Saturday, December 25, 2004

The opposite of shrubbery

I just received an e-mail that evidently has been going around for years with a story about how Einstein supposedly humiliated an atheist professor by showing him that a "good" God could not be held responsible for the existence of evil because evil could not properly be said to exist, just as in physics cold does not exist; it is merely the absence of heat. And evil is just the absence of good. This story is a well-known hoax, and as Einstein was something of a skeptic, it would have been out of character in any case for him to make such an argument.

But all that aside, does the argument have any merit? Basically it is saying, there's no dualism here! Good does not have an opposite. It is a physical entity. It's like saying, what's the opposite of shrubbery? Okay, I cannot think of a word in the English language that means "the opposite of shrubbery." But somehow we do have this word "evil." It has a linguistic meaning, certainly, as books have been written to explicate it: Paradise Lost, for instance. But if we follow this line of argument, we are to say that all these people who write about such a subject are under the spell of maya: they are writing about an illusion, something that has no real existence. Thus the famous "problem of evil" is solved by denying there is a problem to begin with because there is no evil. Well, you are going to have difficulty persuading people who have been tortured in prisons of the validity of this argument. In their worlds, evil exists and there is no doubt. Maybe in my world I can have the luxury of maintaining the non-existence of evil; I have not been tortured in prison and there is probably no incident in my direct experience throughout my life that I can specifically attribute to being caused by something so radical as the E-word.

However, I'm not going to take the position that Evil does not exist. I'm going to say to the torture survivor: I respect your experience of reality enough to admit this category to my lexicon. To say that to say something is good is not like saying it is shrubbery. To have any meaning whatsoever, "good" has to have an opposite. To say something is evil is actually to make a positive statement about its qualities, and not merely to make a meaningless noise. It rather gets my attention, in fact, and triggers a visceral response.

This says to me that there is some connection of this whole subject with the body. Perhaps the impulse to deny the existence of evil is related to the desire to just have done with the body per se and all its attendant frailties and indignities. Which brings us back to Hamlet: the desire to end "the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to." I'm sure Einstein would have something more to add at this point, but I am done for now, although the country is not yet done with malevolent shrubs.

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