A few commenters on a recent post about how Paul Breer describes the Cosmic View and Local View of enlightenment in his book, Beyond Self-Realization: A Sectarian Path to Enlightenment, have noted that Breer was indicted in 2012 on a felony charge of sexually abusing a relative.
I pointed out in my own comment that Breer speaks of being in prison for two years in both of his books about the dual illusion of free will and of an immaterial self or soul. In the first book I read, and liked a lot, he didn't mention what he was in prison for. And so far I haven't come across a mention of the charge in the book I'm reading now, just that he had a profound experience while in prison, which I'll share below.
Of course, whether or not Breer was convicted of sexual abuse has absolutely no bearing on the truth or falsehood of the message he conveys in his books.
I consider it much more likely than not that this message is true, since I've read quite a few books about the illusion of free will and an immaterial self or soul that contain the same message. So this is a good opportunity to emphasize that moral outrage, which is reflected in the comments about Breer being indicted, isn't called for if free will is indeed an illusion.
Sure, it is entirely appropriate to decry someone's behavior. Virtually everybody agrees that sexually abusing a relative, or anyone else, is wrong. Those convicted of doing this deserve punishment.
But not because of moral outrage that they had the freedom to act differently than they did. Because punishment, such as prison time, serves to deter other people from doing the same thing, prevents the sexual abuser from harming more victims, and can lead to rehabilitation of the offender so they don't commit additional crimes.
These reasons are discussed in a chapter in the Beyond Self-Realization book that I read today, "Implications for Society" -- implications, that is, of giving up a belief in free will. Breer writes:
Incarcerating offenders achieves two things: it protects the community while punishing the offender. The more heinous the crime, the more severe the punishment. For the believer in free will, the system appears to work -- it keeps criminals off the street while providing an outlet for the public's wrath.
At least that's the way most people see it. But if the ideas we've been discussing here are valid, we have to consider the possibility that the whole criminal justice system is based on a serious error in thinking. There are actually two kinds of error involved. The first is theoretical -- why do criminals commit crimes; the second is programmatic -- how do we get them to stop doing it.
Let's start with the first: we commit the philosophical error of reification when we predicate our system of justice on the assumption that each of us houses a master controller that (within limits) is free to choose how we behave. There is no evidence, either scientific or personal, that such a controller exists.
Having committed that error, we then proceed (the second error) to erect a judicial system that punishes offenders for doing something they freely chose to do -- while paying scant attention to the real causes of their crime -- namely the genes they inherited from their parents and the culture in which they were raised.
...Let me put it this way: if our actions are ultimately caused by Circumstance, we cannot morally judge individuals for having made them happen. We can judge the appropriateness of the behavior without judging the individual as the originating cause of that behavior. From this perspective, the individual is simply the place where the offending behavior arose.
Since the offense has its roots in antecedent conditions (genes and environment), the appropriate way to change that behavior is to change the conditions that caused it, that is, through education, treatment, and the reinforcement of lawful behavior.
I heartily agree with what Breer says. It matches what other writers about the illusion of free will have said in their own books. For example, I quoted Sam Harris in this blog post:
Few concepts have offered greater scope for human cruelty than the idea of an immortal soul that stands independent of all material influences, ranging from genes to economic systems. Within a religious framework, a belief in free will supports the notion of sin -- which seems to justify not only harsh punishment in this life but eternal punishment in the next.
As promised above, here's how Breer describes a no-self experience he had while in prison, along with some observations he made about prison life.
I recall vividly the day I first became aware that the self was gone. I was in prison, sitting down, talking to friends when this deep peace suddenly descended on me. I felt absolutely invulnerable, not because of some new-found confidence, but because there was no self left to be concerned about.
It took awhile for me to recognize the experience for what it was: all I could be sure of was the peace that had come over me, a peace deeper than any I had ever felt. The peace was so deep, in fact, that when I compared it to previous tranquil times in my life, I was aware that those earlier times were still laden with tension. In other words, I had never truly been at peace.
Later, after release, when friends asked me what prison had been like, I found it hard to answer. My attention was riveted to the present; I was happy to talk about what I could see (faces and flowers), hear (birds and traffic), and what I felt (sad for the inmates I left behind) -- but there was no longer any need to complain about injustice -- no one inside me to feel sorry for -- no self to pity.
....In the prison where I spent two years, of the 1400 inmates doing time there, no more than 300 were enrolled in a training program at any one time. The rest learned nothing -- other than how to "con" the system -- that is, avoid work, get extra food, fool the nurses, hide pornography, or steal from each other. A few did make good use of their time -- in some cases by getting their GED, in others by earning a college degree. But they were noteworthy for their rarity.
As a whole, aside from its deterrent value, time spent behind bars was a waste of life -- a boring, meaningless, sometimes frightening experience designed to punish wrongdoers without any interest in the social and psychological factors that caused their crimes in the first place.
...I feel frustrated by the refusal of the authorities to wake up to just how overwhelming a person's background can be in shaping the choices he makes as an adult. I met many inmates in prison who dropped out of school early so they could make money selling drugs -- or in some cases, by stealing cars or electronics.
By the time they reached their 20's, they had no marketable skills -- and no realistic path for gaining them. So they remained uneducated and unemployed. The only way to survive at that point, at least in their eyes, was to engage in illegal trade -- selling or manufacturing drugs, robbing stores or assaulting and stealing from individuals.
In consequence by the time they finish their sentences they are no more capable of earning an honest living than when they entered prison. Not surprisingly, upon release they return to what they know best -- crime.