Photography © 2019 Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed
Check out Oxford University Press’ list of articles chosen from across its journals to represent the ‘Best of 2018’.
For other articles, I enjoyed reading Roger Scruton’s Why Beauty Matters in The Monist.
Even though psychiatry is a medical speciality, it is a special medical speciality. This arises from its subject matter, ordinarily conceived of as mental health conditions or disorders, to be contrasted with physical health conditions or disorders. Psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should while ophthalmology, for example, deals with the ophthalmic system not working as it should. The nature of its subject matter raises certain complexities for psychiatry that, in extreme, are sometimes taken to suggest that psychiatry’s positioning as a medical speciality is suspect; these include the normative nature of psychiatric judgements, the explanatory limitations of psychiatric theories, and the classificatory inaccuracies that beset the discipline. In this post, I examine these complexities, asking whether or not they are fatal to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.
When doctors refer to an organ or system not working as it should they do not intend this judgement in a moralistic sense; what they mean is that the organ or system is not functioning in the way they expect it to given the purpose for which it was designed, or that it is not functioning as it does for the majority of people in an appropriately defined population, or that its anatomy or histology is grossly distorted. These three naturalistic takes on dysfunction (which are not the only possible ones) correspond, respectively, to evolutionary theory, bio-statistical theory, and lesion theory. There is now a huge literature both in the philosophy of medicine and the philosophy of psychiatry on the concept of dysfunction and on the possibility of defining it in value-free terms (e.g. Boorse 2011; Bolton 2008, 2013a; Varga 2015; Kingma 2013). A key intuition driving this debate seems to be that if we cannot define dysfunction in value-free terms then it becomes harder to distinguish proper clinical judgement from the moralistic interjections of zealous clinicians. The debate continues and I will not venture into it, partly because it is not directly the subject of this post, and partly for the reason that in many cases that distinction does not really matter: clinical judgement and moralistic judgement collapse into each other when all parties are (broadly) in agreement that something is not working as it should, and that that thing is an appropriate target for medical intervention; i.e. there are known treatments and a known prognosis; it is a condition that doctors treat as opposed to, say, a spiritual malady. When disagreements arise, clinical and moralistic judgements come apart and clinical intervention is problematised. Note that from the perspective of the patient, the doctor’s alleged moralistic judgement can go both ways: the doctor can judge that you have an organ or a system that is not functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is; conversely, the doctor can judge that the organ or system is functioning as it should, whereas you think that it is not. In the former case you reject medical diagnosis and intervention, and in the latter case you seek them but they are denied. In addition, there is a variant of the first possibility where someone else – perhaps a relative – deems that something about you is not working as it should, a judgement with which the doctor agrees but which you reject.
As doctors and patients know, these possibilities for disagreement are not uncommon in medical practice. For example, you experience pain in your acromio-clavicular joints when you exercise; you visit an orthopaedic doctor who tells you that this is consistent with age: “there’s nothing wrong with you”, the doctor says, an explanation that you refuse to accept. Conversely, the doctor examines you and prescribes anti-hypertensive medication which you refuse to take as you feel well and do not believe that you have problems with your blood pressure. In psychiatry, discrepancies in judgements of this sort are more intractable, more common, and, given the power that psychiatrists have to detain individuals, more serious in their implications. This intractability arises from the fact that psychiatry deals with the mind not working as it should. The normative judgements involved in such a determination are more complex than those involved in determining, say, whether or not the ophthalmic system is working as it should. This complexity, in turn, creates considerable possibilities for disagreement. This is to be expected: belief, reasoning, emotion, and perception – to name a few faculties of mind – permit a wide range of evaluations and demonstrate a high degree of “observer-relativity” (Bolton and Hill 2004, p. 99; see also Bolton and Banner 2012, p. 83). To agree on what it is to have true belief, valid reasoning, appropriate emotion, and veridical perception is more complicated than it is to agree on what it is to have good visual acuity, even after we account for the fact that for a fighter pilot a 0.1 drop in vision is life-changing, whereas for a drummer it is not.
Negotiating the intractable disagreements that arise in psychiatric practice means that psychiatry, like – but more than – other medical specialities, has to be aware of differences in values among the various stakeholders, and of the cultural beliefs that constitute the profession itself as well as those that persons bring to the consultation. Given the magnitude of these challenges, it is not surprising that theoretical and now also practical endeavours have taken psychiatry as the paradigm case of the complexity of the clinical encounter and therefore also as the target for developing and testing solutions that can benefit clinical practice irrespective of specialty. Far from undermining the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality, the normative complexity inherent in psychiatry demonstrates that it shares the same problems other specialities have to deal with, only in psychiatry these problems are more common and challenging.
The subject matter of psychiatry is the ‘mind not working as it should’. As a medical speciality, psychiatry aims to relate the various failures of mind to underpinning biological substrates in the brain. One position in this respect is to reduce those failures to specific brain dysfunctions. Mental disorders, on this view, are nothing but brain disorders; as some authors have put it, “there are only brain disorders that psychiatrists prefer to treat and other brain disorders that neurologists (and neurosurgeons) prefer to treat” (Baker and Menken 2001). Biological reductionism goes back a long way; historians of medicine identify a shift to purely somatic explanations of ‘madness’ towards the end of the 19th century in Europe (e.g. Scull 1975), a shift that persists among some practitioners and researchers. Yet it is fair to say that biological reductionism is not a popular view today, with many practitioners and researchers adopting a multifactorial, non-reductionist view of causation of mental disorders, the well-known biopsychosocial model.
Non-reductionist views are held even by those who wish to end the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders in favour of the latter. White and colleagues, for example, make a number of arguments in this regard, one of which is the empirical point that psychosocial factors “interact strongly” with neurological disorders, while “disorders of the mind are rooted in dysfunction of the brain” (White et al. 2012: 1). Their point is that psychological, social, and biological causal and risk factors run across all medical conditions, whether mental or physical. If so, then there might not be much sense insisting on the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders, especially, they argue, in light of recent advances pertaining to the neurological and genetic bases of mental disorders. Part of the authors’ motivation in advancing this proposal is to foreground psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality. This, they point out, can improve recruitment into the profession, for if psychiatry is more explicitly aligned with neurology it may become more attractive to medical students. On the other hand, a more medicalised psychiatry would be able to define more clearly its distinctive contribution to mental health care relative to allied professions such as clinical psychology and mental health social work. Standing in contrast to White and colleagues’ proposal is a position paper by Bracken and colleagues that advances a similarly non-reductionist position but rejects the suggested equivalence between psychiatry and neurology: “psychiatry is not neurology; it is not a medicine of the brain. Although mental health problems undoubtedly have a biological dimension, in their very nature they reach beyond the brain to involve social, cultural and psychological dimensions” (Bracken et al. 2012: 432).
There is no doubt that both mental and physical health conditions demonstrate “multifactorial pathways”, nevertheless psychosocial factors appear to be more prominent in mental disorders across a range of dimensions (Bolton 2013b: 25). To the extent that this is the case, psychiatry differs from many other medical specialties in that it “has particular expertise in the management of psychosocial factors as well as internal biological factors” (ibid.). One could take this observation to support the view that we should not collapse the distinction between mental disorders and brain disorders. Or one could decide that the terms of the debate are out of keeping with developments in the new mental health sciences. These “new sciences do not work with ideological battles between the biological, the psychological, and the social … rather they work with all of these factors and the diversity of interplay between them” (ibid.). There is much work to be done, both empirical and conceptual, to understand how the different social, psychological, and biological factors interact in specific conditions. However – and this is key – that work applies to physical health as well as mental health conditions (see, for example, Hernandez and Blazer 2006, and Bolton in press). Even though psychiatry, relative to other medical specialities, is more heavily involved in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest, the model of causation, risk, prevention, and treatment that applies in psychiatry, as it does across all of medicine, is biopsychosocial.
In the foregoing, the notion of the mind not working as it should was explicated in terms of the various faculties of mind. The issue, therefore, is that a particular faculty – belief, emotion, perception, reasoning, will – is not working as it should. These faculties are interrelated, and from its inception psychiatry sought to recognise patterns of symptoms and signs and to construct diagnostic categories on that basis. So a particular condition, say schizophrenia, comprises dysfunctions in multiple faculties of mind; e.g. paranoid delusions (belief), blunted affect (emotion), ambivalence (will), and auditory hallucinations (perception). It is now accepted that psychiatry’s classifications of its subject matter into discrete conditions is much more controversial than, say, ophthalmology’s classifications. Often this is expressed by saying that psychiatric categories lack validity, which in turn is often taken to mean that they do not “map onto any entity discernible in the real world” (Kinderman et al. 2013: 2). We can refer to this position as medical realism, the view that the validity of disease categories rests on the extent to which they “represent features of the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 66). In order to do so, the categories in question, typically, need to satisfy two conditions: (1) the category has to be separated from related categories by a “zone of rarity”; (2) the category has to be “associated with explanatory variables of deeper structural significance” such as “causal factors [and] pathogenetic mechanisms” (Jablensky 2016: 27; see also Kendell and Jablensky 2003). Accordingly, in light of a medical realist view, a valid disease entity is a ‘natural kind’.
With a few notable exceptions such as the dementias and conditions such as Huntington’s Chorea, it is questionable whether current psychiatric categories can satisfy the two aforementioned requirements. Consider, first, the requirement for a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. In clinical medicine, a zone of rarity can be established on two grounds: clinical state and biomarkers. Clinical state refers to the symptoms and signs established during a clinical examination and by which the patient is determined to have a condition that is discontinuous with the ordinary functioning of the organ or system in question. For example, myocardial infarction is separated by a zone of rarity on the basis of clinical state: the experience of chest pain is qualitatively different from a healthy heart. On the other hand, a biomarker refers to a biological “characteristic that is objectively measured and evaluated as an indicator of normal biological processes, pathogenic processes, or pharmacologic responses to a therapeutic intervention”. In accordance with this definition, myocardial infarction is associated with a host of biomarkers such as Troponin and Creatine Kinase that, together with clinical state and other investigations, establish a zone of rarity surrounding the condition. Biomarkers can play a key role in diagnosis, prognosis, and classification.
Moving on to psychiatry, there is now ample literature that casts doubt on the ability of current psychiatric classifications to establish a zone of rarity surrounding their putative conditions. In the philosophy of psychiatry literature, the assumption that psychiatric categories are natural kinds has long been questioned (e.g. Zachar 2015, 2000; Haslam 2002; cf. Cooper 2013). On the basis of clinical state, it has proven difficult to draw categorical distinctions between one disorder and another, and between disorder and its absence. Symptoms of schizophrenia and symptoms of bipolar disorder overlap, necessitating awkward constructions such as schizoaffective disorder or mania with psychotic symptoms. And the boundary between clinical depression and intense grief has been critiqued as indeterminate, with the distinction between the two made on the seemingly arbitrary specification of the number of weeks during which a person can feel low before a diagnosis is made (see Horwitz and Wakefield 2007). And things are not better on the biomarker front; despite vigorous research, limited progress has been made in identifying biomarkers of clinical relevance, whether diagnostic, prognostic, or predictive (see Venkatasubramanian and Keshavan 2016; Kobeissy et al. 2013; Rose and Singh 2009). All of this indicates that there are difficulties in establishing a zone of rarity around key psychiatric categories.
Moving on to the second requirement identified earlier for a condition to constitute a natural kind – the requirement that the category is associated with distinctive aetiological and pathogenetic mechanisms – we find similar problems. Even though some progress has been made towards understanding the pathophysiology of schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression, our understanding of the aetiology of these conditions remains at best provisional, with a multitude of non-specific factors interacting in complex ways over a long period of time. For example, research on molecular genetics – which has seen significant advancement in recent years with the use of whole-genome studies and large samples – has only been able to identify genetic commonalities that stretch across multiple psychiatric categories (see Jablensky 2016).
In summary, the majority of psychiatric conditions cannot properly meet the requirements for a medical realist view. Some critics of psychiatry take this conclusion to imply that psychiatric categories lack validity (e.g. Kinderman et al. 2013, Timimi 2014, all the way back to Szasz 1960). But all the critics can really assert is that current psychiatric categories do not meet the requirements for medical realism about disorder: they are not natural kinds. And that is not a problem for the identity of psychiatry as a medical speciality for three reasons: (1) Defenders of a medical realist view of psychiatric categories can simply point out that more work needs to be done to refine the existing categories and to improve the science and the research on biomarkers, aetiology, and pathogenesis. (2) Alternatively, one could respond to the aforementioned critics by pointing out that there are many medical conditions that do not fully meet the requirements for medical realism yet are regarded as valid conditions that merit clinical attention and treatment. For example, the condition known as essential hypertension is not separated from normotension by a zone of rarity but is continuous with it, and neither is its causation entirely understood, hence its classification as ‘essential’ (or primary or idiopathic). Rheumatoid arthritis, while satisfying the zone of rarity requirement, is an autoimmune disorder whose aetiology is not understood. And some types of anaemia, while satisfying the aetiology requirement, are continuous with normal red blood cell size and number. (3) Finally, one could point out to the critics that medical realism is not the only option in medical ontology, another option being medical anti-realism.
