The Problem with Shaving

Evil may be an abstract concept, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  Sorry for the double negative—finding the right angle of approach is difficult sometimes.  I say that because I believe that the misattribution of evil is tearing civilization apart.  Science has rightfully taught us the tricks for understanding the material universe.  Problem is there’s more to the universe than material.  If all our minds consist of are electro-chemical signals, well, this batch swirling in my head isn’t alone in doubting itself.  (Think about that.)  So, here’s the problem—those on the opposite side of the political spectrum rending the United States into shreds aren’t evil.  They’re doing what they believe is right, just like the lefties are.  The evil comes from forces trying to tear good people on both sides apart.  The simplest solution, Mr. Occam, isn’t always the best.

Putting it out on the table, right and left have some basic disagreements.  By far the majority of them are sexual.  Both sides believe what they’ve been taught or what they’ve learned.  Sex, of course, is one of the great dividers of humankind.  It brings us together and it tears us apart.  Religions have always been very interested in sexuality—who does what to whom and what to make of the consequences.  None of it is easy to sort out.  Since the Bible voices first-century (and earlier) opinions on a matter they understood even less than we, the situation is very complex indeed.  Especially since many people wrote all the self-contradictory words within its stolid black, pigskin leather covers.

Complexity reigns in the world of explanation for both politics and sex.  Put them together and see what happens (if a Clinton, impeachment, if a Trump, nothing).  The issue with Occam’s razor is that the simplest solution doesn’t always explain things best.  It’s not evil to suggest woman plus man equals marriage.  Unenlightened, maybe, but not evil.  The truth is that things are more complicated than they seem.  A society taught, in many ways, that only one solution works could easily boil it all down to one size fits all.  Evil is the desire for political power that draws its energy from making each group think the other is evil.  I realize this courtesy often goes in only one direction.  That too is part of the evil machinations of a system that divides instead of seeks common ground.

Doing the Math

Erich Fromm once defined evil as “attraction to what is dead, decaying, lifeless, and purely mechanical.” Certainly Fromm doesn’t hold the cachet he once did, but this way of thinking about evil has stuck with me. It’s not so much the dead, decaying, or lifeless part—that’s part of nature—but the purely mechanical. I don’t disparage the many machines we have that make life easier, and modern life possible—can you imagine your job without computers? The problem in my mind, as Fromm defines it, lies in the word “purely.” Purely mechanical. By the numbers. You see, we often forget that being human, and thought itself, isn’t about pure logic. Our brains evolved to be half emotive and have rational. Our feelings can be smart. When we reduce all of life to numbers, according to Fromm’s definition, we’ve entered the realm of evil.

Some, in the past as well as present, have posited numbers as the only real truth. No matter where you are in the universe 2 + 2 = 4. It’s about the only certainty we have. I think what Fromm was concerned about was not this kind of certainty, but rather that which sees only numbers as being important. Think of the multibillionaire who’s lost sight of the human misery he (and it’s generally a he) has caused to become so wealthy. It’s not something towards which an enlightened individual would aspire. Purely mechanical it is, by definition, evil. We’ve all known people like that—those who just can’t get beyond the numbers whether they be the bottom line or the instructions for the doomsday device. The human element is missing. Are we truly beyond good and evil?

Does it add up?  Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Does it add up? Photo credit: Cpl. Jovane Holland, Wikimedia Commons

Governments, once upon a time, were put in place in democracies to protect the interests of the people. When people are mere marks—numbers at an inauguration or cheated at the polls—we’ve entered the realm of purely mechanical. Of course, intellectuals are out of favor now. Why be troubled with the news when you can make up your own? 2 + 2 need not equal 4 if you say it loud enough. Behind stage, however, you’ll make sure your accountants know the score. Those who wish to start a New World Order must insist that the classics are outdated. While we’re counting out the days in our prison cell it might be a good opportunity to read. I plan to have Erich Fromm on my list. I’m only human after all.

