Saturday, June 9, 2012

Does “Natural” Always Mean Right?

Or, Does Nature Really Know Best?

People rationalize, excuse, and justify all kinds of actions based on how seemingly “natural” it is or not. As society uses the term, this implies that any failure and especially refusal to follow certain “natural” impulses or doing “unnatural” things is weird, stupid, disgraceful, or even outright evil.  True, these impulses may be natural in origin, no doubt the product of the reptilian-side of the brain that they are. Even so, those impulses aren’t designed so much to help us find out the truth as they are to help us prolong our living existence – a significant part of which involves seeking social acceptability, at least in most cases and to one extent / degree or another.  The impulse for social acceptance does a lot to help us either avoid, combat, or endure unpleasant situations. 

Combined with our strong instinct to live as long as possible (i.e. the survival instinct(s)) it seems humans as a whole will seek truth only to the extent that they either (a) help prolong our existence or (b) are pleasurable for their own sakes.  It’s also the case that we often willfully disregard truth-seeking if that truth holds great promise for challenging our cherished beliefs, perhaps especially our definitions of “natural behavior”.  In short, most humans find truth-seeking pleasant only to the extent that it helps us survive and – combined with our social needs, themselves evolved as it provides weak creatures such as ourselves an important survival advantage – whether it conforms to the desires of the group or a certain segment (usually upper-class) thereof.

Unfortunately for our animal-instinct-based impulsive thoughts, just because something may help us survive does not mean that it is the deepest ultimate truth – it merely means it’s true to the extent that awareness of that truth helps an organism avoid unpleasant and especially dangerous situations.

Where it concerns nature being a source of truth, many truths of nature and “natural” human behavior  are so repugnant that the behavior’s only defenders could be either moral nihilists or something close to it. Examples are theft, deliberate deceit, and spousal / child abuse.  We can also add prejudice to the list of our natural impulses (e.g. racism, sexism, homophobia).   Yet, the greater society condemns all these behaviors because they are highly disruptive to the greater public good and even our own interpersonal relations with members of the targeted groups.  This damages the very trust upon which modern society’s highly complex social arrangements depends, and therefore many natural behaviors in general can hurt society’s security and prosperity of even the wealthiest nations.   Therefore, we as a society decided that such “natural behaviors” are highly inappropriate (not that society condoning them proves those behaviors are legitimate).

The truth is the claims like “Nature knows best”, “Nature knows X” is just an anthropomorphism – attributing human qualities to non-human objects, a category error of logic. Nature (true nature - ultimately just the laws of chemistry, physics, and mathematics and little else when you get down to it) cannot know anything. It’s simply a kind of machine - simply doing what it does what it does without any thought on its part whatsoever; just as an internal combustion engine does what it does while it’s in operation.  Only conscious, self-aware entities can know anything.  

Unlike most natural creatures, humans can question nature.  It also allows us – to a degree – to discern what is the case from what ought to be the case (though there’s a lot of debate about the latter especially). It also allows us the gift of foresight – letting us see the long-term dangers of our actions and practices even if they are beneficial in the short-term.  Humans can also overrule their instincts to a degree considerably greater than other animals can, for we are wise enough to discern that new ways of doing things may yield superior results despite the fact that so far in living experience (human or otherwise), no such behavior has been recorded in nature.  We can also see that the old ways of doing things, even well-established ones, can create great inefficiencies in societal operation and general progress.

Therefore, our animal-based impulses, themselves of natural origin, are not necessarily practical guides for everyday living in a post-hunter-gather phase and especially not in a technology-oriented one.  Our very ways of making a living are radically different from even human hunter-gatherers despite the common needs of people at both levels of development.  Therefore it follows that the traits needed for surviving and thriving are going to be radically different.  This alone renders our animal-based impulses obsolete at best and hostile to our well-being at worst – so long as we remain living in societies with the technology to maintain any civilization worthy of the name.

In the end, insisting that “nature knows best” (or, more accurately, the meaning we derive from nature’s acts), at least in areas of human behavior or social relations, is a regressive mentality. For to do so is to imply that humans have no more capacity for high-level though than wild animals.  To say this clearly goes against not only thousands of years of progress we made beyond our wild cousins, but against the fact that humans throughout history strove to beat back the threats nature hurls our way (i.e. beat nature itself).  That is what history shows is the most naturally human thing to do.

What is "Sanity"? Why Accept Our Definition of it?

