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secondhander

The foundation of mental imbalance

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In another thread there was a discussion about the nature of mental disease and mental imbalance generally, and as it relates to religious belief specifically.

 

I made the following statement:

 

... let's not forget that with religious people we're dealing with some level of imbalance in terms of psychological health whereby they embrace mystical ideas over the reality of the world, even to the extent of killing other people in the name of god.

 

 

Dante objected:


 

Let me stop you right there. No legitimate medical profession would (or should!) include religious belief as such as a contributing factor to mental illness, and you do a disservice both to atheists and to psychologists by claiming that anyone with religious belief has some level of mental instability or psychological illness. This is simply a ridiculous notion.

 

... Let's be clear about what the claim is here.  Religious people, merely by virtue of being religious, are therefore mentally unhealthy.  Not that they hold wrong ideas, or even that their methodology for deciding on these ideas is wrong, but that their actual mental functioning is flawed.

 

 

I responded: 

 

It is not that religion is a cause of mental imbalance; you have it backward. It is that religion is a symptom of mental imbalance. We are all mentally imbalanced to the degree that our beliefs are out of line with reality. This is true for all mental illness and mental imbalance. And while some mental illness is due to chemical imbalances, the underlying flaw is a discord between perception and reality. Whether you think that you are five different people in one body; or whether you think voices are telling you that demons are possessing the bodies of people around you and are out to kill you; or whether you think a mystical force caused a virgin to give birth to god in human form, and that we will all be judged in a life after death; all of these things are symptoms of mental imbalance -- that perception is not matching up to reality. 

 

The question that I think you have is, can it still be considered mental imbalance if it's a belief that the society at large (or a large segment of society) has accepted as true? People might be more inclined to accept worldviews that do not match up to reality when they feel the peer pressure of cultural acceptance, but I still would consider it mental imbalance, and the results will still be damaging to one's own life and the lives of others.

 

 

 

dream_weaver chimed in and asked:


Isn't this more a case of mis-usage of an operating mind vs. a disease, which prohibits the mind from operating in some fashion?

 

Mental illness and mental imbalance suggests something is fundamentally wrong outside of the sway of volition.

Choosing to believe something without regard to proper epistemology, does not suggest that a proper epistemology can't be learned and nurtured.

 

 

 

So, with that background, here's my answer to dream_weaver:

 

The problem is how you're defining mental illness.You could do what you are doing and define mental illness as mental states that are non-voluntary. But does that really say anything or define mental illness? There are all kinds of states of mind that may not be voluntary, but might not be considered mental illness. What if someone's state of mind is that they are very outgoing and social. The really enjoy being around other people, and dislike being alone. Or, what if someone is the opposite and prefers their own space and time. Maybe they can be social, but prefers to stay in and watch movies or read books alone? Those may be states of mind that are regulated by brain chemistry to some degree, and non-voluntary. But are they mental illness or mental imbalance?

 

So you need something more to be able to define what mental illness and mental imbalance are. Universally, mental health is characterized by a person who's perceptions are aligned with reality of the world around him. Conversely, mental imbalance is characterized by a person who's perceptions are in discord with the reality of the world around him.

 

No matter what mental disease or mental imbalance you name, they all boil down to this truth. This is the Objectivist understanding of mental disorders, which is the correct understanding. The popular and false understanding of mental disorders in the West is a subjective understanding. It says: Mental disorders are psychological patterns that result in behaviors that are not considered part of normal development in a person's culture. By that definition, it is impossible for a behavior to be considered a mental disorder if enough people have the behavior. If everyone in the culture believes that they are immortal and impervious to poison, then it's not a mental disorder, by that view.

 

The Objectivist position says that health is rational living. When you say that a belief is imbalanced, what do you suppose the belief is to be balanced with? The subjective position answers: Cultural norms. The Objectivist position answers: Reality. 

 

If you have multiple personality disorder, the problem is not that you are out of step with the norm of the majority of society; the problem is that you are not multiple people. You are one person, as reality dictates.

