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Beware toxic fatalism, in its atheist and theist forms

This week I met a charming young man who had recently dropped out of university. He was writing an undergraduate dissertation on free will, read Sam Harris’ book on the subject, and came to the conclusion that free will does not exist, therefore there was no point finishing his dissertation. So his university gave him a ‘pass’ and he’s now wondering what to do next (not that he has any choice in the matter).

Talking to him, I was struck, paradoxically, by the power of ideas and beliefs to alter people’s lives, and to harm them. This smart young chap – call him Eric – happened to go to university now, in the high point of Scientistic Materialism, which meant he happened to have read Sam Harris, and to accept the hardcore materialist line that free will is an illusion. He accepted that idea, absorbed it into his organism, and it led to real-world consequences for him – he now can’t do an MA in anthropology, as he planned, and is stuck in something of an existential crisis.

Eric might say to me that what his situation really proves is that he had no choice. As I’ve just said, he happened to be at university during the high-point of Scientistic Materialism, he happened to be exposed to Sam Harris, and hence this situation. Yet I – like the good Stoic I am – would say that he did have a choice, whether to accept the hardcore materialist theory or not. He swallowed it, then he chose to act on it. And here’s where he ended up.

Nonetheless, his story does illustrate the power of culture – by which I mean the amniotic fluid of ideas that we find ourselves absorbing and feeding off. We may have some choice what we believe, but our range of choice is limited by the ideas we find in our culture at any one moment. And that is what worries me about the popularity of hardcore materialism in our culture – I think the theory that we have no free will is a toxic idea, which has serious real world implications for those unfortunate enough to swallow it, because it attacks and dissolves their sense of meaning, purpose and autonomy.

I don’t think the main battle line in our culture is between theists and atheists. The main dividing line, for me, is between those who believe in free will, and those who don’t. It’s between those who think we can use our conscious reason – however weak it is – to choose new beliefs and new directions in our life; and those who think we are entirely automatic machines, without the capacity to choose.

Hardcore materialists insist we don’t have free will, we don’t have the capacity to choose a path in life, because free will seems too ‘spooky’ and doesn’t fit with their strict material determinism. Where I see a universe brimming with consciousness, they see just a mass of matter, like a vast rubbish dump, a tiny portion of which suffers from the delusion of choice.

I think this is bad science, ignoring our everyday experience of being conscious and making choices. It’s bad psychology, ignoring humans’ capacity to change themselves and get out of even chronic problems like alcoholism or depression (without medication…not that there’s anything wrong with medication). And it’s bad ethics, because it empties our lives of meaning and autonomy, and leads to people like Eric wondering what’s the point of doing anything.

The hardcore materialist position also leads to the rise and rise of pharmaceutical solutions to life’s problems – people think their emotions have no meaning or connection to their own beliefs and choices, they are simply malfunctioning machines, so the only solution is to put chemicals into the machine (despite the fact that 90% or so of the effect of anti-depressants is placebo, ie it comes from our own beliefs and expectations).

This is not strictly an argument against atheism, only one variant of it. It’s also an argument against a particular variant of religion. There are religious believers who seem to have little or no belief in free will or our power to make conscious, reasonable choices in our life. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s will, and our only option is to beg God to intervene in our lives.

In Christianity, for example, there is a strong tradition going back through Calvinism and Augustine all the way to St Paul, which suggests humans have no real choice or control over whether they are ‘saved’ or not. It’s all down to God’s choice, and that choice was made before we were born.

This is why ecstatic experiences for, say, Methodists were quite so ecstatic – they felt the Holy Spirit and thought I’m saved! God had chosen me! I’m not going to Hell for eternity! Thank fuck for that!  It’s like suddenly winning the lottery for eternity. As for the other 90% of humanity who aren’t chosen by God, well, sucks to be you, we’re off to Vegas, I mean, heaven!

The hardcore Calvinist belief in predestination isn’t that ubiquitous anymore, thankfully, but I still meet a lot of charismatic Christians who seem to think God has complete control over their life and they should surrender their own reason and choices entirely to God and wait for His directions. God will reveal what to do. God will show the way. God? Hello? God?!?

This also seems to me a bit of a recipe for feeling helpless and morose. The Stoic in me feels like saying, look mate, God has given you reason, and the capacity to choose your own path in life. Stop waiting for the Divine Hand to pick you out of the gutter and instead try to change those parts of your self and your life that you can (while also praying to God for help in that process).

That might sound a bit DIY – the self-help myth of the self-made man, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I recognize the limits of that myth. I recognize that most of my decisions are automatic, unconscious, and determined by the past and the culture I happen to be floating in, and it’s the same for others too. We don’t choose to be destructive bastards, it just sort of happens. More positively, I also recognize that there are moments of grace, moments where something beyond our rational consciousness picks us up and carries us. I am fascinated by such moments, and have been hugely helped by them in my own life.

