Posted on September 14, 2010 - by David
I am working directly from the unpublished text of Liah Greenfeld’s forthcoming book, Mind, Madness, and Modernity: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience. All the original ideas, and all interpretations and analysis of primary and secondary source materials used to support the ideas are attributable to Liah Greenfeld. Read the introduction to the exposition here.
Before the hypothesis that modern culture can cause biologically real mental disease can be given serious consideration, one major conceptual obstacle must be removed: this is the dualist vision of reality. In the dualist conception, central to Western thought for well over two thousand years, reality, (which is presumed to be consistent) expresses itself in two fundamentally distinct, mutually inconsistent ways: the material and the spiritual. This dichotomy has been formulated in a number of ways – the physical and the psychical, the real and the ideal, and the mind/body split, but the idea remains basically the same.
Obviously, the concept of two mutually inconsistent realms existing in a world that is presumed to be consistent presents us with a logical problem. Until now, the only way to resolve this problem has been to take one or another monistic position, seeing only one of these expressions of reality as real in the sense of being causally active, the other being merely a secondary expression of the first one. For a long time, the dominant belief was that the spiritual element was causally active, with the material brought into being by some divine creative intelligence. But for several hundred years now, matter has been seen as the causal factor, and the spiritual element, (whichever specific name we give it), was gradually reduced to the status of only apparent reality.
It is important to realize, though, that the materialist view has come to reign supreme for reasons that are primarily historical. The secular focus of nationalism increased the importance of life here on earth, resulting in the emotional weakening of religious faith, while increasing the value placed on scientific inquiry into the empirical world. Likewise, science as an institution, rationally organized in its efforts toward increasing knowledge of empirical (material) reality, first came into being in England with the rise of nationalism. Science being the only epistemological system which has consistently led to humanity’s greater understanding, and control, of certain aspects of empirical reality, it is no surprise that its prestige is so great, and that beliefs associated with it quickly gain authority.
The dominance of the materialist position can be seen clearly in the history of psychiatry. While one approach aimed at addressing the “psychical,” (Freudian psychoanalysis), was extremely influential for about a 50 year span during the 20th century, the biological approach was destined to prevail. Psychiatry is, after all, a medical specialization, and medicine, with the body as its subject, is a decidedly scientific endeavor. After the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, the prestige of biology was solidified. To question the biological paradigm was to effectively exclude oneself from the medical field.
Around the turn of the 20th century, German-language psychiatrists, (above all Emil Kraepelin), worked hard to improve the scientific status of the profession. They carefully described and classified those mental diseases of unknown cause which remained for psychiatry after treatment of organic mental diseases like paresis, epilepsy, and puerperal insanity had shifted to their proper medical specializations. The main division of major psychoses into the broad classes of schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness dates to this time. While the etiology of these crippling illnesses remained a mystery, psychiatrists like Kraepelin were confident that they were brain diseases with organic causes which would one day be discovered.
In the United States, the foundation of the National Institute of Mental Health in 1947 strengthened the biological position, and with the discovery and development of several waves of anti-depressant, mood-stabilizing, and antipsychotic drugs from the 1950’s on, the interests of large pharmaceutical companies have further supported this view.
There is, no doubt, a constantly growing body of information about the brain and the various abnormalities in anatomy and neurochemistry which have been observed in psychiatric patients, and genetic researchers have made tentative progress in identifying certain genes which may increase vulnerability to schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness. But the much celebrated technological advances in this field of study have not led to any new, precise methods of diagnosis – there is no brain scan or genetic test psychiatrists can use to determine whether someone “has” schizophrenia. The data is descriptive, not explanatory, and any genetic vulnerability only represents, at most, a condition for mental illness (and so far we cannot even say a necessary condition). And of course, we must remember not to confuse conditions with causes. Finally, none of the drugs used to treat mental illness can be said to constitute a cure.
Despite the failure of these tools to transform our understanding of mental illness (which remains essentially unchanged since Emil Kraepelin’s classifications), the experts in the field have placed their faith in science, believing wholeheartedly (and without evidence) that schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness have a biological cause, and that its discovery is just around the corner.
The problem is, science is not supposed to be a set of beliefs but a method, that method being logical formulation of hypotheses, followed by attempts to refute them with the help of empirical evidence. Science is therefore, as a matter of principle, (though obviously not always as a matter of practice), skeptical of belief. Science is especially skeptical about the immaterial, because of the close association between the immaterial (or the spiritual, ideal, etc., call it what you will), and religion, since religion is always a matter of belief. Unfortunately, science has transformed this skepticism into a dogma – that there is nothing more to empirical reality than the material. This dogma is evident in the faithful expectation of the discovery of a biological cause for mental illness, and the belief that human consciousness is reducible to (i.e caused by) the organ of the brain.
