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vol 8: Many in one
page 4: Crime

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a personal journey to natural theology

This site is part of the natural religion project The natural religion project     A new theology    A commentary on the Summa    The theology company


Lecture 4: Crime

Music: Talk talk:

1 Remember where we finished up last week:

I am trying to communicate a vision of the universe, but the vision itself shows me that such communication will be infinitely creative both of understanding and misunderstanding

Is there any bottom line? I believe there is. We are gods. We are crazy. We are obscure and difficult to understand. We are moody and changeable. All these qualities and many more are consistent with our divine nature.

Either we can fight it, and suffer, or we can accept it and relax. The theory says that nothing we can do will change the way the universe works. All we can do is change the way we look at it. The beginning and end of religion is the vision of god.


This week I want to talk about crime.

2 I wish to suggest a different way of looking at crime. I must begin by telling you that I am not really clear about what crime is. To cover my ignorance, I will let the dictionary speak:

Crime: An act punishable by law, as being forbidden by statute or injurious to the public welfare. (Commonly used only of grave offences.)

3 A crime is an act punishable by law. Without some form of law there is no crime. This suggests that we cannot talk about crime without talking about law

4 Remember the aim of these lectures is law reform, and the aim of that law reform is to develop a set of laws that make peace possible on earth. It is my feeling that bad law and bad legal practice lie at the bottom of most of our modern troubles. What we need is a legal system which is a practical implementation of love.

Music: Bruce Cockburn: Call it democracy


5 Not only does the law define what is and what is not a criminal acts, the law also decides how it is to be decided whether or not a person has performed a criminal act.

6 This is a very grey area of legal practice, and seems to be driven by two contradictory legal traditions. The police seem to work within the old Christian tradition. The Christian attitude is that people are guilty until proven innocent. This notion is formalised in the doctrine of original sin. To Christians, we are all sinners from the beginning.

7 Christian legal theory puts much weight on confession. It is considered that because the person is a priori guilty, they should confess this out of their own mouths. A concomitant of confession is torture. If the person is guilty and won't confess, then they have to be made to confess.

8 The result is a catch-22 situation experienced by millions of people over the centuries. Even if you are innocent, you will be tortured until you confess. So why not confess straight away and pay the penalty, which is usually only more torture anyway. In a legal system based on confession you are a dead duck once the police get you unless you are quite wealthy or well connected.

9 If you have ever been questioned all night, or denied bail until you 'cooperate' with the police, you will not disagree with me when I say that torture is still a regular part of police method in Australia.

10 The alternative approach, which we owe to the British Common Law tradition, is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. This, coupled with the doctrine that one need not say anything which may incriminate oneself, is intended to guarantee that people will not be convicted of crimes they did not commit.

11 The theory need not deceive us too much, however. The police preoccupation with gaining a conviction at all costs means that it will stop at nothing to make the facts fit the case. If nothing else, the cost of mounting a successful defence against the combined resources of the police force can be astronomical.

12 At a guess, a satisfactory defence against a simple charge like stealing a car will cost around $10 000. Certainly a thousand dollars would not get you very far, and $100 000 might be a more realistic figure if you were to exercise your full rights under the law.

13 I don't think anybody feels that this is a good system. It is just the best we have managed to date. Things are better than they were a hundred years ago, and will continue to improve.


14 Crime is punishable by law. What is the purpose of punishment? Perhaps it is a deterrent to crime? Perhaps it is the payment of some sort of debt to society? Perhaps it will turn the criminal into the paths of righteousness? All these, and many other arguments have been used to justify punishment, but I don't think they hold much water.

15 Many feel that the whole expensive system of punishment is totally useless. There seems to be scant evidence that the threat of punishment is any deterrent to crime, and little evidence that punishment in any way changes the probability that the same person will offend again. Human nature does not work that way. As Ho Chi Minh said, 'put lambs in prison and tigers come out'. And how does one repay a debt by being punished? Wouldn't it be better to make restitution to the injured party?

Types of crime

16 We might divide crime into three categories: crimes of passion; crimes of starvation; and crimes of positive law.

17 Obviously the threat of punishment is no deterrent to crimes of passion, since they are committed in the heat of the moment without premeditation.

18 By crimes of starvation, I mean all those offences committed because the offender is starved, either of food, or of money, or of affection, or of human contact, or of excitement. Rape and assault seem to be common crimes of starvation.

19 In some cases the attention of the police and the resulting gaol term are a reward rather than a punishment. A few months in a nice warm gaol is to be preferred to winter on the windswept streets of a southern city; the notoriety that comes from knocking off a few million of the bosses money may make up for the lack of affection in the marital home. The thrill of a joy ride can make up for the boredom of everyday life.

