The Root of all Evil
May 21st, 2020
Hatred never ceases by hatred but by love alone is healed.
Is civilization just a flash in the pan? Will “progress” prove to be a trap we can’t escape? What is our basic problem?
I have come to believe that the essence of progress — and our basic challenge — is conceptual thinking. The ability to have ideas, particularly about what is “good” and what is “bad,” is what has brought humanity, practically overnight, to where we are today.
Conceptual thinking is humanity’s greatest blessing and our greatest curse. Whether we get out of the mess we’ve created depends on whether we recognize the downside of ideation. You can’t just think outside the box when thinking is the box.
The fundamental lesson we have to learn is that “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” We need to see that the root of all evil is the idea of evil itself.
Down in the Dumps
Pink Floyd, “Goodbye Blue Sky”
Less than a century ago, John Muir reminded us that “our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air and the scenes in which pure air is found.” I once visited a woman who had sealed up her house and was running all the air through filters. I asked her, “can’t you just open the windows and let in some fresh air?” She said, “there is no fresh air.”
What kind of existence is that? Having to live in a bubble reminds me of the child in the Holocaust who had to hide in a latrine. If this is what progress has brought us to, then to me, human history is, as in Joyce’s Ulysses, “a nightmare from which I’m trying to awake.”
In my view, civilization has been little more than an arms race, with humans trying to outdo other humans, and of course, Mother Nature. Once the spiral starts, no one can hide and no one can win. Napalmolive: you’re soaking in it.
Many think science and technology can save us, but STEM will never get to the root. You could say science is a rabbit hole and technology, a sewer pipe. For you can’t be led to a solution by what leads away.
The Problem with Problems
In Genesis, what tree did humanity eat of that caused The Fall?
Knowledge is what we ask of science. It’s what the word “science” means. What does it mean, “to know?”
To know is to exercise humanity’s original superpower: conceptual thinking. To think conceptually means to form ideas. When we believe those ideas are true, we call them knowledge. Every idea, however, is a brick in the wall that separates us from reality, including each other and ourselves. For a concept is a label, and labels are both powerful and dangerous.
Let’s say you make dinner and you have leftovers, so you put them in a container. You stick a label on the lid, jot down what’s inside, and stick it in the fridge. A few days later, you’re hungry, so you look in the fridge. You don’t have to look in the container because you’ve labeled it.
The label, however, doesn’t tell you if what’s inside has changed. Maybe it spoiled. Maybe a couple days ago, you opened two identical containers and accidentally switched the lids. Or you reused a lid that still had an old label on it. I don’t know about you, but these things happen to me pretty often.
You can see how a label can be helpful, but it can also be hurtful, even dangerous. Think of how we might label other people or ourselves as “stupid,” “lazy,” “dishonest,” “good for nothing,” “brilliant,” “trustworthy,” etc. We label situations as “good” or “bad.”
We develop entire belief systems that are just that: merely ideas. Our -isms include racism, which one is big label: judging what’s on the inside based on what see see on the outside.
Last September, I was sorting blueberries with my partner’s five-year old niece. Some had soured, but it was very difficult to tell. After a while, she said, “blueberries are the opposite of people. Blueberries are the same on the outside but different on the inside. People are different on the outside but the same on the inside.”
That’s sounds sweet, but it’s a label too: an idea. We’re not all the same on the inside. The Golden Rule, for example, is a rather poor guideline because we don’t all want the same thing. If you assume that you know what’s going on inside another person, or in a container in the fridge, you’re going to run into trouble.
What Color are Your Glasses?
You cannot legislate an author into correctly labeling his product, like a can of pudding whose ingredients are listed on the label… you cannot compel him to declare what part is true and what isn’t if he himself does not know.
Krishnamurti says “intelligence is not discernment and judgment or critical evaluation. Intelligence is the seeing of what is. The what is is constantly changing, and when the seeing is anchored in the past, the intelligence of seeing ceases.”
Similarly, the Tao Te Ching says that “to pursue knowledge, add something every day. To follow the Tao,” which is to say, to live well, “remove something every day.” What you remove is your preconceived notions.
In Robert Heinlein’s novel, Stranger in a Strange Land, a Fair Witness is a professional specifically employed to observe without extrapolation, to strip away assumptions and other layers of interpretation. A Fair Witness, looking at your unopened leftovers, would tell you what the lid says, not what’s inside.
