Friday, December 16, 2005

Enforcing the Law

Television crime dramas have a knack for reinforcing a simplistic world view in which "bad people" -- i.e., the people who commit crimes -- are caught and punished. Notwithstanding the fact that most of the victims featured in these crime dramas are usually quite dead by the end of Act One, everyone else seems to live happily ever after. However, by virtue of the way the typical plot develops in a crime drama, we don't have to spend that much time thinking about the victims. Rather, we are encouraged to care about the police and prosecutors -- i.e., "the good guys" -- who investigate and invariably "solve" the crime or crimes in question. To wit, an arrest is made, a confession is obtained, and the perpetrator goes to jail. The end: Tune in next week.

Unlike most people, I've never really bought into the idea that sending people to jail is an effective way of dealing with crime, and it usually isn't. Indeed, putting people in jail, and keeping them there, is usually more trouble than it's worth. The people who investigate and prosecute crimes do not work for free, nor do the people who run the jails. Someone has to pay them, and someone has to pay for the food and lodging of the million or so people who are currently behind bars. And yet no politician has ever lost an election by promising to put more criminals in jail and/or by promising to keep criminals in jail longer.

For the purposes of this blog post, I will ignore the fact that many people currently in jail or prison are factually innocent of any wrongdoing. Moreover, I will ignore the fact that many people who are currently in jail or prison were convicted of non-violent, victimless crimes. Finally, I will ignore the fact that many innocent people have had their lives ruined by being accused, arrested, and/or tried for crimes that they did not commit. Rather, I will assume, arguendo, that all people who are accused, arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated are as guilty as sin. Needless to say, this is a pretty big assumption.

There is a very popular school of thought which believes that people who are in jail or prison do not deserve to be treated humanely. Rather, people who have broken the laws of society are generally perceived to be sub-human, and their welfare is not usually of concern to law-abiding citizens. This perception changes dramatically when the relative or loved one of a law-abiding citizen ends up behind bars. Such people quickly become advocates for tempering justice with mercy and for establishing proportionality in punishment. Even so, barring the incarceration of a friend or loved one, most people are ready to ignore the inhumane treatment of people in prison because they believe that most of the people who are in prison are truly evil.

Truth be told, there are some truly evil people in the world who probably belong in prison and should probably never be let out. But these people are a stark minority of the million or so people who are currently incarcerated in the United States. And as I noted above, someone has to pay the bill for putting people in jail and keeping them there. I am of the opinion that any expenditure of public funds in this regard should be related to an expected increase in public safety. Otherwise, that money should be spent on some other worthwhile public enterprise.

To be clear, I do not advocate shutting down all the jails and prisons. Incarceration has a role to play in keeping the world safe for law-abiding citizens. However, I was very surprised to learn during my research on the subject of crime and punishment that even if we were to put everyone who was guilty of a crime in jail for a very long time, there would only be a ten percent reduction in crime. Moreover, I was very surprised to learn that most of the people who commit crimes are not driven to crime by brutal economic need. Rather, most people who make money committing crimes have economically viable lives, and - bizarre as it may sound to the typical law-abiding citizen - most criminals use crime as a part-time job to augment the income that they receive from their full-time "9 to 5" job. When these part-time criminals are sent to jail, they are unable to support their families with their full-time jobs, and the families usually end up on some form of public assistance.

In sum, putting criminals behind bars and keeping them behind bars for longer and longer periods of time is a rather ineffective way of enforcing the law. Generally speaking, the cost of incarceration is just too high, and there are seldom any tangible benefits to be obtained. Moreover, as more and more people are put behind bars for longer periods of time, the punitive sting of incarceration becomes less and less of a deterrent to those who might commit crimes. For many people in our society, going to jail has become just "another part of life."

So, if putting criminals in jail doesn't make the streets any safer for polite society, how do we, as law-abiding members of society, keep ourselves safe from criminals? To a large degree, we can't. We can arm ourselves, or hire goons to protect us, but eventually we must come to accept the fact that we are all very, very vulnerable and that "bolts and bars are not the best of our institutions." Rather, honest people are not punished for their sins but by them, and most people who obey the law do so because they believe that it's the proverbial "right thing to do."

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Cassandra Complex and the Better Part of Valor

There was a time when I believed that expressing my feelings in writing always served a useful purpose, that somehow all of the problems of the world could be solved if I could just express my informed opinions clearly and communicate with kindred spirits who shared my concerns. I haven't completely shaken that belief, but I don't embrace it the way that I once did. What I now embrace instead is a rather fatalistic world view in which the more I know and the better I communicate my knowledge with others, the more anguish I experience and the more futile all of my efforts seem to be at effecting positive change, . . . a Cassandra Complex, if you will.

For those of you who are not familiar with Greek mythology, Cassandra was a prophet of doom who was herself doomed to foresee a future full of tragedies that she could not prevent because no one would believe her predictions or heed her warnings. Unlike Cassandra, I am not gifted with the ability to foresee the future. In fact, I am seldom very certain that what I know of the past or present is substantially accurate. What I do know for certain is that getting my facts straight is seldom a panacea because the truth as I see it is seldom recognized as the truth by others, and even when the truth that I see is recognized by others as the truth, it is (likewise) not a panacea.

What people do with the truth makes all the difference in the world. To wit, there are some very obvious situations where telling the truth to others (i.e., candor) creates more problems than it solves. For instance, consider the utilitarian response to Immanuel Kant's belief in telling the truth as a categorical imperative. To wit, if Anne Frank was in your attic, and the Nazis were at your door, should you tell the Nazis the truth about Anne Frank's whereabouts? Kant would say yes, . . . and Kant would be wrong. (More about this in a future blog post.)

And then there's the anguish of knowing that you are in the right but being powerless to do anything about it because an uncaring and unsympathetic authority figure is enforcing the rules, or rather an uncaring and unsympathetic authority figure is *NOT* enforcing the rules. I am reminded of the scene in the movie My Cousin Vinnie where Fred Gwynne's character tells Joe Pesci's character, "Counselor, that was a valid objection, lucidly stated. . . . Overruled." That type of situation is much more common than most people would like to admit. Indeed, after very careful consideration, I came to the conclusion long ago that there is an ongoing, worldwide conspiracy of ignorance and incompetence that reaches from the highest levels of government to the lowest levels of petty bureaucracy.

Notwithstanding the apparent futility of knowing the truth and/or communicating the truth to others, I still want to know the truth when the truth is knowable. Moreover, I still want to communicate the truth to others, other things being equal, because I believe that knowing the truth and speaking the truth are, generally speaking, good things; even better is knowing when to speak the truth and when to refrain from speaking at all. This better virtue is known as discretion, and as I have been wont to say for at least the last decade or so, "I am under no obligation to save anyone from his or her ignorance, and I have no desire to do so."

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Nature of Science and the Science of Man

In a previous blog entry, I made reference to what world renowned psychologist Erich Fromm called the science of man[sic], and it occurred to me that one of the things I remember quite vividly from my first college level course in psychology was that psychology seemed to be fighting for recognition as a legitimate science. The same thing is true of all social science disciplines, which has created all sorts of problems for social and behavioral scientists (such as Fromm) who do not suffer from this sort of disciplinary inferiority complex. To wit, many social and behavioral scientists are too busy trying to prove that they are legitimate scientists to prove or disprove much of anything else.

Scientists who work in the social and behavioral sciences are often more scientific in their methods of inquiry than scientists who study sciences such as chemistry and physics. To wit, it is fairly common for social and behavioral scientists to come up with scientific hypotheses that they hope to use to explain and predict human behavior. However, this does not mean that social and behavioral scientists actually believe in their theoretical constructs. Rather, they hope to disprove their theories and come up with even better theories to explain and predict human behavior. That's what science is all about.

In striking contrast to the research that is the essence of the social and behavioral sciences, very few scientists who work in fields such as chemistry and physics are actively engaged in cutting edge research. More often than not, they spend their time learning about theoretical constructs that have withstood the test of time and applying those theoretical constructs to practical situations in the real world. In essence, they are technicians rather than scientists, and the technology that they rely upon is nowhere near as reliable as they would have you believe.

A friend of mine is a research chemist who works for a company that manufactures gas chromatography equipment. For those of you who don't know what gas chromatography equipment is, it's the stuff that crime labs use to figure out what substances are in the evidence that they have collected. My friend spends every business day from 8am to 5pm troubleshooting this equipment for people who call in with questions, with one hour off for lunch and the occasional sick day, holiday, or vacation day, and the stories that she tells are frightening.

After an hour or so of talking to my friend the research chemist, anyone with a scientific background would be ready to dismiss all crime lab conclusions as being about as reliable as the conclusions reached by a Tarot card reader. Similarly, my own background in the hard sciences left me wanting more from science, but not in terms of conclusions. What I wanted from science was a tool that helped me discover and understand the world and the universe around me, and I found what I was looking for when I took my first college level course in anthropology.

