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Monthly Archives: November 2010

New book: ‘The Philosophy of CBT’

Donald Robertson, a British therapist who is head of the UK College of CBT, has a new book out called The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which looks at the roots of CBT in ancient Greek philosophy. Donald, like me, is fascinated by the role ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, particularly Stoicism, has played in inspiring the cognitive revolution in modern psychology, and has done a brilliant job at researching this influence, not just on the theoretical side of CBT, but also in terms of practical techniques which therapists use today.

Donald was inspired by his reading of the French classicist Pierre Hadot, who sadly passed away a few months ago. There wasn’t a single obituary of Hadot in the British press, although to my mind he was one of the great philosophers of the last 50 years. But he was very humble, shy, didn’t give interviews, so he didn’t get the media attention he deserved. Perhaps he preferred it that way. Most academics know his ideas, if at all, through Michel Foucault, who was much less shy about media attention.
Hadot transformed the modern understanding of ancient philosophy, by reminding us that, for the ancients, philosophy was a way of life, something that consisted in a set of ‘spiritual exercises’, which one practiced to transform one’s psyche and achieve inner peace. Philosophy provided a sort of first-aid kit which ordinary people could turn to in moments of emotional crisis – or to make themselves more resilient in preparation for those crises.
As Donald shows, many of these ‘spiritual exercises’ have been picked up and re-used by modern psychology, thanks to the work of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, the two inventors of cognitive therapy, who were both inspired by their reading of ancient Greek philosophy. But not all of the ancients’ therapeutic techniques have been re-discovered, and Donald has performed some very valuable research in exploring and uncovering other exercises which modern psychology could deploy.
There are still some areas of the ancients’ tool-kit that Donald doesn’t discuss – for example, he doesn’t discuss the physical training exercises that ancient philosophers recommended, such as exercises to do with one’s diet, one’s clothing, one’s sleeping and bathing arrangements, one’s gymnastic and sporting activities etc, although these were an important part of their spiritual philosophy. That’s indicative, perhaps, of CBT, which tends to forget the body in its focus on thoughts and beliefs. I’ve always thought CBT could be effectively combined with the Alexander Technique – aren’t our emotional habits physical as much as they are cognitive? Aren’t our attitudes embodied in our posture, our muscles, our facial expressions?
The book also does not mention Positive Psychology, although the relationship between Positive Psychology and ancient Greek philosophy is a rich one – Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt and others have all returned to Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, in their exploration of the science of flourishing (or ‘eudaimonics‘, as it is sometimes called).
The book left me chewing over some of the problems that arise from the meeting between modern psychology and ancient philosophy: what are the differences between CBT and ancient philosophy? To what extent has CBT dropped the language of morality, virtue and God in its recycling of ancient philosophy? Are CBT and Positive Psychology using the techniques of ancient philosophy towards the goal of happiness, rather than the goal of virtue – and are they wrong to do so? These are some of the thorny questions which we have still to work out.
Still, the book is a tour-de-force of scholarly research. Robertson has gone beyond Hadot, really, in amassing detailed quotes and references about the spiritual exercises. It’s easily the best book written so far on the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern cognitive psychology – indeed, it’s pretty much the only book written, as far as I’m aware. It continues to amaze me that more hasn’t been written on this subject – although to be fair, philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and John Sellars, and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, have done some good work.
Philosophy and psychology are beginning to talk to each other – but the dialogue is still quite young, which is why Robertson’s book is so valuable – because, unusually, he is very literate in both cultures.
What I hope my own book will do (if it ever gets a publisher) is take this discussion forward by giving practical contemporary examples or case studies of how we could use these ancient philosophical exercises ourselves in modern life. Do they actually work? Who has tried them, in what real-life situations? When would a particular exercise be inappropriate? How could they be misapplied? Different spiritual exercises are appropriate at different times – so we need to know which exercises to use for which emotional problems or situations.
Empirical scientific tests can help. CBT has already done a lot to put ancient philosophical ideas to empirical trial, so has Positive Psychology. It would be good to submit other spiritual exercises to randomised controlled trials. But we shouldn’t simply accept the authority of scientific trials. The whole point of ancient philosophy, as Pierre Hadot reminded us, was that it was something for ordinary people to practice, and to experiment with themselves. So we should all try out the exercises for ourselves, see which ones work for us, and then share our findings with others.
The ancients have some wonderful ideas and techniques that we can use to control our thoughts, transform our emotions, strengthen our bodies, and free our souls from suffering. But we should not merely be the ancients’ passive and uncritical disciples. We should try the ideas out for ourselves, put them to work, experiment, and not be afraid to innovate.
Here’s an interview I did with Donald last year. Ignore the fact it says ‘Part III’ – this is the only part of the interview I got round to editing and putting online.


Sam Harris and the limits of empiricism

Everyone, particularly Sam Harris, is very excited about creating a new science of well-being. Surely, Sam Harris argues in his new book, science can tell us facts about what actions and policies lead to human flourishing, and what lead to suffering?

