Monday, September 5, 2016

The Heresy of Solutionism

Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Of the many currents seething beneath the surface of our social reality, one that is not often reflected on is our deep-seated commitment to solutionism. What I'm calling solutionism has significant overlap with pragmatism, as well as scientism and positivism, but it is more properly the belief that all problems admit of in-principle solutions that are ultimately discoverable by human reason and ingenuity.

Practically, most people in our culture think and speak as if this were true, even if they wouldn't cop to believing that all problems are soluble when the question is put to them. None of the platforms of any of the political parties in the United States, major or minor, contain any planks that read "there is not much that can be done about this, to be honest." Or "all available options in this realm are inexorably fraught with peril. Weep and gnash your teeth." Because secular theology has declared the centrality and dominion of man-without-God, and determined that if man is not yet omnipotent, he must become so.

Consider that most intractable problem: death and aging. While acknowledging that there are those intrepid, brash futurists out there who believe even these problems can be solved, let's grant that most people consider them insoluble. Do we actually behave as if they are? Do we obsess over diet and exercise, in lieu of loftier pursuits? Is cosmetic surgery a multi-billion dollar industry? Do women past a certain age refuse to state their age out loud? Do we make a cult out of youth and build large segments of our economy around it? Do we exile the elderly to spend their latter decades apart from their families, and denigrate their wisdom and experience as ignorant and backwards? Have we removed care of the dead and cemeteries from our churches and churchyards to more remote professionals and locations? None of these actions will solve death and dying, of course, but deep down that's what we hope we're doing.

In The Elementary Particles, which examines the problem of death and the urge to overcome it, Michel Houellebecq writes:
In contemporary Western society, death is like white noise to a man in good health; it fills his mind when his dreams and plans fade. With age, the noise becomes increasingly insistent, like a dull roar with the occasional screech. In another age the sound meant waiting for the kingdom of God; it is now an anticipation of death. 
Elsewhere in the book, he depicts the lengths people go to in order to turn down the white noise, and to push death to the periphery of their awareness. For want of a solution, at least at this date, we will deny the problem for as long as it's feasible.

If our actions reveal that we believe death can be solved, any lesser problem—and every problem is lesser—must not only be soluble, but comparatively simple. The planet will soon be destroyed by anthropogenic catastrophic global-warming, you say? We should have acted decades ago and it's too late, but still, we must "do something." We've enacted every gun restriction we could dream up, save confiscation, and people still get shot? It is imperative that we "do something" more. A just political order can only arise from a virtuous people, but we are corrupt and decadent? There must be an app for that.

The desperate anxiety of our society can in part be seen as the result of belief in the solubility of all problems, which in turn can be understood as the fruit of our Enlightenment addiction to rational certainty. Returning to The Elementary Particles, Houellebecq writes:
There is no power in the world—economic, political, religious or social—that can compete with rational certainty. Western society is interested beyond all measure in philosophy and politics, and the most vicious, ridiculous conflicts have been about philosophy and politics; it has also had a passionate love affair with literature and the arts, but nothing in its history has been as important as the need for rational certainty. The West has sacrificed everything to this need: religion, happiness, hope—and, finally, its own life.
Rationalism gives way to seeing technological mastery of the world as an end in itself and humanity's raison d'etre. Technological advances further feed the illusion of the independence and potential omnipotence of man.

Sober reflection on the human condition reveals that most of our perennial problems admit of no solution within the immanent frame. Technological and social advances often introduce new problems and unintended consequences. At best we're left navigating a system of trade-offs, with most of society's problems being insoluble. But this is cause for sobriety, not despair. The stuff of life is, blessedly, not found in solving the world's problems. If it were, no man to date would have lived.

For Christians, this should be rather obvious, because if we were called to implement societal reforms and build utopia on earth, Our Lord probably would have mentioned this to us at some point. As Nicolás Gómez Dávila puts it, "that Christianity may not solve social problems is no reason to commit apostasy except for those who forget that it never promised to solve them." Instead, Christ came preaching a gospel of repentance and obedience to His commandments, the fruit of which is salvation, fully realized only in the eschaton.

The process of repentance and keeping the commandments entails things like serving, and giving to, the poor, of course, but not with the world's end of eliminating poverty in view. Poverty never appears as an enemy in the gospel; wealth does. And, as Christ's encounter with the rich young ruler reveals (Matt. 19:16-22), the problem of wealth is solved by detachment from the things of the world, and attachment to the things of the Kingdom of Heaven.

The Kingdom appears in the immanent frame, especially in the worshiping, sacramental life of the Church, by "laying aside all earthly cares", as we sing at the beginning of the liturgy of the Eucharist in the Orthodox Church. Solutions to the worst problems—sin and death—exist in Christ, but they are eternal realities and gifts from God, not worldly projects and designs.

The folly of solutionism was first clearly seen at the Tower of Babel. Its modern day analogs would be the Headquarters of the United Nations and the Capitol Building in Washington D.C.; its antidote—its solution—is the cathedral.