a fuller description of the foregoing
An exploration of Fear, Moral Illiteracy & Hope.
the Wittgenstein Fallacy
Uncertainty & emotion.
Uncertainty, meaning & the Ethan Dilemma.
Uncertainty & life.
hope and an optimistic theory of mind
my theory of mind
reliable foundations for peace of mind and for a peaceful world.
in sum – the good, the bad and the future.
Frank Furedi’s grasp of the significance of fear in his book “Culture of Fear”, is magnificent. Psychiatry, my own speciality, is currently bankrupt – for the simple reason that the emotion of fear has become unmentionable. Those who assert, as I do, that fear plays the central role in human mental pathology incur a quasi religious professional excommunication, impervious even to the lure of a cast iron remedy for irrationality and proven cures for the old psychiatric bugbears of psychosis and psychopathy. It is therefore a palpable relief to read Frank’s determination to hunt down even the smallest political manifestations of this most potent of all human emotions. Where Frank has pursued fear in the broader social and political sphere, I have sought to apply a similar persistence in tracing its roots in the individual and personal, with the particular aim of uncovering its philosophical underpinnings.
It is no coincidence that Frank extends his scrutiny to our widespread moral illiteracy – not only on an individual level, but throughout society, extending of course to asinine government policy. Further, he laments the dearth of intellectuals, whose task is to peer through the impending gloom with uncommon perspicacity, so avoiding some of the grosser strategic mismanagements with which we are currently burdened. What I can contribute to this topic is a reliable, soundly based clinical approach – not only to the individual symptoms which cause so much grief, but to the wider social, even philosophical tenets, which currently allow so much arrant nonsense to prevail.
Frank Furedi is surely correct in his assessment of the proliferation of fear. In my view, fear is the master emotion – it takes priority over all the others. This is especially manifest in the media – as a recent study of Hollywood pointed out – every year, the acceptable limits of films or video are pushed ever wider. Just as the Roman Coliseum demanded more excess this year than last, so today’s media becomes ever grosser in pursuit of ‘ratings’ and marketability. There is even competition for the first real murder to be shown ‘live’ – where are we heading? what are we coming to? Whatever happened to responsibility? We relish the phenomenal increase in electronic communications, satellites now flood our world with full colour video. But if this is mere exploitation by the dissemination of fear, if it ‘entertains’ by promoting brutalisation, by amplifying our fears and horrors – how can we avoid a similar demise to the Romans? Persistent irresponsibility on this scale ensures we share it.
Fear makes people sit up, it grabs their attention – as Frank graphically illustrates with so many political examples. Curiously enough, this diversion of attention occurs at the individual level too. In my study of individual responses to trauma, it became ever clearer that imaginary fears play a crucial role here too – just as Frank notes they do politically. Much to my surprise, I found that some traumas, especially those in early infancy, continue to evoke massive fear long after the original threat has vanished. And this residue of fear has even more serious consequences on the individual scale, than on the political. The reason is simple – if the attention is diverted fiercely enough, such as occurs in ‘blind panics’, then rational thought degrades into irrationality – the one human flaw that may, on a political scale, prove our undoing.
My diagnosis of our current nihilism relates to the mismanagement of text, to our gross misperception of the stability of text-based data, together with the preponderance of wishful thinking used to repair the obvious textual discrepancies which inevitably arise. I use the term diagnosis in a strictly clinical sense – this is not merely metaphorical, but an assertion that the best way out of our increasingly painful dilemma is to adopt precisely the same approach as a doctor does at the bedside. There are profound and ineradicable reasons why in vitro differs so radically from in vivo – that is to say, we may be more intellectually comfortable with what we can observe or achieve in the laboratory or test-tube, but in reality we all live in the outside world, in life as it is lived – and where, unless we are more responsible we shall all live less gloriously than we otherwise might.
The word ‘clinic’ derives from the Greek ‘bed’ – which implies that you have to make do with what you have got in the real world, not with what you have been taught is the case, nor what you would very much like to be the case. There are splendid medical aphorisms which cover this point. William Osler succinctly observed that seeing patients without reading books is like going to sea without charts, but reading books without seeing patients is never to go to sea at all. In other words: you need to know the textbook (or ‘the literature’) well enough to know that what’s in front of you, isn’t necessarily in it. And however “advanced” we may become, however speedy our computers may grow – this will never change – it’s a fixture – something we need to adapt to right away, if we wish to get on.
Text has a place – but unless it is kept firmly in its place, the gloom thickens. Before reviewing Wittgenstein, who shows up this pathology more clearly than most, it might be encouraging to glimpse what a ‘cure’ might look like. Moral literacy implies that some ways of behaving are better than others – surely a self-evident assertion. For my part, I advocate responsibility as the key ethical standard, which derives its authority from living processes, as explored below. Other key concepts such as values, meanings, indeed choice and purpose currently languish because they are too imprecise or ‘unscientific’ to be taken seriously in academe. All these matter greatly in everyday life. My personal selection is Truth, Trust and Consent, which again have a sound pragmatic basis, because these are vital for mental and indeed social health and stability. The recent credit crunch painfully highlights the monetary ‘value’ of trust and the social costs of deceit. The point is that if these positive values could again be considered legitimate subjects for rational, scientific exploration, then we would surely cultivate clearer intellectual blue-prints, and thereafter garner more peaceful and secure outcomes.
Ludwig Wittgenstein was a failed aeronautical engineer who had been severely traumatised in the trenches of Kaiser Wilhelm’s war. It is remarkable how deeply he managed to dominate so much of twentieth century philosophy. Bleak, uninspiring and in A J Ayer’s 1978 phrase “totally false”, Wittgenstein set the paradigm for our current scientific ‘concretist’ ethos which fails so lamentably to clarify items as indefinable and subjective as emotion, let alone ‘value’ or ‘meaning’ – even the Victorians did better.
The key phrase which sums up “the whole meaning” of Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1922) appears in the preface, and reads in English – “What can be said at all can be said clearly ; and whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent”. The German is even starker – “Was sich ueberhaupt sagen laesst, laesst sich klar sagen; und wovon man nicht reden kann, darueber muss man schweigen”. This last word is especially harsh – the phrase directed at unruly school boys “sitzen Sie und schweigen Sie” is unmistakable – “sit down and shut up” – peremptory, authoritarian and allowing no exceptions. Indeed Wittgenstein explicitly sets out to “draw a limit to thinking”. What a travesty of real life – in practice, almost the exact opposite is true – what really matters most, is easily strangled by being too tightly defined verbally, while the real bliss of thinking is precisely its limitlessness – hard to capture, vital to keep free.
