Wednesday, September 06, 2023

Updating psychiatry’s biology

I’ve mentioned John Dupré previously (see post). His book The metaphysics of biology: Elements in the philosophy of biology (2021) looks at four general philosophical perspectives on life: vitalism, materialism, mechanism and organicism. Vitalism is generally derided because it is seen as postulating a vital thing or substance that is unique to life. Materialism, in the sense of the non-existence of the immaterial, is obviously true but, in this sense, a narrow claim. It is often strongly associated with the thesis of mechanism that life can be explained as a machine. Organicism, like vitalism, asserts that different principles apply to living systems. As Dupre says, "The point of difference is that it is not that there are principles that don’t apply to matter, but that these principles apply only when matter is organised in a particular way.“

An organism exhibits a mode of organisation very different from a machine. It is more than the sum of its parts. Cells and bodies are not well-defined structures but actually stabilised processes (see eg. previous post). Vitalism attributes the wrong kind of specialness to life, but nonetheless, living beings have a purposiveness that cannot be derived from mere physical-chemical processes.

Psychiatry, therefore, needs to update its biology from mechanism to organicism. Mechanical explanations are insufficient for an account of the totality of human nature. Psychiatry's primary object is not the brain but the person living in relationships. This fundamental failure to appreciate this philosophical reality is damaging psychiatry.

No comments: