I am not a scientist but can appreciate works like Peter Ward’s Under a Green Sky (2007) as a useful popularization by a new breed of paleontologist who integrates other sciences into the search for patterns or cycles of mass extinctions on Earth.

Up to recently, the consensus on the cause of the the most recent extinction (Cretaceous-Tertiary) was an asteroid strike, since nothing else could explain the sudden heating of Earth. Ward usefully documents all of the most recent evidence, ranging from rock cores in mountains to ocean oxygenation to measurements of carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide, all pointing to accelerating carbon dioxide and massive warming as a driver of extinction on Earth.

Though a scientific theme, the concept of mass extinction certainly has its philosophical implications. Extinction is another word for death on a massive scale, of species or of life in particular geographic regions. But war, genocide, exterminations, scorched earth policies, deforestation and the like have existed throughout human history, reflecting how human beings have changed their local “environment” long before the advent of higher technology. Environment in this sense is cultural and social, as well as a mental environment that is hidden away from consciousness as a belief, a fear, an obsessive drive.

But first we experience death as individuals. However much our necessary connections with a physical habitat or a culture, with a place or with loved ones, our death is an extinction, even if we hope others will remember us or keep our effects.

Reflecting upon death is a source of discovery because it reveals to us our solitude, a solitude which has always been the core of self but was muted over by the noise and distraction of society and people around us. We are born for extinction; we have been dying from the moment we were born.

The drive or instinct of a living Earth viewed as Gaia is to give life, prolifically, like the Mother or the Creator, the engendering, birthing and nurturing principles of the universe that go on with blind faith, with perseverance, with eternal hope. And yet all life, all extant things, while abiding in this primordial sea of being, contain the seeds of death, of the dissipation of time and the limits of space. These factors close in upon that single entity and rip it apart, body and soul. Nothing is more poignant than suffering except suffering as a process, a trajectory, towards death. We see it consciously, yet Gaia does not, nor does the Tao nor God, nor does anything step in to consider why this and not some other pattern should rule the universe.

There is no solace in the scientist’s assurance that we are all part of the matter, the same energy, originating in the core of a distant star — that our atoms and molecules, the stuff of our hearts and livers and brains, were forged in the furnace of a distant star abiding in a far-away galaxy. No, we want to live now, on this humble green earth, with the familiar trees and clouds and winds. No wonder that Emily Bronte cried out that she did not want Heaven when she died, for nothing could replace a single day on this Earth.

And now science blithely assures us that life on earth will be extinct not in a few million years (as scheduled) but that it will face mass extinction within decades if carbon dioxide continues to rise in the unforeseen proportions that it is rising. At this point in time it is a matter of numbers and optimistic folly. Some scientists say 400 parts per million is the tipping point, and others 350. But we are already at 385 ppm.

The sequence described by Ward, and by many scientists besides, foresees erratic weather patterns, increasing ocean dead zones, polar meltdown, ocean conveyor system shutdown, sea-level rise … and, ultimately, seas erupting excessive hydrogen sulfide mingling noxiously with a once blue heavens to leave us helplessly “under a green sky.” (blue + yellow = green).

Extinction is a hundreds of millions of years cycle. Or it is within the lifetime of many in the not-distant future who will be victims of social and climate change. Or it will be ourselves as individuals, irregardless.

Comte-Sponville’s spirituality

What is refreshing about Andre Comte-Sponville’s book L’esprit de l’atheisme is his unexpected attitude. Lately translated into English as The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality in order to emphasize its style — informal, not technical, not hostile — the book’s tone is not expected in the US, not after a history of Robert Ingersoll, Madalyn O’Hare, the Scopes Trial, and intelligent design. Perhaps because the author is European (specifically French), and in Europe bitter rhetoric has been played out, weary of wars of religion, world wars, and religious intolerance.

Or perhaps because Comte-Sponville was raised Catholic and is not, I think, hostile to what one might call the aesthetics of chant, ritual, and incense. Occasionally Comte-Sponville is proud of his non-belief, occasional cool and nonchalant about it — not militant, angry or crusading. His style is that of Montaigne, Pascal, Renan. His affable personality makes his reflections, which surprisingly culminate in a strong defense of mysticism — however we may construe it — seem eminently reasonable, acceptable, even inevitable.