 

If you have anorexia and believe that you are not skinny enough and never are, the problem is not that you are out of step with society's dietary habits of the day; the problem is that your self-perception doesn't match reality.

 

Now, these perception/reality problems fall on a range of volition. Some problems are not generally under the volition of the person. A person's chronic depression, for example, may not be a choice as much as it is a physical chemical imbalance in the brain. On the other hand, someone's belief that they are the only being in existence on the planet (solipsism) may have been a thought-out, voluntary worldview. Regardless of how they fall on the scale of volition, all beliefs and behaviors are imbalanced to the degree that they are out of alignment with reality. 

 

The imbalance of mental-imbalance, is an imbalance on the scale of perception to reality.

Edited by secondhander

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You segregate mental illness, mental imbalance (contrasted with mental health?) and then contrast them with areas which fall into irrational contrasted with rational.

 

Disease vs normal or healthy.

 

A disease is when the body (or mind, presumably) is not functioning by what has been identified as normal.

 

The mental imbalance throws me a bit, but to overlay illness here, suggests that a mind is not normal, in a metaphysical sense.

You mentioned chemical imbalance and I implicitly associated it with the metaphysical sense.

 

Rational and irrational are two ways a mind can be used, Mental illness or imbalance could/would impede this process.

 

I think the net you've cast is too wide.

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True enough.  However, I disagree with your conclusion.

 

I would categorize mental illness as not only being disconnected from reality (a thoroughly apt and elegant definition, alone) but also as an involuntary disconnect.

Let's say that someone has depression and they think that everything and everyone around them is tormented by their existence.  No matter how many times they're told otherwise or shown otherwise they will not be able to believe it, not because it's illogical but because the neurochemicals in their brain are distorting their psycho-epistemology.

The sad fact about Christians is that, no matter how much evidence they evade and how much of reality they must ignore, each of them at all times has the ability to think otherwise.

 

Mysticism is a distortion in someone's psycho-epistemology (I think there's an underlying premise there which transcends all faiths, sects and denominations, and even affects someone's secular ideas) but it's a deliberately self-trained and self-maintained distortion which, if neglected for long enough, will vanish.  So it isn't a disease, any more than smoking, obesity or compulsive gambling are diseases, because it's an entirely voluntary condition.

 

However, it may interest you that some people have suggested a similarity between Christianity and disease, in its contagious aspects.

The cause of mysticism is that someone accepts as true the primacy of consciousness; reality can be altered by "magick" or the proper thoughts and feelings.  (Believe in Jesus and you won't die, et cetera)  As a result, their intensely personal and selfish interest in the functioning of their own mind is inverted; instead of struggling towards objective accuracy, they struggle away from it.

With enough practice this can become nearly automatized and, for the same reasons that they initially accepted mysticism (a perverse form of self-interest), they become eagerly, enthusiastically interested in converting the people around them (after all, if you could protect your best friend from death merely by convincing them of something, whom except the honest would hesitate to?).

So it's been pointed out that religious ideas are mentally analogous to a viral epidemic.

 

This is a link to a definition of Memetic Theory; the idea that ideas evolve, compete and go extinct, replicating from one mind to another as if they were organisms.

http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMES.html

I just realized that, if that's true, then Memetic Theory would itself be a meme.

And here's one to the Christianity meme, in particular:

http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/MEMES.html

 

*DISCLAIMER*

I'm not actually advocating the truth or falseness of Memetic Theory, I'm just saying it's something interesting and not-so-relevant but interesting.

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I don't really see how you're disagreeing with my solution.

 

You expound on how using irrational process to reach a mystical conclusion, then state it is not a disease any more than smoking, overeating (which leads to obesity) or compulsive gambling.

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I don't really see how you're disagreeing with my solution.

 

You expound on how using irrational process to reach a mystical conclusion, then state it is not a disease any more than smoking, overeating (which leads to obesity) or compulsive gambling.

 

I suspect, based on the timing of the posts, that Harrison was not responding to you but answering the OP independently.

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Yeah, I think Harrison was responding to me, not to you. 

