In March 2018, I wrote Students lead huge U.S. anti-gun rallies; The Dawn of a New Movement! This was followed in May by Texas School Shootings; the Right to Kill. This places me squarely in the pro gun-control column.
Guns are a major problem, but the tendency to think that every problem has a primary cause is an error rooted in how our brains are wired. We have the gift of semi-rational thought, but we come up short in what is called meta-cognition: We think, but we lack understanding of how we think.
A major part of the human faculty of thought is the ability to categorize, even when the categories are useless. Perhaps you are old enough to remember the analog TV picture when tuned to an empty channel, referred to as “snow”. A common illusion was to see flocks of geese flying across the screen. The geese weren’t there; it was an illusion of your occipital lobe, working overtime to make sense out of chaos.
A similar example comes from the art of drawing. Realistic drawings depict reality in the form of lines. Yet in a photograph of the same scene, there are no lines, only differences of contrast. How can a drawing and photograph be recognized as of the same scene? There are no lines in nature. Your brain puts them there.
Language requires categorizations, whether they exist or not. Without categories, there would be no compact verbal descriptions. Describing a bank ledger would require a description of the paper it’s printed on, the tree used to make the paper, the earth the tree grew on, ad infinitum. Yet the phrase “bank ledger” brings up something like a line drawing, together with other word associations.
But words are circular in definition, described in terms of other words. How can the circularity be broken? Liberal arts majors are urged to study Ludwig Wittgenstein, to destroy blind faith in words, so typically part of the sophomoric mind set. Wittgenstein has been obsoleted a little by neuroscience and physics, but he may be enough to realize that mental illness is an invented category.
Even without the philosophy, the concept is highly suspicious, because there isn’t general agreement on what it means. A list of attitudes:
- A murderer can be sane or insane.
- A religious person is sane, but one who thinks his deity tells him what to do, and acts on it, is insane.
- A person who wants to end his own life is insane. He may have perfectly good reasons.
- A person who wants to kill a bunch of strangers is sane, or insane.
- A person who wants to kill a bunch of strangers, because of religious or ideological beliefs, is sane.
- A dysfunctional unfortunate who does not act out violently is sane, because the state cannot afford to help him.
- A person who kills in a crime of passion is sane.
- A person who has received a diagnosis of psychosis by a court appointed expert, corresponding to an entry of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is insane.
- A person who has received a negative diagnosis by another court appointed expert, with referral to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, is sane.
- A person who has received two conflicting diagnosis is what?
- A person who is a danger to others had better get a tailor-made definition of insanity, STAT!
- A disturbed person should receive exorcism, made to drink bleach, or something like that…
- A disturbed person should be punished, for the sake of deterrence, or exempted, if mentally ill. That sure works: The U.S. has the world’s largest prison population. Quoting (BBC) World Prison Populations, undated: 724/100,000, total 2,193,798.
The definition of mental illness is in broad dispute from all points of the compass: liberal versus conservative; religious versus secular humanist. From (The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights) Incarceration and Mental Health: The mentally ill are 4 to 5 times more likely to be incarcerated, yet only 21% of inmates have serious mental illness.
Without “mental illness” to corral the offenders, a distasteful possibility arises: Under some circumstances, it is the norm for some people to commit murder. It’s hopefully false, yet the vital antithesis part of Hegel’s thesis-antithesis-synthesis. For the sake of synthesis, it deserves a look in the eye. We may discover something about the circumstances, and what to change.
Is Man’s nature that of a cold-blooded killer? To be continued. I have to sharpen my axe.
What do you see in this TV screen? Flying geese, or something else? Are you nuts?