[This is the fourth piece in the series published on 3QuarksDaily]
In the previous piece in this series, “The Discernible Reality of a ‘Force of Evil’,” I attempted to show that there is a Force – that we can see, operating in the world — that is reasonable to call “Evil.” (With “Evil” defined as “a coherent force that consistently works to make the human world worse.” Or, that “consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness.”)
We can see this Force, I argued, by exploring the connections in “the dense network of cause and effect.” Those connections reveal how the various elements in the human world that are life-degrading – war, injustice, hatred, greed, cruelty, trauma, psychic conflict, etc. – are each both the causes and the effects of one another.
Those connections, in other words, reveal the general truth that “Brokenness Begets Brokenness.” And from that reality – of how brokenness moves through the human world over time in shape-shifting ways — we can infer the existence of a Force that consistently moves a “pattern of brokenness” through the human world, consistently making the human world worse.
This Force — transmitting that “pattern of brokenness” – is something we can see “the way we ‘see” the wind in the swaying of the trees and the flapping of the clothes on the line.”
What we see – “a coherent force that consistently makes things worse in the human world” – is something that reasonably be called “a Force of Evil.” And – as it can be discerned by applying reason to evidence – this Force can be understood in a manner consistent with a purely secular worldview.
(Some comments on that previous piece called into question the appropriateness of calling this thing a “Force.” While there is nothing much to be gained by disputing what name to give this thing, what’s important is that people see the “thing.” Or, at least, the question that needs to be asked: “What’s going on that accounts for this interconnectivity between different forms of brokenness, and accounts for how ‘a pattern of brokenness’ can be traced moving through the world through the connections made by causes-and-effects?”
(It is one thing to have a different ways of conceptualizing the dynamics in operation. It is another not to notice the dynamics and, rather, to imagine that the flow of events in the human world is just some chaotic “one damned thing after another.” Patterns have causes, and the pattern of “brokenness begetting brokenness” requires a causal explanation, whether we name that “cause” a “Force” or something else.)
I also argued that it turns out to matter greatly whether or not people with a secular worldview can see that Force – that causal dynamic — for what it is.
An essential reason that Liberal America has failed to better protect the nation against a rising force of Evil, I argued, was the inability of much of contemporary secular culture, to provide a way of conceptualizing the existence of a “Force of Evil,” even as such a Force was rising in power right before everyone’s eyes.
From that idea — that the failure to see that force is a major reason that force has become so powerful that it now endangers the survival of American democracy – it follows that the work of expanding the secular worldview to make it more possible for people to perceive WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST (the title of my 2015 book) could help protect and preserve our democracy against the destructive force assaulting it.
So I keep trying to show what I believe must be seen.
The Original Impetus of Brokenness, Or, The Question of the Origins of Evil
It was tracing how “Brokenness Begets Brokenness” that made visible the existence of a Force that “consistently works to make things worse in the human world.” (Which is a definition of Evil that works well in both the traditional religious and the modern secular frameworks).
But the idea that “brokenness begets brokenness” raises an obvious question: Where did all this brokenness begin? It’s a version of the old Prime Mover problem. And it’s a version that amounts also to the age-old question, “Why Evil?”
It was in the second piece of this series, “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large” that I offered what I regard as the main answer to the question of the Origins of Evil.
(It’s an answer that makes more sense than the Bible’s story from the Garden of Eden—a wonderful story — but one that, as an explanation of Evil in the world, the theologians have never satisfactorily combined with the religious premise of an all-good, all-seeing, all-powerful God. To my mind, in that religious framework, the ancient issue of theodicy never allowed a logical resolution.)
The answer I proposed in that piece was purely secular. It offered a way of thinking about the human story utilizing the understandings that have been offered by the study of such fields as biological evolution, anthropology, history, and psychology. Once again, I claim, there’s an explanatory framework that can be derived from the application of reason to the evidence:
When humankind took the step – unprecedented in the 3.5 million years of Life’s evolution on this planet – onto the path of civilization, it inadvertently but also inevitably unleashed a Force of Brokenness into the human system.
Recapping that argument briefly:
A creature’s stepping onto the path of Civilization – defined as “societies created by a creature that has extricated itself from the niche in which it evolved biologically by inventing its own way of life” – is an unprecedented step in the history of life. For the first time, it is not natural selection, but the creative intelligence of the creature that is designing that creature’s societies—which represents a new kind of life-form.
That step generates a new kind of situation, a situation that is unique in that, in that terra incognita, there is no order awaiting it that will assure that the interactions among the actors is consistent with the overall viability and health of the whole system.
