Friday, 27 February 2015

How do we perceive good and evil?

This is where it gets tricky for me. Many questions, few convincing answers. So bear with me, this will not be a particularly coherent post! If you'd have asked me once what 'evil' means, I'd have said 'absence of God'. However, I'm now more likely to say that 'God is everywhere', and by that I mean at the subatomic level, throughout the Universe[s].

How would I define evil? Essentially, by intent, a lack of good will. An ill will, indeed. But bad things happen naturally; the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004 that claimed the lives of 230,000 people. Was this the work of Satan? Or just a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time? Disease? How about the Holocaust? The work of one evil man, leveraging the incipient evil that resided within the dark heart of a nation?

Worth taking a look at this Wikipedia article on Theodicy, man's attempt to explain the existence of evil in a world governed by God. In its simplest form, the argument goes like this: Man is judged by God on the basis of whether or not he is good, or evil. Man is given freedom of choice. Man can choose to be good, or to be evil. If he has no free will, he cannot be judged. So evil is the result of man's freedom of choice, upon which he is ultimately judged by God. But why is this evil visited upon good people?

Let's go back into the cosmic realm again. Supermassive black holes, with a mass that's many thousands of times greater than our sun, are found in the centres of galaxies, sucking in matter, including entire solar systems, presumably along the civilisations that may be found on them. Imagine an advanced world being dragged inexorably towards an event horizon, beyond which nothing can escape; the only outcome, the destruction of everything. Where is God in all this?

I would like to return to the theme of consciousness, and in particular. A few years ago, I stumbled upon the concept of the philosophical zombie. Now, dear reader; if you - like me - consider yourself to be aware, conscious - do you think every human being has the same degree of awareness? The philosophical zombie thought-experiment posits that there are those among us who lack consciousness, but in every other way are, and behave like, humans. When I first came across this notion, I immediately thought of a corporate boss I worked for, insanely driven by the urge to make money, trampling rough-shod over the the lives of his underlings and demanding they they too flog their underlings harder to make him more money... a man I believe to be bereft of consciousness (though with a sharp intellect). I can see this type of man at work within Hitler's holocaust machine, like an Adolf Eichmann. The banality of evil? Maybe something that's merely alive, responding to stimuli, but lacking a consciousness.

When setting out to write this post, I was aware that it would be a mess - far more questions than answers. But one point I intended to make was this: there is no Satan stalking this world. No Devil, no equal-but-opposite to a Good God. People inclined to see Satan everywhere are the types more prone to believe in conspiracy theories and in general are not particularly successful in life.

As I wrote earlier, my personal view of God is not of an omnipotent Supreme Being, but rather of a tendency, a direction towards perfection, towards omniscience, total awareness of all. If the Universe is evolving spiritually towards perfection, it suggests that it is not, a yet, perfect; nor will it be perfect for many eons to come. But we can strive internally to distance ourselves from anger and violent emotions that are rooted in our biology; the reptilian part of the brain, instinctive.

The fight-or-flight reaction. Something tips a trigger, something in that primitive brain kicks off. Raised voice. Clenched fist. Anger that triggers anger; violence that triggers violence, lashing out mindlessly. Within the individual, this behaviour affects those in his or her immediate vicinity - family, workmates, people in the street. But the evil we saw in the Third Reich, the evil we see today in Islamic State and in Putin's Russia - is where an ideology is forced on people via indoctrination, propaganda, and hatred is inculcated until it can be turned into deadly violence. The Western World, Shi'ites, Christians, "Fascist Ukrainians". We need to be on guard against those who play to our base instincts, but also to guard against those who seek to play that game against us.

The Western World, for all its faults, is about tolerance, diversity, compromise, consensus; strong signals that hatred and hate-speech are no longer acceptable are positive drivers for a better society. But should the Western World tolerate intolerance? How should it respond to brutality?

I hope to return to some of the questions posed here, if not this Lent than in years to come, if not with answers, then maybe with a more nuanced attitude.

Previous post in this series: The infinitely long path from Zero to One

This time last year:
Civilisation and a civil society

This time three years ago:
Strong, late-winter sunshine

This time four years ago:
Jeziorki's wetlands freeze over
[Average temperature for that week was -9C. This week; +3C. Not once this winter did the wetlands freeze hard enough to walk across, let alone ride a motorbike over.]

This time five years ago
Kensington, a London village

This time six years ago:
Lenten reciples

This time seven years ago:
A walk through Sadyba

No comments: