Everyday experiences of nebulosity and meaninglessness make eternalism difficult to maintain, despite its powerful allure. Eternalist systems, such as religions and political ideologies, provide reinforcing structures. They include patterns of thinking, feeling, and acting that help dispel doubt and explain away experience.
Many specific claims of eternalist systems are plainly false. The natural conclusion is that each system is wrong. If they were just neutral, descriptive, factual explanations, we’d abandon them. We commit to them only because they promise to make eternalism work.
Eternalism as a stance and as a system powerfully reinforce each other, then:
Eternalism gives ideologies their dazzling sheen of hope. Non-eternalist systems that claim to explain meaningness exist, but they are much less appealing. Systems based in nihilism, existentialism, and the complete stance are examples.
Eternalism is possible without a supporting system—my casino experience was an example —but that is unstable when it encounters nebulosity. A system’s explanation of how a particular eternal ordering principle gives everything meaning helps maintain faith despite evidence.
This page points out eternalistic aspects of some common belief systems:
- Theistic religions
- Rationalism, scientism, and ideological atheism
- Psychological theories
- Political ideologies
- “Spiritual but not religious” systems
- Pseudoscience, “alternative healing,” and fringe beliefs such as UFO abduction narratives
- Theories of history as determining meanings
The two most influential Western ideologies are Christianity and rationalism. Both are eternalist. Other Western eternalisms mostly derive from attempts to reconcile or integrate the two. Typically they combine an attractive promise of some sort of salvation with an exaggerated faith in the power of reasoning to determine meanings. These are the Christian and rationalist heritages, respectively.
I won’t attempt a comprehensive catalog, nor a detailed exploration of how and why any eternalist system works and fails to work. Countless books explain dysfunctional as well as valuable aspects of each of these ideologies, so there’s no need to refute any of them here.
Our aim instead is to see how these systems are essentially similar in emotional appeal. The diversity of their apparent subject matter obscures recognition that it is eternalism that makes them seem compelling.
Because these systems have the same emotional basis, they are functionally interchangeable. Systems claim that their specific meanings are frightfully important, but on investigation, it seems specifics are not what we care about. What matters is that meanings remain certain, make sense, and give us some control over life.
It’s common to grow up Christian and then switch to militant atheism, or passionate communism, or mindless Buddhism, or dogmatic rationalism, and then often to switch again, perhaps several times. You can do that all without changing your fundamental stance that everything must have some definite meaning, which provides life purpose, guides your choices, and lets you distinguish right from wrong.
Christianity is the most obvious example of eternalism. God is the eternal ordering principle that sets the Cosmic Plan and gives everything a specific meaning. The other Biblical religions, plus others such as Hinduism, are also eternalist.1
If you are not religious, you may have been thinking “this eternalism thing is not my problem.” However, theism and eternalism are not the same:
- Some theistic religions—animisms and polytheisms—may not be eternalistic, if they do not insist that gods (or anything else) fix meaning in place.
- More relevant for Westerners, most eternalisms are non-theistic. For example, most current versions of rationalist eternalism (coming up next!) do not involve God or gods.
Non-theistic eternalist systems are often described by opponents as “religious,” or even as “cults.” Their adherents angrily deny religiousness, on the basis that they don’t involve God, or anything supernatural. Nevertheless, to outsiders they seem to function strikingly similarly.
The word “eternalism” bypasses that argument. It names the quality shared by systems that promise definite answers to questions of meaningness, and so inspire fervent commitment, but aren’t literally religious.
Non-theistic eternalism may actually be more influential and more harmful. Secular eternalisms have much the same defects as religious varieties, but this is less well-known, and therefore harder to defend against.
Rationality was the first substitute proposed for God, back in the European Enlightenment. Rationality, after all, led us out of the nightmare of religion. What better to crown as the new ruler?
Rationalism comprises various ideologies that exaggerate the power of reasoning. Regarding meaningness, rationalism is the stance that everything must make sense—that there is a meaningful pattern to everything—so it must be possible for us to determine the meaning of everything using rationality.
