, that the next step has been taken, the development of a Reflective Symbolic Self, enduring through time and buoyed by (perhaps even created by) the ongoing “story of my life” each one of us plays for ourselves in our own mind. How this developed in humans is murky and disputed. Did the developing Reflective Symbolic Self create language as one case in point of symbolization? Or was it the emerging facility of language that over time created the Reflective Symbolic Self? Or did each facility develop in conjunction with the other? If so, is the nature of this cooperation integral or symbiotic? All of these questions are interesting and worthy of serious study and discussion. Each view, however, is compatible with the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety, and would be considered ‘prehistory’ or preparation for the important event about to take place in our species history – the Next Great Leap, we might call it. We only point toward it here, and will begin to outline it in the next column.

Click here to see all Parts of this Series.

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