Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Psychiatry: Minds are not molecules

Here's a treat: A sympathetic look by Jeffrey Oliver in The New Atlantis at Thomas Szasz's lonely crusade against mechanistic and materialistic psychiatry, as it was practiced in the twentieth century:
Szasz's attack targeted the cornerstone of modern American psychiatry: the marriage of mind and molecule, the notion that behavior can safely be classified as "sickness" and that the mind can safely be "treated" just like any other organ. In calling that marriage a sham, Szasz mocked the efforts of almost every major American psychiatrist back to Benjamin Rush, the profession's founding father. "The subjects [mental diseases] have hitherto been enveloped in mystery," Rush wrote in the late eighteenth century. "I have endeavored to bring them down to the level of all other diseases of the human body, and to show that the mind and the body are moved by the same causes and subject to the same laws." This was the error Szasz aimed to correct.

While Szasz went overboard, as Oliver shows, he made vastly more sense than he was given credit for. The attempt to reduce psychiatry to neurology never worked and couldn't work:
If mental illnesses truly begin in the brain, no psychiatrist on earth can conclusively say when, where, why, or how. ... Given the complexity of the human psyche, this makes sense: we can hardly expect the many moods and miseries of human life, even the most extreme, to have simple neurological explanations. But given the grand ambitions of modern psychiatry—to explain the human condition, to heal every broken soul—the reliance on behavioral observation has led to the medicalization of an ever-growing range of human behaviors. It treats life's difficulties and oddities as clinical conditions rather than humanity in its fullness.

That's really what Szasz was concerned with.
We no longer have the right to be offended by what Szasz says. It is too late for Aesculapian arrogance. Szasz has been telling us over and over again that the ways in which we comfortably define behavior as "sick" ... can be more devastating to the human spirit than any persecution. He has been telling us over and over again that whatever "health" is, it is closer to whatever "freedom" is, than any other two conceptualizations that we push aside in our little black bags.

Of course, Oliver assumes that freedom exists, as I do, but much of modern high culture had been concerned of late with denying its possibility.

Incidentally, Szasz was an atheist; he was not fronting for a religion when he wrote what he did.
My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, which keeps tabs on the intelligent design controversy.