Is There a Force of Evil?


Philosophy and theology discuss the problem of evil. We describe certain things in history, life and inside of us as evil – but is there something like a ‘force of evil’? Do we need evil as a concept to explain the world at all?

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Thank you for your attention, yours truly, Mr. Wunderlich

Read the transcript

I guess, Darth Vader is right. We don’t know the power of the Dark Side. We do not live in a galaxy far, far away. And there is no evil emperor trying to rule the galaxy.
As far as I know. I haven’t checked on the news situation in the neighbouring star systems lately.

Somehow I wonder how Darth Vader has become a symbol for evil and not one for redemption. I really don’t remember if he committed atrocious crimes in the original trilogy? It wasn’t him who was responsible for the destruction of Alderaan, wasn’t he?

Generally the Empire should have spent more money on marketing, if you ask me. If there’s enough money to consistently build new death stars or planet eaters, there should be a little spare money to be spend on communication!

I mean: „The Dark Side“! No wonder Darth Vader has a reputation problem! Who wants to identify with “Dark”? Any advertiser would suggest otherwise. Let’s call it „The Deep Side“ or „The Far Side“. That’s better.

BTW: What’s the name of the Non-Dark-Side? Do you know? I don’t. Is it „The Bright Side“? The „Light Side“? The „Right Side“? Or the „Generally A Little Nicer Side“? The „More Polite Side“? But who cares: the Rebels have no money to spend on advertising anyway! Let’s better start this episode! Sorry for this interlude.

When I was about five years old I woke up in the middle of the night. I looked at the window and there I saw the outline of a person standing in my room! He or she did not move and made no sound at all.

Just standing there and watching me in my sleep! That is the definition of creepy!
We had no TV yet and I had no idea what a vampire is. Or a werewolf. Or a ghost. But I did know what the devil is – my family is roman catholic on my mothers side.

And I was sure – there in my room, there was the devil! He was here out to get me! To grab me by my feet and drag me down to hell. Where my flesh will burn and regrow and burn again in an eternal cycle of pain!

It felt like hell when my parents didn’t buy that toy revolver for me, but that was even worse! Much worse! I remember not spending one thought why I was bound for hell.

You see: Kids never needed computer games or horror flicks to be afraid! Back in the good old days when I grew up a pious grandmother and a winter coat hanging beside my window were enough for a night of panicking!

With this first hand experience of the devil began my life long research journey trying to find out: What is evil?

And the devil was the first answer to that problem. A force in creation that stands for destruction and brutality. He deceives poor souls to do immoral and wicked things.

And he is subtle, very tricky and intelligent and he has a lot of power. In the New Testament he promises Jesus to make him rich and powerful, so this must be something he can do.

The devil is like a god himself. If we poor humans have to fight him, it’s not a really fair fight at all.

The devil and the evil are counterparts to a loving god. And to Jesus, who was God. At least that’s Christian theology since the fourth century.

The problem with this explanatory model is obvious, even if you’re young. All my confirmands knew about this problem.

If almighty God is all-loving and he or she created everything: Why was the devil created? Why is live full of suffering and evil?

And the standard answer to this problem, called theodicy is: Because he made us with a free will to decide our own path. We can choose between good or evil.

But in the end we will be judged. The good ones go to heaven and the bad ones go to hell. Which, as we already elaborated, is a much worse place than a world without toy guns.

We have to be compassionate and loving, so that we don’t end up in hell.

This didn’t convince me. It never did. It reduces compassion to a survival technique.

Just imagine we would find hell. As a real place here on this planet. We dug a hole in earth’s core and by accident we found hell. Billions of people suffering in eternal torture.

Wow! That would convince really everyone to be a good boy and a good girl! Everyone would do his best to be all about charity and compassion, about doing good things, that’s for sure!

But they will fail. Because they don’t act out of love, which is selfless, but out of fear!

If God simply throws away most of the souls for eternity, then this whole creation is nothing more than an experiment and we are the guinea pigs. That’s not a good world.

In fact this makes the whole creation non-compassionate in its design. If the soul of my friend Anna who killed herself is designated for hell, well, then I’ll go with her.

This made absolutely no sense to me. So it maybe historically useful to have an external source of evil – the devil – this concept did not produce love and compassion at all. If someone was possessed by the devil, we Christians had very non-compassionate methods to handle that.

I do not believe in an external force of evil. I do not believe in the devil. And I don’t believe in demons or werewolves or vampires. Though I have to admit: I’m still a little afraid of them. No watching horror movies in this house!

The devil is not the source of evil. Who is?

I am German. My generation was confronted with the cruelties of the Nazis in school. Several times. My most vivid memory is a film we watched when I was twelve years old.

The whole mass murdering was presented to us in movies and pictures. We saw mass killings, war crimes and the way the machine of genocide worked inside the concentration camps. Heaps of corpses. Human beings that were systematically starved to death.

Though I think this way of confronting twelve years old with their history is debatable I still think it’s necessary.

The most impressing thing I remember is just this one picture. Not a movie. It depicts dozens of Jews standing on the back of a truck, about to be getting deported to the KZ.

