Communiqué to The Public
The Fourth Philosophical Council of Keeferton
KNOW BY ALL YE PRESENT, that on the Ninth, Tenth, Eleventh, and Twelfth days of October, in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Fifteen, there took place in the Lands of Keeferton, County of Rockbridge, Commonwealth of Virginia, the Fourth Philosophical Council (hereinafter “Council”) consisting of Messrs. Timothy Eaton, Dan Turello, Robert Banta, and Craig Banta, hosted by the Steward of Keeferton, Timothy J. Keefer, Esq.
As the world awaited the outcome of this Fourth Philosophical Council, the participants ventured into the theme of immortality projects in the face of the consciousness of death, as presented by Prof. Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, “The Denial of Death.” The Council tabled the unfinished business from the prior Councils. As documented below, the event again demonstrably helped to illumine the questions that hinder all of mankind.
Entered this, the 15th day of August in the Year of Our Lord Two Thousand and Sixteen, and in the Fifteenth Year of Keeferton, by our hands:
C. L. Banta, INSINVwAPEA
Robert Dean Banta, Author
Timothy Wm. Eaton, A.E., T.P.
Rdr. Timothy J. Keefer, Esq., T.P., Steward of Keeferton
Daniele Turello, Ph.D., T.P.
The following Opinions of KEEFER, T.P. and TURELLO, T.P., are attached.
This Council was charged with an evaluation of the arguments of Dr. Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning manuscript, “The Denial of Death” (hereinafter “Denial”).[i] Spirited discussion was held over a three-day period and rendered over 35 pages of transcribed notes highlighting a number of differences among the philosophers present.[ii] Perspective played an important role for each of us and at times we were hindered by the accessibility of Dr. Becker’s material. Nevertheless, this Opinion endeavors here to present the salient points that resonate on the issue of whether humanity’s consciousness of personal and confederate physical death has resulted in innumerable immortality projects that impact our every day lives – individually and collectively – and, indeed, the entire world.
Dr. Becker poses the following thesis: “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destination for man.” Denial at xvii (emphasis added). Arguably, this mental recognition of death is the result of human consciousness or our high functioning cognitive abilities that are the product of either progressive evolutionary development or what some call the Cognitive Revolution. Regardless of the source, which is outside the scope of this Opinion, humans became particularly positioned to understand death and its implications, and to organize its collectivized societies to use this knowledge for what became resounding evolutionary success. The fear or quest for denial leads people to develop what can be called “immortality projects” so that they can believe that they will live forever and that their lives will, therefore, have meaning.[iii] Successful narratives resonate and provide a basis for coping with life and organizing society in ways that lead to its own perceived immortality. As a result, immortality projects – such as religion, ideology, culture, et cetera – live on through the generations and, as a result, become self-confirming regardless of their objective validity.
To reject the immortality narrative of one’s group or society is to place oneself outside of the fold, to become an outcast or, in more severe cases, to be labeled as “mentally ill.” This can help ensure the continuation of the immortality belief within the group through orthodoxy and doctrinalism, unless it is subject to be overthrown by a narrative that has greater appeal to the reason and emotion of the group, particularly if the existing immortality project has for various reasons been waning in favor. Here, personal perspective or perception can play a key role for individual participation in the range of immortality projects available to us. Nevertheless, our innate group participation wiring routes most people into a belief in existing, acceptable projects until they come to their end.
It would be inappropriate, however, to examine Becker’s theories in a vacuum. The work of his contemporary Prof. Joseph Campbell,[iv] along with that of current writers Prof. Joshua Greene,[v] Prof. E.O. Wilson,[vi] and Prof. Yuval Noah Harari,[vii] are important contributions in understanding human behavior beyond the mere animal, and in particular the preeminent role now played by myth and story in human life. Their work stands as intertwined with that of Becker. As it pertains to Campbell, the role of the individual engaging in the heroic journey – or his own immortality project – is an important narrative in the collective consciousness of the human species. It is universal. The validity of that journey is subjective, and judged at the individual or collective level. Impact on group belief or conduct could be seen as collective acceptance. Individual accomplishment or satisfaction may suffice for personal justification.