Most of us are not fair witnesses. Our labels have disconnected us from reality. Our lives have come mediated as ideas come between us and actual experience. We rely on the media, but it screens us from reality. This is how fake news can proliferate: a mind disconnected from immediate experience can believe anything.
When such a mind dominates the body — that is, when we’re stuck in our heads — we can lose our senses, becoming “unhinged.” When a whole society is built on ideas, it can lead to speculation and stock market crashes, to civilization and its collapse. The intention to “be good” paves the road to hell.
The power conferred by science as a technique is only obtainable by something analogous to the worship of Satan, that is to say, by the renunciation of love.
The word science comes from scire, “to distinguish, to separate.” Scire, in turn, comes from *skei, “to split.” Knowledge splits the world apart, into self vs. other, good vs. bad, and innumerable other categories. I call this process, the basic building block of civilization, apartment.
Apartment is a double-edged sword. It enables us to build cities and insulate ourselves, for a while, from pain. But we do this at the cost of alienating ourselves from the world, including from our own bodies, our very nature. What happens when you put on gloves?
When we are able to live apart from others, unaffected by our environment, we consider that an improvement. But when we insulate, we isolate. It’s no wonder so many humans are so lonely.
The Match in the Haystack
Conceptual thinking, a.k.a., apartment, is our original addiction. It’s why science and technology — all tools and ideas — are a slippery slope. For, like they say, when you’re holding a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. Even the idea of problems can be self-fulfilling. One could argue that “problems” are all man-made.
Take technology. Some argue that we live in a world that is already polluted, so we have to clean it with the tools we’ve created. It doesn’t matter that technology is what polluted the world in the first place. At this point, we have to fight fire with fire. But technology, like science, grew out of conceptual thinking. The process started there.
Or take books. In Leela: Finding More than Mushrooms, I argue that books are no substitute for learning from another person. But in order to make my point, I wrote a book. Again, fighting fire with fire. But the fire began with an idea. Like John Steinbeck says, ideas are like rabbits: you have two and pretty soon you have a dozen.
To Spite Our Face
To take us out of the dark
Have you ever found yourself doing something in order to accomplish something else, which you started doing in order to finish something before that? Trudging through this kind of ever-lengthening to do list is sometimes called “yak shaving.” It means doing something ridiculous — or just ridiculously far from what you set out to do — in order to achieve something initially quite reasonable.
It is quite reasonable to try to meet basic human needs. And as a means to that end, conceptual thinking can be a powerful tool. But it is also equally dangerous. Human ingenuity makes a great servant but a terrible master. Disconnected from reality, it forgets the difference between could and should. This can lead to building houses underwater.
Imagine someone coming to you and saying, “I have an underwater house. I’m having a lot of trouble with water damage. What is the best way to stop a leak?” Of course, the best answer is, “don’t build a house underwater.”
We’ve built in flood plains. We’ve built civilization on fossil fuel. Granted, this is where we’re at. What’s done is done. But at some point, we need to stop fighting Mother Nature. We need to cut our losses. For, like they say, if you find yourself in a hole, the first thing to do is to stop digging.
To stop digging is to realize that artificial approaches create artificial problems. Consider the controversy surrounding raw milk. We create the need for quality control standards when production moves into industrial — and thus, often unsanitary — conditions. Now the same is true for “raw water.” I wonder what the standards will be for raw air.
Consider medicine. When our modern lifestyle causes cancer, we fight it as if it was a monster from outer space. It reminds me of the time I filmed an elaborate horror movie spoof. It featured a monster spawned from not cleaning the lint trap. That origin story, however, is quickly forgotten as the rest of the blockbuster focuses on killing the messenger — much like Godzilla.
As one pioneering permaculturalist (organic farmer) lamented,
The reason that man’s improved techniques seem to be necessary is that the natural balance has been so badly upset beforehand by those same techniques, that the land has become dependent on them…It is as if a fool were to stomp on and break the tiles of his roof. Then when it starts to rain and the ceiling begins to rot away, he hastily climbs up to mend the damage, rejoicing in the end that he has accomplished a miraculous solution.
