I have been writing this blog for the past three years. The primary concepts are scattered throughout the blog, and I thought it might be helpful to draw together the essential underlying concepts in one post. Some of this repeats material covered under the individual “diagnoses,” and for this I apologize to my regular readers, but the notion that there are no mental illnesses (which I repeat regularly) is unorthodox and warrants clarification.
Until relatively recent times, man’s understanding of biology was minimal to zero. Even as science began to unravel the secrets of nature in the inanimate sphere, the biological arena remained largely a closed book
Now, as we know, the human brain is a pattern-seeking machine. It craves explanations in the same way that an empty stomach craves food. So when a person is confronted with a situation or phenomenon that he doesn’t understand, there is a strong temptation to invent an explanation, and then – unfortunately – to cling to that theory even as better explanations become available.
So, with regard to biology, to the ancients just about everything concerning life was a mystery. But they were particularly baffled by cognitive phenomena. How can a person carry inside himself a picture of another person? How can a person sleeping in his bed somehow “visit” other places in his dreams and “see” people who are far away or even dead? And so on.
The state of science at this time was rudimentary in the extreme, and even the best thinkers had not the slightest inkling as to how these kinds of activities are possible. So in the best human tradition, they invented explanations. Man can see, hear, etc., because he has the faculty of sensation. Man can think because he has a mind. Man can make decisions because he has a will. And so on.
Now as an explanatory system, this kind of faculty psychology is useless. Imagine the following conversation between one of the ancient Greek teachers and a student.
Student: Why can man think?
Teacher: Because he has a mind.
Student: How do you know he has a mind?
Teacher: Because he can think!
The concept of mind is a spurious artifact created to allay man’s anxiety with regards to his ignorance, but providing nothing in the way of genuine explanation. There are no minds! What we think of as our minds are actually activities, such as thinking, deciding, hoping, perceiving, analyzing, etc.. When we introspect, what we encounter is the content of these activities. If, for instance, I’m thinking about a triangle – I “see” a triangle. If I’m thinking about the house I grew up in, what I “see” is a “picture” or “pictures” of that house. One of the mental abilities that we’ve got is the ability to generate “pictures” in our heads, and most of our thinking involves examining and manipulating these pictures, usually with the help of silent speech.
But even though there are no minds, the concept persists. Some of this is due to language. Expressions like “changing one’s mind,” “speaking one’s mind,” etc., are deeply ingrained, and create the impression in growing children that the mind is an entity within us, ontologically equivalent to the heart or liver.
There are numerous examples in history of spurious explanatory concepts that have been supplanted by valid science. Many of these ideas persisted even after better explanations had been developed. Perhaps the most celebrated example is phlogiston. From earliest times man has wondered about the nature of fire, and various speculative notions were developed. The ancient Greeks regarded fire as one of the basic “elements.” In the 1600’s, however, a concerted effort was made by a number of scientists to develop a coherent, scientifically validated theory of combustion, the result of which was the phlogiston theory. The hypothesis here was that combustible material contained a substance called phlogiston. When the object was heated, the phlogiston began to be released. This created more heat which in turn released more phlogiston, and so on, until all the phlogiston in the object was consumed. Objects that contained no phlogiston were non-flammable.
The theory had some superficial plausibility, but there were numerous problems. Initially scientists tried to prop up the phlogiston theory in ways reminiscent of Ptolemy’s epicycles. But eventually the modern theory of combustion (by oxidation) was developed, and the phlogiston theory was discarded. Many older scientists, however, (including the eminent Joseph Priestly, the discoverer of oxygen!) clung stubbornly to the older theory.
Witchcraft is another example of a spurious explanatory concept. The presenting issue here was the fact that bad things happen. People get sick; babies die; crops fail, etc.. Today most of these occurrences can be explained satisfactorily as the result of invasion by germs, fungi, etc.., but in former times these concepts were unknown. The “hungry” brains, however, obligingly invented an explanation: Witchcraft! The idea was that certain individuals in the area (usually unpopular women) had established a pact with the devil and were able to effect the various mischiefs in question by channeling the latter gentleman’s power more or less at will. The notion is nonsense, of course. There are no witches, and there are no devils – but the concept was used for hundreds of years as an excuse for murdering women. Incredible as it seems, remnants of witchcraft thinking can be found even today!