Wittgenstein’s folly can immediately by demonstrated by applying it to pain. Pain is utterly indefinable, except tautologically – it can never be weighed, measured, bottled or counted – it represents the very essence of subjectivity. I may sympathise with your toothache, but I can only ever feel my own. If, at Wittgenstein’s behest, we declared ‘pain’ to be anathema on the grounds that it can never be defined ‘clearly’, then the entire medical profession would at a stroke, be reduced to the level of the veterinarian. Closer to home, this unhappy consequence has already tragically befallen contemporary psychiatry – here the excluded item is not pain, but, as mentioned, its nearest mental equivalent – fear. The two show remarkable similarities – both are there to give warning of impending damage or disaster, and both can run on long after the ‘warning’ has any relevance. By anathematising fear, today’s psychiatry suffers a triple whammy. What the sufferer says or feels is ignored on principle as being too subjective; wild surmises regarding a mythical ‘chemico-genetic’ pathology flourish, though based entirely on wishful thinking; meanwhile the painful degradation of psychiatric outcomes is stoically ignored.
It is striking that Wittgenstein makes a virtue of his decision explicitly to ignore all previous philosophies – the heavy labours of Hume and Kant in particular which so assisted my own philosophical expedition fifty years ago, play no part in his philosophy. The parallel with Descartes is uncanny. Both men manifestly wished to rid themselves of current imperfect dogmas, to wipe the slate clean, and see what was then left over. The problem with this approach is that it leads both men to an undue emphasis on what can be thought, particularly on those thoughts that can be expressed verbally – while leaving the question of where thoughts come from, how thinking fits into an otherwise clockwork universe and whether you can realistically think something entirely new, creative, de novo or sui generis – these utterly fascinating, not to say miraculous aspects of human consciousness, are rigidly excluded, on ‘logical’ ‘scientific’ grounds at the outset. Kant too, explicitly steered himself away from these human marvels, but at least he acknowledged he was doing so and regretted it.
Wittgenstein’s edict is therefore a variant of Descartes “cogito ergo sum”, “I think therefore I am”. Now I will happily concede that the mind is the most important of all human organs – but it does not take a medical degree to observe that once it ceases being part of a fully functioning body, then the mind, and any thoughts it may have conjured up, simply aren’t. The point is succinctly made therefore by reversing this dictum, as I was taught during an unusually universal university education at Cambridge in 1958 – thus it is more realistic, and indeed more responsible to declare “sum ergo cogito” – “because I exist, I am able to think”. This places most emphasis on what currently exists, part of which existence permits creative thought, at least from time to time. It also opens up the possibility that what exists now, in your current environment, is of prime importance.
Indeed, tightening the argument further – if you ignore or misperceive your surroundings, then you will inevitably reduce your ability to respond to them, thereby reducing your responding-ability, ipso facto your ‘responsibility’. This provides a ‘biological’ basis for a prime ethical precept. Indeed it ties in rather neatly with Darwin’s notion that if you do not adapt or respond, your survival is first threatened and then extinguished. The penalty attaching to degrees of irresponsibility does not depend on a wrathful parental figment in the heavens dispensing divine retribution, nor on the presumed miseries of a supposed after-life. No, it is directly proportional to the degree your responses allow you, or disallow you, to flourish in the here and now. Take care that all your acts lead to your better adaptation in this world, else your survival in it, must inevitably be that bit less glorious. This applies especially to social worlds – the more responsible you are towards your supporting emotional network – the saner you will be, and the closer you will come to peace of mind. The fact that living organisms have already proved themselves astonishingly successful at surviving on such an inherently chaotic and perversely inhospitable planet, not only gives a sound rational, existential and organic basis for this moral tenet of responsibility, it also begins to indicate a way through our current philosophical morass.
Before leaving Wittgenstein for more interesting pursuits, the point about the fallibility of words needs hammering home. Texts have played such a central role in our desperate search for stability and security, that their inherent inability to do so, cannot be overemphasised. Dire warnings regarding the unreliability of the written word have been raised since biblical times (Jeremiah ch31 v33; 2 Corinthians ch3 v6), with Quakerism being today’s most striking exemplar. Text may appear stable, but this supposed stability is a cruel deceit. “Make love to me in the hall” meant something different to Jane Austen than it does for me. The human beings who say these things are more consistent, more alive, than the words they use – and the same goes for every word or phrase ever thought, spoken or written. The Wittgenstein Fallacy is to suppose that the word, especially the written word, takes precedence over what exists. It doesn’t. It would be irresponsible to think and act as if it did. This is perhaps the single most critical point. It needs emphasising to the full. In medical terms, it is literally a matter of life and death – if your doctor goes more by the text book than by what is happening to you – then your health, even your very life is in the balance. Medical irresponsibility links directly and starkly with survival.
Let’s take Wittgenstein’s opening statement – “1: Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist.” – “1: the world is everything that is the case”. One could easily pull each word apart until the sentence fell into little bits – but let’s just take the first noun – the world. When we use this five-letter word, it appears the same on the page as it did in Wittgenstein’s time – but his ‘world’ is radically different from our own. His had just been savaged by the insanity of war, as ours too often continues to be today – but the very physical foundations of his world are no longer there.
It is important to emphasise quite how unexpected, how really most inconvenient this change has been. We were surely entitled to expect that our world would be underwritten by something a little more reasonable than has proved to be the case. Three examples – on logical grounds we would suppose that light should leave a moving source faster than it does a stationary one – but it doesn’t. Common sense suggests that since photons have neither mass nor weight, it should be utterly inconceivable that gravity could bend a light beam – but it does. Since science continues to make startling advances, it should not be long before you will be able to say precisely where an electron is – but no, the real world is not like that – this is something that can never happen, now or at anytime in the future.
