General Election Hustings in West Mersea

Tomorrow night at 7.30pm at St Peter and St Paul’s Church, West Mersea.

Parliamentary candidates from five political parties are coming to answer questions from the public.

They will be asked about many of the issues that YOU are concerned about, including Bradwell power station.

Please do come along. It’s not too late to submit a question to me by email – the blog name at gmail dot com.

A category mistake that atheists make

Imagine that you have nine grey mice lined up in a row, and at the end of the row there is an elephant. The elephant is coloured in exactly the same shade of grey as the mice. Now if the question is then, ‘how many grey creatures are there?’ then the answer is ten. However, if the question is ‘how many mice are there?’ then the answer is nine. If someone answers the latter question with the answer ‘ten’ then they are including the elephant in the category ‘mice’ – and that is a mistake. It is a type of mistake that philosophers call a ‘category mistake’ for it rests upon placing an item into the wrong category.

I want to explain a category mistake that atheists often make when they are making polemical arguments against religious believers (mostly, but not always, Christian believers). The particular argument that I’m thinking of is the ‘one more god’ point, which can be summarised in the following way: all human beings doubt the existence of almost all the gods that have ever been believed in; atheists simply doubt the existence of one more god than the religious believers.

Normally resting behind this sort of argument is the assumption that the movement from believing in various gods to not believing in them represents a sort of progress. It is part of a more general story that claims that western culture is moving steadily away from the superstitious darkness of religious faith into the wonderfully enlightened realm of secular thought. This story took root in the latter half of the nineteenth century and was conventional wisdom by the middle of the twentieth. It has, however, largely become discredited and it is now extremely rare to find someone with academic expertise in this area who still has faith in that story. Obviously it takes time for the wider culture, especially the media, to catch up with academic developments, but it is happening.

This story of progress, however, does have roots in our own religious tradition. The very language of an ‘Old Testament’ and a ‘New Testament’ indicates as much. Even within the Old Testament, however, it is possible to trace the development of the Hebrew understanding of God (that is, Yahweh), and explaining this will help to understand the category mistake that I argue that atheists commonly make. In 586 BC the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem:

“On the tenth day of the fifth month, in the nineteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, Nebuzaradan commander of the imperial guard, who served the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. He set fire to the temple of the LORD, the royal palace and all the houses of Jerusalem. Every important building he burned down.” (Jeremiah 52:12-13)

The King of Judah was brought to the steps of the Temple, whereupon his family were slaughtered in front of him and then he was blinded and bound, taken into captivity to Babylon itself. There he joined all of the upper classes in Judah’s society, who had been taken into Exile by the Babylonians: ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion’ (Psalm 137).

Imagine that you are part of this society which sees Yahweh as present in the temple and knows, therefore, that Jerusalem is inviolate and invincible – and then utter disaster comes upon you. This is where a great shift in Hebrew thinking about Yahweh happens. Up to this point the Ancient Hebrew people had thought of Yahweh as a tribal deity: “our god is bigger than your god”, where Yahweh is simply one god amongst other gods, maybe the most powerful in the pantheon but certainly one amongst others. When you are faced with this sort of calamity, however, you have two choices: you can either say, “Our god isn’t as strong as the other gods, therefore he is dead” and the worship of Yahweh dies off (which happened many times in ancient history); or – and here the genius of the Hebrew people is demonstrated – the people respond by escalating the attributes of Yahweh and say, “Yahweh is faithful; if this has happened to us, Yahweh must also be in charge of the Babylonian armies, therefore Yahweh is the only god, Yahweh is the creator of everything”.

In other words, what happens at the time of the exile in Babylon is that there is a shift from Yahweh as a tribal god of the Israelites, to Yahweh as the creator of all things. In other words a shift from thinking about Yahweh as a god (lower case g) to thinking about Yahweh as God (upper case G). This is the real genius of the Hebrews: to be faithful no matter what. They are “a stiff-necked people”, but this steadfastness is why they are the chosen people. God touched them and gave them a way of growing into a greater understanding of the truth.

In other words, to return to my original image, at the time of the exile the Ancient Hebrews stopped thinking of God as being one mouse alongside other mice, but realised that God was in fact an elephant – that he was radically unlike what they had previously believed. From this point onwards, in the Judaic, Christian and Islamic tradition, it is a mistake to think of the standard religious language about God as describing the equivalent of one god amongst other gods – to think of the elephant as a mouse. They are simply not the same sort of thing. To assume otherwise is a category mistake.

Of course, this does not end all the arguments. I would emphasise also that this is not an argument to establish that there actually is an elephant in the room. It remains possible to say that the religious believers are mistaken and that what they believe to be an elephant is in fact simply another mouse, and that the religious believers are deluded in thinking otherwise. Yet to pursue that line of argument necessitates engaging with what is actually claimed about God by the religious traditions, most especially what are seen as the attributes of God such as omniscience and omnipotence and so on. This is something that the most prominent atheists signally fail to do. After all, the finest human minds for thousands of years have pondered the details of this question. It would be something of a surprise if someone like Richard Dawkins, who has never received an education in this subject, was able to overthrow the tradition with his ‘one more god’ jibe.