Medical anti-realists reject the view that the diseases “we identify are either part of, or given to us by, the underlying structure of the world” (Simon 2011: 84). In contrast to medical realists, anti-realists do not accept the assumption of a mind-independent world that gives us our disease categories, rather such categories are pragmatic constructions driven by a range of criteria and stakeholders (see Simon 2011: 89-92). Among the criteria that enter into recognising a set of symptoms and signs as a disease category are the ability of the category to give useful information on prognosis, to enable doctors to affect the course of the patient’s condition, to explain the patient’s prior condition, and to be therapeutically modifiable. Other criteria can be of a utilitarian and economic nature whereby disease categories are recognised if doing so would benefit society as a whole, or would be economically productive or viable. For example, the cut-off point for treating essential hypertension has to achieve a balance between expected treatment benefit (by reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease) and the economic considerations of offering this treatment in a national health system.
The aforementioned criteria are emphasised differently by the different stakeholders. Doctors, researchers, governments, pharmaceutical companies, and patient groups each have their own interests and varying abilities to influence the construction of disease categories. This creates the possibility for disagreement over the legitimacy of certain conditions, something we can see playing out in the ongoing debates surrounding Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, a condition that “receives much more attention from its sufferers and their supporters than from the medical community” (Simon 2011: 91). And, in psychiatry, it has long been noted that some major pharmaceutical companies influence the construction of disorder in order to create a market for the psychotropic drugs they manufacture. From the perspective of medical anti-realism (in the constructivist form presented here), these influences are no longer seen as a hindrance to the supposedly objective, ‘natural kind’ status of disease categories, but as key factors involved in their construction. Thus, the lobbying power of the American Psychiatric Association, the vested interests of pharmaceutical companies, and the desire of psychiatrists as a group to maintain their prestige do not undermine the identity of psychiatry as a medical specialty; what they do is highlight the importance of emphasising the interests of patient groups as well as utilitarian and economic criteria to counteract and respond to the other interests. Medical constructivism is not a uniquely psychiatric ontology, it is a medicine-wide ontology; it applies to schizophrenia as it does to hypertension, appendicitis, and heart disease. Owing to the normative complexity of psychiatry (outlined earlier) and to the fact that loss of freedom is often involved in psychiatric practice, the vested interests involved in psychiatry are more complex and harder to resolve than in many other medical specialties. But that in itself is not a hindrance to psychiatry’s identity as a medical speciality.
We can see that on the normative, explanatory, and classificatory fronts, there is much that psychiatry can concede to its critics and still be able to able to maintain its identity as a medical speciality. It can concede the normative complexity of the psychiatric encounter while pointing out that this is a more challenging instance of the normative complexity of the general clinical encounter: values-based practice (alongside evidence-based practice) applies to all medical specialities. It can concede that it is more heavily invested in the psychosocial dimensions of the conditions of interest but that, like all medical specialities, it works within a biopsychosocial framework: the causality of all disorders is complex, across multiple levels. It can concede that a range of vested interests influences the construction of its disease categories, while pointing out that this is merely a more involved example of what occurs in all medical specialities.
Baker, M., and Menken, M. 2001. Time to Abandon the Term Mental Illness. BMJ 322: 937.
Biomarkers Definition Working Group. 2001. Biomarkers and Surrogate Endpoints: Preferred Definition and Conceptual Framework. Clinical Pharmacology and Therapeutics 69(3): 89-95.
Boorse, C. 2011. Concepts of Health and Disease. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. 13-64), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Bolton, D. 2008. What is Mental Disorder? An Essay in Philosophy, Science and Values. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bolton, D. 2013a. What is Mental Illness. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 434-450), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bolton, D. 2013b. Should Mental Disorder be Regarded as Brain Disorders? 21st Century Mental Health Sciences and Implications for Research and Training. World Psychiatry 12(1): 24-25.