They looked into the camera. They looked at me. And it was in their eyes. The illustration of evil was in these eyes.

They did not cry. They did not shout, they did not fight. That was already behind them.

What shocked me was this complete loss of hope. The absence of anything worth living for. The horror of being dead already while still breathing.

This image haunts me. To this day. If you do this to other human beings, you have to be evil. The creator of this extinction machinery has to be evil to the bone!

The devil has to be a man not a demon. The Nazis had to be devils. And Adolf Hitler had to be the most evil person that ever lived.

I began my research about the Nazis. About fascism. And especially about the Nazi elite. Hitler, Göbbels, Göring, Heydrich, Höß, Eichmann, Mengele – there are many devils to be found in German history between 1933 and 1945.

What I found confused me. Let’s take Hitler as the most prominent Nazi. He must have been the devil. If Hitler is not “evil” then the word loses its meaning, doesn’t it?

But I don’t think Hitler is a force of evil. Even he was not wicked through and through. He was, without any doubt, one of the most narcissistic personalities to be found. And he was hot-tempered, brutal and, most importantly, without any empathy for men and women and children he thought to be inferior.

He lost any feeling for the importance of human live in the trenches of the first World War. He believed that a single life is meaningless in a struggle of a race to survive.

Though he was not in any way religious, not a Christian and not a pagan like Himmler, he believed in a crude system of perverted Darwinism and the need for the strong to eliminate the weak.

That’s psychopathological. It’s highly neurotic, it may even be psychotic, but it’s nothing overwhelming like the force of evil.

Adolf Eichmann organized the delivery of Jews, Gay people, Jehovas Witnesses, Roma, Sinti and political enemies to the concentration camps. He was the architect of a machine that costed millions of innocent lives.

In Nazi ideology these people had no right to live. They had to be exterminated, because they were not really human beings.

And Eichmann organized exactly that. If Hitler is not the embodiment of evil than he must be!

After the war he was captured by the Mossad and put to trial in Jerusalem. Hannah Arendt, a Jewish German journalist watched this proceeding, because she wanted to know more about evil. She expected to meet a monster.

Instead she found a quite normal human being. Someone who had a remarkable lack of empathy, who had never tried to experience the world through the eyes of someone else but him. And someone who was obedient like a slave.

He made statements like: If the things I have done were evil, well, then my commands must have been evil. I am only a cog in a clockwork. It can’t be evil to obey commands. That’s the way any military in the world works. I am not responsible.

Hannah Arendt famously called this the “banality of evil”.

The Nazi clockwork was powered by some psychopaths and millions of little cogs, who believed they were not responsible. Nazi party members, people who voted for the Nazis and people like you and me that didn’t raise their voice as their friends and neighbours were deported to the concentration camps. People who suppressed their empathy.

The “banality of evil”. Once again I had not managed to find a force of evil. Neither in Hitler himself nor in his party.

The problem has to be somewhere else.

My next idea: It has to be inside of us! The evil must be a part of us. The evil is not the absence of good, it’s not immorality and it’s not wickedness.

The evil must be the opposite of empathy!

This lack of empathy was my next candidate. The devil is heartless and callous. Evil people have a deficit. They are not healthy. It must be a kind of genetic disorder.

That was my new theory.

I think it was about ten years ago when I found a book called “The Science of Evil” written by Simon Baron-Cohen, who is a celebrity in the field of psychopathology. And yes, related to Sascha.

He says that “evil” is a word without any scientific relevance. Evil is not enough to explain Hitler or Eichmann. Like I suspected, it’s rather a lack of empathy.

And he explains how empathy works inside of our brains. He talks of an empathy-circuit inside of the brain and locates it in different places. With names like gyrus and sulcus in combination with inferior and posterior – sorry, I was too lazy to find the technical terms.

People who don’t feel enough empathy develop something he calls “single-minded focus”. Kind of an instinctive reaction that normal people somehow defeat with the empathy-circuitry in their brains.

He says that single-minded people “just miss a chip in their neural computer”. That’s a quote. That means that Hitler and Eichmann were not evil, they had a construction error. In their brains.

That sounded very rational to me. I liked the idea that the problem of evil can be reduced to – let’s call it – a mechanical problem. People are not single-minded in general, but some have a flawed brain and that’s the reason why they are evil.

But this view has problems, too:

First, if we deconstruct “evil” in this way, we have to do the same thing to “good”. Good people just have a well organised empathy-circuitry. They are not good out of their free decision, they just have to be good, because they are constructed this way.

And secondly: The Nazis believed that the human races are radically different. Jews are greedy, Africans are dumb and Asians are lazy. Something like that. Just because they are a part of their race. Just because they are constructed that way.

What about if Mr. Baron-Cohen is right? Thought experiment: Why not do an MRI-scan on every new born baby? Then we could see if their brain is equipped with a fully functional empathy-circuitry. And if they are born dangerously single-minded, well, then society fares better to lock them away for live.

