Cosmos Korb and the Problem of Evil: A Tragedy in Brief

For reasons which will be apparent, my alias is Martin Beck. I am about to present several excerpts from the diary of my academic colleague and friend, alias Cosmos Korb. I discovered all the volumes of his diary, several boxes full in his apartment, which I had been asked to help clean out upon his recent demise. Cosmos lived fifty-seven troubled years of soul-searching. He kept a diary for each year from early college to his death. There were at least a hundred entries, some very long and some very short, in each volume. I will quote from these diaries during my attempt to unravel my friend’s dreadful dilemma. I could write a whole book about him, but having written these few pages I feel completely spent.

 Korb’s Diary entry January 10, 1948: Do I have a mind? Do others have a mind? What is a mind? And why do I even want to know? Common sense tells me that we all have minds, if we just knew what a mind is. But common sense also tells us, and has told us for millenniums, that the earth is flat and if you go too far you will fall off it. So common sense is not always the most reliable guide. If I just knew what a mind is! Is it something which, after you are dead, someone could cut out of your brain and examine for its contents. I don’t think so. There has got to be a big difference between a brain and a mind. But you cannot have a mind without a brain, can you? Nor a brain without a mind? I need to work on this mind puzzle. These are questions of a boy studying to become a philosopher.

I should probably explain that I had known Korb only the last half of his life. He was a professor of philosophy while I was a professor of mathematics in a small New England college which I choose not to name. I did not know about the diaries until his untimely death from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to his head. I was not altogether surprised about his doing that to himself. His twin brother, he told me, had done the deed some years earlier with a Luger pistol. I did not know his brother except for what Cosmos had told me about him, which was that he was an impoverished, self-taught intellectual who specialized in Plato and complained constantly that the world had yet to right itself according to the formula Plato had described in his Republic. There is one rather strange thing I remember Cosmos telling me; he mentioned it in an oddly casual way, that he and his brother shared a common passion: they both hated their father, for what reason he declined to say and I thought it not prudent to ask. Yet at last I found the reason by reading his diary, which I will clarify later.

I pause here only to remark that when I was informed of Korb’s death, I seemed to lose my bearings for some time. I had never before known a suicide, so the shock of knowing this man who had slaughtered himself was considerable. I was enlisted by the landlord of Korb’s apartment to come and help remove not only his personal belongings, which were few, but also to scrub the walls and remove the carpet full of blood and scraps of flesh that clung to everything, having exploded in every direction from his head. I was willing to do this as an act of friendship for Cosmos, but I had no idea how it would effect me in the weeks to come. The odor of gunpowder combined with the iron in Korb’s blood, along with the mental picture of the barrel of the gun under his chin, put me in a disoriented state followed by a deep funk that lasted until I went to see my physician a week later. He prescribed a daily sedative until the trauma wore off. This I offer to share only as advance caution to anyone who may be invited to enter upon such a grim task. Here is the next excerpt from Korb’s diary.

Nov. 8, 1951: I have made some advance in my thinking about mind. Many questions still arise almost exactly as others have been answered. Why is consciousness connected to the brain as its principal organ of activity? Why is the brain located in the head? Why are the ears and the eyes, organs of comprehension so vital to the brain, located also in the head along with the brain. How did the laws of nature strive for this proximity of organs without knowing that it was striving for them? And since nature has neither brain nor a discernible mind, what principle of design was at work? Studying the brain in biology reveals an enormously complex system that is far more unfathomable than anything designed by human genius. I had originally planned to be a biologist. I don’t know where all this is going, except that every question I ask leads to philosophy rather than biology. That settles it, I will have to be a philosopher. Why do I suspect this may not end well?

I first met Cosmos in our faculty lounge. I had been at the college three years when he arrived. He opened the lounge door, poked his head in curiously, as if almost unsure that he had a right to be there; I smiled at him and motioned him to join me at the coffee urn. He was in those days very young, innocent-looking, and rather well groomed for a college professor. He was, however, a bit underweight; his face had chiseled features dominated by a  small mouth, thin lips, and a slightly roman nose. After introducing ourselves to each other, he learned I was teaching advanced mathematics and inquired if I had read any of Wittgenstein. This was my first hint that we might be off to interesting camaraderie. Wittgenstein was all the rage in philosophical circles, though I could never tell why. If advanced mathematics could be called obtuse, Wittgenstein’s often weird ramblings were even more so, yet he got an admiring nod from the brilliant math guru Bertrand Russell, who nonetheless decided at last to consider Wittgenstein not worth all the hoopla he had provoked by the end of his life. Russell even chose not to mention him in his comprehensive History of Western Philosophy. I think I see why. Wittgenstein wanted to upend philosophy itself, and never quite managed his project well enough to merit Russell’s applause.

