On the Nature of Sin
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In order to discuss sin, we must first discuss evil. We need to define what evil means. To what does the word evil refer? What boundaries do we construct around that denotation?
Certainly evil refers to something bad, something that we do not want to encounter. But itís more than that. We do not want to encounter the flu, but we donít describe influenza as evil: itís just bad. In order to be evil, by our reckoning, a bad thing must extend into the moral dimension. Evil must have a behavioral aspect, but not just any behavior. If a pack of wolves attacks and kills a hiker, we regard the event as bad, certainly, but not as evil: we regard the wolves as dumb animals, incapable of evil. So we begin by describing evil as bad behavior with sentient intent behind it.
How can we recognize evil? What would give us the clearest sign that something is evil? Anything that would bring me down, diminish me in some way or demoralize me, is bad in my opinion. From conversations with others I can infer that they have the same opinion about anything that would bring them down. From the knowledge that all humans possess the same set of emotions and the same urge to thrive, I infer that all humans share that opinion. There will be some minor exceptions to that rule due to environmental factors, but we can deal with them separately. So now we have our criterion for recognizing evil: anything that is sentiently intended to diminish or demoralize a person is evil.
We associate bullies, criminals, and terrorists with evil because they seek to assert dominance by pushing others down. Aggrandizing themselves at the uncompensated expense of others clearly fits our criterion and suggests the motive behind such behavior. But thereís also a more subtle source of evil in this world, one that seems downright counterintuitive.
Sin denotes an evil that one inflicts upon oneself. Theologians generally describe sin as a falling short of what one must be. In that sense sin is a diminution of the self. Why would someone diminish themself? We may discern a reason by looking at sin itself as a psychological phenomenon.
Consider Freudís tripartite model of the unconscious mind. Neural nets within the brain manifest id, ego, and superego. As the brain translates percepts into concepts, primarily through language, those three features convert the concepts into thoughts, feelings, and behavior.
Id comes first. Weíre born with it and it constitutes what we may call our animal spirit. It manifests our basic needs (hunger, thirst, social acceptance) and later grows to include secondary desires (desire for money, craving for adulation, yearning for a perfect cup of coffee, etc.). Stimulated by sensations (sight, sound, smell, etc.) from the outer environment or from the body it occupies (hunger, thirst, etc.), the id pushes its body into behaviors aimed at satisfying the desires thus triggered.
Superego comes next. It provides what we call the reality check and it is created through experience. For example, a coyote learns rather quickly that itís a bad thing to attack a skunk. In its unconscious mind the coyote develops an impulse that says (nonverbally of course) "Donít attack a skunk!" If the coyote sees a skunk and feels an impulse to attack, the memory of getting sprayed inhibits the impulse.
Humans exist in a much more complex environment, mostly self-created. From birth we are told that we must do some things and must not do other things, being told by parents, other relatives, neighbors, teachers, and so on. Those demands get incorporated into the superego as a kind of generalized authority figure (which some people identify with God). Theyíre properly meant to keep us away from conflict, but they are not always so honestly meant.
Thatís why we develop an ego. Note that ego, as used by Freud, does not mean vanity (which is how we commonly use it), but it refers more to what we might call our sense of self. The ego comes into being for the purpose of mediating between the urges of the id and the demands of the superego.
My id tells me that I have to get a certain [thing]. My superego tells me that if I try to get that [thing], I will have a bad experience. How can I eliminate that conflict from my unconscious mind? I start by telling myself a story; in particular, the story of me trying to get the [thing] and suffering the bad consequence. Then I tell the story again with modifications aimed at giving it a better ending. I might think that if I delay getting the [thing], the source of the bad consequence may go away. I can augment that thought with the thought that delaying gratification of the desire makes the eventual gratification more pleasant.
Distraction gives the ego another ploy to use in controlling the id. The ego brings up thoughts of things that the mind likes and thus represses the thoughts aroused by the id, putting them "on hold". Itís for this purpose that we develop interests in things that have no direct application to satisfying our biological urges. Indeed, civilization is basically a vast array of potential distractions.
The ego taps into the superego for its distractions: the superego is, after all, our inner, unconscious representation of our surrounding society. But the ego must also prevent the superego from over-suppressing the id. We want to tame the id, not beat it to death.