- No natural order, because they have extricated themselves. Not like “The lion and the zebra and the grass work together to generate a perpetual motion machine, even as they devour each other.
- And no human order, because civilization inevitably emerges in a fragmented fashion, providing no way for humankind to decide collectively on ways of making sure that some fundamental synergy characterizes what happens. (No way when civilization first emerges, and no way for us still – witness the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.)
Civilization brought therefore a new kind of disorder – one called Anarchy. And, as Hobbes understood, Anarchy inevitably entails a “war of all against all.” It is not random what can prevail in such a war: the consequence is a social-evolutionary force that selects for the ways of power.
This Anarchy inevitably confers onto “the Spirit of the Warlord” – which can equally be called “the Spirit of the Gangster” — a disproportionate role in determining how any creature’s civilization would develop. (For that’s the type that generally comes out on top when there’s a struggle for power. It’s precisely what you’d expect to prevail in a war of all against all – as we’ve seen in the modern world, when a system becomes anarchic, as in Lebanon and Somalia.)
The inevitable systemic dynamics elevate some of the worst of the potentialities of the civilization-creating creature into positions of social evolutionary dominance. This will be true of any such creature, regardless of its nature, because any creature capable of taking that fateful step is certain to generate a huge range of possibilities for “the selection for the ways of power”to sift among.
That’s the “Prime Mover” we seek, the generator of at least one “Force of Evil” at work in the human world. A force that seems certain to have been a major and profound one.
It follows from this social-evolutionary explanation of Evil that we are better creatures than we appear to be. Hence the title of that second piece, “The Ugliness We See in Human History is Not Human Nature Writ Large.”
Yes, we are broken. But that brokenness should in large part be seen as an effect of a prior cause.
It is easy to see how this initial impetus of Brokenness — the inevitable war of all against all – would immediately begin to impart brokenness into the human beings living in this evolving civilizational system, as this impetus reverberates through the human world.
The brokenness that comes with the inevitable Anarchy breaks people in two obvious ways:
- There’s the brokenness of trauma – inflicted by the “war of all against all,” which inevitably will be a persistent and major component of the experience of civilized peoples. (“Trauma” being defined as experience so intensely injurious that it cannot be integrated into the psychic system, and thus representing a form of brokenness.) We can see trauma playing a role in the dynamics that foster (in some) cruelty, greed, an insistence on conflict, an insatiable lust for power. Broken people imparting more brokenness into the world.
- And there’s brokenness in the form of intrapsychic conflict — an inevitable result of people being compelled to internalize the demands of societies that are themselves shaped, as they inevitably must be, by the power-requirements for survival in a world beset by an inescapable war of all against all.
People are inevitably torn between two “evolutionary” processes, as they are socialized to meet social demands shaped too much by the “selection for the ways of power,” and too little by the biologically-evolved inborn needs of sentient creatures. (Nietzsche’s “sick animal,” taught to be disgusted with itself.)
The idea of human needs opens the door to deal with a basic question that’s been lurking in the background throughout the discussion of Evil. The whole question of Value.
The Reality of “Value”
The ideas of “Good” and “Evil” are premised on some concept of “Value.” That is, “Good” and “Evil” can only be real if some things are “better” and some things “worse.”
How we think about Value is another place where major currents of our contemporary secular worldview are inadequately developed. And that inadequacy has proved highly consequential, as it has contributed to the inability of Liberal America to deal effectively with the Force of Destruction that has taken over much of Conservative America over the past generation.
From some decades of interacting with people about these issues, I have found that many in our contemporary secular culture hold the belief that Values are not really “real.” They are “just a matter of opinion.” Disconnected from the domain of “truth.”
That idea goes something like this: We cannot find value “out there” in the cosmos, therefore it value isn’t part of reality. Not being confirmable in objective terms, judgments of value are “merely subjective.” And therefore there’s no basis for declaring any one judgment of value as any more valid than another.
(I’ve had students, say things like: “What the Nazis did at Auschwitz isn’t what I would have done. But they found it right, and so it was right for them.”)
It’s understandable how the secular worldview might have come to look at Value that way: the power of the scientific method to explain much of our world – working, as it does, always in the framework of the “objective” — might readily lead people to think of “reality” as necessarily consisting only of what can be seen (and measured) objectively.
But there is a big logical flaw in that way of thinking about Value. It’s got to do both with what Value can be, and what it must be.
In a lifeless universe, there could be no Value. That’s because Value must mean that something matters, and there’s no way that anything could matter unless it matters to someone.
