Kristor, here’s a question: If sin is always enacted lying, what about people who love to do evil because it is evil? What about a torturer of the innocent, for example? He isn’t saying that torturing is “the appropriate thing to do under the circumstances.” He’s torturing because it _isn’t_ the appropriate thing to do, and because he loves the perversion. Some people love perversion for being perverse–love to read the universe backwards. I take this to be the essence of the demonic, if the demonic can be said to have an essence. Since we can imagine such a thing as a demonic will which truly adheres to evil for evil’s sake, it seems that this must be possible, and indeed (more’s the pity) we do know of monstrously evil human beings who have enacted the demonic will in our mundane world.
This is an especially important question, it has always seemed to me. I’d be a long step closer to being convinced that there is an a priori argument (or nearly a priori argument) for the existence of an omnibenevolent God if I didn’t have a rather vivid sense of the possibility of an extremely powerful (all-powerful?) but truly evil will.
Ugh. That’s a really tough question. I mean, it’s about fifteen tough questions. Thanks! I think …
I do have a response. But it’s too long for a comment. So, I’ll post it as a new entry.
This is that post.
First, to be as accurate as possible, sin is enacted falsehood, of which lying is a species. It is the enaction of a false proposition about the best thing to do.
Not morally best, but any sort of best. One of the difficulties of moral life is that the systems in us that control for morality, and that start to scream when we do something wrong, are in competition with quite amoral control systems that want sex, food, sleep, excitement, thrills, etc., and want them now. Being good generally involves frustrating the amoral control systems, at least temporarily. Think of dieting. When we are gazing longingly at that cookie, the pain of wanting it is competing with the pain of surrender to being too fat. The first is concrete, immediate and powerful, the second abstract, attenuated and long term in its effects. No wonder it is so hard to be good!
Many falsehoods are lies, but most are just errors, generated by passing vagaries of thought, or by noise. Some are generated by sloppy, suboptimal system design, that inadvertently puts control circuits in conflict with each other; as when we learn how to do a new thing well, but that throws off some other system. Most such falsehoods are quickly corrected. And a good thing, too, or we’d all soon die. But some are not. These are lies.
A lie is a falsehood produced by a stable systemic defect of thought, of logical calculus – whether you want to describe that system in terms of a neural organization or of a conceptual organization (in us, these are two aspects of the same thing (neural order being an artifact and relic of mental order)). When the system gets stuck in an erroneous configuration – which is the sort of thing that can easily result from a confused or inept response to errors that is not soon corrected – then it’s no longer Garbage In, Garbage Out, but Good Data In, Garbage Out.
A good example is addiction to pain killers. The patient starts taking them to cope with surgical pain, and whammo, his nervous system adapts to the presence of the drug. From that point on, many of his control systems are whacked, and he finds it excruciating to do without the drug.
From data that would indicate to a normal person that the drug is superfluous, the addict’s system is consistently generating the false proposition that it is better for him, all things considered, to take the drug than not. This is a lie.
I’m not saying the addict isn’t responsible for his acts. He is; for he cannot make the decision to buy that lie and take the unnecessary pain killer except by ignoring a portion of his intellect, which still knows perfectly well that the drug is nasty, and consciously, deliberately *allowing* the amoral lower order circuits of his brain to take over and get their way. In doing so, he is reconfiguring his nervous system in such a way as to order it toward the continued production of the lie. Consciousness reorganizes control systems by amplifying their autonomic decisions, adding its own weight to their signals. When it interferes with control systems this way, consciousness changes their structure. To allow the addicted control system to have its way, the conscious will of the addict must add some of its weight either to the inputs of the addicted control system so as to amplify its output, or to the outputs of other perturbed control systems, such as those of the conscience, to damp or mask them.
Both can happen at the same time. And other, unrelated control systems can be affected. It’s not a tidy process. The interventions of consciousness in the control system hierarchy are guided toward their overall goal of maintaining homeostasis across the whole hierarchy within target ranges by a stochastic search procedure. Consciousness reorganizes by messing things up unpredictably (the same thing happens in dreaming, but without any feedback from the environment to edit or constrain the messing about), and then stopping when they have got better. So it is possible, often easy, for consciousness to muck things up and crank out a moral failure without meaning to. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Its downward slope reflects the fact that giving in to the urgent demands of amoral lower order control systems is usually less thermodynamically costly – it is easier (because vivid visualization of remote goal states takes more intellectual work, more physiological work) – than taking the high road, and enables the whole system to move more quickly toward overall homeostasis.
The addict sacrifices the homeostases of higher order circuits that control for such things as morality and long term welfare, so as to obtain a large near term increase in homeostatic effect in lower order systems. In doing so, he is effectually killing a portion of his intellect, quashing its outputs, taking it offline, dumbing himself down, and degrading his ontological capacity, his strength, his vim. As Bruce Charlton recently argued, lying makes us stupid. When lies persist long enough, the stultification can be permanent.
It’s a failure of moral courage, very much like the failure of a beam that is too heavily laden. And moral courage is a consumable commodity. The more tough decisions you have had to make on a given day, the less of it you will have left for the next one. The weaker you are – physiologically, intellectually, financially, emotionally, whatever – the harder it is to muster the energy, the physiological and moral energy (in us, these are two aspects of the same thing), to make a good – that is, a difficult – decision. Moral exhaustion is real. Morale is a physiological, as well as moral variable. One of the reasons dieting is such a difficult moral project is that blood sugar is a major factor of moral courage.
