Eternalism is harmful

Surreal image illustrating eternalism
Art courtesy Dita

Eternalism makes promises it can't keep. It lies about the things that are most important to us. It makes us do stupid, crazy, evil things. And we still love it and keep going back for more.

Eternalism seems so nice. It is hard to believe ill of it. Yet always it drops its victims in seething cauldrons of misery. The message of this entire book is: eternalism is bad;1 there is a better alternative. So, much of the book consists of warnings about eternalism’s harms. This page is an overview.

The harms are myriad. Some I have already discussed: troubles that flow from the promise of certainty, the illusion of understanding, and the fantasy of control. Some I will detail shortly, in the sections on eternalist ploys and non-theistic eternalisms. Many must be postponed to chapters on stances allied with eternalism, such as mission, true self, and ethical eternalism, each with harms specific to its dimension of meaningness.

Broadly, we might categorize harms as:

  • Deliberate stupidity
  • Emotional regression with an abusive, addictive dynamic
  • Bad practical outcomes from unrealistic actions based on imaginary meanings
  • Emotional pain from trying to conform to eternalism when it’s obviously not working
  • Morally wrong decisions based on absolutist ethics

We are not stupid enough for eternalism

Eternalism comes naturally; human brains evolved to hallucinate meaning where there is none. Any other stance takes at least a little thought. Nihilism, especially, is difficult. It's only possible to maintain nihilism using sophisticated rationalizations that explain away obvious meaningfulness. Other, more complex stances depend on dubious metaphysical distinctions that take work to apply in concrete circumstances.

Nevertheless, eternalism is obviously wrong. Everyone can see that many events are completely meaningless, and the meanings even of important ones are often nebulous.

To maintain eternalism, you have to deliberately stupefy yourself. You need to damage your own natural intelligence to not-see nebulosity and to preserve illusions of meaningfulness and cosmic order. Starting on the next page, I'll explain various mind-killing ploys you can use to hide eternalism’s failures and lies.

Eternalism can provide bogus feelings of intelligence, from perceiving patterns that aren't there. This is the rush of excitement as the new convert to an eternalist system “discovers” that Mindfulness or Marx or Mormonism explains everything. Desire for meaning makes you willing to sabotage your critical ability, in order to accept preposterous stories in which the Cosmic Plan makes everything make sense. That inhibits curiosity and the natural drive to find a better understanding.

In the end, no one can make themselves stupid enough to accomplish eternalism—to maintain the stance at all times. Everyone, at times, does recognize nebulosity—and so moves into some other stance.

Eternalism is regressive and addictive

Eternalism is comforting, when life is going well enough. Then you can choose to ignore the ways reality fails to fit fixed meanings. Eternalism’s promises of hope and solace seem credible. You can live in a pastel fantasy world. So eternalism “works” as long you can maintain a childish, self-indulgent obliviousness—which is its characteristic emotional texture.

Maintaining eternalism requires emotional regression, into a toddler’s bedroom, watched over by a wise protecting parent: the Cosmic Plan, or some authority who poses as its representative. When you are unable to keep deluding yourself, you look for someone more powerful to do the job: someone or something that can affirm eternalism in the face of your perception of the contradictory evidence. The parent-figure promises to protect you from nebulosity. You choose this relationship specifically to obstruct emotional and intellectual growth when that seems too frightening.

Preserving comforting illusions may be psychologically valuable in the short run, in times of crisis: as antidotes to depression, anxiety, and despair. (Those are symptoms of nihilism, which may be the only accessible alternative to eternalism for some people.) In the longer run, this pain-killing function leads to helplessness and addiction.

As the opening paragraph of this page suggested, a relationship with eternalism may resemble addictive dynamics of domestic abuse, which keep a victim returning to the abuser. The victim believes—rightly or wrongly—that they are powerless, and that the abuser is powerful. The victim hopes that the abuser would act as a protector against the world, if properly propitiated. This requires the victim to delude themselves that the abuser has loving intentions, and that the abuse episodes are somehow be triggered by the victim’s inadequacy.

