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Evo-existentialism: facing death.

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Mortality awareness is a uniquely human phenomenon that the existentialists believed science was unable to explain. However, excluding the topic from scientific enquiry doesn’t make as much sense as it previously did. The recent advances in evolutionary biology and neuroscience have provided new ways to access the previously inaccessible existential features of people. Mortality awareness exerts various psychological effects on people which motivate them to behave in different ways. In order to capture the scope of these responses I have developed an integrative defensive behavioural model comprised of six levels coinciding with the Threat Imminence Continuum (Fanselow and Lester, 1988), Survival Optimization System (Mobbs, 2015), A New Defensive Taxonomy (Ledoux and Daw, 2018) and Dennett’s Tower of Generate and Test (Dennett, 1997). I argue that mortality awareness can result in a multitude of defensive behaviours, including fixed reaction patterns, learned habits as well explicit deliberate actions, and there may be competition between them. This range of defensive behaviours can be explained by the following key factors: The intensity of the reinforcer, proximity and appraised emotional intensity. A rigorous evolutionary approach to mortality awareness has not as yet been presented, however recently in psychology a theory has emerged called Terror Management theory (TMT) which has gained influence and support (Greenberg et al., 1986). The proponents of TMT argue that in order to cope with potentially debilitating fear of death, people engage with cultural ideas, beliefs, values, and concepts in an attempt to regulate this fear. People invent, absorb, and cling to cultural worldviews which ultimately avoid and suppress the awareness of death by providing a theory of reality that provides meaning, purpose, significance and the hope of immortality. Death awareness exerts motivational force on human behaviour due to the emotions of fear, anxiety, dread and terror that are associated with it. This is supported by the current findings in both TMT and biology which show that anxiety and fear motivate specific behaviours toward avoidance and continued survival. Hence the avoidance of death- related concerns seems natural. The avoidance and/or suppression of death was a position the existentialists were concerned about. In contrast most existentialists favoured acceptance but they were sceptical whether people could truly face their mortality and accept it. However, recent research in neuroscience provides support for acceptance as a potential coping mechanism. An unlikely convergence presents itself between science and existentialism which provides scope for a cooperative approach.


Masters Degree. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban.