Moral theology bleg: Christianity and the death penalty

Why doesn’t the story of the Woman Taken in Adultery from John 8 imply that Christians should oppose capital punishment? I’m looking for authoritative answers from within the tradition.

I just spent an interesting hour talking with a Chinese magazine journalist about capital punishment, which apparently is a topic of debate in China. The journalist wanted to know about deterrence, and I said pretty much what I’ve said before: (1) there’s almost certainly some effect; (2) it might be offset by some people using the criminal justice system to carry out their suicide; (3) the quantitative stuff is inconclusive, because having the law is one thing and carrying it out is another; (4) US results, if we had them, might or might not tell us anything about China; (5) the death penalty for drug dealing is an especially bad idea because deterred and executed drug dealers are replaced; (6) the important effect of the death penalty is its effect (mostly noxious in my view) on the personnel of the criminal justice system, as illustrated by the fact that “death-qualified” juries are much more likely to convict. (Apparently the Taiwanese justice minister just quit because she developed scruples about signing death warrants; her replacement is probably more inclined toward being “tough on crime.”)

Having said all, that, I then said that the empirical and practical questions are properly secondary to the moral questions: whether you think execution is right shouldn’t depend all that strongly on whether you think it works. That’s when the conversation got interesting, and left me with a question I hope some reader can answer.

The reporter wanted to know why Europe didn’t have the death penalty while the U.S. and most of East Asia has it. Part of the U.S./Europe answer is that a Westminster system gives well-educated civil servants more power, and the well-educated mostly dislike capital punishment. I don’t have a clue about the Europe/Asia answer.

One obvious difference that might have some explanatory power is Christianity v. the Confucian tradition. Within the Christian world-view, an execution could be seen either as an arrogation of a divine function or as an expression of despair about the possibility that the offender might reform and be saved. And the calculation that sacrifices one life to save other lives might be less congenial to Christian than to Confucian ethics.

Moreover, there is an overwhelmingly powerful Christian text that seems to me to come down flatly against any execution whatever: the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Here’s the text, from John 8:1-11. Below is the King James Version, but there don’t seem to be major disagreements among the translations.

Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.

And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,

They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.

Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.

So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.

And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

Several things stand out about this passage as I read it. Jesus forgoes the formula he uses for healing, “Your sins are forgiven.” And he clearly implies that the woman was guilty of the charge. Nor does he suggest that the charge is a minor one.

Most of all, his gesture takes the form of an argument. He in effect assumes that only one without sin is justified in carrying out an execution. He carries out the same trick the rabbis of the Talmudic period carried out several times: making one of the primitive traditions encoded in the Torah into a dead letter by placing an insuperable barrier in the way of its being carried out. (Cf. the treatment of the Stubborn and Rebellious Child in Deut. 12:18-23 and in Tractate Sanhedrin 18:8-11).

So it appears to me that Christians have it on the Highest Authority that executions are not to be carried out by human beings.

But of course for most of their history most of the various Christian churches had no objection to executions, and most contemporary Christians do not oppose capital punishment. The Catholic Church has been drifting toward death-penalty abolitionism for years, but as far as I know has never condemned the practice outright, as Jesus seems to do in the case of the adulteress. Some liberal Protestants oppose it, but the churches most inclined to think the Bible inerrant are least likely to follow what reads to me like the Biblical precept in this regard.

The reporter asked me what death-penalty-supporting Christians had to say on this point. I speculated that not carrying out executions, like loving your enemies and turning the other cheek and not worrying about material possessions, might be regarded as Counsels of Perfection rather than everyday precepts. But since I’m not a Christian, and not well-versed in the tradition, that speculation isn’t worth much.

So here’s my bleg: What’s the accepted answer to the question “Doesn’t John 8:1-11 forbid capital punishment?” This is a sincere bleg, not an invitation to a festival of Christianity-bashing or to one more debate about capital punishment, so please don’t respond unless you’re either a Christian yourself or an expert on the tradition. If you can quote sources, so much the better.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

22 thoughts on “Moral theology bleg: Christianity and the death penalty”

  1. Drifting toward death-penalty abolitionism? I was pretty sure official Vatican dogma long called for universal abolition of the death sentence. Has Pope Ratz changed this?

    FD: longtime atheist, raised Catholic.

  2. The story here was the scribes' and Pharisees' attempt to trick or confound Jesus, in that Mosaic law conflicted with Roman law, which did not authorize execution as punishment for adultery. Had Jesus assented to a stoning, his critics would likely have importuned Roman authorities to punish Him. Had Jesus said that Roman law took precedence, his critics would have questioned his bona fides as a jewish teacher among his followers. Jesus avoided the conflict by engaging the woman's accusers in a manner that did not expressly denigrate or encourage noncompliance with either legal system.

    As for Jesus' refusal to condemn the woman, He did not have authority conferred by the civil government to punish her, let alone to condemn her to death.

  3. Mosaic law conflicted with Roman law, which did not authorize execution as punishment for adultery.

    My understanding is that Roman law did not authorize Jews to execute anybody as punishment for anything (the Sanhedrin had to take Jesus to the Romans), so there was no way the "scribes and Pharisees" could have executed her themselves in any case. The "He that is without sin" gambit was a dramatic touch but essentially irrelevant.

    What would Jesus have done if they had brought a murderer before him? The story simply wouldn't have worked, because they could take the murderer to the Romans and probably have had their execution; and "He that is without sin" wouldn't even have been plausible.

    The story just isn't about Jesus' attitude toward capital punishment in general, more's the pity.

  4. Like most things in the Bible you can find scripture to support whatever position you might like. This gets especially true once you add the New Testament to the old. Most (not all) of the support for capital punishment in the Christian tradition comes out of the Old Testament, particularly the Pentateuch. I find precious little support in the Gospels (including Acts as a fifth gospel) for capital punishment, and not much support in the Epistles.

    As I understand the reading, supporters of capital punishment rely mostly on the Pauline Epistles. In Titus 2:9,10 Paul writes, "Urge bondslaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to be well-pleasing, not argumentative, not pilfering; but showing all good faith that they may adorn the doctrine of God our savior in every respect." There are similar passages in Ephesians and Philemon, but the key passage is in Romans, Chapter 13.

    Paul writes, "[1] Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. [2] Therefore he who resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. [3] For rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good and you will have praise from the same; [4] for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does not bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil. [5] Wherefore it is necessary to be in subjection, not only because of wrath but also for conscience' sake."

    I have heard this matched up with Luke 20:22-26, the "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's" passage. So, the justification (as I understand it) is that all earthly authorities are derived from God. Consequently, if there is capital punishment where you live, it's because God wants it that way. This passage was also used to defend the divine right of kings in Europe. It's a fairly primitive theory of sovereignty: might makes right. If God wanted you to be the king, you would have the might and smarts to pull it off. Pretty clearly, Paul never encountered the likes of Kim Jong Il, Joseph Stalin or Mao Tse Tung.

    Personally, I'm unconvinced by the argument. It's called Christianity, not Paulism. Rabbi Yeshua bar El's words ought to carry more weight than Paul's in my opinion. I don't buy into the divine right of kings idea, and I suspect that God might well be appalled at some of the stuff Christians lay at her doorstep.

    Disclaimer: I'm a statistician who was raised in a branch of the Christian tradition that pushed scripture study hard. I am not a theologian by any stretch. And WCW is right: the Catholics apparently decided sometime in the 19th C that the auto da fe wasn't such a whippy act of faith after all. When we were able to (mostly, the bill wasn't retroactive) get rid of the death penalty here in New Mexico, Governor Richardson was invited to Rome for a celebratory lighting of the Colosseum ruins honoring the change. Of course, the R candidate for Governor has promised to push to reinstate the death penalty.

  5. The Catholic Church's opposition to the death penalty is stronger than you suggest (basically, theoretically could be justified but only if no other means existed to protect the community from a dangerous person, which given modern security technology means "never"), although I'm not sure what the average Catholic thinks about that. But the point is well-taken that many Christians still support the death penalty (and retributive justice in general, and unfettered capitalism, and hostility toward foreigners, and other things difficult to reconcile with the teachings of Jesus) and I still don't have a solid answer for why. As far as I can tell, it's a combination of rationalizing preferred practices by arguing that they actually ARE consistent with what Jesus taught ("Yes, he said turn the other cheek, but we can still defend ourselves!" "Yes, he said don't pursue material wealth and give what you have to the poor, but you can't give to the poor if you're poor yourself so go ahead and make lots of money…"), if understood correctly; or just ignoring those aspects of his teachings that do not appear to endorse a reactionary political agenda.

  6. Christians historically haven't interpreted the passage as an anti-death-penalty passage. And, it seems to me, that's for good reason: It's not as if Jesus proposes that she get life, or a hard 20, instead. She is to go, and sin no more. If one were to look to the passage for guidance on criminal justice, it would suggest that there shouldn't be any.

  7. I think one of the most important readings on this subject is by Antonin Scalia (not that I agree with him): "God's Justice and Ours" – – It's absolutely full of material that would keep this discussion going. He chides the Catholic church for its position on the death penalty, tells Catholic judges that they should quit if they can't support the death penalty. He quotes Romans 13 (discussed above by Dennis) as biblical support for the death penalty). And finally, he also addresses the U.S. vs. Europe differences:

    Indeed, it seems to me that the more Christian a country is the less likely it is to regard the death penalty as immoral. Abolition has taken its firmest hold in post–Christian Europe, and has least support in the church–going United States. I attribute that to the fact that, for the believing Christian, death is no big deal. Intentionally killing an innocent person is a big deal: it is a grave sin, which causes one to lose his soul. But losing this life, in exchange for the next?

    Personally, I've always found the Paulists to be damaging to true Christianity, and find that passage in Romans (if interpreted as anything more important than code in case it was intercepted by the authorities) to be offensive.

    Additionally, I think that in a country that is supposedly "of the people, for the people, by the people," I can't be morally opposed to killing and still support the death penalty by my government. After all, that government is me. This means that any time my representative government kills people other than in self-defense (ie, death penalty or preventive war), I am committing murder. I don't like that.

  8. Pete makes the important point that capital punishment is inherently linked to the theory of sovereignty one holds. If we believe that sovereignty is inherent in the individual (as our founding documents hold), capital punishment becomes very troubling indeed. As Whitman said (in a somewhat different context):

    WORD over all, beautiful as the sky!

    Beautiful that war, and all its deeds of carnage, must in time be utterly lost;

    That the hands of the sisters Death and Night, incessantly softly wash again, and ever again, this soil’d world:

    … For my enemy is dead—a man divine as myself is dead;

    I look where he lies, white-faced and still, in the coffin—I draw near;

    I bend down, and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.

    Walt Whitman, Reconciliation

    If one holds to the divine right of kings to rule and make capricious and arbitrary decisions, one can't write these sorts of words, and capital punishment is much less troubling.

  9. An interesting change from the usual American exceptionalism. Perhaps the Europeans should start bragging about their own exceptionalism.

    I have heard it claimed that if it were left up to the voters, England would re-instate the death penalty. Does anyone know if that's accurate?

  10. I have little knowledge of theology, and can only speak as one raised in a relatively liberal church belonging to a very conservative branch of a traditionally liberal mainline Protestant denomination, released into a secular society in the great age of liberal irony, but drawn enough to religion to spend some years studying the secular effects of religions in a graduate program. Call me Agnostic if you like capital letters, but "confused" is probably more descriptive.

    I've always taken this passage as a comment on the character of the accusers more than anything. Jesus sees a group of men overrun not just by blood lust, but likely by a whole host of lusts. I tend to read his comment as "let he who is without sin [in this sort of matter] cast the first stone" and therefore as a counter-accusation of adultery. I imagine his clear hesitancy to even get involved as a reflection of His disgust with those who would seek permission from Him of all people to satisfy themselves with no self-knowledge.

    But then, I'm repressed.

  11. I agree with Dylan V.'s assertion that the Catholic Church's opposition is stronger than commonly believed.

    From the June 21, 2001 "Declaration of the Holy See to the First World Congress on the Death Penalty:"

    "The Holy See has consistently sought the abolition of the death penalty…

    The Pope had most earnestly hoped and prayed that a worldwide moratorium might have been among the spiritual and moral benefits of the Great Jubilee which he proclaimed for the Year Two Thousand… [T]here is encouragement in the growing awareness that 'it is time to abolish the death penalty.'

    Where the death penalty is a sign of desperation, civil society is invited to assert its belief in a justice that salvages hope from the ruin of the evils which stalk our world. The universal abolition of the death penalty would be a courageous reaffirmation of the belief that humankind can be successful in dealing with criminality and of our refusal to succumb to despair before such forces, and as such it would regenerate new hope in our very humanity."

    While I am not a man of faith, I am in charge of maintaining's resources addressing religious views of the death penalty:

  12. European opposition to the death penalty is contemporaneous with the postwar idealism (Socalist and Christian Democrat) that gave us the European institutions, especially the European Convention on Human Rights (1950). Originally this permitted the death penalty, but Protocol 6 cemented its abolition in 1983, after it had ceased in all the Council of Europe member states. Why? Low murder rates and judicial errors counted for something. But my money goes on the in-the-bones revulsion at the mass executions by the Nazis and Communists before and during WWII. Governments can get into the hands of monsters. It is deeply puzzling to many Europeans why Americans, in this one area, have so much misplaced trust in theirs.

  13. James, it's deeply puzzling to many Americans why so many of our fellow citizens have misplaced so much trust in our elected and appointed judicial officials.

  14. A minor quibble w/ Dylan about support for retribution. My (outsider's) understanding of Church teaching is that affirms the justice of retribution, just not to the point of death. What it rules out absolutely is killing pour encourager les autres.

    Wimberley's comment suggests a question: what role did Christian Democrats play in European abolition? Were they as irrelevant as Scalia's reference to "post-Christian Europe" implies?

  15. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says 'Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

    If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity to the dignity of the human person.

    Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm – without definitely taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself – the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." '

    John Paul II's' Encyclical "Evangelium Vitae" says basically the same thing.

  16. Ok credentials first, I am a criminologist by professional trade and a Christian (Presbyterian by denomination) in terms of religious faith. And to put my cards on the table up front, I am a supporter of the death penalty.

    One up front quibble, which may or may not be a minor issue. It is a well known debate among Christian scholars as to where this text (John 8:1-11) is to be placed or whether it is even to be included in the canon of scripture at all. My bible (Reformation Study Bible – English Standard Version) has a statement before this text that says “the earliest manuscripts do not include John 7:53-8-11), with a footnote that further clarifies by saying “some manuscripts do not include 7:53-8:11; others add the passage here or after 7:36 or after 21:25 or after Luke 21:38, with variations in the text.” So the veracity of this text is called into question, and perhaps this text is not even intended to be included in the canon of biblical scripture. My belief on the fallibility of scripture is that scripture is a fallible collection of the infallible word of God. So it is possible that this is not the “word of God” as it were.

    Another point I think worth mentioning up front is that while historically Christianity supported capital punishment, most modern Christian denominations do not endorse capital punishment. Back in 2004, there was a piece by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (–A-Call-for-Reckoning.aspx) which made the following statement: “in all of Christendom only one denomination-the conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran Church-acknowledges that capital punishment is “in accord with Holy Scriptures.” All other bodies- the larger Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Roman Catholic Church, the Presbyterian (U.S.A.) Church, the American Baptist Churches, the United Church of Christ, the Disciples of Christ, and so on- oppose the death penalty, as does the National Council of Churches and all major Jewish groups.” Obviously there is some divergence between the layperson and the official stance of these mainline churches, but clearly the current official position of most churches is not to support capital punishment. This strikes a chord with my personal experience too, as it seems like so many of my fellow Christian friends are opposed to capital punishment. Thus, I think that my position on capital punishment is clearly becoming the minority position within Christendom and seemingly puts me at odds with many of my fellow Christians on this issue. Biblical support for (or opposition to) capital punishment is definitely one of those grey areas, with no clear cut answer, although I feel strongly that there is enough principles and evidence within scripture to support my view. Momentarily I’ll describe a bit of the evidence I find in scripture in support of capital punishment, although a fuller discussion on the issue of Biblical support for the death penalty is really needed to do justice to the topic. I also agree with Mark’s conclusion that at the forefront the empirical and practical questions pertaining to the death penalty are properly secondary to the moral questions. I don’t believe we should cave in to pragmatism when it comes to our moral convictions.

