Does Evil Exist?

Humans have a peculiar habit of anthropomorphizing anything that moves, and for that matter, most objects that remain static as well. So, it is not surprising that evil is often personified and even stereotyped; it is said that true evil even has a home somewhere below where you currently stand.

[div class=attrib]From the Guardian:[end-div]

The friction between the presence of evil in our world and belief in a loving creator God sparks some tough questions. For many religious people these are primarily existential questions, as their faith contends with doubt and bewilderment. The biblical figure of Job, the righteous man who loses everything that is dear to him, remains a powerful example of this struggle. But the “problem of evil” is also an intellectual puzzle that has taxed the minds of philosophers and theologians for centuries.

One of the most influential responses to the problem of evil comes from St Augustine. As a young man, Augustine followed the teachings of a Christian sect known as the Manichees. At the heart of Manichean theology was the idea of a cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil. This, of course, proposes one possible solution to the problem of evil: all goodness, purity and light comes from God, and the darkness of evil has a different source.

However, Augustine came to regard this cosmic dualism as heretical, since it undermined God’s sovereignty. Of course, he wanted to hold on to the absolute goodness of God. But if God is the source of all things, where did evil come from? Augustine’s radical answer to this question is that evil does not actually come from anywhere. Rejecting the idea that evil is a positive force, he argues that it is merely a “name for nothing other than the absence of good”.

At first glance this looks like a philosophical sleight of hand. Augustine might try to define evil out of existence, but this cannot diminish the reality of the pain, suffering and cruelty that prompt the question of evil in the first place. As the 20th-century Catholic writer Charles Journet put it, the non-being of evil “can have a terrible reality, like letters carved out of stone”. Any defence of Augustine’s position has to begin by pointing out that his account of evil is metaphysical rather than empirical. In other words, he is not saying that our experience of evil is unreal. On the contrary, since a divinely created world is naturally oriented toward the good, any lack of goodness will be felt as painful, wrong and urgently in need of repair. To say that hunger is “merely” the absence of food is not to deny the intense suffering it involves.

One consequence of Augustine’s mature view of evil as “non-being”, a privation of the good, is that evil eludes our understanding. His sophisticated metaphysics of evil confirms our intuitive response of incomprehension in the face of gratuitous brutality, or of senseless “natural” evil like a child’s cancer. Augustine emphasises that evil is ultimately inexplicable, since it has no substantial existence: “No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known!” Interestingly, by the way, this mysticism about evil mirrors the “negative theology” which insists that God exceeds the limits of our understanding.

So, by his own admission, Augustine’s “solution” to the problem of evil defends belief in God without properly explaining the kinds of acts which exert real pressure on religious faith. He may be right to point out that the effects of evil tend to be destruction and disorder – a twisting or scarring of nature, and of souls. Nevertheless, believers and non-believers alike will feel that this fails to do justice to the power of evil. We may demand a better account of the apparent positivity of evil – of the fact, for example, that holocausts and massacres often involve meticulous planning, technical innovation and creative processes of justification.

Surprisingly, though, the basic insight of Augustinian theodicy finds support in recent science. In his 2011 book Zero Degrees of Empathy, Cambridge psychopathology professor Simon Baron-Cohen proposes “a new theory of human cruelty”. His goal, he writes, is to replace the “unscientific” term “evil” with the idea of “empathy erosion”: “People said to be cruel or evil are simply at one extreme of the empathy spectrum,” he writes. (He points out, though, that some people at this extreme display no more cruelty than those higher up the empathy scale – they are simply socially isolated.)

Loss of empathy resembles the Augustinian concept of evil in that it is a deficiency of goodness – or, to put it less moralistically, a disruption of normal functioning – rather than a positive force. In this way at least, Baron-Cohen’s theory echoes Augustine’s argument, against the Manicheans, that evil is not an independent reality but, in essence, a lack or a loss.

[div class=attrib]Read the entire article following the jump.[end-div]

[div class=attrib]Image: Marvel Comics Vault of Evil. Courtesy of Wikia / Marvel Comics.[end-div]