Your donations enable us to create and share theologically progressive resources that nurture our faith journeys and are used in church communities around the world. If everyone reading this right now gives just $10 we would be able to continue offering these for free.

Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #4

We continue the presentation we began in the last column, here offering:
Thesis #4: Normally intelligent and socialized human beings come to recognize and understand death and our mortal nature as an inevitable aspect of the human condition. This realization runs directly counter to the overwhelming survival urge outlined in the opening thesis. Therefore, the uniquely human features of human psychology, emotional makeup and behavior emerge out of the clash between the overwhelming urge to continue living and the cognitive awareness of our mortal nature. Recognition of the inevitability of death creates a reservoir of potentially immobilizing, debilitating anxiety.
We have already established that while human beings as a species share completely in the drama of biological evolution with all living species, and in the drama of consciousness with brain-possessing species, and in self-recognition and a theory of mind with a number of higher mammalian species, with all that this entails for human psychology, emotions and social structure, we appear to be the only species in which the course of normal maturation entails the development of the Reflective Symbolic Self. This is a mental domain habitually characterized by an ongoing internal conversation about what is occurring in the moment, what has occurred in the past, and what may occur in the future if this course of action is chosen rather than many other available courses of action. This internal conversation takes into account the minds of others carrying on their own internal conversations, as well as the wider natural and social forces over which we have limited controls. Furthermore, each of us not only engages in such habitual internal conversations, but we can actually reflect on the fact that we are engaged in such habitual conversations, and can reflect on the fact that we are reflecting on the fact of such internal conversation, ad infititum.

The Reflective Symbolic Self is also characterized by the mental habit of continual symbolization, of one thing standing for another. Just count in your head how many different things, concepts and ideas, for example, a banana or an apple, not even to mention a Rorschach blotter, might invoke in your imagination. We have already suggested that this is a necessary condition for language and mathematics, but we can also add to this category of (as far as we know) uniquely human endeavors most of the Arts and Science – painting, poetry, literature, religion, rhetoric, scientific investigation, philosophy, and so on. None of these pursuits occurs except among those species (a set of one, as far as we know) whose mental habits demonstrate the characteristic of the Reflective Symbolic Self style of consciousness.

There is something else that comes with the territory of having a mind characterized by the feature of the Reflective Symbolic Self. As one is able to see oneself as a participant in scenarios of the past, as an active participant in scenarios of the present, and to project oneself as a participant in scenarios of the future, it becomes inevitable that at some point one comes up against the fact that death is a universal for all species, including human beings. Death is the inevitable omega point of one’s life projections. Death happens to everyone, including me! Realization that death will happen, and furthermore could happen literally at any and every moment, runs smack up against that overwhelming urge we share with all living species, to continue living. In terms of our mental life, it is force against force – the force of developed mental habits of the Reflective Symbolic Self, honed over many centuries of evolution as perhaps our most important and successful survival mechanism, running smack up against what is perhaps the most basic and in most species unquestionably instinctual survival mechanism of all, the raw urge to continue living.
Brief Excursus – The reader will notice that I am continually employing the disclaimer, “as far as we know,” whenever a state is made about the uniquely human style of consciousness (which after this excursus I will abandon. This is because in my experience of previously presenting these ideas, this is the area where especially learned audiences seem are sidetracked into endless debates about various species characteristics and whether or not it is justified to think of humans as unique. Let me just say here;

1) it is not material to the wider Theory of Generative Death Anxiety whether or not we are the only species whose mental world is characterized by the habits of the Reflective Symbolic Self – if we were to find others species, on this planet or somewhere else, with the same or similar mental characteristics, it would not invalidate what is being presented here.

2) To the extent that such objections to human uniqueness are grounded in suspicion that granting such uniqueness will in turn justify human domination and exploitation of other species, or even aloofness to the suffering of other species, I simply repeat what was said previously, this is not the intent nor, I think, even an unintended result of the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety – if anything, recognition of our mortal condition creates a new level of bond between our species and other species.

3) One serious objection to the picture we have painted so far is that it makes no sense that in the course of evolutionary biology, a central characteristic would develop in a species that had this much potential for immobilizing and working against the survival of that species. I would just point out here that in many species in documented evolutionary history the very characteristic survival mechanism that allowed that species even millions of years of successful survival and dominance (example, the sheer size of the dinosaurs) later became of fundamental liability and cause of that species’ demise. The human Reflective Symbolic Self has without question has fostered survival and even dominance (although so far for a much shorter period of time) but even a cursory examination of what our species as a result of the same mental forces has wrought on this planet – symbolized easier by the Doomsday Clock on the cover of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, or simply by the designation – to see that the same thing could happen to we human beings. We do not know why the evolutionary process created a species that would become aware of its mortal condition, or even if that is a meaningful question to pose in the first place. My own sense is that it appeared as a by-product of other processes that strongly spurred, and thus were highly selected for, the survival of the species. Such unintended by-products have been usefully labeled as ‘spandrels’ by the great evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould. There are other more teleological and mystical speculations one could make here as well, but such speculations are by no means necessary to account for the possibility of the emergence of mortality awareness within the strict framework of evolutionary biology.

4) Although we simply cannot know what is going on in the minds of other human beings, much less of other species, we can make very good estimates about the likelihood of what is possible and not possible based on examination of the level of raw brain “computing power” available to various species. Living species have more possibilities than inanimate, nonorganic material. Conscious species, species with brains, have more possibilities than species without brains. As brain power develops, we see that species begin to create what has been called a Theory of Mind, which allows collective strategizing unavailable to species with less raw brain power. Moving on, we see that self-recognition demands even more powerful brains for its achievement, while the development of the Reflective Symbolic Self appears to be possible only in a species with the brain capacity of human beings. To stand outside of yourself, to see yourself as an object of your own contemplation, and then even to know and understand that you are making this imaginative maneuver even while you are in process of doing so – this clearly takes an enormous amount of raw brain power that is objectively unavailable to any other species of which we are aware. I know that claims for a sense of self largely analogous to the human Reflective Symbolic Sense are made regularly by pet owners on behalf of their pets, and also by zoological trainers of dolphins and gorillas, for example, Koko, the gorilla that apparently learned a specialized form of sign language. In most cases, such claims seem to be clearly human projections, anthropomorphizing observed reactions in beloved pets. If, for example (and much as I normally object to modeling brains as a type of machine) someone were claiming to run the most highly developed graphics programs on an Apple IIe computer, I think all of us would have strong suspicions that something else was going on, perhaps even without the conscious awareness of the one making the claim. In the case of the dolphins and Koko, I would only point out that whatever their mental abilities and characteristic, these are not mental habits observed to develop in a wild state, but only in individuals who have spent year upon year with human trainers explicitly focused on eliciting specific learning and behaviors. To my mind, the most absorbing possibilities lie in a species such as the octopus, that is unquestionably intelligent but has a still only vaguely understood brain system entirely different from evolutionary line that led to the human brain. I have spent many enjoyable hours ‘communing’ with octopuses through the glass of an aquarium environment, trying to imagine what the animal could be thinking, especially about me sitting there gazing upon it. I could never know, but its very weirdness, the fact that its brain structure is so completely different from my own, finally leads me to the conclusion that, fascinating as the imaginative exercise may be, any ideas about it I may entertain are purely my own anthropomorphic projections.

Click here to see all Parts of this Series.

Review & Commentary