Growing up I used to watch Star Trek. Both the original 1960s series and the 1980s Next Generation series feature main characters who supposedly have no emotions: Mr Spock and Mr Data. Spock considers emotions to be a weakness and actively suppresses them so as to be more logical; meanwhile Data has an apparent desire to fulfil his creator’s wish to build an android that is as human-like as possible, so Data seeks to have emotions. While as entertaining as these characters are, the series never actually explored emotions, what they are, why we have them, and what their meaning is in any depth. Rather, one gets the impression at times that the sole purpose of emotions, as far as the creators of Star Trek are concerned, is for personal amusement; they make life interesting but we don’t really need them. However, emotions are far more important than just mere novel reactions of our nervous systems to particular stimuli; they are what makes life alive beyond the organic/material level. Consider that each individual cell in your body is a living organism in its own right, additionally, the collective activity of the billions of cells that make up your entirely body is a secondary level of life, and finally the thoughts and feelings that make up what we call, for lack of a better term, “our mind” is a third tier of life built on top of the previous two tiers. But why do we have feelings at all? Continue reading
Imagine an ordinary porcelain bowl sitting on a table in front of you. There’s nothing special about this bowl. It is plain without any distinguishing features. There are thousands, if not millions, of bowls like this in the world. They are useful, one can put rice in it, a salad, water, fruit or any other number of things. Despite it being useful, it would be odd if anyone missed it should it fall to the floor and smash to pieces. The bowl has utility, but it doesn’t have value. One day a tattoo artist was feeling bored and decided to paint an original and intricate art work depicting Norse gods from an epic saga. Now something peculiar has happened: the bowl that was once so ordinary that its destruction would have been inconsequential has gained a new quality: value. It’s still just as useful as a bowl, but now it requires more protection, care, and respect. This bowl that was once so ordinary could now sit comfortably in a museum or an art gallery. It has become important not just because of its usefulness for holding objects, but because it has acquired a value through the beautiful art work now inscribed on it. People are similar, they can be useful, but they have a value that extends beyond their utility. Surprisingly enough, an incomplete understanding of these terms can actually lead to suicidal thoughts.
When I was a teenager, I had a fascination with all things supernatural and superstitious. It started out with me telling stories about witches and the occult. Then I started to carry an astrology book with me and work out the horoscopes of my schoolmates. My tarot card reading phase got me into trouble with a catholic priest once. I must confess I actually read those incredibly boring books about witchcraft while the other kids merely put them on their shelves to impress fellow adherents to the gothic sub culture. But one day a classmate produced something truly scandalous: a copy of “The Satanic Bible“. Now I can’t for the life of me articulate what I actually was expecting to find in this book, I just knew it had to be bad. Preferably dark, sinister, and disturbing so I could impress girls with my wicked seductions or some other nonsense. However, I remember feeling disappointed with the book. It just didn’t contain anything in it that sounded particularly evil. The idea behind the book was the assumption that Christianity was altruistic and therefore Satanism logically should be the opposite of Christianity and thus be selfish. However, the book quickly ran into some philosophical problems regarding the nature of selfishness and how it related to evil. Namely the assumption was that being selfish was necessarily a bad thing, however, this assumption about selfishness quickly hits a brick wall. So for a book that’s meant to be about being evil it ends up being a rather peculiar, if not silly, unintentional self-help book.
Last night I was chatting to a friend about depression. As someone who is still recovering from depression she kept referring to it as “her weakness” which bothered me a little. This lead to her sharing with me a perspective on depression she had encountered recently: that depression was a method by which nature would rid a tribe of weaker members. Presumably it worked something like this: a person who couldn’t meet the expectations placed on them by their tribe would develop depression and end their own life so that only the strong members would survive. Thus it is a form of eugenics programmed into our psyche to effectively off ourselves for the benefit of the rest of the tribe. Now, I am trained as a biologist and such a genetic trait is unlikely to be passed on via natural selection because it actually lowers the probability of an individual passing on their genetics. Such genes usually die out quickly. However, this got me thinking about something: if so many people have the potential to get depression – why would such a trait be preserved by natural selection? What survival advantage does a propensity for depression actually have? Here is my case on why depression is helpful rather than harmful.
For many years now I have worked with children. Most of them have had autism, speech problems, cognitive delays, or some kind of behavioural problem. It has been an immense privilege to work so closely with so many children and their families over the years. No two families are the same in how their household is run in my experience, every family is its own unique culture. However, I have never encountered a family without the most classic and pervasive power struggle dynamic of them all: the tantrum thrower and the enabler. In every family I have encountered there has always been two people taking on these roles in some way. Child to child, child to adult, and adult to adult: the methods of throwing a tantrum may vary in age groups, but tantrums are ubiquitous. Understanding the nature of tantrums is a good strategy for unravelling the origins of dysfunction in any unhealthy relationship.
First, since we’re all about philosophy here, we need to make sure that we define our terms. A tantrum is a display of hyper emotionality usually resulting from being informed of some bad news. They can be overt through the use of shouting, crying and other verbal cues. They can be violent with the throwing and breaking of things. They can be subtle with silent treatment, passive aggressive words and deeds. They can be sophisticated with rationales, lies, excuses, and guilt trips. A tantrum never involves negotiation or an honest account of one’s situation. Continue reading
While one often comes across articulate and well-argued articles criticising anti-depressants from a medical or efficacy point of view, one seldom comes across the philosophical argument against anti-depressants. It was, in fact, the philosophical case against anti-depressants that convinced me as a teenager that I would never, ever take them for myself, a decision that has been beneficial to me ever since.
