Archive for March, 2007

Be ye transformed by the renewing of….your brain? (II)

So, in an effort to do anything but my paper for the Sermon on The Mount class, I’ll finish out part two of my mind/body/drugs blog. Here I’ll aim to mention, with some detail, ideas I have about how the mind and brain interact. These ideas sprouted from my recent experiences of introspecting while on Celexa, one of the most popular antidepressants perscribed today.

Following are some of my ideas and observations that seem reasonable to me that would effect how we think of the mind’s relationship to the body:

1. Our emotions most often involve a PHYSICAL feeling and a relevant mental state (most often a belief). For instance, if I seem extraordinarily happy or sad (the feeling) when you see me, you’re likely to wonder (or ask, if you’re genuinely interested in me) what’s going on in my life and, accordingly, what’s going on in my head (the mental state).

2. The beliefs most often (if not always) precede and seem to cause the feelings. So, if you ask why I am happy, I may say something like “I just found out I was accepted to the UC Boulder summer philosophy program” (I haven’t yet, but I’d appreciate your prayers). You would almost certainly assume that this event (my acceptance) preceded my good feeling and was also somehow the cause of it.

3. An emotion then is a combination between a mental state (such as a belief) and an accompanying feeling that is dependent upon this mental state.

4. People can often have feelings that are not connected to mental states but brain states. These physical feelings are real and can be as crippling (no dopamine or seratonin in the brain) or exuberant (lots of THC in your system from pot or a spike in other hormones) as the feelings linked to the beliefs. It is the feelings that are the part of the emotion we normally try to deal with today.

5. People can also have mental states that should, but fail to, produce physical feelings.

So what are the implications of this?

For one, since I am first suggesting that the part of our emotions that we feel are actually physical states, that needs to be wrestled with I think. My reasons for thinking this are many. First, our language is pretty suggestive – we say we FEEL sad and happy. Second, I often experience emotions without any clear link to a belief or thought; I just feel bad. And third, I can actually feel it in my body when I’m very sad or happy. It’s often in my stomach or chest that I feel the pain or gladness – and every culture has some link between emotions and body parts. The hebrews said kidneys and liver, we say heart, etc….
So if the part of the emotions that we feel are actually physical, but are most often caused by mental states, then the best solution is obviously not physical, since that is just an effect of a belief.

Second, I have a suggestion about what the roles of the brain and mind are in the context of emotions. Since I don’t think that anonymous feelings linked to no belief or thought are not genuine emotions, and bad thoughts to which we are numb aren’t either, they don’t figure in here. So, it could be that I have, in my mind, a system of beliefs (a noetic structure or worldview), and a ladder of values that some of these beliefs fit on that show their importance to me (my beliefs about football are exquisitely low on the ladder, while my beliefs about the wrongness of adultery are very high) and my mind does all my thinking and dealing with these beliefs, only interacting with my body, using my brain as a contact point, when these valued beliefs warrant interaction with the physical world. So an emotion then would occur when my mind encounters a belief (or maybe a thought) that is pretty important to me and seems to have some sort of bearing on my life, my mind then has my brain produce an appropriate physical state that I can sense ( beacause, no matter how important reasoning is, most of my life is saturated with info from my five senses) and my mind relates the intense physical state (that yucky feeling in your stomach when you’re embarassed, or the light, free floating feeling when you’re overjoyed) with my belief. This relating provides me with a very tangible reason to act and move. If I feel hot and agitated by a belief I have about my neighbor having stolen my lawn mower, I will be internally incouraged to go confront him about it. This physical feeling shows me my value system that is otherwise (possibly) unknowable. It seems that if no one ever felt anything no one would ever do anything either, regardless of their beliefs. If you couldn’t feel that angry feeling, you’d probably be much less likely to do anything about it.

