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Friday, June 28, 2013

Crime and Punishment

I have accepted with most neuroscientists that free will is an illusion--like self, soul, and spirit as separated substances. It is probably a necessary and useful illusion that can be traced to an evolutionary adaptation.

In saying this I do not intend to diminish, but instead enhance, responsibility for our actions. Responsibility is the ability to respond to our situation as we encounter it, to ourselves as we understand ourselves, and to others with whom we interact. We continually respond to situations and persons we meet based on who we think we are and want to be.  But our response is conditioned genetically, environmentally, and by our personal experience.

Our responsibility is always limited. How limited? There is a legal definition that is based on a common sense understanding that is relative to different societies. Crimes of passion are less imputable in France I am told. And now the new neuroscience is raising questions as to whether some of the most heinous of crimes, serial killing, pedophilia, drug incentivized murders, are more mental illnesses than criminal offenses and should be dealt with accordingly. No one any longer condemns Jean Valjean for stealing bread because his family was hungry. Or do the Javerts still exist? They sure seem to exist in the "three strikes and your out" crowd. For righteous executioners, it is not the severity of the crime but the affront to the moral and legal order that must be punished.

Punishment for crime has been a difficult political issue. And the definition of crime is a difficult ethical issue. And the two are connected.

Punishment is justified as keeping society safe from predators, as a deterrence to crime, or as a way to balance a negative act with another, i.e. vengeance. Vengeance was probably the evolutionary adaptation for protection of society and deterrence of antisocial behavior. Without a government with police powers, vengeance was a way to prevent the violation of those we respect and love.

But it was a wise person who said that "vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord" meaning that if we insist on vengeance we will never get out of the cycle of violence. Let the higher powers deal with getting back at bad people. If we keep reacting, we are in a trajectory that will destroy our community and ourselves.

The organization into clans and then nations led beyond vengeance to protection of society through laws and penalties. Nations establish laws to limit the predatory instinct and protect the state that is working for those who are in power. When people or groups threaten that state of affairs, they are considered criminals to be contained. Nations protect themselves against deviants who are a danger to citizens who are exercising their rights to happiness. Killing deviants is one solution. Incarcerating them so they cannot interact with others in society is another.

But the effects of incarceration are under review: the costs to government and taxpayers and the reinforcement of criminal activity in society. Both make us wonder about our policy towards crime. The amount of incarceration that makes the US the largest prison in the world spending the most tax funds for incarcerating people and condemning especially young people to continue a life of crime seems downright stupid. Of course stupidity was never an obstacle to legislative action.

Freedom, including the ability to respond, is both conditioned and progressive. Our images, desires, and actions are under the influence of our genetic makeup, the environment we are born into, and our personal experiences. But this does relieve us of responsibility. It obligates us to take more and more responsibility. Freedom is not given by evolution or by our nature. But the ability to achieve freedom and responsibility is one of the unintended results of our evolved nature. We can use this ability to become a new, improved humanity or to revert to the old warrior clans that we were.

While self defense and the extension of self defense to family, clan, nation, and species is natural, policies of punishment of deviants that actually threaten our future are not. Putting people in situations that reenforce destructive behaviors and supporting a culture that leads to its own dissolution seems hardly rational. But that is often what we are doing in our present criminal injustice system.

The efforts toward restorative justice that focuses not on vengeance or individual tit-for-tat, but on creating a place where former victims and former violators are empowered to act in concert is the way to a innovative and productive social order. Yes, we have the right to protect ourselves, our families, and our communities even using force and violence. But we also know by experience and by history that violence leads to violence and that our best hope is to get to the place where violence is rejected by all.

It is one thing to use violence to stop an immediate threat to life.  It is another to justify or legitimate violence through war, torture, incarceration, and punishment, especially capital punishment. Violence is  the failure of our highest ability to speak and act together. It may be necessary, but it is still a failure of the human project. A society or nation that legitimates violence and especially the killing of human beings for whatever reason is a failed society and nation. Most of the nations of the world get that and have denounced not only slavery and human trafficking, but also capital punishment. Capital punishment has always been cruel because it depersonalizes persons by making objects of them. Now, thanks to enlightened thinking, it is unusual--except in nations where the right to life has been diminished.

