Immanentizing the Abyss
“Immanentizing the eschaton” means to bring about the state of heaven on earth: to transcend the ordinary state of the world and bring about a divine, final state. The eschaton is a religious version of “the end of history”. Political and religious movements often aspire to bring history to an ultimate fulfillment in some kind of utopia that transcends the ordinary conditions of life. Humanism, the successor religion to Christianity in the West, has its own version of the eschaton.
Humanism transfers divinity from God to humanity. The omniscience of God is transferred to humanity as faith in reason and science. The omnipotence of God is transferred to humanity as faith in technology and progress. The benevolence and moral authority of God is transferred to humanity as faith in human compassion, empathy and altruism.
The eschaton of humanism is the full actualization of the human potential for knowledge, power and goodness.
Because they situate divinity in human nature, humanists believe that everything bad is due to something outside human nature, or at least, to something that can and should be expunged from it. “If you can learn to hate, you can learn to love” is an example of the humanist attitude toward both human nature and evil. Humanism has its own “problem of evil”, which is analogous to the problem of evil for Christianity. If humanity is wise, powerful and good, why is there so much suffering and evil in the world? Every religion has the problem of explaining the divergence between reality and the divine will.
Humanists solve their problem of evil by situating the causes of evil in external or historic forces that prevent people from reaching their full potential. Humanists believe that all humans have the potential for rationality and goodness, but that potential can be stifled by external conditions, such as poverty, ignorance and oppression. They believe that with enough resources, education and love, almost everyone will reach their full potential.
So, humanism envisions a utopian future in which humanity is liberated from the constraints of poverty, ignorance and oppression, and the full human potential for divinity is actualized on the Earth. That is the humanist eschaton.
The 20th century was dominated by two versions of the humanist religion. Communism is an authoritarian version of humanism. It proposes to immanentize the eschaton by force. Liberal humanism, the humanism of the West, proposes to immanentize the eschaton through freedom and progress. Communism failed dramatically in the late 20th century. Now, in the early 21st century, we are witnessing the failure of liberal humanism. The humanist eschaton is refusing to immanentize. Instead, we appear to be going toward a dystopia at best, a disaster at worst.
Because humanism is the de facto religion of the modern West, and because it situated its paradise on Earth and within the grasp of humanity, the failure to actualize the humanist eschaton is provoking a religious crisis. There is a crisis of faith in the modern West. People are losing faith in the institutions and assumptions on which their societies and their lives are based.
For example, people are losing faith in democracy. If humans are truly wise and good, as humanism assumes, then democracy ought to produce good governance. In recent history, however, we have seen many failures of democracy.
The left views the election of Donald Trump as a failure of democracy. Russians must have hacked the election!! The alternative is much worse to contemplate: that a huge number of people are either evil or ignorant, in spite of their privilege and in spite of all the efforts of the left to educate them. How could this be? The left tried to sweep this failure under the rug by calling it “populism” (as if democracy isn’t populism) or by blaming it on Russian bots, but those pathetic efforts didn’t work. The left has lost faith in democracy and (more importantly) they are losing faith in human nature.
The right has its own problems with democracy. They voted for Trump and a wall. They got Trump but no wall. There is a growing understanding that, even in a democracy, society is controlled by the will of elites, not by the will of the people. Also, the will of the people is largely determined by propaganda and is highly irrational.
Both left and right view the other side as misled by partisan media and social media. Both have conspiracy theories that imply that democracy is a sham. Both view the other side as largely irrational or evil. Both have lost faith in democracy.
How should we govern ourselves? That is an ancient question. Plato wrote a book on it, and people have been arguing about it ever since. For a brief part of the 20th century, the problem seemed to have been solved: democracy was the solution! But that philosophical problem has come back with a vengeance.
Philosophical problems don’t enter the minds of ordinary people as explicit problems. Instead, they are experienced as the absence of solutions — as anxiety and confusion. The ordinary person cannot think philosophically. He cannot formulate the question of how people should govern themselves, let alone try to answer it. That question is too abstract for him to even think about. However, he can take a political system for granted as an unquestioned assumption. When he can no longer take his political system for granted, that generates anxiety and confusion. He will probably continue to hold whatever political beliefs he had before, but he will no longer have confidence in those beliefs. He will no longer have faith.
The crisis of faith in the West goes well beyond democracy. People are losing faith in almost every assumption of the ordinary worldview.
The “fake news” meme is another example of lost faith. People used to believe that the “free press” was a reliable source of truth. Over the last few years, people have lost faith in the media. Truth has become a matter of tribal affiliation. Even though people might trust their tribe’s media more than the other tribe’s, they are aware that the media are unreliable. Even those who align with the establishment are becoming aware, through social media, that the establishment media cannot be trusted. This creates cognitive dissonance. It undermines their faith in their own knowledge of the world.
The problem of “fake news” is one step removed from the philosophical problem of knowledge. How can we have knowledge of the world? This is a profound philosophical question. The ordinary person, of course, never explicitly asks this question, let alone attempts to answer it. However, he can feel the absence of a reliable source of truth. Again, this manifests as anxiety and confusion. He doesn’t trust his own judgment on a lot of things, so he relies on authorities such as the media, the academy and the government. When those authorities cannot be trusted, he doesn’t know what to believe. He loses confidence in his knowledge of the world. He does not become a philosopher and formulate an explicit critique of knowledge. He simply loses his faith.