Bolton, D. FORTHCOMING. The Biopsychosocial Model. Palgrave.
Bolton, D., and J. Hill. 2004. Mind, Meaning and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bolton, D., and N. Banner. 2012. Does Mental Disorder Involve Loss of Personal Autonomy? In Autonomy and Mental Disorder (pp. 77-99), L. Radoilska (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bracken, P., Thomas, P., Timimi, S., Asen, E., Behr, G., Beuster, C., Bhunnoo, S., Browne, I., Chhina, N., Double, D., Downer, S., Evans, C., Fernando, S., Garland, M., Hopkins, W., Huw, R., Johnson, B., Martindale, B., Middleton, H., Moldavsky, D., Moncrieff, J., Mullins, S., Nelki, J., Pizzo, M., Rodger, J., Smyth, M., Summerfield, D., Wallace, J., and Yeomans, D. 2012. Psychiatry Beyond the Current Paradigm. British Journal of Psychiatry 201: 430-434.
Cooper, R. 2013. Natural Kinds. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 950-965), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fulford, K., van Staden, C. W., and Crisp, R. 2013. Values-based practice: Topsy-turvy take-home messages from ordinary language philosophy (and a few next steps). In The Oxford handbook of philosophy and psychiatry (pp. 385-412), K. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ghaemi, N. 2016. Utility without Validity is Useless. Current Opinion in Psychiatry 15(1): 35-37.
Haslam, N. 2002. Kinds of Kinds: A Conceptual Taxonomy of Psychiatric Categories. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 9, 203-217
Hernandez, L., and Blazer, D. 2006. Genes, Behaviour, and the Social Environment: Moving Beyond the Nature/Nurture Debate. Washington, D.C.: The National Academics Press.
Horwitz, A., and Wakefield, J. 2007. The Loss of Sadness: How Psychiatry Transformed Normal Sorrow into Depressive Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jablensky, A. 2016. Psychiatric Classifications: Validity and Utility. World Psychiatry 15(1): 26-31.
Kendell, R., and Jablensky, A. 2003. Distinguishing Between the Validity and Utility of Psychiatric Diagnoses. American Journal of Psychiatry 160(1): 4-12.
Keil, G., Keuck, L., and Hauswald, R. 2017. Vagueness in Psychiatry: An Overview. In Vagueness in Psychiatry. G. Keil, L. Keuck, and R. Hauswald (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kinderman, P., Read, J., Moncrieff, J., and Bentall, R. 2013. Drop the Language of Disorder. Evidence Based Mental Health 16: 2-3.
Kingma, E. 2013. Naturalist Accounts of Mental Disorder. In The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Psychiatry (pp. 363-384), K.W.M. Fulford, M. Davies, R. Gipps, G. Graham, J. Sadler, G. Stanghellini, and T. Thornton (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kobeissy, F., Alawieh, A., Mondello, S., Boustany, R., and Gold, M. 2013. Biomarkers in Psychiatry: How Close Are We? Frontiers in Psychiatry 3(114): 1-2.
Rose, N., and Singh, I. 2009. Biomarkers in Psychiatry. Nature 460: 202-207.
Scull, A. 1975. From Madness to Mental Illness: Medical Men as Moral Entrepreneurs. European Journal of Sociology 16: 219-261.
Simon, J. 2011. Medical Ontology. In Philosophy of Medicine (pp. 65-114), F. Gifford (ed). Amsterdam: Elsevier.
Szasz, T. 1960. The Myth of Mental Illness. American Psychologist 15: 113-118.
Timimi, S. 2014. No More Psychiatric Labels: Why Formal Psychiatric Diagnostic Systems Should be Abolished. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology 14: 208-215.
Varga, S. 2015. Naturalism, Interpretation, and Mental Disorder. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Venkatasubramanian, G., and Keshavan, M. 2016. Biomarkers in Psychiatry – A Critique. Annals of Neurosciences 23(1): 3-5.
White, P. D., Rickards, H., and Zeman, A. 2012. Time to End the Distinction Between Mental and Neurological Illnesses. BMJ 344: e3454.
Zachar, P. 2000. Psychiatric Disorders Are Not Natural Kinds. Philosophy, Psychiatry and Psychology 7: 167-182.