 

Thanks for your input (both of you), and I can't say I disagree. I think the issue may just be a terminology issue.

 

I think a distinction can be drawn between mental disease (an involuntary chemical imbalance of the brain, or some other problem in the functioning of the brain), and mental imbalance, whereby I am defining the term to mean a mental state of belief where perceptions of reality are not in alignment (or are not on equal balance) with the reality of the world. Under this definition, mental disease would be a subset of mental imbalance, where mental disease is an involuntary dysfunction of the brain, but other subsets of mental imbalance (like belief in the supernatural) may not be. 

 

The main point I wanted to try to make was that all mental worldview distortions, whether involuntary disease or voluntary mental imbalances, are essentially problems with a misalignment between reality and mental perception of reality.

 

Perhaps my choice to use language that is normally defined differently than I am using it is a mistake and doesn't serve my purpose.

 

However, my first point above I think may have some merit. You have to do more than say that mental disease is a non-voluntary state of mind. You have to also say that it's a non-voluntary disconnect from reality. So, while religious people may not like the term "mental imbalance" applied to their worldview, the same fundamental problem (not cause) that underlies involuntary mental disease is the same fundamental problem that underlies a voluntary supernatural worldview: A disconnect from reality. Whether you use to term "mental imbalance" or some other term, the problem is the same, and the results can be every bit as damaging to them as involuntary mental disease can be to a person (as well as damaging to other people if that mental state leads the afflicted to commit acts of aggression).

Edited by secondhander

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secondhander said: "Yeah, I think Harrison was responding to me, not to you. "

 

And had I looked more carefully at the names in the related posts, I may not have made such an obvious oversight.

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The problem is how you're defining mental illness.You could do what you are doing and define mental illness as mental states that are non-voluntary. But does that really say anything or define mental illness? There are all kinds of states of mind that may not be voluntary, but might not be considered mental illness. What if someone's state of mind is that they are very outgoing and social. The really enjoy being around other people, and dislike being alone. Or, what if someone is the opposite and prefers their own space and time. Maybe they can be social, but prefers to stay in and watch movies or read books alone? Those may be states of mind that are regulated by brain chemistry to some degree, and non-voluntary. But are they mental illness or mental imbalance?

 

....No matter what mental disease or mental imbalance you name, they all boil down to this truth. This is the Objectivist understanding of mental disorders, which is the correct understanding. The popular and false understanding of mental disorders in the West is a subjective understanding. It says: Mental disorders are psychological patterns that result in behaviors that are not considered part of normal development in a person's culture. By that definition, it is impossible for a behavior to be considered a mental disorder if enough people have the behavior. If everyone in the culture believes that they are immortal and impervious to poison, then it's not a mental disorder, by that view.

 

Where are you getting this from (ie: the 'oist' understanding of mental disorders is correct, and everyone else is wrong and subjective when it comes to mental health)??

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I am defining [mental imbalance] to mean a mental state of belief where perceptions of reality are not in alignment (or are not on equal balance) with the reality of the world.

 

Would you say that there's any difference between "being wrong" and "being mentally unbalanced"?

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Where are you getting this from (ie: the 'oist' understanding of mental disorders is correct, and everyone else is wrong and subjective when it comes to mental health)??

 

From my understanding of O'ism and application of logic. Tell me where I have gone wrong, if you think I have. (I don't say that as a challenge. I mean it sincerely. I may be wrong and welcome thoughts, corrections.)

 

O'ism holds that values are objectively grounded in the axiom of life. The "to whom" and "for what" of a value of a certain mental state of mind is "to" a man and "for" living in a real world.

 

To say that one mental state is "good" and another mental state is "bad" is to give a value judgment on mental states. 