So, when we have emotions we need to figure out what beliefs or thoughts or ideas they’re linked to. If after much introspection and even counseling we find no link, then we are not obligated to entertain or act on it. We can simply call it stupid and go about our business probably still feeling it, but with the confidence that it doen’t own us. This actually helps over time to alleviate the pain very significantly because we can feel it, and go on knowing not to dwell on it. If we do however find a link to a belief we need to ask if the belief is true. If not we need to find the truth regarding whatever the belief was and adopt that. If it is true we need to ask if we’ve given appropriate weight to it. If you find yourself on the brink of killing someone over a football game ending unfairly, though your belief about it’s fairness may be true, you’ve obviously given far too much weight to your beliefs about football, because it’s just a game. Here is where prayer comes in. When we locate true, but inappropriately weighted beliefs we should ask our Father to move them to a healthy spot for us, and help us only entertain them at such a level. (The same goes for inappropriately low beliefs such as apathy about genocide in africa or starving homeless people)

If I am even close to all this, it will be a powerful step toward being a whole, aware, functional person, and such things are wonderful.

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Words that heal…and rouse…

Emiy Dickinson has a way of packing so much into so little. This poem, simply titled “III”, came to me like kind words from an old friend, or medicine, or a battle cry.

Soul, wilt thou toss again?
By just such a hazard
Hundreds have lost, indeed,
But tens have won an all.

Angels’ breathless ballot
Lingers to record thee;
Imps in eager caucus
Raffle for my soul.

Read it five or more times very slowly and it unfolds like a flower. I hope that I will one day produce something of such great quality.

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A Tricky Problem with Utilitarianism…(or, Maybe Jack Bauer’s Not So Great After All)

[utilitarianism is a view that generally holds that what is right is whatever brings about the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, whereas deontological ethics holds that goodness, or what is right, consists in following certain preestablished rules, and virtue ethics holds that goodness is somehow rooted in the character of the person]

From the conversations that I’ve had with friends of mine, watching political debate on tv, and observing the situations that characters face in film, it seems like utilitarian ethics is pretty much the norm. Jack Bauer is a pretty hardcore utilitarian in his best moments (or what the show would have you believe to be his best moments), and often I hear the president being criticized from a utilitarian standpoint when a deontologist could have ample ground to be supprtive of whatever action he’s taking the heat for.

Since utilitarianism seems largely to form the moral undercurrent in the minds of many modern people, it seems especially important to give the system a good think-through. The foundational principle behind utilitarianism is its assertion that /whatever brings about the greatest happiness (most often defined as physical pleasure) most evenly distributed for the greatest number of people is what is right/. Now, even if one is the stictest rule-following Christian on the planet, utilitarian reasoning is going to play into your moral choices at one point or another – even if you disagree with the utilitarian about the nature of goodness. Certainly, where no specific rule seems to apply, but utilitarian reasoning would lend a hand, we adopt that line of thought. For instance if you were given a billion dollars to distribute however you want, I can think of no established rule of law or decree of God that would tell you how to handle the cash, but most of us wouln’t go that far to find an answer. Most of us would instantly engage in utilitarian reasoning, and would end up giving the money to the largest, neediest group we could find that would still be small enough for each individual to recieve a significant portion of the fund. We wouldn’t think it wise to grab the first homeless guy and hand him the whole billion, and we wouldn’t send a check for sixteen cents to every person on the planet. We would try to “maximize utility” as the ethicists say.

So utilitarian reasoning, on its own, isn’t all that bad it seems, but I’ve been thinking over utilitarianism as a complete normative system, and I’m thinking that it might have some serious flaws, and possibly one fatal one.

Utilitarianism first suffers from some semi-hairy complications because it has a funny tendency to force you to deny your (or at least my) moral intuitions in certain situations. For instance, utilitarianism would tell you that maxamizing utility is the right thing to do even if there were a situation where raping someone or framing someone for a crime would meet that end. Any system that tries to get me to deny my intuitions at least earns a more thorough investigation before I consider it further. But the utilitarian may be able to flesh his system out in such a way that he avoids those criticisms. My big question that I haven’t seen addressed in the literature, is the question of why one OUGHT to be a utilitarian. (the caps will make sense momentarily).

Any time you talk about oughtness you’ve moved into the realm of ethics, unless you’re using “ought” to mean “what I have reason to expect” such as when someone says “if you flip that switch, the light ought to come on”. We don’t mean that there is some transcendental normative principle that conferrs actual oughtness on the light switch in such a way that it is morally deficient if it fails to make the lights come on. We’re saying something less than that, something akin to the fact that we have every reason to believe the lights are wired correctly and, according to our best thinking on the situation, when the light switch is flipped, it will very likely produce light.