How does this relate to the nature of sin, an evil that one commits against oneself? The Catholic Church has long identified seven sins that can be so devastating to the sinner that they are regarded as deadly dangers to the sinnerís soul. Letís examine those Seven Deadly Sins in the same order in which Dante Alighieri described them in his 1320 masterpiece, the Divine Comedy and see how they diminish the self:
When he began his imaginary climb up Mount Purgatory, Dante encountered the mother of all sins first. Pride enables all of the other sins to take possession of someone; therefore, it is the most dangerous of the seven, all the more so because it masquerades as a virtue.
We are all born with a unique point of view and a single reference for pleasure and pain. That fact is true of all animals and it organizes the animalís behavior in accordance with its instincts. Because we evolved from animals, it is perfectly natural for a human baby to feel that they are the only person in the world who counts for anything. But we have become more than animals; thus, as we grow we have the ability to achieve our full humanity. We gain that achievement through empathy.
Empathy denotes our ability to feel what others are feeling. We tend to mimic otherís emotions, even to the extent of attributing emotions to inanimate objects (the pathetic fallacy). Just as we partake of othersí feelings, so we want to share our feelings with others. Empathy makes society possible by giving us an emotional connection to other people. It denotes what we mean by the phrase having a heart and we may thus identify it with the concept of the soul (whether that soul survives the death of the body is an open question that I will not address in this essay). We regard it as a sine qua non for being human.
If we accept that proposition, then we must regard a deficiency in empathy as corresponding to a diminution of the person: the person is less able to participate well in a good and decent society. That conforms to our definition of evil and, if it is self-inflicted, it is a sin with the potential to destroy the person as a social being. It has the potential to destroy the soul, which is why we call it a deadly sin.
Pride is the sin in which a person exalts themself over others in their own mind. The proud one believes that he is the only person in the world who counts for anything and that all other people are beneath him. That person becomes obsessed with being superior to and dominant over others. Satisfaction of his desires take precedence over all other considerations: that notion reflects his id running out of control, making him little more than an animal.
Weíre tempted to conceive this phenomenon as an expression of our ape ancestry. But our brains are much bigger and more complex than the brain of a chimpanzee. If our thinking and behavior reflect our animal ancestry only, then we can infer a failure or refusal to develop the more advanced parts of the human brain. That is clearly a diminution of the person.
As noted above, we are social beings: we have an inherent need to share our feelings with each other. Pride makes satisfying that need impossible. In order to lord himself over others, the proud one must alienate himself from them; that is, he must cut off all emotional connection to others, all except for fear and hate. A person possessed by pride is like a prisoner kept in solitary confinement. The inability to connect with others in mutually satisfactory interactions through the sharing of feelings is a diminution relative to what he should be.
Pride is exceptionally dangerous because the proud one is unwilling to acknowledge his deficiencies. He canít bring himself to admit that he is less than he ought to be. That explains how pride becomes a trap.
The opposite of pride is subservience, which reflects total control of the psyche by the superego. This is obviously a diminution of the self. Although the superego represents the demands of others, the diminution is still self-inflicted.
The motto "moderation in all things" comes to us from the ancient Greeks. In the matter of self-regard, we should have neither too much nor too little. The egoís job is to provide that balance. A proper humility conceives the self as neither greater nor less than others. The ego achieves that humility by acknowledging that others have the same id-driven desires that its own self has and that those desires are reflected in the superego, that there is a kind of equality among people.
This is like a photographic negative of schadenfreude. Where schadenfreude fills us with delight at the sight of someoneís downfall and suffering, envy fills us with dismay at the sight of someone elseís success and happiness. The mere fact of someone elseís joy bruises the envious psyche.
Seeing someone else gain satisfaction of their id-driven desires drives the envious psyche into a frenzy of jealousy. Because the envious psyche regards itself as taking precedence over all others, it feels as if those satisfactions have been stolen from it and bestowed upon an unworthy other. The consequent hate destroys the envious oneís ability to work well with others: the resentment sabotages the good will needed for productive cooperation. This, then, is also a diminution of the person, an alienation from the society that we all need.