Zachar, P. 2015. Psychiatric Disorders: Natural Kinds Made by the World or Practical Kinds Made by Us? World Psychiatry 14(3), 288-290.
 Values-based practice is one such solution (see Fulford and Van Staden 2013).
 A ‘natural kind’ is a philosophical concept which refers to entities that exist in nature and are categorically distinct from each other. The observable features of a natural kind arise from its internal structure which is also the condition for membership of the kind. For example, any compound that has two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen is water, irrespective of its observable features (which in the case of H2O can be ice, liquid, or gas).
 Biomarkers Definition Working Group (2001: 91).
 Indeterminacies of this kind have been discussed recently under the concept of ‘vagueness’; the notion that psychiatric classifications are imprecise with no sharp distinctions possible between those phenomena to which they apply and those to which they do not (Keil, Keuck, and Hauswald 2017). One possible implication of vagueness is a gradualist approach to mental health. For example, Sullivan-Bissett and colleagues (2017) argue that delusional and non-delusional beliefs differ in degree, not kind, a point that can also apply to the distinction between clinical depression and intense grief.
 An example of such attempts at refinement is the framework of the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC). See also Ghaemi (2016) and Bingham and Rashed (2014).
 As can be seen, the realist/anti-realist debate taps into fundamental issues in epistemology concerning our conception of truth. In the text I am not so much concerned with the status of that debate but simply with pointing out that there are alternatives to medical realism.
[Excerpt from Chapter 10 of Madness and the Demand for Recognition (2019, OUP)]
Referring to religious fundamentalism, Gellner (1992, p. 2) writes:
The underlying idea is that a given faith is to be upheld firmly in its full and literal form, free of compromise, softening, re-interpretation or diminution. It presupposes that the core of religion is doctrine, rather than ritual, and also that this doctrine can be fixed with precision and finality.
Religious doctrine includes fundamental ideas about our nature, the nature of the world and the cosmos, and the manner in which we should live and treat each other. In following to the letter the doctrines of one’s faith, believers are trying to get it right, where getting it right means knowing with exactness what God intended for us. In the case of Islam, the tradition I know most about, the Divine intent can be discerned from the Qur’an (considered to be the word of the God) and the Traditions (the sayings) attributed to the Prophet (see Rashed 2015b). The process of getting it right, therefore, becomes an interpretive one, raising questions such as: how do we understand this verse; what does God mean by the words ‘dust’ and ‘clot’ in describing human creation; who did the Prophet intend by this Tradition; does this Tradition follow a trusted lineage of re-tellers?
We can see that ‘getting it right’ for the religious fundamentalist and for the scientific rationalist mean different things – interpreting the Divine intent, and producing true explanations of the nature of the world, respectively. But then we have a problem, for religious doctrine often involves claims whose truth – in the sense of their relation to reality – can, in principle, be established. Yet in being an interpretive enterprise, religious fundamentalism cannot claim access to the truth in this sense. The religious fundamentalist can immediately respond by pointing out that the Divine word corresponds to the truth; it is the truth. If we press the religious fundamentalist to tell us why this is so we might be told that the truth of God’s pronouncements in the Qur’an is guaranteed by God’s pronouncement (also in the Qur’an) that His word is the truth and will be protected for all time from distortion. Such a circular argument, of course, is unsatisfactory, and simply points to the fact that matters of evidence and logic have been reduced to matters of faith. If we press the religious fundamentalist further we might encounter what has become a common response: the attempt to justify the truth of the word of God by demonstrating that the Qur’an had anticipated modern scientific findings, and had done so over 1400 years ago. This is known as the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’; scholars interpret certain ambiguous, almost poetic verses to suggest discoveries such as the relativity of time, the process of conception, brain functions, the composition of the Sun, and many others. The irony in such an attempt is that it elevates scientific truths to the status of arbiter of the truth of the word of God. But the more serious problem is that science is a self-correcting progressive enterprise – what we know today to be true may turn out tomorrow to be false. The Qur’an, on the other hand, is fixed; every scientific claim in the Qur’an (assuming there are any that point to current scientific discoveries) is going to be refuted the moment our science develops. You cannot use a continually changing body of knowledge to validate the eternally fixed word of God.
