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The Science of the Mind

It was good to read Paul C. Vitz’s article about “psychology in recovery” (March 2005). Important things are going on today in psychology, and the positive psychology movement is a breath of fresh air.

I do take exception, however, to a few of Dr. Vitz’s arguments. Are neurosciences really the “hard” sciences Dr. Vitz makes them out to be? From a purely organic point of view, and using the current computer metaphor, scientists do not understand memory, cognition, or the mind. Though the brain might be “harder” than the mind, does Dr. Vitz suggest that the probing and prodding of something tangible like the brain is somehow an improvement?

Dr. Vitz makes another curious assertion when he says the discipline of psychology has become more modest because of the new successes of psychiatry and the biological sciences. He bases this argument on the fact that “today people suffering from depression, obsessions, and many other psychological problems take medication, which tends to be more effective, immediate, and cheaper than long-term therapy.”

Such an argument, however, is clearly not based on the facts, at least as one might gauge them from recent medical journals. There is the ongoing controversy about the effectiveness of medications when compared to active placebos. Moreover, many forms of psychosocial therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy, have been found in many cases to be as, or more, effective than pharmacological therapies.

And then there are all those nasty side effects. If anything, the true effectiveness of biopsychiatry has been in convincing us that we should take seriously and invest billions in what amounts to a very dubious program.

What is more worrying, though, is the disease-mongering encroachment of biopsychiatry into the realm of problems of living. Pharmaceutical companies and biopsychiatry have been attempting to seduce us with the notion that there is a magic pill for whatever ails the human body or mind. The modest effectiveness and the harmful side effects of most of these “lifestyle medications” leave little doubt that such a strategy will be deleterious to individuals. And the social costs to civil society will also be immense, as more and more problems of living are interpreted as being “caused” by genetic, organic, chemical, or physiological dysfunctions”rather than by the loss of self-discipline and the virtues rediscovered by positive psychology. The victim mentality, which seems to be one of the pernicious side effects of radical individualism, is fueled by a biopsychiatry that provides new “scientific” reasons for irresponsibility.

This new positive psychology does not seem to be the reaction of a field trying to reestablish legitimacy in the face of the “triumphs” of biopsychiatry but rather an offensive against perversions associated with the ever-expanding influence of the medical-curative paradigm. If anything, positive psychology is a welcome tonic against the tiresome claims of the field of psychopathology. It will be particularly salutary because it allows us to discourse again about self-discipline, self-mastery, and maybe even the exercise of the will.

Raymond Lemay
Executive Director
Services to Children and Adults
Plantagenet, Ontario

Paul C. Vitz replies:

I appreciate Mr. Lemay’s challenges to my portrayal of contemporary psychology. But neuroscience does seem to be a “hard science”: it uses traditional scientific methods such as measuring change in electrical potential, its genuine findings can be replicated, and it shows systematic development over time. Like most scientific disciplines, neuroscience has its serious controversies over how to understand many of its findings. But this does not invalidate its scientific status.

Still, as I noted, the scientific character of neuroscience does not mean that the theoretical interpretations of the mind proposed by various neuroscientists are equally valid. It is well known that such interpretations commonly involve various philosophical assumptions, the truth of which lies outside science.

I believe one important reason for the more humble attitude of contemporary psychology has been the growth of biological applications to mental illness”which is to say, medications. Try to recall the dominance of psychological interpretations in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In those years, obsessive-compulsive disorder and autism were still commonly seen as psychological in origin”and thus treated almost exclusively by psychotherapy. (Obsessive-compulsive disorder was viewed by many as a result of early toilet training procedures, and autism as the result of some failure of mothering.) I can remember when everything from allergies and asthma to migraine headaches was routinely interpreted as psychological in origin. We now know that many such conditions are biological in origin.

Mr. Lemay raises the issue of the recent over-extension of the biological model. Here I agree with him wholeheartedly. Psychology has likely retreated too far, and prescription of psychological medications shows signs of overuse. Many negative side-effects have already been identified; others will no doubt emerge in the future. One important psychological side effect”mentioned by Mr. Lemay”is the loss of personal responsibility that results from seeing all of life’s problems as occasions for a biological fix. Here we are in agreement that the “new” positive psychology is an encouraging sign of a return to an appreciation of the importance of self-discipline and responsibility through an emphasis on the virtues.

