an autodidact meets a dilettante…

‘Rise above yourself and grasp the world’ Archimedes – attribution

Posts Tagged ‘schizophrenia

on free will and libertarianism 2: character and punishment

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I hope I have dispelled two fallacies that have allowed the sciences of human nature to sow unnecessary fear. The first fallacy is that biological explanations corrode responsibility in a way that environmental explanations do not. The second fallacy is that causal explanations (both biological and environmental) corrode responsibility in a way that a belief in an uncaused will or soul does not.

Steven Pinker, ‘the fear of determinism’, from The blank slate

Canto: I’m currently reading Jane Goodall’s book Through a window, about the chimp communities in Tanzania observed and monitored by herself and her team over twenty-odd years – the hierarchies, the friendships, the brutalities, the shifting allegiances and the tragedies. It’s all very recognisable to me, a fellow primate – enough to bring tears to my eyes on occasion.

Jacinta: So we were talking about free will and all that.

Canto: Precisely. We don’t get to choose our species, or our parents, or in the case of chimps, our mothers in particular. Nor do we choose to get crippled by polio, pushed from a high tree-branch, or killed in infancy, for no apparent reason, by an enraged or jealous, or perhaps insane, adult female. Are these environmental or biological events? Does it really matter?

Jacinta: And if we survive them, they shape our character, is that your point?

Canto: Well, I’ve just reread a section of Steven Pinker’s The blank slate, which deals with what he considers our ‘unreasonable fear of determinism’, and it reminds me of what I found so unpalatable about certain academics’ disdain for the idea that determinism diminishes personal responsibility. Pinker, in this essay, reminds me of those typical sons of privilege who mock the ‘his genes/environment made him do it’ legal defence that lawyers sometimes use to get their clients off. I should remind Pinker and his ilk that most individuals who find themselves in legal trouble due to the environment they didn’t choose to grow up in can’t afford lawyers, so they usually don’t get a chance to make those arguments let alone win them. They have to throw themselves on the mercilessness of the court, whose bewigged officers make it clear which class they belong to and and are there to uphold.

Jacinta: So I take it that the above Pinker quote isn’t entirely kosher to you.

Canto: Yes, it’s bullshit. Pinker gives himself away with the examples he chooses to use. He mocks the environmental determinist ‘defence’ without coming remotely close to examining environmental determinism itself (which cannot, by the way, be disentangled from biological determinism, and I don’t find the distinction a particularly valid one). Instead he smugly recites a list of lawyerly tropes – ‘the abuse excuse, the Twinkie defence, black rage, pornography poisoning, societal sickness, media violence, rock lyrics’, etc, without showing a moment’s insight into the kinds of lives I saw around me while growing up, and which have been recounted by those lucky enough to survive, or by those who stood witness to the misery of others.

Jacinta: So your point is that the fallacies Pinker ‘identifies’ in the quote at the top of this post are not fallacies at all?

Canto: Well, my point is that Pinker oversimplifies the issue to a risible degree. Or rather, he doesn’t even address it. For example, he mocks ‘the abuse excuse’, as if abuse is an ‘excuse’ for something rather than a trauma with lifelong effects, depending on its intensity, its type, its duration and other variables including the enormously complex background against which it occurs. These events shape the very being of that person, pig, rat or butterfly. And yet Pinker has the chutzpah to claim that he and his white horse have ridden into view to dispel for us the ‘fallacy’ that such abuse corrodes any responsibility we have for our actions. Yeah, but… nah.

Jacinta: So what about this concept of responsibility? And how we relate it to crime and punishment. Can we really say that we’re not, or never, responsible for our actions?

Canto: I think we’re tricked into thinking we’re responsible by the felt complexity of our own thoughts. When we look at less complex animals – dogs, for example, or birds, we’re much less liable to attribute responsibility to their actions. So what’s the difference between those creatures and ourselves? Surely it’s only complexity.

Jacinta: And the fact that we can speak for ourselves – which is part of our complexity – and other creatures can’t. We can voice the claim that we were free to do otherwise, as no other creature can, as far as we know. But what does all this mean for apportioning blame and punishment? Is our court and justice system obsolete?

