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The Human Capacity For Denial Will Only Get Us So Far

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After a deadly flood in Houston a few months back, a woman was interviewed by a television crew. Her sister and two children had been swept away, casting a pall on the community.

Facing such catastrophic news, the surviving sister had a faint smile on her face.

Asked by the reporter about her feelings, she surmised something to the effect: "There's a blessing in this because I know my sister and her two children are now in Heaven, and we'll all be together one day."

Unlike other species with no ability for self-reflection, humans are able to tell themselves fictions and myths, religious or not, to mollify and placate.

In other tragedies, similar consolation is expressed every day on the news. It's understandable. Sensing the approaching vortex of abject grief and depression, remaining steadfast and hopeful seem our only options.

The potential drawback? It's huge.

Scientists Ajit Varki, and the late Danny Brower, likely deciphered this uniquely human quality of cognitions. Unlike other species with no ability for self-reflection, humans are able to tell themselves fictions and myths, religious or not, to mollify and placate.

Yet, as Varki and Brower see it, the most significant characteristic of this coping mechanism is identifying it as denial, not optimism. Thus the full title of their book, Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.

As they explain it, when early Homo sapiens suddenly became aware of their own inevitable mortality in the midst of abject violence and death, denial simultaneously became an extricable component to emerging consciousness.

Without denial, the reality of their situation would've been too much to bear for our early progenitors. Human evolution would've ended with early man and woman curling up underneath a tree, smitten with sorrow, incapable of going on.

Instead, denial enabled early Homo sapiens ignore the realities of their fragile circumstances.

But while the capacity for denial enabled continuance of the human species, at this stage of the game in our present evolution, our individual and collective undoing may be inevitable. Especially when a religious formula puts circumstances into a narrative that includes notions of a compassionate God, eternal life, and that old chestnut, resurrection of the dead.

This is where religiously inspired incredulity over climate change comes in: If things go south and a catastrophic climate shift begins, Jesus might just hasten his return. As for that nasty fact of the extinct -- and soon to be extinct other species -- there is the promised New Heaven and New Earth.

No doubt, there's a secular version too: "Don't worry; be happy," voiced by those who annoyingly expect optimism as a sort of public duty. (Note to those with depression: Varki suggests those who suffer from depression are the few who mostly clearly understand our actual state of affairs.)

Religious or not, when facing truly eventful horrors like anthropogenic climate change, denial of the obvious is simple denial of what is headed our way.

The stakes couldn't get any higher for humanity. Reality doesn't care if we are optimistic about doing nothing about our predicament. Anyone who has been in a terrible accident, or barely escaped one, understands how facts and reality are uncaring and pitiless.

If we continue to sleepwalk in our denial, the very quality that allowed us to get this far may be the very quality that puts it all for us, as a species, to an end.

Denial, it seems, will only get us so far.

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