This metaphysical faith has no basis in experience. Many things make no sense, and we cannot understand them, individually or collectively. What did the extra-marital affair you had mean? Rationalism insists that it must be possible to figure that out, rationally. Why would you believe that? Only because it’s too scary to contemplate the possibility that the meaning was inherently nebulous. Eternalist rationalism has to obscure that, and so distorts accurate perception.
Scientism is the species of rationalism which expects that questions of meaningness can all be answered using specifically science, rather than reasoning in general. (Maybe the true meaning of your affair could be determined by dissecting your brain?)
Attacks on rationalism usually come from other eternalisms. They insist that rationality could never explain their favorite meaning-laden, unscientific things like God, consciousness, or love. Rationalists usually reply that it must be possible to explain these things rationally. Mostly neither side offers substantive arguments; blind faith in their own eternalistic system motivates both.
In the previous section, I made no attempt to critique theism; here I will make no attempt to talk you out of rationalism. Meaningness takes for granted that both are on equal footing with UFO cults: collections of implausible claims held together by hope for ultimate certainty about meaning.
However, you may find interesting my book In the Cells of the Eggplant, which explains how rationalism fails, for technical reasons, in its own terms. Never mind art, love, or meaning: rationalism is a bad explanation even of how science works. The Eggplant provides a better one.
Atheism as an eternalism
If you have grown up in theism, atheism is an important step in freeing yourself from eternalism. It’s only the first step, though. It’s easy to switch to a non-theistic eternalism that is just as bad, or worse; or to fall into nihilism, materialism, or some other confused stance that will make you miserable.
Atheism itself is just non-belief in gods, and has no inherent implications for questions of meaning. However, atheism implies nihilism if you believe (correctly) that nothing short of God could support absolute meanings, and (incorrectly) that meaning can’t exist without getting firmly nailed in place. Religious opponents insist that nihilism is the only alternative to theism, and that nihilism leads to suicide, murder, drugs, and despair (not necessarily in that order). They’re wrong that it’s the only alternative, but it is common for loss of religious belief to lead to nihilism, and opponents are right that nihilism can be awful.
Once you have killed God, and decided that, all things considered, nihilism doesn’t sound like much fun, it’s tempting to put up some other idol in His place. If God is not the source of value, ethics, and purpose, then what is? If you ask that question—taking it for granted that meaning must have some source—you become a seeker after a workable eternalism. You may adopt rationalism, or some psychological theory, or radical politics, or some combination of them. Unfortunately, none of these can provide an ultimate source of meaning, and each causes many of the same troubles as religion.
Early in this century, prominent atheists organized an eternalist movement, New Atheism, that was much in the news for a few years. Critics described it as “fundamentalist” and “evangelical” and “just another religion.” It inspired passionate commitment, based on promises of certainty, understanding, and a plan to improve the world by destroying religion and putting morally correct principles in its place. These are hallmarks of eternalism.
New Atheism’s specifics were incoherent, but often just inverted theism: whatever religion said about meaning, the opposite must be correct. Although non-belief in God has no direct political implications, Christianity has been associated with the political right since the 1970s, so New Atheism attracted mainly leftists. According to Scott Alexander’s plausible analysis in “The Godlessness That Failed,” most adherents eventually abandoned “atheist” as identity, and switched to “social justice activist.”
Meaning is interactive, not subjective, but our psychologies are intimately involved in our relationships with it.
- Meanings are often unmistakable, but also often we do not understand them fully, or even at all. Our partial understanding, and the work we do to better it, are not clearly separable from the meaning itself.
- We usually have emotional reactions to meaningful events, and although the emotions are not the meanings themselves—remember that it is possible to be mistaken about meaning!—they are also not clearly separate from them.
- Understanding better one’s own psychology, and human psychology in general, helps understand how one relates to meaning—which helps understand better meaning itself.
Therapeutic psychology began as an attempt to cure “nervous illness,” but almost immediately developed into methods of inquiry into meaningness. In fact, many mental illnesses resemble everyday confused stances, taken to extremes:
- Manic psychosis “reveals” hidden meaningfulness in everything, accompanied by powerful feelings of certainty, understanding, and control. This also constitutes, by definition, eternalism.