Disaster and the Divine

David B. Hart has missed the mark with his short apologetic, “Tsunami and Theodicy” (March 2005). Not only does he wash his hands of the offense of evil in this world, but to avoid the implications of Providence, he also skips from answering the problem of evil to eschatological sentiments about Jesus wiping the tears from the eyes of Dostoyevsky’s excrement-eating girl. The effect is unsatisfactory.

“Suffering and death, considered in themselves, have no ultimate meaning at all,” Hart says. But only a Platonist could consider these things “in themselves.” All suffering and death are part of a narrative”in fact, the Narrative. Without the story, they are nothing”like a hole in a shirt, without the shirt to surround it. And although they are in themselves nothing, and as such can benefit no one, when played out in the drama of Creation, Fall, and Redemption, they can facilitate goodness, beauty, and truth. Everywhere Easter emerges from Good Friday.

Hart is skeptical that others will profit from the demise of the tsunami victims. And certainly the benefit of others does not justify the evil of the loss. But won’t others benefit? Aren’t they already? Certainly acts of benevolence are now being visited on countries previously forgotten by the West. Food, shelter, care, medicine, prayer, infrastructure-building, and hope are all being helicoptered into Asia and Africa. A megaphone has sounded for their blessing. No eternal harmony necessitated the tsunami suffering, but God can take the chromatic noise of suffering and make a melody.

And what about us? Hart says, “our position is charity,” which is true. Charity is needed precisely because there is evil in the world. Provision must have been made within fallen Creation for us also to make melodies of the poor scales of suffering: to co-create goodness from them.

Naturally, Hart disagrees with Aquinas that all things will be justified in an ultimate synthesis, yet he never declares what will be done about all this suffering and death. If it has “no ultimate meaning,” then nothing needs to be justified. However, if it has ultimate existential significance, and cannot with a clear conscience be reconciled with a good God, then what could be done? Jesus can take away the girl’s tears, but what about her former suffering? Hart never steps forward to answer this dread question, and neither has any theodicy which I have read. Job is probably the only one who could provide us with an answer.

Jonathan David Price
The Clarion Review
Ashburn, Virginia

David B. Hart replies:

I fear that Mr. Price has failed to follow my argument, which may be my fault; but as he also repeats certain logical errors that I denounced in my piece (as when he confuses the order of ontological priority between charity and evil), I can scarcely concede many of his points. I submit also that he is a bit shaky in his understanding of Platonism.

I never suggested that good will not emerge from evil, or that no good will follow in the aftermath of what happened in the Indian Ocean. I merely pointed out that this good is the result of saving providence, that suffering and death are not necessary conditions of God’s purposes for his creatures but the consequence of sin, and that Christ came to overthrow evil, not to legitimate it. That is to say, I was making a simple and necessary distinction between a Christian doctrine of transcendent providence and any kind of dialectical teleology. It is because he has misunderstood this distinction that Mr. Price mistakenly believes that I disagree with Aquinas rather than with, say, Hegel. Aquinas nowhere speaks of history’s “synthesis,” nor did he have much patience for the notion that God is the true author of evil.

As I was at pains to point out, the final question Mr. Price poses is a “dread question” only if indeed one ascribes the origin of evil to God, as part of His plan for His creatures. Since I for one do not believe this to be the case, the biblical answer to suffering, death, and evil seems to me eminently satisfying: They are to be destroyed as things alien and damnable to God, from which He will”in an act of infinite victory”save His creation, to glorify it with that glory He intended for it from before the foundation of the world.

Not So Fast

In “To Fast Again” (March 2005), Eamon Duffy refers favorably to the statement the bishops of the United States issued while lifting the mandatory abstinence from meat on Fridays. In that document, the bishops had a cautionary word for the great majority of Catholics who, they anticipated, would maintain the traditional discipline. They were told not to look down on those few who would seek out alternative penances.

Within a week, however, you were hard pressed to find a Catholic anywhere in the United States without a hot dog in hand on Friday. You would have been equally hard pressed to discover what alternative penance they were practicing.

Never underestimate the undermining influence a changing culture can have on tradition.

Bob Lockwood
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

Duel over Dualism Continued

In “Dualistic Delusions” (February 2005), Patrick Lee and Robert P. George present a thoughtful discussion of my New York Times op-ed piece. They agree that body-soul dualism is both widespread and mistaken, but they disagree with me about much else. They suggest, for instance, that it is abortion advocates who assume a mistaken body-soul dualism, even though they “smugly conclude that science is on their side.”

