Supernatural Evil and Ponerology
What is the metaphysical status of evil?
I was asked recently how ponerology meshes with supernatural evil. More generally, what is the nature of evil, ultimately? Years ago when seeing what various modern thinkers had to say on the topic, I noticed something curious. Whether in the context of ponerology or not, they didn’t seem to like the word. Evil. It implied a kind of supernaturalism they were uncomfortable with, a “Manichean dualism” involving some personal figure like Satan or some nameless principle of evil at force in the world. If evil exists, it must exist in a theological context, apparently.
This was taken as a reason to sidestep the question entirely. Supernaturalism is not true, because it cannot be true, and therefore evil—as supernatural—must not exist. Or something like that. It’s an absurd position to take. Like the professional philosopher who is a physicalist reductionist at work, but who believes in and practices some degree of free will at home and on the weekends, like everyone else. In practice, everyone believes in evil. Because it’s real, and we know it, viscerally. We see it in the world around us and we see our own capacity for it.
But it must be fashionable in some circles to consider oneself “above all that.” Good and evil are what simple people believe in. True intellects of the first order reject such quaint and superstitious notions. There is no good, no evil, just what evolution has programmed us to like and dislike, or whatever our particular culture has convinced us is acceptable or not. Raise a child from infancy to believe that violent pedophiliac incest and sadistic torture-murder is ok, and hey, it’s ok! Who are we to judge? It’s just their culture.
In practice, the vast majority of us know evil when we see it, or better, when we experience it. “Simple people” have no problem calling it by its name. But some, like the nameless thinkers alluded to above, still deny it. If a lot of those people happen to be tenured academics, well, it takes a lot of intelligence (and openness) to be able to convince oneself of something so fundamentally stupid. Only a person so divorced from the world we live in can convince themselves that reality is so utterly contrary to what it is. But even then, an encounter with evil will often change their minds.
For the purposes of ponerology as a naturalistic science, using a naturalistic methodology, the definition of evil is quite simple. In the introduction to Political Ponerology, I quoted Philip Zimbardo’s definition, which is a decent place to start:
Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one’s authority and systemic power to encourage and permit others to do so on your behalf.
If you kidnap some random person, lock them in your basement, and abuse them mentally, physically, and spiritually, degrade them sexually, and then destroy them—or if you use your authority to coerce someone else into doing this—that’s evil. There are smaller evils, of course, but they are all destructive in nature. The administrative terrorism of a corrupt superior, the parental terrorism of an abusive parent, or political terrorism of intel agencies and revolutionaries: they all ruin lives, though on different scales and to different degrees.
That’s pretty much the implicit definition Lobaczewski relies on in his book. Here’s how he put it:
From over 5,000 psychotic, neurotic, and healthy patients, the author selected 384 adults who behaved in a manner which had seriously hurt others. The type of harm they did to others varied greatly, from emotionally hurtful behavior and slander, physical and sexual abuse of a child, to physical injury and murder. (p. 75)
He observed that the vast majority (around 85%), perhaps all, of the people who commit acts of evil have some pathological feature without which they would not have committed those acts. The categories of such factors fit nicely within the biopsychosocial model of psychopathology. These individuals demonstrate various forms of brain damage, heritable personality traits/disorders, developmental disorders, social factors such as abusive childhoods by parents who demonstrate these factors, or basic group psychology (social contagion). In a pathocracy, the genetic factors in particular get selected unerringly for leadership positions.
As he is at pains to point out, this should tell us something. If this is the case, the usual moral categories we use are insufficient to the data at hand. The “diagnosis” of evil shifts from the mere intentional acts committed by supposedly rational free actors, to identifiable psychobiological factors that underlie those acts. Evil is a sickness, first and foremost—on the naturalistic level of analysis, that is (just wait, I’ll get to the supernatural).
Adrian Raine provides a stark example of this in his book The Anatomy of Violence. He describes a man who developed a brain tumor. As the tumor grew, he became a sexaholic with pedophiliac tendencies. He started collecting child porn, abused a young relative, sexually propositioned work colleagues, felt the urge to rape the landlady, and became suicidal. When the tumor was removed, his sexuality reverted to being completely normal. Seven months later, the tumor reappeared, and his deviant sexual urges did as well. It was again removed, and again the desires and inappropriate behaviors ceased entirely. Simple moralizing won’t make sense of this case.
Coming back to those anti-superstitious academics. Personally, I think their intuition—that evil implies something we might call supernatural or metaphysical in nature—is essentially correct. Unfortunately, their philosophical materialism just left them to grab the wrong end of the stick. Evil is real; because it is real, it must have a metaphysical component; metaphysical evil is real.
It’s easy enough to bracket off the supernatural and just study the naturalistic manifestations of evil, which is what Lobaczewski did. There’s plenty of material and much explanatory potential in this approach. But like all philosophical materialism, it has enough holes in it to agitate those with the taste for a more coherent and comprehensive worldview. Why evil, exactly?