But we can’t rely entirely on such rare moments of grace to guide us every day of our life. At least, I don’t think you can (maybe that makes me a bad Christian or a Pelagian heretic). I think part of the meaning and value of our lives comes from using our God-given free will and discernment to try and make wise decisions and to try to come closer to the reality of God. Of course, we can sometimes choose to surrender, just as the Stoics choose to surrender their external lives to the Logos. Such surrender is still, paradoxically, a choice.

You may not believe in God or the immortality of the soul. You may not believe our free will is God-given or that the proper end of it is to return to God. Still, if you believe in trying to liberate beings from suffering, and you believe we can use our reason and free will in the effort to do that, then I am on broadly on the same side as you (although of course we have some big differences). If, on the other hand, you think we have no free will and no choice, if you either think we’re entirely automatic machines or are completely at the mercy of God’s will, then to me those are two sides of the same toxic fatalism.


In other news:

The Harvard philosopher Roberto Unger is in London. I’ve only recently (as in…this morning) read some of his ideas. Interesting stuff – reminds me of continental philosophy like Heidegger or Badiou but the mysticism is not too pretentious and is democratic as opposed to Maoist. Read this lecture, the inspiration for his upcoming book ‘The Religion of the Future’.

Leading neuroscientist Christoph Koch explains why he believes in panpsychism – which for him means the theory that consciousness is the product of highly integrated systems, and therefore the potential for consciousness is in all matter (so the internet could become conscious, for example).

My friends at Aeon have launched Aeon Films, showcasing short, beautiful films like this one about the last days of Philip Gould, which rather undid me.

Also from Aeon, cognitive scientist of religion Jesse Bering discusses the $5 million ‘Immortality Project‘, which tries to find empirical evidence both for immortality, and our belief in immortality.

This week I spoke at a well-being at work conference to lots of Human Resources people. Weird! But interesting too – with talks from Paul Farmer of MIND about overcoming the stigma of mental illness at work; a presentation from an online CBT company called Big White Wall,and an inspiring talk by the Free Help Guy, who for six months decided to offer free anonymous help for whatever people suggested, via GumTree. This week, another anonymous person gave him £100,000 to carry on his work!

Here’s a TEDX talk I did! If you’ve seen me talk about Philosophy for Life, you’ll have heard it before. Would be great if people shared, retweeted etc.

Philosophy for Life needs all the help it can get in the US, where the publishers are struggling to get any publicity for it. Even a review on would help, if you feel like it.

The Nation lays into a swathe of new happiness books, declaring them ‘neoliberal’, and suggesting we should really find happiness via Keynesian economics. Which to me is another form of toxic fatalism – the only solution to our emotional problems is collectivist economics. Keynesian institutional reforms might be some of the answer but it’s not all of it – we can also take care of our own souls (and help others learn how to do that).

Finally, this week’s Start the Week had Sir John Tavener, Jeanette Winterson, and the head of All Souls College discussing prayer, faith and culture in a post-religious age. I felt like Andrew Marr was seeking to explore how his stroke had changed him and made him more interested in the life of the spirit…but there was a nervousness about doing that on primetime BBC. Interesting though, and poignant, as Tavener died the following day.

That’s all. Next week I’m in Durham doing various talks, including one on ecstatic experiences at the Centre for the Medical Humanities on Wednesday the 20th. I’m also doing a talk at St Cuths on the 19th, at 4pm.

Oh, and thanks to the platinum members who contributed to the blog! Your names will echo for eternity! If you want to donate £10 or more for your annual enjoyment of the blog (it costs $30 a month to run the newsletter, not including my own time, so it’s very much a loss-making venture!), click on the link below.


CBT, lost in the Moral Maze

Radio 4’s Moral Maze this week looked at the government’s expansion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), and at a new report from Lord Richard Layard of the LSE (the principal arranger of the government’s embrace of CBT), which warns that local and national governments are failing to honour the spending commitments they made to CBT.

I personally think that the expansion of CBT is one of the major achievements of the last five years (God knows there haven’t been that many national achievements during that time). Finally, we’re taking mental health seriously. Finally, we’ve found a therapy which works for the most common emotional disorders. And finally we’re putting in place the people and resources to enable the suffering to get help quickly. But, like most big steps forward, it’s been almost entirely un-celebrated by our media – unnoticed even – except by a few angry psychoanalysts who are indignant that CBT should have got so much funding and their own therapy so little.

So I’m disconcerted that, on one of the rare occasions that the government’s support for CBT was discussed, not one of the panellists (Michael Portillo, Matthew Taylor, Claire Fox and Melanie Phillips) should have felt the need to support it. Not one of them saw the need to defend that Service, and to try and protect its funding. What a missed opportunity. Rather than unpicking it, they should have applauded it.