Human success has been driven by our ability to cooperate in groups, and our ability to develop narratives across very large groups of people. This has been made possible by our highly-developed communication skills and our expansive and intricate cognition. As Harari points out, the result of this is most extraordinary: the stories that the human species tells itself now are so powerful that they override the physical aspects of this world. For the sake of an ideology, we have the power to use science to destroy life on this planet. We now wage war not for hunting grounds or agricultural fields in order to survive, but because of the stories we tell ourselves about what it means to be human. Our economic systems are not based on real present value of tangible things, but on perceived future value of both tangible and intangible things. Story or narrative has now taken the predominant place in life, and also in the treatment of individuals in our respective tribes that are more localized. Greene makes a series of striking demonstrations of this based on scientific research, ultimately linking it to innate human characteristics with which we are born thanks to evolutionary development – whether it be biological or cultural evolution. Yet, he notes that as thinking animals we can change our behaviors. The result of these narratives, both large and small, is that the ephemeral story can become more important than actual the physical world and, indeed, the lives of small groups and individuals. If the human species continues to successfully move forward, however, why does this matter?
Immortality projects rely on truth claims for their validity. If there were no truth claim – or at least partial truth – associated with an immortality project, a human being would recognize it as a fairy tale and it would lose its validity. It likely would not wield great power over a person’s life. In this respect, one could argue that immortality projects are grand, but effective, hoaxes that humans play on themselves courtesy of evolution. They may be merely rational lies. Yet, some of them have been highly advantageous for humans as a species. On the other hand, because human activity is now so motivated based upon these immortality projects it means that serious and profound human activities are actually based on a story. It also means that we are more and more cut off from nature and our natural selves as a human animal, and instead continue our march into elusive, ephemeral, segregated, entertaining or emotionally meaningful storylands of the human being. We shall become less real; and the whole world will suffer for it.
We are thus confronted with the difficult question of whether truth actually matters, and whether utility should be our standard. If truth matters, then all or nearly all immortality projects should be discarded. For the human being, at least at the present, this is unthinkable. The emotional cost and the disruption of human society would be catastrophic. Of course, it is also unthinkable because people will refuse to believe that they have put their faith, perhaps their entire identity, in something that is merely an evolutionary coping mechanism.
There is a near universal blindness to the fact that narratives are guiding and influencing our lives from before we are born. Many, however, will, at times of their lives, come to a realization that something is not right or perhaps something is missing from the stories they have been told about life. They see the ugly underside of their society. Perhaps a personal crisis will jar the individual to attention. For the most part, though, “[m]odern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget.” Denial at 284. Yet, close examination of the narratives presents its own conundrum. When a person’s “eyes are opened to the reality of things, there is no turning back to the comforts of a secure and armored life. The person is stuck with the full problem of himself, and yet he cannot rely on himself to make any sense out of it.” Id. at 269. Becker’s struggle with this is understandable.
Counter-intuitively, when faced with a problem of this magnitude, there actually may be comfort in ignorance. Scientifically, the more we learn the more we realize that existence is a complex puzzle that we, as of yet, lack the capacity to fully comprehend. We are limited creatures. As a result, there may be more going on than we can grasp and that if our eyes are opened to the reality of things and if we see immortality projects for what they are, it may give us more of an appreciation for the mystery that is existence. Furthermore, it can give us the tools not to participate in those projects that we find offensive – for we know them to be false. Perhaps, also, we can find enlightenment back at the source, the Nature from which we came. Being more in tune with ourselves as the human animal, may in turn make us better human beings.
After the Council’s session, important work regarding this topic was discovered. The Council, however, did not have an opportunity to review or discuss this material. In 2015, the authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski published “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.”[viii] It is the result of 25 years of research into human conscious and subconscious decision-making looking at Becker’s theory. Since Becker’s theory was crystallized in the early 1970s, a central criticism has been that there was no social science data that supported his perspective. The authors here conducted research first with their own students and then, as their “terror management theory” took off, other colleagues contributed to the scientific findings. Now, this theory, that springs from Becker’s denial of death, is studied by psychological scientists and scholars in cross-discipline settings. Their findings demonstrate that the denial of death drives human behavior far more than we realize. Daniel Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University had this to say about their work:
The Worm at the Core describes a brilliant and utterly original program of scientific research on a force so powerful that it drives our lives, but so frightening that we cannot think clearly about it.
The research has demonstrated that reminders of death magnify our decision making in favor of our tribe or the order that we rely upon to manage life. Much of that which we have constructed beyond meeting our material needs to live are, in fact, coping mechanisms. It is indeed “so frightening that we cannot think clearly about it” because, if Becker and Solomon et al. are correct, all of our human endeavors and beliefs are open to question as to motivation and whether they are simply “beautiful lies” that we tell ourselves. Nevertheless, the current evidence points to this being true.
