Becker in his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, says everyone lives with a vital lie. It’s called a vital lie because this lie is absolutely needed for life to have meaning and value.
This isn’t really a new discovery. Philosophers and psychiatrists have long known that human beings lie to ourselves as a necessity. Becker was just very good at convincing you, the reader, that it’s true and to take a real hard look at yourself.
Camus, the famous Existential writer of The Stranger, said the fundamental question for life and philosophy is why shouldn’t I kill myself? Given the absurdity of life where we no longer have faith in God, country, or even family, what’s the point of existence? When we see people dying in the most horrible and grotesque ways, how can we believe our lives have a fate or meaning?
Nietzsche, unfortunately most well known for saying, “God is Dead”, said that we create our own meaning. He prophesied that the biggest issue on the horizon would be nihilism. Sure enough, the history of the 20th century proved it. World War I destroyed our illusions that our country is looking after our best interests (rather than selfish, irrational greed and fame) and destroyed our illusion of glory of war. World War II proved that science and technology wouldn’t likely create our future utopias but instead end up killing us all. The Cold War and modern terrorism have told us how fragile our lives really are.
Because we are free human beings, we need meaning, purpose, and hope. We need to believe that our actions and our lives have meaning and value. We need to be able to hope that we have some degree of control over our lives. Animals are dictated by their biological instincts and conditioning such that they never have to reflect on their decisions or future. They live by instinct. We are the only living organism that has the free will to choose. But how to do we know how to choose?
Most people simply live by “social instinct” or herd instinct. Marx said that religion is the opium of the masses. But that’s not quite right. Socialization is the opium of the masses. Culture and tradition are equally the cognitive, social instincts that we live by without realizing Vitalflow or thinking about it. Socrates, the father of Western philosopher, is the first to deeply question everyone about their truth. How do you know what’s right and what’s wrong? At the end of every Socrates’ dialogue, we find his victim actually just holds a strong opinion rather than truth. So do we.
This gets us back to Becker again. Ernest Becker didn’t believe we could overcome this need for vital lies. Instead, he hoped that we could be consciously aware of what our vital lies were. What “immortality projects” do we pursue? This way, our intellectual rational side of our being could moderate our behavior and prevent us from overreacting. We could have vital lies that lead to productive, happy goals such as curing diseases rather than trying to destroy others. Is this good enough though? Because to know one’s vital lie would seemingly destroy all my illusions that my project is meaningful. It would be like having a Christian realize that God is maybe just his own mental creation. How could he continue having faith in God then? This is the dilemma that Becker never really addressed or solved. Which is somewhat ironic considering that he did convert to Christianity in his last years.