Wednesday, April 2, 2008

26 ’Adhar Sheni 5768: National Peanut Butter and Jelly Day


Today’s news and commentary:In lieu of a weird thing, today I present towards my book Divine Misconceptions a review of The Dark Crystal and various related material. Enjoy and share the weirdness.


False symmetry: a theological review of “The Enemy Within” and The Dark Crystal
by Aaron Solomon Adelman

One of the most popular religious themes since ancient times has been that of the struggle between good and evil. The subject has been dealt with so many times to the point of being practically ubiquitous. Whenever anyone tells a story, one naturally expects there to be a side of good opposed by a side of evil. These two sides need not be different people; humans are often depicted as having good and evil parts which can be in conflict. A classic variation on the theme of internal conflict is Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson, published in 1885 and popular ever since. It is a story where a man lets his baser drives express themselves without interference in the physical world, only to realize too late that he made a moral blunder. The story is not far removed from what people really do undergo, only that not everyone uses chemicals to produce Hyde.

In 1966 the basic premise of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seems to have interbred with the “evil twin” idea of the 1930s and 1940s, producing the Star Trek (the original series) episode “The Enemy Within”. In that story, a transporter accident splits Captain James T. Kirk in two physically identical individuals. One Kirk is good, the other evil. At least four variations on this theme have appeared since then:

  • The Dark Crystal (1982): One thousand years previously, the Crystal was broken, resulting in the urSkeks being split into the evil Skeksis and the good Mystics (also known as “urRu”). The plot revolves around the quest of the gelfling Jen to fulfill a prophecy that a gelfling will repair the Crystal.
  • The Doctor Who (classic series) serial “The Trial of a Time Lord” (1986): One of the two major villains is the Valeyard, who is some sort of distillation of all the evil in the Doctor from between his 12th and 13th incarnations.
  • The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Skin of Evil” (1988): The crew of the Enterprise encounters Armus, a tar-like being who is the evil of an entire race, split off and marooned on an uninhabited planet. This is most likely a derivative of “The Trial of a Time Lord”.
  • The Red Dwarf episode “Demons and Angels” (1992): Kryten invents the triplicator, a device which creates good and evil copies of anyone or anything. The Red Dwarf and its crew are accidentally triplicated.

Wherever we see both halves of the original, there is always an attempt at symmetry between the two.

  • “The Enemy Within”: The good Kirk grows increasingly passive, while the evil Kirk is very active. The good Kirk is selfless and gentle, while the evil Kirk is selfish and cruel. These symmetries are also found in a doglike creature which is also accidentally split. Neither half-Kirk is able to function properly alone, and eventually they are merged back together into a single Kirk.
  • The Dark Crystal: The Mystics and the Skeksis largely recapitulate the symmetries of the good and evil Kirks, only in ten distinct pairs, the big difference being that each race is functional. The symmetry is taken even further than in “The Enemy Within”. There are always exactly the same number of Mystics and Skeksis. If one of one group dies, then at the same time one of the other group dies. If one of one group is injured, then one of the other group is injured. The individual correspondence is conclusively confirmed when the gelfling Jen repairs the Crystal: each Mystic merges with his/her corresponding Skeksis into perfected beings, the urSkeks. Undeniably, the two races are each part of a greater whole.
  • “Demons and Angels”: Both the “high” and “low” halves are respectively good and evil taken to an absurd, over-the-top extreme—but considering that most things in the show are absurd or over-the-top, this is unsurprising; the “high” forms are impossibly naïve, gentle saints, and the “low” forms are unhygienic, depraved, and cruel beyond redemption. While The Dark Crystal expresses the brokenness of the Crystal in the splitting of the urSkeks, “Demons and Angels” extends the split to the physical qualities of the half-ships; on the “high” ship everything is in great shape and perfect—even much-despised Pot Noodles tasting wonderful—while everything on the “low” ship everything is practically falling apart.

The whole point of the moral split is drama, which it accomplishes very well. But drama is not the same thing as truth, and thus begin the theological difficulties.

That anything could be split into good and evil parts, whether it be done by malfunctioning advanced technology or a magic crystal, presupposes that good and evil are physical properties themselves. Physical properties are ones which have objective existence in the physical universe, e.g., mass, electric charge, color, location, size, weight, temperature, and density. But good and evil are not physical properties; they belong to a different class altogether: social constructs.

While social constructs normally reference the physical universe, social construct properties are ones that only exist because people recognize they exist. For example, ownership is purely a social construct; a rubber duck owned by Ernie belongs to Ernie because people recognize that Ernie is the owner. No physical examination can prove or disprove that Ernie is the owner. Even if the rubber duck is marked as belonging to Ernie, it is possible that, say, Bert bought the rubber duck from Ernie and simply failed to change the markings. Also, whether Ernie owns said rubber duck is dependent on the societal rules—be they explicit or implicit—being used; one society may consider Ernie the legitimate owner of the rubber duck while another denies he is the owner. Note this is not a denial of the phenomenon of ownership; rather this is a denial that ownership can be treated in the same unambiguous, purely objective manner that physical properties can. Other famous social construct properties include marital status, monetary value, legality, beauty and ugliness, and—relevant to this review—good and evil.