The location of any electron is now, and forever will be, Uncertain. Electrical insulation is designed to prevent electricity flowing, so finding an electron that somehow gets through this, is so highly improbable as to warrant the accolade a ‘tunnelling’ electron. A fact which defies all current and future logic. It should by definition be quite impossible, yet by accepting that it does occur, by utilising this inherent anomaly, it proves itself invaluable in modern electronics – flash memory cards, for example, could not exist without it. The same responsible pragmatism needs applying to emotions, to meaning, and indeed to life itself.
Uncertainty & emotion.
Quantum physics is incomprehensible. “The train you are in, is now travelling at 400 kilometres an hour, but no one can tell you whether it is going north or south” – railway announcements tend towards the cryptic – but this one would be nonsensical. And yet it is precisely this brand of nonsense that applies to electrons. You can either say where they are, but not where they are going – or where they are going, but not where they are. Whence the Uncertainty Principle – an uncomfortable fact that reasoning human beings are obliged to accept, if they wish to exploit the vitally important world around them. Hume’s critique of knowledge in 1745 (which survived Kant’s most determined assault) still applies today, but even he would be astonished that subatomic physics would so graphically confirm his scepticism. And the remedy for Uncertainty, as for Hume, is to apply what we can to what we’ve got – namely use the bits that do make sense, and by-pass those that don’t. A sound medical precept, if ever there was one. We could wail forever that electrons misbehave, just as we could insist the world was flat because that’s what it looks like to a pedestrian – but to get on in this curious cosmos, we need to adapt our reasoning to what exists, to maximise the bits we do understand – to do otherwise is, in a word, irresponsible.
Emotions are quite as resistant to precise linguistic definition as are electrons. We need to apply the same pragmatic approach to both. Take the emotion of anger – definitions of it tend to vary depending how close you are to being angry. The angrier you are, the less coherent your definition of it. After the event, you might say “I felt hot and bothered. I felt driven to say and do things which in calmer moments I regret”. None of this comes close to what anger really is. Alternatively you could take the physiological approach – anger aggravates the pulse rate, the peripheral circulation, the sweat glands – but again, none of these is specific, nor definitive. If you insisted on ‘objective’ criteria for anger, you’d be a laughing-stock, or should be. As with electrons, the tighter you draw one aspect, the looser becomes the other – the more the precision, the less the meaningfulness.
So instead of wrestling with textual definitions, the pragmatic solution is to place all emotions on a single spectrum – negative at one end, and positive at the other. Thus fear and terror anchor the worst, and delight and joy the best. It is surprising how much mental energy is dissipated on trying to define the host of emotions humans are prone to – guilt, shame, embarrassment, worry, anxiety, ‘nerves’, rage, and of course delight, jubilation and joy – the list is as limitless as the human imagination and our creativity can make it – what else are poets for? Happily, as with tunnelling electrons, the thing is much easier done than said. Thus in clinical work, the key emotion to take into account is fear, or in its extreme form, terror – pay close attention to that, and all the others fall into place. Fear, as Frank Furedi maintains, is responsible for much misaligned politics, but it is also the key to all the other emotions. In particular it underlies irrationality, and bedevils peace of mind – which again, by doing what we can with what we’ve got, are rather more remediable than is generally supposed.
Uncertainty, meaning & the Ethan Dilemma.
At this point, I need to introduce you to Ethan who was born, so the video counter testifies at 14:08:06 on 19 DEC 1999. He is squealing away in his cot, his umbilical cord is clamped, and he is not happy. He settles when given to his mother to cuddle. And then he does something quite astonishing – if your jaw does not drop at this point, then perhaps it should. For at 14:25 hours precisely, Ethan, then aged exactly 17 minutes, engages his father in a social conversation, a dialogue. Admittedly he doesn’t speak English – a million minutes will have to pass before he can do that – but he communicates clearly enough, and explicitly enough. His father John, cradles him in his arms, and looking him straight in the face, puts out his tongue. Ethan thinks about this for a moment, then puts out his own tongue. The whole process is then repeated. The tongue is one of the few parts of the body that Ethan can control – if he could not, he could not suckle and therefore would not survive. So he uses his one controllable organ, and “joins” with his father.
I label this process as ‘conversation’. How would you label it? In my view, Ethan is conversing with his dad. He is saying, nonverbally, “you are important to me, I shall pay close attention to your behaviour, since without you I will surely perish.” There is no text involved here. I am adding my own subjective verbal description, as I feel competent to do. I do so with as much responsibility as I can muster – and I’m pleased with the result. But how would Wittgenstein and his ilk respond? What Ethan is saying is not only unclear, it has absolutely no verbal connotation whatsoever. How can it, when no words passed between these two. So you have a choice – you can declare this human interchange as meaningless, as nonsense, as quite impossible to discuss in the words available to us – or you can say, every infant needs to communicate with his or her parent to survive – in the same way as every other human being needs to too, child to parent and adult to adult.
So here is the Ethan Dilemma. We can all observe this interchange, this dialogue. There will be some who say that Ethan burped, it was merely ‘wind’, that he didn’t stick his tongue out very far really at all, it is all in our vivid imagination. I have no proof that this is not the case. I cannot offer any other evidence than that which you see – but nevertheless I come to a different conclusion, a conclusion with rather deeper implications. This is the Ethan Dilemma. We can dispute what is going on. What did Ethan mean ? By the time he can tell us in English, or any other mother tongue, he will have forgotten the detail of his first 17 minutes of life – so sticklers for objectivity, for double-blind trials, measurable processes and precisely defined events will see nothing significant here, just as babies have been swaddled and treated as inert dolls since time immemorial.
For myself, I opt for the other side of the dilemma. I draw my conclusions from what I observe at the bed-side, the clinical approach. And what I see is saturated with meaning. I use my humanity to observe Ethan’s. And what it means to me is that Ethan is making a link, an attachment, to his parental life-support system. I don’t pretend to say what this ‘meaning’ is – again an inexorable Uncertainty Principle applies – define it too tightly, and it slips through your verbal fingers. But sit back, stay calm, watch closely, and see Ethan’s little wrinkled face become suffused with reflected humanity, with relief at making human to human contact, with delight at being alive, and being in relationship. Delight at human socialisation – that’s what we’re about.
