The lifetime of evil (part 2)

In the last post, I introduced the idea that an act - an evil act in particular - has a characteristic time-scale over which its consequences become clear. This time-scale can be determined from the mechanics of the act in question. I was initially inclined to call this the "half-life of evil", but that phrasing expresses an unwarranted precision. I've therefore settled on calling it the lifetime of evil. Let's look at some of the possible applications for this idea.

The Bible says that the sins of one generation will affect their children down to the third and forth generations - so, something like 60-120 years. I find that this time interval is the approximate lifetime for a national or cultural evil that infects a whole society (which is what the Bible is addressing in the passage mentioned above). Put another way: this is characteristically how long it takes for a fundamentally wrong form of society or government to fail.

The late Soviet Union is a good instance of this rule. The "evil empire" lasted from 1922 to 1991 - only 69 years. As the fall of communism is within living memory, you may remember how surprising and sudden this event was. For many of us, it seemed that the bifurcation of the world into communist or capitalist countries was a permanent feature of history. After all, how could a country just... stop? But a flawed system cannot last forever, and the Soviet Union collapsed within a human lifetime.

Maoist China underwent much the same story. Communists in China came to power in 1949, and while they are still in power, their policy has changed dramatically since their first days under Mao in embracing capitalistic reforms. While they still have a ways to go, the rule in question seems to bear out: a flawed national system typically only lasts several generations. It may collapse or change, but it cannot endure.

Along the same lines of thinking, how long do you think North Korea will last? I don't think anyone needs convincing that the government there is evil. I've heard it described as "the worst country in the world" and "more 1984 than 1984". It's been that way since at least the end of the Korean War - 62 years ago as of 2015. Such evil cannot endure. I therefore have hope, based on the idea of the lifetime of evil, that I will live to see North Korea fundamentally change.

It's not hard to see how this could happen. North Korea is so isolated and backwards that eventually, it must implode under the weight of the technological differential between it and the outside world. I mean, if it gets to the point where we have cheap fusion-powered laser-mounted microdrones, then a teenager, as a prank, might start tattooing American flags on the face of whichever spawn of Kim Il Sung sits atop their throne. Or South Korea could just bombard all their starving citizens with food packages that include a satellite-internet connected smartphone. That regime cannot withstand this kind of pressure.

So, the idea of the lifetime of evil has made a prediction, one that I think is likely to come to pass. Though it may still be decades away, policy makers in South Korea or the United States should be thinking about how to control and handle this coming change in North Korea.

Another way to validate the concept of lifetime of evil is to look at the lifetime of atheistic countries. All three of the examples cited above (Soviet Union, Maoist China, and North Korea) were officially atheistic, and right now it looks like North Korea may become the most successful atheistic country of the three, based on longevity. In general, atheistic states do not last. Throughout the entire history of the world, I have not heard of a single state that put its emphasis on atheism lasting more than a hundred years. From the anti-Christian movements in the French Revolution to the Khmer Rouge, none have stood the test of time. If atheism is true and good for human prosperity, where is the enlightened atheistic civilization that outproduces and outlives the other civilizations of the world? Where is the powerful atheistic technocracy that will conquer the world with its mighty army of nanobot terminators? It's not like atheism is a new or a complicated idea: there were atheists in the ancient world, so it's had plenty of time to rise and prosper if it's really the true path to prosperity. But the only places where atheists seem to be doing well nowadays is in the historically Christian nations of the West.