What is good and evil is only defined in the framework of a moral system, itself a social construct, which are themselves often parts of greater ideologies, such as religions and philosophical systems. In some religions, what is considered good and evil is dictated by a deity or saintly person. Other ideologies define them in philosophical terms. Some people eschew intellectual approaches and define them in terms of their emotional response or even construct a moral system arbitrarily. To be sure, some actions have widely agreed-upon moral statuses, but the moral status of many actions varies wildly from system to system. Is killing unbelievers permitted? Is animal sacrifice permitted? Is premarital sex permitted? Is abortion permitted? Is violence permitted? Is eating meat permitted? Ask followers of a dozen different moral systems these questions, and one will get a dozen different answers, many of which will include details on when and if these are permitted or forbidden. The fact that there is widespread diversity of moral systems needs to be kept in mind when discussing any moral question; moral systems with different axioms will, quite naturally, frequently return different answers. The upshot of all this, in the context of this review, is that splitting a being along moral lines is impossible. Since good and evil are not physical properties, there is no good side or evil side for a transporter to latch onto separately—and that is ignoring the serious question of whether a Star Trek-type transporter is possible at all. (Magic, of course, has never been demonstrated to exist, and there is no a priori reason to believe it is possible except in metaphorical senses of the term.) There is also the rather unpleasant question of what a person divided in half would physically look like which is universally ignored by providing each half with a whole body, probably in violation of the law of conservation of mass and energy.

One also may not take the path of claiming that the “good” and “evil” halves of the split beings are not really good and evil. In “Demons and Angels”, the “low” and “high” halves affirm themselves that the split is moral. The pure evil status of Armus and the Valeyard are also stated explicitly. Interpreting these statuses as not being actually moral would be in violation of the works’ simple meaning. And while the good Kirk and the Mystics are too passive to be very effective at doing good—though they do have “good” feelings—the evil Kirk, the Skeksis, Armus, and the Valeyard do nothing but evil (according to common Western moral convention, anyway). No one tries to make any case made that any of these “evil” beings are in some aspect good, period, only “necessary”—in contrast with the 1997 Star Trek: Voyager episode “Darkling”, in which Kes argues that a Hyde-like “dark” Doctor hologram composed of the “dark” sides of many simulated historical figures, despite having done much evil, still contains elements of good.

But so what if splitting a being in two among moral lines is impossible? These stories are all fiction, and that which is impossible in reality can appear in fiction with impunity! True enough, but the views of good and evil presented are also problematic.

  • Good and evil are not an intrinsic parts of the human psyche. Intrinsic evil would require that something in the human brain is only applicable towards good or evil. But evolution is a morally neutral process, shaping life according to what works, not according to what is good or evil. Nowhere in the human brain is there a “good center” or an “evil center”. Everything in the basic human mental repertoire can be used for good as well as evil. To illustrate this, let us review as examples the seven deadly sins of Christianity and examine their original purpose and virtuous application.

    • Lust: The primary purpose of the sex drive is procreation, the secondary purpose being social cohesion. Although some religions hold celibacy is an ideal, few make it obligatory for everybody. Those that prohibit sexual intercourse altogether have limited life spans, since without sex no children are born (except with technological assistance), and groups that do not produce children must have high levels of converts to sustain their numbers enough to survive. Like it or not, sex is part of the Divinely sanctioned natural order (in most religions, anyway) and has its place in reproduction and frequently as part of a pair bond.
    • Gluttony: Eating is required for survival. When food is scarce, eating as much as possible is sensible. It is the overdoing eating in which people get into trouble.
    • Greed: People need resources to survive. It makes sense to have a drive to get what is necessary. It also makes sense to acquire that what one can make good use of. Problems arise when people acquire more than they can use or do not make good use of what they have.
    • Sloth: Working too hard is bad for us. Thus having a drive to minimize work is sensible. It also helps us work more efficiently, so we can do more with the same or less effort. Slacking off and not doing what needs to be done is what causes trouble.
    • Wrath: Anger is a strong motivator. It is most useful when one or one’s loved ones are under attack, a time when immediate, decisive action is required. It can also drive one to right wrongs. Its misuse is when it drives people to do wrong. The idea that anger can be used for good is, notably, a central premise of the comic book character the Incredible Hulk. The Hulk is an embodiment of Dr. Bruce (or David) Banner’s anger, anger which he applies towards fighting evil rather than committing it.
    • Envy: Wanting something someone else has, whether achievements or property, is not a problem. Envy can drive people to better themselves. Problems come one when one is driven to act against another.
    • Pride: Feeling good about what one has done right motivates one to continue doing what is right. Pride becomes a troublemaker when it has not been earned.