Neither the faith-based response nor the ‘scientific miracle of the Qur’an’ response can tie the Divine word to the truth. From the stance of scientific rationality, all the religious fundamentalist can do is provide interpretations of the ‘Divine’ intent as the latter can be discerned in the writings of his or her tradition. Given this, when we are presented with identities constituted by doctrinal claims whose truth can, in principle, be established (and which therefore stand or fall subject to an investigation of their veracity), we cannot extend a positive response to these identities; scientific rationality is within its means to pass judgement.
But not all religion is purely doctrinal in this sense or, more precisely, its doctrines are not intended as strictly factual claims about the world; Appiah (2005, p. 188) makes this point:
Gore Vidal likes to talk about ancient mystery sects whose rites have passed down so many generations that their priests utter incantations in language they no longer understand. The observation is satirical, but there’s a good point buried here. Where religious observance involves the affirmation of creeds, what may ultimately matter isn’t the epistemic content of the sentences (“I believe in One God, the Father Almighty …”) but the practice of uttering them. By Protestant habit, we’re inclined to describe the devout as believers, rather than practitioners; yet the emphasis is likely misplaced.
This is a reasonable point; for many people, religion is a practical affair: they attend the mosque for Friday prayers with their family members, they recite verses from the Qur’an and repeat invocations behind the Imam, and they socialise with their friends after the prayer, and during all of this, ‘doctrine’ is the last thing on their minds. They might even get overwhelmed with spiritual feelings of connectedness to the Divine. In the course of their ritual performance, they are likely to recite verses the content of which involves far-fetched claims about the world. It would be misguided to press them on the truth of those claims (in an empirical or logical sense), as it would be to approach, to use Taylor’s (1994a, p. 67) example, “a raga with the presumptions of value implicit in the well-tempered clavier”; in both cases we would be applying the wrong measure of judgement, it would be “to forever miss the point” (ibid.).
And then there is the possibility that the ‘truths’ in question are metaphorical truths, symbolic expressions of human experience, its range and its moral heights and depths. Charles Taylor (2007, 1982) often talks about the expressive dimension of our experience, a dimension that has been largely expunged from scientific research and its technological application. Human civilizations have always developed rich languages of expression, religious languages being a prominent example. The rarefied language of scientific rationality and its attendant procedural asceticism are our best bet to get things right about the world, but they are often inadequate as a means to express our psychological, emotional, and moral complexity.
To judge the practical (ritualistic) and expressive dimensions of identities in light of the standards of scientific rationality is to trespass upon these identities. Our judgements are misplaced and have limited value. My contention is that every time we suspect that we do not possess the right kind of language to understand other identities, or that there is an experience or mode of engagement that over-determines the language in which people express their identities, we have a genuine problem of shared understanding; we are not within our means to pass judgements of irrationality on the narratives that constitute these identities. Now I am not suggesting that the distinctions between doctrine and practice, or between understanding the world and expressing ourselves, are easy to make. And neither am I suggesting that a particular case falls neatly on side or the other of these distinctions. But if we are going to adopt the stance of scientific rationality – given that we have to adopt some stance as I have argued earlier – then these are the issues we need to think about: (1) Is the narrative best apprehended in its factual or expressive dimension? (2) Are there experiences that over-determine the kind of narrative that can adequately express them?
By developing a perspective on the social model of disability and by appealing to the concept of intelligiblity, I respond to arguments against Mad Pride activism. You can access the article HERE.
Abstract: At a time when different groups in society are achieving notable gains in respect and rights, activists in mental health and proponents of mad positive approaches, such as Mad Pride, are coming up against considerable challenges. A particular issue is the commonly held view that madness is inherently disabling and cannot form the grounds for identity or culture. This paper responds to the challenge by developing two bulwarks against the tendency to assume too readily the view that madness is inherently disabling: the first arises from the normative nature of disability judgments, and the second arises from the implications of political activism in terms of being a social subject. In the process of arguing for these two bulwarks, the paper explores the basic structure of the social model of disability in the context of debates on naturalism and normativism, the applicability of the social model to madness, and the difference between physical and mental disabilities in terms of the unintelligibility often attributed to the latter.
On the 6th of August 2018 I delivered a live webinar that was part of a Mad Studies series organised by Mad in America. The aim of the webinar was to explore ways of incroporating ideas from Mad activism into clinical practice. The full recording of the webinar and the accompanying slides can be found below.
For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).
The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:
And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot