Friday, July 29, 2011

Cosmic Savagery

Via PZ Myers, I came across this video:

There is much more to qualify about the comments in this video, but I think it important to discuss one of the recurring themes: the desire for cosmic justice. I think it important to discuss for a very simple reason, that it is no exaggeration or hyperbole to say that the underlying mentality constitutes a threat to the continued survival of the species in this modern age. The reasons are obvious.

Bertrand Russell summarizes it aptly in his Sceptical Essays:
When we think of mankind, we think primarily of ourself as its representative; we therefore think well of mankind, and consider its preservation important. Mr Jones, the Nonconformist grocer, is sure that he deserves eternal life, and that a universe which refused it to him would be intolerably bad. But when he thinks of Mr Robinson, his Anglican competitor, who mixes sand with his sugar and is lax about Sunday, he feels that the universe might well carry charity too far. To complete his happiness, there is need of hell-fire for Mr Robinson; in this way, the cosmic importance of man is preserved, but the vital distinction between friends and enemies is not obliterated by a weak universal benevolence. Mr Robinson holds the same view with the parts inverted, and general happiness results.
Less frivolously, many of us feel that the universe is not a particularly just place and desire that somehow the good should be rewarded and the evil punished. This retributive mentality does great harm, and I strongly object to it.

Orwell talks about it well:
It is absurd to blame any German or Austrian Jew for getting his own back
on the Nazis. Heaven knows what scores this particular man may have had
to wipe out; very likely his whole family had been murdered; and after
all, even a wanton kick to a prisoner is a very tiny thing compared with
the outrages committed by the Hitler régime. But what this scene, and
much else that I saw in Germany, brought home to me was that the whole
idea of revenge and punishment is a childish daydream. Properly speaking,
there is no such thing as revenge. Revenge is an act which you want to
commit when you are powerless and because you are powerless: as soon as
the sense of impotence is removed, the desire evaporates also.
The desire for retribution, cosmic or otherwise, is one of our worst features. Compare the following statements:

1. Hitler, responsible for the horrible deaths of millions, dies and goes to Hell.
2. Hitler, responsible for the horrible deaths of millions, dies and does not go to Hell.

Who out there is absurd enough to demand the former and claim it a better state of affairs than the latter? What does it do to `offset', by divine justice, karma, `the balance of the universe', or whatever other theory the horrors it contains?

No, I do not want a Hell, not even for Hitler. If there is a Heaven, I even say we should want him there, assuming he would be harmless. What point is there in kicking a caged animal, no matter how vicious? To desire otherwise is to want suffering for its own sake; I cannot abide it, and I stare in dull horror at my neighbors. And yes, sometimes myself.

I stress that this mentality, though usually supported with a theological assertion if any theoretical justification is in offering, is a secular one. It is a very big part of why so many support the death penalty here in America. I wonder why it satisfies them that a murderer, however horrid, should be subjected to ritualistic slaughter after he has been made harmless. The kicking of toothless creatures is a big part of our tribalistic make-up, and its consequences are terrible.

That anyone should want to elevate this reactionary savagery into a governing principle of the cosmos is beyond me. I suspect and hope that those who do have not seriously analyzed their desires.

I leave you with this.

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