Eternalism has bad practical results

Eternalism promises eternally good feelings. And it is a comforting ride—until it crashes into reality and you get hurled from your seat onto the open highway.

Meanings have consequences. Meaning is not an autonomous domain, disconnected from practical reality; everyone frequently acts on the basis of perceived meanings. But those are often wrong. Eternalism says the world is good, and I am good, so if I choose to do something good, then the result must be good! But often it isn’t.

As we saw earlier, eternalism’s illusions of understanding and control fantasies often lead over-confidence, excess risk-taking, over-control, and other unrealistic patterns of action. Alternatively, the delusion that you must base action on the Cosmic Plan leads to paralysis when you are unable to discern what it demands. (This is particularly common in the stance of mission, which is closely related to eternalism.)

Acting based on imagined meanings frequently fails. Harm and pain ensue. Eternalism’s synthetic certainty ensures that this comes as a shock, each time. Each time, one experiences it as a betrayal. I am a good person; this wasn’t supposed to happen to me!

Then, disillusioned, you may exit eternalism into another stance. Alternatively, you may apply ploys to maintain eternalism—probably in an increasingly shaky, wavering form.

Wavering eternalism is emotionally painful

Eternalism persuades you that you should maintain the stance at all times. This has moral force; if you waver in your commitment, you are a bad person. However, it is impossible to accomplish consistent eternalism. This implies perpetual struggle, with shame and guilt at imperfection, and much wasted effort.

The wavering eternalist feels intense confusion during periods of doubt.

When eternalism fails, it tries to convince you that it’s your fault, for wavering, for not trying hard enough, for being unworthy of the Cosmic Plan. Then you may punish yourself—as harshly as you can, to demonstrate your renewed commitment. (The Cosmic Plan can’t punish you adequately; it doesn’t exist!)

As you repeatedly experience eternalism failing when it encounters nebulosity, you develop fear and loathing of ambiguity and change. You come to avoid areas of life that seem particularly nebulous. This progressively narrows your scope for action, leading to rigidity or even paralysis. You may isolate yourself socially: from everyone, or into a closed group that agrees to pretend eternalism works. You may adopt an aggressive hostility toward anyone who reminds you of nebulosity.

You may come to feel cramped and imprisoned in the small safe space where eternalism seems to function. Creativity and daring become impossible.

You somehow cannot find your true mission in life, for which eternalism would guarantee success. You neglect mundane goals as mere materialism, meaningless in the eyes of the eternal ordering principle. Most of the time, you cannot locate your true self; your miserable ego’s attempts to live up to its ideals are pathetic. Sometimes, you believe you have found your true self and mission, and go off on a fantastical ego-trip crusade, which needs constant confirmation from followers and eventually ends in catastrophe.

Eternalism is immoral

The eternal ordering principle is a cruel tyrant. The Cosmic Plan makes insane demands—and calls that morality. It sometimes commands harmful actions; it often fails to promote beneficial ones. Following its dictates causes damage to yourself and others.

Ethical issues are inescapably nebulous. Ethical eternalism blinds you to the complexity, ambiguity, and situatedness of moral decision-making. Taken seriously, it leads to moral absolutism and political extremism.

Religiosity promotes paranoia about contamination; blaming of victims; waste of resources and opportunities; and tribalist conflict.

  • 1. Also, nihilism. Nihilism is bad too. But most people know that.


This page is in the section Eternalism,
      which is in Meaning and meaninglessness,
      which is in Doing meaning better.

The next page in this section is Eternalist ploys and their antidotes.

The previous page is The appeal of eternalism. (That page introduces its own subsection.)

This page’s topic is Eternalism.

General explanation: Meaningness is a hypertext book (in progress), plus a “metablog” that comments on it. The book begins with an appetizer. Alternatively, you might like to look at its table of contents, or some other starting points. Classification of pages by topics supplements the book and metablog structures. Terms with dotted underlining (example: meaningness) show a definition if you click on them. Pages marked with ⚒ are still under construction. Copyright ©2010–2017 David Chapman.