There are only three chapters. Comte-Sponville covers the usual issues of society and culture in the first chapter (“Can We Do Without Religion?”) and the old proofs for the existence of God in the second (“Does God Exist?”). There are a few new insights here, especially in chapter one, where Comte-Sponville discusses the effects of the Holocaust on Jewish belief, and how a priest once confided to him that he agreed on the priority in life of ethics and behavior rather than faith or belief. The author concludes with a sense of deliberate “cheerful despair.” He is not an existentialist. He expresses faith and optimism in “democracy” and abhorrence of “terror” and “fanaticism” — perhaps too trusting in Western thinking, a point of view no longer supportable, especially when dealing with his topic. In the end, Comte-Sponville, like most atheists in the Western world, are still working in reaction to biblical ideas.

Chapter two includes the familiar cosmological proof, ontological proof, and a “physico-theological” proof. He touches upon the non-theism of Eastern thought, and revisits great Western thinkers from Epicurus and Lucretius, to the Stoics and Spinoza, to Montaigne, Pascal, Kant and beyond. He hones in on the illogical and the inexplicable, and — one of my favorite areas — the intractable nature of evil.

The author quotes Epicurus:

Either God wanted to eliminate evil and could not; or he could and did not want to; or he neither could nor wanted to; or he could and wanted to. If he wanted to and could not, he is impotent, which cannot be the case for God; if he could and did not want to, he is evil, which is foreign to God’s nature. If he neither could nor wanted to, he is both impotent and evil, in which case he is not God. If he both wanted to and could — the only hypothesis that corresponds to God — where does evil come from, or why did God not eliminate it?

Or as Pascal puts it:

We must be born guilty or God would be unjust.

But as Comte-Sponville rightly points out (reminiscent of Jung’s Answer to Job) what a terrible and stupid fate it is and what a horrible thing to throw sin into the face of so many suffering in the world.

Besides the weakness of the proofs, the obviousness of our common experience of life, of tortuous explanations, and the aforesaid enormity of evil, the author adds two other arguments: human mediocrity and Freud’s illusion concept (laid out in Future of an Illusion) wherein what we wish is projected without our being aware of it.

But for all that, Comte-Sponville is more sensitive and mystically-oriented than even the average believer in presenting the concept of mystery, of openness to being, of what both Meister Eckhart and Heidegger called “releasement” (though the author unfortunately does not mention them). He quotes Wittgenstein: “Mysticism wonders not how the world is but that the world is.” The author’s third chapter is thus a heroic structure built around the insights of medieval mystics (Eckhart and Angelus Silesius are cited), Simone Weil, Zen masters, Krishnamurti, Swami Prajnanpad. He describes the maturation of “immanensity” in our notion of the universe, or rather, our experience of the universe, emphasizing an active opening of the mind and heart, an opening of the spirit. With favor he pursues what Romain Rolland called the “oceanic feeling” and what writer Michel Hulin calls “spontaneous mysticism.”

Comte-Sponville links all this to the absoluteness of silence. Silence is the ground of being. Wittgenstein paraphrases Lao-tzu: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” This silence yields its fruits to the one disposed to it: simplicity, unity, eternity, serenity, acceptance, independence. These terms are not just an extrapolation, but Comte-Sponville’s own subchapter headings. He does an excellent job leading the reader to a refreshing sense of confidence and insight, of what he calls (in a final subheading): “Interiority and Transcendence, Immanence and Openness.” Solid grist for philosophical discussion, and not what one would expect from an “atheist.”

Comte-Sponville has written a heartfelt book, skillful and invigorating, well worth the time to the explorer of ideas.

Tao te ching 2

The first chapter of the Lao Tzu (that is, the Tao te ching) presents an understanding of the Tao and the method by which to comprehend it based on the concept of desire (or desirelessness) and mystery. The second chapter begins a description of the Tao based in part on perception and judgment.

Everyone recognizes the beautiful as the beautiful, yet this is only the ugly; everyone recognizes the good as the good, yet this is only the bad.

We are immediately alerted to the very function of consciousness. To assert cognition, we immediately apply judgment. We determine what is beautiful, immediately implying that all else is ugly, for we want only that one thing. We celebrate something as good, immediately determining that all else is shortcoming and bad, because we want only the good.

Is it wrong, then, to have this desire for what we consider complimentary, to make a judgment about what is before us? The first and essential point is that this process is not cognition or perception, it is judgment. As soon as we judge we assert a panoply of subjective desires and feelings that will inevitably shift and re-form as experiences and feeling change and multiply. We have already left the realm of mind to enter the realm of human sentiment, assumptions, and the rush to desired certainty. We assert compatibility and accelerate it to a pleasure principle. We ignore the responsibility for what we have also created or engendered by our consciousness — an opposite. But let us see where the Tao te ching will take this first admonition.

