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Are Mental Illnesses Natural Kinds or are they Socially Constructed? February 18, 2009

Posted by daw0157 in Medicine, Science & society, Social science.
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This post is coming a bit late after my presentation on mental illnesses way back on 18 Dec 2008.  With the rather large gap between presentation and post, I think it will be worthwhile to recap both the material presented and the flow of the lively discussion we had.

The question that I tried to explore and explain was the notion of mental illnesses, and whether or not they would be considered natural kinds (they happen because they happen) or socially constructed (as a society, they were created to fill some role or need).  This question is important because as we define and categorize mental illness in the United States right now, about 1/4 of the population(*1) over 18 years old suffers from a diagnosable mental illness.  Having a better understanding of these mental illnesses is beneficial to many different aspects of our life, from how we understand them, to how we treat the illness, to how we treat the person afflicted with the illness.

I started the presentation by asking the class if anyone had ever heard of depression.  The unanimous decision was that the class had heard of it, and was under the assumption it was truly a natural kind of mental illness.  Next I asked if the class had heard of Drapetomania, and of course no one had, because Drapetomania is no more than Louisiana’s attempt at scientific racism.

The example is a little ridiculous and in the debate of mental illnesses and their validity as natural kinds, depression is very well understood to be natural and something like Drapetomania could not be any more socially constructed. I used this example for the sole reason of drawing two lines in the sand to show the great range between illnesses that would be discussed.

There are a few unique positions that have been well researched and documented. These “sides” of the argument have proven to encapsulate the general opinions of people who have attempted to propose solutions to the problem.

The first opinion would be that of Thomas Szasz. According to Szasz the mainstream view in the West is that the changes in our description and treatment of mental illnesses are a result of our increasing knowledge and greater conceptual sophistication. On this view, we have conquered our former ignorance and now know that mental illness exists, even though there is a great deal of further research to be done on the causes and treatment of mental illnesses.

The strongest opposing view of mental illnesses being natural kinds is led by the philosopher Dominic Murphy. According to Murphy mental illness is a concept like pest, weed, and vermin. Weeds and vermin are not natural kinds, but they are made up of natural kinds that can be explained empirically. Furthermore, whether something counts as a weed or a vermin depends on human interests in a way that allows the class to grow over time, or vary across projects. Concepts that are sensitive to human interests in this way are open-ended — things may fall into them (or drop out of them) as human interests change over time. Folk thinking does not determine in advance whether a species is a pest, nor does it make scientific investigation of a species of pest into a normative endeavor. (*2)

Classifying mental illness has proved a continued problem, because of the vague understanding we have of their affects on a person. There are certain controversial disorders that have proven to be difficult to classify such as: homosexuality, psychopathy, personality disorders, and attention deficit disorder. Currently we diagnose mental illnesses by their symptoms rather than their causes. This led to some questions for discussion:

– Is it possible for any classification scheme of mental illness to be purely scientific?
– Do our classification schemes in psychiatry always rest on some non-scientific conception of what should count as a normal life?
– Why aren’t neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s classified as mental illness?

Some interesting websites and readings that I found are listed below. They are rather impartial and more concerned with delivering information.

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Dominic Murphy’s book “Psychiatry in the Scientific Image” reviewed
The Social Construction of Mental Illness and its Implications for the Recovery Model


*1 – Cool Nurse is Cool
*2 – pp. 98-99, Psychiatry in the Scientific Image


Are There Laws in the Social Sciences? February 11, 2009

Posted by Tony Perrone in Metaphysics, Social science.
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Forget God, I wanted to play Popper for a bit. That’s right, I wanted to denounce any claim of Marx or Freud being scientists in the name of pure, beautiful physics.

Surely to question the existence of laws in the social sciences is to dredge up the demarcation issue, for is it not the presence of laws that makes physics so elegant and clean? But in my zealous fervor I hit the stopping block that has ever been the bane of philosophers and logicians attempting to find universality: Language.

Just because I was being selfish and closed minded, doesn’t mean I was going to slack in my diligence. I started at the beginning, where any good thought-experiment lab rat should; I asked, “Well, what is a law anyway?” It seems a simple question – we toss the word around daily the way sailors swear – but as is so often the case, a common and well “understood” term seems elusive in a strict definition. Try and consider it in a philosophical sense and, well, I go through a lot of aspirin.

Wiser men than I have approached this subject. I recall quoting Harold Kincaid and John T. Roberts, who made good arguments for and against (respectively) laws in the social sciences. Fantastic as both of their writing was, why not loosen things up a bit here. This is a blog, not a classroom, and I’m certain that if I bore you all to hell you’re just going to give up and surf Facebook anyway (and that is a social law), so let’s shoot from the hip, shall we?

Here’s definition looser than Jared’s old jeans: laws are generalities. Great, but that won’t even get you a sandwich. So, let’s narrow it further, shall we? One might say that laws have explanatory and predictive value. This is fantastic because it gives laws utility, without which many of you won’t give a hoot about the avalanche of words to follow. This tastefully ambiguous definition seems to stand up to most of the available scrutiny out there, and makes for a good basis to continue.

Consider the following: what if laws have to be universal and robust? Crap. This is the mater over which talkative folk start to polarize. We might say that the social sciences fail in these respects, what with their unrelenting string of exceptions and purposefully non-universal explanations. It would seem that the so-called social “scientists” can’t quite get their theories to play nicely together, or even keep them alive for more than a century or so.