Instead, the need for a National Mental Health Service was criticised from both right and left. On the right, Michael Portillo thought Richard Layard had massively over-emphasised the number of people who are affected by depression in the UK (6 million, according to David M. Clark, the psychotherapist who is the chief architect of the national CBT strategy). Portillo accused Layard of confusing depression, which is serious and nasty, with unhappiness. Lots of people are unhappy, for lots of reasons – calling it ‘depression’ just serves various ‘powerful lobbies’ (i.e. Big Pharma and the CBT industry), and gives scroungers a free ticket to benefits. If extended into the criminal justice system, it also lets people off the hook for bad deeds. Psychology becomes ‘excuseology’.

On the left, Matthew Taylor of the RSA thought Layard was medicalising unhappiness, and suggested that people might have very good social, economic and political reasons for being unhappy. CBT focuses too much on the ‘inner man’, and not enough on the outer conditions. It puts the blame for any dissatisfaction we might feel firmly on our own shoulders, which is a convenient move for government and the rich.

These concerns and confusions come about partly as a result of CBT’s origins in Greek philosophy, and I think we can clear them up if we replace CBT in its original context.

CBT emerged from Socratic and Stoic ethics, which developed as a form of ‘therapy for the soul’, which everyone could use to take care of themselves and transform their negative emotions. The idea was that you practice philosophy your whole life, both in periods of emotional turmoil (what we might call depression today) and when things are going well. The Greeks, lacking the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), did not divide emotional disorders into endless categories. They simply recognised emotional suffering – those moments when we become the passive victim of our passions, when they block us from enjoying a ‘good flow of life’. And they offered a way for students to get out of such situations, by learning how to examine their unconscious beliefs and values, and to change them.

CBT emerged from Socratic ethics, which taught people to 'take care of their souls'

As for  the ‘medicalisation’ of ethics and emotions, that goes all the way back to the Greeks too. They called negative emotions ‘passions’, from the Greek pathe, meaning suffering or sickness. They often compared the philosopher to the physician, and called philosophy a ‘medical art for the soul’ (as Cicero put it). So the idea that the unhappy are also unwell is a very old one. So is the idea that the morally bad are, in fact, deluded and sick – that’s what Seneca, Plato, Marcus Aurelius and others argued. It is no easy thing to separate these categories, as the Anders Breivik case shows. Of course Breivik should be held accountable. But of course, he is also fucked up – shooting 65 teenagers is fairly strong proof of being mentally ill, to my mind.

When we go back to the ancient Greek roots of CBT, it clears up various issues.

First, the question of how much to concentrate on the inner man versus the outer conditions. We see that CBT emerged particularly from Stoic philosophy, which focuses entirely on the inner man rather than outer conditions. The philosopher, according to the Stoics, is so mentally resilient that they can be happy in any situation, even while being tortured. They make their soul an ‘inner citadel’ against their culture’s toxic values. CBT inherits this same highly individualistic focus – change your self and make it an inner citadel against the fucked-up-ness of your society.

We can (and should) disagree with this intense focus on the inner man, and point to the strong influence of environmental factors like poverty on mental health. At the same time, the Stoics were right that all humans have some capacity to control our emotions, and helping people develop this capacity gives them the strength and autonomy to change their environment and change their society.

So Stoicism / CBT doesn’t have to be some sort of neo-liberal atomised self-help. If you look at Aristotelian philosophy, for example, it shares the Socratic principles of Stoicism / CBT (i.e. the idea we can use our reason to change ourselves and achieve flourishing) but it also recognises that our society and culture plays a big part in our well-being, and that as citizens we should take care of both ourselves and our society. We should balance the inner work of CBT with the outer work of changing our society. I think Layard recognises that. He’s not saying we should focus entirely on the inner man, only that we have ignored that factor for far too long in western politics. That’s a wise realisation for a Fabian in his 70s to reach.

Secondly, the question of personal responsibility.  Does CBT excuse people from their moral behaviour? Or does it put too much responsibility on our frail shoulders? Again, going back to the Greeks helps. They didn’t argue that we are all born free, rational, sovereign agents. But they argued that the vast majority of us can become slightly more free, slightly more self-aware, slightly more self-controlled, if we practice philosophy for several years. Autonomy is an exercise, and like other forms of exercise, we become better at it through practice.

But the first step is to take responsibility for our own beliefs and actions – not blame them on our environment, on our parents or friends or the economy or the weather. The economy may be terrible, and you being unemployed will almost certainly affect your mood. That’s not your fault. But how you think about your situation is going to affect your feelings. You can make that shitty situation a lot worse, if you want, or you can cope with it in a wiser and more effective way – not beating yourself up, while also looking for opportunities to get out of the situation.