Thus Something and Nothing produce each other;
The difficult and the easy complement each other;
The long and the short off-set each other;
The high and the low incline towards each other;
Note and sound harmonize with each other;
Before and after follow each other.

By describing one thing, something, as beautiful, we immediately produced its opposite: ugly. In fact, by assigning somethingness to an object, we immediately assigned nothingness to its absence, to its opposite, to its nonexistence. How can this be? Have we the power to conjure nothing out of something? Yes, if we call something A, then we conjure non-A, even though we are not qualified to do so, that is, we have no facticity to our unintended creation of will.

The debate Carl Jung referred to about the existence of good and evil showed how the supposed reduction of evil to a mere absence of good, unintentionally pronounced by the theologians and logicians who insisted on the good, produced a subtle but real evil that merely awaits propitious moments to assert itself. That is, the quest for good inevitably creates of bad something of a facticity, a reality. After all, if we have decided that there is a good, why not finish the judgment and acknowledge an evil? We assume that both exist, that both are real, have facticity, have being.

So those who defined good did not recognize the power of what Jung calls shadow and void in their preoccupation with the good. But popular culture knew better: it “created” evil, or engendered it with power, to a degree concomitant with good, perhaps even stronger — well, of course, much, much stronger. And that is our plight today.

So the Tao te ching observes this cascade of duality that comes from a primordial assertion of consciousness: what is difficult is so perceived to be, making it subjective, pertinent to one person. As a consensus grows, based on the behavior of groups, societies and cultures, then power asserts itself among the few or among a class. “Difficult” is now what culture and power decide, as is “easy.” And so forth with all of the qualities enumerated in this passage: What is long? Is it really not short from a different point of view? Or, more precisely, does not the announcement that is is long create another necessary perception, that it could well be short, or that everything else is short by comparison? And on and on: high makes low, note and pause, before and after … However, while this is a subjective perception of an individual consciousness, we should not overlook that we are born into a milieu in which much of this is already decided for us.

Therefore the sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking no action and practices the teaching that uses no words.

The practice of the sage is to recognize that as soon as one thing is judged to be such-and-such in character or appearance, then its opposite becomes necessary and “real.” Such judgments are, we think, innocuous common-day necessities. But how much do we need them at the deeper level of consciousness, in the depths of that solitude which is the true nature of self? This is the way of the sage, to not pursue them. As will be seen in later chapters, the sage is as dumb as a newborn — or as simple and nonjudgmental.

We walk the slender path of paradox, but it is not contradiction to keep silence, to not judge (which is what Jesus must have meant), to exist and act only as nature does: the rock, the cloud, the wind, all acting without action, all moving without intention, all practicing without words.

The myriad creatures rise from it yet it claims no authority;
It gives them life yet claims no possession;
It benefits them yet exacts no gratitude;
It accomplishes its task yet lays claim to no merit.

The “it” is the Tao, that which remained as a backdrop to our insistence on thoughts, words, judgments. Now we see that the ten-thousand things that emerged from it are completely autonomous and distinct, yet have in common this origin. And they have in common this potential characteristic of the Tao: it does not distinguish beautiful and ugly, good and bad, long and short, difficult and easy … The Tao engenders the myriad creatures, creates them, gives them degrees of consciousness (humans have so much!), but lets them be — it claims no authority over them.

The Tao is too subtle to be anthropomorphized, to be appealed to, to be characterized, to be reduced to a series of qualities, and attributes. We must realize that we cannot do the same to our world or we are thrown into a whirlwind that is no long an understanding of the Tao. It must be so if the Tao is to be the model of the sage, neither acting acts nor teaching lessons but simply resting within the context of being.

We will never fully understand this totality, this All, this Tao, this Absolute. We acknowledge its inevitability. As long as we refrain from assigning it good or bad, long or short, beautiful or ugly. We will also dwell in its mystery, however, because, as the last lines of chapter 2 say:

It is because it lays claim to no merit
That its merit never deserts it.

And that is where we want to be: claiming no merit, understanding without desire.

Jung on good and evil

In the Western world, good and evil are largely defined in biblical terms, pushed close to the dichotomy of God as Summum Bonum or absolute good and a counterpart of absolute evil. Carl Jung points out that the notion of evil as substance or being is in fact vigorously denied by the Church Fathers through Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Theologians in the West have always argued that evil does not exist in the form of the devil, that it is merely a privatio boni, a defect or shortcoming of human behavior. This raises more questions than it settles. Jung first quotes extensively from the original Christian sources (here only excerpted) to demonstrate this point.