Those like Dawkins will undoubtedly continue to insist that mice and elephants are the same, but there comes a point when all the powers of logic and reasoning fail and it is simply a matter of saying ‘look and see’ – but then, some blindness is wilful. Wittgenstein once wrote “… it is not that before you can understand it you need to be specially trained in abstruse matters, but the contrast between understanding the subject and what most people want to see. Because of this the very things which are most obvious may become the hardest of all to understand. What has to be overcome is a difficulty having to do with the will, rather than with the intellect.”

Of airplane crashes and anti-depressants

The story of Andreas Lubitz and the doomed Germanwings flight is a terrifying one. There are many details of the story yet to emerge, most especially around what may have been Lubitz’s motivation in enacting such carnage. I have been struck by the way in which steps taken to make us safer have sometimes made us more vulnerable, in that making the cockpit impregnable from the outside makes the passengers on a plane even more dependent upon the good intentions of the pilot. A good example of where good intentions can go awry and make things worse.

What seems to occupy the headline writers on the shelves of shame opposite the tobacco counter in the Co-op is the question around his ‘depression’. I do not wish in any way to question the reality of the experience that is presently given the label ‘depression’. There are phenomena that people experience within their own mental life that are often life-denying at a minimum, life-destroying as a maximum. Please do not interpret anything else that I say here as in any way denying this first and most basic truth. My issue is all to do with how these phenomena are understood and how those who have to endure them are treated, both by medical professionals and by wider society.

Firstly, I would want to ask questions about the convenience to a society that has available to it a form of language that isolates the problem within a single person. If it is established that Lubitz was ‘mentally ill’ then it substantially relieves the wider society of any responsibility for what has happened. Any questions about the social context within which a person is living, and which may contribute to their mental suffering, are side-stepped. It is simply bad luck, the misfortune of a particular genetic inheritance. Nothing to see here, move along.

In contrast I would want to insist that ‘no man is an island’ and that we cannot understand mental suffering without paying close attention both to the social context in which that suffering takes place, and to the particular life-story of the person concerned. Is the person diagnosed with a ‘mental illness’ a victim of discrimination or bullying or social isolation? Are there people in their lives who love them? Has something happened recently, such as a bereavement or divorce, that might trigger severe sadness? It is, after all, perfectly understandable that someone in such a situation would experience all the symptoms of what are presently labelled ‘depression’. Such a person is not mentally ill, they are grieving, and this is a perfectly normal and human response to a particular situation. It says a lot about our culture that the dominant psychiatric guide for dealing with such a situation has recently changed its policy so that, if someone is deeply sad for more than two weeks after a major bereavement, they can now be classed as ‘depressed’ (the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition’ or DSM5).

This leads directly to my second area of questions, which is to highlight the relationship between the pharmaceutical industry and the forms of diagnosis that are offered. In American Law – and the DSM5 is an American publication – it is only possible for drug companies to sell medicines for named disorders. Where those medicines are being provided by commercial enterprises, as with the American health care system, there is a strong financial incentive to increase the number of named disorders so that there are more opportunities to sell medication. This is why there has been an explosion of ‘disorders’ that can justify the sale of new pharmaceuticals. I find it significant that almost all the major pharmaceutical companies spend vastly more on the sale and marketing of their drugs than they do on researching their effects. (For more on this, read ‘Big Pharma’ by Ben Goldacre.)

big pharma

My final area of questioning is about the efficacy of anti-depressants, that is, do they actually enable a person to be cured of ‘depression’? The evidence rather suggests not. I recently read an excellent book by Irving Kirsch entitled “The Emperor’s New Drugs”, which I heartily recommend for anyone with an interest in this topic (Kirsch is a lecturer in medicine at Harvard Medical School). Kirsch’s main target is what he calls the ‘chemical imbalance theory’ of depression, and his main area of research is the comparison of anti-depressant drugs with placebos. Kirsch does not dispute that people who are given anti-depressants experience a benefit from having done so; what he disputes is that there is anything medically effective going on. That is, his case – a case that I find thoroughly persuasive – is that anti-depressants work because people expect them to work, no more and no less. Kirsch writes: “Depression is not caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and it is not cured by medication. Depression may not even be an illness at all. Often, it can be a normal reaction to abnormal situations. Poverty, unemployment, and the loss of loved ones can make people depressed, and these social and situational causes of depression cannot be changed by drugs.”

What concerns me about the language being used with respect to Lubitz is that it can confuse our understanding of all that led up to the crash. It is too convenient to argue that it was the result of one person who was mad or bad or both. I believe that we need to have a much more thorough conversation about what is presently called mental illness, starting from the areas of questioning that I have outlined above, to ensure that, as with locked cockpit doors, we are not simply making a bad situation worse as a result of misguided good intentions. It is also true, of course, that what is presently considered to be the preserve of psychiatrists used to be well understood as the cure of souls. I will return to exactly what that phrase means at a later date.