This would be ironic, but actually, as I discuss in my book Descartes’ Baby , just about everyone believes in body-soul dualism. Devout Christians, who are more likely to oppose abortion, tend to be particularly explicit about this view. Most believe, for instance, that when they die, their souls will leave their bodies and rise to Heaven. Profs. Lee and George’s own pro-life position does not rest on body-soul dualism, but they are mistaken when they assume that this is true for others.

Profs. Lee and George also worry that if science showed that conceptual thought and free choice are brain processes, it would mean there is only a superficial difference between humans and other animals, and this in turn would undermine the norms against eating, killing, and enslaving humans.

I don’t see how any of this follows. If the scientific consensus is correct, it would mean that humans are not unique by dint of possessing a soul. But we may well be unique in some other way, such as possessing the capacity for language or abstract reasoning or emotional suffering.

Put this way, human uniqueness is an empirical issue, not an a priori one. Some other creature might turn out to share such properties with humans. But this discovery would not give us license to do terrible things to people. On the contrary, I would hope that Lee and George would agree with me that if a chimpanzee turned out to possess the intelligence and emotions of a human child, it would be wrong to eat, kill, or enslave it.

Paul Bloom
New Haven, Connecticut

Lee and George reply:

We are grateful to Prof. Bloom for his letter, and we are happy to engage the important issues he raises.

One argument of ours that he does not address is our defense of the proposition that the life of an individual human person begins at conception. But in reporting our claim he uses an inaccurate and prejudicial expression, one that we are, in fact, careful to avoid. We did not speak of a “fertilized egg.” That is a misnomer. After fertilization the egg ceases to be (just as the sperm penetrating the egg ceases to be) and what then exists is a whole (though immature), distinct, individual human organismnew member of the human species.

In his second paragraph, Prof. Bloom speaks of body- soul dualism. But we argued against body- self dualism, and pointed out that advocates of abortion often resort (usually implicitly) to body-self dualism when they identify the person with a consciousness somehow associated with the body, rather than with the living human animal that the human person is identical with. (This resort to body-self dualism reared its head recently once again in the controversy over Terri Schiavo. The claim made by some was that Mrs. Schiavo the person was no longer present even though the human being she had been for over forty-one years was undeniably still alive.)

Prof. Bloom claims that, though our pro-life position is not based on dualism, that of many other Christians is. But this is confused. No one ’s belief that the life of a human individual begins at conception can be based on body- self dualism since such dualism (as we pointed out) lends no support to that belief. Prof. Bloom also ignores our point that the distinction between soul and body”philosophically defended by Aristotle, taught by Judaism and Christianity, and defended briefly in our article”is logically irrelevant to the specific issue of when personal human life begins. Since we are essentially human organisms, whenever the human organism begins, we begin, whether we have rational souls as aspects of ourselves or not.

Prof. Bloom is also mistaken when he says that most Christians believe “that when they die, their souls will leave their bodies and rise to Heaven.” In fact, most Christians believe it is presumption to be absolutely certain their souls will immediately go to Heaven. The belief that their souls survive death”a belief we hold and briefly defended in our article”is not the same as identifying the person with the soul, which was the doctrine we were concerned to refute. Our claim was that the person is neither the body alone nor the soul alone. The person is a unity of body and soul.

Prof. Bloom is right to point out that someone can believe that mental acts are just brain processes but at the same time hold that (perhaps because of free choice) we are different in kind from other animals. Our point was that if all of our actions, including what seem to be free choices and exercises of conceptual thought, are just the result of the interactions of lower material forces, then what we do and what we are does not appear to be different in kind from what any other animal does or is.

One may, of course, deny this position on the basis of faith”as do some Christian materialists. Prof. Bloom himself does not seem to have the option of faith as a way out, and so his position”that humans do differ from other animals because of language or abstract thought, and yet such processes are simply the results of purely physical processes”seems ungrounded and possibly incoherent. (Bloom is right that the question of which animals are rational is empirical, and thus not something to be determined a priori . The evidence indicates that chimpanzees lack true conceptual thought or free choice, but if we discovered an animal or extraterrestrial creature that did have genuine capacity for conceptual thought and free choice, then such rational animals would have the same basic rights as humans.)

Prof. Bloom also claims that the first part of his thesis (that human beings are not unique by reason of possessing a rational soul) is “the scientific consensus.” But that ignores a central argument in our article: Empirical science says nothing one way or the other about immaterial realities such as souls. Science neither affirms nor denies the existence of a rational soul, since its objects are physical, chemical, or strictly biological changes. Long ago, G.K. Chesterton noted that science said nothing one way or the other about sin or immortality: “When people say that science has shaken their faith in immortality, what do they mean? Did they think that immortality was a gas?” Similarly, we might ask, what did Prof. Bloom think a rational soul is supposed to be if he thought a “consensus” of science disturbed it?