Is the definition of sanity arbitrary or independent of societal opinions of what a person ought to be?

For example, if everyone alive barring you thought they had the spirit of the Archangel Gabriel within them, what right would you have to call yourself sane and others insane? The Soviets declared 'anti-Socialist' behavior a mental disorder. What gives us the right to condemn the USSR for such practices? What's the difference between the Soviet practice and our usual practice of considering someone possessed of Gabriel insane?

Also, is having any mental disorder enough to keep you from having sound mind and will"? Also, what constitutes a sound mind and will, and what criteria do you use to determine it?"

The wikipedia entry, IMO, is a fairly good starting point. Basically it says that the scientific method can shed light of what is meant by sanity independent of societal perceptions

From Wikipedia: Sanity 

 From Sanity (wikipedia entry)

A theory of sanity was proposed by Alfred Korzybski in his general semantics. He believed that sanity was tied to the structural fit or lack of it between our reactions to the world and what is actually going on in the world. He expressed this notion in a map-territory analogy: "A map is not the territory it represents, but, if correct, it has a "similar structure" to the territory, which accounts for its usefulness."[1] Given that science continually seeks to adjust its theories structurally to fit the facts, i.e., adjusts its maps to fit the territory, and thus advances more rapidly than any other field, he believed that the key to understanding sanity would be found in the study of the methods of science (and the study of structure as revealed by science). The adoption of a scientific outlook and attitude of continual adjustment by the individual toward his or her assumptions was the way, so he claimed. In other words, there were "factors of sanity to be found in the physico-mathematical methods of science."

Psychiatrist Philip S. Graven suggested the term "un-sane" to describe a condition that is not exactly insane, but not quite sane either.[2]

In The Sane Society, published in 1955, psychologist Erich Fromm proposed that, not just individuals, but entire societies "may be lacking in sanity". Fromm argued that one of the most deceptive features of social life involves "consensual validation."[3]:

“ It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth... Just as there is a folie à deux there is a folie à millions. The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.[4] 

And then there's Michel Foucalt

 Genre History (299 pp.)

Keywords Communication, Cross-Cultural Issues, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Freedom, History of Medicine, History of Science, Hospitalization, Hysteria, Institutionalization, Law and Medicine, Literary Theory, Medical Advances, Mental Illness, Poverty, Power Relations, Psychiatry, Psychotherapy, Public Health, Society


A severe synopsis of Foucault's first major work might show how Foucault charts the journey of the mad from liberty and discourse to confinement and silence and how this is signposted by the exercise of power. He starts in the epoch when madness was an "undifferentiated experience" (ix), a time when the mad roamed the countryside in "an easy wandering existence" (8); Foucault shows the historical and cultural developments that lead to "that other form of madness, by which men, in an act of sovereign reason, confine their neighbors" (ix), challenging the optimism of William Tuke and Phillipe Pinel's "liberation" of the mad and problematizing the genesis of psychiatry, a "monologue of reason about madness" (xi).

Central to this is the notion of confinement as a meaningful exercise. Foucault's history explains how the mad came first to be confined; how they became identified as confined due to moral and economic factors that determined those who ought to be confined; how they became perceived as dangerous through their confinement, partly by way of atavistic identification with the lepers whose place they had come to occupy; how they were "liberated" by Pinel and Tuke, but in their liberation remained confined, both physically in asylums and in the designation of being mad; and how this confinement subsequently became enacted in the figure of the psychiatrist, whose practice is "a certain moral tactic contemporary with the end of the eighteenth century, preserved in the rites of the asylum life, and overlaid by the myths of positivism." Science and medicine, notably, come in at the later stages, as practices "elaborated once this division" between the mad and the sane has been made (ix).


This history is one of Foucault's most fascinating explorations of the relationship between knowledge and power. It would be simplistic to say that an exercise of power is then justified by a body of knowledge which forgets how it is related to that exercise of power, but that is one message that can be derived from Foucault's project here: the role of discourses, imaginary figures, political and economic developments, all play a role in organizing the relationships between people, power, and knowledge.

Says Foucault: "the essential thing is that the enterprise did not proceed from observation to the construction of explanatory images; that on the contrary, the images assured the initial role of synthesis, that their organizing force made possible a structure of perception, in which at last the symptoms could attain their significant value and be organized as the visible presence of truth" (135). This could be a criticism of psychiatry, of science, or of Foucault's project itself.

