Thursday, November 29, 2007

What is evil

I'm a biologist. I think of living creatures, cells, people, ecosystems, nations, Europe.

People talk about evil, the inherent corruptibility of nature. Well, I see it this way. You've got patterns. Some, like crystals, are in static equilibrium. Some, like flames, are in dynamic equilibrium. Candle is always flowing through the stable pattern that we call flame. Some, like fog, have no pattern. A gas is what we call a system that is in 99.999999999999999999999% of the possible patterns that that system could take. It's the other .00000000000000001% of the patterns that we find interesting. It takes a lot of careful work to keep a system in that small range of patterns. It's so much easier for it to end up in one of the random gas patterns.

Now, you can beset a gas with all kinds of stupid random accidents and all that will happen is that you shift it into another of those 99.9999999999999999% of the patterns that we don't distinguish as different, so, nothing much happens to it. Gasses don't die.

Crystals are a little more delicate, but you have to hit them pretty hard or torch the hell out of them to do any damage. Even if you shatter one, it hasn't really changed its static pattern much. Anyway you wouldn't call it death.

A flame is a little more interesting. Flames are pretty sturdy and can even jump from one food source to another, but a slight gust of wind and, poof, it's out. Then again they are easily revived. Is it the same flame? It seems a little like death to put out a flame.

Now when the systems get more COMPLICATED and maintain themselves in DYNAMIC EQULIBRIUM (a flame is in dynamic equilibrium), things start to get scary. If, for instance you have ever written and run computer programs, you've noticed how a very minor accidental, random change in even one bit of computer memory can have what WE could call disastrous effects - sending the system into a sometimes bizarre, lurching dive from its .00000000000000000001% of the interesting patterns into chaos and eventually DEATH, where most things eventually end up anyway.

The more complicated the system, the more bizarre and drawn out that lurching dive can take. When you have a system as complicated as a grandmother (an integrated community of 100,000,000,000 cells each as complicated as our finest computers) and you flip one gene in one cell accidentally with a stray ultraviolet ray, or the wrong virus (there are right viruses), or a stray dioxin molecule, the system takes a grotesque trip through that state space, doing things that don't make SENSE in grandmothers, and finally after a few years returns to the soil and the air.

The point is, that 99.99999999999999999% of the possible ways that our local part of the universe can be in don't make sense to US. To make sense, parts of the system have to be correlated with each other, patterns have to match, and that is unlikely. What we take for granted as the normal way of things here in our life on Earth, are in fact highly unusual. Studying evolution, the history of Earth, physics, chemistry, thermodynamics, gives us the perspective of just how unusual our situation is, how delicate it is, how difficult it is to maintain. The situation requires a gratefulness, and awe that we are not capable of. I think it is incredibly rude of us to expect that God has set it all up this way with the flick of his bick. That this is the normal state of affairs, that we deserve it, that we should expect it.

Creationists, etc, are appalled at the idea that they are the product of merely four billion years of random trial and error. Rather they would like to be the product of six days of work by a super-powerful being. Work of that nature is CHEAP. It could probably be snuffed out and reinstated at the drop of a hat, like a flame. No one goes to the funeral of a flame. I can't imagine holding more PRECIOUS, work that took six easy days to complete than work that took four billion years of touch and go balance! Death and life are necessarily brother and sister. Horror and delicacy are necessary to define each other. [Is this why fresh innocent young girls and senseless destructive monsters ALLWAYS go together in so many stories and movies?]

There are sentiments to the effect that you have to be really sick to think that events like the holocaust are merely the results of accidental lacks of goodness... The belief is, rather, that they are the results of the work of some EVIL FORCE. But that is the wrong side of the coin. The horror of the Holocaust is that it took two thousand years of sustained nurturing FROM accidents to bring the living Jewish people that far. Or, a more detailed analysis, will bring us to wonder that all of Europe hasn't strangled itself yet, the balance between so many different greedy, stupid, and excitable peoples being so difficult to maintain.

According to the second law of thermodynamics, it is 10 to the 10 to the 26 times easier for the universe to be what we would call a luke-warm glob of random gasses and cold dead star cinders, than for there to have been a Jewish community of Homo sapiens surviving for two thousand years at all! And it has taken a hell of allot of hard work in the way of an Earth engine driven by millions of gigawatts of sunlight to create and sustain that people, and allot of miracles, besides.

It IS the nature of things that just the wrong anti-miracle can send the whole tennuous BALANCE tumbling down.

That possibility, or reality does not move me to postulate an inherent evil reality lurking around back there, unless you want to call the second law of thermodynamics evil. It does move me to great awe that such patterns can appear and be sustained for as long as they have been.

And this gives us the responsibility to learn how to nurture such COMPLICATED systems amidst this flux of miracles and accidents. To learn how to thread our way through the complicated ecosystem of interactions that is Europe in order to heal her. And not to hide in a corner and make pacts with simplistic fairy tale characters named God and Satan.

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