Monday, June 3, 2013

Is religious fundamentalism a mental illness? (i.e. can you catch a mental cold?)

Evolutionary biologist and atheist free thinker Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution is True
blogged on a recent short article at The Raw Story about remarks made by Karen Taylor, neuroscientist and author of the book Brainwashing: The science of thought control.

The headline leads with her speculation that certain religious beliefs might eventually be treated as mental illnesses, with religious fundamentalism as the cited example.  This was slightly misleading because her point wasn't really about religion, but that a developing science and technology of thought intervention opens up possibilities and realities that are not morally neutral and that we should start preparing our ethics to handle them.  A reliable technology for disposing of a belief and replacing it with another would force decisions on us we currently don't have to think about.  The right decision it might not be as easy as banning it's use.

Of course the ensuing discussion in the comments covered all the bases about the moral pitfalls of treating beliefs as illness.  Commenters called out the dubious ethics of labeling someone who disagrees with you as sick (that this makes up a sizable fraction of all internet discourse was not discussed). The Soviet enforced hospitalization and "treatment" of dissidents as proxy punishment was properly brought up.  Coyne and followers were also dubious of the epistemic validity of equating beliefs with illness, and at first I agreed.
Religious beliefs can hardly be thought of as mental illness.  Taking the word of large numbers of people or even the word of as little as one very charismatic individual is common human behavior.  These are just purchases in the marketplace of ideas, not signs of underlying disease.

But the more I thought about it, the more I thought I might still be missing the point because of the different ways we think of mental illness versus illness in general.

The general construct illness is fairly broad and contains many variations on the theme.
One may be ill as the result of a hereditary or congenital problem with one's own structural or functional physiology, e.g.. Spina bifida, Prader-Willi syndrome, juvenile diabetes, or cystic fibrosis.  One may be ill as the result of a spontaneous malfunction that develops in an otherwise normally functioning body;  multiple sclerosis say, or developing breast cancer as a result of having BRCA1. The common thread of these illnesses are that they are the result of being put together wrong somehow or something in you spontaneously failing.  The source of the illness being an internal and inherent quality of one's particular body.  On the other hand, one may be ill as the result of infection by some external pathogen (e.g. food poisoning, measles, aids) or exposure to some kind of toxin. The illness is not the result of your individual variation, but of widespread human susceptibility to the outside agent like the Spanish Flu of 1918.  We also understand that there are interactions. Dangerous allergies are the result of a nominally harmless (or minimally harmful in the case of say bee stings) external agent interacting with a unique inherent individual physiology.  Likewise external carcinogens do not induce disease uniformly, interacting more pathologically with the physiology of certain individuals.

On the other hand when we think of mental illness our current conventional wisdom doesn't include the pathogen or toxin model that would support a concept of a belief as an illness in and of itself.  At least part of the reason is easy to spot.  This is incompatible with concepts of absolute liberty of thought supported by free will.  Beliefs are just thoughts, volitional products of our own agency. If they are bad, it is because the brain holding them is too faulty to act at liberty with free will. A bad belief (if there is even such a thing) can't be an infection of an intact brain. Ergo, mental illness must be inherent. You cannot be MADE mentally ill by the thoughts that get into your head. The logic being that if the just the thoughts were making you ill, you'd just flush them out yourself and replace them with better thoughts of your own.

The failure of the free will doctrine undermines this however.  So it's quite reasonable (albeit potentially frightening for all the reasons lightly touched in the third paragraph) to talk about thoughts as agents of sickness the same way we talk about having a cold or exposure to poison ivy or ingesting strychnine.

One source of our fear is of course the social stereotype and stigma of mental illness. While the term itself denotes the mere fact of being sick in or by ones thoughts and emotions, the social connotations imply a severe, intractable, quasi-criminal existential threat, or a permanent invalid. This not only causes people to react to mental illness in inappropriate, unhelpful and excessive ways, it also causes them to require claims that something is a mental illness meet that criteria.  There's even a confounding ambivalence between the conceptions of threat vs. sufferer.  There's an insidious cultural mythology about schizophrenia that the psychosis somehow overrides the ability to be miserable. Spend a week on a psych ward and you learn that is not the case. Psychosis is a wholesale distributor of profound human misery and despair.

But the fact remains, mental illness in the public mind implies permanent menace or permanent uselessness. In our minds, there are no mental health equivalents to having a cold, or being laid up with a mental equivalent of home-puking-your-guts-out-you-poor-thing. In those physical analogs the ailments are mere impediments to flourishing, calling for the right measures of aid, healing, and understanding.  We have trouble seeing mental illness this way. It's getting better but we have a long way to go.  This is not to say that we don't respond to mental suffering or struggle properly either.  Coming to the aid of someone mentally and emotionally overwhelmed by circumstances (divorce, job loss, death of loved one) is common practice. So is trying to help someone who we realize has misunderstandings that cause them to suffer and grossly impede their ability to flourish. Yet we can't quite bring ourselves to acknowledge them as sickened or afflicted in the same fashion we acknowledge someone with Influenza. They have to be broken by it some way first, and even then there are lots of reservations.

