Matrix: Reloaded Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Matrix: Revolutions Explained
The essay
Selected reader comments

Unraveling the problem

25 Apr, 2008 | Brian

This is a good follow-up to my earlier post on the subject. To me, it is patently clear that some kinds of behavior should - I guess karmically - lead to bad consequences. In its mildest form, I think that behavior like mass deception for your private benefit deserves punishment. I wish nothing but harm on the portfolio managers that dupe thousands of people into bad deals. But, perhaps unexpectedly, I would rather take up such topics under the rubric of Science. For the time being, I would like to assume that there are no degrees of misbehavior. There is only...nonconformance.

Before, I went on at some length about my own deviant behavior, and I could go on for quite a while longer. I didn't do that to glamorize my bad deeds. I did it to illustrate the thing that chafes against prescribed boundaries. As soon as I was told I was not to do something, as soon as the channel-walls of conformity rose up on all sides, directing me toward an allowable course, it was like dangling a red flag in front of a bull. It was cause enough for me to spend an irrational amount of energy thwarting these confinements merely for the sake of doing it. There was an internal vindication at having done it. There, I could say to myself, I cannot be controlled.

I mentioned reading Mere Christianity, and encountering Mr. Lewis' assertion of a primary and a secondary good. This mainly got me thinking about how disobedience could be a Big Theme.

There is another thread I need to draw into this: from the time I was quite young, I was unhappy with the story of Genesis. Well, not quite. I was unhappy with what adults told me the story meant. What they told me was that it is a story of how bad things happen to you when you disobey. The first humans disobeyed God, and the entire human race is cursed because of it. By the time I was seven or eight, I had begun to doubt this interpretation. By the time I was nine or ten, I stopped listening to what adults were telling me about this story.

They had to be wrong. Logic said so. I didn't know it at the time, but I had formulated a primitive version of the Epicurean problem of evil. I made up my own ideas about it until I finally had it formally explained to me in a university philosophy class. The Problem goes:

Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked.

I added my own extra twist to this proposition - something probably not on the mind of Epicurus, because he was not thinking about Genesis like I was - which is that Genesis asserts this same God created all things, and is therefore the maker of evil as well as the permitter of it.

There are all kinds of ways to try to rationalize out of this problem, but all of them fail. I thought for a while that an alternative cosmology might do the trick, wherein the being responsible for creation is not the same as the being responsible for goodness. Or some schizophrenic fractional personality within a whole, although this amounts to exactly the same thing. This fails too, though, because you still end up dealing with someone at the root of the universe who intentionally made part of it evil. No, the only way to grapple with this problem is to make it not a problem.

The clearest, simplest path to "not a problem" is to write off the entire thing as hogwash. I mean, what is the point in persistently believing in something that defies basic reasoning? So that's what I did. After a while, though, I went back and pulled it out of the hogwash bin. What made me was to do that was my growing awareness of mythic stories from other cultures and eras.

I began to learn a great deal about the Greek gods. The titans created the gods, one of whom is Zeus, who rebels against his creators. Prometheus rebels against Zeus by giving fire to humans. Zeus gives to Pandora a box and tells her "Don't open this," which she promptly does. That last one really made me blink. It sounds an awful lot like the story of Eve. In fact, I started seeing parallel symbols all over the place. Why did all these ancient storytellers, from all over the world, feel like it was important to talk about characters who defied the orders they were given?

Ah, yes. The secondary good. The gooder good.

There was, as it turned out, another way to make the problem of evil not a problem. Maybe the story wasn't wrong. Maybe the interpretation was wrong. Maybe the idea that God made evil, or that God permits evil, isn't a big deal. Maybe it's the best deal.