 

There is only one fundamental alternative in the universe: existence or nonexistence—and it pertains to a single class of entities: to living organisms. ... Life is a process of self-sustaining and self-generated action. If an organism fails in that action, it dies; its chemical elements remain, but its life goes out of existence. It is only the concept of ‘Life’ that makes the concept of ‘Value’ possible. It is only to a living entity that things can be good or evil. -- Galt's Speech

 

So, every fact of the universe "to" a man derives its value "for" the purpose of living, and living in a real world. Therefore, you can only say a mental state of mind is good if it maintains life or helps life flourish for a man. you can only say a mental state of mind is bad if it destroys life by any degree. 

 

Outside of this objective standard of value, there would be no basis to categorize a mental state as good or bad. It would be all subjective. If life is not an axiom, and if there are no objective values, then there is no basis to call one mental state "healthy" and another "unhealthy." They're all just different, subjective mental states.

 

As O'ists, we know that the grounding of value is life, and the judge of value is reality.

 

Now, what about the popular understanding in the West of mental disorders? Look at this proposed definition of "mental disorder" by the National Institutes of Health: 

 

  • A:
    a behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual
  • B:
    the consequences of which are clinically significant distress (e.g., a painful symptom) or disability (i.e., impairment in one or more important areas of functioning)
  • C:
    must not be merely an expectable response to common stressors and losses (for example, the loss of a loved one) or a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals)
  • D:
    that reflects an underlying psychobiological dysfunction
  • E:
    that is not solely a result of social deviance or conflicts with society
  • F:
    that has diagnostic validity using one or more sets of diagnostic validators (e.g., prognostic significance, psychobiological disruption, response to treatment)
  • G:
    that has clinical utility (for example, contributes to better conceptualization of diagnoses, or to better assessment and treatment)

 

I think criterions A and B match, or is closer to, what I'd argue is the O'ist understanding. But in Criteria C, we see the influence of subjective values in the idea that a mental disorder cannot be "a culturally sanctioned response to a particular event (for example, trance states in religious rituals)."

 

Here is the NIH's comments on Criteria C:

 

Part of the context of symptoms, is their cultural context. We agree that it is important therefore, in addition, to retain the idea that culturally sanctioned responses to events are not considered a mental disorder. An example of this is expectable and culturally sanctioned trance states in religious rituals, and we suggest adding this example in parentheses. 

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3101504/

 

In the NIH conclusion, they put an emphasis on what is considered normal and abnormal, and how that can shift over time in cultures. Again this shows the influence of subjective valuation.

 

The situation in psychiatry is reminiscent of some other areas of medicine, where there are also shifting boundaries between normality and abnormality, with evidence-based changes made over time.

 

One must again ask by what standard are they making value judgments to begin with? By what standard could they could call anything good or bad? 

 

It's my conclusion that while you may differentiate mental states by those that are voluntarily held vs. those that are involuntarily held, you cannot say anything about whether those mental states are "good" or "bad" without an objective moral value.

 

So whether you apply the term "mental disorder" to the belief that (for example) you will never die and live a new life in a spiritual world after physical death, or whether you apply some other term to that belief, the basic truth is that you can only make a value judgment on any belief (a judgment of whether it's healthy or not healthy to believe such things) based on whether the belief corresponds to reality and sustains or promotes your real, physical life.

 

Here is a statement from “The Psychology of ‘Psychologizing’,” The Objectivist, Oct. 1968, 6:

 

Psychology does not regard its subject morally, but medically—i.e., from the aspect of health or malfunction (with cognitive competence as the proper standard of health).

Edited by secondhander

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Would you say that there's any difference between "being wrong" and "being mentally unbalanced"?

 

 

Yes. In my view you can have a worldview that is in alignment with reality, but can still be wrong about things because you may have misapplied logic, or you may have misinterpreted empirical data. Being mentally imbalanced means that your worldview is fundamentally at odds with the facts of reality. It is more than a simple mistake in or misapplication of the process of logic.

 

And I think that all of us are mentally imbalanced to the degree that experience reality but do not want to accept it.  

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Yes. In my view you can have a worldview that is in alignment with reality, but can still be wrong about... ...

So, are you saying that if someone has the wrong metaphysics, they are "mentally imbalanced", but they can be altruists (i.e. wrong world-view in the sphere of Ethics) and that would not imply "mental imbalance"? Or does your concept cover more than being wrong on metaphysics?