(In a lifeless universe, it would necessarily be a matter of indifference whether a planet exploded or galaxies collided. If there were no one who cared, there’s no way any such events would register on the dimension of “Value.”)
Which points to the logical non sequitur involved in dismissing Value as “not real” for not being “out there” in the “objective” world. And in dismissing Value because it is “merely subjective.”
Value can only exist in terms of the subjective experience of creatures to whom things matter.
It makes as little sense to say that “Value is not real” as to say “Pain is not real.”
But pain is real, once there exist creatures who can experience it. (Can you imagine someone undergoing torture agreeing that pain is not “real”?)
Inherently, some things – including Value — can only have meaning in terms of the subjective experience of sentient beings. (Sentience defined here as meaning having the capacity to experience,and in particular to experience some things as “better” and some as “worse.”)
“Value” can mean nothing without something experiencing value. And as soon as there exist creatures that experience “better” and “worse,” value has become part of reality.
How Value Emerges in the Evolutionary Process
And because that reality is a key part of the strategy for life’s continuing, it is an important part of reality.
It all makes sense if we see the issue of Value in evolutionary perspective.
For starters, we can see that evolution brings into existence dimensions of reality that didn’t exist before.
(The idea of emergent realities – a dimension that is absent originally, but comes into being subsequently — is an important protectant against various other forms of illogical reductionism.)
Where once the world (and the cosmos) were lifeless (according to science), in time life emerged. (Biology may not violate the laws of physics but it cannot be reduced to physics.)
Then, after life had been evolving on this planet for a goodly while, there emerged creatures with the capacity to experience some things as better and some as worse. At that point, i.e. once the experiential realm of Life included an evaluative dimension, there emerged Value out of the valueless “objective” world.
It is not too hard to figure why the unfolding of evolution would eventually produce creatures who experience things as mattering, and thus would bring “better” and “worse” into a universe that originally contained no such qualities. (Unless one postulates that there was no “lifeless universe,” because one postulates there being from the beginning a Deity of some kind, like the Deity who, when He had created light, “saw…that it was good.”)
- It is the essence of the evolutionary process that it naturally selects for those life-forms that can survive to perpetuate their kind, and removes those that cannot.
- In order to survive, a living thing must not only be but also do whatever it is that survival requires.
- Among the ways of fostering that life-serving doing is the crafting of motivational structures that induce creatures to conduct themselves in ways that help survival. And the means of that crafting is selecting for those behaviors, and the motivations that prompted those behaviors, that had been advantageous for survival in the ancestral past. And that avoided those ways of behaving that tended ancestrally to lead to the failure to pass their DNA into the future.
- And the crafting of creatures that experience positively what has been pro- survival and negatively what has been anti-survival is an effective way of generating the life-serving motivational structures.
It’s unclear –to me, at least — how widespread in the spectrum of Life-on-Earth it makes sense to talk about “the experience of Value.” Can one-celled creatures can be said to “experience” things as better and worse? Do trees, with their recently-discovered communication systems, or fungi, with their processes that look like cognitive decision-making, “care” in some relevant way about what happens to them?
But regardless of where any such line should be drawn, what matter for the present purpose – which is to disabuse those in our current secular culture who regard Value as something less than really “real” – is that there are some creatures (like ourselves, but clearly other species as well) whose experiential lives bring Value into the reality of the world.
For Value to be real, it is not necessary that it be everywhere, but only that it be somewhere.
Evolution has built Value into our nature, because the evolutionary process that works by “choosing” life over death “designs” creatures that choose what they experience as “better” over what they experience as “worse.” Value became a reality because one of the successful strategies for Life is to generate sentient creatures that experience Value, and utilize Value to gain life-serving guidance, as evolution crafted us to experience positively eating when we’re hungry, drinking when we’re thirsty, doing what’s required to produce the next generation—and negatively having a rock fall on our foot.
But, I would argue, the inborn Human System of Value goes further than such basics. We are social creatures with intense emotional lives that operate on the spectrum of better and worse. Human fulfillment involves some basic issues that operate along that spectrum, and that take us into basic dimension of what can reasonably be called “the Battle between Good and Evil.”
The Human System of Value
Before getting to how that inborn Human System of Values goes beyond such things as eating when hungry, and into the major dimensions that have traditionally been understood in terms of Good and Evil, let me address an argument that I imagine would get in the way of a lot of people’s recognizing the reality of Value, an argument that goes with the idea that Value is “just a matter of opinion.”
What about the unmistakable fact that individuals and cultures do have “differences of opinion” on questions of value?
How are those differences to be regarded? In particular, what impact should that fact have on the argument I make here that there is a system of Human Value that is innate to our species?
