[This was the third entry in the series published on 3QuarksDaily]
Evil: Lost and Found
Over the centuries, for people whose worldview was governed by the religions of Western civilization, it was reasonably straightforward to conceive of the existence of a “Force of Evil.” Judeo-Christian religion personified such a force in the figure of Satan, or the Devil.
Imagining this Supernatural Being enabled people to form some intuitive conception of a force that makes bad things happen: the Devil. with malevolent intent, was always working to get people to do what they shouldn’t do, and to degrade the human world.
The Devil could make the world uglier by wielding his power with diabolical cleverness. (Quoth Luther: “For still our ancient foe / Doth seek to work us woe;/ His craft and power are great/ And, armed with cruel hate./ On earth is not his equal.”)
The more recent movement to a secular worldview has meant that this supernatural figure has disappeared from the picture of the human world held in the minds of a major component of the Western world. And this disappearance of Satan left most of those people with no way of conceiving of something that might reasonably be called a “Force of Evil.”
And with no way of conceiving of anything so coherent as “a Force of Evil” operating in the world, many of those with a secular worldview were left unequipped to perceive such a Force even if it turned out to be an important reality.
And it turns out that there is such a Force.
It turns out that one can see, operating in the human world, “a coherent force that consistently makes things worse” (Or, “consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness.”) I.e., we can see at work in our world something that aligns in so many ways with the ancient, freighted concept of “Evil” that it makes sense to call it that.
(For those who dislike that ancient word, “Evil” – and nearly two decades of experience have taught me that includes many liberals — I suggest forgetting about that fraught word and substitute “Force of Destruction,” or “Force of Brokenness,” both of which capture its essence.)
It does not much matter what we call it.
What does matter is that we see that there is an “It” to be called – i.e. something coherent in its operation, and consistent in the direction toward which it pushes the human world.
Indeed, it turns out to matter greatly, because it turns out that the inability to see that “It” – that Destructive Force, or Force of “Evil” – can be catastrophic.
I don’t use that word, “catastrophic,” lightly:
It is a catastrophe that Liberal America has done such a poor job of protecting the nation against the force that has been taking over the Republican Party. And a can make a compelling case that a major reason for that failure of Liberal American its political arm, the Democratic Party is due to the inability of a largely secular liberal culture to perceive what it was up against, and thus to fight it appropriately, was its inability.
The blindness of the Democrats to the rise of “a Force of Evil” demonstrates that not only is the wisdom of the world of baseball right in saying, “You can’t hit what you can’t see.” But also, “You can’t see what you have no conceptual way of including in picture of reality.”
We can learn from this history: the ability of people to protect the Good can depend on their ability to perceive the reality of a “Force of Evil.” (I.e. a“coherent force” that consistently “makes things worse” – an It that must be fought and defeated.
(FDR – a liberal at a time when the old worldview held greater sway — understood Evil in the old way, and that helped him defeat Evil in World War II. Barack Obama, apparently, did not understand Evil, didn’t have much of a concept of it, didn’t see it when it was coming at him. And as a result, ended up barricaded in the White House with his Presidency stripped of its powers except for issuing executive orders.
(And while this exceptionally decent and best-intentioned man was President, his failure to recognize the reality of a “Force of Evil” enabled that Force to gain in power. Indeed, inadvertently made it possible for what previous generations of Americans would have regarded as unthinkable to happen: i.e. for a human monster like Donald Trump to become President of the United States, and take possession of one of America’s two major political parties and a major component of the American people.
(In this, Obama was emblematic of a widespread inability in the Democratic Party of these times: even as the other side was being taken over by “a coherent Force that consistently spreads a pattern of brokenness, the Democrats talked about their “friends across the aisle,” because there was no word in their language – no concept in their minds — for the kind of Force that had taken over the Republican Party.)
This appears to be a major cost of the current under-development of our still relatively new “secular worldview.”
But, as I will attempt now to show, it is possible to perceive and understand “the reality of a ‘Force of Evil’” in a purely secular framework.
That understanding takes a bit of work, but that work is worth it, because the more people who can see WHAT WE’RE UP AGAINST, the stronger will be the forces of Democracy that now are embattled against the forces of Fascism. (And the stronger will be the forces that might help human civilization to LINK TO OTHER PIECE survive for the long haul against those that would drive us to self-destruction.)
It is in that spirit – as part of addressing the systemic problem of America’s brokenness, in which one side of the system went over to Brokenness, while the other side had lost the moral understanding to recognize how the nature of the American political battle had changed, and how it needed to be fought — that I will turn now to the task of showing that reality.
Connections in the Dense Web of Cause and Effect
The good news is that the reality of this force can be shown.
The bad news is that seeing this “Force of Evil” doesn’t come as naturally to us humans as seeing that “It” personified in the figure of “the Devil.”
We are equipped, by our nature, to imagine something like “our ancient foe.” That’s the advantage of representing “Evil” in terms of malevolent supernatural forces.
