Saturday, November 27, 2010

Knowledge of Good and Evil

I dreamed of holocaust and genocide last night.  Recently, I’ve been staring again into my own personal Abyss.  I guess now I’ve moved to staring into the communal Abyss of all humanity.  Whence comes man’s inhumanity to man? That very phrase implies that the evil perpetrated person to person is something intrinsically not human. It seems, however, that the perpetration of evil is specifically a human quality.  

Animals, to my knowledge, to do not engineer genocide, although they may murder, bully, and rape in maintaining social order or in a battle for territory. Animals, according to current research, commit personal atrocities as a means to an end but only people commit large-scale, tribal atrocities as ends to themselves.  At the opposite end of the spectrum, while animals may act with individual altruism in order to benefit the group, only people show any willingness to martyr themselves for ideology (a fact exploited by those engineering atrocity). 

Both poles of the human dichotomy, atrocity and martyrdom, can result only from the same aspect of humanity that I think is the defining separation of man and animal: self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is a sense of separateness from the rest of the world. 

There is no conclusive research on whether animals are self-conscious; certainly, they are aware of themselves—that my dog can be embarrassed when I talk about him is proof enough for me—but even animals that have been taught to sign do not refer to themselves in the first person.  They use the third person or call themselves by name. Human children commonly develop this sense around the third birthday, maybe a few months later.  They will start to use the word I to reference the self. 

Similarly, there seems to be no indication that animals have any sense of existentialism, that is, awareness that one day they will die (this is different than an end-of-life awareness of impending death).  Human children come to this awareness around age nine.  My elder daughter was 8½.  We were listening to the soundtrack to Ella Enchanted, and she was singing along.  She sang the first line of a song “every day, you die a little”, when abruptly she stopped singing, and ever so seriously informed me, “That’s true, you know.  Every day you live is one day sooner that you will die.”

I suspect that it is this existential self-consciousness that allows for both atrocity and ideological altruism.  To know that we are dying is terrifying, deeply and viscerally frightening to the human psyche. Life is a fragile and uncertain proposition.  Whether studied from the perspective of biology, chemistry, poetry, psychology, agriculture, philosophy, economics or religion, the deeper the subject is mined, the more clear the fragility and uncertainties.  It's all a crapshoot and then you die. That very knowledge demands that life become meaningful.  Why do we live, if only to die? We have a will to meaning—a drive innate within us to derive meaning from our lives (c.f. Viktor Frankl and the Third Viennese School of Psychotherapy). If we cannot extract meaning and purpose from our lives, we will go insane.  

When the only certainty in life is death, uncertainty becomes the defining characteristic of Life.  Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is Pascal’s “God-shaped Vacuum” into which is sucked every possible kind of meaning: tribalism, hedonism, greed, hierarchy, lust, imperialism, socialism, altruism, theism—and all are present and active in every religion in the world.

So few of us have the courage to acknowledge death, to create meaning, to accept uncertainty. We would prefer instead to expend our enormous psychic energies on denying the one certainty we have by inventing elaborate theories and formulae to simulate certainty.  Even simpler is to accept the theories and formulae of people we deem more willing than we to have looked into the Abyss (though we rarely check this sort of credential in deciding the credibility of our experts). And even more common than anything else is the tendency to abuse substances, behaviors, religions or other people to deny even the fear we feel at the uncertainty of Life.

Anyone who has looked into the Abyss and come away (too often people venture willingly or unwillingly into the Abyss and, in their terror, they get stuck there—our modern religious, medical, and psychiatric professions are more likely to ensure the stuckness rather than facilitating a return) has one other certainty in Life.  That Love exists.  That Love matters. Whether called Love, God, Allah, Light, OM, Brahman, or All/Nothing, whether found through science, religion, mysticism, or poetry, this succoring, sublime, transcendent Ineffability suffuses the Universe, both physical and psychic.  And that Love trumps existentialism in aeternum.


  1. As I've been writing this post today, my husband has been laboring in the mundane work of hanging Christmas lights, pre-holiday cleaning, and yardwork. He commented: “I don’t know why you torture your mind this way.”

    Ahhh, but it is the other way around! The torture is to have questions without looking for answers. The torture is denying the questions. The torture is having philosophy, theology, or doctrine fed to me as if it answered the questions.

  2. I know that if the question is there, one is compelled to answer it. I envy those to whom the big questions go unnoticed. I would love to be able to throw myself into yard work with no thought for the transcendent. ;-)

    Love does matter. I could argue that in the end, it is all that does matter. :)

    So you have read Frankl? I have had both of my students read Man's Search For Meaning in high school. I thank God for people like Viktor Frankl, and you, who seem to understand the thoughts that keep me up at night.

    Peace and good will, SS

  3. I can't remember if we read Frankl or were just lectured on it. My psych degree is 25 years old from a school that was very Behavioral at the time. The 80s in psychology were big on behavior modification, token economies and such. So our education on the actual interior world of the individual was more superficial than I would have liked. I do remember being very taken with the fact that he developed his theories in the concentration camps--a crucible to test the human psyche if there ever was one.

    I, too, would sometimes love to have a simpler life. My husband is a very smart man but he finds his meaning in much smaller forms--a job well done, providing for his family, loving his children. He certainly sleeps easier at night than I do!

  4. Man's Search for Meaning is written in two parts: the first being memoirs of his time in the camps (required WWII reading for mine) and the second part is a layperson's explanation of the development of what he called Logostherapy. It is an excellent book, even if you stop after the first part. I highly recommend it for anyone looking for evidence of the Divine in real life rather than doctrinal statements.



    Interesting link I received that speaks to much the same question but from a psychological rather than philosophical perspective