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Death: A Wall or a Door? And What Do Key Psychologists Have to Say About This?

Updated on September 29, 2017
John Paul Quester profile image

A mostly retired academic, I hold advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology.

The Door of Death - St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
The Door of Death - St. Peter's Basilica, Rome
John B. Watson
John B. Watson

A colleague recently told me that a leading psychology textbook assigned to students of the discipline in the 1950's mentioned death only once: in connection with the death-feigning behaviour of the opossum...

Apparently, for the psychological science of the time, awareness of one's mortality played no significant role in a person's life, or none worth studying anyway. Not to mention the question of whether there might be any ground for a belief in the continuance of life after death.

This is unsurprising, given the dominance of behaviorism within the psychology departments of that time. Behaviorism had managed, not only to expunge the 'soul' from psychology, but even the 'mind' itself, choosing instead to posit the study of observable behavior in relation to its environmental determinants as the proper subject matter of this discipline (e.g., Watson, 1913).

By so doing - afflicted as they were by the serious condition known as 'physics envy' - behaviorists hoped to approximate the scientific rigour and precision of the physical sciences . And, if that meant sacrificing much meaningful research on the altar of methodological purity: well that was worth the cost. Or so they thought.

Things have changed rather considerably since then, nor is it the case that psychology as a whole has ignored death altogether, as the article 'Is Thinking About Our Own Death Healthy or Morbid?' also shows. However, what has not changed is the firmly secular orientation of most academic psychologists, who are among the least religious within the American professoriate.

This may lead one to assume that beliefs in the possible continuance of life after death, a core element of most religions, would have been met with scant regard by those eminent representatives of the discipline who took the trouble to address this subject. As I hope to show in this article, this is far from being entirely the case.

Grenville Stanley Hall
Grenville Stanley Hall
Gustav Fechner
Gustav Fechner
William James
William James
Carl  G. Jung
Carl G. Jung
Carl Rogers
Carl Rogers

Leading Psychologists and the Afterlife Question

Granville Stanley Hall (1844-1924)

This American pioneer of experimental psychology also wrote about the widely shared belief in personal immortality: but with the ironic skepticism of a late-day Voltairian. In this respect, he typifies the dismissive attitude toward this matter that many of his colleagues, bent on securing for their fledging discipline a dignified place at the scientific table, felt called to adopt.

If people really believed in life after death, he argued, we would witness a mass migration: ‘Clergymen themselves would lead their flocks into the great beyond. It is surely not mere duty that keeps us all here. . . . If we were told of a new continent of fabulous wealth and charm, and believed it all, we should go to it by individuals, families, tribes, and leave fatherlands untenanted, although we had to brave dark and tempestuous seas to get there. We should not cling to the old shores until forced to cross, perhaps too weak or decrepit to enjoy or profit by the great change after the landfall. . . . We should hasten to go young and in our prime to make the most and best of the new opening. (Hall, 1915, pp. 579-580). But, most obviously, we do not; in fact, ‘even those surest of Heaven stay here to the latest possible moment . . . even though their lives in this world be miserable’ (Ibid., p. 579).

This reveals that belief in life beyond the grave is best understood as a convention and a dream wish, whose primary function is to help us deal with an instinctual fear of death.

Gustav Fechner (1801-1887)

Hall's views could hardly be more different from those expounded by the German originator of the most scientifically rigorous field within the psychology of the time: sensory psychophysics. This pivotal figure in the early history of the discipline was also a proponent of a belatedly Romantic view of the world, which included a heartfelt conviction in the immortality of the soul.

Fechner was unhesitant in his portrayal of what awaits us beyond the grave: 'The about-to-be-born infant, unaware of the wondrous realities that will soon be disclosed to it, finds it hard to leave its mother's womb, and may experience the end of its intrauterine existence as death. Similarly, in our earthly life, our perceptions dulled by corporeal limitations, we remain unaware of ‘the light, the music, the freedom, and the glory of the life to come’ (Fechner, 1836/1905, p. 33), and we fail to appreciate that dreaded death is but a second birth into an happier existence. As we enter it, ‘All those things which we, with our present senses, can only know from the outside, or, as it were, from a distance, will be penetrated into, and thoroughly known, by us. Then, instead of passing by hills and meadows, instead of seeing around us all the beauties of spring, and grieving that we cannot really take them in, as they are merely external: our spirits shall enter into those hills and meadows, to feel and enjoy with them their strength and their pleasure in growing; instead of exerting ourselves to produce by means of words or gestures certain ideas in the minds of our fellowmen, we shall be enabled to elevate and influence their thoughts, by an immediate intercourse of spirits, which are no longer separated, but rather brought together, by their bodies; instead of being visible in our bodily shape to the eyes of the friends we left behind, we shall dwell in their innermost souls, a part of them, thinking and acting in them and through them’. (Ibid., p. 33).