So meaning does not depend on words – but it does depend on emotions. If both can be treated with pragmatic caution, with responsibility, then we can identify a link between meaning and emotion. I can’t say in so many words quite how this comes about, but they surely are connected. If further evidence is needed, consider the three letters ‘Y’, ‘E’ and ‘S’. Normally these will spell the three letter word ‘yes’ – in the affirmative. If you read these three letters on a page, you might reasonably assume that the speaker was in agreement with the topic in hand. But now add some emotion, try speaking this word with feeling – let’s imagine, a strong feeling. Thus “Oh Yes!” could still mean ‘very positive’. However with a strong negative emotional overlay, the meaning is entirely reversed, it becomes heavily negative. Same word, different emotions – irrefutably a different meaning – a very different meaning. Here is Wittgenstein’s Fallacy writ large.
Verbal symbols are not all they might seem. They are not the repository of meaning – it’s the humans who speak or write them who confer on them any meaning that they might have. This is actually part of being alive – and it is decidedly not a part which computers can access in the least. Computers show up the difference between animate and inanimate very succinctly. In a word, computers do not do sarcasm. They may chance inadvertently upon irony – such as displaying the warning “printer not found” when this very device is sitting as close as possible to the machine. But sarcasm passes them by. Of course, you could decide that where computers are concerned, sarcasm must be ruled out, just as it used to be in the higher echelons of witticism. But sarcasm is the computer’s Trojan Horse – it represents emotion – it quite deliberately plays havoc with verbal symbols, havoc which humans frequently enjoy, sometimes at others’ expense, but which inflicts pandemonium on digital machines of any ilk. Computers cannot do emotion – full stop. Humans can, indeed they are the most significant item in any human life – but computers are merely overgrown calculating machines, and emotion is not part of their vocabulary, nor ever will be.
Uncertainty & life.
We come now to the costliest consequence of the Wittgenstein Fallacy – our comprehension, or rather our current miscomprehension, of life itself. We, like all other living organisms, owe our survival to our ability to respond to changes in our environment – this I have offered as a rational, ‘scientific’, pragmatic, objective, un-religious, self-monitoring, non-theological, universal moral precept – the sort of precept Kant would have given his eye teeth for. In common with every living organism that ever has or will exist, we have an ability to respond, we have a responding-ability, which, with only a little verbal sleight of hand connects as closely as need be to our responsibility. If we ignore data from our environment, for whatever reason, that environment will first degrade us and then extinguish us – to a degree that is exactly and precisely proportional to the depth or shallowness of that ignorance. But who would credit us with the inanity of ignoring the most significant feature of the actual process of life itself?
Consider this – how can you tell if something is alive? If it’s an animal, you wait till it moves. Not just at random, like a snowflake, but determinedly. You come across an ant, a bee, a fly – you can tell if it’s dead by blowing on it. If it scuttles or flies off, then you can safely conclude it’s alive. However if it obeys the physical law of your moving column of air blown onto it – then you would know, without demur, that it was dead. What this blown-upon insect has just demonstrated is that when it’s alive it does one thing, and when dead another. Elementary, you might say – where’s the mystery in that, everyone knows that that is how it works.
There are mysteries here aplenty – but the most reprehensible is the failure to grasp the shattering significance of the last paragraph. We pride ourselves on our ‘scientific’ approach to the physical world – we have various physics laws we are especially proud of – the Second Law of Thermodynamics being one. And yet, every day, every minute, every nanosecond these laws are being comprehensively countermanded. Dead insects obey them, live ones decidedly do not. Does this matter? Well, it’s a bit like the Ethan Dilemma above – it depends how you view such things. You can close your eyes to this anomaly, brush it under the carpet and say it’s trivial, that nothing can be tolerated which shakes our status quo. Or alternatively, as I would recommend, you note this change, and begin to wonder what implications it might have for humanity in general and for our ability to survive on this somewhat shrunken planet. For make no mistake – irresponsibility, or in this case a failure to respond precisely enough, carries significant penalties for our survival.
The Wittgenstein Fallacy has lead us, and especially Darwin, to suppose that a word we use, any word, comprehensively covers the item referred to. If I were to suggest that the fly in question ‘knows’ what it is doing, I might call down upon my head similar calumnies to those which descend upon the Prince of Wales when he talks to his flowers. If I were to state that this fly has the ‘intent’ of removing itself from a large, and to it dangerous, mammal, I risk being dismissed as an eccentric – imaginative perhaps, but not to be taken seriously, however poetic. In this case, I would have fallen foul of the Wittgenstein Fallacy. The words just used – ‘knows’ and ‘intent’ – have clear, or relatively clear meaning when attached to my fellow humans. They are not generally applied to other living organisms. Perhaps they should be, since as stated above, all living organisms respond to their environments – ergo all living organisms defy at least the Second Law of Thermodynamics – their entropy goes down, not up – except when death supervenes, and they then disintegrate like the lump of inanimate matter they have then become.
Darwin, being the extraordinarily keen observer that he was, cannot altogether avoid the issue. When talking of mistletoe seeds, he ponders why the plant covers them with just the right amount of gluey adhesion to stick to a bird’s beak, yet be able to come unstuck at the next apple tree. He even find himself touching on an explanation, or partial explanation, which makes him veer off all too hastily. He finds himself having to say: “it is preposterous to account for the structure of this [plant] . . . by . . . the volition of the plant itself”. In other words, he rules out of all consideration the faintest suggest that the plant has even a modicum of ‘intent’. Being ‘preposterous’ was more than he could tolerate.
For myself, having thoroughly disposed of a perfect, one to one, relationship between word and meaning, I am quite prepared to stretch these two words so that they more faithfully reflect what I find to be the case, than otherwise. It makes eminent sense to me that the fly in question ‘decides’ to move off – I have not the slightest inkling of what ‘decides’ means in this context – but what I do know is that saying this, is rather more realistic, indeed more responsible, than declaring that the fly is an automaton with simply no means of deciding anything, especially that a change for the worse has just occurred in its immediate surroundings, in this case a puff of human breath. You are of course free to discount this, or dismiss it as being too far from the generally accepted norm to be of any consequence – but please be consistent, because if you do this to my cherished notions, what will you not do to my writing this paper in general?
In my opinion I am writing this piece because I am alive. I change the words used, I adjust their order over and over – in one clear sense, I actually evolve them. Do you allow me to do so? Do you allow me an element of creativity, to write words that were not there before ? Or do you insist, like the pure Darwinians, that I am writing at random, purposelessly, that what comes out on my page is merely the result of bizarre and random firing of my cerebral neurones. I have to say it doesn’t feel like that.
