Saturday, 28 May 2011

Sanity & Violence, or, What Happens in the Courts When Gods Outsource Smiting?

Two news stories have caught my attention this week. In one, four men were jailed for an attack on Tower Hamlets religious studies teacher Gary Smith. There are news reports here and here. And a statement on The Met’s website here.

It was horrific. Mr Smith’s face was deliberately slashed from his mouth corner to his ear. He suffered leg wounds, a fractured skull, bleeding on the brain, a shattered jaw and was unconscious for two days.

It must be harder than I realise to get an attempted murder charge to stick. Akmol Hussein, 27, Sheikh Rashid, 27, Azad Hussain, 26, and Simon Alam, 19 were sentenced for causing grievous bodily harm with intent.

The attack was clearly premeditated and at least one of the assailants had mentioned death as an objective:

On the premeditation: the group succeeded on their third attempt. Superintendent Colin Morgan of Scotland Yard said:

"This was an unprovoked and premeditated attack by a group of men who were carrying weapons. Mr Smith was struck without warning, and was subjected to an appalling level of violence with no opportunity to defend himself.”

And just before the attack Azad Hussein said:

“Does everyone remember the drill? One time, bang, bang, bang, bang”

On the objective of death: Akmol Hussein had been recorded saying:

“This is the dog we want to hit, to strike, to kill.”

Fortunately, Hussein’s car had been bugged in an investigation into a suspected terrorist network. Unfortunately, the police didn’t get any information prior to the assault.

Gary Smith had invoked the gang’s ire by teaching Islam, along with other major world religions, in national curriculum lessons.

Akmol Hussain had said:

"…he's mocking Islam and he's putting doubts in people's minds…How can somebody take a job to teach Islam when they're not even a Muslim themselves?"

And after the assault he had said:

"Praise to Allah. At that time nobody was there...Bruv, I don’t care about prison as long as I’m doing it for the deen [religion] of know what, he's not going to get up"

At Snaresbrook Crown Court, Judge Hand said:

“You believed there was a higher authority to which you were responsible and that authority dictated you must attack Mr Smith"

I was equally fascinated by the case of Lorraine Mbulawa, who had stabbed her mother four times in the arm and once in the face at their home in May 2009. There'a an account here.

Mbulawa had had a dream:

"… that seemed a bit real. It was my grandma and dad's youngest sister, Charlotte. Like they were right at the foot of my bed … my grandmother said my mother was responsible for the death of my father and I had to do the honourable thing to my father by killing my mother"

She had put on some dark clothes, gloves and a makeshift balaclava, and gone into her mother’s room with the intention of killing her.

Mbulawa was cleared of attempted murder but found guilty of unlawful wounding at Leicester Crown Court in February as reported by the local paper on February 5th.

She and her family are Christian and from Zimbabwe, where belief in witchcraft is pretty well endemic. In sentencing last week, Mr Justice Keith reiterated what had emerged in the trial, that Mbulawa and her family believed in the power of the occult, in spirit possession and that she was not responsible for what she had done. He said that her mother:

"… believed spirits can enter the body and make you do things that otherwise you would not have done”

Despite her mother saying that Mbulawa was not “her real self” while conducting the attack, the jury made their opinion known by rejecting the option of finding her not guilty by reason of insanity – an option they did have. As Mr Justice Keith pointed out:

"In convicting Lorraine of unlawful wounding the jury must be treated as having rejected her claim of being in a dissociative state. The jury treated Lorraine as if she knew what she was doing at the time of the attack"

In addition, she had been assessed by a psychiatrist who had found her to be sound.

The sentences handed down in these two cases are markedly differerent. Of Gary Smith’s attackers, three will serve at least five years and maybe more; the fourth will serve a minimum of four years, maybe more. The details are at the bottom of the page here.

Lorraine Mbulawa has presumably been on some sort of remand (I don’t know if it was custodial) since May 2009, as her contact with her mother has been supervised and she is only now allowed to return to the family home to live. She has been given a 12 month custodial sentence suspended for 18 months. She must also do 120 hours of unpaid work and attend supervision to help her understand her beliefs so she could deal with any supernaturally inspired violent urges in the future.

These contrasting sentences may be attributable to several factors.

For one, the victim impact statements each both case will have been very differerent. Gary Smith’s injuries were more severe and he may never completely recover. He is unlikely to be sympathetic to his assailants’ world-view or motivation. Sibusisiwe Mbulawa, by comparison, had lesser injuries and feels she understands her daughter’s behaviour completely.

Another is the likelihood of perpetrating again in the future: Gary Smith’s assailants were united by a life-principle that would be likely to lead to further violence and which will be highly difficult to erase. The judge clearly feels that Lorraine Mbulawa, by contrast, can be taught to deal with her worldview in a way that will reduce her chances of perpetrating in the future.

