Saturday, August 27, 2011

An Article on Crime, and My Response

Guest post by Ben Carmack

Recently, for an English class on technical writing that I am taking this semester, we had to read and discuss this article called "The Brain on Trial." The article is a proposal for a reform of our justice system, a  system which desperately needs reform. I was not sure that the author's way of addressing the core reasons for crime were correct.

I sent the following response to the article to my professor:


One thing that I think was missing from David Eagleman's article was an honest exploration of answers to the problems of our criminal justice system outside the purview of science.

Mr. Eagleman did not, in my opinion, appear to understand that the issue of fairness and justice toward those who trangress our laws is an issue that crosses over considerably into the concerns of theology, spirituality and the humanities. He did not call in any poets, novelists, theologians, Church Doctors, Biblical authors, prophets, priests or gurus to deal with the weighty issues of human guilt, culpability or sin.

Given that recorded human history extends back at least 6,000 years, and that the Great Questions of existence, goodness, evil and life have been more or less universally asked and talked about throughout that time, it would seem prudent to consider what our ancestors have had to say.

Mr. Eagleman does not do this in his piece because, I presume, he assumes that what we call "science" ("knowledge") is objectively more correct and superior to all speculation that has come before it, rendering what we call "art" or "the humanities" more or less obsolete, or, at any rate, fanciful. He assumes that all useful truth is that truth which may be measured or tested in the limited sense of laboratory science. 

I'm not sure he's read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or, if he has, he has not learned much from it.

He does not consider (and neither did we in our class discussion, for we have the same biases) answers provided outside of science because he doesn't think that the problem extends beyond science. He assumes that what is wrong with us as humans is only physical and material. For instance, the urge to sexually molest children or make inappropriate sexual advances is due to a tumor inside one's brain, not because of something called Original Sin (Christianity) or because of humanity's obsession with Desire (Buddhism) or our lack of knowledge of ourselves and nature (Taoism). 

The answers of religion and of much of our literature reaches beyond the physical and into our essences as humans, our souls, or, if you prefer, our "substance." Plato certainly thought that such a World of Forms existed. Has Mr. Eagleman read Plato? Does he care? 

My point is that there are many answers beyond science, answers I think any honest person would be willing to consider, recognizing that science can (and must) contribute significantly to our understanding, but science cannot be the only voice. If we neglect our spiritual men and literary men (and women, for women often have a better intuitive sense of these things than men do), we are not being honest people.

The reduction of all problems into questions of chemistry and mathematics, answerable with appropriate drugs or "cost-saving" measures, is a dangerous tendency in our modern age. It is simplified, fundamentalistic thinking, except this is scientific, not religious. 

Simplified thinking is thinking without heart or imagination, for it assumes it already has all the answers. Such thinking has led to the widespread economic destruction of small farmers. It has led to the mountaintop removal sites in Eastern Kentucky. It makes excuses for corporate greed and avarice, and for the Great Recessions that result from it, because all it does is measure problems--if a corporation may mine coal to produce electricity for less money by destroying a mountain, the man who lives on or from the mountain, and the creatures that live on the mountain, the corporation does so on the basis of monetary calculation alone. The government justifies the destruction of irreplaceable resources because the corporation "creates jobs," creates "a tax base," and so on. The thinking is entirely utilitarian, entirely materialistic, only concerned with the Now.  Goodness is determined by calculators and short term expediency, not by any universal understanding of goodness that extends outside Creation and judges our actions as creatures in Creation, as members of an ecological commonwealth.

Is Mr. Eagleman capable of asking, "By ignoring religion and the humanities, what tools, what methods of understanding do we lose that will help us understand what science is telling us?" I don't think so, not if his article is any indication. Is he capable of seeing the need for disciplines and concerns outside his own? Is he capable of considering that new psychotropic drugs may create more problems than they solve, and thus that more drugs are not the only answers to the problems of anti-social behavior? Is he capable of conceiving limits to what technology and science may do? Can he conceive of "appropriate technology"? Simply because we can do something, does that mean we must do it? The answers to these questions, based on his writing, appear to be "No."

We have such a treasure trove of thought that would help us all answer: what is the meaning of free will? Why do good people do bad things? What is the nature of evil? Where does sin come from? 

Mr. Eagleman could have started with Martin Luther's Law/Gospel dichotomy: the impossible miserable state of all humans, the Law which rightly convicts us, our helplessness to obey the Law, God's mercy and grace which alone fulfills the Law, the triumph of forgiveness over condemnation, etc, etc. He did not. What a shame. There are many other places he could have started from; I am picking one example with which I personally am familiar, because I am a Christian. It is possible that other religions have equally good and helpful things to say on the topic as well, I am just not familiar enough with other religions to make statements for them.

With all these thoughts rolling through my head, I knew I couldn't possibly flesh them all out in a way that made sense in class. But it is what I was, more or less, thinking about during our discussion. I wish we could have touched more on these questions.

*       *       *

I urge readers to read the linked article, which is immensely interesting (to me, at least).  Your comments are most welcome. -- RH  


  1. In my opinion, important questions are raised which cry out for practical (that is, true, or at least truer) answers than those which govern our present, largely failed "criminal justice" system. I have some further thoughts, but I would like to save them, and allow other commenters to take the discussion in their own directions. Please consider this a second invitation to comment.

  2. Bangalored. I'd suggest a review of the code of Hammurabi. seems a lot of people are influenced by that

  3. Bangalored -- Do you detect any sort of "philosophy" or "meta-law" which might have guided Hammurabi's (or his advisors') thinking, or was H's code simply a grab-bag of social rules, like America's "Federal Register" is simply a grab-bag of political expediences?

    Put it another way: does H's code 'address the human condition', as we might say that Confucius does?