- Feelings of meaninglessness are a typical symptom of clinical depression, and by definition of nihilism.
- Narcissism is an exaggeration of the stance of specialness.
- Borderline personality is a disorder of selfness.
Most problems for which patients seek psychotherapy have no known biological cause, and pharmaceutical treatments may work scarcely better than placebos. Talk therapy addresses questions of meaning for which earlier generations would have sought the advice of a rabbi, priest, or pastor. Some therapists obligingly provide answers that have no basis in empirical psychology. Some have developed those into theoretical frameworks for understanding meaningness.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, many educated people adopted these psychological ideologies because their factual and ethical claims seemed less obviously false than those of both religion and rationalism.
The therapeutic framework provided a useful new ontology of meaning. People discovered that they had relationships, where previously they had had friends, family, lovers, and fellow workers. They now had issues, where previously they had just gotten upset about stuff. They even had relationship issues, usually involving mysterious unconscious motivations. Where previously they just wanted things, they acquired objective psychological needs, and therefore had quasi-divine justifications to pursue them.
Such concepts became the main focus of meaning for many. They trickled down into popular culture, into pervasive psychobabble, quasi-religious cults, and New Age nonsense. That tended to discredit the approach, and psychological eternalism is less popular now than a quarter century ago.
Adopting aspects of the therapeutic worldview remains inescapable, even if you are committed to some other system that explicitly rejects it. It is too valuable as a way of understanding how we think and feel and act in response to meanings.
It’s fundamentally wrong as an understanding of meaning itself, though. Mainly it assumes that meaningness is subjective, which is factually incorrect; and unsatisfactory; and which leads to nihilism (as we’ll see in the chapter on existentialism). “The puzzle of meaningness” satirized the problem:
Talking with the therapist doesn’t go as smoothly. “How does that make you feel?” is her mantra.
After answering that dozens of times, over several sessions, you finally rebel. “I know how it makes me feel. What I want to know is what it means.”
“Well, what does it mean to you?” she asks.
“But that’s just it,” you say. “I want to know what it actually means. Not just to me. I mean, meaning isn’t just a feeling. Ethics can’t be like that. Some things are just right or wrong, no matter what you feel about them.”
Because meaning is inherently interactive, answers to problems of meaning cannot be found through psychological exploration. Attempting that leads to self-involved paralysis. Psychotherapy-ism obsesses with the self: self-esteem, self-loathing, self-image, self-fulfillment, self-actualization, self-worth, true and false selves, et cetera ad nauseam. The complete stance cuts through this by pointing out the nebulosity of selfness and of the distinction between self and other.
Meaning, as interaction, requires action. Decades ago, there was a beach resort ad whose tag line was:
HAVING YOUR DREAMS FULFILLED CAN BE MORE THERAPEUTIC THAN HAVING THEM ANALYZED.
It stuck with me. Fixing circumstances often beats grubbing about in your unconscious.
Many people—especially recently—take political ideologies as their main framework for understanding meaningness. They serve much the same function as religions or psychological systems.
The political attitudes of most people—even now—are incoherent, lukewarm, and pragmatically self-interested. National government policies seem distant and mainly irrelevant to anything you actually care about. They are significant only if they may make people like you a bit better off.
This is realistic. Most nation-level policies address nebulous problems, for which crisp, definitely correct solutions are inherently impossible. Such problems are not amenable to first-principles reasoning or moral absolutism. They are best approached with a mixture of general good intentions, common sense, reference to successful precedents, and explicit experimentation. Usually neither you nor the government can reliably predict policy effects.
Detailed, systematic political ideologies, with absolute opinions about specifics, are created by and for people who care passionately about politics. Most care because they hold it as their primary source of meaning: of ethical correctness, missionary purpose, and personal identity. This doesn’t work well:
For individuals, it produces the typical harms of eternalism: 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 the system when it’s obviously not working, and morally wrong judgments based on absolutist ethics.
For society, it replaces the proper, pragmatic purposes of policy-making with unrelated quasi-religious goals. Eternalism’s tools for manipulating political processes with quasi-religious sermonizing are also often wielded with obfuscated, bad intentions. Political theories cannot deliver the utopias they promise. Often, instead, they deliver oppressive dystopias. Sometimes, when taken sufficiently seriously, they produce intentional multi-megadeath catastrophes.
Everyone recognizes the similarity of political fanaticism to religious fervor. Both come in waves through history. In 2021, as I write this, it is most obvious on the left, and often analogized to the 1700s’ “Great Awakening“—probably because the pun “Great Awokening” is irresistible. A more accurate analogy is the Evangelical Christian New Right of the 1980s. That analogy is strong enough and detailed enough that it may be predictive. Understanding how and why the New Right failed may be helpful both to the current left and to their opponents.
UFOs: non-supernatural quasi-religion
Rationalist and atheist arguments against theistic religions usually focus on the falsity of their supernatural claims. Dispelling those beliefs has some value, but I think it misses the main culprit: eternalism. Supernatural beliefs are harmful mainly because they serve eternalism, not because they are false.
Supernaturalism is not an innocent mistake. It’s motivated by eternalism.2 Eternalism is continually contradicted by ordinary experience. You need to invoke imaginary entities to confirm it; the mystical invisibility of the supernatural provides an all-purpose excuse.
Most mistaken beliefs are harmless, because they have no significant consequences. If they did, people would realize they were wrong, and would change their beliefs. Many people believe that the powdered orange-flavored drink Tang was invented by NASA, which is false, but it doesn’t matter, because it’s pretty much meaningless. If most people believed superglue (and nothing else) had a supernatural origin, it wouldn’t matter, because superglue has no great significance.
Many modern eternalisms involve no supernatural claims, yet function as religions do. Many people believe the US military routinely encounters alien spacecraft, which almost certainly don’t exist; but the factually wrong belief wouldn’t matter if it weren’t for its implications about meaningness. As many religious studies researchers have pointed out, UFO beliefs closely resemble religious beliefs. Space aliens function just like gods, angels, and demons, except they are supposedly natural, not supernatural.3
Susan A. Clancy’s Abducted: How People Come to Believe They Were Kidnapped by Aliens explains not just “how” people adopt UFO beliefs, but “why”: eternalism.
Being abducted by aliens is a transformative event. Not only does it furnish an explanation for psychological distress and unsettling experiences; it provides meaning for one’s entire life. As abductees have said, it “enlarged my world view,” “gave me wisdom to share,” “caused me to care about the spiritual path of mankind,” “expanded my reality.” The beauty of the abduction belief is that it doesn’t just explain specific problems, like headaches and sexual dysfunction. It offers a comprehensive view of the world, an explanation for human existence, and the promise of a better life.
The abductees taught me that people go through life trying on belief systems for size. Some of these belief systems speak to powerful emotional needs that have little to do with science—the need to feel less alone in the world, the desire to have special powers or abilities, the longing to know that there is something out there, something more important than you that’s watching over you. Belief in alien abduction is not just bad science. It’s not just an explanation for misfortune and a way to avoid taking responsibility for personal problems. For many people, belief in alien abduction gratifies spiritual hungers. It reassures them about their place in the universe and their own significance.
Every single abductee at some point during an interview said, “Things make sense now.”4
“It makes sense”
All eternalisms provide an illusion of understanding. Whatever specific claims a system makes, the “sense” it makes is ultimately eternalism itself. Belief in homeopathy is based not on any evidence of its working, but on its resonance with faith in the meaningful interpretability of the world in general and health in particular. People turn to New Age quackery for problems allopathic medicine can’t make sense of: mysterious configurations of chronic pain, nebulous malaise, and weird symptoms that doctors dismiss as “probably psychological.” Wearing magnets on your wrists probably won’t make those go away, but at least it provides an understandable explanation, in terms of the workings of meaning in general.
Q: How is that supposed to work?
A: Magnets direct the field of energy, right? You remember from science class: if you spread iron filings on a sheet of plastic and put a magnet under it, you can see the invisible lines of force! This energy that flows in your body is the very same that pervades the entire universe, that lights the stars and galaxies. Cosmic Consciousness orchestrates the beautiful harmony of all things. Even seemingly-inanimate objects like the iron filings respond to this implicate order of Being.