Are there other ways to validate the idea that evil has a finite lifetime, typically lasting several generation for a society-wide wickedness? I think so. One can hardly talk about a society-wide historical evil without talking about race-based chattel slavery. I do not intend to cover the whole sordid history of slavery in the Americas in this one post, but here are some important dates, from Wikipedia:
1492: Columbus lands in the Americas.
1526: The first enslaved Africans came to what is now the United States, to a Spanish settlement.
1619: The first Africans are brought to English North America, to Virginia.
Throughout the 1500's and 1600's, slavery took on different forms - It was not all race-based chattel slavery, and many slaves were treated as indentured servants. It's also important to keep in mind the relatively smaller population of Europeans and Africans in these earlier days. Wikipedia says "evidence suggests that racial attitudes were much more flexible in 17th century Virginia than they would subsequently become".
1690: A census records 950 Africans in Virginia. Again, it's not yet a full-blown society wide problem, although by the late 1600's it was rapidly becoming so, with the loss of previously held rights and a dramatic increase in the importation of slaves.
1705: The basic legal framework for slavery is established in Virginia.
1710: The African population of Virginia increases to 23,100.
1776: American Independence. Around this time, many, but not all, colonies had banned or restricted slavery to differing degrees.
1787: Slavery is encoded into the U.S. Constitution.
1808: International importation of slaves into the U.S. is banned. All of the northern states pass anti-slavery laws by this time.
1865: End of the Civil War. Slavery is abolished throughout the U.S.
So, what are we to make of these dates? If we simply take the difference between the introduction of slavery into the Americas to the date of total emancipation, That comes to more than 300 years, and it seems to blow a hole in my theory of the lifetime of evil being 60-120 years. But remember, that time frame is for a comprehensive, society-wide evil, like the governments of Soviet Union or North Korea. Slavery leaked into America relatively slowly, and it seems to have not become a full-blown societal evil until the late 1600. Furthermore, early protest against it started as soon as became a major problem, and it was completely abolished in the Northern United States decades earlier than in the South. It was, on the whole, a complex phenomenon, with difficult dates to pin down for a whole geographical area. So, if we take the somewhat arbitrary date of 1690 as the threshold of "full-blown societal evil", we get about 110 years of slavery in the North, and 175 years for the whole of the U.S. - within the allowed time frame for a lifetime of evil, given the heinous and complicated nature of the slavery problem. Remember the analogy with a half-life: the 60-120 years is not an absolute time interval. It is rather a characteristic time frame.

Why 60-120 years? Why three to four generations? That, as I said before, is mechanistically determined. And for a cultural, societal evil, the mechanism here is none other than the transmission of morals to the next generation. We know that parents play a huge role in how their children will turn out. We know that our experiences in our youth shape the rest of our lives. Is it any surprise that this is the key mechanism in determining the lifetime from an evil act to its full consequences, or that it would take about three generations for a new morality to be completely inculcated?

This process can perhaps most clearly be seen through an example about sexual morality. Sexuality, more so than our other activities, directly affects the next generation. For example, let's say that one generation somehow makes the mistake of thinking that vaginal sex is very wrong. It's considered "dirty" or "unnatural" compared to other forms of sex. Let's furthermore assume that this group of people persist in their mistake until something dramatic forces them to change or collapse. The first generation to make this mistake is presumably already sexually mature, and some of them already have children - the second generation. They then pass this twisted idea about sex on to the second generation. But do you expect to see any negative effects of the mistake at this point? Not really - the second generation already exists, but they're still just growing up, and won't become mature and sexually active for some time. The first real signs of trouble will come when this second generation starts trying to form serious relationships and having children of their own. The psychological hang-ups and the mechanical difficulties associated with their misconceptions will now directly affect their ability to produce kids - the third generation. And for any third generation children they manage to produce through their guilt and shame, this confusion about sexuality will be all they have known. They will grow up thinking that this mistaken viewpoint is normal, and that their second generation parent's difficulties were also normal. From here, it's a toss-up whether society collapses from population implosion, or whether they'll last long enough to have a fourth generation. Fifth and further generations are increasingly unlikely.

What are we to make of all this? In particular, what can we take away from the idea that the lifetime of evil is typically three or four generations? First, we can take comfort in the idea that evil will not endure forever. We can also remember this time frame, and measure out our responses accordingly. For example, if you believe that slavery was right after all, then you have virtually no hope - It's been abolished for 150 years with no sign that we'll ever go back to that model. You should give up. On the other hand, if you believe that gay marriage is wrong - well, we'll see. How will the debate look in 30, 60, or 120 years? Because that's the time period over which these things characteristically change. And lastly, if you do see the world making a terrible mistake, it tells you what you can expect in the future. If you're young and lucky, you may outlive the mistake, like a young Russian in 1922 possibly living 69 more years and outliving the Soviet Union. Even if you don't see something as dramatic as the collapse of communism, you may see enough to know that it will happen. But more practically, you should train up the next generation in the way they should go, in the discipline and instruction of the LORD. There is a very good chance that your children will live to see the mistake for what it is, and the world will need good men and women when it tries to recover.

You may next want to read:
The lifetime of evil (part 1) (Previous post of this series)
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
Another post, from the table of contents

The lifetime of evil (part 1)

The lifetime of an evil may be defined as:

The time it takes for the negative consequences of an evil act to be made clearly manifest. Or,
The time it takes for an evil practice, policy, or organization to be abolished. Or,
The time it takes for the moral arc of the universe to bend, definitively and perceptibly.

These definitions can be taken to be roughly equivalent, since human language is quite imprecise by nature. Regardless of the exact words, I think that the lifetime of evil is an useful concept in trying to understand and evaluate the moral decisions we make.