We’re saying something much different when we say that people OUGHT to be compassionate to the brokenhearted, or that one OUGHT not to molest children. We’re not talking about probablistic expectations as with the light switch. We’re talking about some moral fabric of our being that demands certain actions or qualities from us that without which we are deeply defective. This is why we are apalled at the child molester, but only mildly surprised (and at best annoyed) by the defective light switch.

So, we’ve delineated these two types of oughts. One deals in probablistic expectations, and the other with the fabric of our being. So to get on to my point, consider the proposition /that one ought to be a utilitarian/. Is this proposition true under utilitarian assumptions?

Well let’s interpret it in light of our two sorts of oughtness. The first interpretation yields the new proposition /that according to the current understanding of things, one can expect one to be a utilitarian/ . Maybe I can phrase that better, but it’s three am and you can certainly get the point here. Any way you phrase it, I don’t think that it even amounts to a very important statement. I’m not even sure it means anything. For starters, whose best knowledge/current understanding are we talking about? From whose mind are we harvesting the information for our probability calculation? Mine? God’s? The platonic bank of all true propositions? It’s not clear, and whichever source you use it’s certainly possible that you’re going to come up with different answers. Even if you go with the most objective one, you’ve chosen an inaccessable bank of information. Who knows what God knows? And, assuming you could come up with some verifiable, relevant information – even all of the relevant information – what would that matter for ethics? Utilitarianism would amount to a probability calculation, and who cares if they disappoint a probability theorist? Not me. Under this interpretation, we have no reason to react any differently to the child molester than to the defective light switch.

So, discarding that interpretation, lets move on to the second, stronger understanding of oughtness. This interpretation yields the proposition /that there is an actual, moral requirement upon one to be a utilitarian/. Phrase it however strongly or weakly you like, but I think there’s a pretty sticky problem here for the utilitarian. Utilitarianism, if it is claiming to be a complete, exhaustive ethical system must account for every normative claim that fits under this form of oughtness. That is, every genuine moral ought that is not a probability expectation must be explained by an ethical system if it wants to be taken seriously. No system can seriously claim to be the foundation for goodness if it acknowledges a normative principle but can’t explain it.

So what in utilitarianism justifies the claim that one ought to be utilitarian? Since the only major claim that utilitarianism clearly makes is that one ought to maxamize utility, it seems left floating in the air without justification. Utilitarianism isn’t devoted to any metaphysics per se, so it can’t easily appeal to claims about God or the essential nature of moral agents to justify its claim about the nature of the good. And any attempt to justify itself by appealing to its utility principle is hopelessly circular. No thinking person will be satisfied with the claim that one ought to adopt the maximization of utility as the basis of goodness on the grounds that doing so will maximize utility! That amounts to utilitarianism asking you to make an intial, fideistic commitment to pleasure/happiness as the greatest and most valuable end of our actions without justification (or at least without justification provided by the system).

While utilitarian reasoning is certainly valuable, the system itself is seriously lacking since it can’t even make the claim that you should be a utilitarian. It seems to me that, in light of this, the other ethical schools of deontological ethics and virtue ethics are much more viable candidates, especially for the christian. Whereas utilitarianism has trouble grounding itself, the disciple of Christ has the law of God to appeal to in support of deontology, and the character of Christ which is virtue in essence.

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Be ye transformed by the renewing of….your brain? (I)

Lately I’ve been putting a lot of thought into questions about the relationship and difference (if there is one) between the body and the soul, and specifically between the brain and the mind. Most Christians believe something close to the idea that humans are an immaterial soul that inhabits a material body. Most of us see our bodies as something like a vehicle for our souls. Our souls “get in” or are developed within our bodies as they develop in the womb, we live our lives out in the material world through our material bodies, and at death we are separated from our bodies, which are inserted into the ground as we make our way into God’s presence. At the resurrection we will be given new, imperishable bodies which our sould will inhabit for all of eternity.

This position, the classical Xian position, is called substance dualism – we are composed of two (that’s the “dualism”) things (substances): a body and a soul.