Devil of a Time

thedevilOne might be excused for thinking so much about the Devil these days. Displays of lies and evil intentions are on pretty obvious display at the highest levels. Indeed, the current political situation has me reassessing my skepticism about the Antichrist. One of the truly well thought out books on the subject is Jeffrey Burton Russell’s classic, The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity. The first in a series of books Russell wrote on the topic, The Devil opens with evil. Noting that the Devil defies easy definition, Russell begins rather disturbingly with literary descriptions of acts that can only be described as evil. This allows him to point out that real life events often surpass those that authors can get us to read, intimating that something is seriously wrong with the world.

Having noted that, the emergence of the Devil is not an easy one to trace. Evil has been recognized in many cultures and it has been explained in many ways. Some have personified it, but even that took a long and circuitous route to the dark lord we know today. Bits of Greek philosophy and Zoroastrian cosmology combine with an emerging monotheism among the Israelites and their kin until eventually we have an embodiment of evil appearing. Even so, the Bible has no clear image of who “the Devil” is. This took further developments beyond the New Testament and the image that eventually won out, so to speak, borrowed heavily from classical mythology. Eventually Old Scratch emerges in a recognizable form.

Belief in the Devil still runs high in American culture. I suspect it will run even more so in months to come. At the end of Russell’s well researched study, the Devil comes down to the blatant disregard for the suffering of others. One might think of the mocking of the disabled or the favoring of the wealthy over the poor. Evil may be known by many names but it is easily recognized by those not caught up in its worship. This became clear in the biblical quotations sprinkled throughout the book. “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil,” for example. Or “when an ungodly man curses Satan, he curses his own soul.” Mirrors may serve multiple purposes. The vain look into them and see only beauty. Those who believe in the Devil can’t help but know who it is that stares back.

Science v. Evil

Can we eliminate evil? More than a question of metaphysics, this is also the title of an episode of the third season of Through the Wormhole. I’ve noted before that this particular season has been delving more profoundly into areas once reserved for religious thought. Evil is perhaps the most religious of topics, as distinguishing good from evil is at the heart of many religious traditions. Fast forward from the founding of your favorite religion to today. In order to answer the question of whether or not we can eliminate evil, we turn to neuroscience rather than any sacred book. Looking at brain scans, the scientists of Through the Wormhole have isolated areas that indicate who might be a sociopath—a convenient measure of evil—and also who might be less empathetic than whom. Perhaps drugs could be developed to inhibit sociopathic behavior and tendencies. As always, these episodes leave me somewhat distressed.

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Losing my long-term position in higher education “without cause” threw me into mental turmoil. Never one to use medications for a long term, I was shattered when my doctor suggested anti-depressants. Would this chemical, designed to “correct” my brain chemistry change who I was? The morning the treatment began, I hesitated to take the first pill, staring long at it and wondering if the person I’d been would be lost forever. I hated being on the prescription. Worse, it was a medication that you couldn’t simply stop. The drop in anti-depressants could bring me dangerously low. Although my employment situation hasn’t radically improved since then, I eventually weaned myself from the prescription. Looking back now, I see that time as an interlude in who I was, depression and all. Mine was, thankfully, a mild case. It has, nevertheless, left me wondering about the nature of evil.

Extremely empathetic, I have never had sociopathic tendencies. I care for insects and amphibians, as well as my fellow humans. I react to the emotions of others. Yet, like all people, I suspect, I know that I’ve got my own personal evils with which to struggle. I wonder if it is a matter of degree. Religions often suggest that the solution to evil is repentance and taking the decision to live a new life. What if one’s brain, however, prevents that? Would the administration of a drug amount to a kind of salvation? And what of those theologies based on concepts of human depravity—can neuroscience prove them wrong? When the moral questions are raised, the physical solutions offer answers. Can we ever reconcile belief and biology? The jury may never come back with a verdict on that one.