Remorse will have been another factor. It’s hard to see how the Tower Hamlets four could have plausibly pleaded moral anguish after their celebratory conversation was recorded. Mbulawa, on the other hand, told police of her intention to kill herself after she had killed her mother.

Culpability may have been yet another issue. Despite the jury’s rejection of the notion that Mbulawa may have been insane at the time of the attack, Mr Justice Keith said:

"Lorraine believes she was doing what the spirits told her to do which reduced her culpability significantly …”

whilst also still laying the responsibility at her feet:

“… since she knew what she was doing she should have fought against what she was told to do"

Acting under duress – compulsion from outside – is a defence in law. But the law restricts itself to agents such as blackmailers, people who have kidnapped your granny and so forth. Spirits don’t count, and that’s fine by me.

And I detect yet another consideration, from left of field. Mbulawa is simply more attractive, in every respect. Mr Justice Keith said:

"I believe she's a young woman with much going for her. She struck me as being unusually confident and assured, also not unintelligent with a degree of charm and poise”

She is young, pretty, was an A-level student and, unlike the Tower Hamlets four is not the embodiment of a current much-feared archetype, the regressive jihadist.

Yet for all their differences, these two crimes have one very significant theme at their hearts: people who were judged by the courts to be mentally competent were motivated to potentially murderous acts under the influence of utterly unprovable supernatural worldviews.

I spent an interesting afternoon once with a senior police officer who deals with occult-related killings. His interest in the precise nature of beliefs was limited: his focus was on whether or not an actual crime had been committed. For that, I think he deserved great professional credit: like Elizabeth I, he had: “no desire to make windows into men's souls”.

But clearly, thought processes do matter – and to the courts too. Psychological evaluations that assess culpability and fitness to stand trials must make windows into men's souls. To a certain extent, we can determine culpability and the likelihood of re-offending using those windows.

We choose the parameters of our rationality, and those parameters move from time to time. If we commit a crime under a popular delusion, we are more likely to be judged sane. With a social animal like us, it’s actually quite reasonable: the sharing of a doctrine, a cognitive concensus, is certainly a measure of our integration with our community, if not our grasp of objective physics. A person motivated to murder for Ereshkigal would be ancient Iraq’s religious fanatic, today’s whackjob.

Perhaps this is another area where Mbulawa gets off as being mad rather than bad in the UK. We’re more familiar with jihadism, but the witchcraft paradigm has been under the radar ‘til recently.

James House, for the prosecution, had noted that:

"Her mother has expressed a belief in the power of spirits common in the culture of Zimbabwe … had it happened there, her daughter would have been treated by a medicine man and would have been exorcised"

Gilbert Nyambabvu in ‘New Zimbabwe’ concurred:

“… Lorraine’s story would have befuddled few, if any, Zimbabweans”

So - here are a handful of modern perpetrators who have acted under the influence of bizarre, unprovable tenets. If you look to history, they’re not short of company: witch-hunters, inquisitors and crusaders abound. Few of them were, by the standards of the own times, mad.

It would be wrong, and in any case impossible, to legislate for anti-social supernatural beliefs. But given the potential for harm, we can reasonably stop these beliefs being monetised. The prospect of revenue creates a motivation for promotion. I suggested that payment for deliverance from witchcraft should be illegal here.

And the law already has provision for actual violence, inspired by a variety of motives, rational and irrational. Meanwhile, we are left with cases that leave us horrified ... and bemused.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Thoughts & Theology

On May 13th, Oxford University website posted a press-release entitled “Humans 'predisposed' to believe in gods and the afterlife” and summarised as:

“A three-year international research project, directed by two academics at the University of Oxford, finds that humans have natural tendencies to believe in gods and an afterlife.”

Newspapers had already covered the study’s progress. You can see “Children are born believers in God” from The Telegraph’s religion section here and “Why do we believe in God? £2m study prays for answer” from The Times here.

‘The Cognition, Religion and Theology Project’ was supported by a 1.9mGBP grant from the Templeton Foundation and run by Psychologist Dr Justin Barrett and philosopher Professor Roger Trigg who “directed an international body of researchers conducting studies in 20 different countries that represented both traditionally religious and atheist societies.”

Dr Barrett had been quoted as saying that they were: “… interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural”.

And it would be strange, I suppose, if such a thing as belief in the supernatural was not natural, given how widespread it is.

It’s a thought many have pondered: why do we as a species come up with these ideas, again and again. The father of psychology William James wrote about a quality he called ‘religious genius’.

He noted that religious instigators: “have often shown symptoms of nervous instablility … exhalted emotional sensibility .. and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological”

For James those others who follow on from these primary agents have what he called a ‘second-hand religious life’. He seems to have regarded it as a form of intellectual contagion from a concentrated source.