Nothing evil was created by God; we ourselves have produced all wickedness.

Basil the Great:

Evil is neither uncreated nor created by God. … Evil is not a living and animated entity, but a condition of the soul opposed to virtue, proceeding from light-minded persons on account of their falling away from good. Each of us should acknowledge that he is the first author of the wickedness in him.

Dionysius the Areopagite:

Evil in its nature is neither a thing nor does it bring anything forth. Evil does not exist at all and is neither good nor productive of good.

John Chrysostom:

Evil is nothing other than a turning away from good.


Evil therefore is nothing but the privation of good. … Evil is not a substance, for as it has not God for its author, it does not exist; and so the defect of corruption is nothing else than the desire or act of a misdirected will.

Thomas Aquinas:

Evil is signified by the absence of good. Evil is not a being, whereas good is a being.

Part of the motive of these theologians was to distinguish, especially in the early centuries, Christian doctrine from Manichean, which saw evil as such a dominant force in the world that in order to safeguard divinity from tolerating its pervasiveness — let alone safeguard divinity from the charge of creating it — posited two co-equal gods, one good, one evil. While this explanation addressed the struggle of good and evil in the world, it compromised the biblical depiction of God as absolute good, as Summum Bonum. In reaction, the Church Fathers all the way through scholasticism downplayed the pervasiveness and power of evil, shrinking it to a minor defect of character, as “nothing else than the desire or act of a misdirected will,” as the mere “absence of good.”

We will not pursue the disastrous tolerance of practical evil evidenced through the centuries based on this theological sleight of hand. Nor can the character of diplomacy and social order be attributed solely to theological assumptions. But a morality that concentrated on only a select set of human behaviors has been a long-term legacy of Western thought.

However, while the theologians downplayed evil as being or substance, the biblical tradition is dominated by it. The devil plays a significant role in the books of Genesis and Job, and especially in the regular New Testament references to the devil and hell, culminating in the Book of the Apocalypse or Revelations. Literature ever since, from Marlowe to Milton to Goethe and on to pogroms, revivals, witch hunts, exorcisms, and recent papal affirmations that the devil does exist as a being — all this has saturated minds, hearts, and vocabularies.

This was what so bothered Nietzsche, this contradiction that churchmen allowed tyrants, armies, and abusers their “misdirected wills” and “defects” while horrifying the masses with witches, demons, and damnation.

Jung saw clearly that an underlying tautology exists, beyond human behavior: that if God is the author of good and human beings are the author of evil, there is a clear discrepancy of nature and origin, of theory and reality. To cite his analogy, if light does not produce darkness, then neither does darkness produce light. If humans are the author of evil, then they are also the author of good, because good and evil, or what we call good or evil, involves human judgment.

Both good and evil are categories of values. Human beings are the author of judgments. As Jung explains:

Psychology does not know what good and evil are in themselves; it knows them only as judgments about relationships. “Good” is what seems suitable, acceptable, or laudable from a certain point of view; “evil” is its opposite. If the things we call good are “really” good, then there must be evil things that are “real” too.

Jung defined the shadow and the void as phenomena of mind with enormous and subtle propensities for what we conventionally call “evil.” The existence of shadow and void in human nature provides a more cogent explanation of the function of judgment in the psyche. Judgment is simply too externalized by traditional theological explanation. On this subject even philosophy devolves, we may say, into ethics, which is a logical category for describing behavior but not a holistic psychological explanation of the factors of behavior, especially social behavior. In short, philosophy, like theology, can use logic to circumvent human experience, especially our experience of evil.

Of course, Jung is not the first thinker to shift the issue of evil back to an empirical and realistic level, but he did so with sympathy for the great religious traditions, however inadequately they had addressed such a pressing issue. Jung understood that evil does exist and that psychology must insist on this fact. Evil is not necessarily a metaphysical phenomenon but it is clearly a psychological experience. We should not have to struggle through theology in order to describe evil as an historical experience, as a collective phenomenon.

We are left with a Summum Bonum that we can never attain as realistic behavior nor fully emulate as a model because it is contradictory. Human experience is not so providential to dismiss evil as a bad habit, while entertaining an infinitely powerful archetype like the devil.

The Western world has been focusing for centuries on power as the resource for suppressing evil, instead of realizing that it was the very insistence on the necessary triumph of good over evil that has engendered much of what we call evil, and much that we have overlooked as evil.