20 In others, the sterile prison existence will merely increase the hunger and with it the tendency to crime. In neither case does punishment help.

21 As a child I found that one of the few ways to relieve the boredom of school was to needle the teachers into caning me. The agony of six on a cold morning meant little compared to some attention and a change in the routine.

22 By crimes of positive law, I mean acts which are not intrinsically dangerous to society, but which are nevertheless made criminal by laws. All the Australian laws that deprived our Aboriginal people of their full human rights fall into this category, along with laws enforcing slavery and laws discriminating against women or children or any other group.

23 Some say that we have a moral duty to disobey such laws; the most famous modern proponent of this course of action was Henry David Thoreauin his lecture 'On the Duty of Civil Disobedience':

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also in prison. ... Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority: it is not even a minority then; but it irresistable when it clogs by is whole weight.

If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or to give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax-bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peacable revolution, if any such is possible.

24 Punishment will not cure people found guilty under bad positive law. They are cured already. It is the law that needs curing. Not that curing the law or the state is easy. I estimate that about a hundred million people have been murdered in this century by States trying to change human nature by positive law. It is simply not possible. Plenty of Australian Aboriginal people have died in the last two centuries as the result of ruthless efforts to 'civilise' them.

25 You will notice that I do not include organised or corporate crime in this breakdown. Corporate crime, since it requires the collusion of police and government, will get special treatment in a later lecture.

26 The remainder of this lecture will be concerned with crimes of starvation, crimes caused by something missing in the life of the person performing the criminal act. Crimes of passion are random fluctuations that will always be with us. This is guaranteed by the creative nature of our universe. Crimes caused by bad positive law are not crimes at all.


27 How did we get stuck with such an idiotic system, one which appears to sacrifice all to the idea of punishment? Once again, I think we have to look to the dark side of our Christian heritage. The Israelites were a small weak people surrounded on all sides by powerful enemies. They put their hope in their God Yahweh, and looked forward to the day when he would avenge all their sufferings. Psalm 58 conveys the idea well:

God, break their teeth in their mouths,
Yahweh, wrench out the teeth of these savage lions!
May they drain away like water running to waste,
may they wither like trodden grass,
like a slug that melts as it moves,
like an abortion, denied the light of day!.

vv 6-8

28 I think the world is now too small for this kind of thinking. We need to take a fresh look at the whole issue of crime and punishment. To do this, we need to see crime not as a moral problem in the individual, but as a problem in the relationship between the individual and the group.

29 I have defined peace as the structure of what is. A crime is a breach of the peace, a defect in the web of existence. Crime has the same relationship to the body politic as disease does to a living body and evil in general has to the whole universe.

Music: Underworld: I need a doctor


30 Various followers of Yahweh and Old Testament thought in general have blamed the current epidemic of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) on the morals of its victims, but I have yet to hear anyone say that the virus itself should be punished.

31 It is not doing anything wrong, just going about its lifestyle in its tiny virus way. It just happens to be our misfortune that it attacks our immune system. Instead of punishing it we are going to extraordinary lengths to understand what it is and how it works. Every new AIDS victim is both a tragedy and a new window on the disease.

32 It is a fascinating chase with all the drama that comes from mixing science with politics, death, religion and the hope of great profit. I am pleased to see that on the whole good sense is prevailing. Religious fundamentalists and other well meaning fools have been forced to face the facts. They have not been able to hobble the struggle against AIDS too severely.

33 Although a cure is not yet in hand, there is widespread confidence that we are capable of finding one. The reason for this is that the biochemical mechanisms that underlie our own lives and the life of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) are definite and intelligible processes which interact in definite and intelligible ways. Once we can understand how this is happening, our ability to manipulate biochemical material is almost certain to provide a way to deal with the virus.

34 What we can do with AIDS (or any other disease) we can do with crime, once we clear the moral fog from the field of battle and get down to the issues themselves.

35 You may object to this, claiming that crime is inherently a moral problem, whereas AIDS is a health problem arising from immoral behaviour. It is not, of course. It is just a monumental stroke of luck that AIDS appeared first among us in a relatively isolated community of homosexual men. It spreads through heterosexual relationships as well.


Requisite variety

36 To answer this objection, I must appeal to my model of the universe, the transfinite numbers. Although they are all infinite, they have a natural order, each one being greater than the ones before is and smaller than the ones after it.

37 If I imagine myself to be represented by any particular transfinite number, the numbers before me will look finite (to me), while the numbers after me will appear infinite. You may get some idea of what I mean by thinking about the natural numbers. Imagine that you are a five, the number of fingers on one hand.

