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Skepticism, Depression, and Addiction

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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.

Abe Lincoln had depression, and he was pretty cool.

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 with inquiries about philosophy, logic, guest blogging, or visiting to give a presentation!

Helpful resources:
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About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

8 comments on “Skepticism, Depression, and Addiction

  1. Zachary Ernst
    May 14, 2012

    Amen, Seth! It’s crucial for people to be more open about mental health issues in order to remove the stigmas that are so incredibly damaging and prevent people from getting help. Skeptics are a good group for helping accomplish this, because we should be the people who are most concerned with overturning harmful dogmas. For those of us who aren’t inclined toward the “higher power” approach to addiction (which, by all accounts, has been incredibly helpful and life-changing for many, many people), there needs to be more acceptance of a secular approach. I’m trying now to put my own story out there for all those reasons (which is here:

  2. Dave Muscato
    May 15, 2012


  3. rocketkirchner
    May 15, 2012

    Thank you for your honesty Seth . There is an un healthy stigma with mental illness in our soceity . i know alot on this subject , being a music therapist , and having Vertigo myself . I also recently was asked by my doctor to speak to a group of residents that were getting ready to graduate this year and be nuerologists. my doctor wanted me to speak about my spiritual life –the software -so to speak , becuase even though i still take my meds daily as balancing chemicals in the brain that is not enough . So here is where i am gonna disagree with you .

    First off let me state this –my relationship with Christ saw me thru the darkest hours of Vertigo . It did not stop my depression , but it did give me hope that when my brain was reeling out of control for 11 months straight before the post viral period unable to tell the difference bewteen the ceiling and the floor , i knew that i was not my brain nor my body , but rather a spirit living in a body . the words that kept coming to me were: in the beggining God … before there were walls , and celings and floors to deal with in motion perceptially thru the optic nerve from the signals from inner ear infection to the brain . in a word –i already had a sense of the eternal and 20 years of a relationship with a loving God before this all happened to me in 1995 .

    2nd . Historically in western philisophy , the Skeptic school in the silver age led by Phyrro was not opposed to the Stoic concept of religion like Diogenes and the cynic school was. It was way more elastic . I dont know how you are defining your term ”skeptic ” , but it does not sound like that particluar school of thought . so you may want to define it .

    3. The danger of setting up an either/or between software and hardware . Nuerology is moving away from this outdated concept becuase it runs contrary to patient care. The journals are clear about this . maybe not to the extent of where i am coming from as a christian practioner , but at least they consider it an option , becuase whatever works for each patient works. There is no either/or , but a both/and . Your both/and might be certain emotional practices that keep you calm plus your meds …mine are going to a quite Mass and comtemplative prayer taking my meds. the endgame here is homostasis . Zach thinks that might what he calls ”harmful dogmas”. but i can assure him that the dogma of being a practicing catholic and retreating with monks in solitude is nothing of the kind harmful . to take that position , is as extreme as brother jed taking his position that one does not have to take meds. again –this is not either/or , but BOTH/AND .

    Last thing . I told the ready to be doctors something — i put it in a Socratic form –are you ready to 8 hours a day take upon yourself the burdens of the mentally ill by just head knowledge and your own strenth without the needed compassion and a higher power ? can you really do this with a construct of self suffiency ? your patients health and sanity is at stake , so you better consider the cost and the challenge that you cant do this all by yourself .

  4. rocketkirchner
    May 16, 2012

    Seth , the history of philsophy has shown us that being a skeptic can go both ways . There have been skeptical atheists and skeptical theists. A good example of this is Timon of Athens , a disciple of Pyrrho , who himself learned from Antishenes and Epimenides . Timon kept his skepticism in accordance with Plato’s Demiurge and Cleanthse’s ”Tomb to the unkown God ”. ..that the Stoics embraced , and St. Paul refered to in his confrontation with the Athenian Stoics and Epicurian thinkers at Mars Hill ( Acts 17 ) . ..stating ”this God i will reveal to you ” .

    On the Atheists side : if you have not read Sextus Empiricus short treaty called ”Arguments against belief in God ” i recommend it , though it has been years since i read it . i lost my copy . anyway , it is translated by Edwyn Beven in his ”Later Greek Religion ” ( pp52–56) thru Carheades as reported by Clitomachus .

    I bring this up becuase the word ”skeptic ”has seem to be hijacked these days by variuos atheists , just like the word ”salvation ” has been hijacked by the relgiuos right . it is good to refresh our history as reference points for discussion .

  5. Duell Lauderdale
    May 23, 2012

    Since AA is already so damn ingrained into our society, it seems like we should possibly encourage them to amend their policy of submitting to a higher power. Of all the actions I see in the program, that is obviously the most unnecessary and excluding of all the principles. This is a great article though. This idea of self-preserving rationalism is very philosophically modern from my perspective.

  6. rocketkirchner
    May 24, 2012

    Duell , i have never been to an AA meeting nor do i have that particular addiction problem , but i know addiction , and i know mental illness first hand … and the problem as i see it is that self preserving rationailism and moderism IS the problem . it cant fix a damn thing . why ? becuase it has no power . i wrote an article for this blog some time ago that when dave gets the time i hope he puts it up …its call ”the self as the ultimate form of tyranny ”.

    My freind who has been in AA for 21 years said after i read Seth’s article that i should recommend a chapter in the AA big book called ”we agnostics”.

    to those who think that they can save themselves thru some sort of ersatz self preservation is nothing but the dictatorship of pride at work . to that person i say with a cynical smile ”lots of luck pal ”. Rationalism never saved anybody if you think about it . it does not have the POWER to save. it is good for many things in life , but this is not one of them . i have lost freinds to suicide who tried saving themselves . I cannot speak for Alex , but i think that is why he hammers away at nihilism as an outgrowth of naturalism so much . it is no exit .

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      May 29, 2012

      Well, you can keep your luck. I’ve been sober 4 years, thanks to the power of rational decision making.

  7. rocketkirchner
    May 29, 2012

    well Seth ….mmm … let me think here — i want to be diplomatic in my response becuase i really do like you . all i can say is that in my view rational decision making is quicksand , and it may last for a while , and i would hate to see you fall off the wagon , but i also know that you are philosophically a thinking man , and so i would say as in regards to these matters — i am a real skeptic becuase i have seen far too many people fall becuase they built on a faulty foundation . Sure it worked for a while . That does not mean that i condone AA , becuase that is not my particular illness . ..or antidote . But i do understand that if we think that we are the center of the universe ; this trendy gospel of SELF , it can spell trouble down the line . please take no offence to this . and also might i add , that a Theist can be a skeptic . A few years back there was a rational Theist that spoken at Skeptican in Springfield , and even the folks at Sasha were impressed.

    There is a long history of skeptical theism as well as christian humanism . I am afraid that becuase skeptical thinking in christendom has gone out of style in the main , that does not mean that it never was , nor that there is not a remnant of brilliant skeptics on the faith side of the spectrum . Atheists always bring up Occam’s razor when i debate them , but they forget that William of Occam was a devout Franscican friar . Richard Rubenstein’s book ”Aristotle’s children ” covers this era of high medieval thought with the jews , muslims , and catholic intellectuals in Cordova Spain in which Occam was a part of .

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This entry was posted on May 14, 2012 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach and tagged , , , .
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