Possessed by Demons or Become Your Own?

It is of course famously difficult to say exactly what happens in [Philip K Dick’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch], because the essential question that the major characters have is always: What is actually happening? But at least one major potential timeline, perhaps the most likely timeline, tells a story like this: Palmer Eldritch is a titan of capitalism, in many respects the Jeff Bezos of this world, and he travels to Proxima Centauri on a quest that is ambiguous in character but certainly involves financial motives. Eldritch discovers on Proxima Centauri a substance that the sentient beings of that solar system use in their religious rituals — a substance he thinks he can manufacture and sell and thereby win a victory over the currently dominant corporation called PP Layouts. But on his return from the Proxima system he is — well, perhaps the word is possessed by a sentient creature from some other part of the galaxy. And this creature is at least for a time interested in distributing its consciousness, through the mediation of Palmer Eldritch and the substance he has discovered, into the consciousness of human beings…

…Of course, this is not the only possible explanation of what is happening in the book. It is certainly possible that there is no alien being possessing Palmer Eldritch; rather, Eldritch himself has, through a combination of economic leverage and biotechnology, assumed equivalent powers. That is, it may be possible for surveillance capitalism to generate its own demons. Whether this is a better or worse fate than the one I previously described I leave as an exercise for the reader.”

-Alan Jacobs, “It’s Palmer Eldritch’s world, we’re just living in it.” ayjay.org. April 8, 2021.

Given the choice between being possessed by demons from some other culture or possessed by demons generated from one’s own, both are bad options, and your answer is probably determined by how much novelty you prefer. I think the more interesting question is whether you’d rather be possessed by a demon or become one yourself. Neitzsche hits on the point:

““Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”

― Friedrich W. Nietzsche

Most people can’t imagine being (or that they are) a monster. So, this choice is really about one’s self-concept. Are you good? Then, you may be more willing to be possessed, so you aren’t responsible for acting like a monster. But, choosing to be a monster? The first casualty is conscience, and then the body count goes up from there. Still, it’s probably true most people, even good people, would rather be predator than prey. This fact probably explains a lot about the human condition.

On Being Evil

Are you a good person? If you ask most people this question, they’ll answer, “Yes.” Of course they are. They might think to themselves, “I’m not a monster. I’m not like X.” Pick your monster, let X equal Hitler for illustration purposes here.

But, what’s the threshold for good? Does the same thinking apply in the opposite direction? Do we think to ourselves, “I’m not a saint. I’m not like X.” Pick your saint, let X equal the Buddha for illustration purposes here.

If we draw a line, with the most evil person that ever lived, assuming talking about “the most evil” could be quantified in some way based on objective analysis of the horror that was a direct result of their existence, and drawing it to “the most good” quantified in a similar way, where do we sit? Are we on trajectories over the course of our lives, moving in more evil or more good directions? Does it vary based on specific features that are dominant at a particular historical moment?

Is it easier to be good, or evil, in a particular time and place? Was it easier to be good when humanity was living in pre-history, in small bands before the dawn of the agricultural revolution? Are there some eras where evil and good don’t even apply, e.g., if you worked 18 hour days in one of the early factories after the Industrial Revolution? Or, perhaps being literate and being exposed to new ideas makes us more inclined to be evil, or good.

When I think on these things, I come to one conclusion. We aren’t good. We aren’t bad. We are people in a particular situation, and we all think that what we are doing is good, in some sense of that word.

Hitler, for instance, believed that some people were sub-human, and if you got rid of these lesser humans, humanity as a whole would be better off. Even saying it in that way implies a value judgment because if some “people” are sub-human, they are still human. Hitler’s argument seems to be that they aren’t really people at all, so it should be said differently under that assumption. If you accept the perspective that people are people, then Hitler’s line of thinking is evil.

But, Hitler’s line of thinking is the norm. Humans are tribal, and outsiders are always not quite as human as insiders. If you think that some people are better in some fundamental way – whether that is because they subscribe to a particular idea/dogma, such as a religion or they belong to a particularly ethnic group – whether that is a Han Chinese in modern China, white Englishman in Colonial America, or any colonizing civilization’s view of aboriginal hunter/gatherer groups, or simply because you know them – how much different are you from Hitler? What differentiates Hitler’s view from the tribal view?

Beyond views, there are actions. Does the ability to act in the world make us capable or greater evil or good? If someone has the same views as Hitler but is unable to act on them as he did, are they also evil? Is it the idea that some people aren’t people the evil part? Or, is it the causing, in one way or another, the deaths of millions the evil part? Well, it seems they both are evil, right? It’s just more evil if you act on and the scale of your actions amplifies the evil in some way.