The book provides a deeply challenging portrait of madness and, Foucault argues, the loss of madness as a voice in dialogue with reason: although many psychologists, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts may argue that the analyst's couch (or chair, etc) has allowed this voice to return, they might want to consider Foucault's provocative arguments to the contrary, that the Freudian development of therapeutic listening was, though a return of sorts to listening to madness, nevertheless undertaken under such circumstances and in such a relationship that it "can unravel some of the forms of madness [but] it remains a stranger to the sovereign enterprise of unreason. It can neither liberate nor transcribe, nor most certainly explain, what is essential in this enterprise" (278).

As he will do in Birth of the Clinic, Foucault watches men describe other men and women, and sees how their observations begin to take a shape recognizable to us today: but this is not "because in the course of centuries we have learned 'to open our eyes' to real symptoms; it is not because we have purified our perception to the point of transparency: it is because in the experience of madness, these concepts were organized around certain qualitative themes that lent them their unity, gave them their significant coherence, made them finally perceptible" (130). This is a challenging book for psychologists, psychiatrists, and other physicians, and is a gauntlet thrown that few have chosen to take up.

Publisher Random House

Edition 1988 (Vintage)
Place Published New York
Miscellaneous First Published in the United States by Pantheon Books in 1965, and in France as Histoire de la Folie in 1961 by Librarie Plon 

Maybe I’m misreading Foucalt, but it sounds like he’s asserting that “sanity” is enforcement of societal and/or elite expectations of what a person ought to be and/or assumptions of what “proper mental health” is, then misusing the scientific method to define what sanity is – namely by assuming the societal and/or elite definitions are the only proper foundation on which to build, then building psychiatry’s whole superstructure on that foundation.

From another angle, there seems to be both arbitrary and objective definitions of sanity, which I find agreeable. In fact, sanity seems to be more of a legal term than a scientific one. Still, to repeat what I said earlier,  I think the scientific method of discerning the truth of a situation is a pretty objective standard. What that means is that if a person uses the scientific method to interpret the facts he or she comes across, and they are independently confirmable, then that signals a sound mind.

Even within the scientific method, we still have to ask how many gross mistakes in perception and interpretation they make. If you ask me, a good general rule is this: the more simple the fact or relationship, the more a gross error in perception or judgment will count towards insanity. For example, claiming you are, in fact, the POTUS when you clearly are not definitely counts for insanity. If you say you have a good chance to be POTUS when you clearly have little to no chance of getting elected, then you may close to the edge. On the other hand, if a highly ambitious politician thinks to him or herself  "I deserve to sit in the Oval Office because I'm more right than POTUS is and therefore can administer the country better", we probably won't consider the politician insane - although we'd consider him or her an egotistical fool. However, the best litmus tests I can think of are:

(a) whether their cognitive processes and self-awareness of who they are are strikingly out of touch with reality, and
(b) the degree of emotional control or self-discipline they have in interpersonal interactions (i.e. no consistent history of emotional reactions common knowledge says are well outside the boundaries of legal behavior).

Of these, I think (a) is more important, although no violations of (a) and several violations of (b) are are at least fairly likely symptomatic of a personality disorder (an entirely separate category from insanity).

Nevertheless, I find it difficult to disagree that one of society's eternal dangers concerning individual freedom and dignity concerns developing too broad or too narrow a definition of sanity - namely "behavior highly outside the norm". Some definitions would cover some of the greatest authors, writers, musicians, artists, etc. (although greatness itself doesn't not immunize one from insanity).

In the end, the definition of sanity can't help but be at least partially arbitrary, especially for the qualitative traits (as opposed to quantitative ones).  Even so, I think that any definition of sanity must start from how a person's mind processes objective (i.e. falsifiable and confirmable) facts and data about reality. Certainly this is more important than the definition based on collective society's mere say-so.

Lonely Vs. Alone - Which Are You?

Finally over another dry spell of blogging - at least for now.  For some reason, these things just come and go for me. It reminds me of a painting I saw at a small but good art museum in Louisiana several years ago - a painting of an art studio with all the artist's paraphernalia and such. In that painting is a desk with a flipover notebook on top, flipped open to a page on which the artist scribbled "The Magic Knows What It Wants To Do".  I took from that "the magic" flows in and out like a tide, or perhaps over long periods ice age glacial periods  That's exactly how I am about blogging, apparently.

Anyway, on to the topic in the title, but with some background first.

