A Philosophical Guide to Coping with Life, Death, and Sour Grapes

Can you have hope in the face of death? For believers this is somewhat easier, but non-theists require a different set of philosophical tools.

Luc Bovens: Well my name is Luc Bovens. I’m teaching at the London School of Economics and I’m actually going to make a move, I'm coming back to the States and I’ll take up a position at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill on the first of January. And last year or last fall I was in the Hope and Optimism Project in Cornell University and I was very excited to be part of this because I’m currently working on a book project. The book is called 'Coping: A Philosophical Guide'. So what I would like to do is actually bring out a lot of the work that I’ve been doing in moral psychology over the last 20 years and to put it in a format that is accessible to the public, to the general public.

And so the main idea of the book project is the following—well, let me start with this: there is this well-worn prayer of Niebuhr and it says that, 'God gave us the courage to change what we can change, and the serenity to accept what we can’t change, and the wisdom to know the difference between the two.'

And I think this is actually a false dichotomy, because there is something in between accepting the things that we can’t change and changing the things that we are able to change; having the courage to change the things that we are able to change. And what comes in between actually is precisely sort of having a kind of control over the mind. And now hoping is exactly the sort of thing that fits in the space in between courage and serenity.

You’re not changing the world and you’re not just merely accepting things. You’re developing some kind of attitude of coping with hardships, and that’s precisely, I think, what this hoping is all about. Now I think hoping is actually just one of the things that fits in the space between this courage and serenity.

Another thing that I’ve been exploring over the years is what’s often called sour grapes, right. Now sour grapes has a little bit of a bad rap but if you think about it, what you’re really doing—or what the fox is doing when he can’t reach for the grapes, and he turns his back and he says, “Oh, those grapes are sour,”—you can interpret this in many ways and actually when you think of this fable, it’s been written and rewritten in many ways. It may be the case that the fox just says, “Look, you know, these grapes are not ripe yet.” Then he’s actually changing his beliefs in order to deal with his frustration.

But in other versions he actually says, “Look, I don’t really like grapes,” so it seems like he’s changing his taste. He’s changing his desires. That’s a different thing. And then the third thing that the fox might be doing is he says, “Oh, you know, grapes are really for the lowlife animals in the woods.” Then he’s kind of framing the whole thing. So often I think when we’re trying to deal with hardships in life, we’re changing our beliefs, we’re changing our desires or we frame things differently. And depending on what you’re doing, these things are either more or less problematic. I think people often have problems with changing your beliefs at will. Whereas changing the frame with which you look at things in order to make things more acceptable, that seems to be a perfectly alright thing to do.

I mean at one point, actually going back to Marcus Aurelius' 'Meditations'—see Marcus Aurelius had this history of spending a lot of time with soldiers in barracks where, really, where he wanted to be was in Rome, hanging out with people in high society. But he says, 'Look, when you find yourself in a situation like that you have to come to love the people with whom your fate is cast. And you have to love them truly.'

So the idea is he changes his desires. He changes the way that he frames the situation in order to make it acceptable to him. And again that’s a form of coping.

So I’m doing a chapter on hoping. I’m doing a chapter on coping. And then I also try to explore these ideas in context where it seems like there’s a lot of need for them. Like one thing I’m doing currently is I’m thinking about how it is that people cope with death. And there is of course a lot of talk of hoping for salvation and an afterlife and so on, but I really want to think about the idea of what kind of hopes, what kind of secular hopes, that we can have in the face of death.
And so I try to look at various components and sort of make a taxonomy of the sort of hopes that people have in the face of death.

Like for one thing, I think people hope that their life was worthwhile somehow. And I started thinking about this because a friend of mine, he’s in his late seventies right now, he was a medical doctor and he is currently in his retirement working on a family tree. And he says to me at a certain point, he says, “You know, the only thing that I’m proud about in my life is this family tree that I made.”

And I said, well how is this possible? I mean look, being a philosopher we’re kind of envious of the medical profession in a way because it seems so easy for them to answer the question, “Do you do something meaningful in life?"

I said, “Well what about your patients?” And he says, “Oh, my patients,” he says, “you know, they’re all dead or they’re going to die soon anyway.” And I thought that was really interesting because it seems like the only thing that he thought would make his life worthwhile are things that would remain past his death. And, to me, family trees and genealogy and so on is a little bit like train-spotting so I can’t get too excited about it, but I’m definitely envious of people who have spent their life in the medical profession.

So then I started thinking about, “How is it that we hope that our lives will be worthwhile?” And it seems to me that there is this difference between thinking about a worthwhile life in terms of projects that will extend over the moment of your death versus thinking about having done great things in life which can be purely ephemeral.

So I’m thinking about a DJ who threw fantastic parties. You could say, 'Look, nothing of it remains,' but at the same time that party, that night, that was a fantastic thing to do.

Whereas artists in general think about leaving a legacy that goes beyond their death. There’s an interesting quote by Keats which, you know, Keats died young of TB, and when he realizes that he’s going to die, then he says, “I haven’t been able to make a mark in life,” and that bothered him. But he says, “I’ve always lived my life according to an aesthetic principle.” And I think that’s quite interesting too, because you can think of your life being worthwhile in terms of ephemeral projects that you’ve done, in terms of projects that will extend over your death, but also in terms of living in a particular mode, right. Living a particular style of life. Maybe a life of self-forgetfulness. Maybe a life of other-orientedness or, in the case of Keats, living a life in accordance with an aesthetic principle. So that’s sort of the idea of hoping that you’ve lived a worthwhile life. But I think there’s other hopes that we have too. Other secular hopes that we have too. In general, we just have hopes for the future, right. I mean, there is this saying, you know: 'After me, the downfall,' but we all feel like there’s something wrong with that. You should have hopes for a better future. In addition to that, I think we also hope not just to have lived well but also we hope to die well.

Now that goes back all the way to Aristotle. You know Aristotle actually thought that dying on the battlefield, that was really something to strive for. And this may seem a little bit outdated to us but it’s interesting when you notice his justification for it. So he says, 'It’s a good thing to die on the battlefield because there you can show off your prowess and you can also be doing something noble, something that would have an effect after your life.' And I think people like this idea of dying in a way that is in accordance with the way that they’ve lived. And so we want to live our lives, and I think we want to die in a way that is reflective of the way that we lived and we want to leave some kind of legacy as well towards the future. There’s a lot of interesting debate going on recently in the Netherlands—I mean euthanasia is legalized in the Netherlands—but the debate right now is whether, if somebody gets a diagnosis of cancer, whether they can have a very early euthanasia, because of they wait too long none of their organs will be any good anymore. And so they ask to be euthanized earlier because they want to be organ donors. And it’s the same thing: you want your death to be worthwhile in some way.

Life throws us curveballs that test our ability to cope, but perhaps none is more curvy than the end of life itself. Philosopher Luc Bovens examines the idea of secular hope, the forms it takes, and the function of it. He asks: what does it mean to live a meaningful life, and is it possible to die as well as you lived?

This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism. For more on Luc Bovens, go here.


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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

Mind & Brain
  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

It's one of the most consistent patterns in the unviverse. What causes it?

Videos
  • Spinning discs are everywhere – just look at our solar system, the rings of Saturn, and all the spiral galaxies in the universe.
  • Spinning discs are the result of two things: The force of gravity and a phenomenon in physics called the conservation of angular momentum.
  • Gravity brings matter together; the closer the matter gets, the more it accelerates – much like an ice skater who spins faster and faster the closer their arms get to their body. Then, this spinning cloud collapses due to up and down and diagonal collisions that cancel each other out until the only motion they have in common is the spin – and voila: A flat disc.