Thursday, January 5, 2017

WHY Is There Evil In The World?

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One hypothesis is that what we call "evil" arises from the dynamics of the human brain itself.

In a recent section of the local newspaper (Colorado Springs Independent, Nov. 23-29, p. 7)  four local religious experts were asked the question" Why is there evil in the world? Among the responses given are the following:

Rev. Jim Daly (Focus on the Family)

"Ultimately, evil is a relational issue. It's a matter of man refusing to recognize his dependence upon his Creator and attempting to make himself the center of the universe."

Rev. Nori Rost (Unitarian Universalist Church)

"For me, evil is that which dominates, oppresses and harms any part of creation. What causes evil? People who use their power and wealth to gain more power and wealth, people who use fear to get one group of people to hate another. Perhaps most of all, people who remain silent, doing nothing to stop this."

Rev. Ahrianna Platten (Unity Spiritual Center)

"Evil originates in the human mind and reflects a belief in separation from the Holy.When our minds are unhealthy, we take on beliefs and behaviors that are unhealthy."

Prof. David Gardiner (Colorado College Religion Dept.)

"There is evil because we call something evil.  It's hard to defend the position that something exists independent of the perceptions of people. If it did, we wouldn't perceive it. So 'evil' is a conventional category created by human thought, It's not a self-evident portion of the existing world."

The atheist position, of course, comes closest to the response of Prof. Gardiner's/. And obviously, if evil can't exist independent of language and perceptions, neither can "sin". This harkens back to a conversation six years ago between my atheist friend Rick, and Krimhilde, my Eckist sister -in law, e.g.

Both basically agreed that sin is a macguffin invented by conventional religions to keep humans in an inferior state as opposed to attaining mastery over their lives. Sin is also a ridiculous concept. As Rick put it, how can a finite tiny flesh being "offend" a supposed infinite Being? it's totally ludicrous.

Further, both agreed that there is no such thing as "original sin" since infants can't enter the world with any such millstones. Original sin is merely a confection of theological idiots who take the "Adam & Eve" fable literally.

When the topic of "natural evil" arose, i.e. tsunamis like the one in 2004 that killed over 200,000, we all concurred that such random, geological events (as well as earthquakes) not to mention weather events (tornadoes, hurricanes) that kill many thousands a year, are in the end simply violent natural events onto which vulnerable humans impose "evil". Thus, no natural evil exists in the objective sense, even when a person is suffering from a horrible disease like brain cancer. It is simply part of the slings and arrows to which flesh is heir to, inhabiting a world rife with bacteria, viruses, toxins etc.

Much the same argument can be made with regard to "human evil" except that humans bear a measure of responsibility for their action - i.e. in terms of those actions clearly harming fellow humans. Hence, it's not the same to compare 200, 000 killed in a gas chamber during World War II to 200,000 killed in the Indonesian tsunami in 2004. The first was engineered by conscious entities with choice and will, the latter - by a purely natural displacement of an undersea fault line.

In my last book on moral philosophy (Beyond Atheism, Beyond God) in the section Practical Reason and Human Evil  I noted that one of the canards circulated about human evil is that it’s irrational. If the person only knew better, or reasoned properly, he’d arrive at the generic good, and we'd all be better off.  I cited philosopher John Kekes who disposes of this myth quite forcefully (The Roots of Evil, p. 156.)  

As Kekes observes, abundant historical examples disclose that people often robustly justify their actions on the basis of a good perceived in their minds, but which in retrospect turns out to be evil. Therefore it’s not the lack of reason or rationality that infuses their actions but instead the false beliefs that supported the reasoning!

The rush of the GOP yesterday  to toss 20 million off Obamacare is a case in point. They see it as a budget issue or reversing a program they believe to be misbegotten, not appreciating this is the only thing millions have to depend on for their health care.  They are prepared to interject a kind of "evil" based on false reasoning. Again, "evil" in the sense it harms fellow citizens.

Other examples of rational human evil  include justifications for aggressive national policy, including military occupations of sovereign states, targeted military attacks by drones and the implementation of economic evil such as austerity policies- which  can harm millions.

To the Physicalist or Scientific Materialist, of course, there is no such thing as "Satan" or  "the Devil" - those are merely cartoon copouts for the unthinking.  Evil exists, but not as an independent,  infinite negative absolute, or personified in a spirit entity, but rather as a dynamic of our own brains. What most ordinary people refer to as “evil” is easily explainable by the scientific Materialist in terms of brain evolution. Thus, Homo Sapiens is fundamentally an animal species with a host of animal/primitive instincts residing in its ancient brain or paleocortex.

The paleocortex sits evolutionarily beneath the more evolved mesocortex and neocortex, the latter of which crafts concepts and language. One clever person has compared this tri-partite brain structure to a car design welding a Lamborghini to a Model T Ford chassis, with a 1957 Chevy engine to power the Lamborghini. If an automotive engineer can conceive of such a hybrid beast, I'd be interested to know exactly how he thinks it would run.

Given the preceding brain structural defect, there is much evidence that human behavior will get progressively worse as the complexity inherent in technological and globalized societies increases, but brain evolution is unable to keep pace with it. Basically, we are a species with the capability of making nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles but with an R-complex imbued with reptilian tendencies.