In the same way, the spurious concept of mind persists to this day, enshrined in speech and routinely adduced to explain people’s behavior. One can readily recognize conversations like the following:
Q. Why did he do it?
A: His mind just snapped.
Q: Why didn’t he get married?
A: He just changed his mind.
The spurious nature of these answers can be readily unmasked by applying the circularity acid test – how do you know his mind snapped? And how do you know he just changed his mind?
The concept of mind adds nothing to our understanding of human existence. There are no minds. Mind is an outdated concept invented by primitive pre-scientific people in an attempt to explain cognitive phenomena.
In medieval times, little distinction was drawn between people who today would be called retarded and those who today would be called crazy or psychotic. Also, little distinction was made between those who are born with intellectual deficits and those who acquire cognitive/behavioral problems as a result of post-developmental brain injury. All of these individuals were considered to be “out of their minds” or demented.
In primitive agrarian societies these individuals, if they survived infancy, were cared for by family and neighbors, but as the Industrial Revolution lured increasing numbers of people into the growing towns and cities, this simple kind of family/village care became more problematic. The practice of housing these individuals in jails and institutions became common, and the conditions were often truly appalling.
The various reform movements of the 1800’s resulted in the construction of large asylums. The idea was to provide care for these people in clean, well-designed buildings under medical supervision, in the hope that this would help the inmates develop their potential, or at the very least provide a more humane environment in which they could live.
As the decades passed, however, it became clear that the dreams of the reformers were not being realized, and in particular the notion that medical supervision would significantly “humanize” treatment became increasingly tenuous.
In the 50’s and 60’s there arose a great push to discharge people from the asylums and help them integrate into mainstream society.
Meanwhile concepts were being developed, the most notable of which was the idea of “mental illness.” It was recognized that broadly speaking there were two distinct groups of inmates: those whose intelligence was clearly restricted (whom today are called retarded) and the rest. Because the asylums had been placed under medical supervision, the latter group came to be thought of as “mentally ill.” Of course there are no minds and there are no sicknesses of the mind, but the term caught on and in practice it meant: a person who is in a mental asylum and who isn’t retarded.
Just as the witchcraft business spawned “research” into the causes, varieties, and indicators of this phenomenon, so the “mental illness” enterprise attracted its share of students. At first the findings were rudimentary and global. It was noticed, for instance, that there were three kinds of “mental illness:” depression, mania, and craziness, but as the twentieth century advanced, these categorizations became increasingly complex and detailed.
And today we have DSM-IV, with the promise of DSM 5 just around the corner. The proliferation of these so-called illnesses and the avid promotion of these “diagnoses” by pharmaceutical companies and by the psychiatric profession have led us to the point where it is widely claimed that 46% of the population has or has had a mental illness, and mood-altering drugs are being routinely prescribed to more and more people for an ever-increasing range of ordinary human problems.
The fact is that there are no mental illnesses. The notion is as senseless as the concept of witchcraft, and yet through the miracles of modern marketing, it has become the foundation of a multi-billion dollar world-wide business. Now when I say there are no mental illnesses, I’m not saying that people don’t have behavioral/emotional problems. It’s obvious that many people do, and that these are sometimes very serious. But they are best conceptualized – not as some kind of poorly-defined illness – but simply as dysfunctional, counter-productive habits.
Genuine understanding of human behavior requires so much more than assigning a spurious label. I have developed this concept at length in the posts on the individual “diagnoses.”
The use of the DSM “diagnoses” is not only logically spurious, it is also destructive, in that the application of the label provides subtle encouragement for people to act in accordance with the “requirements” of the label. (“What more can you expect of me; I have schizophrenia.”). The labels also discourage attempts to find genuine explanations for dysfunctional behavior.