Editor’s Note: What does love of neighbor have to do with totalitarianism? In a word, everything. In this book review, Brad Green finishes off our month by looking at one of the chief ways that governments, in the name of science, are harming their citizens and jeopardizing neighbor love.
Mattias Desmet is an interesting character. He is a professor of clinical psychology at Ghent University (Belgium), and he is a practicing psychoanalytic psychotherapist (from the back flap of his book). The back flap of his book even claims he is “the world’s leading expert on the theory of mass formation as it applies to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
This is a striking book. The first sentence of the books begins: “To write a book about totalitarianism . . .” (1). In the second paragraph he writes: “I was gripped by the palpable and acute awareness of a new totalitarianism . . .” (1). As I read these words, I was reminded of the opening sentence of Richard M. Weaver’s 1948 classic, Ideas Have Consequences: “This is another book about the dissolution of the West.” Desmet asserts that while there have been various strands of totalitarianism across history, what is new about today’s totalitarianism is to be found in the field of psychology, in particular “the insidious psychological process of mass formation” (2). Desmet initially defines “mass formation” as “a kind of group hypnosis that destroys individuals’ ethical self-awareness and robs them of their ability to think critically” (2).
In what follows, I will give a chapter-by-chapter summary of the book, followed by an appreciative critique.
Part 1: Science and its Psychological Effect
- Chapter 1: Desmet demonstrates that, historically, two strands of science have existed: “great” science and “small” science. While “great” science realized its limitations to understand the world, “small” science did not and degenerated into ideology.
- Chapter 2: Desmet argues that mechanistic science has disconnected man from the natural world, and this disjunction is only compounded by ideology masquerading as science.
- Chapter 3: Our digital age reflects “small” science’s belief that a utopian society can be produced from scientific knowledge. Desmet, however, warns that digital communication can never truly replace human society.
- Chapter 4: Desmet argues that scientific data are not merely objective numbers, but are constructed on the basis of subjective assumptions and agreements.
- Chapter 5: Desmet argues that, in an attempt to liberate man from his anxiety and insecurity, science has actually exacerbated the problem by giving rise to narcissism and “regulation mania.”
Part 2: Mass Formation and Totalitarianism
- Chapter 6: Desmet argues that mechanistic ideology gives rise to mass formation which is characterized by loneliness, a felt lack of meaning in life, the widespread presence of free-floating anxiety and psychological unease, and a lot of free-floating frustration and aggression.
- Chapter 7: Mass formation is driven by totalitarian leaders committed to conforming reality to their ideological fiction, and, Desmet argues, this is what occurred during the coronavirus outbreak.
- Chapter 8: Desmet claims that the leaders of mass formation are not conspirators, but those held captive by the controlling mechanistic ideology.
Part 3: Beyond the Mechanistic Worldview
- Chapter 9: Desmet argues that mass formation and totalitarianism are in fact symptoms of the mechanistic ideology. Thus, he refutes the mechanistic ideology by arguing that the universe is not merely the result of dead, mechanical processes.
- Chapter 10: Desmet continues his argument against the mechanistic ideology, combatting the idea that everything is a product of the physical realm and advocating for a science that maximizes rational analysis while not being blinded by mechanistic ideology.
- Chapter 11: Desmet concludes his thesis, arguing that mechanistic ideology is inadequate for understanding the world, that true science actually points to the necessity of an immaterial realm beyond itself, and that this ideology leads ultimately to mass formation and totalitarianism.
A Positive Critique of the Enlightenment
Desmet’s book is a wonderful read, and worth the reader’s time. There are sections where the Christian reader will be in virtually full agreement, and there are sections or lines of argument where the Christian reader will need to demur. Let me offer some general comments on one broad area of agreement, and then an area of disagreement.
In terms of agreement, Desmet is certainly correct to argue that mechanistic science is unstable in a number of ways, and should be rejected. Desmet points to numerous scientists themselves, who—often after decades of teaching and writing—concluded that as one engages in the scientific endeavor, one eventually comes to see realities beyond the reach of science—realities which science (with its own resources) cannot reach. In short, when mechanistic science becomes something of a philosophical approach to all things, its results are disheartening.
