Existentialism is fluff.  Fluff matters when people take it seriously. 

For many centuries thought in Europe was dominated by scripture.  Some people believe that scripture was written by God.  Some believe it is an honest and/or brilliant and/or important attempt to cope with the fact that most people have had a religious experience.  These opinions all reduce to the same thing.  Eventually people decided to take a Scientific Approach to scripture.  Science assumes the validity of, and limits itself to, evidence that can be agreed upon through the use of the senses and instruments to augment them.  Things like religious experience are thus excluded.

Dutifully, scholars perused scripture looking for clues as to how it came about.  They looked for textual evidence for multiple authors.  They looked at clues to when and where it was written and by whom and for historical reasons for why it was written and what was included.  After a monumental amount of work, they reached their best guesses and, as science does, announced that the result was scientific truth.  In other words they were looking at exactly those elements of scripture that, while arguably honest to a degree, were neither brilliant nor important.  The upshot was a general belief that science had looked at scripture and found it did not contain God.

But of course there was no relevance to their conclusion.  There was no evidence.  The absence of anything divine was simply their assumption, and no alternative conclusion was possible. 

Undeterred, people largely continued in their faiths.  So then the question arose as to what purpose religion might serve.  One popular and abiding theory is that it makes people act better.  I think enough people have strapped explosives to themselves on religious impulse so the theory needs no further comment.  Another theory is that believing in a religion gives a person’s life meaning.  A third theory is that it lets people account for the complexity of the world.  But it does so only by assuming an even greater complexity in which the world is imbedded.  Science often does something similar, so both suffer from the problem of infinite regress. 

So, reluctant to address the phenomenon of religious experience, people who took an interest were left with, “It gives life meaning.”  If you believe in something, your life is supposed to have meaning.  Then somebody came up with the clever idea that it does not matter what you believe, you just have to believe in something.

The result was called “Existentialism.”  When I was watching such things, a favorite phrase was, “Existence precedes essence.”  On the face of it, that is nonsense.  As anything comes into existence it acquires its characteristics.  If it is planned, the characteristics can come first.  But existence can never come first.  What they appeared to mean is that existence takes precedence over any qualities of existence.  (A brilliant man I knew once said roguishly, “Existentialism is when you think it is just about to make sense and then suddenly it doesn’t.”)  Existentialism is the belief in existence. 

Of course the idea is scriptural.  When Moses asked God, “Well, who you are?” the answer was, “I AM THAT I AM.”  It is no stretch to say that means God is existence itself.  But that is beside the point.  We are not talking about religion. 

Once you believe in existence, your next task is to select something to give your life meaning.  I suppose it worked, although it always struck me that Existentialists were pretty unhappy in those days.  Then the idea emerged that the taking of drugs was something that could shape your life.  The catch phrase was, “Turn on, tune in and drop out.”  That is take drugs, shrug off your social obligations and cease to contribute to your community.  Don’t think for a moment that it was not popular.  Loud music and sexual abandon somehow got lumped in as well. 

Eventually the lethal and mind corroding effects of the drugs took its toll, and some other thing to believe in was needed.  The solution was materialism.  The purpose people began to adopt was becoming rich.  This fad got an enormous boost with the collapse of communism with the Soviet Union.  To my interpretation, this was a victory of courage and freedom over knuckling under to a totalitarian system.  But it was interpreted broadly as the triumph of capitalism over state control.  The belief in greed seemed to be vindicated by history.  Anybody with a memory should have known there was going to be trouble.  Preachers had long been saying, “We see the hand of God in history.”  History, as we showed at the outset, is responsive to demographics rather than to any church or philosophy. 

So massive wealth was king.  Globalization ruled.  The economy was this wonderful thing that once unleashed was going to bring untold wealth to everybody.  It mattered not how much human life was disrupted by economic changes.  It mattered not what was left behind.  All that mattered was that money flowed.

Indeed a lot of people got a lot richer, but not everybody.  There are almost a billion undernourished people alive as I write this.  It was assumed that they would ultimately be entrained in the explosion of wealth.

Now the bubble has burst.  Governments are scurrying about trying to, “Kick start the economy.”  Since money is everything, it must just be a matter of putting enough money in the right place and we will go right back to where we were, prosperous and growing.

But the problem is that the demographic landscape is just not there.  Prosperity requires not just the absence of rules.  Prosperity requires lots of capable people working very hard.  Those who can contribute to prosperity are disproportionately children of productive parents.  And they are exactly the people who are not having children.  The Pied Piper of greed has danced them out of town.  The pursuit of money has led people to abandon the mating strategy that kept us fertile.

Without babies there can be no people.  Without people there can be no wealth.  There may be a transient recovery some day, but right now it looks like we have taken the first step in a long downward road.

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