Saturday, September 12, 2009

Neuroscience: You can't have a second chance if you never had a first one

Here is a really interesting newsletter from the US state of Illinois where some lawyers battle to prevent poor wretches from execution. (We don't have the death penalty in Canada.) Some of the lawyers concerned are not happy with "neurolaw" theories, according to which the defendant had no free will and thus couldn't help it.

I'm on their side. When we abolished the death penalty in Canada, about forty years ago, it was NOT because we thought people couldn't help it. In those days, most people went to church, and we assumed that people could in fact help it.

But what did capital punishment contribute to our society, besides gruesome and distressful scenes, and terrible memories for the survivors? Most Canadian murder cases - quite rare - were just the sort where punishment as such is a meaningless deterrent. You know, the guy kills his girl (who is seeing another man) and then shoots himself, but misses. Or an old woman kills her demented husband and then attempts suicide but fails.

I sure won't vote to finish the job for them. I think it is better they spend some years in prayer and reflection.

Claiming that people can't help doing what they do just makes everything worse, because those who can't help their behaviour also cannot - by definition - reform later. So there is no such thing as a second chance, because there was never a first one.

How that helps a justice system, I will never know.


Spirituality: If you want to ride the carousel, go to the circus

God's carousel could be fun, but it is not the way to grow up as a mature human being.

All who read this blog must know that I take spirituality very seriously.

And then there is, as a friend writes, "I saw Jesus in my spaghetti ... or was it Mother Theresa in a cinnamon bun?" He is referring to this story, "Pictured: Haunting face crying a river of tears as glacier melts into the sea" by Alex Millson for UK's Daily Mail (03 September 2009).

These people aren't alone, of course. Some have seen Darwin in a tree trunk and others have seen Kemal Ataturk in a hillside shadow. Or the Virgin Mary in a piece of toast.

We can see anything we really want to. Sometimes we will see double, other times, stars. Is this any way to acquire wisdom?

Mario Beauregard and I pointed out in The Spiritual Brain that traditional spiritual advisers have strongly warned against making a big deal out of visions where you see sights and hear voices, and dream dreams:
Walter Hilton, writing in the early fifteenth century, advised the mystic who experiences any type of vision to “refuse it and assent not thereto.”46 John of the Cross later offered the same advice, explaining, “That which properly and generally comes from God is a purely spiritual communication.”47 Stace* follows this up, noting that “a genuine mystical experience is nonsensuous. It is formless, shapeless, colorless, odorless, soundless.”48 (p. 194)

*W. T. Stace was speaking for traditions other than the Christian one, but his observations are consistent with it.
Basically, it is easy to fool oneself and - contrary to popular lore, Freud did not discover this fact; it was well known to spiritual directors for centuries, if not millennia.

If our spirituality is making us better people, we should pursue it. If it is making us look for strange events instead, well ...