Tuesday, June 08, 2021

Limits to knowledge about mental illness

As I've said before (eg. see previous post), biomedical psychiatry makes unsubstantiated claims about the nature of primary mental illness by suggesting it can be understood, let alone explained, as a brain abnormality. It's natural to go beyond the evidence on topics to which we can't possibly know the answer. Even though it's absurd to make such an attempt to understand primary mental illness in biological terms, nonetheless it seems to make sense to us that we should be able to provide such understanding and explanation. We, therefore, embark on wish-fulfilling fantasies about biological causes, even believing they have been established when they have not. Neuroscientists know that biological causes of primary mental illness have not been found, but nonetheless speculate about the latest research findings which unexpectedly never turn out to be proven, as there are so many inconsistencies and confounders in the data.

The fundamental problem is that we cannot know in mechanical terms how life arises (see previous post). Organisms don't follow the same rules as physical objects and seem purposive. We can, therefore, only talk about the reasons for primary mental illness, not its empirical causes. It cannot be reduced to brain disease in principle (see previous post). Although mental illness is of course enabled by the brain, mental states have meaning, which the brain as an object lacks. However much we may hope that we can explain primary mental illness in physical terms, we can't. We need to learn to accept the limits of our knowledge and how this applies to mental illness.

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