I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that moral decisions are physiologically determined. I think the determination runs the other way. But howsoever immaterial and extramundane the origination of our decisions may be, they are made in and with reference to particular worldly situations, and an actual past that includes such realities as blood sugar, the organization of the nervous system that has been delivered to us in this present moment, and all the other dispositions of our history. These we inherit as the raw material – or rather, the almost completely cooked material – of our decision, and they severely limit our realistic options. Those limitations constrain and shape the solution space in which we determine our course. In that determination we are free; but this can mean nothing, if it does not mean that we are free to err, and fail, and fall.
And our decision now is inherited in turn by all our future moments of decision. The mind engraves ruts in the brain. Our decisions are steps in a positive feedback cycle, whether vicious or virtuous. As we decide, so do we train ourselves to decide. It’s just like – no, it just is – training the body. The more difficult decisions we flub, the more we train our control system hierarchy to make bad decisions all by itself, and the harder it becomes to make a good one.
The more we fail, the more of our resources must be devoted to managing failure, and the less adaptive our behavior becomes. More and more control systems constantly scream, “Error! Error!” – we call this feeling anxiety – so that we have to spend more and more physiological energy coping with them. We grow frazzled and harried, our attention lurching from one crisis to another. Our planning and deliberation are shortchanged, and this too more and more deranges our behavior. If the situation gets bad enough, acute anxiety can turn to terror, triggering fight or flight: rage, or panic.
In extreme hard cases, where the intellect and the will have, as we say, been entirely abandoned to sin, the moral calculus is hardly operating at all, anymore. It is in this region of mental dissolution that you get such massive cognitive errors – such perversions of normally adaptive system function – as sadism, masochism, sociopathy.
The etiology of a systemic lie, then, starts with adventitious errors that are not trained away or otherwise extinguished. A systemic lie can ramify to the point that pain and evil are relished as goods in their own right. A badly whacked neural calculus, no longer damped by outputs from other control systems, can eventually take on a life of its own, gradually assuming a predominant or dispositive role – a tyrannical role – in the nervous system, and turning the whole person toward the pursuit of evil for its own sake.
For the utterly depraved, all other considerations then fade to insignificance. The torturer of the innocent knows that what he is doing is wrong, but his moral control systems are essentially dead. Their output is so weak as to be computationally nil. Thus the wrong the torturer apprehends in his torture will seem to him a mere technicality; it will be to him what the wrong in tearing the tags off a mattress is to most of us.
The depraved personality may then narrow down and focus obsessively on just a single perverse pleasure, so that all the other processes of life become subordinated to it. With almost all his attention settled upon it, his perversion becomes the only thing worthy of his life’s energy. In this profound impoverishment of ontological scope, this diminution of awareness, we see the spiritual death of which Arakawa speaks as the wages of sin. We see also the notorious banality, idiocy and triviality of evil, the tedium, that can find surcease only through increases in the intensity of the perverted pleasure. Unless he is fortunate enough to begin to hate his obsession, the sinner more and more worships it. His idol becomes the whole matter of his life, its foremost object and intension. Often, too, the enaction of his wickedness takes on a ritual aspect. Serial killers often evolve a formalized liturgy for their murders, as befits the practice of an idolatrous religion.
In the limit, the human person is reduced to nothing but the itch and its scratching. This is how the damned can prefer their own peculiar circle of Hell to anything else.
Now then, as to your question. Notice that the torturer is enjoying a good feeling. The system that generates the good feeling is deeply whacked, so that the “good feeling” signal is totally wrong. But the signal is what it is; to the torturer, it signifies good. The torturer is still seeking the good, he is just badly wrong about reality, and about where the true good is really to be found. He is enacting a falsehood. He loves taking the universe backward – yet, still, he loves. His love is perverted to false and evil ends – yet, still it is love. He is not completely evil.
I see no reason why this same sort of moral devolution could not occur in immaterial beings like angels. The acts of angels, like ours, occur in and in relation to worlds, and are actualized in histories. The difference is that their acts are not fossilized by way of corporeal artifacts – are not embodied, as ours are. The physiological relic and organ of our action is not an aspect of the process of moral devolution for them, as it is for us. Far more powerful than we, they are yet finite, like us – which is to say, among other things, that they are computationally and epistemologically limited – and so, like us, they cannot see all the way to the ends of things from within the moments of their decisions. So they too must fly somewhat blind, and are therefore like other creatures subject to error, failure, and falling, to history and its compounding defects.
We see then that true and active evil is definitely possible (albeit not total evil, which is the zero of actuality). Is there a Principal of Evil – a Father of Lies? God says yes. So, yes.
I recently explained why I don’t believe that this fact vitiates the a priori case for Divine Omnibenevolence. I go on and on about the Problem of Evil, but the nub of the a priori exculpation of God is really quite simple:
- Evil is a privation of the goodness possible to a given moment of existence. It is a defect of being.
- What is essentially perfect cannot possibly be defective.
- What is not essentially perfect, may be defective accidentally.
- Only God is essentially perfect.
- If there is to be anything other than God, then, there is a positive probability of defect.
- Over all the moments of the everlasting history of the world of worlds – that is to say, with a sample size that goes to infinity – the probability of defect is therefore 1.