William James (1842-1910)

The great philosopher and founder of psychological science in America argued that religious beliefs and the hope for immortality offer to many people the sole way out of suicide. They serve this end by granting to human life a significance that it would otherwise lack. For James, the adoption of a spiritual view of reality does not require the sacrifice of our rationality: ‘We have a right to believe the physical order to be only a partial order; we have a right to supplement it by an unseen spiritual order which we assume on trust, if only thereby life may seem to us better worth living again.’ (James, 1896/1905, p.24).

Those who scoff at these views and idolize science fail to realize that science itself is impossible without some kind of sustaining belief, such as the credence in a universe structured according to a logical and mathematical harmony. Just as this view, seemingly ingrained in our nature, made the search for these harmonies possible and was ultimately vindicated, similarly, ‘if [spiritual] needs of ours outrun the visible universe, why may not that be a sign that an invisible universe is there?’ (Ibid., p.25).

James believed, as Jung will, that these views originate from the deepest reaches of our nature. This should not be cause for concern, for therein resides ‘our deepest organ of communication with the nature of things; and compared with these concrete movements of our soul all abstract statements and scientific arguments . . . sound to us like mere chatterings of the teeth" (Ibid., p. 31).

Carl Jung (1875-1961)

The founder of analytical psychology maintained that past the noon of life we must assent psychologically to the unavoidably downward trend of our life (1933, 1934/1981). This we must do, if we intend that the process of self-realization or ‘individuation’ continue - if we want, that is, to deepen the reach of our consciousness, and to differentiate and integrate hitherto unconscious components of our personality.

One is faced at this juncture with a seemingly paradoxical aspect of Jung's psychology of individuation. It resides in the claim that the most momentous, demanding, and fruitful turns of this path are negotiated in the second half of life: from which it follows that our personality becomes most capable of dealing maturely with both inner and outer reality toward the close of life, when but death awaits us.

However, even those who see in death the absolute end of existence may find sufficient justification to their efforts toward self-realization, for this process produces its own rewards: the path itself may be the destination. Even so, Jung's sympathy goes to those who can conceive of death as a door rather than as a wall, as a transition to another plane of existence, our condition in the latter being determined by the level of development achieved in this life. Those who hold this view have solved - or, rather, dis-solved - the riddle of individuation. Moreover, they share in the 'consensus gentium' as expressed in the great religions and myths of the world. These invite us to look upon life as a preparation for death, for it is in death that the ultimate meaning of our existence is fulfilled.

Jung was aware that it is not possible to force a belief in a life after death. Yet, he refused to regard such a belief as irrational or neurotic, as Freud had decreed. On the contrary, it is materialism itself which is philosophically questionable and psychologically harmful, for it uproots our consciousness from the psychic grounds from whence religious and spiritual tenets originate. Admittedly, according to Jung, we shall never be able to establish whether these tenets are true or false. Yet, we are strongly inclined to grant them truth status, and a rationalistic denial of their validity 'means the same thing as the conscious denial of the instincts - uprootedness, disorientation, meaninglessness. (Jung, 1934/1981, pp. 136- 137)

Carl Rogers (1902-1987)

In an autobiographical note written when he was 75 years old, Rogers, one of the most influential psychotherapy theorists of the century just past, revealed that death was not looming large in his thoughts.

The meaningfulness of his life, he felt, was not threatened by the prospect of death. Although inclining toward the view that death constitutes the terminus of personal existence, he refused to construe this as a tragic or awful prospect: for he felt that he had led his life 'with a satisfying degree of fullness', and he regarded it as 'natural' that his life should end. He felt that he had achieved an immortality of sorts through his influence on the lives of many people, and he trusted that some at least of his ideas would continue to influence his field and the people working in it beyond his passing. 'So - he concluded - if I, as an individual, come to a complete and final end, aspects of me will still live on in a variety of growing ways, and that is a pleasant thought.’ (Rogers, 1989, p. 49).

This serenely secular view was tempered somewhat by the consideration he felt compelled to give both to Kubler-Ross's (1975) affirmative conclusions about life after death and to Moody's (1976) research on the near-death experience. In sum, Rogers concluded, ‘I consider death with, I believe, an openness to the experience. It will be what it will be, and I trust I can accept it as either an end to, or a continuation of life’ (1989, p. 50).

At a later date, Rogers revealed that the year and a half that had preceded his wife's death had been punctuated by a series of uncanny events involving both himself, his wife, and their friends. These experiences , he writes, 'decidedly changed my thoughts and feelings about dying and the continuation of the human spirit' (Ibid., p. 51). Barely hinted at, they were of a paranormal character, and impressive enough to induce Rogers to regard it as entirely possible 'that each of us is a continuing spiritual essence lasting over time, and occasionally incarnated in a human body’ (Ibid., p. 53).