The point of all this being that until our conception of mental illness develops the same level of nuance that our conception of physical (read not-mental) illness has, tagging anything as a mental illness will be problematic. The originator may have a very properly nuanced claim about why a certain thing can be properly called such, and may even articulate the nuance well. Yet until society is ready to receive that nuance without recasting it into the misconceptions that currently hold sway this this will remain a risky business indeed.

Still one can't rule out an eventual utility to letting some beliefs get treated as illness.  Take a case where a person has trust issues and has come to believe their spouse is unfaithful. There may have even been a past indiscretion, but they've worked hard to reconcile.  The transgressor has repented, and is genuinely sorry, and for all practical purposes can be trusted, but their spouse just can't shed the belief in their infidelity.  They know that this is because of the trust issues. They have an adult understanding of the psychogenic source of the the belief's persistence.  If there were a reliable methodological aide to changing that belief, and if they wanted to access it for the purpose of allowing their relationship to flourish going forward, would it be ethical not to provide it?  It may not be possible to abdicate our obligation to solve ethical questions just because they wouldn't exist without the methodology.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Would our extinction be so bad?

It's bad enough that we have to contemplate our own mortality and that of those we love and care for, but our understanding of our state of affairs is forcing us to contemplate the reality that species don't last either.
Humans, being a species, are not immune, so it's certain that at some point down the line there will no longer be anything recognizably homo sapiens sapiens.

The first thought we tend to have about this eventuality is that it's a disaster, and I'll agree that if were talking about (geologically) sudden extirpation of our kind, say by asteroid, it's pretty easy to put it on the VERY-BAD-NOT-GOOD side of the ledger.  But say that in, oh, maybe 400,000 years the earth no longer hosts a single human being, would that be a bad thing?  What should we feel about such an eventuality?

It could depend on how the disappearance came about.  Would my australopithecene great-to-the-Nth grandfather lament the differences between Lucy and my daughter Claire?  Should we see ourselves as  their triumph through the ages or the record of their eventual downfall?  If we view it as triumph, than if we are simply displaced by a new branch of evolutionary descendants, we should see it as surviving. After all, we already know our descendants are going to be a little different, if they eventually become a lot different, how bad would that be?

On the other hand suppose our ecological niche slowly disappeared and our numbers dwindled down to zero. Or a virus evolved that impaired our ability to reproduce with the same result.  Would that be so awful?  If so, why?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Skepticism vs. Absolute Freedom of Thought

Is there an irreconcilable conflict between absolute freedom of thought and skepticism?
If we define skepticism as the insistence that all truth claims must be vetted through reason, evidence, and otherwise sound epistemology, then were imposing strong restrictions on our true belief.  If absolute freedom of thought implies zero duty to concede anything to anyone; if there are no restrictions on true belief under absolute freedom of thought, whence the necessary restrictions of skepticism?

A skeptic provides a priori the standards, benchmarks, and requirements by which they are willing to be convinced.  This represents a partial abdication of their absolute freedom in favor of saying, "rather than merely believing whatever appeals to me,  I will follow the data and the logic to it's best conclusion independent of what I expect or want."   A skeptic has obligations.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Why are you safe from me?

There will be a lot of talk about security and prevention over the next few months.  As you listen and take part in these conversations, I would have you keep this in the back of your mind.

We walk past each other daily, most of us as strangers. We rarely notice just how simple and easy it would be to inflict grievous harm on our fellows.  Something heavy in the hand, an earnest well-aimed blow, and just like that, a human being is killed or maimed by our hand.  Add some other tools and the right knowledge and it becomes even easier to do--to even more people, but such tools and knowledge are not necessary, and in any case they're not difficult to obtain.

The idea that all our security apparatus, and police, and weapons, and retributive justice do the bulk of prevention of such behavior is a fantasy.  They have some effect out on the margins for sure, but their effect pales compared to what really prevents this kind of violence.  Desire.

Like almost everyone I know, I have never crushed anyone's skull, or set someone on fire, or poisoned them, or blown them to bits with explosives. The reason seems to me very simple. I've never really wanted to do so.  Sure I've been angry, and like anyone my mind has indulged abstract notions of doing harm to someone for some real or imagined grievance. Fortunately this has never risen to the level of my taking action.  If (forbid it) my mind works into a state of truly wanting to make such things happen, and I keep this reasonably to myself so that no one knows how dangerous I have suddenly become, what's to stop me?  For all practical purposes, nothing.

Maybe you're feeling a little creepy wondering just how much time I spend contemplating whether to commit one of these gruesome acts.  Very little, per se, let me assure you.  It's just that we have been mired in a long public conversation about security from national to personal for years, and that conversation is usually framed in terms of "What protects me from others?".  I imagined a partial answer was available by casting myself as the potential threat and instead asking "What protects others from me?"  The grim musings are a part of this thought experiment.

It seems obvious that what protects others from me, is, well, me.  I am the chief impediment, or more properly my lack of desire to do harm is.  This is marginally augmented by the social protections and sanctions of society and it's laws, as well as the threat to me if my intended victim has a chance to act in their own defense, but only marginally.

So while the issue of public and private security is revisited in the context of the Boston Marathon bombings, keep in mind that security flows not from its apparatus, but the cultivation of trust, loyalty to strangers, and above all our mutually learning not to want the destruction of other human beings.