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Therefore, you can only say a mental state of mind is good if it maintains life or helps life flourish for a man. you can only say a mental state of mind is bad if it destroys life by any degree.


That is not unique to Objectivism as compared to the Objectivist position on ethics, which is unique. Kind of a minor point though, as in principle I don't disagree with much. Still, it's important to distinguish between a pathology, and differences that may be good or bad. For a condition like the flu, it is easy to say that is a pathological condition - there are symptoms which are damaging. In this sense, you're saying anything with damaging consequences that affects the state of health is an illness. So, I get what you're saying. Objectivism in a sense is a form of virtue ethics, and virtue ethics in general is about acting in the "right way" because it is positive to mind and body; some eastern philosophy is like this. Being rational, selfish, all that, is good because it is healthy for the mind and body.

The only problem is your use of the word "illness". There is a medical connotation to that, not just a harmful state of being. Perhaps a person is a little overweight compared to what is common. I wouldn't call that an illness, as even some variability in that is fine. Out of shape, maybe, but ill isn't the word I'd use. Illness should be more specific, more severe. The underlying problem simply isn't chosen. Being a little overweight can be chosen without any kind of underlying problem. Sometimes it's even healthy. On the other hand, there may be some condition that has a huge impact on that weight and could cause a loss of health. Also, because the underlying condition is not chosen, it can be cured in a literal way, by eliminating the gene/virus/etc that exacerbated other issues.

Bringing in mental illness, there are fluctuations and even odd differences in behaviors. I think it is true that some doctors say anything that deviates from the norm a bit too much is an illness  A lot of Asperger's diagnoses may be due to this, when I categorize it as a difference that is interpreted as opposed to some underlying issue that can be cured/excised. Illness would have to go further, where there is a wholly unchosen aspect with severe impact to one's existence. Of course, one could cause a break all alone while healthy... but the resulting break can't be cured by making better choices any more than you can cure a broken bone just make better choices after jumping off the roof of a building.

Your point seems to be that epistemology has a stronger impact than ethical beliefs. I agree with that, and it does have a bigger impact on psychological health; "reality isn't REALLY real" is different from "I'm altruistic because it makes me happy". On the other hand, going too far on altruism can result in a break if one tries to separate "self" from happiness over years, but that also boils down to epistemology, regarding what the concept of self means or if a self exists. As I was suggesting before though, making bad choices or using a methodology that results in an illness doesn't mean the choices are a sign of illness or that bad methodology *is* an illness. To be sure, bad methodology can cause a mental illness, I just mean that having a bad methodology is not a sufficient condition. It might not even be necessary.   

Also, even a person who is very rational and thoughtful can be mentally ill. Schizophrenia for instance is a pretty severe condition, but it doesn't mean the person isn't really rational. What schizophrenia would do is make it that much harder to be rational because of whatever causes delusions or paranoia. It's not really a bad methodology even, it's just the content of their mind and non-chosen mechanisms are making things difficult.

Being a zealot could plausibly be an illness, but religios belief as such is not, even if it is bad ultimately. 

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Yeah, I think Harrison was responding to me, not to you. 

. . .

 

However, my first point above I think may have some merit. You have to do more than say that mental disease is a non-voluntary state of mind. You have to also say that it's a non-voluntary disconnect from reality. So, while religious people may not like the term "mental imbalance" applied to their worldview, the same fundamental problem (not cause) that underlies involuntary mental disease is the same fundamental problem that underlies a voluntary supernatural worldview: A disconnect from reality. Whether you use to term "mental imbalance" or some other term, the problem is the same, and the results can be every bit as damaging to them as involuntary mental disease can be to a person (as well as damaging to other people if that mental state leads the afflicted to commit acts of aggression).

Firstly, I was responding to you.  (sorry for the ambiguity)

Secondly, that is true.

 

Your point is entirely valid; mysticism is voluntary and self-induced insanity, complete with all the dangers of medical insanity, but without the associated innocence.

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