Canto: Well the justice system is, I suppose, designed to keep us safe from each other. You see this, again in a less complex way, with wild animals. I recall watching a video of pack animals, I can’t recall, maybe hyenas or wolves, in which the pack leader for some reason started behaving dysfunctionally – that’s to say, to the detriment of the pack. He was biting and wounding other pack members for no apparent reason. Eventually, it got too much, and the pack rose up against him, hurting him badly, and sending him to the back of the pack. From then on he behaved more like the runt of the litter, living off the scraps of the others. You see this sort of thing too, in gorilla and chimp groups. The group deals with the alpha male turned miscreant But if we can only agree on the evidence that free will is a myth, then we should be able to develop a far better justice system than the one we have.

Jacinta: How so?

Canto: Well, take one very toxic issue. Paedophilia. There’s at least one person I know well who has a kind of zero tolerance, ‘worst of the worst’ attitude to serial paedophiles, and simply doesn’t want to hear any kind of free will argument that might ‘exonerate’ them. It’s easy to understand this attitude being held by a victim whose life has been seriously damaged by a paedophile, and as we know, they’re a favourite tabloid newspaper villain. But, as has been pointed out by Sam Harris among others, arguments that paedophiles are the worst of the worst and are incorrigible, ‘never to be released’, are essentially arguments for a lack of free will. If they can never be ‘corrected’, how can they be held responsible for their ‘incorrectness’ in the first place? It follows that ‘punishment’ for such people not only doesn’t work, but is unfair. A justice system should of course be about protecting people from the malpractices of the minority, but surely it needs to be accompanied or tied up with an understanding of how these malpractices arise, and how to fix them.

Jacinta: Do you think serial paedophilia is fixable?

Canto: I have no idea, but I’m saying that should be the aim. To take a simpler example, I don’t know if a broken diff in a car is fixable (I don’t even know what that is), but I don’t see why it wouldn’t be, and if it can be fixed obviously it should be. As Robert Sapolsky points out, we’ve fixed schizophrenia largely with medications, and knowing more than one schizophrenic as I do, that has improved their lives massively.

Jacinta: Okay, so maybe that’s enough about free will for now. There’s another kind of freedom that’s been in the air for decades, and that’s political freedom – freedom from the tyranny of Big Government. It has generally gone by the name ‘libertarianism’. I suppose that if there’s no free will, that kind of freedom doesn’t even get out of the starting gate?

Canto: Well political libertarianism brings up a whole different set of issues, though clearly it’s dependent on and assumes free will. But we’ll leave all that for next time.

Written by stewart henderson

February 10, 2022 at 7:51 pm

discussing mental health and illness

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Canto: I’ve been told I’m on the autism spectrum, by someone who’s not on it, presumably, but who’s also not an expert on such things, but I’m not sure who is.

Jacinta: Well of course we’re all on the autism spectrum, it depends on your location on it, I suppose, if you need to worry. ‘You’re sick’ is one of the oldest lines of abuse, but I’m reminded of a passage in The moral landscape, which I’m currently rereading. He describes a funny-but-not-so-funny piece of research by one D L Rosenhan:

… in which he and seven confederates had themselves committed to psychiatric hospitals in five different states in an effort to determine whether mental health professionals could detect the presence of the sane among the mentally ill. In order to get committed, each researcher complained of hearing a voice repeating the words ’empty’, ‘hollow and ‘thud’. Beyond that, each behaved perfectly normally. Upon winning admission to the psychiatric ward, the pseudo-patients stopped complaining of their symptoms and immediately sought to convince the doctors, nurses and staff that they felt fine and were fit to be released. This proved surprisingly difficult. While these genuinely sane patients wanted to leave the hospital, repeatedly declared that they experienced no symptoms, and became ‘paragons of cooperation’, their average length of hospitalisation was 19 days (ranging from 7 to 52 days), during which they were bombarded with an astounding range of powerful drugs (which they discreetly deposited in the toilet. None were pronounced healthy. Each was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of schizophrenia ‘in remission’ (with the exception of one who received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder). Interestingly, while the doctors, nurses and staff were apparently blind to the presence of normal people on the ward, actual mental patients frequently remarked on the obvious sanity of the researchers, saying things like ‘You’re not crazy – you’re a journalist’.

