Never Mind

This paper was originally posted on the website of the Center for Independent Thought, Philadelphia, PA, as my “acceptance speech” for the 2010 Thomas S. Szasz Award.

Let us begin with a thought-experiment. Suppose that you are sitting in your living room with someone whom you know very well—a close friend or a relative. Now let us suppose that in mid-conversation your friend excuses him or herself, gets up, and goes into the kitchen to get another glass of wine or beer. During the minute or two that he or she is out of your sight something happens that you are not aware of. It is the culmination of a project to substitute a robot for your friend by a group of invisible scientists from a planet in the Pleiades that we will call Nebach.

This robot is very high-tech; not only does it look exactly like your friend, sound like him or her, feel like him or her, but on the inside it is identical to him or her: there are no batteries, chips, transistors, or wires. The technology achieved by the Nebachians has permitted them to develop a biological robot not a mere electro-mechanical one. That is, its inner workings—neurochemical, genetic, etc.—are identical to your friend’s inner workings.

The robot now comes back into your living room with his or her wine or beer and the conversation resumes without a pause or a stumble. Now, here’s the question: How long do you think it would take you to figure out that this creature is really not your friend but an identical copy? Is there anything missing from this copy that would be the clue for you?

I suggest that your answer would be that what is missing from the robot are your friend’s soul, mind, habits of thinking and speaking, his or her yearnings, intentions, feelings, and dreams all of which make up the essence of your friend’s unique humanity. The question now becomes: How could you know that these—let us call them mental aspects—are not present in the Nebachian robotic copy of your friend? (I should acknowledge at this point that this is not exactly a new question: a similar argument, although for the “opposite” purpose, has been attributed to Gottfried Leibniz.) I argue that, regardless of the techniques you might employ: brain imaging, chemical analyses, etc., you could never know that the robot is a copy.

Let me press the question a little further and ask: Why is it important to you that your robot-friend have these mental aspects? Remember that neither the robot’s statements, conduct, nor preferences will be any different from your friend’s. The robot will, for example, still prefer Merlot over Pinot Noir, or lager over pale ale, despite your chiding.

Your first line of defense is likely to be that the robot would not be human, and that it is precisely these so-called mental aspects which make all of us human. My response to you would be that you are indulging in wildly inferential thinking in defense of your belief that you are not the only self-aware being on this planet. In other words, you are assuming that because you believe you have thoughts, urges, intentions, and fears that everyone else does, too. Philosophers have called this the argument by analogy and they have suggested that it is a weak argument. I agree.

I suggest that you don’t have thoughts and intentions either. These and the rest of the chimera and ephemera of the mental realm are no more than words we have incorporated into our language over centuries to describe various aspects of our so-called conscious experience. They are constructs, inferences, and no more real than unicorns or goblins. Stated differently, when it comes to describing what we call experience we are all enmeshed in a colossal semantic fallacy.

What is our incentive for continuing this charade? I suggest that we use these constructs to help ourselves understand and feel comfortable with our conduct. When it comes to other people’s conduct we might examine their history and current dilemmas for that understanding, although we will see in a moment that we tend not to do that. When it comes to ourselves, however, we appear to be adamant in not looking at how each of our histories has contributed to our current difficulties (nor do we scrutinize ourselves or others when things are going well!); and we employ the concept of mind (to use Ryle’s term) as one contrivance by which to accomplish this. That is to say we, especially we as Americans, seem to have an aversion to history and we prefer to commit a semantic fallacy by reifying the construct called mind.

My colleague and friend Thomas Szasz, MD, has noted that in the French, German, and Hungarian languages no noun exists for mind. Likewise, upon checking in the University of Chicago Spanish Dictionary, there is no noun for mind there either. To “make up one’s mind” in Spanish is simply decidirse; and to “speak one’s mind freely” is hablar con toda franquenza. No inference regarding a thing called mind is contained in these two or in any other of the examples given in this dictionary. The relevance of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is clear: language dominates our view of the world.

We especially prefer the mental realm as an explanation of the conduct of others. In past decades we might have asked, when confronted with someone’s distressing conduct, What kind of upbringing did this person have? Today we are much more likely to ask, What is this person’s diagnosis? That is, we appeal to a mental construct shrouded in the quasi-medical terminology of mental illness. In so doing we conveniently overlook that even a real medical diagnosis is not necessarily an explanation. Saying that someone has pneumonia does not in itself tell us anything about how the person’s symptoms came about. For that we must look at the disease’s etiology, that is, its history.

Labels suggesting the existence of mental entities are not credible explanations of actions—either our own or anyone else’s. Even a cursory examination reveals an accounting for conduct in terms of bi-polar disorder, ADHD, or schizophrenia to be circular: the existence of the disorder is inferred from the person’s conduct (the “symptom”) alone, and then the hypothesized disorder is used to account for the conduct. This is so much easier than examining the person’s history!

Lest you think that this discussion has been an idle exercise by a philosopher-psychologist whose only alternative on a blustery Sunday afternoon was to watch the TV production of Turandot, let me now come to the point. Thomas Szasz has argued that the unwanted and frequently bizarre actions we characterize as mental illness are not the symptoms of true disease. He says that mental illness is a metaphor and his many books and articles describe the criteria necessary to call an ailment or an affliction a disease.

I agree with Dr. Szasz although my assault on what he has for the past 50 years called the “myth of mental illness” differs from his in two ways. First, I argue that the concept of mental illness is not a necessary one. We already know the factors involved in producing the unwanted behaviors that are conventionally thought of as the symptoms of so-called mental illness. My book, Healing the Hurting Soul: A Survival Manual for the Black Sheep in Every Family examines those factors in detail. William of Ockham would suggest that, since we know the antecedents of unwanted conduct, further investigation becomes extraneous and confused by the creation of a fictitious entity to “explain” it. We don’t need to explain unwanted conduct beyond describing its antecedents.

Second, I argue that the very concept of mind and all those “things” deemed to exist in the mental realm: ideas, thoughts, wants, urges, fears, beliefs, and mental illnesses themselves are verbal contrivances. Furthermore, they are verbal contrivances that we need in order to support our preconceived view of humans as having free will.

During the 1960s and 1970s when large computers were making their debut, science fiction writers suggested wryly—and students of artificial intelligence somewhat more seriously—that the time would eventually come when networks of computers would approximate the complexity of the human brain and thereby develop consciousness or awareness of themselves thus having abilities to act on their own. This has not happened, and I argue that it cannot happen. It cannot happen because intelligence is a function of neuro-chemical complexity only in the most obvious sense. Conjectured imbalances in serotonin, dopamine, black bile, yellow bile, blood, or phlegm have nothing to do with the unwanted conduct supposedly symptomatic of mental illness. Unwanted conduct is a function of trauma and of each family’s tacit rules regarding how such trauma are to be dealt with.

The mind is an inference, a reification, an explanatory fiction. It is of use only to help those of us lacking the courage to inventory our histories and acknowledge that we are, to use Bernard Shaw’s word, only dupes or, in Shakespeare’s phrase, poor players strutting and fretting our way upon the stage soon to be heard no more. Finally, there is no such thing as mental illness because there is no such thing as mind.

© Louis Wynne 2010