Back to the original ethical question. Is a person really free when he commits a crime? The best of neuroscience says that we do not know, but probably not. But that does not take away personal responsibility and the right of a society to defend itself against predators. It does however point to a different solution than eye for eye vengeance. Then solution is not getting back at the violator, as good as that might feel. The solution is creating the place where victim and violator are equal participants in mending the community that has been broken. It is this way that they and we achieve greater freedom and responsibility.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Playing the Game

Whern I run I meditate, I often say. I free my mind and let it wander where it will, conscious of my breathing in and out from the world and back into the world, linking spirit to the wind. Ideas float around sometimes linking with one another in complex thoughts which I write down when I return home, like interpreting a dream, like I am doing now.

But today on my run I realized that it was more like play, making up the rules as we go as children do. Or perhaps play and mediation are the same; and that is why the Buddha is always smiling.

Children play; so do young chimps, puppies, and dolphins. They play what grown ups do. They dress up, they battle, they set the table, they go to work, they make love. But the most important game that human children play is the "language game" as the philosopher Wittgenstein calls it.  And language is most adaptable to children and children to language--needing each other to co-evolve according to Deacon.

Mathematics, like music and other artistic expressions, is also a language game. A good teacher knows how to make mathematics and all of learning game-playing; for play is not drudgery, but fun even if not easy.

To think is to play with ideas, images, mental constructs, combining them, separating them, associating them into ideas of great complexity and simplicity.  Discussing is thinking with others like the members of a jazz quintet play off, with, and within one another to create a masterpiece or perhaps just another attempt at one.

And so what we start as children we continue all our lives. We game. We play and so we learn. When we recognize the playfulness of learning, which is not to take away the stress or pain of it, we put all our learning life including its hardships in the context of play and have fun. Gaming is our way to the world and the world's way to us. This is just another affirmation of our analogical way of knowing and that human existence and behavior is symbolic.

The culture of a society or civilization is often revealed by its games which are usually linked to its religion and how a people finds its meaning. Think of the Aztec and Mayan games where the victors were sacrificed to the gods, the Greek Olympic Games dedicated to Zeus and forging nation from many city-states, the jousting games of medieval Europe, and of course American football. The best players are like gods celebrated with great honor and gifts.

But is all play good? After all today's children play video games, lots of them and many of them violent. In my day we played with guns and took turns being the bad guys (aliens, enemies, criminals) and good guys (cowboys, police, US soldiers). The Game of Thrones complements the game of drones. The conventional answer is that these games are bad only if you don't distinguish between make-believe and reality.

Rather I think that, because of our analogical way of knowing, all reality is make-believe. Scientifically true reality is that which has been verified, at least for now, by evidence; but it is still make-believe. Play is not dangerous because it is make-believe. It is dangerous when we take our dramatic roles too seriously by not recognizing them as make-believe. The game Cheney and Rumsfeld played in Iraq, the games that religions play with salvation of adherents and damnation of heretics, the games played by radio hosts and politial pundits, Wall Street investors and real estate moguls, economists and other fortune-tellers become dangerous when they deny being games and that their beliefs are make-believe.

Some of course recognize the games they are playing when they take on the role of priest or prophet or wiseman or general or president; and then laugh all the way to the bank. Comics and skeptics, self-recognized clowns, are much more honest. But some players actually believe their bull-shit enough to get others to believe in it as well. They are no longer playing with ideas in a search for beauty, meaning, and truth. They think they have it. The Answer! That's when things get ugly, senseless, and unreal. The answer of course is that there is no one answer except for the game of life itself. Play it with passion. Enjoy it. And don't take it too seriously.

Yes, we play to win our games--but that is just because it is more fun that way. Winning ends the game and finally that is no fun."The game is afoot," says Sherlock who is completely bored without a mystery to solve. When the last piece of the puzzle is placed, it's time to mix it up and start all over.