The Set-Up

Almost everyone has a need on some level for social connections, for they satisfy some in-born need to communicate and even connect to other people somehow.  If you ask me, it probably evolved due two needs (a) resource acquisition and (b) protection from predators.  In both cases, more people means more success at both endeavors.  Ten people in a group means ten times more eyes, feet, hands, and (perhaps most important) brains and other information to gather new food and other resources.  It also allowed faster spread of new ideas that helped widen the gap between the group's present position and starvation. A similar story for defense against predators and human competitors. In both cases, the grand new inventions of the basket and the bola could spread more rapidly among large groups than small ones (understand I'm not saying how this did happen, but I'd argue it over a light lunch or beer - or on a blog).

Yet, there are some people who have little to no real social connections with others,whether obvious or not. The most extreme instance of such people are those with a condition psychiatrists call Schizoid Personality Disorder. Despite the name simliarity, it has nothing to do with schizophrenia.  The chief difference between these two is that schizophrenics often have drastically distorted perceptions of reality, or likewise equally drastic delusions, illusions and/or paranoia.  By contrast, the schizoid's fundamental perceptions of reality are quite sound.  They may even lack obvious behavioral quirks or oddities, and what strangeness they may have is no more drastic than minor to moderate behavioral or affective quirks (i.e. basically a harmless eccentric and little more, if anything else at all).   The only significant difference between a schizoid  and a "normal" person is that they prefer to be alone, or at least see no real point in socializing with others too frequently; even if their capacity for day-to-day interpersonal functioning is clearly within the "normal" or "acceptable" range.

Lonely vs Alone

There's a difference between being lonely and being alone. Lonely means to feel on the outside looking in, so to speak, and wanting to be on the inside. Alone is simply that - by yourself and nothing more. I'm alone, but not lonely. The reason is that I found that exploring ideas and speculating about the nature of things offers a lot of emotional fulfillment without any of the downsides of being in a social group (gossiping, peer pressure to be all this and all that, social group politics and drama, etc.). 

Some may argue that I'm missing the up-side of socializing - good times, great fun, having a sense of belonging, being part of an "acceptable" group, getting out on the town, etc.  However, this assumes my own definitions of these labels match those of mainstream society (i.e. at least 90% of all people).  There's another problem with urging me to look at the up-side of socializing: While it does not - in a strict logical sense - have to follow from their claims that they think I ought to remake my definitions so as to conform to mainstream society's, in the real world of day-to-day human relations this is usually the case.

On the first count, my definitions of good times, great fun, having a sense of belonging, being part of an "acceptable" group, getting out on the town, etc have little to no overlap with mainstream society's. Certainly any overlap between my and the mainstream are so little they barely qualify as a commonality, if at all. The second count - that my definitions ought to match the mainstream's - is presumptuous at best and outright contempt for my authentic personality at worst.  In fact, this is simply another form of mere peer pressure - assuming that anybody non-mainstream in even a moderate way has something wrong with them.

They may truly believe they are trying to help admitted introverts like me, but what they can't see is that mainstream society's definition's of "normal" and saying you ought to be "normal" (by no means limited to in socializing habits) are just some kind of cultural bureaucracy that, if adhered to, stifle individuality, creativity, and the human spirit just as surely as real-world government bureaucracies can easily stifle initiative, decisiveness, innovation and entrepreneurship.  The analogy holds especially well with people who are frankly bored by the mainstream-most 90% of the world.

So in a real sense, not being a highly social person (although I can be quite sociable among mainstream social groups when I feel like it) is actually a blessing: it gives me a great freedom to do my own thing without this "be like the in-crowd and keep up with the Joneses or be dissed" attitude that deeply pervades so much of society. Also, being alone means I have a lot of freedom to do whatever I want. Likewise, it gives me more time to explore whatever ideas my imagination concocts and my own personal potential without worrying about what others think. Not only do I actually learn more about the world, I'm also more freethinking as a result. The very quality of my thought improves with being alone to think for myself.

All this is orders of magnitude easier today thanks to the internet. Even without the internet, it's always good to read a good book or magazine though.

Don't get the wrong idea.  There are plenty of "mainstream" people I do like, and plenty more that I don't dislike. It's just that on the deepest ultimate level I don't feel any deep connection with most of them, and I'm not upset about it. I just live my own life as I want to and whatever happens as a consequence of my being alone - well, it happens.