Now, this time interval obviously depends on the exact nature of the evil in question. It can often be predicted to some degree, through the mechanics of the act or practice itself. For instance, if you punch a stranger for looking at you cross-eyed on the street, you're likely to quickly discover that this is a mistake - usually in a matter of seconds, in the form of a retaliating punch. This is a predictable outcome. In particular, you only need to consider the mechanics of the action in determining the time-scale of the consequences: throwing a punch and human reaction times are both measured in fractions of a second, and people react quickly to immediate threats to their bodily safety.

I'm sure we've all had the experience of overeating at a buffet, or having those extra drinks that you shouldn't have had. The consequences of such indulgences can be felt within the time-frame of minutes to hours, when you feel too full to walk or wake up with a hangover. Again, the time-scale of the consequences can be predicted by the mechanics of the action: the processing of food and drink by the human body, which takes place at a certain rate.

The short lifetime for these evil actions makes it clear that they are, in fact, wrong. This is so obvious that people would hardly call them "evil", preferring something like "mistake" instead. But as the lifetime increases, things become less cut-and-dried.

Say that a student didn't study for his final and flunks the exam. I hope that everyone can recognize this as a mistake. But there are rare students who are such fools that they cannot make the connection, who will blame the instructor or society or God for their failure. The confusion comes as a result of the longer time interval between the action (deciding not to study) and the consequence (flunking the test). This time interval can again be predicted purely through the mechanics at work: classes usually run on a quarter or a semester system. Final exams are given at the end of the class. The consequences for not studying can therefore be predicted to arrive in a few weeks or months.

The point here is not that "you should study for your final" or "you shouldn't overeat" (although these things are true). What I'm trying to do is draw attention to the lifetime of the mistaken or evil act. These lifetimes can be predicted beforehand through purely mechanical considerations. They may furthermore help us distinguish right from wrong, and decide how we should act. For instance, if you're a diligent student watching the foolish student neglect his studies, what should you do? Remember, the lifetime of evil involved here is weeks or months. You can therefore know that his current ease should not unduly influence you to follow his example. You can also pace your own studying schedule based on that time interval. Furthermore, you'll also know when you've been wrong - if your foolish friend is still neglecting his studies with no negative consequences well past the end of the semester, maybe the class was a so easy as to be a joke. At that time, you'll know to reconsider your opinions on your friend and on the class. All this is possible through understanding the time scale on which you can expect the consequences.

Now, the above examples have been trivially easy cases, designed to simply introduce the topic and get us used to thinking in this way. They have been easy, because their lifetime of evil has been short. Next, we will consider much harder questions, with much longer time-frames, and consider how to tackle them using the lifetime of evil. Many of these are some of the "big questions" in politics or history. For instance: what should we do about global warming? How should we deal with North Korea? Did we handled the Cold War correctly? What should we tell our kids about gender roles? How can we measure our progress in race relations?

Some of this will be addressed in the next post.

You may next want to read:
The lifetime of evil (part 2) (Next post of this series)
Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July
The role of evidence in the Christian faith
Another post, from the table of contents

History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 2)

In the last post of this series, we examined the nature of social progress, and where that leaves us in the course of history. The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. In the future, it will continue to bend towards perfection - and away from our current state. The march of social progress is certain to make moral monsters of us all. When look back one human lifetime - 80 years - we rightly condemn their thoughts and attitudes on topics like race relations, gender roles, totalitarian communism, and eugenics. The future generations will rightly condemn us in the same way.

So, what are we to do?

First, this gives us some insight into the fallen state of human nature. If you ever doubted the doctrine of the fall - if you've ever thought that you're a "good person" whom God would approve of - this argument makes your delusion clear. Before you can dream of claiming "I'm a good person" before God, you ought first to be able to do so before future generations - and we already know, from past history, how that'll turn out.

This line of thinking also gives us a way to evaluate some common moral arguments. In particular, I speak of those arguments that use words like "in this day and age", or "we're in the 21st century", or "you're on the wrong side of history". Understanding the arc of the moral universe - together with its course and scope - reveals these words to be the provincial, narrow-minded products coming from a limited perspective. Remember that "This day and age"  and the "21st century" is not a special time. In fact we know with near-certainty that our day and age will become obsolete, as did all the ages before ours. Whenever I hear those words in a moral argument, I mentally replace them with "in this day and age in the 12th century". If the argument doesn't make any sense under that transformation, it cannot have any deep, time-invariant truth to it.