Interestingly, Desmet sometimes sounds like the critical theorists (e.g., Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Jürgen Habermas, Walter Benjamin, and Herbert Marcuse), when he laments the dead-end of the Enlightenment worldview. Like such critical theorists, Desmet argues that while the Enlightenment started with great promise, the result has been (with its commitment to the mechanistic worldview and all that flows from such a worldview) the kind of anxiety and social pathologies which have virtually called forth various levels of mass formation and totalitarianism. That is: the Enlightenment, in its “success,” created profound problems.
So what is the answer? Is the answer to be found within the fundamental Enlightenment (read “mechanistic”) framework itself? Desmet says no. And in Desmet’s last three chapters he argues persistently that we must be open to that which is above simply “matter,” and that (quoting Max Planck), there must be a Mind undergirding all of reality. So, in offering a fascinating critique of the Enlightenment and her children, there is much to appreciate in Desmet.
Some Friendly Pushback
The Christian reader will also want to push Desmet a bit. Desmet relies on a certain theory of child development (or at least utilizes such a theory). As a child discovers that the world is more complicated than once thought, or that mom and dad might not know absolutely everything about the world, an unhealthy child will become—and stay—anxious and ill at ease. Desmet suggests that cultures rooted in the mechanistic worldview are like such children. And such cultures then try to control all things—and such cultures are open to mass formation and totalitarianism as a way of dealing with the anxiety and disease produced by the mechanistic framework. Desmet contends that a more healthy option is to realize that uncertainty is simply a part of life. On this point, we can say, “So far so good.” But Desmet also suggests that we should simply realize that no one really knows the meaning of words (82, 84, 181, 183-84), and the child simply needs to make up one’s own rules (82, 83, 181).
The Christian can almost agree with this. But a more decidedly Christian critique of our situation would be better to conclude that yes, words are tricky things. We are finite beings who have real but limited knowledge, and when we use words, we do so as finite creatures. And now, after the fall, we use language as fallen finite creatures. Nonetheless, we can affirm that as image bearers, we use words in a way analogous to God, who is a speaking God. And we use language in a world which coheres in the Son—the Word—who undergirds all of our linguistic activity. In short, the resources of biblical Christianity provide resources to respond to our situation today—and this response can appreciate Desmet while nonetheless responding differently.
Desmet also perhaps gets something right in one way, and wrong in another. Desmet rightly argues that a mechanistic worldview leads to intractable problems, problems which can never be worked out as long as someone is caught in the stranglehold of the mechanistic worldview itself. As he proceeds to work out his own alternative to the mechanistic worldview, Desmet rightly questions the mechanistic worldview and the “rationalism” that goes along with it. [Note to the reader: Desmet does not seem to be playing “rationalism” and “empiricism” against each other, as is often done in summarizes of Western philosophy. Rather, for Desmet, “rationalism” seems to be short-hand for a way of thinking which is committed to materialism and empiricism as a matter of course].
Desmet rightly challenges “rationalism” (as just defined). As Desmet sees things, “the further the logical analysis of the phenomenon under investigation is carried, the more clearly one sees the emergence of a core that is intrinsically illogical and inaccessible to the human mind” (183). I think the Christian can say “Yes and No” here. It is right—with Desmet—to affirm that human reasoning by itself has limitations. This is a healthy and properly Christian affirmation. But need one call the supra-rational “intrinsically illogical”? Here the Christian should demur. Something can be “beyond” human reasoning or rationality without thereby being “irrational”.
The Word, the second Person of the Trinity, who is the Logos (the “Word”) is the one in whom all things cohere (Colossians 1:17). So, there is a kind of “logic” at the heart of all reality, and it is this (personal) logic that holds all things together. There is a kind of logic in God (again, the Eternal Son is the Logos), and there is an analogous logic that we experience as creatures made in God’s image. And ultimately, this logic in God and this logic that we experience cohere (on this, see Vern Poythress, The Mystery of the Trinity). And is this “core” “inaccessible to the human mind”? This is a tougher issue to look at in a book review. Perhaps we should just say here that for the Christian, God may be in one sense “inaccessible,” but surely this God can reveal Himself to creatures if He so chooses. Indeed, this is the good confession, that God has revealed himself to us, and because he has, we can both have faith in the God who exists (Heb. 11:1) and love for our neighbor based upon the Son’s full and final revelation (Heb. 1:1–2).
This book is worth the reader’s time. I would love to sit with Desmet and discuss it further. And if this review ever comes before Desmet’s eyes, I would love to treat him to a meal and discuss these weighty topics. He is a brave fellow to cut across the grain of contemporary culture, and we need more such books in our day.