Wednesday, August 21, 2019

The implications for psychiatry of a processual philosophy of biology

René Descartes was the first to apply the natural scientific mechanistic approach to life (although excluding the soul) (see previous post). This perspective has remained the most pervasive view within biology. Nonetheless there have been challenges that recognise that living beings have a purposiveness that cannot be derived from mere physical-chemical processes. For example, Georg Ernst Stahl differentiated organic life from the inorganic, integrating the soul and the body in the organism. This led to his erroneous claim that living things possess a vital entity. 

With the origin of enlightenment thinking in the second half of the eighteenth century, Immanuel Kant’s critical philosophy was clear that it is absurd and futile to expect to be able to understand and explain life in terms of merely mechanical principles of nature (see previous post). A mechanistic conception of nature fails to provide a complete characterisation of living systems. Organisms, unlike machines, are self-organising and self-reproducing systems. Different modes of explanation are therefore required for teleological and mechanical points of views. Although we can never have theoretical knowledge that anything in nature is teleological, such judgment is nonetheless necessary and beneficial for us and we commonly embark on a ‘daring adventure of reason’ to understand life in mechanical terms. 

American pragmatic philosophers, such as William James and John Dewey, in the context of Darwin’s theory of evolution, attempted to dissolve such metaphysical disputes by focusing on nature and experience and the centrality of the organism-environment interaction. Following the development of quantum mechanics in physics, a group of organicist biologists promoted life’s dynamic, systemic and purposive character as a way of moving on from physico-chemical reductionism (see previous post). For example, John Scott Haldane recognised the distinctiveness and irreducibility of living beings because of the continuous dynamic preservation of the internal environment. One of the most important principles of biology for Ludwig von Bertalanffy was the stream of life conception, that living forms are the expression of a perpetual stream of matter and energy.

More recently, Dupré and Nicholson (2018) have proposed a manifesto for a processual philosophy of biology to move on from explanation in terms of static unchanging entities. Their project promotes the metaphysical thesis that the living world is made up of processes not substances. Alfred North Whitehead articulated a comprehensive metaphysical system for process thinking, but Dupré and Nicolson distance themselves from its details. There needs to be more discussion about the underlying philosophical worldview and limitations of the mechanistic approach to biology and such processual thinking provides a valuable framework to take this debate forward. 

This process perspective has implications for medicine in general, in particular in relation to the concepts of illness and disease. Illness disturbs a person’s functional equilibrium and disease, particularly since the development of anatomoclinical methods in the 19thcentury (see previous post), tends to be understood as structural biological pathology. Emphasising the disruption of dynamic processes as a way of understanding disease moves on from this simple contrast between organism as thing and its independent pathological process. 

This paper focuses on the implication for psychiatry of processual thinking. The mind-body problem can be seen as a more specific form of the mechanistic-processual dilemma (see eg. previous post). Persons need to be understood as biological processes. There is a history in psychiatry of attempts to integrate somatic and psychosocial aspects, and this can be related to developments in processual thinking in biology (see previous post).

For example, George Engel proposed a new medical model, suggesting that the general systems theory of von Bertalanffy provided a suitable conceptual basis for his biopsychosocial model (see previous post). Perhaps in a similar way to Dupré and Nicolson, whose project does not specifically build on Whitehead’s overarching theory, an integrated biopsychosocial approach is not dependent on general systems theory as such. For example, Adolf Meyer’s Psychobiology was more related to American pragmatism. Meyer was clear that Psychobiology studies man as a person within the framework of biology (see previous post). 

Such integrated mind-brain understandings were also present in the origins of modern psychiatry. For example, Ernst von Feuchtersleben published his textbook influenced by Kantian critical philosophy in the same year, 1845, that saw the publication in German of the book in which Wilhelm Griesinger set the trend for understanding the pathology and therapy of mental diseases as a mechanical natural science. The argument of this paper is that processual thinking in biology counters this dominant positivist tendency within current psychiatry (see previous post).


(Abstract submitted to Peter Sowerby interdisciplinary workshop: Conceptual issues in biological psychiatry)

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