Some of those differences should be understood as manifestations of the more general variety that humankind displays in all the dimensions that are obviously part of our genetic heritage. Just consider the human nose: what a huge spectrum of noses we see on the faces of human beings! But the basics of the design are consistent, from individual to individual, from one racial group to another.
Differences in our bodies do not preclude our speaking meaningfully about “human anatomy.” At a certain level of detail, and on certain matters of proportion, we humans have different bodies. But there’s a broad pattern that our bodies have in common. The surgeon doesn’t have to be familiar with the patient to know where to look for the liver or the heart.
Just as we’ve got “human anatomy,” so we have a “Human System of Values.”
As with our different noses, so also it seems safe to assume that every one of us is born with an inherent set of inclinations regarding the “better” and the “worse” that is a variation on a species-wide theme. And to assume that, like the fundamental design of the human nose, there will also be a reasonably consistent pattern of a Human Good that has been instilled in us by the evolutionary process.
Then there are the differences in values that come from the influence of the cultures into which humans are born.
Some of those cultural differences are doubtless to be understood as an extension of that basic diversity of cultural paths that is an inherent part of being the kinds of animals we are. Different groups of people, living in different circumstances and with different histories, will inevitably take different cultural paths that define how they will live their lives. The cultural variety to be found among hunter-gatherers, I would suppose, can best be accounted for in such ways.
But beyond the diversity that comes from cultural invention, people have been driven in various ways by social evolutionary forces – as discussed earlier in this piece, and at greater length in “The Ugliness XXX” – that do not arise out of human nature, but are instead a consequence of the inevitable and unchosen dynamics that get unleashed by a creature’s taking the unprecedented step onto the path of Civilization.
The power of such evolutionary forces can often overpower our innate system of values.
An image that captures how powerfully a Force of Brokenness can warp our natural life-serving Human System of Values: the fascist motto at the time of the Spanish Civil War, “Viva la muerte!” (“Long live death!”)
Under the impact of traumatic history, creatures – that have been crafted by a biological-evolutionary process in which Life is continually chosen over death — can be driven to turn their inherent value orientation turned into its opposite. Societies shaped by a selection for the ways of power will impose systems of value that, history shows, will at times be profoundly adversarial to human nature and human needs.
Even so, even after millennia of history in which a Force of Brokenness has played a major a persistent role, I would argue that a global view of what people value shows an unmistakable and substantive System of Human Values that remains visible, and remains oriented toward what is life-serving.
Here’s a thought experiment that, if my surmise is correct, demonstrates that the substance of the Human Good goes beyond placing a positive value on eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, not breaking one’s bones, etc.
Imagine that we ask a good-sized sampling of humanity: “What kind of world would you prefer: one that is at war, or one at peace; one in which justice reigned, or one pervaded by injustice; one filled with hatreds, or with love; etc.?” We ask them to choose among a whole range of those dichotomies that bear upon matters of Value.
In each pair, would we not agree about which one is life-serving—more conducive to human survival, human thriving, human fulfillment?
And would anyone disagree that, in each instance, the overwhelming majority of people would prefer the life-serving options in those dichotomies (prefer what’s Whole) over those that are life-degrading (that make things worse)?
(If that’s so, the question would immediately arise: Why has the actual human world contained so much of what humankind in general doesn’t want — war, hatred, etc.? And while there are many possible answers to that question, I would propose that a major part of the answer is to be found in that Force of Brokenness – described in previous entries in this series – that the rise of Civilization inevitably unleashes.)
And if it is agreed that the desires of humankind would be for peace, justice, love, etc., is that not exactly what one would expect if humankind were endowed by the evolutionary process with an innate System of Human Value based on what has fortified the chances for survival over the eons of our ancestral past?
Which points to an important conclusion; what is embedded in our nature to regard as Good is what has tended, over the evolutionary past, to be life-serving.
It’s true that our current circumstances in civilization correspond quite imperfectly with those in which we evolved. And doubtless that divergence creates major challenges.
But I expect that even so, our Inborn System of Human Values — that “pursuit of happiness” that the Declaration of Independence talks about or, in the terms I prefer, our seeking “fulfillment” –still translates reasonably well into the pursuit of what has evolutionarily served to enable our ancestors to pass along to us the gift of life.
Circumstances may have changed greatly, but the basic nature of what feeds human well-being seems likely to be basically continuous with what fostered human fulfillment before civilization arose.