“I have read just a bit of Wittgenstein,” I replied, “but I have to admit, whatever he was all about escapes me,” I hesitantly confessed. What I did not dare tell him, in case he admired Wittgenstein, was that I thought this philosopher, like Nietzsche, was very possibly insane. Three of Wittgenstein’s four brothers had committed suicide, and Wittgenstein himself, according to Russell, questioned his own sanity. I suppose this is not a charitable remark, but truth does not always dance to a lovely tune.

“Yes, I agree Wittgenstein was elusive even to himself,” Cosmos replied, and shrugged his shoulders. We dropped the subject, but I detected a glint of disappointment that I had not seemed to show much interest. The rest of our first meeting was not at all memorable, but I resolved to do better next time. Reflecting back on that conversation, I realize that Korb probably knew even then of the suicides of the three Wittgenstein brothers. It now sadly occurs to me that Cosmos might in his late twenties have already been haunted by reasons for self slaughter.

October 10, 1959: I am reading Descartes again on mind-body dualism. Difficult to fathom. The body is clearly made of matter, Descartes said. The mind is clearly not. The body, he says, is made of parts and does not think. The mind thinks but has no discernible parts. Mind and body are so incompatible by their nature that it is possible for them to exist without each other, though we have never known a body-less mind nor or a mindless body. God alone would constitute a body-less mind, but being the Creator of human minds in this world, it would be improper to think of God as either body or mind. Why then are we told in Genesis that God has made us in his image and likeness? Yet God, who is above all laws we know of, can very well make a body without a mind (a stone, for example) and could make a mind separate in substance from a body (an angel, for example) so that it could go on without the body, just as any stone can get along without a mind. But I ask this question. Does Descartes want to equate the mind with a soul, and is that a proper equation? Is he setting up an argument for the immateriality and immortality of the soul? I have to keep thinking about this.

When we had gotten to know each other better, I let Cosmos know that as a mathematician I was more familiar with Descartes than with the annoyingly obtuse Wittgenstein. This seemed to intrigue him somewhat. Since he was a Christian, I could see Descartes’ motivation, which was clearly religious. Yes, I could see that Descartes wished to prove the mind (soul?) could exist independent of the body, but he had by no means proved that the soul is immortal, nor did he even claim to. Yet he thought he had mathematically demonstrated the mind (soul) to be independent and therefore capable of being immortal, since it was not subject to the disintegrating forces of the body. These remarks did not seem to please Cosmos, who was about to rebut them I am almost certain when we noticed the next class lecture was about to begin for both of us, so we escaped an interesting exchange.

October 12, 1959: This morning’s encounter with Martin was interesting but not conclusive. He thinks Descartes believed he had dealt a decisive blow to the atheists by demonstrating that mind is not the same as matter and therefore not subject to decay, and ergo possibly immortal. Possibly I grant, but decisively, no. It may well be that mind could be immortal, but this does nothing to prove God. Mind could be just another dimension of reality that emerged at the origin of the universe along with time and light and matter, but for a reason that has nothing to do with a so-called Creator. If each of us has a mind, where did that mind come from? Martin will say it came from the infusion of the soul in the body by an act of God. But now we are back to square one. Is there a distinction between the mind and the soul? Do not all animals have minds on a sliding scale of intelligence? Is Martin prepared to say they must also have immortal souls? Doubtful.

