Sunday, March 28, 2004


Sean Spence’s article on the neurophysiology of psychopathic behavior in the New Scientist (20 March 2004, p. 39) reminded me how confused I get thinking about evil. (For more information, see the symposium he convened on Psychiatry and the Problem of Evil.)

Some Taoist writing suggests that good and evil produce each other, to the extent that one can’t recognize one without the presence of the other; structuralists like Saussure have said much the same thing. Evil is sometimes – always? – in the eye of the beholder; one side in a conflict may see an event as an atrocity, while the other side considers it to be furthering the good. For example, from the second chapter of the Tao te Ching (Waley's 1977 translation):
Difficult and easy complete one another.
Long and short test one another;
High and low determine one another.
Spence refers to Saint Augustine’s distinction between “moral evil”, bad things that people do by choice, and “natural evil”, bad things that befall us without any human agency (like earthquakes and disease). He raises the possibility that biochemical explanations for vicious acts arguably move them from the moral to the natural realm. (However, he ends up arguing that free will is almost always involved even where there are biological determinants, and that the moral imperative remains.)

I find it hard to believe in an absolute evil: a moral evil that exists outside of any human context, and which if removed would only leave good behind. I’m a relativist at heart; if you take away “evil”, the “good” that remains will divide itself again into good and evil.

However, I must at least to some extent be fooling myself with such rationalism. The existence and persistence of systems of morality implies that the reification of evil (and of good, for that matter) is part of the way the human brain works. One can no less see no difference between good and evil than one can perceive the world without distinguishing figure and ground.

Our ability to see (and be) saints like Mother Theresa requires and determines that we also see (and are) monsters like Hitler.

So, does evil exist? Yes; it exists just as much as cold exists. It is a human experience which depends on the context in which it is perceived. Its relativity does not diminish it’s reality, that is, it’s presence and power in our daily experience.

Saturday, March 13, 2004

Working at doing nothing

I used to look down on people who lie on the beach in the sun, doing nothing. I felt superior to people who sat on a plane, staring into space. Oh sure, I said I envied them; but secretly I felt that I was more productive, more driven, a better person. Clever people like me were always busy.

Now, though, I’m beginning to really wish I could be better at doing nothing. In part it’s just greener grass: something I find so hard to do must be worthwhile. But I’m also coming to realize that the act of doing nothing is important; doing nothing achieves things that doing things can’t.

The “doing” of inactivity is being. What I now envy in the contented sunbather is that their body and mind are happily relaxed in each other’s company. Inactivity means being at ease with oneself. “Just being” also means being open. Ideas present themselves; I suddenly experience how I’m feeling, rather than just noticing it; and I’m fleetingly aware of my body working.

Joshua Reynolds said, “There is no expedient to which a man will not resort to avoid the real labour of thinking.” For myself, there is no expedient to which I will not resort (including writing a blog entry rather than meditating) to avoid the real labor of doing nothing.

Being able to do nothing requires accepting my own company. I don’t like being with myself; I don’t like me. That’s why distracting activity is so useful. If I’m occupying myself with e-mail, reading, watching a film or listening to music, then I don’t have to attend to me. I don’t have to confront the inadequacy of my thinking, my tawdry pre-occupations, and my moaning about being unable to do anything worthwhile.