I am against their usage both on medical grounds and on philosophical grounds, but I accept that anti-depressants are likely here to stay. Indeed, I would argue we have always had anti-depressants, for what else should we call caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and opium but traditional remedies for our emotional ailments? People who are feeling low in motivation often indulge in coffee for the caffeine hit. People who lack courage often indulge in alcohol to shore up their nerves. People who are miserable will often indulge in excessive amounts of sugar to give themselves a rush. Everywhere, we have people self-medicating on different substances in attempts to battle their moods and unwanted feelings. Anti-depressants are not anything new, they’ve been with us all along.
In this piece, I am going to ignore all the medical and efficacy arguments, not because I do not think these discussions are not important, but because I believe the philosophical argument is the strongest of the three. For the sake of argument, I will assume that anti-depressants actually work precisely as intended: that they alleviate sadness, depression, grief, and malaise effectively and without significant side effects. I make this assumption not just for the sake of simplicity, but to better illustrate why we should be wary of them. I believe the better anti-depressants work, the stronger the philosophical case against them. Continue reading
One of the most misleading and confusing distinctions people often make with emotions is to divide them into two groups: good feelings and bad feelings. Good feelings might include joy, pride, curiosity, warmth, confidence, concern, or trust and bad feelings might include anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, despair, grief, or hate. While certainly there is wisdom in distinguishing between the pleasant emotions and the unpleasant emotions, calling the unpleasant emotions “bad” is quite incorrect. All of our emotions, and the combinations of emotions that we can experience, have some survival benefit. This point is important: if any of our emotions were hazardous to our survival, then they would not be passed onto future generations.
The fact that so called bad or negative emotions such as pain, fear, grief, sadness, and guilt exist indicates that they are very important for facilitating human survival. There is a rare genetic disease where a person is born without the ability to feel any physical pain. The life expectancy of these people is typically only about 20 years. They often die from serious burns that become gangrenous, and because they don’t feel any pain, they do not realise they have even burned themselves until it is too late for treatment to save them. Here it becomes clear that having a painless life will in fact also be a short life. Likewise, a person who never feels guilt will quickly find themselves locked away in prison or hated and scorned by the community, while those who do not feel fear will end up a delicious meal for a bear or in a serious accident because they did not take proper precautions. There are clear survival benefits for having pain, fear, and guilt. However, for the emotions of sadness and grief, the link between these emotions and increased chances of survival is a bit more complicated to understand. Continue reading
Never been to therapy before? Wondering how it can help? Curious about the therapeutic process? Each year, tens of millions of people seek therapy for a variety of reasons. Not all therapists are the same, though; there are many different schools of thought. Even within the same school, each therapist is unique in their approach to the therapeutic process. Philosophical therapists were arguably the first therapists in history, but are relatively few in numbers of practitioners today compared to the mainstream schools like behaviourism, psychoanalysis, and gestalt, just to name a few. Because philosophical therapy is different to most of the other schools, I have written this article to cover the most basic process of the philosophical therapeutic process.
Questions, Questions, so many Questions
The role of the philosophical therapist is to ask you questions about yourself. They might sometimes provide you with some terminology and jargon and this is merely to help improve your ability to understand yourself and to communicate better in the sessions. These questions will often appear obvious. Sometimes the therapist might ask you if you feel angry, to which you might respond with, “Well, of course, I am feeling angry!” You might be thinking at the time that this is a silly question, but for the therapist, this is a very important question to ask. On the topic of anger: some people do not know if they are experiencing anger. I have come across people who have been red in the face and shouting, but later on, when questioned about this, said they did not feel angry at all. So sometimes obvious questions like this will be asked just so the therapist can get an idea of how self-aware the client is. Continue reading
When asked what the most important component of mental health is my first three answers are honesty, honesty, and honesty. More specifically, I am talking about self-honesty, honesty about other people, and honesty to other people. However, the biggest challenge in any relationship is to be completely honest with another person. The feeling of “walking on eggshells” around someone close to you is so common that it’s hard to find anyone who does not relate to being too scared to be open and honest with someone close to them. Why is honesty such a big deal? Why is honesty so hard? How can honesty improve one’s life? How can honesty improve one’s relationships?
In Isaac Asimov’s 1950 book, I, Robot, a manufacturing mistake created a telepathic robot. Because Robots were strictly illegal on Earth, the company was concerned for the public’s reaction if it ever got out that robots could now read minds, so they hushed it up and allowed only a handful of specialists to examine the robot to figure out what had gone wrong in its manufacture to create a mind-reading robot.
Three researchers interviewed the robot, which they named Herbie. One found it to be a mathematical genius, the other a mathematical imbecile, and a third, a female psychologist was informed by Herbie that a man she had a crush on secretly admired her. The psychologist was jubilant to be told by the robot that it had read the mind of the man she liked and all her romantic fantasies were true: He wanted her, he admired her, he was single, and wanted to start a romance with her. Later, the psychologist was devastated and humiliated to discover that this man did not actually think any of these things. The telepathic robot had lied to her about everything.
I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?
In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them. Continue reading