As for the "wrong side of history", remember that the moral arc of the universe is LONG. It generally takes about one full human lifetime to clearly see how it bends. But whenever I hear someone arguing for the "right side of history", they're referring to events on a far shorter timescale. Remember that eugenics and communism were also supposed to be the latest, most progressive thing that was on the "right side of history". Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, speaking for a single-party communist system against Western capitalism and democracy, thought that "history is on our side. We will bury you". All of these are examples of people speaking too soon by failing to understand the moral arc of the universe.

Okay, so how can we escape these errors? How can we look beyond the narrow-minded thinking that now - "the 21st century" or "this day and age" - is a special time in history? How can we distinguish between the latest random societal change and the actual bend in the arc of the moral universe?

Remember that the moral universes moves in an ARC. An arc, as opposed to just a random squiggle, is defined by having some constant parameters, some unchanging rule that it follows. That's what we should look for - some unchanging, time-invariant rules of morality that underlies and drives the bending of the arc. In fact, we already know what many of these are: love the LORD your God. Speak truth to one another. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Love your neighbors. Do not steal. So on and so forth. We champion these truths against the temporal variance of any one specific place and time.

This way of thinking also helps us to interpret the Bible. The Bible is thousands of years old. If we read it simplistically, looking at its instructions in complete isolation without taking into account its historical context, we'll only see a lot of outdated practices. We do not have animal sacrifices or avengers of blood anymore. But the Bible is not meant to be read that way: it teaches us principles, not particulars. It gives us invariant truths, not specific social agendas.

When a teacher shows his students how to do an example problem, he's teaching a solution that depends on the understanding of deep principles at work in that problem. Now, some terrible students will only remember that "the answer is C", then complain on the test because the "C" turned out to be the wrong answer to an analogous problem. We must not to be like that student.

And in this way, the Bible is the perfect instructor: thousands of years of history means that its characters are deeply flawed and sinful - something the Bible itself readily acknowledges - because the moral arc has progressed past them for all that time. We therefore cannot simply copy and paste their actions into our lives today, as if they existed without any external context. But that same thousands of years of history is perfect for illustrating the unchanging principles at the heart of the moral arc. These principles are the same yesterday, today, and forever, because their Author is timeless and eternal. So, what the Bible's critics assume is one if its greatest weaknesses ("it's thousands of years old") turns out to be one if its major strengths. You just have to not read it like a terrible student would.

But in the end, we come back to our fallen nature. The curve of the moral arc reveals all of us to be moral monsters, depraved and fallen. Even if we can discern some of the principles behind its turning, we cannot work out all the specifics. We cannot predict the future turnings of the arc. So it is that God has placed eternity in the hearts of man, yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

But God has given us Christ. And through him, God gives us salvation from our fallen depravity. Through him, we will reach the end of the moral arc, for he himself is the perfection that the arc is bending towards.

You may next want to read:
History, moral progress, and moral perfection (part 1)
I am a sinner.
The Gospel: the central message of Christianity (part 1)
Another post, from the table of contents

Human laws, natural laws, and the Fourth of July

Have you heard about the time they tried to redefine pi(π) - the mathematical constant - by law? Yes, that really happened. The cherry on top is that the suggested value of pi was not anywhere near the correct value: the bill implied various different values like 3.2 and 4.

Thankfully, the bill never became law, and the story simply ends there. It's told nowadays as just a funny anecdote. But I think this story could be more. I think it could serve as a fable, or a parable - one that may be relevant in our time.

What, exactly, would have been the nature of the legislators' error, if the bill had passed? It would have been hubris. They would have been confusing man's laws with nature's laws. Men - even lawmakers - do not have the power to define mathematical truths, or change the other laws of nature.

That's all well and good, but I think that this principle applies much more broadly, far beyond instances of trying to define pi by law. In fact I think that ALL human laws are like this pi law to some extent. They all attempt to bend or redefine or impose some constraint on the natural laws, to a greater or a lesser degree. A law is considered "good" or "bad" precisely to the degree that it conforms to the natural laws. So, a law that says "pi = 4" is terrible. A law that says "pi = 3.14" is not as bad. A law that says "pi is a irrational number, which is approximately 3.14159" is better still, and may actually be useful if people were inclined to use erroneous values for pi.

You may think that this doesn't apply to laws governing human behavior, but that's not true. Humans are physical beings. We naturally behave in certain predictable ways, according to natural laws which operate independently from any human laws: if you starve us, we die. If you overfeed us, we grow fat. If you put a man and a woman together under the right conditions, we reproduce. And we naturally love the children produced in this way. We do all this in the absence of any externally imposed human laws, in simple obedience to the natural laws.