But the challenge is different when we operate within a secular worldview, from which supernatural beings and forces are excluded. The reality of this force, as I will show, becomes visible as a natural dynamic through observation of the evidence presented in the dense network of cause and effect, from which logical inferences can be drawn.
Takes some work. But, as the American crisis demonstrates, among the strengths required of us to protect the Good against evil, some of them require that we undertake the intellectual work required to see it.
So here’s one way that this Force – this “coherent force” that acts like “Evil” — can be shown. (In the next entry in this series, I’ll present another.)
Consider the dichotomous pairs of war/peace, justice/injustice, love/hatred, cruelty/kindness, greed/generosity, integrity/hypocrisy, honesty/deception, life-serving/death-dealing, etc.
For any particular instance of any of those on the “broken” side of such dichotomies, we can ask two kinds of questions regarding their place in the dense web of causes and effects:
• Peering backward, we can inquire about its causes. What is it in the world that produces this brokenness? E.g. What are the factors that led to this war? What were the factors that led to this exploitative social arrangement? Or, what is it that resulted in this person being cruel, or greedy, or insistent on domination? (Many see “evil” just in terms of “evil people,” but people are shaped by their world.)
• Looking forward, we can examine the effects of that war, of that exploitation, or of this instance of human cruelty or greed or lust for power. What impact does this or that broken thing in our world have on how the human world develops from there?
In an unsystematic way, I’ve been asking those kinds of questions for more than a half century, investigating questions like what led to the American Civil War over the issue of slavery? And what led to the rise of the Nazi regime? And what experiences and cultural influences molded the human monsters who have played a disproportionate role in our history (like Hitler, and Stalin). What are the factors that differentiate those people inclined to hate out-groups from those without such hostilities? (On the side of “wholeness,” what cultural currents made possible the emergence of Democracy on the North American continent?) Etc.
What stands out from tracing the various connections of cause and effect is a pretty straight-forward pattern:
With “brokenness” understood as whatever is the opposite of life-serving – i.e. as leading to the opposite of the well-being and fulfillment of sentient creatures (defined as creatures to whom things matter) — what we see when we make all those connections is a pretty straightforward pattern:
Brokenness begets brokenness. (And conversely, wholeness begets wholeness.) For the most part: sometimes, “good intentions” can lead to hellish results, and an “ill wind” can blow someone “good.”)
In that dense network of cause and effect, one can trace how wars and injustices and hatreds and trauma all feed into each other over time. Each form of brokenness tends to generate other forms of brokenness, and be generated by them.
Tracing the way each thing that makes the world worse is the fruit of other things that make the world worse reveals “a pattern of brokenness” traveling through the cultural system. We can see brokenness getting transmitted – over time — from level to level (global to societal to individual and back the other way). And transmitted from form to form.
We can see how the brokenness of hatred makes the world worse, generating for example the brokenness of conflict. We can see how the brokenness of war produces the brokenness of trauma. How the lust to dominate creates the brokenness of injustice. How unbridled selfishness generates the brokenness of human misery. How the brokenness of childhood trauma and historical trauma feed upon each other to achieve greater brokenness through having a Hitler in power, and or a Trump in power.
Something worth calling “brokenness” is moving through the human world in shape-shifting ways.
And something worth calling a “Force” cam be inferred to be pushing brokenness through the system over time.
A “Force” is something that moves things—like the elementary physics formula, F = ma. And so it is with this Force that imparts brokenness to the human world, as the generations and centuries go by.
This Force is a natural dynamic. It’s just how the world works, a world in which causes produce effects. Utilizing the dynamic of “brokenness begets brokenness,” this Force transmits a “pattern of brokenness” through cultural systems over time. And the reality of that Force can be inferred from that movement.
We can “see” that Force the way we can “see” the wind in the swaying of the trees and the flapping of the clothes on the line.
The idea that “Brokenness begets Brokenness” presents a “Prime Mover” problem: how does the whole thing get started? If each broken thing in the world is the product of prior embodiments of “the pattern of brokenness,” how did Brokenness get into the system in the first place?
Answering that question will be the starting point of the next piece in this series.
The major clue to solving that Prime Mover problem can be found in the previous piece in this series – The Ugliness We See in Human History in Not Human Nature Writ Large. There I propose a theory of social evolution that describes why the breakthrough into civilization inevitably unleashes a destructive force. It is a social-evolutionary force that arises independently of the nature of the civilization-creating creature—a dynamic that transforms what appears to be that creature’s freedom to develop its culture in whatever direction it choose into a new kind of bondage to the reign of power.
That next piece will conclude with yet another way in which the secular worldview of our time needs to be expanded and deepened: namely, that in that evolutionary perspective – both the biological that crafts the creature, and the later dynamic of the evolution of civilization – not only does the breakthrough into civilization mandate that “a Force of Evil” will inevitably arise. But inevitably also, as a consequence of that breakthrough, there will be – at the center of that creature’s drama – what can reasonably be called “a Battle Between Good and Evil.”