Friday, December 23, 2011

Mental Disorder and Monstrosity

The current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) defines “mental disorder” as “a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress...or disability...or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom. In addition, this syndrome or pattern must not be merely an expectable and culturally sanctioned response to a particular event, for example, the death of a loved one...Neither deviant behavior (e.g. political, religious, or sexual) nor conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict is a symptom of a dysfunction in the individual, as described above” (xxxi, my emphases).

The American Psychiatric Association currently proposes to change this definition in DSM-V to a “behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual, that is based in a decrement or problem in one or more aspects of mental functioning, including but not limited to global functioning (e.g., consciousness, orientation, intellect, or temperament) or specific functioning (e.g., attention, memory, emotion, psychomotor, perception, thought); that is not merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals); and that is not primarily a consequence of social deviance or conflict with society” (my emphases and semicolons). 

The APA explains that the proposed changes in the definition are meant mainly to shift the focus to the underlying cause and symptoms of a mental condition, leaving the condition’s consequences to the treatment-planning rather than to the diagnostic stage. But as I’ve emphasized, both definitions (1) use quasi-normative language of “disability,” “dysfunction,” “loss,” “decrement” (that is, loss from diminution or decrease), or “problem,” and (2) specifically rule out socially deviant behaviour as mentally disordered unless that behaviour is caused by a dysfunction. These two parts of the definitions conflict with each other.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Televised Political Debates in Postmodern US

On Dec 12, 2011, something astonishing was seen on American television: not a UFO, not the Loch Ness monster, not Bigfoot, but an actual political debate between presidential candidates, the first one broadcast in decades in that country. Granted, the debaters, Gingrich and Hunstman, agreed on virtually every issue, so the event wasn’t a debate in content so much as in format. And granted, the debate was shown on C-SPAN and even though it’s on YouTube as well, relatively few Americans will view this debate and so discover the difference between an actual political debate and a press conference disguised as one. Still, this Lincoln-Douglas format in which--of all things!--the moderator hardly speaks at all, there are no commercials, and the debaters speak for long periods of time with no time limits or sound bytes was miraculous to behold--not because this type of event is revelatory, but because it was held in the postmodern US.

If Gingrich wins the nomination and Obama is forced to have several of these Lincoln-Douglas style debates with him, shutting out the journalist moderators as the irrelevancies that they are, those debates might be harbingers of an apocalypse in 2012 or perhaps bizarre manifestations of an approaching techno singularity. At any rate, if this format is used by presidential candidates who actually disagree on most issues and so, well, debate, and the debate is broadcast on American television, where will the American news anchors and earlier candidates hide from the pitchforks and flaming torches carried by the embarrassed masses, who will have then realized that they’d been for so long infantilized by their political process?

A much more likely scenario is that this debate format will be discredited due to a failure to distinguish between the format and the participants: the Gingrich-Hunstman debate was boring because they agreed on most issues, but this lack of excitement may be wrongly blamed on the unmoderated format itself. At least two factors conspire to make this the more likely outcome. First, the television networks are likely pressured to hold out the overly-moderated format as the price for broadcasting the event, since they profit most by selling infotainment, which requires that their news anchors be stars with gigantic egos that must be regularly fed with the spotlight or the anchors’ oversized heads will explode. Second, most presidential candidates don’t want to be forced to publicly demonstrate whether they possess substantive knowledge of foreign and domestic affairs, because a stealth oligarchy attracts lower-quality politicians, as befits their role as figureheads or as double agents of private industry.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Nietzsche and Secular Liberalism

Secular liberals face a dilemma. Liberal values, such as individual liberty and compassion, derive from monotheistic religious institutions, but these institutions are dysfunctional and their theological rationales are no longer credible. Meanwhile, secularism promotes oligarchy and regressive consumerism, much as Nietzsche predicted. So warns Chris Hedges in his article, After Religion Fizzles, We’re Stuck with Nietzsche.

More specifically, the problem is that western secular assumptions--informed by science and the capitalistic drive towards plutocracy--are that we’re all just clever beasts with no intrinsic worth, who struggle for power with no divine oversight, but who are able to create our own values. As Nietzsche contended, the most appropriate standard by which to rank these values is the aesthetic, not the moral one. Universal western morality is the creation of the early Christians, of conquered Jews who, in their resentment towards the more powerful Romans, articulated a myth to trap their oppressors. According to this myth, whatever helps the weak is right and whatever hurts them is wrong. What helps them chiefly is the Golden Rule that everyone should be treated as if they were the same, that people have rights just by being people, regardless of their personal weakness or social status, since rights flow from something other than natural ability. Instead of having the willpower and the strength of character to confront their world in an ennobling way, Christians delude themselves by trusting that animals aren’t driven mainly by their will to power. As a product of the creative will, Christian morality is ugly and ignoble, according to Nietzsche.