Now I see how keen Korb’s memory was about our conversations, because he recalled them exactly as I remember them. No, I do not expect that all animals have immortal souls, and whether they have minds is not a clear and distinct impression I have of them, though I suppose it is possible to have a mind without being endowed with an immortal  soul, which should be a creation by God exclusive to humans. I do share with Descartes the view that I have a mind and a body, and I have a clear and distinct impression that they are not at all the same. But his reasoning baffles me. Why does he insist that the body is made of parts, whereas the mind is not? Is the mind not a repository of millions of memories and thousands of passions? Are these not parts of the mind, similar to how the body is composed of parts, a billion cells and a million functions? By surgery could we not shut off a part of the mind from its usual operation (such as abstract reasoning) by severing the frontal neocortex from the whole? The result would show that mind had been diminished; that is to say, had lost a part of itself. But this would also show that the mind and the body are diminished in the same surgical act, suggesting the mind and body are two modes of one substance together, and this would explain why they are able to act upon each other, though each has a different mode of existing.

November 18, 1961: This morning for the first time I got out of bed realizing that I am fully self ordained an atheist. Strange. Nothing in particular that I can think of has led me to that awareness. I suppose I will have to tell Martin that he might as well stop inviting me to join him at Sunday Mass. But I think this will not strain our friendship. If anything, the give and take will help each of us clarify his own conviction. Martin is a good soul, one who believes in God without apology amid a world that seems more and more contemptuous and mocking of all who believe. I read today that astronomers have discovered the the universe is expanding. Into what, exactly? How much bigger can it get without bursting in upon itself like a balloon? No matter how fast the galaxies recede from each other, we will get lonelier and lonelier until all the stars fall out of the sky and the black void is everywhere. All of this frightens me. But why should it? What if there are an infinite number of universes born from each other and dying in their turn? What need then for God to explain how we began and how we shall end

Upon first reading this I remembered my own developing concern with proving true what so many of my colleagues in academia had come to despise as a useless explanation for anything … the reality of God. Mathematics reinforced the faith I had received in my youth, as it had for Descartes, Pascal, and Newton in their later years. And of course even though Einstein did not like the God of Abraham, he talked about God as the sine qua non of universal law. I had come to see God as the Master Mathematician. And since I understand mathematics more or less, it seems to me the case can be made that the only possible source of mathematics is not man, but God. Math is a language, it is the language of the universe. Every law of nature is bound by mathematical formulas, numbers, words and equations, etc. A number exists in my mind, the number 3. An atheist would say it exists in my brain. That is where I see the number, but that is not where the number is in reality. It is in my mind, the consciousness of which stems from my brain, but is not my brain. You see, all the equations of physics, such as E = mc2, were actual equations that were mathematically real and true long before humans existed. Where did the equations exist? In what realm of reality, then, do they exist if all they had to do was wait for humans to discover (not invent!) them? They exist as transcendent truths, according to Plato. We pluck them out of transcendence with our minds, not our brains, because only mind can grasp mind. Mathematics exist ultimately in the mind of God (the great Kepler said we think God’s thoughts after Him). God creates all there is in the universe, including reason itself … and truth! The mind is not physical, as the brain is. Science can study the brain. It cannot study reason, which is not subject to the laws of physics or biology. It exists in its own realm, and is subject only to the laws of consciousness, which are rooted in intellect, will, emotions, imagination, insight, logic, etc, We see this in the relationship of minds, which consists of these minds searching for a common ground that reflects certain truths about reality, and the communication of that common ground by each of us to one another. Einstein talked about reading the mind of God, who must be the source of all that is true. I do think the devil is the source of all that is false, because whatever is false directs us away from the mind of God. Our talking to each other (a physical event) is how we get to know other minds. The problem of reading other peoples’ minds is in some ways more complicated than reading the mind of God, who is always truthful. It is because people do not always tell the truth, even to themselves, that this is so. Cosmos seems surprisingly influenced by the many scientists who seem obsessed with destroying religion. They tirelessly spin endless intricate theories to explain why God is a useless explanation for anything and  everything. For the atheistic scientist the thinnest made-up evidence, such as evolution (which does not explain the origin of life) and the multiverse (which does not explain the origin of itself) ridiculously asserts with perfect assurance that God is dead and science has buried Him. Surely such men of science have ironically buried science as they prove themselves willing to believe what they cannot possibly prove?

But now and then an atheistic scientist will commit a tactical blunder, such as Carl Sagan did when he talked about the Big Bang. Commenting on the inexplicable origin of time and space fourteen billion years ago, he points out that the early universe was filled with light. This was a convenient piece of scientific evidence he offered the theist, for it is in Genesis that the prophet tells us what God said at the start of creation: “Let there be light.” And he was not talking about the sun, which came to exist much later in the order of creation. Genesis reveals a primordial light that existed before anything else. This remark about light was an amazing shot in the dark for a mind so distant by several thousand years from modern astrology!