Since my book has come out, I’m often asked by worried parents if their offspring’s mental / emotional problems are their fault. They are often relieved to hear about CBT, as an alternative to the old Freudian line that ‘they fuck you up your mum and dad’. Well, actually, you might very well have been fucked up by your mum and dad. They might very well have indoctrinated you in the thoughts and habits that are making you miserable today. However, these are now your thoughts and habits. Your mother and father aren’t standing over you forcing you to harm yourself. You’re doing it to yourself. As the great Bill Knaus says in my book, what happens to us is not necessarily our fault. But how we think about it is our responsibility. Don’t be a masochist. Don’t beat yourself up and then blame it on someone else.

Of course, some people are born into much harder situations than others. Some people grow up in environments that are constantly pushing them to depression or vice. Others grow up in environments that are constantly pushing them to flourish. That’s unfair, and we should do what we can to correct that. Part of that is giving people the tools to be resilient to their environment, to resist its bad influences and find the good influences.

Finally, the question of the division between Depression and unhappiness. Are we medicalising the entire society and pathologising perfectly normal things like unhappiness, shyness or anxiety? Again, let’s go back to the Greeks. Without the benefit of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM), the Greeks didn’t recognise particular emotional disorders, nor did they try to ghettoise them from ‘normal human experience’. Instead, they saw emotional suffering as on a continuum, from the very distressed to the quite distressed to the well to the flourishing. And they recognised that philosophy could and should help people all along this continuum.

Today, most people still don’t seek help for emotional problems, because they’re worried about ‘making a fuss’, or about admitting that they’re somehow officially broken or sick. Might it appear on their permanent NHS record? What if their employer found out, or their friends, or their family? Would they lose respect, authority or even their freedom as a result? And besides, isn’t it narcissistic to worry about their feelings? Who the hell is happy in this world anyway? And so most people do nothing to take care of themselves. They carry on veering through life, like a car with a flat tyre.

Philosophy, as Socrates insisted, helps us learn how to take care of ourselves. That isn’t selfish. It’s responsible. If we’re not taking care of ourselves, we’re probably affecting the people around us, and we’re also probably not engaging as effectively with our society as we could be. CBT is a form of therapeutic philosophy for people in serious distress – that could mean a particularly stressful period of your life, or a bout of depression, or panic attacks, and so on. Such moments affect many of us – perhaps 25%, perhaps as much as 50% – so go get some help, either from a GP, or from a CBT book, or from my book! Learn how to take care of yourself, how to steer yourself.

The Greeks thought philosophy should be available for everyone. I agree. I think everyone should be introduced to it, to learn how to take care of themselves. However, there is a difference to helping people in a serious emotional crisis, as CBT does, and helping people not in a serious crisis, as Positive Psychology tries to do. The latter group should not be told how to be happy. They can be taught some of the basics – how emotions arise, how we can change them – while also being encouraged to explore the different ethical visions of the good life that we can use these basics for.

One of the panellists, Michael Portillo, was particularly scornful of the fact we diagnose people with depression by asking them how they feel. People could lie, he pointed out. Well, that’s true, and no doubt many people do. But how else can we diagnose depression? How can we know how someone is feeling, except by asking them?

Aaron Beck, the pioneer of CBT, took ideas and techniques from ancient philosophy, and then married them to scientific empiricism. He invented the Beck Depression Inventory, which measures how depressed a person is by asking them, for example, how often they think about killing themselves. Now of course that sort of diagnostic technique can be fiddled by the unscrupulous. And of course, it is a bit simplistic. But it’s also a useful way of discovering if a therapy is really having any obvious effect. If a person, at the beginning of a therapy, says they’re extremely unhappy and think about killing themselves often, and at the end of the therapy they say they’re fairly happy and don’t think about killing themselves ever, then that’s a measurable success, isn’t it? And crucially, it’s only through such measurements that governments have been persuaded to support CBT. If it wasn’t for such measurements, far fewer people would be reached or helped by CBT.

I, like Portillo, am wary of the power of Big Pharma, and of a world where we have defined the entire population as in need of chemical interventions. But I do, actually, think that, in the words of Albert Ellis, 99% of the world is out of their fucking minds. Including me. We’re all on a continuum of mental health, and I certainly don’t think I am ‘flourishing’. I’m pretty well, but I’m self-aware enough to recognise I have a long way to go yet. Philosophy, no doubt, will help me on my journey.

Anyway, this is all a rather roundabout way of saying I think it is a very good thing that we now have a National Mental Health service, and that CBT has become available to ordinary people, rather than just the rich. So many of my friends have suffered from mental health problems at one time or another – most of them in quiet desperation. A lot of them could be really helped by some therapy, whether through the NHS, or through DIY therapy like reading a CBT book. That’s not narcissistic. It’s responsible. It helps them contribute to their society. Please can policy makers and opinion-influencers celebrate our new National Mental Health Service, rather than attacking it?