S. Harris, The moral landscape, p142

Canto: Well, that’s a fascinating story, but let’s get skeptical. Has that study been replicated? We know how rarely that happens. And there are quite a few other questions worth asking. Wouldn’t most of the staff etc have been primed to assume these patients had a genuine mental illness? And surely only a small percentage would have had the authority to make a decision either way. Who exactly had them committed, what was the process, and what was the relationship between those doing the diagnosis and those engaging in treatment and daily care? Was there any fudging on the part of the pseudo-patients (who were apparently also the researchers) in order to prove their point (which presumably was that mental illness can be easily shammed)? And wouldn’t you expect other patients, many of whom wouldn’t believe in their own mental problems, to be supportive of the sanity of those around them?

Jacinta: Okay, those are some valid points, but are you prepared to accept that a lot of these mental conditions, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder (the name speaks volumes), attention deficit disorder, narcissistic whatever disorder and so on, are a little flakey around the edges?

Canto: Maybe, but with solid centres I’m sure. Depression is probably the most common of those mental conditions, and too much skepticism on that count could obviously lead to disaster. Take the case of South Korea, which has one of the highest suicide rates in the world. There appears to be a nationwide skepticism about mental health issues there, which clashes with high stress levels to create a crisis of care. Professional help is rarely sought and isn’t widely available. It raises the question of the value of skepticism in some areas.

Jacinta: I wonder if the rapid advances in neurophysiology can help us here. Mental health is all about the brain. In the above quote, the pseudo-patients were mostly diagnosed with schizophrenia. That’s surprising. In my naïveté I would’ve thought there was a neurological test for schizophrenia by now.

Canto: Well, the experiment described in The moral landscape dates from the early seventies, but currently there’s still no diagnostic test for schizophrenia based on the brain itself, it’s all about such symptoms as specific delusions and hallucinations, which could still be shammed I suppose, if anyone wanted to. But what about borderline personality disorder – I was told recently that it’s very real, in spite of the name.

Jacinta: Well, there appears to be a mystery about the causes, and a general confusion about the symptoms, which seem to be rather wide-ranging – though I suppose if a patient displays several of them you can safely conclude that she’s stark staring bonkers.

Canto: Yes that’s a thing about mental illness, quite seriously. You don’t need to be an expert to notice when people are behaving in a way that’s detrimental to themselves and others, especially if it’s a sharp deviation from previous behaviour. And if it’s a slow descent, as quite often depression can be, it’s harder to pick from that person’s standard lugubrious personality, so to speak. And in the end, maybe the labelling isn’t so important as the help and the treatment. But then, people love a label – they want to know precisely what’s wrong with them.

Jacinta: I suppose the difficulty with mental illness and labelling, as opposed to labelling other more ‘physical’ illnesses or injuries, is the near-ineffable complexity of the brain. For example, I notice that among the symptoms of borderline personality disorder are apparent behaviours that don’t really cohere in any way. This site places the symptom of uncertainty and indecisiveness along with extreme risk-taking and impulsiveness, and then there is fear of abandonment, and other odd behaviours which seem to head in different directions, seeming to have one thing alone in common – being extreme or abnormal.

Canto: Yes, again, behaviour that tends to harm the self or others.

Jacinta: At the moment, I think there are still too few connections between neurology and psychiatry and the treatment of mental illness, though it’s a matter of enormous complexity. I had thought, for example, that the role of the neurotransmitter dopamine was essential to our understanding of schizophrenia, but more recent research has found that the neurochemistry of the condition involves many other factors, including glutamate, GABA, acetylcholine and serotonin. There’s so much more work to be done. But we also need to be very aware of the social and cultural conditions that tip people over the edge into mental illness. Changes in the way our brain is functioning might be seen as proximal causes of an increase in depression and suicide, but it’s more likely that the ultimate causes have to do with the stresses that particular organisations, societies and cultures impose upon us.

Written by stewart henderson

June 30, 2019 at 12:45 pm