Conversely, one might say that our ugly social laws just don’t seem universal or robust because we are having a hard time getting all of the data and accounting for all of the relevant variables. In fact, as long as we’re finger-pointing here, this school of thought could actually drag out a host of examples of “natural” science falling short in robustness and universality. That’s right, stick it to Newton and then go hang out with your global warming buddies; their data sucks, too, they’ll understand your pain.

Adding confusion to the mix, Roberts said that explanatory and predictive value doesn’t stem from universality and robustness. Thus, though social science might not have laws, it doesn’t need laws. Take that, laws! Elitist jerks.

When it comes down to it, though, calling something a law is just a social construction. I don’t particularly believe that theories or ideas can be put into discreet categories, nor should they. I would as readily use Newton’s Rad Idea About Inertia as I would his “Second Law”. The title of law only brings weight when scientists are talking about science, not when they’re doing science. Perhaps it would be more useful, then, to call things more-or-less lawlike than one another, since everything’s being put into relativistic terms anyway.

Getting back to social sciences, though, I pose the question of how well they can predict phenomena. Is society and humanity as predictable as the path of a projectile? (Chaos Theorists: Shut up, I asked if it was as predictable, not perfectly predictable.) If so, does this finally put a stomping end to the determinism question posed by our snooty friends the metaphysicians? Is free will that last, most unpredictable variable in the social scientific model, accountable only in terms of statistical probabilities? Are quantum states a reflection of the free will of sub-atomic particles? Will I ever end this grueling and unnecessarily snarky blog post?






Roberts, John T. “There are no Laws of the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 151 – 167

Kincaid, Harold “There are Laws in the Social Sciences” Contemporary debates in philosophy of science. 2004, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 168 – 185 

Special thanks to Wikipedia, the sole source of New Media in this writing.


The study of Happiness February 7, 2009

Posted by esl5400 in Medicine, Philosophy of biology, Philosophy of mind, Social science.
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·         Defining Happiness

Happiness is a state of mind or feeling such as contentment, satisfaction, pleasure, or joy

·         Measuring happiness

What causes happiness:  External stimuli (i.e.  Win the lottery; Get an A on an exam…)

The Satisfaction with Life Index was created by Adrian G. White, an Analytic Social Psychologist at the University of Leicester, using data from a metastudy.  It is an attempt to show life satisfaction (subjective life satisfaction) in different nations.

In this calculation, subjective well being correlates most strongly with health, wealth, and access to basic education

This is an example of a recent trend to use direct measures of happiness, such as surveys asking people how happy they are.  Some studies suggest that happiness can be measured effectively.

Ø  Interesting fact:  USA ranks 23rd in the world for overall self assessed satisfaction

Ways to measure happiness levels:                Self Assessment   (Surveys)                                                   Biochemical testing

ü  A chemical called Serotonin is believed by doctors and researchers as the neurological cause for happiness perception.  The influx in the level of Serotonin in your bloodstream can be the main cause for sadness, depression, and suicidal thoughts and feelings.

ü  Other “Drugs” can replace Serotonin with a stronger chemical in the brain, having a similar or increased effect

§  LSD

§  Ecstasy


Q:  So why measure happiness?

A:  Pharmaceuticals!

Although studies are performed to assess overall contentment, or to judge the effect of a change in outside influence, Doctors and biochemists want to create a solution to create a treatment to make people happier.

Testing (surveys or chemical) is done in laboratories to determine the effectiveness of the drugs in clinical trials. If we couldn’t effectively, repeatedly, and consistently measure happiness, then the entire market for medical research and development of happiness and/or depression would be futile. 




·         Example:  How stuff affects our happiness level

Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) – is a mood disorder in which people who have normal mental health throughout most of the year experience depressive symptoms in the winter or, less frequently, in the summer, repeatedly, year after year.

The US National Library of Medicine states that “some people experience a serious mood change when the seasons change. They may sleep too much, have little energy, and crave sweets and starchy foods. They may also feel depressed.

There are many different treatments for classic (winter-based) seasonal affective disorder, including:  

§  Light therapies with bright lights

§  Anti-depression medication

§  Cognitive-behavioral therapy

Questions to consider:

*      Is happiness learned?

Ø   If so, how do babies recognize and respond in comfort to their mother, or to being fed, or held and rocked? 

Ø  If not, can this be broken down to and simply explained with brain chemistry and preprogrammed responses?

*      If we effectively argue that the feeling of happiness is no more than a scientifically explained organic chemistry problem, further resolved in human psychology, then what might be the social and moral repercussions or concerns that would be incurred? 

Ø  Consider:  does the same thing make two different people happy?  Can the effects of pleasure and happiness be predicted?

Ø  If happiness, love, and joy were simply preprogrammed responses to external stimuli, does that take away from the experience of happiness?

*       Could science ever get to the point where, through chemistry and medicine, happiness is measured on a point value system (based on Serotonin levels)?  Would people then choose certain experiences based on this quantitative approach?

Ø  Much like counting calories or carbohydrates when eating

Sources:              Wikipedia:

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happiness

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Satisfaction_with_Life_Index

Ø  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seasonal_affective_disorder 


This is a copy of what I plan to present this comming Thursday for my class project on the study of happiness.  It covers a range of topics, but my focus is on the ability to study hapiness.  We begin by defining what we percieve happiness to be.  The two most common, and seemingly practical, ways of measuring happiness levels are the more popular (surveys) and the more precise (biochemical testing).  I will discuss the differences in these, and related them to how they are both used to better understand happiness, and therefore make better applications of medicine and making changes to your enviromnet, and how this call all have wither positive or negative impacts on your happiness level.  Please feel free to read my proposed topic questions to create a more intellectually stimulating conversatioons after my presentation.