From which it would follow that – despite civilization having somewhat blurred the correspondence between our inborn nature and what is required of us to secure our survival — our evolved, innate System of Human Value will still be a fundamentally good guide for what serves our lives and our ability to pass the gift of life along to our descendants.
The Good — reasonably well-defined as that which helps sentient creatures to survive, and to find fulfillment – remains therefore well-rooted in our inborn experiential tendencies.
The Force of the “Good,” Embattled with the Force of Evil
Just as the dynamic of “Brokenness begets Brokenness” makes visible a “coherent force” that acts like much as “Evil” has traditionally been understood to act, so also we can discern a “Force of the Good” through the dynamic of “Wholeness begets Wholeness.”
(Wholeness being defined as what fosters life, instead of destroying it, and what enhances the lived experience of sentient creatures, instead of degrading it.)
Looking again at those dichotomies – peace/war, justice/injustice, love/hate, as well as kindness/cruelty, generosity/greed, etc.– we can see intuitively that one side of those pairs serves to create world that humans experience as “better,” while the other side degrades that world into a place where the experience of sentient beings is “worse.”
And just as the “pattern of brokenness” can be seen moving in shape-shifting ways, over time, through the world of the civilization-creating creature, so also can the “pattern of wholeness” be seen – once again, when we trace the connections between causes and effects — getting transmitted, as the different forms of wholeness (like “peace” and “justice” and “love” etc.) produce each other.
And these two coherent forces are part of such a creature’s world because that civilization-creating animal is inevitably caught between two evolutionary processes:
- The Force of Brokenness is an inevitable result of a social-evolutionary process that is inevitably unleashed when a creature steps onto the path of civilization.
- So also a Force of Wholeness will inevitably arise out of the biological-evolutionary process that has crafted such a sentient creature to values what has ancestrally proven to be life-serving.
(Which is not to say that everything biological evolution produces is ideal: the evolution of Life appears to unfold in wholly opportunistic ways, producing major conflicts of interests (e.g. between predator and prey, parasite and host). One creature’s meat is inevitably another creature.)
Which brings us to the conclusion toward which this essay has been working from the beginning: any creature that emerges out its biological evolution and then embarks onto the path of Civilization will inevitably be caught between two coherent forces –forces that contend against each other in ways that look like “the Battle between Good and Evil”:
- The creature will inevitably be crafted by natural selection to possess an inborn, fundamentally life-serving nature that inclines it to seek the experience of the Good (and will continuously work to fashion the civilized world to meet human needs).
- But, because of the problematic dynamics that inevitably emerge with civilization, that inner drive toward the “better” will have to contend with an inevitable contrary force that acts like “a Force of Evil.”
And, as these two forces, are inevitably pushing in opposite directions, there is a battle between them over which will shape the future of the creature and its civilization.
- The human preference for peace will inevitably come up against a force that arises out of the inevitable “war of all against all.”
- People who naturally find their greatest fulfillment in loving relationships will inevitably be compelled to cope with the hatreds that grow out of strife and trauma.
- The human drive for an order marked by fairness will inevitably contend with a dynamic (the war of all against all, the selection for the ways of power, the disproportionate role conferred on the Spirit of the Gangster) that is perennially fostering unjust power-relations in the human world. Etc.
That means that not only does the path of Civilization bring into existence a “discernable Force of Evil,” regardless of the nature of the civilization-creating animal. But also, once Civilization arises, that creature’s world will be an arena in which there is enacted something that quite closely parallels what was long regarded, in the religious worldview, as “a Battle between Good and Evil.”
That “Battle between Good and Evil,” in other words, will inevitably be at the heart of the drama of any creature that steps onto the path of Civilization.
Finally, this connects with what was described (in the first essay of this series – “The Fate of Human Civilization”) as “the Central Challenge that will inevitably face any civilization-creating species”: i.e. the challenge of “ordering its civilization well enough – and soon enough – to prevent its civilization from destroying itself.”
And for our species, my gut feeling – I said there — is that it is a toss-up which of those two scenarios it will be. (And I tried to prove that ultimately it must be one or the other.)
If we imagine how each of those two possible scenarios might unfold, and ask “What are the forces at work that could enable civilization to get its act together?” and “What are the forces that would be responsible for driving civilization into catastrophic war or environmental destruction?” the answers would seem to correspond closely to the Force of Wholeness and the Force of Brokenness, the Force of the Good versus the Force of Evil.
In other words, “The Fate of Human Civilization” hinges on the outcome of a long-running dynamic that can reasonably be called “the “Battle between Good and Evil.”
And if that’s so, it seems that it is of vital importance that we understand that important dynamic that’s enacted at the heart of the human drama.