Many people (smart ones included) can go their whole lives either not asking questions like this, or being satisfied with cheap physicalist answers. Imagine doing mathematics your whole life and never knowing, or caring, why math works, or how and why it corresponds to observable reality. What is the relation between an abstract logico-mathematical language and the stuff of the world? How are we able to discover mathematical relationships, and why does the world seem to function according to them? What is the ontological status of an abstract language, the rules of logic, or a mathematical equation? And how do those abstractions map onto reality so reliably?
Similarly, is evil just evil because “evolution done made us that way, derp,” or is there something deeper to it? With my post on natural law as background, here’s what I think on the subject.
I was talking to a Jehovah’s Witness one day, and he said something almost word for word that I had read by a great Sufi master (probably Ibn ‘Arabi). I think the discussion might have centered on the problem of evil and why God doesn’t intervene to save us from the predations of evildoers. The answer was that God works through us. We, humans, are the instruments of God’s will. Our actions are how God works in the world. So if someone is drowning, God doesn’t psychokinetically lift them out of the water. An actual human must save them.
Put another way, the teleology of the world—the preferred direction to which events move, the inherent goal to which it is pulled—is effected by those with the will to take the actions aligned with that direction or goal.1 This applies at all levels. Physics and chemistry play their role. Matter and energy behave in relatively stable ways that allow for all else that is possible in our physical world: the formation of complex chemicals and biology, which allow for a great variety of forms of biological experience, including the variety of human experience. In that sense, physics and chemistry are consistent with teleology, because they provide the basis from which it can manifest.
Organic life strives towards more complex and higher forms of affect and intellect, over vast time scales, and with many failed experiments. The human form allowed a qualitative leap in terms of possibilities: a body allowing for all the richness of human consciousness, and the capacity to embody a wider slice of cosmic teleology.
The things of the world—beings—have greater or lesser capacities, embody smaller or bigger slices of that teleology. “God’s will” is done on Earth. And we’re the ones who do it on the human level.
But ours is not a clockwork world. It is one of trial and error, blind alleys and failed attempts punctuated by stunning successes. A world of hazard, uncertainty, and the freedom to choose well or poorly. Not everything goes according to plan, because freedom entails the possibilities of ignoring the plan, forgetting it, or improvising with only a very limited awareness of what it might be. It’s also a world where things break.
The further up the scale of creation one goes, the greater the complexity, the greater the freedom, and the greater the possibility to err and break things. Tying this back to the natural law discussion, there is a sense in which we all fall under, and “obey,” the natural law. Physically, we all have a common substrate which we can’t help but “obey”: the physical “laws” and chemistry by which we function. We share that with everything physical, from quarks to Mark Zuckerberg. Biologically, as a species we have done well enough to survive—the tautological sine qua non of life. And “humanly,” we have developed societies and cultures that may not be eternal, but whose moralities and worldviews—however flawed—are at least functional enough to support centuries of widespread internal cooperation, value-development, and intellectual creation. But things break. Cultures get wiped out or self-destruct.
How does evil fit into this picture? Just as “good” might be defined as being and acting in accordance with nature (or teleology, or God), “evil” can be defined as the willful opposition to this logos or order. If God’s will is done by saving that drowning man, evil is done by actively drowning him. The individual within a given culture can either coast along on their biological and cultural inheritance, self-develop, or fail utterly at being human.
Tying this in with the psychobiological approach, evil is a sickness, a brokenness. It manifests on our level primarily as broken psychobiology. This brokenness is a physical expression, a reflection, of a rejection of reality, a rejection of teleology, a rejection of the human natural law. Anti-reality. Anti-teleology. Anti-human.2
Doomguy Has Entered Chat
So how do “demons” fit into the picture? “Satan”? “Ahriman”? I mean, if we’re talking supernatural evil here, let’s get to the good stuff.
But first, names like “Satan” and “demons” have a whole lot of dogmatic baggage attached to them that may not be helpful, which is why I put them in quotation marks. For my purposes I prefer to think of a phenomenon, x, which may have been called by various names at various times, but which may not be fully described by those names and the lore accreted to them. Maybe they’ve been called gods, demons, angels, aliens. The features of each of these may correspond to x in some ways, some better than the others, but not in all the details.
With that said, consider what follows not a tightly argued position, but more of a speculative summary of what I think may be the case. I’ll limit my “maybes” and “perhapses,” but please take them as implied and insert them on your own wherever you see fit.
Human evil is an individual phenomenon with aspects of group dynamics. It manifests first at the level of an individual person, who may operate like a lone wolf—take your typical serial killer. But group dynamics also enter the picture. Some individuals are more susceptible to the “spellbinding” effect of pathological/evil factors than others. This effect is magnified in a group setting, which we see in ponerogenic groups like organized crime networks, revolutionary fanatics, (semi-)clandestine organizations and pressure groups, or examples of mass formation. Psychobiology is the proximate source of evil in our world.
The ultimate source of evil individual and group dynamics is metaphysical in nature. In this case it isn’t “God’s will” at work, but its opposite, which exists by virtue of the necessity of negation as a logical complement to affirmation, without which true freedom would not obtain within reality. (The “freedom” only to do good is not freedom. Evil must exist as a counterbalance, contrast, and live option. Similarly, beauty would be indistinguishable and unrecognizable in the absence of ugliness.)