    As far as my interpretation of the John 8:1-11 text, no I do not think this should be interpreted as forbidding capital punishment. I believe that Jesus answered the way that he did in this particular case because the process by which the Pharisees were going about their conviction of this woman was not just. The Pharisees were not interested in examining the objective evidence for or against this woman, or holding up justice in this particular case. They were interested in trapping Jesus. If Jesus told them to carry out the stoning, He would violate the Roman law by which the Romans reserved to themselves the execution of the death penalty in occupied lands. If Jesus told them to release the woman, He would appear to condone adultery and violate the law of Moses. His response was a clever way out of an unfair and corrupt process with a foregone conclusion. Jesus knew that the hypocritical aims of His enemies had nothing to do with justice; his response was in no way a commentary about the death penalty in my opinion. Even if this text is to be interpreted as a clear forbidding of capital punishment, then there is the issue as to whether capital punishment is forbidden in all circumstances or just in this one. My personal belief and interpretation of scripture is that capital punishment is only permitted as a punishment for one who is found guilty of the taking of human life. This particular incident involved adultery, not murder.

    Now for some quick arguments from scripture for why I think the Bible does support capital punishment. Most Biblical critics recognize that the old testament Mosaic law included the prescription of the death penalty as a punishment option, but they are quick to say that the Mosiac law was cultural rather than a moral edict from on high, and that the Mosaic law is overturned in the new testament. They continue along this line of thinking by then saying that there is no clear command in the new testament endorsing capital punishment. Thus they say that capital punishment was only a tradition of Jews in the old testament and was never prescribed by God. Only one problem with this though, capital punishment was prescribed by God way before the Mosaic law, from the very beginning. The very first book of the Bible (Genesis 9:6) we read that “whoever sheds man’s blood by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God, He made man.” This is the strongest biblical support, in my opinion, for the death penalty. I believe that the principle of the sanctity of human life, set forth in Genesis and carried on in principle throughout the new testament, demands capital punishment. It is a high view of the sanctity of human life, not a low one. It is a punishment to be executed carefully and taken seriously, however, for the same reason of the sanctity of human life. But the worst crime someone can commit against both man and God, in my opinion, is usurping the role of God and taking a human life. In this instance, my reading of the passage in Genesis is that justice demands that the death penalty be administered to preserve the sanctity of human life as a serious thing to be protected.

    There are other scriptures that aren’t entirely clear on the subject but that would seem to support the death penalty. I offer up just one more. Romans 13: 3-4 says “for rulers are not a cause of fear for good behavior, but for evil. Do you want to have no fear of authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same; for it is a minister of God to you for good. But if you do what is evil, be afraid; for it does no bear the sword for nothing; for it is a minister of God, an avenger who brings wrath upon the one who practices evil.” So it seems to me that this passage here is saying that the authority (i.e., government) is a minister of God, even to the point of “bearing the sword”. One does not “bear the sword” to injure, but to terminate life. Seems pretty clear to me. I could go on, but I’m taking up a lot of space in what could be a much more extended discussion.

    As far as the empirical evidence as to whether the death penalty is a deterrent, etc., I think the evidence is more inconclusive than advocates on either side would make it out to be. The econometric models used to demonstrate evidence one way or the other are very complex and sensitive to nuances in the data and in the analysis. While it seems to be a foregone conclusion by many in the field of criminology that the death penalty does not serve a deterrent effect, I don’t think that this can be stated with certainty yet and, as Richard Berk stated in a recent issue of Criminology & Public Policy, we may never be able to know. So let’s don’t oversell the data and research one way or the other in favor of our foregone conclusions. I strongly disagree with the policy stance that the American Society of Criminology (ASC) has taken against the death penalty as well. The evidence here is far less conclusive than in other policy areas which the ASC has not made policy statements. I don’t think it is the business of ASC to be getting into these kind of policy statements either. Just my two cents.