It is the same way with the scientist. He pores over books night and day, straining his eyes and becoming nearsighted, and if you wonder what on earth he has been working on all the time—it is to become the inventor of eyeglasses…
Fighting Fighting with Fighting
Just as we assume we need technology to solve the problems it created, we assume we need to fight violence with violence. This is a central myth of civilization because civilization is built on violence. What we generally consider to be “progress” is knowing how to get the world to give us what we want, whether by manipulation or by force. To live in civilization is to be constantly at war: with others and with nature, including our own.
The Agricultural Revolution was the original war. Agriculture forces the land to do what it would not do otherwise, launching a cycle of systemic violence. Farming creates what we then, in a massive display of projection, villify and call “invasive species.” But like they say, it’s not the deer that is crossing the road; it’s the road that is crossing the forest.
Today, people readily promote “native plants,” unaware of the fact that modern native plant programs were pioneered by the Nazis. In Nazi Germany, Jews were also considered an invasive species, just as immigrants continue to be scapegoated today. When you live in an aggro culture, there’s always someone else to blame.
In one of the most ironic examples of human invention, the same man who won a Nobel Prize for pioneering modern fertilizer is also considered the father of chemical warfare. His lab created the pesticide that was later used to exterminate six million Jews, including his family.
In our self-created struggle, a classic refrain is that “nonviolence would not have stopped Hitler.” Actually, nonviolent resistance was attempted against the Nazis on several occasions, and it worked every time. Similarly, in the past fifty years, Nonviolent Communication (NVC), a comprehensive approach to cooperation, has successfully de-escalated bloodshed in Rwanda, Palestine, Ireland, Serbia and elsewhere. And still practically no one has heard of it.
Nonviolent Communication has a place for what it calls the “protective use of force.” But force is used with the utmost restraint, knowing that the use of force doesn’t prevent Hitlers; it creates them. Violence begets violence. When all you do is hit, there’s always another Hitler.
Message in a Battle
Taking out Hitler, then, or any other perceived enemy, including the toxins in our food, barely changes a thing. We can make sure our plastic doesn’t contain BPA, but what about everything else in there? When all you do is treat the symptom, you can’t win.
There’s a story about a group walking along a river. They spot a child about to drown in the waves. They jump in and save the child. Two more children appear and they are saved too. After saving a few more children, the group realizes that maybe they should find out how the kids are getting in there in the first place. So they go upstream, find Hitler, and kill him.
Just kidding. It’s just an allegory. We never find out what they find upstream. But we do know the source of all violence: turning natura into civitas. The more we fight nature, the more “development” is actually devolution. It’s why the 20th century “is not going to be remembered for its wars or its technological innovations, but rather as the era in which we stood by and either actively endorsed or passively accepted the massive destruction of both biological and cultural diversity on the planet.”
What brought us to this point? Not the development of the landscape, but the development of our minds. Hopefully, looking back on the 21st century, we will say that “the greatest achievement of humanity is not its works of art, science, or technology, but the recognition of its own dysfunction, its own madness.” Humanity’s madness stems from separating crops from weeds, right from wrong, and good from evil. Once the battle lines are drawn, the tilling fields are but one step away.
Before even the most obvious aspects of the balance of nature had been recognized, a greedy, self-centered mankind naïvely divided plants into the useful and the useless. In the same way, it divided animals into those which were either “domestic” on the one hand or “game” on the other, and those which were called “vermin” and ought to be destroyed. That was the day when extermination of whole species was taken as a matter of course.
It’s time to wake up. There are no “bad guys.” Badness is a label humanity invented. Take Satan. Before Christianity, even Satan wasn’t evil. Early accounts depict “the satan” as any of God’s angels performing the task of being an obstruction: aggravating, but not malevolent.
Today, however, we’re not getting the message. We don’t hear God, so we get Godzilla instead. To hear God is simply to see clearly: to see through our own filters. As Ken Wilbur teaches, for true progress, we need to not only transcend but include what came before. We can’t just slap a label on it and call it a day. Calling ourselves sapiens, for example, doesn’t change the fact that we’re still animals. Our shit still stinks.
“users should not take ore samples out of their jars”
Conceptual thinking is like Pandora’s box. It can lead, as we’ve seen, to a spiral of unintended consequences. And yet, knowledge is natural: it came from a tree. Technology is natural: we come from the earth. Anything we make is both artificial and natural. We evolved to do this.
To know is to split up. To split up is powerful: it releases energy. The box is a bomb. A bomb isn’t bad, just dangerous.
Splitting apart or joining together: which one do you think we need more of right now?