James Hillman (1926-2011)

The founder of archetypal psychology, who here followed Jung's lead, wrote that any observer of the human psyche as it nears the physical close of life will perceive its deep entanglement with the question of the after-life. Dreams, fantasies, and experiences that point to some form of continuity are frequent in this period. They cannot, of course, be taken as evidence of survival; yet, they should be received with a humble suspension of judgment (Hillman, 1979).

Robert Jay Lifton (b. 1926)

In a work (1974) coauthored with Eric Olson, this celebrated American psychiatrist concurred with Becker, Yalom, and others that the inevitability of death brings anxiety in its wake, and that the idea of immortality provides an outlet through which this anxiety can be allayed. Lifton's useful contribution rests on his reminders that there are several varieties of immortality.

According to Lifton, Freud's stern view - that death represents the absolute end of a person, and that any belief in personal immortality stems from a childish refusal to accept death's finality - constitutes too naturalistic an approach to the matter. As such, it fails to accommodate the complexity of our psychic needs.

Lifton reminds us that Jung (1934/1981) was keenly aware of the human need to draw upon the time-honored belief in a spiritual world, and argued that our psychic environment would be dangerously depleted by its eradication. However, by refusing to distinguish between symbolic meaning and literal truth of such credence, Jung undermined and distorted both religious belief and psychological science.

Lifton and Olson argued that an adequate approach compels the critical synthesis of these two views. We must accept, with Freud, the finality of each individual death, yet recognize with Jung and others the human need for some form of immortality. This need can be met symbolically in several ways: biological, creative, theological, natural, and experiential.

Biological immortality refers to the sort of continued existence that a person achieves through one's sons and daughters and their own offspring; it can also transcend one's biological family to include broader social groupings and the traditions they embody.

The creative mode of immortality is expressed in activities such as teaching, writing, inventing, and healing through which a person can hope to influence the course of human affairs.

Theological notions of immortality are commonly subjected to a literal interpretation but are better understood as symbolic representations of the experience of spiritual death and rebirth that many people undergo during their lives. It is the experience of dying to a secular mode of living and of being reborn to a religiously inspired existence that is felt to be more intense, hopeful, and meaningful.

Immortality can also be achieved through the acceptance of our kinship with, and embeddedness in, nature: ‘From dust you come and to dust you shall return’ is a powerful reminder of our ephemeral nature. Yet, implicit in it is the assertion that 'the earth itself does not die. Whatever happens to man, the trees, mountains, seas, and rivers endure.’ (Lifton & Olson, I974, p.81).

The remaining mode of immortality, experiential transcendence depends solely upon psychological states. Its transcendent quality refers to a rapturous experience of timelessness, to the feeling of being raised beyond the limitations of everyday existence and beyond death.

According to Lifton and Olson (1974), through these modes of symbolic immortality, death anxiety, which is so basic to humans, can be at least partially allayed.

In Sum

Hurried and incomplete as it is, I hope this brief survey sufficed in showing that the threshold we call death - perceived by some as a wall, as a door by others - enticed and mystified some great psychologists no less than us common gazers.

The 'undiscovered country' remains clad in caliginous mist, its features hidden from view. Whether they be those of absolute nothingness or of some unimaginable otherness.

References

Fechner, G. T. (1836/1905). The Little Book on Life After Death. Boston: Little & Brown.

Hillman, J. (1979). The Dream and the Underworld. New York: Harper & Row.

James, W. (1896/1912). The Will to Believe and Other Essays. In Popular Philosophy. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

J. C. Jung (1933). The Stages of Life. In Modern Man in Search of a Soul. New York: Harcourt-Brace.

Jung, C. G. (1981). The Soul and Death. In Psychology and the Occult. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kubler-Ross, E. (1975). Death: The final stage of growth. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Hall, G. S. (1915). Thanatophobia and Immortality. In American Journal of Psychology, (26), 550-613.

Lifton, R. J. and Olson, E. (1974). Living and Dying. New York: Prager.

Moody, R. A. (1976). Life after life. New York: Bantam.

Rogers, C. R. (1989). Growing Old: Or Older and Growing. In H. Kirschenbaum and V. Henderson (Eds.) The Carl Rogers Reader. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Watson, J. (1913). Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

© 2016 John Paul Quester

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      John Paul Quester 17 months ago from North America

      Thank you!

    • kalinin1158 profile image

      Lana ZK 17 months ago from California

      Fascinating topic! In my experience academic psychology is still very much secular, and heavily based on psychoanalytic and behaviorist schools of thought. It's certainly reassuring that so many respected psychologists entertained the possibility of life after death, or had personal experiences of spiritual nature. Great job on the article!