People are also losing faith in their moral assumptions. Humanist morality is based on altruism. We are supposed to be nice to each other, and altruism is supposed to solve almost every social problem. The humanist eschaton is filled with “love, not hate”. To bring about that eschaton, we must love one another and reject hatred.
There are two big problems with altruism as a moral or social foundation. The first is that we aren’t altruistic by nature. We can’t really love one another. The second is that altruism doesn’t solve social problems. In fact, it creates social problems. For example, welfare subsidizes dysgenic reproduction, because unproductive and destructive people can reproduce at the expense of others, and so they tend to increase in numbers until the welfare system is overwhelmed. Altruism is self-defeating.
Mass migration into the West is bringing altruistic morality into direct conflict with reality. People can see the flow of migrants into the West. In spite of relentless propaganda to the contrary, they intuitively understand that it is unsustainable and dangerous. The West cannot absorb the surplus population of the world, and the West cannot function as a global welfare program. Multiculturalism does not produce a utopia in which we all love one another. Instead, it creates an incoherent society. It is becoming clear that mass migration will destroy the West if it is not stopped. But stopping it would be evil!! Even worse, it would be admitting that altruism doesn’t work. And if altruism doesn’t work, there will be no humanist eschaton.
Again, this conflict is not experienced as a philosophical problem, but as a state of anxiety and confusion. There is a loss of faith in the moral assumptions of the humanist worldview. People might still believe in those assumptions, and even profess them hysterically to the point of absurdity, but they can no longer take them for granted.
Meanwhile, science is undermining the humanist view of human nature. Humanists dare not look too closely at humanity through the lens of science, because of what it reveals. Humans are not divine. We are organisms shaped by evolution to reproduce. We evolved to be selfish, not altruistic. Our intelligence and rationality are bounded and imperfect. Human potential is profoundly limited by biology.
Humanists reject science when it conflicts with their view of human nature. They reject genetic explanations of human differences not because they think those explanations will lead to oppression, but because genetic explanations expose the reality of human nature. If blacks have lower IQs than whites for genetic reasons, then human wisdom is limited by biology. If crime is due to genes rather than poverty or childhood abuse, then evil is intrinsic to human nature. Science conflicts with the humanist conception of human nature, and this creates cognitive dissonance.
People are losing faith in the humanist ideals of romantic love and sexual freedom. The myth of romantic love is a very important part of the humanist worldview. It portrays love as a mystical, inexplicable force that brings together “soulmates”. Romantic love is presumably necessary for an individual to reach his full potential, and it is assumed to be attainable by everyone. Humanism also has an ideal of sexual freedom: that there should be no constraints on sex between consenting adults. These ideals might generate entertaining scripts for TV shows and movies, but they don’t work very well in real life. Romantic love is not magic, and it is not attainable by everyone. Sexual liberation did not produce a utopia in which everyone gets to express their sexuality, enjoy sex, and find true love. Instead, it has produced an epidemic of loneliness, a breakdown of relationships, a breakdown of the family, below replacement fertility, and even a decline in sex.
People are also losing faith in happiness. According to the humanist worldview, the combination of affluence and personal freedom should make people happy. Supposedly, we were held back in the past by poverty, ignorance and repressive social conventions, such as sex roles. In the modern world, people have been liberated from those constraints. They have enough to eat, they are educated, and the repressive social conventions have been swept away. And yet, they are not happy.
Not only are people not happy, they often feel that their lives are meaningless. The personal eschaton of humanism is “self-actualization”. This vague term means something like “reaching your full potential as a human being”. The modern lifestyle, however, seems to go nowhere. The things that gave people a sense of purpose in the past, such as family, membership in a community, ascending a social hierarchy, and traditional religion, are fading away. People work at boring jobs that offer little sense of accomplishment or progress. They often live alone. Pornography has replaced sex for some. Promiscuity has replaced love for others. Pets have replaced children. There is no sense of community in the cookie-cutter suburbs or the vibrant urban centers. Countries have become nothing more than political and economic units that anyone can join or leave. People pursue experiences, such as climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, rather than objectives, such as raising a family. But mostly they just entertain themselves. They go to ethnic restaurants. They watch TV shows or YouTube videos. They virtue signal on social media. They fap.
The ordinary person in modernity is going nowhere. He does not have an intuitive sense of personal progress — just stagnation and iteration. His society does not seem to be going anywhere either. Economic progress has stalled or even reversed in many ways. The eschaton is not coming closer. It is fading away. And, as the illusion fades away, the abyss is being revealed.
The abyss was always there. It is just the absence of an objective foundation for subjectivity. It is the absence of a foundation for belief and action. As subjects, we are floating in the abyss, not standing on firm objective ground.
Normally, the abyss is hidden from the ordinary person by the tacit assumptions of his worldview. He assumes that his beliefs and choices have a foundation. He simply takes it for granted.
The abyss is hidden by faith. It is revealed by a loss of faith.
As we go into the 21st century, the assumptions of the humanist worldview are being undermined by realities that cannot be ignored, because they intrude into people’s ordinary lives. The abyss is being revealed to the ordinary person, in the form of anxiety and confusion. He may not philosophically understand the lack of a foundation, but he feels it. That is the cause of the current political and moral hysteria in the West. The humanist worldview is unraveling.
The endgame of humanism is not immanentizing the eschaton. It is immanentizing the abyss.