The behavior resulting from this hybrid brain is bound to be morally mixed, reflecting the fact that we literally have three brains contending for emergence in one cranium. Behavior will therefore range from the most selfless acts (not to mention creative masterpieces) to savagery, carnal lust run amuck and addictions that paralyze purpose.

The mistake of the orthodox religionist is to associate the first mode of behavior with being human and not the latter. In effect, disowning most of the possible behaviors of which humans are capable.- and hence nine tenths of what makes us what we are. Worse, not only disowning these behaviors – but ascribing them to some antagonistic dark or negative force (“Satan”) thereby making them into a religious abstraction.

The neocortex then goes into over-drive, propelled by its ability to craft words for which no correspondents may exist in reality. Suddenly, our “souls” are at risk of being “lost to Satan” who will then fry us in “Hell” if we don't grab the right afterlife insurance policy. In effect, the religionist’s higher brain centers divide reality into forces of darkness and light, just like the ancient Manicheans.

As the divide grows and persists, certain behaviorally idealistic expectations come to the fore, and a mass of negative or primitive actions is relegated to “evil”. Humans tune in to this Zeitgeist, which is soon circulated everywhere, and begin to suppress all behaviors that they regard as defective or "sinful". They don’t realize or appreciate that humans are risen apes, and not fallen angels.

Are we all sinners as assorted fundamentalists and zealots claim? No, we’re an animal species saddled with a tri-partite brain whose higher centers often become self aware of the chasm between the base, atavistic and primitive behaviors (emanating from the reptilian brain) and the ideal  behavior conceived by the neocortex. The neocortical language centers then craft the term sin to depict the gulf between one and the other.

In this context, the concept of sin  makes eminent sense. Sin emerges as the label placed on specific brands and forms of perceived personal evil. In reality, sin is predicated on an exaggerated importance of humans in the universe. Thus, it elevates (in a perverse way) the importance of humans in an otherwise meaningless cosmos. With sin the overly self-important and morally smug, self-righteous human has at least the potential of offending his putative deity – thereby getting its attention – as opposed to being relegated to the status of a cosmic cipher. Sin is thus an attention getter to a mentally conceived Big Cosmic Daddy. 

Despite this, sin is an invariably localized and reactive behavior at the personal, individual level. Sin impinges on and affects the deity (God-concept) that so many believe in. Take away the deity, and sin loses its allure and quickly becomes redundant. How can there be sin if there is no deity to offend or to notice sin and to tote up all the little black marks in its book of future judgment?

The Devil or Satan is simply the mental projection of the most primitive brain imperatives onto the external world. And yes, this imperative  is capable of  rape, economic exploitation and mass murder as well as genocide. A supernatural Satan need not be invoked, only the ancient brain residue of reptiles – acting collectively – aided and abetted by a language -obsessed neocortex, which finds it as easy to create neologisms to represent non-existent phantasms as to think. It thereby does the reptile brain’s bidding, manufacturing sins, as opposed to attempting to halt it.

Beyond all of this, it is worthwhile for us to place evil also in a more contemporary context, such as accomplished by  Hannah Arendt  with her theme of the 'banality of evil". She coined this phrase in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, about the trial of Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator in the machinery of the Nazi death camps, in an Israeli courtroom. If someone carries out unspeakable crimes often enough, he or she comes to accept them as “normal.” That was Arendt’s view of Eichmann.

But the “banality of evil” also applies to an entire society like the U.S., especially when faced with the prospective ascension to power of an authoritarian  narcissist. We have in the past gotten used to outrageous things — slavery, Jim Crow segregation laws, massive homelessness, widespread malnutrition, the frequent killing of Black men by police — until we are provoked to view them as unjust.  The question now upon us, especially the media, is to what extent we will tolerate Trump's fascist transgressions - allowing them to be normalized or appear so?

Thus, this banality emerges when conscious and critical thought is dispensed with. Reality is no longer based on the gathering of facts and evidence. It is based on ideology. Facts are altered. Lies become true. A media which in normal times might have reported a leader's lies and crimes, now seeks to overlook them in a perverse thrust to render them banal or unexceptional. After all,  why mount attacks on an iron-fisted, egomaniacal boor if he hasn't even built concentration camps for journalists or protestors yet?

The destruction of rational and empirically based belief systems is fundamental to the creation of all totalitarian ideologies. Certitude, for those unable to cope with the uncertainty of life, is one of the most powerful appeals of the movement. Dispassionate intellectual inquiry, with its constant readjustments and demand for evidence, threatens certitude. For this reason incertitude must be abolished. “What convinces masses are not facts,” Arendt wrote in “Origins of Totalitarianism,” “and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important because it convinces them of consistency in time.”

Thus, did one letter writer  a "Geraldine X" I will call her, declare in a recent letter to the Indy that she voted Trump because she'd had it with the "elites" always putting people down. She treated her vote as a weaponized reaction to these "elites" and justification to recklessly vote for an unqualified, unhinged boor whose actual policies could inflict untold harm.  This lady, not to put too fine a point on it, epitomizes Arendt's "banality of evil".

TO the extent we are conscious of these issues, we can reduce the totality of harm inflicted by our fellow humans on others. And to that degree, "evil" - however it is perceived- can be reduced as well. To avoid the banality of evil in the case of Trump and his henchmen, we must never ever allow their forthcoming crimes, constitutional transgressions to be seen as banal.

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