Sunday, December 27, 2015

Is there Evil in the world?

“The modern skeptical world has been taught for some 200 years a conception of human nature in which the reality of evil, so well-known to the age of faith, has been discounted.  Almost all of us grew up in an environment of such easy optimism that we can scarcely know what is meant, though our ancestors knew it well, by the satanic will.  We shall have to recover this forgotten but essential truth ‑ along with so many others that we lost when, thinking we were enlightened and advanced, we were merely shallow and blind.” ~Jaroslav Pelikan

Science is doing its best to squash evil under the thumb of neurology. In recent years, there have been several fMRI studies suggesting neural anomalies are the cause of evil behavior. The absence of 'empathy' as a result of a failed neural sequence is the culprit, if the popular analysis is correct.  I.e., a broken brain.

The theory, in order to be valid, requires an absence of free will, and further, an inability of some to consider the feelings of others, plus other troublesome concepts. If the scientists are right, the brain is a machine that follows programming, and if the machine itself has flaws, flawed behavior may follow. From such a rationale, there remains no responsibility for personal actions. They're just the 
programmed outworkings of a machine, neither truly good or evil, however problematic.

None of us, as we observe our own choices, truly believe that to be the case.  We exercise the opportunity to choose almost continuously. We weigh and evaluate and choose regarding everything f
rom what we'll watch on TV to what we'll do with our lives.  We choose, and conscience plays a part. There is no experiential support for the absence of free will, yet the debate continues as it has for more than a thousand years.

dding complexity to our question, there are indeed neurological disorders (physical flaws in the brain);  they can be mild to extreme. Those who suffer from disorders report a degree of conflict ranging from mild to extreme difficulty in controlling them. That fits the science.

Moving beyond that physiological nuance, we next find that cause and effect can be misidentified in the course of observation and analysis. Some brain functions are formed by experience, PTSD being a familiar example.  A perfectly healthy brain can be damaged and become dysfunctional due to traumatic experience.  

We understand too that our chosen (or imposed) exposures shape the way we think; our brain function is changed. Chosen and repeated behavior becomes habitual, a formulated context for response.

So then, cause or effect? Does brain function cause the evil actions, or do our choices shape and trigger the brain function?   

There is evil in the world, and one measure is certainly in the individual, but then what of the many?  

Hitler, perhaps the first evil individual who comes to mind, would have been a solitary mental case had he been alone in his thinking, but he was one among many with similar ideological leanings. Beyond Göring, Himmler, and Hess, there were literally hundreds more in positions of authority and power in the Nazi hierarchy who willingly participated in the same behavior.  The Nazi impact on the world was extraordinarily destructive, and millions died, but there were so many who joined in the slaughter.  Thousands enthusiastically pledged themselves to Hitler, loyal unto death, and of their own ... free will?  Suggesting a common neurological defect appearing at the same time in so many is statistically improbable.

Is there some 'spirit' of evil?  Is there a sweeping change of atmosphere that can bend the minds of people en masse?  Of course.  Depending on your theological perspective, you'll have words to describe it this way or that, but we've seen it. So how does it work?

In Nazi Germany, deliberate vision casting (the story they told, propaganda) swept up the populace in agreement to conquer the world, to clean out the lesser races and defective folks, and occupy the lands of Europe. They drank the koolaid. Boundaries were crossed when euthanasia became the accepted solution for mental defects, when citizenship was rescinded for Jews, and deportation became the public solution.  Boundaries were crossed when Albert Speer brought prisoners to be slave laborers in the war industries; they were worked literally to death.  Boundaries were crossed when work camps became death camps for men, women, and children.  It was broadly approved evil.  The result was a sweeping change of national atmosphere that bent them all toward extraordinary slaughter. Everyone knew at least part of the horror story.  They did their best to hide from what they were doing. Front line soldiers in the extermination camps went insane after shooting thousands of men, women, and children; the process had to be industrialized.  As the war turned against them, they tried to destroy the evidence of what they'd done.

Discrimination, oppression, and genocide resurface regularly in history.  How do they spread?

In the middle ages, Europeans were faced with a new world.  The preferred explanation (propaganda again) which kings and clergy endorsed was that the indigenous peoples they encountered in Africa were less than fully human, uncivilized, immoral, unworthy creatures. The same judgement was passed against caribs and amerindians.  The death and suffering that followed defies description. Centuries later, residuals of that thinking still persist.

Mass discrimination against Jews - antisemitism is visible as far back as 300 B.C. It never had a basis.

The Discovery Doctrine - before Columbus, the Christian world decided that if they should 'discover' a country, they could claim and own it by right, even if it was already occupied. The legality was formalized by the Pope and courts.  That was the extraordinary (and unChristian) bending of reason that was their foundation for conquering the world.  The result was the consciousless exploitation of native populations and civilizations.  Conquest, slaughter, and slavery came first.  Class and inequality are the direct descendants.

That was the story they told us all through the subsequent centuries, that it was okay for white people to invade and conquer other nations if they weren't Christian.  At the turn of the last century, they were still telling that to high school students, that 'discovering the new world' and 'settling' the Americas, it was all noble and right and good.

As Americans, it offends us deeply for someone to say we were murderous and immoral in our 'Manifest Destiny' thinking.  Why is that?  The emergence of our new nation brought so much that was spectacularly good, but it included harm to so many as well.

So, to the question, is there evil in the world?  Of course, there was and still is.  Individual and communal evil continues among us.  One question for us, is there any of that in our own thinking, or more accurately, how much?

A father and his son are in a car accident.  The father is killed and the son is seriously injured. The son is taken to the hospital where the surgeon says, “I cannot operate, because this boy is my son.”

This popular brain teaser dates back many years, but it remains relevant today; 40 to 75 percent of people still can’t figure it out. Those who do solve it usually take a few minutes to fathom that the boy’s mother could be a surgeon. Even when we have the best of intentions, when we hear “surgeon” or “boss,” the image that pops into our minds is selective based on our personal bent. 

Similarly prejudicial thinking will apply across racial, ethnic, and political boundaries, across perceived class and economic boundaries, and among religions. The farther we are removed from the individuals involved, the less we care and the more willing we are to just let it pass.  

In the new year, we might perhaps consider the irrational justifications we hold for such thinking and rise up a bit. Most make the effort, but it's not a simple path, dealing with ... evil.  Just how big is it anyway?

Happy New Year.