Science allows us to measure people’s well-being levels. We can scan their brains, we can measure their heart-rate, we can see the effect that, for example, meditation has on their pre-frontal cortices. We can see what therapeutic interventions leads to a reduction in the symptoms of depression. So we no longer have to go round and round in interminable debates about morality. Once we accept that morality is principally about the wellbeing of conscious beings, then we can leave it to empirical science to give us the facts and clear up this whole morality business, right? Take it away, science!
But here’s my problem: I don’t think outside observers can ever really know what is going on inside someone, or can say with objective scientific certainty that this inner subjective state is ‘flourishing’ or ‘suffering’.
A great deal has been made about the fact that neuroscientists have discovered that advanced practitioners of meditation show more activity in the pre-frontal cortex than novices. But so what? Who’s to say that greater activity in the pre-frontal cortex is ‘good’? Why is it good? On it’s own, it’s just another part of the body. Standing on your head increases blood-flow to the brain. So what? We’d still need to see how a person lives, how they use their pre-frontal cortex, whether it enables them to live better. Is it possible that someone has a very developed pre-frontal cortex, and is still a bounder?
You could use other physical correlates to assess someone’s well-being: their physical health, their longevity, their heart rate and so on. But that only tells us if someone is a healthy animal, it doesn’t tell us if their life has any meaning or purpose. It is very difficult (I would say impossible) to measure a life’s meaning empirically, and yet a genuine sense of meaning and purpose is probably one of the most important aspects of well-being.
This much is more or less admitted by Martin Seligman, father of Positive Psychology, which claims to be a ‘science of well-being’. Seligman says that the Good Life is composed of three components: the pleasant life, the engaged life (or ‘flow’), and the meaningful life.
Seligman says that science can definitely measure the pleasant life. More on this shortly. It can possibly measure the engaged life, if you define the engaged life as those moments when we become totally absorbed in what we’re doing – although there are serious philosophical problems with this definition of well-being, as I have argued here.
As for the meaningful life – a life animated by a sense of higher purpose – Seligman admits this is very hard to measure empirically. He says: ‘Meaning is assessed by some combination of societal judgement, factual consequence and subjective state’. How ever would this work in practice? So far, science has not been able to provide any sort of objective measurement of a life’s meaning. And it would be somewhat horrifying if it could. Imagine the eulogies at a funeral: ‘Jimmy had a good life. Yes, admittedly, he only measured 4.6 on the Seligman Life Meaning Index. But still…a good try at the good life.’

The other great pillar for the new science of well-being is questionnaires of subjective well-being (SWB), which ask people how happy they are. But there are all kinds of problems with these questionnaires and the data they provide. They only really measure pleasant feelings. They don’t distinguish between higher and lower types of happiness (they take the Utilitarian position that instances of happiness differ only in intensity and duration, in which case, would Keith Richards’ life on smack be considered the best life?).
They rely on a person’s own assessment of their happiness – and a person might consider themselves to have high levels of ‘the good life’, when everyone else might think they lived a wretched life (or, alternately, they might consider themselves quite wretched when everyone else thinks they live a deeply meaningful life). We might think we’re happy and blessed, when everyone else thinks we’re not. Who’s right?
Harris usually uses the example of women being forced to wear a burqa in Afghanistan to show that western scientific societies have made a lot of moral progress and that we now ‘know’ that this is a brutal and barbaric custom, because it leads to the suffering of conscious creatures.
OK, the Taliban is a pretty uncontroversial example to pick, and I’m not about to defend them. But what about, say, Turkish women’s desire to wear headscarves? Is that also barbaric? What if they want to wear headscarves? Should they be allowed to decide for themselves what leads to their wellbeing, or must they obey whatever western science tells them is good for them? After all, as Harris points out, science isn’t democratic. If it is a ‘fact’ that headscarves are bad for wellbeing, then sorry girls, off with those headscarves!
To take another example, Sam Harris is a big fan of meditation (despite being a sworn opponent of religion and insisting that religion has nothing of value to teach science). Now if he came across the Buddha fasting and meditating under a tree, completely socially isolated, his body dangerously weak, and apparently in some sort of coma, Harris and every other western scientist would probably say: ‘By every empirical measurement this man is causing himself physical damage. He appears to be trying to kill himself to achieve some delusional state called ‘Nirvana’. It is the obligation of science to save him from his misguided life choice and to set him on the path of wellbeing, which involves a healthy diet, a good job and a rich network of friends’.
Empirical science could not understand this person’s life choice, because it was so different from what empirical science tells us typically leads to well-being. The only justification for the Buddha’s life-choice is within, in his own ground-breaking vision and his own consciousness, and outside observers could never measure that or turn it into empirical data. Many scientists would still say that the Buddha was wasting his time and should never have left his cushy position as an Indian prince.
‘Yes’, you rejoinder, ‘but western science is accepting more and more of the Buddha’s insights’. OK, let’s take a more extreme example. St Simeon Stylites, the Christian ascetic who lived on a pillar in Syria in the fifth century AD. He was a filthy, flea-bitten, isolated, starved, sunburnt hermit. By no scientific measure could he be said to live a ‘good life’. And yet he probably had more sense of meaning, purpose and agency than any of us. And, if you believe in God and the after-life, as he did, then perhaps he really did live a good life, in the sense of a life dedicated to overcoming the ego and devoting oneself to God. But a man in a white coat and a clipboard would shake his head at St Simeon, and probably try to lead him away to the loony bin.
In fact, how many of our great moral leaders would be committed to the insane asylum today? Mohammed, the Buddha, Jesus, Abraham, Socrates – all of them heard angelic voices, so according to empirical science, they were all suffering from schizophrenia.
The point is, science can only tell us the mean, the average, the common. Harris tells us that science isn’t democratic, but when it comes to the ‘science of well-being’, that’s often exactly what it is: little more than a show of hands, or a survey of customary responses to the question ‘what makes you happy?’ It tells us the average, not the virtuoso.
Harris claims science can show us the various different ‘peaks’ of human flourishing, but the whole point about peaks is that they are often hidden from ground-view. Sometimes you have to scale them to see them. Peaks are lonely places which few people reach. From an observer’s point of view, how would you recognize a peak when you saw it? How would you measure it? How would you know it was a peak, unless you could look inside a person’s soul?