Sunday, April 20, 2014

Death denial and naturalism's problem of evil

My friend Bill Vallicella recently posted on a problem of evil for naturalists. He argues that the fact of evil, much of which on a naturalist scheme of things goes unredeemed forever, compromises the naturalist's ability to affirm to life -- to say Yes to life, to consider life worth living, to judge that its goods outweigh its bads.

Bill's case can be strengthened, I think, by appeal to Ernest Becker's theory of the denial of death and recent psychological research on Terror Management Theory. I recently rewatched a documentary on these topics called Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality (available to watch on Hulu with ads here) in which Becker's theory and its later experimental substantiation are presented.

In a nutshell, Becker proposed that at the unconscious base of human activity is a fear of our own death. This consciousness of the fact that we will at one point in time die, as well as the fear which this awareness causes in us, motivate us to seek immortality in various forms. If we become convinced we cannot have literal immortality of the body, we may seek a sort of ersatz immortality in the continued existence of symbolic systems valuable to us -- our culture, our religion, our accomplishments in society, etc. When the mechanisms (or illusions) of death denial we choose for ourselves are threatened by the presence of another, we may respond with violence and destruction. Without some kind of belief or confidence in a death-denying illusion, we simply can't function, and so we become angry and violent when our illusion is compromised.

The psychologists and philosophers consulted in the film suggest that our illusions of death denial need not be so violent, however. We may seek to console ourselves and comfort each other in the face of our imminent mortality with cultural illusions while practicing tolerance, acceptance of the other, perhaps even through a conscious awareness that these are illusions to which we appeal.

If that's the answer the naturalist has to give to the problem of death denial, however, it is hard to see how life can be affirmable in Bill's sense. How can life be affirmed, if it may only be lived well by appeal to an illusion? How is life worth living if it must be lived as a lie, if at all? Isn't truth a fundamental value on which the naturalist and the theist can agree? Insofar as one values truth, it would seem that naturalism is very much afflicted by a problem of evil -- the problem of the evil of the necessity of death denial, a necessity which the psychologists and thinkers participating in the film openly acknowledged.

At the same time, I was impressed by the way in which Christianity stands out among religions and death-denying traditions. The personages of the film proposed that more or less every bit of culture and religion, etc., is an illusion constructed by humanity for the sake of pacifying our fear of death in some way. Religion posits an immortal soul, so that helps us to avoid fear of our eventual extinction. But Christianity differs in that it posits its origins fundamentally in an outside source -- it is God himself who, for instance, approaches Abraham and calls him, and not the other way around; it is Jesus Christ himself who appears to the disciples to convince them that he had been raised from the dead, not the other way around. And Christianity posits, furthermore, that apart from this act of the resurrection of Christ, there would not be a resurrection of or immortality for the human race at all. As Athanasius appreciated, the premise from which Christianity begins is that humanity is doomed to destruction -- something upon which we can all agree. The solution to this doom is not something we've come up with on our own, but something given to us from above, so to speak.

The good message of Easter is that death-denial can be conquered, because God has conquered it for us in Jesus Christ's resurrection: Since the children have flesh and blood, [the Son] too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death (Heb 2.14-5).