The amoral secularist affirms, instead, the sad truth of our belonging in the gloriously violent physical universe in which stars and whole galaxies are created and destroyed by the exercise of power, not by intelligence or benevolence. Hedges writes that the results of this secular affirmation are the cultures of the Übermensch and of the Last Man, which in our case are those of the power-intoxicated, financial and military oligarchs and of the passive, apathetic mob of debt slaves, respectively. The Wall Street titans, castigated by politicians and mocked by comedians for their amorality, are actually the Nietzschean heroes who understand and personally accept that with God’s death falls the whole monotheistic edifice, including morality. From a Nietzschean viewpoint, says Hedges, the ruthless and hedonistic oligarchs stand tall as impressive beasts, not just because of their vast wealth, but because of their creativity and their courage in living as though the world were so horrible that sociopaths such as them could come to dominate in it. From a scientific point of view, the world is indeed so horrible, and there’s no escaping that horror except by succumbing to some delusion or other, such as a stale monotheistic myth. (See Cosmicism.) But a delusion is just an aesthetically displeasing product of the imagination. By comparison, in its affirmation of natural life, Nietzsche’s myth of the glory of conquering heroes is an ennobling work of art.

Hyperrationality and the Two Cultures

The physicist and novelist C. P. Snow is famous in academic circles for distinguishing between the cultures of the arts and sciences. When he wrote on the two cultures in Britain, in 1959, academic scientists lacked the prestige of those in the arts or humanities, whereas now the situation is reversed, with English, philosophy, and other arts programs closing down in North American business-oriented colleges, and economists and other social scientists emulating physicists by attempting to quantify their subject matters. During the Scientific Revolution, Newton, Galileo, and other great scientists had to glorify reason in their war with the faith-governed Church, which was dominant at the time in Europe. Thus, as mathematician Mike Alder points out in his recent article, Newton’s Flaming Laser Sword, Newton laid out an austere scientific method according to which no statement should be accepted unless it’s directly testable or it follows logically from a testable statement. The skeptical philosopher David Hume zealously defended this empiricism, for the sake of his assault on intellectual elitism, going as far as to say that if a book contains statements that aren’t based either on observation or on logic, the book should be tossed into the flames. The philosopher Karl Popper took the main point of empiricism to be a falsification criterion of meaning: if there’s no way of showing how a statement could be proven false, the statement is at best pseudoscientific and cognitively worthless. Thus, all knowledge is derived from this broad scientific method.

To clarify some terms, empiricism is hyperrational compared to rationalism, or to the claim that reason arrives at fundamental truths without the use of observation or of logic, because the so-called rationalist contends that reason processes other inputs besides sensations, such as those from “intuition” or faith. According to the empiricist, intuitions and leaps of faith are unreliable, to say the least, and deductions on their basis, such as those in systematic theology, are pseudoscientific and ultimately irrational.

The Empiricist’s Disdain for Philosophy

Midway through twentieth century Anglo-American philosophy, this extreme empiricism was rejected as self-refuting. After all, the definition of empiricism itself is philosophical, not scientific or meaningful in the empiricist’s own terms. In their zest to champion science against the forces of irrationality, empiricists put forward an anti-philosophical philosophy so worshipful of science that it destroys itself, like Douglas Adams’ god that proves its own nonexistence and "promptly vanishes in a puff of logic.” But as Mike Alder points out, mathematicians and scientists still adhere to the spirit of empiricism and for that reason they loathe philosophy in particular. The problem with recent, so-called analytic philosophers, from this viewpoint, is that they pretend their discipline is serious and rational, whereas their philosophizing consists of time-wasting, fruitless word games that go nowhere. So-called postmodern philosophers merely waste time with word games as well, although instead of pretending to analyze concepts, they obfuscate with pompous rhetoric. At least the theologian openly declares her irrationality when she speaks of the need for faith and revelation, but the philosopher pretends to possess a form of rationality that stands apart from scientific methods. According to friends of empiricism, modern scientists showed what the rational search for knowledge is, so there is no rationality apart from gathering data from the senses, testing hypotheses to explain the data, and following the implications with mathematical logic. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Curse of Reason

Reason is a double-edged sword. Our abilities to model reality in our minds, to detach from our immediate sensations and experiment on mental representations, to apply abstract categories with language, and to think logically or holistically and so discover how our environment works, are largely why humans presently flourish. We’ve mastered much of the world because of our cognitive powers; indeed, the wonder of reason is the godlike power it places in a beast’s paws. But knowledge can be a blessing or a curse, depending on what there is to be known. As it turns out, we’ve learned that our naïve, anthropocentric preferences are mostly false. The universe doesn’t care about us; we’re not at the center of things; our ideals count for nothing in the cosmic cycles; we’re not immortal, nor as conscious, free, or even as rational as we assume when we childishly compare ourselves to a divine source of the whole natural universe. Reason makes us godlike but only compared to the unknowing beasts that struggle alongside us; we’re still beastly, given the potential for evolution of intelligent species over millions of years. 