Now I’m not sure I’m totally sold on this view, but I think my thoughts on how these two things relate would hold on most views, so I’ll get on to what I’m really wanting to talk about.

As I said, this has been on my mind a lot lately….no pun intended. It seems like at least a slightly important thing to ask – what am I? One particularly important question to me has been the question of how my mind and my brain interact with each other. Is it a one-way thing where my mind tells my brain what to do? (I.e. does my mind somehow command my brain to move my arm, and my brain follows the command by firing a certain trail of synapses to contract my muscles and tendons causing my arm to move?) Or is there a two way interaction? Can my immaterial, unintelligent brain cause my mind to do anything? Think about that for a minute. If (certain versions of) substance dualism is true, your brain is as unintelligent as a rock and has no more life than a tree or a fungus. It’s just an assortment of organic tissue like a kidney or a lichen. It just has the special priveledge of being used by your brain as the steering wheel for your body.

Some eyebrows may get a raise here, but most christians I know would still be on board at this point. Here’s the puzzle though: It seems to be almost unanimouly agreed upon by scientists that your brain states can effect your mental states, or at least correlate with them. Most christians think this too it seems. Lets take a look at exactly why that’s possibly problematic.

First we need to understand the difference between a mental state and a brain state. Remember now, the widely accepted idea in christianity is that our minds and our brains are not the same thing. Our minds are a feature of our soul. They are immaterial. Our brains are the lumps of soggy, grey, organic tissue cradled inside our skulls. So a mental state would be a state held by the mind such as holding a belief, questioning, having an idea, dreaming, experiencing an emotion, fantasizing, etc. A brain state, by contrast would be a physical state such as there being a certain level of dopamine in the brain, a hightened level of electric emmission in the frontal lobe, a certain level of seratonin, or the firing of synapses. So, under the normal conception of body-and-soul substance dualism, brain states aren’t mental states. They’re just not the same thing.

So why is it then that, when people find themselves in certain undesirable mental states, such as depression, the first solution often considered is to start fiddling with brain states by using chemicals like antidepressants? More significantly, why is it that it (at least seems to be) effective? This may seem like a pretty impractical question, but it’s really not at all. You see, the modern scientific belief about what goes on in our brain being able to effect what goes on in our mind is founded on a more foundational belief about what we are. Most scientists who believe that the brain can effect the mind do so because they believe that the brain IS the mind. That is, they hold that we are nothing more than a body. The logical conclusion is that, since brain and mind are the same thing, all of our mental states are just physical brain states, and if we have a peskily persisting undesirable mental state that we want to get rid of, we can do so if we only figure out what chemicals to pump into the pudgy ball of grey spaghetti in our head.

***WARNING TO READER: The following is in no way intended to incite pathetic pity or empty concern from others. Neither would be appreciated by the author.***

So, I was put on antidepressants a week ago. The reason is that I pretty regularly find myself in strong, painful, persisting mental states – beliefs about myself, beliefs about what other people believe aboue me, and emotions that accompany them. What makes them additionally painful is that I semi-consciously return to them on a regular basis, and cannot will myself out of them.

I decided that, since my doctor is a Christian and an intelligent person, and if for no other reason than to conduct in an interesting subjective experiment and have even temporary relief from these mental states, I would give them a try. After four days on them, tonight I flushed them down the toilet. Why? Because they were totally impotent to effect my mental states. I took them and, as far as I can interpret my experience, what they did was keep me from feeling pain, pleasure, or anything at all with intensity. But, behind the misty veil of emotional apathy, my mental states were totally unaffected. I still held the same beliefs, repeated the same chains of thought, and had the same negative views. The only difference was that they didn’t hurt any more. I wasn’t healed. I was numbed. From my experience with the drugs (Celexa) I’ve definitely had to rethink, and reformulate how I think about the mind and the body. This reformulation isn’t just a lofty chain of abstractions. It has serious, practical consequences. I’ll be trying to hash them out in the next blog, but, for the time being at least ponder this:

If the goal of the Christian life is to become a whole, aware person who is functioning as he/she was intended to function, and if we are body and soul, how do we respond to deep depression and other mental illnesses?

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