My first college level course in anthropology was a course in physical anthropology. As a discipline, physical anthropology has more of the trappings of science than any other brand of anthropology, as it begins and ends with genetics and the Theory of Evolution. But for me, physical anthropology was a gateway from the cold, hard scientific disciplines that I knew to scientific disciplines that were, quite literally, living and breathing. To wit, although physical anthropology held my interest through graduate level courses, my primary interest quickly turned to cultural anthropology. I saw obvious parallels between biological human evolution and cultural evolution, and I wanted to operationalize scientific theories of the latter. The transition point where these two branches of anthropology meet each other head on is at the amorphous level of Mendellian genetics, where genetic traits are shared and inherited by a group of organisms in much the same way that thoughts and ideas are shared and inherited by a culture group.

I think it's fair to say that thought is the DNA of human culture, but thought does not lend itself to the type of precise coding, mapping, and analysis that can be done with human DNA, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis notwithstanding. To wit, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would have us believe that "language structures thought," but I am of the opinion that "language frustrates thought," as evidenced by the fact that the right words are often so hard to find and some thoughts appear to be totally ineffable. Even so, language does give us a window into the nature of human thought, and it is one of the best windows that we have at the present time.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Rationalism vs. Mysticism

I recently posted a blog entry entitled The Science of Man and the Art of Loving in which I narrated my discovery of Erich Fromm's brand of humanistic existentialism at the ripe old age of 17, the growth of my understanding of Fromm's philosophy from a particularistic understanding to a more holistic one, and my eventual transcendence of Fromm's world view. For the most part, I still find Fromm's logic to be impeccable and his arguments to be persuasive to the point where they are overbearing. As such, transcending Fromm's world view was no mean feat for me. One of the things that helped me emancipate myself from Fromm's world view was religious mysticism.

Fromm considered himself an "atheistic mystic," stating that "mysticism is rationalism's most daring and radical consequence." And yet Fromm relied very heavily upon biblical allegory when setting forth his own philosophy, and his intellectual pedigree included the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas. More important to me, however, is the fact that Fromm was an intellectual lightweight when compared to rationalist philosophers who were unabashedly religious, such as Rene Descartes and Immanuel Kant. By positing the existence of God from the fact of their own existence, Descartes and his intellectual successors were able to question the very essence of reality, whereas Fromm took his own heavily ethnocentric world view for granted.

If any one thing freed me from the yoke of Erich Fromm's overbearing yet slightly myopic intellect, it was the book Journey of Awakening by Ram Dass, and I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to the friend who first introduced me to that book. Among other things, Journey of Awakening was a guidebook that gave me step-by-step instructions for practicing various forms of meditation. By following those instructions, I soon found myself experiencing periodic states of religious ecstasy during meditation, and I came to consider and recognize these states of religious ecstasy as one of the most noteworthy hallmarks of mystical awareness.

There is a tendency among rationalists and scientists who have experienced religious ecstasy to dismiss it as a physiological state that is no more remarkable than experiencing a vivid dream. And while there is no doubt in my mind that religious ecstasy can be described and explained as a physiological state, that sort of explanation sort of misses the point. To wit, religious ecstasy is an ineffable mystical experience that provides people with spiritual fulfillment that reason and science simply cannot provide.

To his credit, Fromm understood the importance of spiritual fulfillment, but he drew the line when it came to acknowledging the possibility of the supernatural. To wit, Fromm clearly believed that reality begins and ends with the natural world that we all experience and perceive. However, as I mentioned earlier in this post, other more noteworthy philosophers (i.e., e.g., Descartes) did not impose such limitations on reality. Indeed, Descartes asserted that the nature of reality is so extraordinary as to be beyond the scope of our imagination. As such, if we can posit the existence of something that we cannot disprove with reason - i.e., God and/or the supernatural - than that is proof that that thing already *DOES* exist.

In sum, while Erich Fromm had a phenomenal intellect and was eminently rational, I think he had a blind spot when it came to the fact that meaningful answers to the problems of human existence can be found through religious mysticism. I didn't recognize this blind spot until I had my own mystical experiences during meditation, and that revelation was a gift that had nothing to do with reason. Rather, it was the beginning of a new period of spiritual growth that I encountered because I was willing to embrace the possibility of the supernatural, a choice that put me on a path that was very different from the one that I was following while trying to embrace Fromm's naturalistic world view.