38 You can count one, two, three, four objects on one hand and still have room for more, so four is a finite number form the point of view of five. Six, seven and so on cannot be counted on the fingers of one hand, and so appear infinite from the point of view of five.

39 This idea is captured in an idea from cybernetics, which is the theory of control. This idea is called requisite variety. What it says is that if one thing is to control another, the controller must have at least as many degrees of freedom as the thing controlled

40 You can think of this idea in terms of dimensions. A bird can move in three dimensions. A land animal can only move in two. It is difficult, therefore, for a land animal to control a bird. The best it can do is prevent the bird from exploiting its freedom by catching it on the ground when it is not watching.

41 We can describe the transfinite numbers a little more accurately by imagining that each one provides the parts from which the next one is made. Imagine you have the letters A, B and C. From these you can make six permutations: ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB, CBA.

42 Using each of these six permutations as letters, you can make 720 new permutations, and using these 720 permutations you can make a huge number of further permutations - the number is something like 1 with 2000 zeros after it. Remember that one reason for using the transfinite numbers as a model for the universe is that they grow faster than anything else.

43 Clearly each succeeding transfinite number is capable (from the variety point of view) of controlling the transfinite numbers before it.


44 Now imagine that your brain is represented by a transfinite number. It has about ten billion neurons each connected to about a thousand of its fellows. Each of these connections is called a synapse, and is programmable - its state maybe changed as your thought processes progress.

45 If your brain is a transfinite number, the sum of all your thought processes is the next transfinite number after that, infinite form the point of view of the brain.

46 Since we can all communicate with one another, our individual thought processes become the letters from which the social thought process is constructed, the next transfinite number after the individual mind.

47 The upshot of all this, as I see it, is that just as our minds can control our bodies, so our social consciousness, which I have called religion, can control our individual minds. Collectively, we can understand and control our criminal tendencies.



48 We can translate these ideas into another language, that of the computer trade. Here we speak of hardware and software. We usually imagine the hardware as the physical machine,made of silicon chips and bits of wire and plastic. The software is the information encoded in the states of the silicon.

49 Each transfinite number is the software of the one before it and the hardware of the one after it. When a computer is working well, it is the software that controls the hardware. When the hardware starts to play up, it is possible to run special software to locate the fault. This diagnostic software can look around inside the hardware and see which bits are not doing their stuff.

50 My computer is an ancient and wonderful beast that manifests many modes of weird behaviour, but I have come to know it well enough over the years to locate the faults pretty quickly. Each time I locate a new fault, I gain new insight into its architecture and functioning.

51 When my computer, my body, or anything else is working perfectly, I do not notice it. I begin to notice things when they play up. It is safe to say that malfunction is the beginning of knowledge. That is why medical science has progressed.


52 Once people seemed to think that all diseases were some sort of moral or spiritual problem, and they instituted spiritual measures to effect a cure. There is no doubt that this works. The mind controls the body and a bit of reassurance and competent bedside manner can do wonders for a disease that is within mental control. This probably means all diseases, to some degree or another.

53 Later, specific agents were found to deal with specific problems. Willow bark was used by the ancients to reduce pain and fever. It owes its effectiveness to a substance which is a close relative of aspirin, now probably the most widely used drug of all.

54 Later still, the specific site of action of the drug may be found, and this will give a clue to the problem that caused the disease in the first place. In general, one finds that no matter how complex the manifestation of a disease, its cause is a single broken link in the process of life.


55 In terms of our discussion of transfinite numbers, a disease is caused by the failure of one letter in the alphabet of the functioning system. In a computer, the breakdown is usually caused by the failure of one memory location to store accurately the information written into it. Because the failure occurs at the level of the hardware, it can be corrected and repaired by the software.

56 Because each crime is a failure in a specific relationship between society and a specific individual, the cause is identifiable. Even if this breakdown proves to be incurable in the individual concerned, like many genetic diseases and AIDS in our present state of knowledge, it may be preventable.

57 Each crime, then, is like each case of AIDS, a tragedy but a new window on that general disease called crime. Instead of sweeping criminals under the carpet as we are currently inclined to do, we should try to do them, as we do with the victims of AIDS and other diseases.

58 This may be difficult for a punishment oriented society to do, but it is not dangerous. To the best of my knowledge, few so called criminals are dangerous people.

59 If we look into our prisons we find that most of the prisoners are either poor, or physically, mentally or educationally disadvantaged, or members of minority groups, and so on. In general they are underprivileged people who cannot fit into a society which has lost all compassion in its search for wealth.