Talking About Torture

Torture, the inflicting of excruciating pain, is a direct attack on the integrity of the body. Everyone possesses the right of immunity from assault in order to live humanly. This right is analogous to the right one has not to be deprived of the sense of sight. Thus, the act of torture is always and everywhere immoral. Richard John Neuhaus (Public Square, March 2005) appropriately asks: “Does the duty to protect thousands of innocent lives override the duty not to torture?” The reply should be in the negative. An intrinsically immoral act is never permissible, not matter what physical good it may occasion.

The policy of our government to shoot down hijacked airplanes, also mentioned by Fr. Neuhaus, requires a review of the principle of double effect. According to traditional morality, a person must verify several conditions before performing an action that results in two effects, one good and the other evil. In this instance, the passengers and crew are killed; the targeted victims of the terrorists are saved.

To solve this problem, we must determine whether or not certain conditions are met. Natural law ethicists point out that, first of all, the act itself must be good or indifferent theoretically. To destroy a plane-become-a-bomb is not an intrinsically evil act. And in this case, the evil effect certainly does not produce the good effect. The deaths of the travelers on the commercial jet is not what safeguards the terrorists’ intended victims. It is, rather, the elimination of the airplane that thwarts the murderers.

Obviously, neither the government nor the Air Force pilot who pulls the trigger intends the death of the innocent people on the commercial flight. Finally, the total effects of the action”good and evil”must at least counterbalance one another. Indeed, the evil effect must not outweigh the good produced. This condition requires a most carefully formed, prudential judgment. Human lives are at stake. On September 11, the two commercial airplanes carried perhaps 280 persons. About 2,800 people died at the World Trade Center. On that heartrending day, the government’s policy would have fulfilled the fourth condition of the principle of the double effect.

(The Rev.) Kenneth F. Slattery, C.M.
St. John’s University
New York, New York

Richard John Neuhaus’ reiteration of his firm rejection of torture is most welcome, as is his call for more serious Christian theological assessments of torture. Fr. Neuhaus’ comments would have been strengthened, however, if, instead of focusing on “ticking bomb” scenarios and the “quandaries” that torturers face, he had engaged the extensive literature that argues that torture is often used, not for the purpose of obtaining information, but as a means of inscribing the power of the state on the bodies of those its agents torture. William Cavanaugh’s important study Torture and Eucharist is extremely helpful in this regard.

Alain Epp Weaver
Amman, Jordan

What Secular Means

Reading Richard John Neuhaus’ comments on Christian Smith’s “secularization theory” (Public Square, March 2005), I wonder about equating secularization with the “exclusion of religion from our public life” or “agitation for a naked public square.”

“Secular” is a positive term, a theological construct actually. It is the human world of being with its own final cause in time, the common good. The word “secular” also alludes to the moral call to homo faber to share in the divine providential ordering of creation. When this happens it is God’s own glory that is manifested, His created purposes for the world having been reached. “Secular,’ with its traditional theological legitimacy reaching back to Gelasius’ theory of the “two swords” of legitimate power and even to Christ’s call for justice to Caesar and to God, is a word we need. It helps us to distinguish between the very real sacred and secular horizons of social existence.

“Secularization” is also a positive term. It refers to an historical exigency that, as Peter Berger explained in The Sacred Canopy , began with the de-divinization of nature, which left the concrete word in which we actually live out our lives free to be explored by science and free human creative agency. The connotations of the Hebrew word mitzvot capture the possibilities revealed with secularization: God left a little bit of good to be done in creating the world; it is our moral task to do it. Secularization has historically revealed this divine call.

What Fr. Neuhaus needs is the word “secularism,” to describe the new social reality that corrupted the positive value of secularization. Secularism is the collective non-religious consciousness of modern society. It regards the practical denial of God as the attitude a society should take as the basis of its mediating institutions and government. It is a sense of godlessness that has become a part of common attitudes of the general population.

Macon Boczek
Novelty, Ohio

RJN replies:

Of course Macon Boczek is right about the dignity and integrity of the secular. My comments, however, followed Christian Smith in his book The Secular Revolution , who addressed secularization in the common usage, meaning the exclusion of religion from public life.