The same idea applies the other direction. We all want to be good. But, is it enough to have good ideas? Or, does the good need to impact the world in some significant way? If we do smaller acts of kindness, are we less good than a Bill Gates who can do something like eradicate a disease? Is Bill Gates good? Is he more good than the Dalai Lama or the historical Buddha? Why or why not?

When we look into our hearts, we know that the desire to be and do good competes with other desires. We also want to be comfortable and materially well-off. We want to be important, respected, possibly famous. We want to be accepted by the communities in which we are part, some of which may not be good communities. We may want power or control over our environment. And on and on. All of these desires compete, and while everyone wants to be good, we very often want these other things more.

I think it helps to understand that none of us are inherently good or bad. None of us are “good people”. Luck and circumstance plays a very important role in who we are. We are the sum total of a vast network of influences: genetic, environmental, psychological and so many others. But, perhaps, the important thing is that we always have a choice in what we think and do, and perhaps it is helpful to realize that we may be rationalizing some evil, and that we are in fact being and acting evil. That the good we believe we are or doing might be evil and perhaps, it is time to stop.

The Primary Human Problem

Note: This is why I published the Zuihitsu post yesterday. Trying to pack these ideas into a coherent essay is something I’m going to have to work on before it takes on a useful shape.

At the center of human problems are two facts:

  1. Most people are good.
  2. Most people are also self-centered, lazy and stubborn.

It’s difficult to think. It’s difficult to do the right thing, when it isn’t obvious. It’s difficult to be anything, when there is nothing to strive for.

What the world lacks in meaning, it makes up for in alienation. What cannot be understood is cursed with incomprehension. The incomprehensible is invisible, nonexistent. Our thoughts are abbreviated versions of the totality of our being.

But, our thoughts both rarely change and are constantly changing. Cycling through the well-worn pathways, but the routes are static, unchanging. Societies break these chains, evolve only as a function of generational replacement. New ideas gain currency as they are embraced by new generations creating new pathways. But, the new isn’t necessarily worse than the old. It’s just that no one is worse than the people we were yesterday, or the generation before.

No one wants advice. They want corraboration. Advice is useless. The wise won’t need it, and fools won’t heed it. And, even for the wise, when under stress, everyone will regress. Easier to judge, since changing patterns of thinking is difficult, and in the wrong light anyone can look like a villian. And, in the wrong environment, anyone can be the villian.

Look at the miscalculation. Mistakes are often as revealing as the answers. They reveal the limits and heirarchies of our social environment and of our vision, of what was and what could of been. But, who’s to blame?

If you are looking for absolution, you are going to have to forgive yourself. No one can do it for you. Sometimes, it’s impossible. There are some arenas so corrupt that the only good act is to burn them to the ground. Some problems require surgery. People are gods of ruins and disfigurement.

Find nourishment where you can. Tell the truth, without shame, with heart. Focus on nourishment over poison. Live on the precipice. You can still love something and see its flaws. You cannot dichotomize things that are deeply connected, and often, the flawed part is what makes love possible. It provides the vulnerability that leads to intimacy.

We are all here for our own reasons. What’s important is that we came.

Conquering Evil

“Evil can not be conquered within this world. It can only be resisted in oneself.”

Kung Fu (television series), Master Po

The world is full of people that look at the world they live in and see evil all around them. It’s easy to point to outliers, such as Ted Kaczynski, a.k.a., the Unabomber, to illustrate the point. But, looking at individuals is a good way to only look at trees and miss the forest.

The fundamental problem is that every human being has evil tendencies, and they live with other human beings that use those tendencies to increase the group’s chances of survival in a world with limited resources. Hunter-gatherer groups protect sources of water for their groups exclusive use from other hunter-gathers. With the advent of agriculture, surpluses allowed a larger population, which could then take control over the sources of water in their area from hunter-gatherers. Larger societies took from smaller ones, and killed and consolidated with outside groups. Human history is simply a chronicle of the rise and fall of these groups, whether it be tribe, city or modern nation.

How then can these tendencies be eradicated? How can evil be fought?

The first step is to transcend the notion that our group is somehow special, whether this idea is talked about as “The Chosen People”, the “twice-born” of Hinduism, the “Elect”, or any of the other many permutations of this idea of a special group that is above others. This kind of thinking allows for a double standard of morality, where the in-group is treated one way and the out-group is treated in another.

The second step is to realize that all human beings are the same, with capacities for both good and evil. Evil is the product of desires to get the things we want or need. We need to turn and face this tendency in ourselves and make a choice. That’s the only evil we have any hope of eradicating, and realistically, most people can only hope to reign in their evil tendencies, particularly in a cultural environment that promotes them.

Varieties of Good

Ethics is talked about having three flavors: consequentialism, deontological and virtue ethics. One way of thinking about it is that consequentialism is relative value. Deontological ethics is value according to an objective standard. Virtue ethics is inherent value.