This way Adolf Hitler and Adolf Eichmann could have never reached their positions of power and we human beings with a healthy construction plan will live in peace and happiness forever!

The problem of evil: Solved! Paradise for everyone! And this nonsense with the “free will” – who needs that?

That would be a new kind of Nazi ideology, wouldn’t it? This is totalitarism. That’s not paradise, that’s hell. Scanning newborns for their deficits? Condemning them and their parents to a lifelong sentence – that’s the opposite of empathy.

No. You see. This whole empathy thing can’t explain evil. Neuroscience has not found the human conscience yet. There is no physical structure in human brains that can explain why we compose music or paint pictures or produce podcasts.

It must be something else.

My next assumption: It must be inside of me.

As my marriage died a slow death and my children didn’t need me as much anymore I began to drink more and more alcohol. I’m not sure if I started to drink because of my depression or if I got depressed because of alcohol.

But there were evil moments in my life where I accepted that I’m about to destruct myself. I simply gave up. I was so tired of the struggle! I drowned my need for love in alcohol. I preferred the company of my self-pity and my anger. “Let me die here, I don’t need anybody! No one understands me anyways! Leave me alone with my vodka!”

Well, could alcohol be my personal devil? Could this be a place where evil is to be found? It felt like hell, that’s for sure. And it was the denying of my empathy-circuitry, that’s sure, too.

But it even went deeper. I found out that in my soul there is a place where I met a Mr. Wunderlich who is … let’s call it ‘evil’. Someone who was capable to kill another person.

A Mr. Wunderlich who is so full of self-pity and vodka that he denies his children the love they deserve! Me!

There is a place inside of me where other disguises wait for me in a wardrobe with a heavy padlock. There is a Mr. Wunderlich who could easily have been a member of the Nazi party. A Mr. Wunderlich who voluntarily could have taken the job as a guard in a concentration camp.

I know, that’s not something we talk about. That’s not a proper thing to say. I could say, that I found Darth Vader inside of me – would that be more entertaining?

But it’s true – it’s not a nice place in my soul and I did not dare to go there for a long time in my life. But I went there and what I found was … bad – I am actually ashamed to speak about it right now.

It was not as difficult as expected to get there and it took suffering and pain to come back from this dark place. It may be okay to call this place evil.

I think everyone has a place like that inside. And it takes much less push to become ‘evil’ than you may imagine!

Knowing that place inside of me, knowing that I am evil myself makes it quite impossible for me to call someone else evil. In fact: I think it’s evil to call someone else evil. Fighting hate with hate is still hate. Fighting violence with violence is still violence.

I really believe it’s quite impossible to be good without accepting that you are evil, too. Being good out of choice and knowing that’s your way to live a full life – even if you have other choices – it is difficult. It may lead experiences that you won’t like. And that’s not nice.

Being good because it’s the thing you think is required from you by family, friends and fellow humans is not being good. That’s being nice.

But, now that we are already down in the muddy part of my soul, the whole problem with evil has yet another dimension, too.

Many of us who are searching for a spiritual path through existence believe that there are life changing experiences to be made.

Some call this enlightenment, others satori or kensho or simply “god experience”. It is quite thoroughly analysed by science and can even be measured and located in parts of the brain. I don’t care about that too much.

Even before neuro-scans it was described in almost all civilisations and cultures. It’s a part of the Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Hinduist tradition, just to name the usual suspects.

The most popular way to characterize experiences like that right now is “universal oneness”. A person could say: “I was one with everything.” Or “It felt like I was the whole universe.”

I am not really a fan of this kind of descriptions. I am not a fan of finding words for these experiences at all. It’s a problem, because talking too much about it will change the way you will experience it.

Being “one with everything” means you are everything. You are no individual anymore, not one single human being saying “I, Me, Mine”, you are all human beings. Your are all beings. All entities of the universe that can breathe and everything that doesn’t breathe, too.

You may believe you are the stars and the sun and the ocean and the tiger – and you are. But you are everything. The waste dump, the graveyard and the battlefield, too. You are the tiger and you are the antelope that is eaten alive by the tiger, too.

You are everything, so you are Hitler and Eichmann.

Everything does not have two sides and you can either pick the good one nor the bad one. Being one with everything means you are republican and democrat, left and right and it means you are the person you hate the most. You are particulary that person – you are especially your worst enemy! You are good and evil. That’s what “everything“ means.

So. What have we found?

Well, the only right place to look for evil seems to be inside of oneself.

Any concept that declares other living things, certain ideas, people or even mechanisms in our brains as evil seems to lead to no results.

Even when we talk about the destructive part of our subconsciousness, the concept of evil as something that is not a part of your identity is not helpful.

There is something you are allowed to call a force of evil inside of you. If you prefer, call it shadow. This psychological energy must be encountered at some point.

If you do this, you will not call any other human being evil anymore. That never leads to results, anyway. You will stop searching for a force of evil.

Even if the antelope may think otherwise, the tiger is not evil.

And he’s not good either.

“Evil” and “Good” are concepts that we created to describe life.

But life is not evil. And it is not good. Live simply is.

It’s life itself!