Rationalists enjoy sneering at pseudoscience and “alternative health.” However, the seeming understanding provided by their more sophisticated eternalism is also largely illusory. It’s much more similar than they realize: emotionally attractive explanations, based on excessive faith in reason, that fall apart immediately on testing against evidence. (See Part One of In the Cells of the Eggplant.) In both pseudoscience and scientism, the specific claims are plainly false, but seem plausible because they vaguely confirm a worldview according to which everything makes sense.
Unfortunately, many true things don’t make sense, and many false things do; and neither spirituality nor rationality can fix that. When apparent evidence and experience conflict with a conceptual framework, the framework may need revision or replacement; or the evidence or its interpretation may be faulty. No universal recipe exists for sorting out such conflicts to gain better understanding, and often we have to acknowledge and accept the imperfection of our concepts. Eternalism balks: because this nebulosity undermines its promises of certainty, understanding, and control. The path out of eternalism into the complete stance begins with open-ended curiosity, which finds incomprehension interesting rather than threatening.
The meaning of history
Many eternalisms say that our little lives are given meaning by world-historical events, in the past and especially in the future.
The prototype is Christian eschatology. The most meaningful past event was Christ’s Resurrection. In the End Times, lots of highly meaningful supernatural stuff will happen, like the Tribulation, Christ’s triumph over the Anti-Christ, and the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Then the specific meaning of your individual life, namely the good and evil you did, will be pronounced at the Last Judgment. The details of this past and future history are guaranteed certain by the prophetic book.
Marxist history follows the pattern. The meaning of the past is its succession of economic systems. The present Tribulation of Late5 Capitalism will end imminently with a crisis of collapse, followed by the triumph of Communism and permanent utopia. Your life is given meaning by the side you take, and the work you do to hasten the End Times. The details of this past and future history are guaranteed certain by the prophetic book.
Life has, on the whole, gotten better over the past couple centuries. The Myth of Progress is that this is due to some intrinsic force of History, an unfolding of the Cosmic Plan, rather than a combination of nebulous fortunate accidents and people gradually finding mundane practical methods for improving mundane practicalities.
Should we expect Progress to continue? Prophets’ opinions vary. Whiggish political theorists and techno-optimists both guarantee that it will. Gloomy conservatives, eco-collapse theorists, and apocalyptic Singularitarians—who believe we will all get eaten by a super-intelligent artificial intelligence soon—guarantee that it won’t. Either way, our mundane and obviously largely meaningless present lives are given significance by our relationship with the extraordinary, intrinsically meaningful future.
- 1.Mainstream Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and rationalism are all eternalist. There may be unusual versions that aren’t. I have not definitely identified any, but sometimes someone objects when I make the blanket generalization. Buddhism explicitly claims not to be eternalist, but in practice most versions adopt eternalism and nihilism simultaneously, which is not an improvement in my opinion.
- 2.Belief in spirits and non-physical causes is natural, and universal in pre-modern cultures. In the modern era, we know better, and belief can only be maintained by force of eternalism.
- 3.Carl Jung discussed the similarity of UFO beliefs with religion in his 1959 Flying Saucers: A Modern Myth of Things Seen in the Skies. D. W. Pasulka’s 2019 American Cosmic: UFOs, Religion, Technology is a scholarly, seemingly non-fictional work, with a startling plot twist toward the end. I won’t spoil it for you, but it dramatically illustrates the interchangeability of secular UFO beliefs with traditional religion. My thanks to Jake Orthwein for pointing me at it.
- 4.Paragraphs quote pages 162, 163, and 145, respectively. Emphasis added in each case.
- 5.Jesus promised to return during his disciples’ lifetimes, but was unavoidably delayed by a logistical issue, and is a couple thousand years late for his appointment. Marx expected an imminent collapse of capitalism—surely it couldn’t get much worse!—but by 1927 the Marxist economist Werner Sombart had coined the phrase “late capitalism” to describe the post-WWI phase that wasn’t following the script. Faithful Marxists commit to expecting late capitalism to collapse at any moment now. Surely it can’t get much worse!