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Meaning matters

Posted Dec 07 2013 12:02pm

From 2009.

I worked with a very smart psychiatrist once who told me that eventually science would understand everything about the brain and all difficulties could be dealt with by the appropriate medication.  She told me that was the scientific outlook.  In her view man was reducible to the forces operating within him: chemical, electricity etc.  This very smart psychiatrist was wrong.  Man is not reducible to the forces operating within him.  What she believed was good science was not, and in fact, wasn’t even good philosophy.

When applied to mental illness what she believed was simple.  It was a matter of poor chemistry or poor electricity or some combination of the two.  Again she was wrong about that.

Meaning matters.  Humans are creatures that operate within some context of meaning and that meaning has great influence on how they operate.  Anything that doesn’t take that into account or that sees it as a simple manifestation of an underlying biological reality misses out on describing what it means to be human.

Modern science talks about the notion of the neuroplasticity of the brain.  I make no claims to be any kind of expert on this, but what I believe it means is that the brain is constantly changing, that it is as much process as substance, and that our experience changes that brain process.  

It is silly to say that the brain doesn’t matter.  Mentally illness is biologically based because everything is biologically based.  But to say that the brain matters doesnt answer the question of what matters to the brain.

Because meaning matters other people matter.  Because meaning matters our values and purposes matter.  Because meaning matters we matter.  And a “science” that reduces it all to the level of neurotransmitters or other mechanical constructs misses out on what matters.

In truth it seems a 2 way proposition.  All of us have a different neurological constitution from which we base the way we make sense of the world.  At the same time the way we make sense of  the world affects our neurological constitution. 

I read in an article recently that the use of psychotropics continues to rise and the use of therapy and counselling continues to fall.  That trend scares me more than a little.  We are a experimental generation.  We are the answer to the long term effect of neuroleptics.  And the answer seems to be a scary one. 

If meaning matters then there is always hope.  Many years ago there was a psychiatrist named Viktor Frankl.  He was also an inmate of Aushwitz.  When asked what Aushwitz taught him about life he said, (and I am paraphrasing) “Man is free.  What you make of things matters and you have a choice about what you make of things.”

You see meaning does matter.


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