November 22, 1963: News just received: The President of the United States has been shot dead by a sniper. This strangely does not disturb me so much as I suppose it should. I have been coming around to the idea that the century we are in is the maddest and nastiest ever, and that we have in our own hands the instruments of total annihilation begging to be used. Perhaps Kennedy’s death is a sign we are edging toward a homicidal Armageddon. If America falls, the whole world falls with it. This at least might be proof there is a devil who has the planet in his grip. Anyway, I am through with metaphysics. This world is all there is.  No God, no devil, no soul, no heaven, no hell, etc. I don’t know if there is a reason we are here, but I’m pretty sure it is not in order to enjoy ourselves. I sure as hell am not. We can learn everything there is to learn, I’m just not confident that there is a lot more worth learning. I should never have chosen to be a philosopher. You cannot stop that logic-chopping business in the mind; it will never leave you alone to do anything else. Today Martin and I tangled together again over the nature of mind. He pulled that dying rabbit out of his hat, the one so well loved and well trained by mathematicians. Are numbers real, are they invented, or did they exist before anybody was ever born? And who really cares anymore? I like Wittgenstein’s refutation of Sartre. Hell isn’t other people. Hell is yourself. Now I ramble too much.

I point to this passage because of all Korb’s  revelations this one is the most telling. It tells me why suicide would become his last rebuttal to everything I ever said to him or even now could say about him. He was after all an existentialist, and as they mostly all are, a cynical and angry one. What fueled that anger? To kill oneself is the ultimate act of cold and calculating rage because killing yourself is an act of violence against everyone you ever knew. It almost seems that at this point Cosmos was on a clear trajectory to join Wittgenstein’s three brothers. Did Cosmos harbor a grudge that could only be satisfied by self slaughter? We are about to find out in a letter from Korb’s brother John, which was attached to the next entry in his diary.

January 8, 1975: John shot himself in the head last week with the Luger father had given him on his twentieth birthday. An auspicious gift to be sure. He was barely 51. He left a suicide note in a sealed envelope with instructions that it be delivered to me. (Attached letter): “Dear Cosmos: I grieve that we could not talk about this before the deed, but you already know as much as I do, because we both suffer the same fate.  Father was an evil man, who no doubt was a victim of another evil man, possibly his own father. Aren’t the sins of the father always visited upon the sons? You know the event to which I refer, and the later horrors that we thought would never end. I’m certain they still haunt you as they do me. The demon took us to his loins first, then made us take each other. If we could have recovered from the first assault, it was not ever likely that we would recover from the many that followed. I have suffered his existence all my life, and he is still alive! We are book smart but common sense stupid if we do not believe that hell, if it exists, was especially created for the likes of him. I hate myself more than you can imagine. My heart is dense like a bag of  pins and needles. Having been denied the joys of life, I look forward to the very special relief death will bring. Tomorrow I plan to enter the unknown land. Please read more Schopenhauer. He will help you understand how to stop the misery. Know that I love you because we share our fate with the old monster who to this very day refuses to die. I wish it was in me to kill that devil before I go. Twelve stabs through the heart might not be nearly enough for justice served. Farewell if you can stand to go on without me.”

Reading this I was devastated. Not only because of the horrible enormity of what Cosmos and his brother had been through, but also because of the effect it must have had on the sanity of Cosmos, which in 1975 I had already begun to question. I don’t mean that he showed overt signs of insanity, but that his reasoning powers had been considerably in decline, and his general demeanor seemed sorely diminished. Judging by the sparse number of students signing up for his classes, they too seemed to detect this decline and had spread the word for other students to avoid him. He had grown rather an unkempt beard and sometimes appeared to have slept in his clothes. He informed me of his brother’s suicide (which I took to be one possible reason for the decline in his health) but not of the note his brother had left to explain the act. Of course he could not do so. It is doubtful that he or his brother would have gone to a psychoanalyst to seek treatment. How does a man gin up the courage to admit being a victim of his own father’s unnatural lust? Cosmos and his brother were not committed to asylums early in life, but a flood of hidden anger did finally drown them both in their own blood.