More, I claim to be able to do this, de novo, because I have much in common with the entirety of all living organisms – they defy entropy, and so do I. I have not the vaguest idea of how I do this, nor indeed how they do – but I refuse to ignore this fact just because I cannot express it in words that make a lot of sense. This I submit, is the biggest penalty of the Wittgenstein Fallacy.
By slavishly adhering to the Wittgenstein Fallacy, Darwin and his followers must perforce resort to the most outrageous factors to explain the origin of species. Random variations in genetic material, especially mediated through destructive cosmic and other radiation is considered perfectly adequate to account for the astonishingly precise behaviour of living things. There is an inherent contradiction in the application of such disorganising agencies to organisms, whose chief and abiding feature is their supreme organisation – the very antithesis of randomness.
One of Isaac Newton’s crucial insights was that a given physical body moving in one direction would continue in that direction, indefinitely, until acted upon by another physical force. Thus once the moon started orbiting the earth, it needed no further energy input to continue to do so. To my mind, precisely the same applies to the process of life – it is already going on when we arrive on the scene – it moves forward without additional input, essentially under its own steam. What the ‘steam’ is, where it comes from, and where it will end up in the future are items quite beyond our human ken – but such abiding indeed expanding ignorance, has not deflected the medical profession from intervening quite successfully from time to time. Nor should it, in my considered opinion, stand in the way of ameliorating social and global problems on the same grounds.
This is really a further example of the limitations imposed upon us by the Wittgenstein Fallacy – because we cannot define what life is, how defiance of entropy comes about, or what is really involved in being a living organism, then this aspect of our lives has not been awarded the full significance it deserves. For in the strictest sense doctors do not heal patients – they facilitate the patient to heal themselves. Holes and defects appear in mechanical systems which require constant repair – whereas living organisms repair themselves. Wounds for example heal spontaneously – but only in skin that’s alive – if they did not, surgeons would be as needlessly nihilistic as today’s psychiatry. Fortunately clinicians are not called upon to explain the process – merely to facilitate it.
Let’s close this section with a glance at how our species might face extinction. Dinosaurs, we suppose, were wiped out by a meteor strike. Does a similar fate await us? Perhaps instead, it’ll be an epidemic, a souped up version of the 1918 influenza or of bird ’flu’? Which would be easier for us to combat? Now the meteor obeys Newton’s predictions, or near enough – so at least we can contemplate evasive action. The virus does not. Viruses, in common with all other living organism, change. They evolve. I see no evidence to incur a divine creator for this task, who would him or herself also have to be ‘created’. But I do see determined mischief, which meteors and other inanimate rocks simply do not have. I am prepared to sanction the adjustment of the notion of ‘intent’ to cover this mischief – I have not the slightest idea how it works, but work it certainly does.
It also seems self-evident to me that if we continue to insist that living organisms, especially micro-organisms do not have something special about them, something that significantly distinguishes them from inanimate matter, then we are deluding ourselves, thereby reducing our ability to defend ourselves. In a word, we are hampering our ability to respond to threats to our very survival. The world does not owe us a living. It is not incumbent upon our cosmos to be simple to understand – but if we persist in failing to notice ‘scientifically’ the vital difference between being alive and being dead – then how can we expect to enjoy the former to the full? Could this be the colour of nihilism?
hope and an optimistic theory of mind
The key to unlocking hope from our present miasma is to appreciate that words are porous, it’s like trying to fill a water-tank with a rusty and very leaky bucket. The mistake the Wittgenstein Fallacy makes is to suppose that all words are waterproof, and to degrade those that are not, into meaninglessness. The antidote to this Fallacy is to use words prudently, exercising full responsibility, and referring them back, at every conceivable opportunity to the reality they are intended to reflect. What exists must perpetually take precedence over what you say, or think, or believe exists – a type of responsible existentialism. And a key component in this is my triad of Truth, Trust and Consent.
If you take a cool calm look at words, the first thing to notice is that they focus thoughts, and aid communication to an astonishing degree – especially with text which is capable of spreading particles of human knowledge over millennia. I could never have progressed at all without Kant’s fundamental groundwork on ethics. The second is that they are very difficult to learn – it takes several years before a human child can make use of them. And then, finally, when you focus on their mechanics, what they actually are – which is easiest to do when listening to a foreign tongue – it becomes cruelly obvious that they are just noises in the throat or, on the page, merely a jumble (in English) of 26 different letters.
One of the prettiest images Wittgenstein draws is of peering into the cab of a steam engine, and seeing a number of handles, all looking vaguely similar. They are similar, because they all need to be handled by the crew. But they each do radically different things, some hoot the whistle, some apply the brakes and so forth. The shape or type of the handle does not, repeat not, denote what they do. Nor is it at all obvious from what you can see, how they work, or to bend it slightly, what they mean. The business ends disappear from view – you cannot see the full length of the lever – it goes to where it does its work, the brakes, the whistle, whatever – but from the cab, you cannot see this. This troubles you not a jot – you merely need training to differentiate them so that you can use them to go forwards, safely. Exactly the same applies to words. Instead of being shaped for ease of use by human hands, they are shaped for ease of use by human vocal tracts and ears. They are limited by these human characteristics, not by what they refer to. And here is a further refinement of the principle of responsibility – if you fail to take adequate care in your vocalisations, then your monologue promptly degenerates to a series of noises, exactly as they would appear to one who did not speak your mother tongue.
The machine of today is no longer the steam engine – it is of course, the digital computer. Should you peer beneath a computer’s lid, the thing that will strike you is the dullness of its innards, its repetitive patterns, and significantly – the absence of moving parts. That’s the hardware bit – the software is another matter entirely. Alan Turing, the 1940s genius, proclaimed that in order to compute, all any machine needed to do was to able to subtract and left shift (e.g. multiply by 10). It is precisely the sparseness of this fundamental requirement that has enabled the computer to expand exponentially – they are now more numerous than humans. But have a care – the inside of a computer is exactly how many neo-Newtonians still see the universe – rigidly determined, cause following effect with regimented regularity, and where it does not, you send for the engineer. Thus financial systems, especially retail have changed beyond recognition, and in 1969 I devised a medical record system that would allow every item in your entire medical history to be compared, instantly with the latest drug data – limiting drug incompatibilities reliably for the first time.