However, the prevailing theories about religiosity have changed since James’ day. Charismatic individuals certainly have shaped some of the specifics of our notions about the supernatural, but a spontaneous sense of it seems to be more evenly distributed among the population than he thought.

There are a couple of ideas about how we’ve become a supernatural-seeking species.

The first is that belief in a transcendent power confers an advantage upon a group. This would make religiosity a primary quality for survival by, for example, enhancing commitment to the group. One of the most notable poularisers of this theory was the father of sociobiology E O Wilson who said: “Men would rather believe than know”.

But there are several detractors to this theory, people who don’t believe that group selection is anywhere near as important a factor in survival as has been claimed. Which would leave the ‘God as an Adaptive Trait’ theory looking a bit wan.

The second – and probably more currently popular - way of looking at the issue is to see superstition and religion as byproducts of evolution.

Paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould and population geneticist Richard Lewontin co-opted the architectural term 'spandrel' to define something which didn’t originate by the direct action of natural selection but which later became usefully employed for a different function.

So is god somehow a side-effect of our cognitive machinery, an accompaniment to evolution?

David Hume wrote that: “We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and goodwill to everything, that hurts or pleases us”.

Taking indistinct stimuli from the environment and making them into something recognisable is a phenonmenon know as pareidolia; it’s how the Virgin Mary gets onto so many pieces of toast. Either that, or she’s got a really good agent.

Hume was pointing out what many others have noticed before and since – we see things that aren’t there and then often ascribe personalities and intentions to them.

Dr Barrett’s term for this kind of thing is a hyperactive (or hypersensitive) agency detection device” a HADD.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett puts it that we have an:

‘Intentional stance’ and that means identifying “agents with limited beliefs about the world, specific desires, and enough common sense to do the rational thing given those beliefs and desires”

So, we can realise there are other things in the universe and that they have intentions that may differ from ours. To read someone else’s mind, you need a thing called theory of mind.

This term was created by David Premack and Guy Woodruff who defined it as:

“... the ability to attribute mental states—beliefs, intents, desires, pretending, knowledge, etc.—to oneself and others and to understand that others have beliefs, desires and intentions that are different from one's own”

You can imagine how useful this is: it helps us to predict what others are going to do and want. It helps us to understand that they have a theory of mind about us in turn.

The issue with these agent-detection and prediction abilities is that they’re very hard to turn off. A false positive is probably not often dangerous – whoever got hurt for mistaking tree bark for a face? But a false negative is dangerous – how often do you get to ignore a hungry tiger?

Another way in which we get to see a world of our own making is to have a preference for purpose-based explanations. Psychologist Dr. Deborah Keleman of the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University is the expert here. Her work on children showed they had preferences for what she called teleo-functional explanations.

Why is polar bear fur white? So the bear can blend in with the snow (rather than because it lacks pigment).

What’s more, she found that children displayed what she called promiscuous teleology – that is applying to purpose-based explanations to both living and natural-but-inanimate things alike.

So do we naturally grow out of this kind of reasoning, or do the physics lessons at school have an effect after all?

Keleman’s work on uneducated adults among the Romanian Roma showed that giving up purpose-based explanations as we grow, is a cultural phenonomenon, not a natural event. Left to our own devices, we’d probably all be adult animists, searching for motivations of seen and unseen agents in our environments.

I’ve noticed this a great deal in my study of the folklore of the macabre. People really aren’t stupid. They know that events have proximal causes. It’s the search for meaning which helps to create the agent.

The anthropologist E. E. Evans-Pritchard spent a great deal of time with a central African tribe, the Azande. One day, a house collapsed on someone; villagers knew that termites had undermined house but that wasn’t the question. Why had it happened when that particular person was sitting there?

They weren’t answering the question "how?". They were answering the question "why?". I've covered the kind of encumberances these two very different questions have here.

It reminds me of medieval Europeans who felt leprosy to be a disease associated with moral degeneracy. You could probably have proved the existence of disease-causing micro-organisms to our ancestors, but it may not have stopped them asking why. Why now? Why him? Why here?

This is hardly even a start on the factors which predispose us to intuit the supernatural. If you’re interested in more you could do a lot worse than buy Bruce Hood’s ‘Supersense’.

So if a sense of the supernatural is a side-effect of our biology, will ghosts and gods, phantoms and fairies always be with us?

Dr Barrett, a Christian himself, was quoted as saying that "If we threw a handful on an island and they raised themselves I think they would believe in God."

But I think this is going far too far. For one thing, that term 'god' rather than 'gods' – monotheism is the exception rather than the rule in religion. And perhaps our island-bound handful would have day to day interactions with ancestors rather than gods, in the manner of traditional African religion.

I think it would be fairer to say that they would likely end up with a supernatural model of their environment, as well as a natural one.

As anthropologist Pascal Boyer wrote:
“Having a normal brain does not imply that you have religion. All it implies is that you can acquire it, which is very different”