With regard to criticisms, it is an oversimplification to say that Becker “solely define[s]” human consciousness and motivation by an awareness of death. Also, we are left to wonder what Becker’s lack of reference to “sources from classical philosophy, literature, and the arts” has to do with the validity of his central theme. One argument further states that, “[a]s a cultural history, the book is hollow.” It may be true that a more robust cultural history would have added to the validity of his argument. Yet, a criticism that an argument is not as fully supported as it could have been is no assault on the soundness of it. Furthermore, it seems that the new research discussed above supports Becker’s foundational thesis.
While it is true that there are multiple factors driving human activity – and Becker does not deny this – human consciousness of death provides the patina that overlays all of it, not necessarily as a sole source, but certainly as a foundation or background noise with which we have no choice but to interact.
Recognizing that human consciousness of death is generally the mainspring of human activity and the development of immortality projects, this Opinion calls for a New Enlightenment in the course of human events.
It is accepted that immortality projects are a natural result of human consciousness and evolutionary development. At the same time, it needs to be pointed out that such immortality projects in the form of religion, ideology, political system, economic system, culture, family, tribe, or habit, may exist and have profound impact on our world, even if they are irrational, illogical, or false. It is acknowledged that, perhaps with the exception of repeatedly verifiable scientific testing, objective truth of belief is an elusive goal for human beings. It is acknowledged that, at this time, many aspects of life as we know it are likely hidden from comprehension for the limited creatures that are human beings.
As a result, we are encouraged to recognize and acknowledge the immortality projects in our lives – both personal and societal. We are encouraged to closely examine those projects for not only their accuracy, rationality, and logic, but also their utility, keeping in mind that immortality projects have at their core a constructed narrative. An irrational belief can, nevertheless, be of great utilitarian benefit. The individual, in examination with one’s position within the group and counting the cost as we all must do with each decision we make, should determine how to proceed based upon their own knowledge, experience, and perception. That society will have the maturity and foresight, even in condescension, to support and encourage those who have the ability to break the chains of societal and tribal rational lies to manifest their true selves, remains our hope.
Dr. Ernest Becker’s thesis in The Denial of Death should be affirmed.
[i] See generally, Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death, (Simon & Shuster 1997) (1973).
[ii] The Council does not make any type of recordings of its proceedings available to the Public.
[iii] The importance of meaning for human beings was well described in Victor Frankl’s famous book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”; see Victor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning, (Beacon Press 2006) (1959).
[iv] See Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books 1991) (1988); The Hero With a Thousand Faces, (New World Library 2008) (1949); The Hero’s Journey, (Phil Cousineau, ed., New World Library 2014) (1990).
[v] See Joshua Greene, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them, (Penguin Press 2013).
[vi] See E.O. Wilson, On Human Nature, (Harvard University Press 2004) (1978)
[vii] See Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (HarperCollins 2015) (2011).
[viii] Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, (Random House 2015);
see “The Worm at the Core” – Why Death is the Most Important Thing in Life.
Dr. Becker poses the following thesis: “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destination for man.” Denial at xvii.
I find Becker’s statement fundamentally flawed. The “idea of death” is surely not the “mainspring of human activity.” Yes, it is one of the constitutive building blocks of human consciousness, though certainly not the only one. Much of human activity is driven because it is intrinsically valuable and enjoyable. Humans play, create art, ceremonies, and relationships because these are rewarding activities. While many non-human animals also engage in play, humans, arguably have a higher level of awareness around them. Awareness of death complicates human consciousness and motivation, but does not solely define it. For example, the Romantic tradition of maximizing life’s potentials stems from an awareness of death, which arguably makes life all the more sweet, without requiring any of the overly pessimistic interpretations offered by Becker.
Methodologically, what is remarkable about Becker’s work is the almost complete lack of reference to sources from classical philosophy, literature, and the arts. To name but one, already in the mid 18th century, Giambattista Vico theorized extensively about the meaning of gravesites and human burial rituals for the development of human culture.
Also remarkable is Becker’s deployment of vast and completely unsupported generalizations. For example, “Once we realize what the religious solution did, we can see how modern man edged himself into an impossible situation.” (p. 160). One must wonder exactly what “religious solution” he refers to.
As a cultural history, the book is hollow. Furthermore, it provides neither the personal experience afforded by literary forms, nor the objective evidence including either quantitative or qualitative research required of modern social science. As such, its overly ambitious claims are dubious, at best.