In primitive times, humans sought a cause for illness, bad weather, an unsuccessful hunt. By externalizing the cause into a spirit, a god, or a supernatural entity, it was then possible to gain a measure of control over destiny by appeasing, sacrificing or otherwise petitioning that external entity. Now we recognize a more scientific causal chain behind events.
But in the case of evil, we still deal with the devil. There are people who claim Satan is real, but cleverly disguised. Satan, nor any other devil does not deign to appear in a wreath of sulfurous smoke just in time to be captured on a YouTube video. There are fewer pictures of the devil than are of UFO’s.
I’m convinced there is no external incarnation of evil. Want to see the devil? Look in a mirror. Evil is an endemic disease of human beings. It’s contagious and we are the natural carriers.
Specifically, the kind of evil I’m describing here is malevolence, the willful intent to harm another with knowledge of that harm.
I don’t consider here the evil of earthquakes, tsunamis and tornados, nor do I consider the Christian evil of temptation, the evils of self-destructive behavior, or the evil of ignorant and inconsiderate actions. I’m concerned about the killers, the rapists, the criminal mafiosi, the operators of Ponzi schemes and assassins, both the kind that take life and the kind that destroy livelihoods and families by other means. That kind of evil is malevolence, and it is a contagious disease endemic in the human population.
Susceptible humans have three built-in weaknesses that allow entry to evil: extreme need, a weak organ of consequence, and a weak organ of empathy.
We all have needs, and most of us find ways to satisfy, substitute other things, or delay satisfaction for those needs. Some, however, have weak resistance to perceived needs and needs dominate their thoughts and actions. Money and sex are obvious, but the need for social acceptance and control are the most dangerous.
The consequences of the inappropriate pursuit of needs in a healthy social setting is strongly negative, but not often quick. A healthy person will always understand that the wrong act frustrates his or her objective. Being too direct or too blunt does not work. Every healthy person can calculate the consequences of a bad act. Unless, of course, the organ that does that calculation is not functioning correctly - the organ of consequence, in other words, is weak.
What do we see when we look along the chain of consequences to see the outcome? Have we made things harder for the ones we care about, and will we therefore get retaliation, rejection or failure? Do we care if we hurt someone else? Do we even know whether we are hurting someone else? Psychologists say a symptom of autism is the inability to recognize how other people feel. Autism is fairly common and there are many functional autistics. On the other side of the spectrum are pathological cases, who are quite aware of others’ feelings, but have no empathy, so they use feelings to manipulate others for their own selfish purposes. These groups have a weak organ of empathy.
So you can see that a person who cannot control his or her needs, who cannot work out the real consequences, and who cannot empathize is a crippled person who could become malevolent. But is every such person evil? And even if such a person commits an evil act on occasion, are they really evil?
One of the tools of modern psychology is fMRI, or functional magnetic resonance imaging. An MRI machine can be set up to visualize the consumption of tagged glycogen in the brain to see where energy is being used. Those are the most active neurons. This can also be done in real time (rtfMRI), and with cleverly worked out experiments, the brain patterns involved in conditioning and habitual mental patterns are revealed. What we see is that neural processes can be re-patterned. The efferent dendrites that merge into a set of neurons can have their values reset; the neurotransmitters can be depleted or enhanced, and the results will show up on rtFMRI. For example, a bipolar patient’s brain works differently in the manic phase than in the depressive phase, and it shows up on fMRI. If a certain pattern is repeated often enough, over time there will be a new “set” to the brain pattern. Thus, paranoia can be ingrained, soldiers can be trained to kill, and the bubbly child becomes a cynical adult.
Beyond the resetting of neural parameters, “plasticity” will eventually cause new neural connections to form and rewire the brain. I propose that one such rewiring is malevolence. It occurs in individuals with weak control over needs, a weak organ of consequence and a weak organ of empathy. It requires a trigger, a source of infection.
Ever try to have a rational conversation with a delusional person or a someone in the debilitating stages of Alzheimer’s? After a while you will give up. You can’t reason with someone like that, except in rare occasions, and few will try. You can’t share the commodity of reason with them.
Similarly, you can’t share the commodity of trust with a malevolent person. You suspect they will try to use anything they can against you, and therefore you are wary. The distrust hangs there, obvious to all parties, as a barrier to any form of real agreement. The healthy individual sees this as an isolated incident, but to the infected person, this is just more evidence that his point of view is correct. It reinforces malevolence. Malevolence destroys trust, and lack of trust begets malevolence among the susceptible. This is how the weak ones get infected.
Once they are infected they find they cannot deal easily with anyone, but they are tolerated, conditionally tolerated perhaps, by their own kind, in a sort of culture of evil. Evil seeks out evil, and the groups that emerge form their own rules, like street gangs and drug lords. Those groups have their own initiation rites, their hierarchy of ruthless leaders, and enforcement by fear. To a healthy person, this is hell.
When we incarcerate evil doers, we are simply culturing the most virulent forms of the disease. Prison is the place where it’s best to be worst. The baddest are better than the good. Notice the inversion of values. It’s not the incarceration itself that’s so difficult for prisoners, it’s the other prisoners. Nor is it the violence of their acts. Malevolence doesn’t always erupt into violence. It can come out in many ways: deceit, intolerance, betrayal, protection rackets, control over food or work assignments. Knowing that your fellow cannot be trusted and that he or she cannot trust you either, for good reason, is punishment enough. Evil creates its own hell, it needs no help from Satan.
When a susceptible person is first exposed to a virulent malevolence, he or she often experiences a feeling of release. it looks like a way out from personal troubles. Then, as the pattern of evil is learned and, over time neural plasticity begins to rewire the brain, every event is seen from a perspective that is inverted from the normal view. No one is clean, no one has anything but selfish motives, no one really gives a damn about anything but himself. The more intelligent, the better the rationalization, but the inversion of values is still there.
What about redemption? What about the Samaritan concept that even the worst person has a spark of good? That all it takes is an opportunity, a second chance? In most cases this is simply wishful thinking, but redemption occurs sporadically, “as eternal as the blade of grass that sprouts in the most barren place”.
Plasticity works both ways, and saints are just as stubborn as sinners.