The materialist answer to the mind/body problem can only be that the mind is nothing more than the subjective experience of the functioning of the brain, which is in effect to say there is no such thing as the mind – that the brain is all that is real. But any amount of self-reflection reveals that the reality we experience, (i.e that for which we have empirical proof), is always mental. A majority of our experiences involve words and images which are symbolic, and therefore, part of a non-material reality. We see things in our “mind’s eye” that are not really there, we hear songs play in our heads, though no corresponding sound waves move through the air. Our emotions certainly have physical aspects – a quickened pulse, an upset stomach, a flushed face – but these physical reactions cannot be said to cause the specific thoughts that follow our change in mood. Ultimately, we are enclosed in the subjectivity of our mental experience. To insist on the material nature of empirically knowable reality is deny reality as we actually experience it.
Nevertheless, we believe that there is more than this subjectivity. We believe that we have our experience through our bodies, which constitute part of an objective reality. We ignore the irrefutable solipsistic proposition – that reality is merely a product of my imagination – and go on feeding and clothing ourselves, because this fundamental belief in the objective world is literally necessary for our survival.
This belief in the objective world is obviously fundamental for science as well. But science also depends on the belief that this objective world is consistently ordered – that is to say, most scientists believe that empirical reality is actually a logical reality, and can therefore only accept reality to the extent that it fits this belief. But belief that the objective world is consistently ordered is not, in fact, a fundamental belief – there are, or have been, societies in which chaos was assumed to be the condition of reality. Aristotelian logic, based on the principle of no contradiction, is a historical, thus cultural phenomenon. (Ironically for science, a case - based on logic and circumstantial evidence – can be made that it was through exposure to monotheistic culture that Thales, the Miletian, arrived at the idea of an unchanging organizing principle which he introduced to Greek philosophy in the 6th century B.C, helping to bring about the transition from mythos to logos).
So while the twin pillars of science are supposed to be logic and empirical evidence, we see that there is a great deal of belief mixed in. As stated before, we reject solipsism, believing in the objectivity of what we perceive physically through the senses, but the meaning which we give to these physical perceptions is affected by our beliefs, beliefs which usually lack empirical proof. This is why some of the most important scientific beliefs remain theories. Where empirical evidence is lacking, we draw inferences using logic, whatever empirical evidence we do have, and our beliefs about the world. This is what circumstantial evidence is – substitution of logical consistency for information of sensual perception. So, it turns out that science ultimately rests on logic.
But despite the shortcomings of science – that it is sometimes even more dogmatic than religion, and that the evidence it relies on is not strictly empirical, but circumstantial – it remains our only option for attaining objective knowledge about the subjective empirical reality of the mind. Without attaining such knowledge, no new theory of mental illness is possible. But in order to use science (which means to use logic), we still must deal with the logical contradiction of the dualist conception of reality.
It is in fact Darwin who helps us resolve this problem. Though many have mistakenly understood his theory of evolution by natural selection as proving the triumph of materialism in the dualist debate, it actually moved beyond this debate altogether. In distinction to the philosophical materialists of his day, Darwin proved that life was a reality of its own kind, irreducible to the inanimate matter of which each cell is composed, but, in distinction to philosophical idealists, or vitalists, who claimed that life was independent from the material reality studied by physics, he proved that laws of life could only operate within the conditions provided by physical laws.
Thanks to Darwin, we can conceptualize the objective world in terms of emergent phenomena. An emergent phenomenon is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to the sum of its elements, a case in which a specific combination of elements, which no one element, and no law in accordance with which the elements function, renders likely, produces a certain new quality (in most important instances, a certain law or tendency) which in a large measure determines the nature and the existence of the phenomenon, as well as of its elements.
The fact that the emergent phenomenon cannot be reduced to its elements means that at the moment of emergence there is a break in continuity, a leap from one layer of reality into another, essentially distinct and yet fundamentally consistent with the initial layer. By definition, this transformation cannot be traced exclusively to the first reality, and is, at least in part, extraneous to it.
With the recognition of the autonomous new world of life, Darwin’s breakthrough not only opened the door to advances in biology, it makes possible our escape from the dualist cage. In place of two mutually inconsistent realms, reality may be imagined as consisting of three autonomous but related layers, with the two upper layers being emergent phenomena — the layer of matter, the layer of life, and the layer of the mind.
This top layer of the mind – the layer of symbolic reality – will be the subject of the next post in the series.
9/24 – Madness: A Modern Phenomenon
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