But as for computers taking over the world – think again. Ask a computer now, or at any time in the future to recognise, say, a cup, and it’ll default. Ask a three year old child, and she’ll spot it instantly. Why? Because not only do computers have no feelings, they have no access to meanings either. The child and everyone else uses cups to drink from – the computer shifts binary digits, not tea. Besides to enter a machine’s operating system, you have to pass through Alan Turing’s criteria, and if you cannot say precisely what ‘tea’ is, or what a drink means, or define ‘thirst’ to three decimal places, then forget it. A kettle and a human companion will provide vastly more meaning than all the computers ever invented, or ever to be invented in the future.
So this is how I would extract hope from our current confusions. Again I must invoke the Ethan Dilemma – I cannot prove the following, though I fervently hope you might be able to from your own direct personal experience. Just supposing that every living organism had a particle of intent – not very much if you are a mould or an algae, rather too much if you’re a rampant bramble plant – but overwhelmingly more if you are a sentient human being. I have absolutely no idea how this comes about, nor what it might ‘mean’ on a cosmic scale – the levers from these fragile verbal symbols are far too well hidden for me to discern them. But grant me an iota of intent in the human mind, and I will depict a reliable cure for insecurity, an assured path to emotional stability, and a thoroughfare to peace of mind – something we all desperately crave, and which is unavailable by any other means that I know of.
All dead things disintegrate – their entropy always increases since they obey the Second Law of Thermodynamics to the letter, just like every rock, stone or plumbing system. It’s only being alive which allows any living organism to organise, and deflect this inexorably disorganisation. Now if you conceive of this ‘organising ability’ in terms of that individual’s ‘intent’, then you can picture a flow which moves in one steady direction, rather than at random. Now where these two flows overlap, or meet, then you can achieve a type of dynamic security, akin to a ping-pong ball floating atop a water fountain. I will support you, if you will support me. It’s the ancient art of human bonding. The earliest written reference I have come across is in Leviticus ch 19 v 18 – “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself”. Over the millennia, this has become hopelessly religiously muddled up with sacrifice and unselfishness, with theology, magic and ritual, and with various other modes of wishful thinking.
For my money, I recommend a thoroughgoing selfish drive, provided throughout it is delivered as responsibly as possible – thus you can harness selfish energies, to build carefully responsible relationships, and generate as many of these emotional support networks as you can manage. This works independently of all other constraints, just as did the notion of responsibility itself as outlined above – it works when human beings want to socialise. But this, for me, provides a blue-print for why it does so. It actually repairs the damages wrought on our systems of knowledge (especially the attack on it by Hume), and it ties in beautifully with Human Rights. And just as irresponsibility risks its own despair, positive responsibility conjures up its own delights. Human beings are really rather remarkable – it’s a shame to clip their creative wings with too tight verbal shackles – and they shine best in trustworthy relationships.
my theory of mind
So to my Theory of Mind. Twenty two years as a general practitioner taught me to be thoroughly holistic – that is to say, do not divide the human animal into separate parts, except for purposes of description, and even then, put them back together as quickly as possible. So let us see how we would go about describing not so much a Theory of Mind, but say, a Theory of Breathing, for then the need for holism will be obvious enough. Any sensible Theory of Breathing would obviously start with the lungs – just as any Theory of Mind would start with the brain. But have a care – the lungs are no good on their own – they depend on an intact chest wall, a diaphragm that still moves up and down, and a phrenic nerve to connect this to the brain stem which must itself be intact. So what at first might seem simple enough, soon becomes almost impossibly complex. For breathing to take place at all, the person has to be alive, there must be an adequate supply of oxygen, the heart has to pump the blood, the blood has to be healthy – so on and so forth – omit any one of these, and the organism ceases. Some people prefer to imagine the body is simpler than the mind – not so, in my book. When you go into it, the body consists of trillions of cells, all living together and cooperating for the most part – and is thus quite incomprehensible. Given this, the mind, can appear rather simpler. At least you can ask it questions – what are you doing now, what did you have in mind next – questions we’d love to be able to ask the kidneys, say, or the pancreas – but to no avail.
Every human being is, or should be, born with a beating heart, with functioning lungs and an enquiring mind, just as Ethan was. But though the mind is by far the most important human organ, there is as little purpose in saying where the mind starts, as asking where the lungs begin. The pragmatic approach is to regard the mind, and indeed breathing is a function, a process – it’s not static, it’s not fixed to one particular spot. In particular it makes as little sense to talk of, or look for a gene for the mind, as it would for a breathing gene.
I suppose the most significant aspect of my Optimistic Theory of Mind is that it exists. Another penalty of the Wittgenstein Fallacy was to doubt it. Indeed a professor in my university days would regularly ask “Do other minds exist?” As I recall it, he would put his index fingers to his forehead, and wiggle them as if ears, looking, apparently in vain, for ‘evidence’ that the animal that did this, had a mind. Were a customer of mine to display such doubts today, I would regard it as evidence that their socialising function was in need of repair, since the mind is the organ of socialisation – that’s what it’s for. What might have been vaguely amusing to an undergraduate has proved catastrophic to contemporary psychiatry. The mind is now unmentionable there, and the direct and entirely predictable consequences of such flagrant irresponsibility need to be seen to be believed.
reliable foundations for peace of mind and for a peaceful world.
“Listen to the patient, s/he is telling you the diagnosis” – this again comes from William Osler, the sharpest clinician in the early twentieth century. Certainly this is the best medical aphorism I ever heard. It is not difficult to see why diagnosis is the single most crucial aspect of medical practice. Obviously where there are problems which you want to sort out, you will wish to apply the most efficacious solution. So the key is to find out what is the root of the problem – namely the diagnosis – for if you miss this, then any remedies you apply will not work, indeed risk doing additional harm, while the original disease carries on in its merry way, untrammelled, wreaking the havoc it threatened in the first place.
Needing to know what is going on, is also the first requirement for exercising adequate responsibility – if you respond to the wrong signal, or miss an important sense-data, then you reduce your adaptability by precisely the same degree. I recommend applying the same approach to wider social, indeed political problems – there are various social and global ‘diseases’ which need far better diagnoses than they currently receive – only thereafter are available remedies likely to work.
