The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
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I’m Seth, and I have all three of those things. I had the latter two before I caught the former, so I don’t think skepticism is responsible for my being depressed and an addict. In fact, I think skepticism helps me deal with my two monkeys. Before becoming a practicing skeptic, I relied heavily on my emotions and unreflective intuitions for guidance. This got me into trouble. Some people may be lucky enough to have a virtuously constituted character, such that their intuitions and emotions reliably guide them to prudent decisions, but I am not one of them. In order to act wisely, it takes a lot of effort for me. Skepticism develops my calm, slow-thinking rumination skills, such that I’m less impulsive and more cautious about following my gut. This is a good thing for me, and I think it can help others with similar mental problems.
At Skepticon IV, JT Eberhard surprised many of us with a talk about why the skeptic community should engage society on issues related to mental health. His argument was a powerful analogy: As skeptics, we combat the pseudoscientific claims made by the homeopathic/alternative medicine community, and those of the anti-vaccination collective, because they can result in serious harm to patients suffering from medical conditions, for example, death. Similarly, American culture adopts pseudoscientific views about mental health, associating disorders with weaknesses of character and shunning counseling, and this can result in serious harm to patients suffering from mental disorders, for example, death. So, we should care about this cultural stigma against mental disorders, and raise consciousness about it. That sounds pretty good to me.
I think there’s another way that skepticism can help. Not only can skepticism raise public awareness about the scientific view of mental disorders, but it can also directly save lives by changing people’s decision-making processes. We often encounter the claim that religion can offer a person a sense of meaning in life, and a feeling of comfort sufficient to ameliorate the effects of depression. While in treatment, they told me I could quit drinking only if I surrendered to a higher power, and most people offer God as the very higher power one needs. So, religion often claims two potential benefits over skepticism: 1) ameliorates depression; 2) “treats” addiction. In fact, I think skepticism offers both of these benefits, and does so better than any religion.
Being a good skeptic is not about believing a certain set of propositions. It is about conditioning one’s mind to slow down, and follow the grueling path of reason. You can be a good skeptic who believes false things, true things, or nothing at all. It is all about cultivating a defensive, reflective mind, and being wary of adopting something on insufficient grounds. It may not be immediately clear how this helps ameliorate depression, because most people associate depression with a feeling of sadness, and so assume the amelioration of depression is some sort of positive emotion. So, for many, it makes sense that religion should ameliorate depression, because it includes beliefs about life and the afterlife that make one feel good. Skepticism doesn’t really do this. But that’s okay, because depression is really not about feeling sad. Depression is the weight that presses you into your bed in the morning, so many times stronger than mere gravity. It is the void that pulls on you, inviting you to experience the relative bliss of nothingness. It is an acute awareness of, and even fixation on, one’s own mortality. Death calls to a depressed person like the sea calls to a pirate. For us, it seems like going home. But, upon some sober reflection, we see that this is not really what we want.
Practicing skepticism develops this skill, or habit, of sober reflection. The same way skepticism can lead one away from religion, it can lead a depressed person off the ledge (I don’t mean that to be a reference to the movie. I haven’t seen it.). Skepticism allows you to question the thoughts and impulses that come to you like whispers in the night, from deep down in your brain. You ask yourself, “Why do I want to do this? Do I have a good reason for thinking this? Is this a decision I would make after thinking about it more carefully?” For us depressed types, the answer is often “no” when the thoughts and impulses come from our intuitions, or emotions. Each time you confront an intuitive impulse with reason, you win a tiny victory, and you get better at it. You learn to recognize that sometimes your brain does things that aren’t really in your best interest, or aren’t otherwise rational. For me, I sometimes have vivid images of stabbing myself in the chest come out of nowhere. This happens less frequently now that I’m being treated. I’ve learned to acknowledge that my brain is just misbehaving when it does this, and that its not really something I want to do, upon due reflection. Similarly, when I hear the call of the void, I acknowledge that my brain is probably low on some chemical, and that upon further reflection I’ll see that life is overall pretty good. I think skepticism can help other people in this very same way. And you don’t even need to believe any false things to experience the benefit!
Regarding addiction, I must say I still have a bit of resentment. For three months, one hour each day, I was forced to sit and listen to religious inmates talk about how I needed to surrender to the higher power – that I can’t quit drinking on my own. Because I was in a state institution, a secular alternative was offered, called S.O.S. (Save Our Selves, or Secular Organizations for Sobriety), but this group was also run by religious inmates who merely didn’t take sobriety seriously. They used the hour as an opportunity to goof off and complain about the staff, whereas the Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous groups at least took the sessions seriously. I told the AA group I was an atheist, and that I didn’t believe in anything like the higher power they believed in. They told me my higher power could be anything; even a coffee maker. Others were more reasonable, and said the higher power could be something like the group itself. But honestly, I just never felt like surrendering myself to the group. I don’t like joining groups, let alone surrendering to them.
Well, I figured reason itself makes a decent stand-in for a higher power. It’s not something I worship, and I don’t surrender to it in any meaningful sense, but with skepticism’s help I can put brakes on my brain, and let reason influence my decisions. With brakes applied, I realize I never really have a good reason to drink. Just like with religion, and just like with depression, I’ve conditioned myself to recognize the urges to drink for what they are: screams from the non-rational part of my brain, resting on cultural norms and chemical deficiencies in my brain. They are things to be resisted by slowing down and thinking carefully, just like any other faulty rationalization. When the passions flame up and start pulling on us, skepticism teaches us to do nothing for a while, until the flames die down. It is not always easy to do nothing, but it is always possible, I think. Practicing skepticism makes it easier.
Group therapy definitely helps with depression and alcoholism/addiction, but I think the secular alternative to AA/NA needs to be more publicly available. I’m sure there are lots of skeptics out there with problems like mine who aren’t keen on going to a thinly veiled religious service. The secular alternative, S.O.S., is a program run through CFI, and you can look for nearby meetings here, or see about starting one in your own community, I reckon. I should see about doing that.
Seth Kurtenbach is a philosophy Master’s student and computer science PhD student at the University of Missouri. His research focuses on applications of formal logic and game theory to questions about knowledge and rationality. He is growing a mighty beard, in order to increase his philosophical powers. Feel free to contact Seth at firstname.lastname@example.org with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!