The opposite of envy is self-contempt, the sense that anything I gain is a theft from others and, thus, illegitimate. Again, this is the superego demeaning me in order to make me an abject servant of others. The superego run amok has no concern for my needs, just as the id run amok has no concern for the needs of others.
To achieve a proper balance between id and superego, the ego must develop the sentiment of kinship (kindness). If someone has gained success and happiness without imposing an uncompensated loss on me, then I should no more resent their gain than I would do for a member of my own family. If I expand that concept, then eventually I conceive myself as a member of the vast Siblinghood of Humanity.
Feelings of frustration, when things donít go as we expect, make us angry. When someone feels weak and inadequate to cope with such a situation anger becomes rage. At the extreme, the sense of weakness and impotence leads to cruelty and sadism. In the idís conception, any denial of its desires is catastrophic and deserves the most violent response. Of course, the fundamental action of the superego is thwarting the id, so the superego can be an enemy.
If the superego overwhelms the id in this respect, we see cowardice. Fear controls the psyche, which then interprets events solely in terms of danger.
To moderate both wrath and cowardice the ego must develop the virtue of courage, the moral strength to overcome the sense of inadequacy that drives both aspects of this sin. The psyche needs to develop abilities that instill self-confidence in it. That self-confidence transmutes anger into exasperation and cowardice into prudence.
Originally called acedia, itís not merely laziness. A better word is apathy or indifference, largely driven by pessimism. How can this reflect any desire of the id?
One of our fundamental drives inhibits us from putting too much effort into satisfying our other urges. An animal that wastes energy is less likely to survive to reproduce itself, so evolution creates creatures with an inherent need for what we might call efficiency. The human id does not want to waste effort on whatever it conceives as an exercise in futility. That especially pertains to anything that would benefit other people.
Pessimism shows us another aspect of sloth. People use it as an excuse for failure.
But the superego demands that we benefit other people, regardless of how providing those benefits hurts us. If the superego takes control of the psyche, we get the sin that we might call hyperactivity. Wasting oneself in order to benefit others is certainly a diminution of the self, just as withholding oneself from society diminishes the self as a social being.
The ego mediates between the id and superego in this case by attending to the idea that benefitting others can provide indirect benefits for the self, as, for example, helping to create and maintain civilization. The self then selects the benefits that it will bestow on others, determining which benefits to bestow based on the notion of efficiency. In so becoming a benefactor through the virtue of diligence the psyche enlarges itself.
Commonly called greed, avarice is like the mythical black hole: the more you feed it, the harder it sucks. It comes from the natural desire to obtain things that benefit us combined with a firm belief in oneselfís worthlessness and uselessness. When the miser gets what he craves, his insecurity drives him to want more as a safety measure. Then he wants even more as a safety measure for the safety measure and so on in a positive feedback process (a vicious cycle).
When the superego inflicts its own greed upon the psyche, it drives the self into the sin of waste or prodigality. The wastrel keeps nothing for himself, making himself a slave to other peopleís desires.
The ego produces the virtue of generosity primarily by overcoming the selfís sense of uselessness. It looks at the demands of the superego and develops the ability to fulfill some of them with the proviso that other people will respond in ways that fulfill some of the idís desires. With the evolution of a complex civilization the array of possible roles to fill expands and everyone can find a good place for them to occupy in their society.
Because food and water were scarce in the past, we have a tendency to overeat and overdrink. As we grow older the desire expands beyond quantity to quality: we become more fastidious and finicky. The sensations of eating and drinking activate reward centers in the brain, so we can mitigate psychological distress by overeating and overdrinking. A sense of inferiority and futility will produce just the right kind of distress to cause that response. Vanity, which is the idís response to a sense of inferiority, leads to an obsession with the quality of food and drink: I must be truly important if I get only the best of everything, so I wonít accept anything less than the best.
If the superego compels us to cater to other peopleís vanity, it leads us into the sin of abstinence. We deny ourselves food and drink or consume low-quality fare to the point of adversely affecting our health. This kind of self-mortification is often presented as a religious duty, but religion is just another name for the superego and it is not always benign.
The ego brings the id and the superego into harmony through the virtue of temperance, seeking the goal of good health. Food and drink become sources of good nutrition and rarely anything more.
With certain exceptions, people of the opposite sexes will periodically do things that ensure the continuance of the human species. Those things are driven by sexual desire, an important part of our animal nature. But some people become obsessed with experiencing the cues that trigger that behavior: the id overwhelms the psyche with lust. In doing so, it diminishes the other parts of the psyche, diminishing the selfís ability to function normally in society.
When the superego controls the sex drive, raising the specter of fearsome consequences whenever a sexual thought comes up, the self falls prey to the sin of celibacy. Total (or almost total) withdrawal from sex removes a person from an important part of human society, the creation and raising of children.
The ego brings the id and the superego into harmony by surrounding the sex drive with rituals of various kinds, thereby transforming the animal rutting instinct into the virtue of romantic love. A fair amount of human culture consists of such sublimating rituals.
Indeed, we may argue that civilization itself consists largely of distractions meant to control the id. Most of those distractions are benign but some are not. Thatís important because civilization, in the abstract, as we experience it, is the superego. We inhabit an elaborate construct that came out of peopleís id-based desires moderated by socially-based inhibitions. We can conceive civilization itself, then, as a psyche with its own collective id, ego, and superego. Often we identify that construct as God in Its role as the source of human morality.
So we see that oversubordination to the superego is a sin, a diminution of the self. And oversubordination to the id is also a sin, because it diminishes the selfís ability to participate successfully in a good and decent society. The growth of a competent ego is necessary to achieving a proper balance between the demands of the superego and the compulsions of the id and a nurturing environment is essential to promoting that growth.
Part of the problem comes from conceiving society as a zero-sum dominance vs. subservience scenario, rather than conceiving it as a positive-sum diversity of talents scenario. But in that comment we see the secret of a successful ego. Instead of the id or the superego gaining dominance over the other, the ego organizes them to diversify so that they donít come into open conflict: the id does one thing and the superego does something else.
And when we do sin, we must mitigate the distress that comes with it. We must learn to forgive a debt of pain, especially self-inflicted pain. The opposite of sin is virtue, the enlargement of the self as a social being. Practicing virtue will diminish our sin as we act to enlarge others. This is necessary for a society at peace with itself.
Appendix: Neural Nets
An effective ego is not an easy thing to develop. Thatís why children take so long to develop a strong moral sense and some fail to do so. It comes from the nature of human thought.
A brain consists of an interwoven array of neural nets. In essence each neural net consists of several layers of neurons, with each neuron connected to a number of neurons in the neighboring layers. The neurons in the input layer connect to the bodyís sense organs and/or to other parts of the brain and the neurons in the output layer connect to other parts of the brain and/or to muscles or glands. When a neuron emits an electrochemical pulse, it sends the pulse to many neurons in layer of the net. Each pulse acts either to excite or inhibit the next neuron in line in the emission of its own pulse. The impulses that a neuron receives add up according to their relative amplitudes and either cause the neuron to emit a pulse or prevent it from doing so.
Put most simply, a neural net makes associations. For example, assume that an input, such as the sight and smell of food, manifested in a certain pattern of electrochemical impulses, goes through a certain neural net and produces an output of impulses that make the salivary glands become active. This sort of thing is preprogrammed in most animals by instinct. Imagine that a sound, such as that of a bell ringing, accompanies that first input. At first the sound of the bell will have no effect when it is subsequently sounded, but after enough training (that is, sounding the bell when the sensations of food are present) the neural net will activate the salivary glands when it receives the sound of the bell alone. Ivan Pavlov conducted this particular experiment with dogs at the end of the Nineteenth Century.
The neural net behaves somewhat like a hologram, but it takes time to develop. Nerves, like muscles, must be exercised. In the neural net the paths that the impulses follow change as they are used so that eventually A becomes tightly associated with B. This explains why habits are so hard to break and, less well-known, so hard to establish.
We have one other factor to consider. Animals have no choice in their conditioning: we do. Itís called free will and it marks the difference between animal nature and human nature. In addition to sensory inputs, our minds receive conceptual inputs, thoughts, that no animal can entertain. Those inputs constitute what we call imagination. We can simulate situations in our minds as if we were participating in them and then judge whether they are good or bad. Through the use of imagination we can condition ourselves into a proper moral sense.
Appendix: Promoting Sin
There is one form of evil that may escape our notice because it is not as blatant as an outright diminution of others. Itís the promotion of sin, convincing others to diminish themselves. Itís a means by which a bully can push people down without appearing to be a bully. If we identify civilization with God, then certain features of it correspond to Satan. We can thus say that the bully is a stooge of Satan, making sin attractive and thereby convincing people to diminish themselves for his pleasure. This is the kind of person whom Dante Alighieri called evil counselors, the people who actually "burn in Hell" (they are wrapped in fire in the eighth ditch of Malebolge).
Promoting wrath gives us one example of this phenomenon. In social media we see certain people, commonly called trolls, "making heads explode"; that is, they seek to drive people into impotent rage with their comments. In this way they can make themselves feel important and not have to face the fact that they are incapable of doing anything that actually benefits people, that they are fundamentally useless.
We also see this phenomenon in exclusionary doctrines. People who seek undeserved authority over others will promote hatred of people who differ in some respect from the people they seek to manipulate. Racism is the classical example, though we have seen others as well, the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany being the most horrifying example. The hatred diminishes the haters by turning them into anti-social puppets through something resembling Pavlovian conditioning.
Reducing oneís intelligence is certainly a self-diminution, a sin, and itís essential to the promotion of exclusionary doctrines. Yet our culture promotes it as fun and funny. Iím referring, of course, to our societyís promotion of the use of alcohol and/or recreational drugs, substances that shut down the brain and destroy judgement.
This doesnít seem to be one of the big seven sins. The one to which it comes closest is sloth: people who stupify themselves tend to be indifferent to their environment. But itís not really that either. It is its own sin and it makes its victim more susceptible to the others. We see alcoholic beverages and drugs more or less freely available in places that we would call sinful environments, places where people are encouraged to diminish themselves.
Avarice, the sin that comes from a sense of worthlessness and seeks to gain something for nothing, drives the sin of gambling. Any person with so much as a modest understanding of probability wonít gamble, but there is an entire industry devoted to promoting gambling in this country. The city of Las Vegas and other gambling meccas exist as endless parties, vast affairs of social conviviality with games that disfavor the players. On the rare occasion when a player wins, the casino celebrates, though that would seem to be against their interest: by celebrating the rare winners, the casino attracts many more losers. The mental deficiency of superstition is rife in such places. And our culture abets the promotion by presenting gamblers a suave and sophisticated (think of the James Bond movies). The result is the same: the money that someone worked hard to earn goes to someone who did no work at all and is no longer available to benefit the workerís family and friends. And, of course, alcohol flows liberally at these parties.
Lust is another sin that our culture promotes. The acknowledgment of our animal needs is not a bad thing; the health of our animal foundation is necessary to our development and functioning as human beings. But when animal needs take precedence over all else, then they diminish a person, preventing them from becoming fully human. Lust takes that diminution further, by driving a person to view others as nothing more than toys, thereby dehumanizing himself as he dehumanizes others. Yet pornography and pornography-like entertainments promote just such a self-diminution.
The fundamental problem is the promotion of self-indulgence, the indulgence of the id. In such promotion the superego is presented as the enemy, the uncaring oppressor. But among the concepts that we find encoded in the superego we find consideration for others and respect for other peopleís rights, things that are important to the proper functioning of a good and decent society. Why would anyone want others to deny those things and diminish themselves by giving free rein to the id?
The promoter of sin is dissatisfied with his life and seeks to manipulate others into diminishing themselves in order to gain compensation for their disappointments. The desire to do that comes from what the Freudians call projection and pessimism gives us a good example of projection. George Bernard Shaw once said, "A pessimist is a man who thinks everybody is as nasty as himself and hates them for it." If we can see our own sins in others, we can assume that they are as degraded as we feel and develop the desire to expose that degradation.
But we can also see our virtues in others, if only in potentia, and seek to enlarge them. When we enlarge others we enlarge ourselves; when we lift others up we raise ourselves as well. To obtain a maximized civilization occupied by a society fully at peace with itself we must somehow induce every person to practice virtue and eschew sin. Eventually good people will prevail and we will achieve that happy state.
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