My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Death is never far from the mind. That’s the premise of the book, and in many cases, I think it’s an accurate assessment. But I would think that. I am, by my nature, a brooding existentialist supervillain. My house (which I refer to as “my inner sanctum”) and office (“my lair”) are filled with occult imagery, Marcus Aurelius quotes, and animal skulls. My wardrobe is black. And, bonus points, I work in mental health. I am the entire target audience.
Even with that in mind, I had a hard time accepting all of Solomon’s assertions. He seemed to be asking me to take a lot on faith, and I don’t think faith has any place in the science of death, ironic though that statement might seem. Faith can stay in its lane.
Worm at the Core is a phrase ganked from philosopher-heartthrob William James, the first psychology professor in the US and progenitor of one of my favorite belief structures, pragmatism, which he used to address the problem of free will. My dude Bill said that whether humans have free will, or are instinct-driven little flesh automatons, it wouldn’t change our behavior, so there’s no reason to give a shit. William James aggressively applied the “is there a reason to give a shit?” litmus to every argument he faced, and academia withered before his penetrating, Swansonian glare.
“A little cooling down of animal excitability and instinct, a little loss of animal toughness, a little irritable weakness and descent of the pain-threshold, will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.”
Of death, Billy J posited that the shadow of death is always hanging over us, and as soon as we notice it, the temperature drops.
Solomon et al. took that to its extreme, suggesting that the root cause of every psychological malady, from minor mental tummyaches like acute depressive episodes to full-blown reality-warping catatonic schizophrenia, can be attributed to what he termed “death anxiety”, or the fatalistic navel-gazing that chases a momento mori. We are the only animals that know we’re going to die (probably), and whenever we are reminded of our inevitable expiration date, our brain hits the big red panic button. Whenever we are reminded that we are animals, it does the same. Animals die. Whenever we get sick, or notice some grey in the ol’ beard, or see someone truly ancient go wobbling down the street, we get a dose of that death anxiety because we, too, will diminish and die.
Everybody on board so far? Good, here’s where it starts to get shaky.
Solomon suggests that we inoculate ourselves against the knowledge of our own finity through the establishment of self-esteem, which we accomplish by really leaning into norms specific to our culture. This workaround is termed Terror Management Theory, after the existential terror that comes each time we’re forced to confront our own mortality.
For example, in America, the mores that help stave off death are things like outspoken patriotism, and making a lot of money. Some of these things double-soothe because they offer an opportunity for ersatz immortality; for example, the culturally approved mandate of making and caring for your babies allows a genealogical immortality, since you’ve passed on a lot of your traits, and maybe your familial crooked smile will get inflicted on your descendents right up until the sun explodes. Or a creative work, painting a masterpiece or penning the Great American Novel, could afford you a legacy that works as a salve for the dread that comes with the contemplation of mortality. This is the kind of thing that compels wealthy philanthropists to hurl money at charitable organizations that will name a library or rec center after them.
These are common sense claims, and most of them pretty reasonable. From an evolutionary perspective, this can also hang; working in tandem with the rest of your tribe increases your chances of survival, which would make you feel less vulnerable to death. But the thing about science is, you’ve got to back up the claims with empirical evidence. Otherwise, it’s not science.
The experimental model they used was based on fill-in-the-blank questionnaires. One of the words might have been G R _ _ _. If someone walked past a coffee shop on the way in, they’d be more inclined to write GRIND; also, if the participant were to be cognizant of the fact that life is like a sandwich, no matter which way you flip it, the bread comes first. If the same participant walked past a hearse on the way in, they’d be more inclined to write GRAVE. This was supposed to illustrate the unconscious manifestation of death anxiety, which would in turn effect things like how harshly they punished criminals (breakers of cultural mores/laws) in hypothetical court cases.
They ran this same experiment over and over for 30 years, making subtle adjustments. In cases where they removed all death-related stimuli but insulted a participant’s deeply-help beliefs about country, politics, or religion, the questionnaire showed the same trends as if the participants had received an actual reminder of their mortality (old sick people, a cemetery, etc.)
As a theoretical framework, I think Terror Management Theory stands. But theoretical is as far as we can go. Statistical significance or not, the Mad Libs questionnaire model just doesn’t seem convincing enough to write off the sum of human experience as manifestations of our proximity to or distance from the concept of death. There are too many variables you can’t account for. Sure, patriotic Canadians displayed more “death anxiety markers” when you shittalked Canada, but that’s not necessarily a direct indicator of their self-esteem being damaged. It’s not a long hop from insulting a country to the “my dad can beat up your dad” mentality. Maybe that kind of open vitriol toward Canada got those patriotic Canadians thinking of war, and you can’t think of war without thinking of death. The individual, and their self-esteem, is barely involved.
Same for religion. Short hop from blasphemy to crusade in terms of mental heuristics, before the self-esteem of the individual is even considered.
It’s just asking too much heavy lifting of the unconscious. Too much of this premise is taking place behind the scenes, which is a risk you run in all social psychology experimentation, but that doesn’t mean your extrapolations qualify as proof.
The Worm at the Core is an interesting book, but it’s an interesting philosophy book. We can keep in mind that the shadow of death may be hanging over us at all times and coloring our perceptions, but it’s bad faith to suggest that we’ve proven it with these middle-school worksheets.