Christmas Day, 1981: I went to midnight Mass last night with Martin, but felt no encouragement or consolation. At least he has not given up on me, not yet. In Catholic theology they talk about the dark night of the soul, but that is an understatement. My soul is pitch black day and night. Life after death was always doubtful for me, now I dread it. If there is such a life, what problem does this really solve? My present disgust with God (if God even exists) will keep me from heaven. How can hell be worse than where I already am? I am satisfied with total and blessed annihilation. May it come soon, good, and hard.

At the bottom of that diary page Cosmos had scribbled this short verse, which might be his epitaph.


I ask where the wild wind goes.

Surely some god of Egypt knows.

My brother’s life a living hell,

His bell did knell and slowly tell

That I must go where wild winds flee.

I never knew, but now I see!

I remember that Christmas Mass with Cosmos. I was surprised that he had such a revolting stench on his breath, as if some foul disease was wrecking him from within. If it’s true that the eyes tell us more about the soul than anything else, the soul of Cosmos was close to a state of ruin. After Mass we went to his apartment where he seemed subdued, not at all argumentative in a friendly way as he usually was. For the first time I noticed that he had gotten into the habit of biting his nails almost to the nub. Little did I know when I broached the subject of his father how close I was to a possibly explosive moment. I asked Cosmos if he planned to visit his parents anytime soon, thinking it might be time for them to see his condition, maybe offer some kind of intervention. It was then that he told me his mother was dead and that he wished his father was too. Of course I did not inquire further. It was for him to open up on that subject. But I did mention that I had been reading a biography of Sigmund Freud and had learned that Freud did not like his own father. I wondered out loud if this had influenced Freud’s decision to embrace atheism. Cosmos with his hand made a dismissive motion. I could see he did not wish to pursue that line of reasoning and was on the verge of being impatient with me. But suddenly he moved to his desk and from the drawer took a large manila envelop bulging with materials. From the envelop he removed several large photos, thumbed through them, then took one, glanced at it for a long moment and handed it to me. It was a large color photo of a baby with the most cherubic smile I have ever seen.

Cosmos at 14 months

“Martin, can you believe that was me?” Cosmos asked with an expression somewhere between a grin and a smirk. I looked from the photo to Cosmos and felt a jolting shock of recognition. How tragic Cosmos must have perceived himself all at once if he had ever looked at this photo while standing before a mirror! I there and then resolved to send Cosmos a Freud biography with relevant pages marked, in which Freud admits that his father was a sexual pervert and a religious fanatic who had abused Freud’s brother and several sisters (Freud never admitted to being likewise abused). This could have been a disastrous move on my part, since I was not aware, until my recent reading of his diary, how Cosmos and his brother had been so perversely abused by their own father. I see now in retrospect that the atheism of Cosmos paralleled the atheism of Freud, who came to have a profound rejection of God, and who regarded those who worship God as suffering from a neurotic delusion. Had Freud been guilty of a kind of psychological “transference” …  transferring the contempt he had for his own father to God the Father? In any case, I sent Cosmos the book. He never acknowledged receiving it, nor did he comment on its contents … not until I found the next passage in his diary.

January 12, 1982: Martin sent me a biography of Freud. I have read some of Freud, especially his views on religion, which I reject. He says religion is neurotic. Religion of itself cannot be any more regarded as neurotic than atheism. They are both cut from the same cloth … the belief that absolutes exist and must reside either in religion or atheism, but not in both. They reside in neither. They do not reside in atheism because atheism offers us an absolutely meaningless world in which we are forever doomed no matter how we have lived our life. Absolutes do not reside in religion either, because if ever there was a true religion, it would be Christianity … but Christianity does not solve the problem of evil. Christ’s own suffering as a crucified Son of the Father is too terrifying an image to believe. I now refuse to imagine that my brother’s pain and mine can ever be assuaged by forgiving our father. And if there is a Father in heaven who could assuage that pain, why hasn’t he already done so? I’ve waited to hear his voice. I hear nothing. Somebody said religion is like the calm at the bottom of the sea, which remains calm no matter what storm rages on the surface. If I believed that, I would begin to pray. I would gladly sink to the bottom of my raging sea in prayer. But I don’t believe it. How can I make myself believe something alien to my own conviction? Pascal tells us to act as if we believe, then God will carry us the rest of the way. What hypocrisy! If there is a God, he should have thwarted my father’s monstrous sin, just as he halted Abraham’s homicidal hand as he was about to disembowel Isaac. God is supposed to love all his children? Why did he not love me? There are worse things than death, and I have known them all. The sound of fury abides in me. So I leave this world that I hate and that hates me. I am content to go. I daresay no one, not even Martin, could really grieve my going.