60 So I believe the theory leads us to the conclusion that crime, like disease, is not something to be punished, but something to be studied and understood so that it can be eliminated. In keeping with the idea that we are all divine, nobody is guilty and nobody need be punished. If somebody persists in antisocial behaviour, it may be expedient to remove them from general circulation, but such physical restraint does not have to be construed as punishment, merely protective custody.

61 This may seem a rather extreme view to take, but it follows naturally from the conclusion that every crime has a cause. Insofar as a criminal act has a cause, the person who performed the act is not responsible for their action. Insofar as we understand the cause of their action, we can forgive the crime.

62 If your car starts to play up, you do not accuse it of moral failing and punish it. You find the cause of the trouble and fix it. As Ralph Nader long ago pointed out, the design of motor vehicles is very poor. We, on the other had, are the result of twenty billion years of evolution in a universe that suffers no bullshit. To live on this planet, we have to measure up to very exacting standards.


63 We are not defective beings. We are not original sinners. If we behave strangely, it is because we are trying to cope with strong perturbing force.

64 Mothers, since they understand their children better than most people, are our best guide in this respect. It takes a lot of pressure to get a mother to turn against her own child.

65 That is all I have time for now. Next week I will take this self examination a little further and turn to the question of resources and starvation: what do we need to live, and how do we get it?

Originally broadcast on 2BOB Radio, Taree, NSW on 7 June 1988


Blackstone, William, The Sovereignty of the Law: Selections from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, Macmillan 1973 Preface: 'The four volumes of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England were first published between 1765 and 1769. ... I hope these Selections, which are introduced by an essay, may help to persuade the modern reader ... that the Commentaries are, as Maitland claimed them to be, a "great readable, reasonable book about the English law as a whole".' (vii)  Amazon  back
Dinitz, Simon, Deviance: studies in definition, management and treatment, Oxford University Press 1975 Jacket: 'The interconnected and vexing problems of the definition, management and treatment of deviant behaviour are analyzed in thie carefully edited and integrated collection of sixty-five essays. ... The editors have provided a comprehensive list of references, glossaries of legal terms and mental disorders and discussion questions on thje major points of each chapter.'  Amazon  back
Flick, Geoffrey A, Natural Justice, Butterworths 1984 Foreword: 'Until comparatively recent times, the concept of natural justice played little part in our law, and courts had shown no great ability to use it as a means to protect the citizen against arbitrary or ill-considered administrative action. ... Today the requirement of natural justice in decision-making is as familiar to the community as is the requirement of proof beyond reasonable doubt in criminal matters. ... I have read with great interest the second edition of this work by Dr Flick, and I believe he has made available to all those concerned with administration and administrative law a most valuable work of reference.' J A Lee, Supreme Court of NSW, (vi)  Amazon  back
Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Vintage Books 1975-1991 Jacket: 'Foucault shows in fascinating detail the develoment of the Western system of prisons, police organisations, administrative and legal hierarchies for social control - and the growth of the disciplinary society as a whole. ... prisons, schools, factories, barracks and hospitals all share a common organisation, in which it is possible to control the individual's use of time and space hour by hour.'   Amazon  back
Fox, Russell, Drugs Policy: Fact, Fiction and the Future, Federation Press 1992 Jacket: 'Two distinguished Australians, judge and journalist, analyse the political, economic and social imperatives behind our banning of some drugs and tolerance of others. They find our drugs laws 'futile, wrong in principle and productive ofmuch harm" and propose radical changes.'">Amazon  back
McKeown, Thomas, The Origins of Human Disease, Basil Blackwell 1988 Jacket: 'This book is a history of the diseases of humankind and their causes from earliest times to the present day. It is a tour de force drawing upon the author's extensive work on the history of infection, as well as on the evidence drawn from archaeology, history and demography.'  Amazon  back
O'Connor, Desmond, Criminal Defences, Butterworths 1988 Preface: 'It has been said that the way in which people steal, defraud, kill, wound and assault each other has not changed much throughout history. Yet over the past 30 years laws governing homicide, assault and dishonesty have reached a state of complexity such that even lawers are confused. ... The present system is... shows signs of terminal illness. ... There is a pressing need for a coherent theory of criminal legislation along with uniform sentencing code. ... In this analysis of the defences, we have sought to reflect the law as at November 1987.' (viii)  Amazon  back
Thoreau, Henry David, Walden and Civil Disobedience, Penguin USA 1986 Thoreau's two classics: on the simple life (Walden) that has inspired many people to return to nature; and on the duty of the citizen to protest bad law and bad government.  Amazon  back


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