How Reason makes Human Life Absurd

As the philosopher Thomas Nagel pointed out, reason makes life absurd in other ways. When we think objectively, seeing things as they are and not as we might wish them to be, we take up what he called a “view from nowhere.” We can view a situation more or less impersonally, ignoring our feelings and following the data or the logic wherever they lead. The danger in this is that we can view ourselves objectively as well, and when we do so it’s hard to avoid a destructive sense of irony. Take any highly specialized form of complexity, like a biological adaptation. The giraffe’s long neck makes sense from the giraffe’s limited perspective, but were the giraffe able to view itself dispassionately, from a neutral, non-giraffe viewpoint, it would surely regard its specialized neck as a ridiculous albatross. Granted, the adaptation enables the giraffe to survive by affording it access to highly-placed food, but the narrowness of that way of life simultaneously takes the giraffe out of countless other races. The further a species evolves in a single direction, the less flexible its members become and the more absurd their behaviour when they’re removed from their comfort zone.

Language and culture, too, become absurd when viewed by an outsider. The symbols that carry meaning to a speaker are so many noises or curious squiggles to anyone else. Taboos, rituals, and social conventions can appear as extravagant follies to anyone who isn’t invested in the culture. The rules of games or sports are relatively arbitrary and so the player’s strenuous exertions to follow them are comical: were the rules changed, the player would have to play the new game instead, rendering his or her earlier efforts meaningless. Relative to the perspective in which a set of rules matters, the game makes sense and fans can even become obsessed with a game’s vicissitudes. But someone who views a game objectively, from the position of nowhere in particular thereby prevents herself from identifying with its dynamics or its symbols. Instead of personal involvement, then, there’s ironic detachment and a sense of the futility of complex developments due to their narrowness and transience. Complex forms are often inflexible and thus unstable.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Should we Procreate to Honour our Ancestors?

There are at least three pressures to procreate. First, there’s the lure of pleasure from sex hormones that are released during sex. Humans have learned to control that pressure by separating the pleasure from procreation, with birth control techniques. Second, there’s a limited time in which reproduction is biologically feasible, so that if you’re interested in having children, you’re pressured to do so within only a certain number of years. To some extent, humans have learned to control this pressure too, by setting up infrastructures for child adoption or for raising children by the extended family. Plus, you may not be interested in having children in the first place.
Procreation and the River of DNA

But the third pressure pertains to that question of interest, although this pressure is so mind-shattering that it’s seldom consciously considered. Every animal is chemically connected to what the biologist Richard Dawkins, in his book River Out of Eden, calls a river of DNA that stretches back to the origin of life on this planet. This is to say that we’re each alive not just because of the obvious facts that our parents reproduced and that their parents did as well, but because a continuous stream of our ancestors did so, including the evolutionary ancestors of our species and the ancestors of those ancestral species, and so on back to the simplest sexually reproducing organisms. This is a biological fact rather than just a metaphor and the point isn’t merely the abstract one that humans descended from other species; rather, each one of us, and each animal currently alive, is alive only because that animal’s germ cells were produced by its parents’ sperm and egg, which themselves were produced by their germ cells, which in turn were produced by that animal’s grandparents' sperm and egg, and so on, going back countless generations and thousands and millions and billions of years. Each one of us, therefore, was literally produced indirectly by certain dinosaurs, for example, who stomped around on prehistoric Earth long enough to procreate.

The third pressure, then, is that when an animal fails to reproduce, for whatever reason, that failure is the termination of a multibillion-year-old chemical process that created millions of generations of creatures that necessarily succeeded in sexually reproducing. There’s the sense that although most of our ancestors, including our nonhuman ones, can’t know when we fail to pass their genetic material to a new generation, we nevertheless let them down when we fail in that regard, since we render their struggles ultimately inconsequential. When a person dies without reproducing and raising a child to be able to carry on the genetic legacy, the person is a dam blocking the river of DNA from flowing onward. Did the river flow for countless miles and for billions of years, through its dinosaurian and mammalian host organisms, only to be stopped by Joe Blow, who slips on a sidewalk and dies prematurely or, even worse, who chooses not to have children even when he has the resources to honour his ancestors’ victories by letting their river of DNA flow through him as well? There’s the feeling that life is precious and that if everyone ceased reproducing, ending life on this planet, the loss to the universe would be unfathomable. Thus, when even a single person takes a step towards realizing that possible lifeless future, by failing to procreate, the person sins against the sacredness of life.