Death and Desire, Part 2

In Part 1 I shared a bit of my own regular contemplation of death as a way of bringing before my mind my mortality and with it to discern what truths and fundamental values ground my meaning. I set out to compare/contrast how materialists and theists each bring their respective resources to bear upon the problem of death anxiety, a fear we all confront and seek to overcome.

The Christian theist’s answer, I noted, is found in Christ’s resurrection and our unending life in him. One can face immanent physical death without fear or anxiety because death no longer poses a threat to our desire for enduring personal existence. In St. Paul’s view, this hope stands or falls on the real, physical resurrection of Jesus. Remove that from the equation and Christianity evaporates. Such hope is only as plausible as benevolent theism generally and the resurrection of Jesus in particular. And to embrace such belief must appear as an absurdity to materialists, in particular to (atheist) existentialist therapist Irvin Yalom, whose own particular strategies for overcoming death anxiety I’d like to consider in this post.

Briefly summarizing how a materialist might deal with death anxiety, I suggested three possibilities:

(1) The materialist could attempt to dismiss death anxiety as an irrational fear not based on any real threat to our meaning or existence. This we dismissed immediately, since death obviously poses a threat to our meaning and existence.

(2) A second materialist strategy is the reforming of desire. Learn to cease desiring an enduring personal existence. We have it in our power to dispel this desire from our existential menu, so to speak, and with faithful effort one can learn how to give up wanting anything more than this life has to offer.

(3) A third option extends the second option. Desire must be reformed but something of the desire for permanence can be enjoyed through the recognition that although we shall subjectively cease to be upon our deaths, we shall objectively endure in the (Yalom’s ‘rippling’) effects which our living shall have upon the world. We endure in the effects of our having lived.

We dismissed rippling as incapable of addressing death anxiety considered in light of the fact that the entire cosmos, including all our ripping effects, shall grind to a cosmic halt in its own death. Our “ripples” slow to a meaninglessness that can offer the living no hope of an enduring objective meaning. The only consistent materialist strategy, it seems to me, is (2) — to abandon the desire for permanence of any sort. Bring desire into submission to the resources of materialism within the constraints of the present moment—period.

And in this matter I share Frederich Nietzsche’s (d. 1900) concern. Few philosophers if any ‘stared at the sun’ as unwavering as he did. It is in The Gay Science where we meet his oft repeated (and more often misunderstood) phrase “God is dead,” a phrase which for Nietzsche was not the conclusion of a philosophical syllogism constructed from a priori truths aimed at disproving the existence of God. What the phrase expressed is the sober realization of the utter failure of Christendom or Christian culture, its own final suicide. Modernism was God’s funeral, but as the madman in The Gay Science announced to nobody’s surprise or appreciation, people still pretended the world was something other than what must be the case without God in the equation. People continued to “live in the shadow” of God. And those Nietzsche was perhaps most incredulous with on this score were not believers but atheists themselves who embraced modernism’s scientific worldview but who failed to understand the true consequences of the death of God and who thus continued to tap into the resources (aesthetic, moral) presumed by a Christian worldview.

I suggest, similarly, that materialists by and large pretend to have access to resources (moral, existential, aesthetic) their materialism cannot supply in their effort to overcome death anxiety. One must disarm the fear which death enslaves us to by truly letting go all desire for enduring existence. After all, death cannot threaten to take from us what we have no desire for. But can desire be thus reformed within the strict limitations of materislim?

Yalom summarizes his strategy in Starring at the Sun. Early on he refers his strategies for overcoming death anxiety to the difference between “how things are” and “that things are” (a very important difference by the way). The latter describes our “everyday” mode of existence. The former represents an “ontological” mode of existence. In our everyday (phenomenological) mode we marvel at “how” things are. In our ontological mode we marvel “that” things are at all. It is when we turn to contemplate “that” things are at all that we are struck most deeply, Yalom suggests, with a sense of our transience and mortality and are in a better position to adopt those values and make those choices that will empower us to overcome death anxiety. And life is full of any number of “awakening” experiences that bring us to face this truth. Here we meet Yalom’s essential thesis (which in itself any theist would agree with): a confrontation with death arouses anxiety but also has the potential of vastly enriching life.

How’s this occur? Yalom essentially embraces an Epicurean (Epicurus, d. 270 BCE) approach based on three propositions:

The mortality of the soul. In opposition to Socrates and the later Neo-Platonists, Epicurus argued that human death spells the absolute end of the soul. (Epicurus did, however, believe in the existence of immortal gods.)

The ultimate nothingness of death. Epicurus argued death is nothing to fear since we won’t be around to experience ourselves as non-existent. We won’t know that we are dead. What is there then to fear?

