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The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

On Friday, April 12, 2019, Dr. Sheldon Solomon from Skidmore College visited Siena for the Psychology Department’s Annual Lecture Series. The Key Auditorium was packed with students and faculty alike to hear about a not-so-uplifting topic: death. Titled “The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life,” Dr. Solomon spoke about how humans’ unique fear of death influences our thoughts, feeling and behaviors in almost everything we do.

Dr. Solomon began his lecture asking what characteristics make a human. He listed off a number of names given to humans including “Homo sapiens, ” which means wise man; “Homo fabor,” which means tool-making man and “Homo narritan,” which would be a storyteller. While there are a number of traits that make man unique from other species, Dr. Solomon argued that the knowledge that we have to die is one of the key characteristics that makes us human, saying, “Death is the worm at the core of human existence”.

To explain why he believes this, Dr. Solomon outlined Ernest Becker’s book “Denial of Death,” which asks, “Why do we do what we do when we do it?” He began with Charles Darwin and explained that all animals have a biological need to preserve themselves; however, Dr. Solomon pointed out that physically, humans are not very good at this. What our species lacks in strength, we make up for it in intelligence and the capability to create new things.

Dr. Solomon then moved on to speak about the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who said that humans have self-consciousness and because of that, we experience awe and dread.  The awe arises from the joys of being alive and the dread develops because we know life is finite. Dr. Solomon explained that to overcome the defeating fear of dying, humans created culture or the “human constructed beliefs we share with society to make us feel like we have meaning and value.” An example of this is that most cultures have a hope for immortality, whether that manifests as a symbolic immortality to be remembered for generations or a more literal immortality through a system like heaven.

According to Dr. Solomon, this is not only how we survive but also how we create divides. When groups of people have contradictory beliefs, it reveals inconsistencies in their respective culture which can remind them of their death. To measure this, Dr. Solomon and his colleagues created the Mortality Salience Paradigm. It argues that if our beliefs about reality are to avoid death, then when people are reminded of their eventual demise, they will be more inclined to like individuals similar to them and who share their culture but dislike those who are different. Dr. Solomon argues that this paradigm can explain values like attraction to certain political leaders, how we address the environment, and why people may hold prejudices. Many political leaders use the fear of mortality to influence people to vote for them. Dr. Solomon explained that in a study he conducted, many people preferred Hilary Clinton over Donald Trump until they were reminded of death. He hypothesized that because Trump would often claim that he was the only one who could help America, people felt less vulnerable of their mortality with him than with Clinton.

To close the lecture, Dr. Solomon reminded the audience that humans have the power to fix our difficulties if we know what is causing them. As he mentioned in the beginning, people are incredibly intelligent and can “push humanity in the right direction” regardless of the fear of mortality.