Death is invincible and defeats us all, but we devise ways to compensate. Some are natural such as biological reproduction; some are cultural, as when we contribute to the greater good. But not every reaction to our mortality is benign. Many people repress the very idea of being mortal. According to Pulitzer prize-winning sociologist, Ernest Becker, the denial of death can lead to dangerous distortions of the human personality. (See Becker’s Denial of Death, 1973.)
One way to compensate for feeling puny before death is to amass great personal power. Wealth spread wide, fame that makes you known everywhere, influence and control—like talismans, these can buoy up one’s cowed spirit. The ability to create fear or love in underlings at will, being fawned upon and laved with admiration, wallowing in privilege and feeling superior—all this might alleviate the angst that haunts our imagination.
This throws light on what seems to me a mystery. I mean the mystery of greed, the strange inability of some people to be satisfied, people whose monomania for more, more, and MORE! is indestructible. Be it fame, money, power, pleasure, adulation, there’s never enough.
Greed for money and power fuel the fantasy of becoming a “master of the universe.” We know only too well that some people will do anything for money and power; lie, betray, murder—whatever it takes to produce the illusion that one is—what? Beyond the reach of death?
Why is enough never enough? What kind of a worm gnaws the entrails of this nagging uneasiness? Is it not the wraith of Becker’s denial of death? For in the end, all the booty and the beauty comes to dust. You have to work very hard to create the illusion of omnipotence, if you hope to spar with the brute god of death.
Perhaps greed is best thought of as a spiritual disease. If Becker’s analysis is right, we need to make contact with a power that in some meaningful way transcends bodily death. An insight into our human essence would be a good place to begin. It should help to realize that the death of one’s body is not necessarily the death of one’s self. It is universally admitted, even by devoted materialists, that consciousness cannot be reduced to, or explained by, anything physical. The conscious personality is not the same as the functioning brain.
If so, the conscious part must be something independent that pre-exists the brain. If pre-exist, why not post-exist? In that case, it is plausible to suppose that consciousness continues after our brains are demolished by death. That seems like an opening for victims of death-anxiety, a point where a new philosophy of life and death becomes possible.
In fact, most religions and mythologies traditionally embrace some kind of afterlife belief. But modern science, busy serving state and corporate empire, has no interest in beliefs about an afterlife. Even so, much recent science has been busy making the case for the fundamental role of consciousness in nature (see, for example, Irreducible Mind (2007, eds. Kelly, Kelly, & Crabtree)—a thorough-going critique of the physicalist trend in science and philosophy.
Ernest Becker ended his book by calling science out for evading the problem of death. He never said what science could do about it, however. Irreducible Mind argues for the necessity of confronting the paranormal and mystical data that mainstream science sidesteps or plays down. And once that data is honestly engaged, a new picture of the meaning of death becomes possible.
The bare fact of death remains unalterably the same. What changes, however, is the meaning that we ascribe to it.. At this point in history science is giving mixed signals regarding the momentous question. One group of the scientifically trained offers a blunt response. Death for each person means the end of meaning, indeed, the end of everything. Period.
Another group of trained scientists hold that we are in the midst of a dawning new paradigm of postmortem survival. The difference between the two groups is stark. The naysayers ignore all the data of modern consciousness research, and well over a century of psychical research conducted by many of science’s luminaries. The opinions of the naysayers are rabidly dogmatic and therefore worthless.
The other group of scientists engaged in study of the real, the relevant data pertaining to these matters deserve our respect and attention. Meanings, I repeat, fluctuate throughout history. At this juncture, we’re in no position to be dogmatic about any of the great and ultimate questions. For one thing, we seemed to have slipped into a period of “truth in crisis.” Nevertheless, the truth is out there, if anybody wants to follow the spoor.
Drawing on this mass of crucial but largely repressed research, in The Final Choice: Death or Transcendence? (2017), I describe some steps in forming a new, scientific mythology of the greater mind. It attempts to take us to a place where we can glimpse life and death from a transcendent perspective. A new vision is possible—a vision grounded in the extraordinary experiences of people from all over the world.
It is possible to counter the denial of death. It may even be possible to palliate psychopathic politics, although for that we might require miraculous intervention.
Despite all appearances, there is a place beyond money, power, and death-anxiety.
Getting there may be harder today than ever before, but improved maps may compensate for the latest obstacles.
All our knowledge merely helps us to die a more painful death than animals that know nothing.
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