Now I see how low Cosmos had sunk without my knowing it. Life is tragic for innocent children who are savaged before they even have a chance to oppose their fate. Here was Cosmos Korb, a ruined child become man, who searched for redemption but did not find it, and who put up every obstacle he could to make sure he failed to find it. He was given grace, as all are given grace, to choose rightly; but he threw that grace aside and grasped at despair in spite of himself. There must be a devil. How else can we explain the triumph of evil over good in this world? If the devil is in hell because he chose to be a warrior against heaven, it must be that he brings others to hell because supreme misery loves all the company it can get. If we live hellish lives, we may well be resigned to hell in the hereafter. Why should any rational man choose hell in the here, or in the hereafter? Isn’t choosing hell an eclipse of reason, an embrace of the irrational, a lust for insanity? But why should we be punished for being insane? I think Cosmos finally took his cue from his hero Wittgenstein, who said that if in living we are surrounded by death, then in the health of our minds we are surrounded by madness. It is clear to me now that Cosmos truly decided to embrace the madness. It was madness not to forgive his father. Madness not to forgive his brother. Madness not to forgive himself; not because he had been the driving force behind that evil, but because he had never resisted that force with all his might.

Lately I have been having a thought that just will not go away. I do not know if it is a sane or insane thought, but here it is. God knows everything; not only what is past, present, and future, but also all that was ever possible in this world or in the next. What if what Cosmos suffered was allowed by God only because God knew how Cosmos would have lived and died if his innocence had not been destroyed by his father? Cosmos would have lived a very different life, with a very different end. And he could have traveled his own path, driven by grace and free will, to heaven or to hell. And God would know which path he would have chosen because God, who is outside time, knows everything that will happen or could have happened in time. So perhaps the way Cosmos died was surely tragic, but we do not know what God knows, nor do we know how far God’s mercy and judgment can decide the fate of an immortal soul if it had taken a different path through life.

I have sinned. Having heard all my life that confession is good for the soul, I can hardly believe that contrition is less so. A great task it is to forgive myself for not being kinder to Cosmos. I should have loved him more. I should have pleaded with him to understand the crucified Jesus, because all of his suffering was the way to justice and mercy: justice, because he paid dearly for all our sins; mercy, because there is no greater mercy than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

As the years passed, Cosmos seemed to draw more and more into himself. He made drifting away from him all too easy, and I gave in to the easiness. God help me, I really chose to avoid bearing his cross with him. I must carry his anger and my guilt to the grave. It may well be that I tell this story as an act of atonement, as a fraction of the purgatory I deserve by exposing myself for the coward I became. A Dominican friar once advised me that good poets borrow, great poets steal. Not pretending to be a good or great poet, I am satisfied to hope that I have borrowed or stolen enough of Korb’s life from his diary to encourage others with the belief that his suicide was perhaps not entirely in vain.

I suspect that Cosmos, filled with self loathing, decided against hope early in life. He might have overcome and even annihilated the memory of the hideous acts perpetrated by his father, but he believed himself locked inside the iron gate of his dilemma. He could not … would not break free, and did not see that he was pulling endlessly in vain on a door that would open only by being pushed. He had been offered a way out, the wonderful push that atheism never offers, but he would not see it, or was so angry that he would not see beyond the father who had crucified him to the father who was crucified for him. I could be dead wrong. Perhaps in his pitiful suffering, when he finally pulled the shotgun’s trigger, his last insane thought was to push the gate open and accept the invitation of the man who had indeed promised to save him… and perhaps finally did save him for all I know; the same man who said to Cosmos and to all of us …  “Come to me, you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” Did my friend receive his baptism, not of water, but of blood? In the quiet dark of my nights I pray for him, that in the silent dawn of eternity … Cosmos is given the rest he so desperately craved.