While anti-teleological evil is expressed psychobiologically, the “attractors” that define the paths or choices taken by such individuals and groups exist nonphysically. At the most abstract level they are pure possibilities or unrealized potentials. Think along the lines of Sheldrake’s behavioral morphic fields, Langan’s telons, dynamical system attractors, informational templates or patterns. Nonphysical is essentially the same as saying cognitive.
These nonphysical/cognitive attractors “capture” individuals and groups. For example, the psychobiology of a serial killer restricts their goal-directed behavior towards a specific sexually sadistic fantasy template that must be played out in order to release the build-up of inner tension. Groups can be directed towards goals they are unaware of consciously, as is common in revolutions that never turn out the way many of their participants want them to. But this capture process is more complex and involves intervening layers between the human and the purely abstract or informational. Enter x.
“Angels and demons.” Humanity is not the pinnacle of creation, nor is it at the top of the food chain. There exist “higher” beings that are as qualitatively different from us as we are from chimps. If we were to categorize them in human terms, we might say that they embody highly concentrated versions of the traits we see as good and evil. Take the worst psychopath, multiply that by a thousand, and you get x. Take the greatest human, do the same, and you get y. The higher world is more polarized than our own, the contrast set out in much sharper relief.
“The spirit of life vs. the spirit of death.” X and y still exist physically and biologically in some sense. Since our space is dimensional and these are “higher” (i.e. “spiritual”) beings, they may be categorized as “higher-dimensional” in nature.3 Cognitively, they act as focusers of the more abstract “attractors,” intentionally capturing human minds in order to direct them one way or the other. Ted Bundy wasn’t just acting out; he was, in a sense, taking orders.
In other words, very real x-beings take a personal and active role in directing or influencing human behavior. The primary means by which they do so is through utilizing broken humans—psychopathology. Or breaking them in the first place. And the primary means of breaking and manipulating humans is through the pathways identified by Lobaczewski, utilizing biological, psychological, and social factors.
Here’s Lobaczewski’s description of psychopathic influence from Logocracy. Extrapolate upwards:
The personality of a normal person subjected to the influence of psychopathic individuals for an extended period of time undergoes varying degrees of destruction. … Such influence leads to decriterialization of thought and worldview, and a sense of the inability to reintegrate one’s shattered personality. This is attempted at the level of depreciated moral values and impoverished emotionality. More intense reactions include anxiety and recurring depressive states. People subjected to such influence begin to “fight demons” whose strange nature has crept into their souls. The mental pathological material gradually saturates such a personality and becomes a foreign component in it, but one that is difficult to eliminate.
“The mind of the spirit vs. the mind of the flesh.” If exemplary humans are agents of “God’s will” (at least in part via y), perpetrators of human evil are agents of “Satan’s will” via x. “Demonic possession” is one of the ways in which humans have tried to describe one variety of x-capture. So-called egregores are not emergent creations of collective minds; collective minds are, to a degree, the expression of another form of x-capture. Imagine mass formation, “nudge psychology,” and MK-ULTRA taken to the next level.
“Powers and principalities.” The same goes for “ethnic gods.” Like mob bosses and political rulers, x divvies up territory. As Charles Fort wrote, “The Earth is a farm. We are someone else’s property.” At least, that’s how x sees it.
Above, I wrote, “In a pathocracy, the genetic factors in particular get selected unerringly for leadership positions.” The development of pathocracy is the earthly reflection of a higher template, one that aligns humanity into a hierarchy of evil, in which the majority are enslaved. (I first broached this idea in my review of Mattias Desmet’s book.) And those most predisposed to receive the x signal—psychopaths—gravitate towards all the chief nodes of the hierarchy, in imitation of the higher template by which x itself operates.
In short, psychobiological evil represents the primary earthly manifestation or agent of metaphysical evil. (That’s not to say that x limits itself to working exclusively through psychobiology, but that would require an even crazier article, and I think this one is crazy enough for now.)
That’s how I think things might work. Far out enough for you?
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More deeply, the universe is structured such that each part is a more or less limited version of the whole. God’s power is divided and shared among all parts of reality. Everything is God, in a sense, and therefore God’s “power” is in all things. God is in all things, and all things are in God. Panentheism.
But if all things are “in God,” isn’t evil just as Godly? This is the view of some metaphysical systems. And it’s the logical endpoint of the type of dualism found in Zoroastrianism, which posits two competing eternal principles. (By syndiffeonesis, there must be a common medium in which the two exist, and they must be the same on some level.) I think this is a problem of mental parallax. It’s true in a sense, if you look at it from a certain perspective, but from another it doesn’t make total sense. It implies that the cosmos is fundamentally schizophrenic, hopelessly at war with itself, and with no overall direction or unity.
If a fourth spatial dimension exists physically, four-dimensional beings may project three-dimensional forms into our reality, going some way to explain fleeting accounts of physical experiences and their paranormal effects.