  • Good and evil are not symmetrical. If they were, one could simply replace each with the other or a transformation of the other and everything would look the same—a situation which, so far as I know, occurs in no religion. Some religions, such as Zurvanism and Manichaeism, approach moral symmetry, but they do not reach it. In any religious system I am aware of where the unique, uncreated deity has a moral attribute, that deity is always good. Evil deities are almost always ultimately outranked by a good deity—assuming any evil deity actually exists. As such, the norm for religions is for good to be ultimately more powerful than evil. Because good is what one is supposed to do and evil what one is supposed to not do, we are supposed to recreate this lack of symmetry within ourselves. E.g., since Captain Kirk is a good character, the good half-Kirk should be more powerful than the evil half-Kirk, perhaps a lot larger, too. Two equal and opposite halves make no sense—or at least implies that Kirk is a more evil character than we think he is.
  • Evil is not necessary or good. “The Enemy Within” and The Dark Crystal both end with the reunion of good and evil halves, giving the message that evil has to exist. As stated before, good and evil are social constructs, not physical properties. Good is what, according to some moral system, we should do, and evil is what we should not do. That evil should be necessary or good implies a contradiction. E.g., murder is defined as the prohibited killing of any sentient being, by virtue of the prohibition being evil. If evil is necessary or good, murder can become permissible or obligatory. Since “prohibited” excludes both “permissible” and “obligatory”, murder cannot by definition ever be permitted or obligatory by virtue of the logical prohibition on contradiction. “Skin of Evil” comes closest to getting it right; would it be that we in reality could simply remove all evil from ourselves and abandon it on another planet!
  • Evil is not supposed to be ultimately successful. Since the norm for religions is for good to be ultimately more powerful than evil, the norm is that good must eventually prevail against evil. As such, that the Skeksis even have a chance at ruling forever is highly irregular, if not unprecedented.
  • Good is not the same thing as passivity, and evil is not the same thing as activity. Making the erroneous equations appears in both “The Enemy Within” and The Dark Crystal. Unless passivity is specifically listed by a religion as a virtue, being passive accomplishes evil by failing to do actual good and doing nothing to stop the commission of evil. The passivity makes the good Kirk and the Mystics somewhat less than truly saintly. Oddly, “Demons and Angels”, despite being over-the-top goofy parody—a genre in which one expects bad ideas to be lampooned—makes the “high” Red Dwarf crew-members just as active doing good as the “low” Red Dwarf crew-members are at doing evil.
  • Good is not the same thing as stupidity. Equating good with stupidity is a cheap dramatic device. Making the bad guys smarter than the good guys makes it harder for good to triumph, thus making the triumph of good so much sweeter. But intelligence is no more intrinsically evil than it is good; what truly makes it good or evil is how it is applied. One could even argue that stupidity lends itself more readily to evil than good. Making moral decisions properly requires objective examination of the current situation. Failure to correctly assess, say, who is guilty and who is innocent in a conflict can cause a tragedy, hence a good reason not to be stupid. Here is where “Demons and Angels” goes horribly wrong, making the “high” characters unable to understand that they are being slaughtered by the “low” characters.
  • Good and evil are not necessarily unitary. Why are characters only being split into just one good and one evil side? Is it not possible for one to be extremely moral in one aspect yet morally neutral or immoral in another? Why is no character ever split into more than just two fragments, each embodying different aspects of morality? E.g., why not a character split into not two, but fourteen fragmentary characters, each exemplifying one of the seven deadly sins or the seven holy virtues of Christianity?

Conclusion: All of these works are based on something physically impossible, and ignoring this, the views of good and evil presented are all faulty. Enjoy them for the drama, but forget about learning anything about morality from “The Enemy Within” and The Dark Crystal.

Overall classification of “The Enemy Within”: Space opera that now looks retro-futuristic.

Theological rating of “The Enemy Within”: D.

Overall classification of “Trial of a Time Lord”: Science-fiction hampered by bad choices in writing and production during this season.

Theological rating of “Trial of a Time Lord”: I (due to insufficient reference material on the Valeyard at the moment).

Overall classification of “Skin of Evil”: Space opera used as a convenient vehicle to let an actress leave the show without a good dramatic reason.

Theological rating of “Skin of Evil”: D+ (I appreciate Armus being abandoned on a distant planet, but the division is intrinsically impossible).

Overall classification of The Dark Crystal: Then cutting-edge pre-Jurassic Park fantasy with Muppets.

Theological rating of The Dark Crystal: D.

Overall classification of “Demons and Angels”: Over-the-top goofy science-fiction.

Theological rating of “Demons and Angels”: D+ (not as bad as “The Enemy Within” or The Dark Crystal).
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