  17. Back in my college days I read a book, "Capital Punishment: The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake." Can't remember too much about it now, but "caprice" and "mistake" are good and sufficient reasons to not engage in the practice. Period. But until someone such as Nino Scalia's nephew is shown to have been executed for a crime he didn't commit, the practice will continue in the more benighted precincts of this nation and around the world. But on second thought, maybe Scalia believes that such an event would be just one more egg broken to make an omelet. Borderline OT, but has anyone heard anything about Clarence Thomas's nephew who was tased in New Orleans? Does the estimable Associate Justice think that was OK? What if he had been convicted of a capital crime and sentenced to die? Mental disease or defect or not?

    And the Bible is just like the Collected Works of Marx, Smith, Freud, and Aquinas: Look for justification and you will find it. For virtually anything and everything.

  18. KLG, if you want to review that terrific book on the "inevitability of caprice and mistake," the author is the late Charles L. Black, professor at Yale Law School, one of the few white lawyers to be part of the winning legal team in Brown v. Board of Education, an unreconstructed Texan and irrepressible Louis Armstrong fan. The full title is "Capital Punishment: The Inevitability of Caprice and Mistake" (1982).

  19. I am a member of Hope United Church of Christ, in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. For somewhat more than 7 years, my dad, Rev. Emerson W. Harris was the minister of said church, during 1947-1955, prior to the merger of the Congregational Christian Churches with the Evangelical and Reformed Church. His parents were both ordained Congregational ministers. I am ordained, by World Christianship Ministries, and have a low-key pastoral counseling ministry, strongly based on the work of my Ph.D. in bioengineering and on my intensive study of religion(s) of something like 70 years duration. I was a college student first at Carleton College, where one of my professors was a physicist and professor of religion, Ian G. Barbour (who gave the Gifford Lectures and was awarded the Templeton Prize during the 1990s). To be reasonably complete in writing what I have learned, I would need to cite tens of thousands of references, an absurdity in the context of this bleg.

    My dissertation ("Mental Health and Mental Illness: Cause, Purpose, Cure, and Prevention; A Bioengineering Perspective" — University of Illinois at Chicago, 1998 — was partly based on the field work study I did for my thesis, said study being named, for Office of Protection from Research Risks acceptance, "An Inquiry Into the Nature of Mistakes.") contains a simple demonstration as to how and why no person can truthfully describe any mistake ever made and also truthfully describe any achievable process through which the mistake made could actually have been avoided. This observation of my research work clearly contradicts a core aspect of the beliefs of essentially the whole of humanity throughout all that I have been able to find of recorded human history. Dr. Phyllis Bowen, a member of my committee, commented to me that my work, if valid, might be "a completely new paradigm" for the structure of human society.

    In my view, as a scientist-bioengineer whose research is centered on public safety aspects of human belief systems, establishment Christianity has traditionally endorsed "the death penalty" after the effects of Constantine's "Edict of Milan" made it relatively safe to be identified as Christian within the Roman Empire. To me, the effect of the Edict of Milan was significant co-opting of Christianity by Roman traditions. What does Christianity have to say about the death penalty? Take your pick, I cannot find any significant view on the matter which has not been endorsed or even made into dogmatic doctrine by some sincere Christians.

    The difficulty I find within the human tradition regarding punishing people for behaving inappropriately is, to put it simply, that I find no biological basis, other than a nearly ubiquitous delusion, for the notion that any decision ever made could have been made differently than it was made. Therefore, no crime ever committed could have been avoided, and no crime that will ever be committed will be avoidable. The delusion, and that is the best word I can yet find, that a person could or should have done something differently than was done is a delusion typically coercively indoctrinated during the infant-child transition of about 18 months age, when a typical child has garnered enough words to effectively be told to believe that the child understood something through having been told about it. "The terrible twos" is a phrase for this transition from my childhood era. Terrible, I find, because an 18 month old baby can be terrified into being self-deceived about how learning actually works, and can be so deceived through punishments so intense that deception becomes preferable to truthfulness.

    How do I know about this? I am, by every means I can test, profoundly autistic, in that I have never experienced any thought in word form, nor (in contrast with Temple Grandin), in pictures. When I was about 18 months of age and was told that I had done something defiant, I was able to persuade my dad that he was mistaken, and that I had not understood what he had said. My dad commented to the effect, many years later, that he never again thought of me as being defiant, no matter what I did. I never went through the infant-child transition, I have never believed that I, or anyone else, ever did anything other than in the way which was actually possible.

    If a delusion is a fixed belief not held by one's society or by an organized religion, then my view is utterly delusional. If a delusion is a fixed belief contrary to fact, then almost everyone else seems to me to be delusional and I am, regarding the nature of mistakes and learning, among a very few people so far who are not delusional. Which is it? The test is, I find, terribly simple.

    All it takes to establish that my view is delusional and the traditional view is correct is for one person to truthfully describe one mistake (or decision) actually made and also truthfully describe an achievable process through which the mistake (or decision) made could actually have been avoided. No member of my thesis committee could do that (the late Dr. Boris Astrachan, Dr. Thomas Jobe, Dr. Earl E. Gose, Dr. Phyllis Bowen, and Dr. Robert Cwiertniak) and no one of the about-3000 people with whom I have shared my research has been able to give even one example of a mistake (or decision) made which was truthfully avoidable.

    Why? Because, to avoid making any given mistake (or decision) one has to first make the mistake (or decision) in order to know with sufficient certainty the outcome of the mistake (or decision) as to have enough understanding of the mistake (or decision) to be able to understand what would have allowed avoiding it, by which time the mistake (or decision) cannot be avoided because it already happened. Erik H. Erikson, as I read his work, called the notion in question "time confusion." Neurologist Robert Scaer called it "time corrupted learning," and "trauma."

    Perhaps a simple, make-believe, illustration will help. Suppose I have before me a simple dichotomous choice, "A" exclusive-or "B." Suppose I choose "A," and, after about 3 minutes, the result(s) of my having chosen "A" look really bad and every effect of choice "A" has happened, so choice "A" has run its full course; furthermore, suppose, in my imagination, I look at the effects of choice "B" and it seems that I made the wrong choice. How can I learn whether I made the wrong choice?

    Well, suppose I go back to the point of the choice and try choice "B" instead, and, suppose at 3 minutes, the effects of choice B are vastly better than the result from choice "A." Only, the effects of my making choice "B" are not complete in 3 minutes. Suppose, after 30 years, the results of choice "B" are somewhat worse than the final results of choice "A" were, and choice "B" still has remaining effects not realized in 30 years. After 3 million years, choice "B" is finally completed, and it is disastrously worse than choice "A" in final outcome.

    To know whether "A" or "B" was the better choice, methinks I would have to measure, without error, every effect of both choice "A" and choice "B" and add up the measurements without error, and bring the errorless scores back to the point of decision. Alas, no measurement is possible that is absolutely without error or the possibility of error, and, were the measurements and scores possible, I did not have them at the point of decision. Therefore, there is no way to know whether a choice made differently (or any mistake avoided) would have resulted in a better or worse outcome. Thus, I find that the commonplace notion that a mistake (or decision) made should or could have been made differently is a sincere common belief which is, as best I can yet discern, absolutely false, and yet tends to set up a displacement process which is utterly addictive in its human brain effects.

    One mistake actually made and truthfully described AND how it could have been avoided through any actually achievable process, also truthfully described, and my 70 or so years of work directed toward understanding the human condition is shown to be an absurdity of wasted effort. Why has no one been able to refute or rebut my research work? Might there actually be something called "evolution" at work; the evolution of understanding of how human brain biology actually works?

    In the science tradition of folks such as Popper, Lakatos, and perhaps also Feyerabend, is not an argument which contradicts millenia of tradition and yet which cannot be refuted or rebutted about as strong as a scientific argument can ever be? Thomas Kuhn, anyone?

    Is it possible to have intelligible thought which violates the law of identity, the law of non-contradiction, the law of the excluded middle for dichotomies, and the law of rational inference? The notion of avoidable mistakes happening appears to me to violate all of the laws of intelligible thought.

    How do I know if a mistake (or decision) was unavoidable? If it happened, it was unavoidable. How do I know if a mistake (or decision) was avoidable? Because it did not happen and I have no clue as to what it was because it wasn't. Only unavoidable mistakes (or decision) occur. The traditional contrary belief is, to me, pure, catastrophically addictive, delusion.

    Please rebut and/or refute… But not with an unintelligible argument which contradicts itself, please.

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