The triad of Truth, Trust and Consent arose directly from my work with the most violent prisoners in the UK prison system. I listened to them, as Osler advised, and they listened to me – and the violence which characterised their earlier behaviour, evaporated, proven by the total absence of alarm bells for three years, a unique record of any maximum security wing worldwide. Truth here, measures how closely reality correlates with your mental picture of it.
Trust, in clinical terms, is the sovereign remedy for fear. Fear gives warning, on the individual scale, of a threat to health, or indeed to life (very much as pain does on the physical scale). If you were not fearful of walking across busy motorways, then your contemplation of this philosophical nicety would be short-lived. Trust is another amorphous term, which needs to be earned rather than defined. Its relationship to fear is easily demonstrated. Suppose you were frightened of walking over a rickety bridge – your fear of being dashed to pieces on the rocks below would be entirely appropriate and realistic. However, if I could persuade you to trust me that the bridge was safe – your fear of it would disappear, and realistically so.
So here we have two of the three components that are indispensable for any stability or peace of mind. The first is Truth – how closely does your picture of reality reflect that reality itself? Secondly, Trust – how much do you accept my reassurances that your current fears are groundless? The third and final component is Consent – do you accept what I say, not through coercion, but because it makes sense to you and you agree to accept it voluntarily. Make it your own – join your intent with mine. Here we touch again on the ‘spiritual ping-pong ball’, if I may term it thus, which our joint intents can keep aloft despite the incessant ravages of an unfriendly world.
Now while these three are indispensable to peace of mind on the individual level, they are also crucial to social stability at the community, national or global level – after all, the chief component of such communities are human beings, rather similar to ourselves, and they too require adequate supplies of Truth, Trust and Consent to maintain a dynamic security amid an ever changing and not necessarily cooperative world.
Truth is a commodity which needs to be valued far more highly. If it is in short supply globally, we all lose. Promoting Truth actively assists our social health. The less there is and the more irresponsible our media and our politicians become, then the poorer our social health is likely to be. We need calls for greater responsibility being exercised nationally and globally, else we will misdiagnose the very real problems which face us, and therefore fail to adapt – a penalty we as living organisms should rightly fear. As I write this, I’ve just received a letter from a prisoner I know who complained that the tabloid press keeps repeating a myth regarding what occurred in one of the crimes he witnessed. It is an especially gory myth. It is quite untrue. It continues in circulation, untrammelled, because it sells more papers. If we are concerned about social stabilities and social well being then Truth is certainly a commodity we must value more highly. What we need is a better apparatus for ensuring more responsibility in the media, at all levels. For this we need an adequate rationale to support it, and a clearer perception of the damage we all suffer when deceit is so widely tolerated. Weapons of mass destruction, 45 minute warnings – these are just the latest in an ongoing political tradition which is socially unhealthy in the extreme.
Trust has been so widely corrupted in the current financial credit crunch that its vital social value hardly needs further emphasis. Consent is perhaps the least well understood. It has been found in democracies, to be the most stable form of government – my view on this is that every citizen has the responsibility to ensure that the policies being propounded centrally, are True, and more likely to improve our adaptation to our environment, than otherwise. Consent empowers – a critical feature, whether among massively deprived prisoners, or more widely across the globe.
Discussing emotions closely with 100 long term prisoners, including 60 murderers and 6 serial killers taught me a great deal. I taught them that their irrationality, including their violence, had been learnt in their appalling childhoods, and that it could be unlearnt. They taught me that all crime is revenge, a topic we need to defer at this point. They also taught me that they had been born Lovable, Sociable and Non-Violent – just as Ethan was, and just as we all have been. Of course this contradicts certain religious dogmas that we are fundamentally born evil, or that we have in some awesome way ‘fallen’ – I find no place for this in my clinical work, and do not commend it to those who wish to make an impact in this field. On the contrary, I take great delight in resting back on the assurance that we were indeed all born Lovable, Sociable and Non-Violent – and further, that we wish to return there. Not only wish, but are fully capable of so doing, given enough insightful emotional support.
I cannot resist inserting here a paragraph from a book review by the geneticist Steven Rose which he recently wrote for a Sunday newspaper, since it rather complements the points put forward.
On the contrary, brains are not primarily cognitive devices designed to solve chess problems, but evolved organs adapted to enhance the survival chances of the organisms they inhabit. Their primary role is to respond to the challenges the environment presents by providing the cellular apparatus enabling the brain’s owner to assess current situations, compare them with past experience, and generate the appropriate emotions and hence actions. It is this evolutionary imperative within the particular line of descent leading to Homo sapiens that has resulted in our large and complex brains. As feminist sociologist Hilary Rose points out, Descartes’ famous “cogito ergo sum” should be replaced by “amo, ergo sum.”
The reference to Descartes indicates just how deep is the need to go back to philosophical fundamentals which have so lead us astray in the last 100 years, ever since Kaiser Wilhelm set out to leapfrog the British Empire. In that conflagration, which continued in various scenarios for the rest of that century, much in the way of idealism, and the inherent nature of human values was smashed to pieces in the abominable trenches. I have not the least doubt that without this human cataclysm, we would never have suffered from the Wittgenstein Fallacy to the extent we have. I have taken Wittgenstein as the paradigm – he was responding to the current ethos – hopefully we can now do better.
In closing, I’d like to offer a brief glimpse as to why human beings are so prone to irrationality. There is no doubt in my mind that we developed as the aquatic ape. This accounts for so many of our physiological features as to be irrefutable in my view. We are hairless because hair gets waterlogged. We are bipedal because that way we can wade deeper, avoid more predators, and seek more fish. We are sensitive to subtle changes in pressure sensors in our skin which work in water, but not so well in air. And crucially for our infantile development, we arrive at birth better equipped with subcutaneous fat than other primates, and cling to parental head hair, which thickens during pregnancy to allow the automatic clinging which politicians find newborn infants are so good at. This simple adaptation prevents us floating away from parental support.
However this evolutionary development has two serious adverse consequences. The first is that being bipeds we cannot run as fast as quadrupeds – either towards our prey or away from predators. Accordingly in order to survive, indeed to flourish, we needed a different evolutionary strategy than our speedier quadrupedal associates. And this, it turns out is our ability to socialise. We work together. We communicate, we plan, we socialise. This way we can exterminate all the mega-fauna in the Americas and elsewhere, which otherwise would have had no difficulty exterminating us. Thus, any infringement of our ability to socialise, diminishes our evolutionary advantage (as per irresponsibility), and reduces our chances of surviving. Bipedalism entails socialising – it’s what our minds are for, it’s what we most enjoy, and it is the principal loss when irrationality reigns.