The argument of symmetry. Epicurus argues that the state of our non-existence after we die is equivalent to the state of our non-existence before we were born, and the latter certainly doesn’t cause us any anxiety. Why should the latter bother us at all? To understand Epicurus’ idea of symmetry, consider the three-pane comic about Halley’s Comet below. Make a copy of the last pane (in which the man is gone) and place it before the first pane in which the boy appears. Multiply the emptiness on either side infinitely.

Yalom’s strategy for overcoming death anxiety proceeds within this Epicurean framework. When one faces the truth of Epicurus’ three propositions, desires are reformed accordingly and we are empowered to perceive the value of life joys and loving connections precisely (and here Yalom leans heavily upon Freud) because they’re transient and temporary. As with economic theory, we might say, the more transient or scare a thing is, the more valued it is. We cherish life’s connections as meaningful because they and we are not permanent.

sobering-reminder-of-our-own-mortalityWhat responses might one make to this materialist strategy for overcoming death anxiety?

One problem I have with it is that it presupposes something abiding and unchanging about how things are, which is just to say that not everything about how or that things are is transient (as Yahom claims). I think this is where I’d want to begin by asking why it is universally and invariably the case that “how things are” includes their fullest meaning and existential fulfillment in being rational, aesthetic and moral in nature. Why should existential fullness belong to those who are honest with themselves about their choices, who seek to harm none, and who truly connect in loving ways to others (as opposed to those who pursue fulfillment and meaning in harming and abusing others, in amassing wealth, and/or in exercising political power)? Why is it that invariably this is ‘how’ things are? The traditional philosophical answer to this is that the transient world of finite things invariably reflects fundamental unchanging transcendental realities, namely, ‘Truth’, ‘Beauty’, and ‘Goodness’, and that these transcendentals are convertible with the being we call ‘God’. But these are resources unavailable to a materialist for whom consciousness (and with it all manner of conscious experience, including the beliefs and valuations a materialist might embrace) is merely a physical property. Even fear of death is simply a physical property brought about by laws of physics, and so are all of the strategies we adopt to overcome that fear, which means we in fact “overcome” nothing and any strategy is as good as the next materially speaking. Given materialism, all speaking is material speaking, but that makes for a very short book on therapy.

Presuming there is nothing transcendent in/about the natural order, what is it that leads Yalom to conclude that how one person chooses to believe and live is a legitimate strategy for overcoming death anxiety while some other strategy is absurd or illegitimate? What meaning are we to give to the claim that a “physical property” (say, abusing children, or corruption for personal gain, or belief in God) is absurd, illegitimate, or meaningless? Physical properties “absurd”?

A second problem I have with Yalom’s strategy arises in a very revealing passage where he tips his hand regarding transcendental claims (like the claim that the abiding, invariant values of truth, beauty and goodness born by all things are grounded in an uncreated, enduring and benevolent mind). In discussing with a young Rabbi the possibility of our permanence being grounded in the permanence of a transcendent being, Yalom confesses, “There are time when I think that if I had to devote my life to believe in the unbelievable and spend my day following a regimen of 613 daily rules and glorifying a God who dotes on human praise, I’d consider hanging myself!”

Indeed. I’d probably want to hang myself as well if the only (or most plausible) transcendental ground I could conceive of for truth, beauty and goodness was the kind of dysfunctional deity Yalom dismisses. But the question is whether Yalom is any more consistent by rejecting outright all transcendent claims. Does Yalom believe all conceivable transcendental claims to ground the unchanging values that even he anchors himself upon are equally false or unnecessary? Whence their universal value per se? The kind of reformed desire Yalom recommends would require rejecting the very possibility of a necessary being whose existence is convertible with the transcedentals. For if a necessary benevolent consciousness as ground of the transcendentals (truth, beauty, and goodness) is rationally conceivable, then the desire for permanence cannot be dismissed in attempting to overcome death anxiety. How does one bury the desire for permanence sufficiently to overcome the fear of death if one also admits the conceivability of such desire? I could be wrong, but it seems to me that the required reformation of desire in this case necessitates a conviction greater than is possible if permanent existence were admitted to be conceivable.

Yalom responds to the young Rabbai with, “I don’t need God to find beauty, enjoy loving connections, or live a moral life.” True, Yalom may not need any particular religion’s God or any particular dogmatic scheme. But can he consistently (or rationally at all) ground these unchanging values (truth, beauty, goodness) as a successful means of overcoming death anxiety once he argues there is nothing transcendent of the material order that grounds truth, beauty, and goodness as preferable to the false joys had by those who deny these values?

(Pictures here and here.)


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