"So are you saying that we don't need human laws at all, since we only need to follow the natural laws? Wouldn't that lead to the collapse of civilization? Are you an anarchist?" Not at all. We need human laws BECAUSE they help us understand nature's laws. Natural laws are, in general, too far beyond us. They are complicated and difficult to apply correctly for a human. That's why we need human laws, and that's why human laws are good only insofar as they help us apply and conform to nature's laws.

Take the "do not murder" law as an example. The laws of nature say that humans can be killed by subjecting them to certain physical conditions. They also say, in a much more complicated way, that there are severe negative consequences for murdering a human. Some of the possible consequences are a cycle of revenge, grief and ruin for the victim's family, and the destruction of trust and security in society.

Now, it may be that a would-be murderer says "I will kill my victim and take his money. I see no potential downside". He does not understand the natural consequences of his actions. This is where the human law is helpful, for it now steps in and says "Even if you can't understand the natural law that leads to negative consequences, the law passed by other humans makes things clear: if you commit murder, you will be punished". The human law helps this would-be murderer to understand the natural law, or at least allows him to behave as if he did. In this way, human laws are subservient to the natural laws, and derive their legitimacy precisely to the degree that they conform to the natural laws.

Imagine if the law concerning murder was "murder is illegal: you must pay a $10 fine if you commit murder". This is a bad law, precisely because it fails to conform to the natural law: the negative natural consequences of a murder are far great than $10.

On a more mundane level, imagine if the tax law said "you must pay 75% of your income as tax". Again, this is a bad law because it fails to conform to the natural law. Very few people would naturally choose to exchange 75% of their income for the services provided by their government. If the tax rate was instead set at 1%, then the opposite problem arises: very few governments could naturally provide its services to its citizens on 1% of the people's income. This example can get more complicated if we start discussing exactly what services governments should provide, but the fundamental fact remains: even in something as mundane as the tax rate, human laws are subservient to natural laws, and they are only "good" to the degree that they conform to the natural laws.

What I am saying is that we all need a healthy dose of disregard for human laws. But this disregard ought not come from a general disdain for authority, or some sense of cynicism about the world. It is to come from an understanding of the natural law. ALL laws - including ones governing mundane human behavior, like tax rates or speed limits - are like that law that tried to set the value of pi. They are all simply better or worse approximations to the natural law. They have no power to actually change any natural law, but are in fact subservient to it and are judged by it.

This is why the Declaration of Independence appeals to the laws of nature, in stating that the United States must "assume among the powers of the earth, [a] separate and equal station". This was despite the fact that this action was plainly illegal according to the laws of Great Britain. Natural law trumps human laws. "We must obey God rather than men".

This difference between human laws and the natural law can also help us understand the meaning of "freedom" and "tyranny". We are free insofar as we live according to the natural law - God's law. If we deviate from this law due to ignorance, as in the case of the murderer saying "I see no downside to killing", then we are lawless barbarians. On the other hand, if we deviate from the natural law due to human laws, then we live under tyranny.

Now, the Declaration of Independence says some very extreme things about people living under a tyrannical government. It says that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security". This is such a dramatic position that I don't think I could have come to call it my own without having read it in the Declaration of Independence. If you don't think this is extreme, think about what it's saying in our context today. Remember that the Declaration of Independence was written after the Revolutionary War had already started, and was written to justify that war. The Declaration is saying that, if the United States government goes bad, it is our duty to take up arms and wage war against it. That we are obligated to pick up our guns, point them at other Americans in uniform, and shoot them to kill them. That we may employ tactics considered "dishonorable" by the American government, as the American revolutionaries employed tactics considered "dishonorable" by the British. That we are not only allowed, but obligated, to do these things to overthrow the government. That this is the just and righteous thing to do - meaning that just being a "good law-abiding citizen" in such times is servile cowardice.

But prudence dictates that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; history has indeed shown that it is so very easy to go wrong in a revolution, that what is heralded as a progressive advancement only turns out to increase suffering and tyranny. So we always have to put up with some difference between human and natural laws. Some degree of legal fiction is necessary, just as it's sometimes necessary to pretend that pi is 3.14, for the sake of convenience.

In today's America, the specter of a revolution is far away. We don't have to think too much about overthrowing the government. This is one of the many ways that God has blessed America. But we must not grow complacent, as if we had some inherent superiority compared to other peoples of the world which prevents our government from going bad. The Fourth of July is a good time to remember some important truths: human law is subservient to natural law. We must obey God rather then men. Tyranny is the failure of human law to conform to natural law. And lastly, in extreme cases of tyranny, we have the righteous duty to rebel, because "good" is not synonymous with "nice".

You may next want to read:
On same-sex marriage
How is God related to all other fields of study?
Another post, from the table of contents