The second serious consequence is our complete inability to support ourselves at birth. Other primate neonates can cling to maternal or paternal body fur – our parents have none, so we cannot. We were evolved to float neonatally – so becoming terrestrial animals opens the possibility of being dropped on hard ground – hence the vital importance of early, reliable, and comprehensive parental attachment. Where this goes awry, for whatever reason, there the roots of irrationality are to be found – indeed by honing in on this central emotional discrepancy, these roots can be cut most efficaciously, allowing mature, emotionally self-confident adults to emerge.
Irrationality therefore arises simply because every human infant is born 100% dependent. Thus every one of us in infancy, requires a sound parental attachment – vital to future mental stability. It is well established that all children, when faced with threats to this attachment, resort to ‘denial’ – “this isn’t happening to me.” Unexpectedly, many cannot then in later life, say “this has stopped happening to me”. Most of course can, especially given adequate support, but for those who cannot, the consequences can be dire. For when fear persists in this pathological manner, the threat may go, but the terror does not. The afflicted individual then becomes too fearful of reality to double-check the validity or truth of their mental picture of it. And here is the root of irrationality – afflicted individuals continue to deploy a perfectly logical reason, but one that is based on a reality that no longer obtains, significantly one in which parents were three times your size and infinitely more powerful. Irrationality occurs when reason is based on a past reality – viewed in this way, all that is required to restore rationality, is to bring that internal reality up-to-date. Again this is easier done than said, and to accept once experienced.
Are you feeling strong? If so, we can venture deeper here and talk of life’s purpose, normally an unforgiving minefield. For myself, I find I have no need to believe in the supernatural – the natural is quite awesome enough for me. So what’s the purpose of life, and why is life worth living ? Well, for me it’s all a question of being Lovable, Sociable and Non-Violent. Life’s purpose, certainly as far as humanity is concerned is to interact socially so as to regain what some of us lost in difficult childhoods. Sociability, social interchange is what we have been aiming for since we developed our unique knee joints 3 million years ago. The point can easily be proved by interacting with other people, by joining your intent with theirs, by battling the threats of the world which assail us cooperatively, together, using our minds for what they were meant. This way, it seems to me, we can gain the height of positive emotions – joy, cheerfulness, optimism. It is a positive delight to know that anyone can do it. Sublime. Sex and drugs don’t even come close.
in sum – the good, the bad and the future.
In sum, I have just drawn an astonishing, hugely optimistic and glorious picture of the human being. Our species can now claim to have intent, by virtue of being alive, and to have more of it than any other living organism. This is enormously enhanced by verbal communication – but we overlook the pitfalls inherent in that communication at our peril. Released from the ineradicable rigidities of words, we can expand our view of what life processes actually do – they organise – only when dead, does their entropy increase. But to stay alive, we need to respond and adapt to changes in our surroundings. From this emerges a new moral precept, which can counter our current moral illiteracy (and indeed our rampant nihilism). This moral does not hang in the air like a wish to be good, nor depend on the religious veneration of any god or gods. If you or any of us fails to act responsibly, being primarily living organisms ourselves, the penalty is not a nasty glance from aunty, it’s death. Or in our highly socially-dependent species, on various forms of partial social death and isolation up to and including dying itself.
If we can release our intent from its current verbal shackles, and apply our reason as the Enlightenment fervently hoped, we also need a clear, obvious, utterly reliable and repeatable account of irrationality – since that is what scuppered earlier expeditions in this area. Irrationality is the application of reason from infantile environs to today’s adult reality. The roof is falling in, you need to escape – the rational cries “where’s the exit?”, the irrational, “where’s mum?”. Irrationality, including violence, and of course war, is essentially infantile. Violence is a learned disease and can be unlearned. We are born sociable, we need to develop dynamic social security, based on consent, on trust and on the truth of the situation. Then we, as a social species can flourish. Given enough resources it is not difficult to persuade the irrational individual to grow up emotionally – but you’ve got to put in the effort. This offers a 100% guaranteed cure for all psychiatric morbidity – provided you finish the course.
It is fear that corrupts rational thought – hence the significance of Frank Furedi’s work. If you abate the fear, with trustworthy, non-authoritarian consent-dependent support, then rationality blossoms. This again is easier done than said, easier seen than described in cold print – but if this approach survived, as it did, in the bowels of the British prison system, among the most violent and disturbed in the nation – then it augurs well for its success elsewhere.
Now for the bad. The worst thing about this view, is that it is unbelievable. It runs counter to so many contemporary shibboleths, so much conventional wisdom. This accounts for why it has made so little progress since I first excavated it, way back in 1960. I needed to keep away from the sterile teachings of the day – but when I attempted to bring my findings back, I found I had no standing. Politically too, the notion that violence can be cured is unacceptable. The Home Secretary of the day closed the Special Unit in Parkhurst Prison on political grounds, while the prison press office of the time stated “it is quite wrong for Dr Johnson to claim he did any good in the Special Unit in Parkhurst Prison”. Only last autumn the present Home Secretary chose to suppress the fact that no alarm bells had been rung in that maximum security wing for three years. In 1998, the then Prime Minister explicitly vetoed my attempts to reform psychiatry. Medieval feudalism is alive and flourishing in Britain today.
As for the future, this depends, as with all living organism on what we do next. A global nuclear holocaust is still available, still supported by our infantile (and horrendously costly) political strategies. Why cooperation should be so much harder to implement than confrontation needs a rational explanation – in my view, we need to examine its appalling provenance, starting in 1914. But the evidence that we are all born sociable is confirmed by every positive trustworthy communication with like minds. When you or I exercise our sociability faculty, and overcome the childhood prejudices we learnt so deeply, we enter upon a glorious win-win situation. Being living human beings, we are all licensed to dip our tongues into the great soul of humanity – sunny emotions then come bubbling up, all by themselves, for all of us – whatever our sect, colour, gender, age, wealth or outlook. What fun.
Dr Bob Johnson Tuesday, 13 January 2009
Thanks to Lesley K, whose encouragement was indispensable.
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