Excerpts from the Archives of the Narcissism List - Part 64
Narcissism, Pathological Narcissism, Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD), the Narcissist,
And Relationships with Abusive Narcissists and Psychopaths
Listowner: Dr. Sam Vaknin
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Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin (YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, LinkedIn, Google Scholar) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited (Amazon) and After the Rain: How the West Lost the East (Amazon) as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, international affairs, and award-winning short fiction. He was Senior Business Correspondent for United Press International (February, 2001 - April, 2003), CEO of Narcissus Publications (April, 1997 - April 2013), Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician (January, 2011 -), a columnist for PopMatters, eBookWeb, Bellaonline, and Central Europe Review, an editor for The Open Directory and Suite101 (Categories: Mental Health and Central East Europe), and a contributor to Middle East Times, a contributing writer to The American Chronicle Media Group, Columnist and Analyst for Nova Makedonija, Fokus, and Kapital, Founding Analyst of The Analyst Network, former president of the Israeli chapter of the Unification Church's Professors for World Peace Academy, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces (1979-1982). He has been awarded Israel's Council of Culture and Art Prize for Maiden Prose (1997), The Rotary Club Award for Social Studies (1976), and the Bilateral Relations Studies Award of the American Embassy in Israel (1978), among other awards. He is Visiting Professor of Psychology, Southern Federal University, Rostov-on-Don, Russia (September, 2017 to present), Professor of Finance and Psychology in SIAS-CIAPS (Centre for International Advanced and Professional Studies) (April, 2012 to present), a Senior Correspondent for New York Daily Sun (January, 2015 - Present), and Columnist for Allied Newspapers Group (January, 2015 - Present). He lives in Skopje, North Macedonia with his wife, Lidija Rangelovska. Here we talk about science and reality.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Reality - all that is, ever was, or ever will be, what defines it, to you?
Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin:
"Reality" is the name we give to our aggregate experiences, both of ourselves ("consciousness") and of not-ourselves (the "world out there").
We assume that a world exists independent of our perception of it or interaction with it because we maintain an intersubjective agreement with all other human beings.
The high correlation between the contents of our mind and the self-reports of others leads us to deduce that we must be sharing something distinct from our observations and experiences.
Of course, this commonly shared "theory of reality" is full of holes and easily refuted. But we tend to ignore this fact and impute "reality" even to simulated worlds - simply because they trigger reactions in our brains.
Jacobsen: What defines science?
All theories - scientific or not - start with a problem. They aim to solve it by proving that what appears to be "problematic" is not. They re-state the conundrum, or introduce new data, new variables, a new classification, or new organizing principles. They incorporate the problem in a larger body of knowledge, or in a conjecture ("solution"). They explain why we thought we had an issue on our hands - and how it can be avoided, vitiated, or resolved.
Every scientific theory and many pillars of the scientific method are founded on metaphysical principles.
Evolution Theory hails from the metaphysical assumption that individual organisms as well as entire species aim or are geared to survive. Survival is the hermeneutic and organizing principle.
The Special Theory of Relativity is based on the Cartesian separation between observer and observed.
Popper's principle of Falsifiability is founded on a tautology (for a theory to be considered scientific, it must be falsifiable - but we can apply falsifiability only to scientific theories). Add to this the fact that the languages we use to communicate science - mathematics and geometry, for instance - are not neutral. They constrain in large measure what can and cannot be said, they shape content via context, and they provide language elements as theoretical entities.
There are two
types of ideas: synoptic and prescriptive.
Synoptic ideas shed light on the interconnectedness of apparently disparate phenomena or concepts. These insights are titillating, fascinating, or even mind-boggling. But, with the exception of a few specialists and eggheads, they are usually of fleeting interest, akin to intellectual fireworks and pyrotechnics, a form of entertainment that fizzles out and is rendered tedious by repetition.
Synoptic ideas are deep and intertwined, so people tend to tune out and wander off (or fall asleep) in mid-sentence. Interdisciplinarity requires discipline and rigor that few have, not even the majority of scholars (witness the crowd dynamics in academic conferences).
In contradistinction, prescriptive ideas focus on proposed solutions based on cumulative data and experience or on theories and rules of derivation. They are highly relevant to their consumers because they aim to better their lives and resolve their problems. Religion, science, technology, and most of philosophy are prescriptive.
A public intellectual whose output is strictly synoptic won't remain public for very long: he will fall out of favor and be ignored and overlooked. Prescriptive thought leaders and change agents thrive and prosper the more anomic, disrupted, dysfunctional, and pathologized society is. The more lost, disoriented, anxious, and depressed people are, the more they seek prescription to extricate them from their predicament.
Scientific theories invite constant criticism and revision. They yield new problems. They are proven erroneous and are replaced by new models which offer better explanations and a more profound sense of understanding - often by solving these new problems. From time to time, the successor theories constitute a break with everything known and done till then. These seismic convulsions are known as "paradigm shifts".
It is interesting to note that paradigm-shifting work is often produced by non-specialist outsiders, gifted amateurs, and laymen (such as Da Vinci, Steno, Mandel, Freud, and, to some extent, Einstein). As Thomas Kuhn noted, run of the mill scientists are vested and invested in the status quo and normally generate paradigm-sustaining theories and discoveries.
Contrary to widespread opinion - even among scientists - science is not only about "facts". It is not merely about quantifying, measuring, describing, classifying, and organizing "things" (entities). It is not even concerned with finding out the "truth". Science is about providing us with concepts, explanations, and predictions (collectively known as "theories") and thus endowing us with a sense of understanding of our world.
Scientific theories are allegorical or metaphoric. They revolve around symbols and theoretical constructs, concepts and substantive assumptions, axioms and hypotheses - most of which can never, even in principle, be computed, observed, quantified, measured, or correlated with the world "out there". By appealing to our imagination, scientific theories reveal what David Deutsch calls "the fabric of reality".
Like any other system of knowledge, science has its fanatics, heretics, and deviants.
Instrumentalists, for instance, insist that scientific theories should be concerned exclusively with predicting the outcomes of appropriately designed experiments. Their explanatory powers are of no consequence. Positivists ascribe meaning only to statements that deal with observables and observations.
Instrumentalists and positivists ignore the fact that predictions are derived from models, narratives, and organizing principles. In short: it is the theory's explanatory dimensions that determine which experiments are relevant and which are not. Forecasts - and experiments - that are not embedded in an understanding of the world (in an explanation) do not constitute science.
Granted, predictions and experiments are crucial to the growth of scientific knowledge and the winnowing out of erroneous or inadequate theories. But they are not the only mechanisms of natural selection. There are other criteria that help us decide whether to adopt and place confidence in a scientific theory or not. Is the theory aesthetic (parsimonious), logical, does it provide a reasonable explanation and, thus, does it further our understanding of the world?
David Deutsch in "The Fabric of Reality" (p. 11):
"... (I)t is hard to give a precise definition of 'explanation' or 'understanding'. Roughly speaking, they are about 'why' rather than 'what'; about the inner workings of things; about how things really are, not just how they appear to be; about what must be so, rather than what merely happens to be so; about laws of nature rather than rules of thumb. They are also about coherence, elegance, and simplicity, as opposed to arbitrariness and complexity ..."
Reductionists and emergentists ignore the existence of a hierarchy of scientific theories and meta-languages. They believe - and it is an article of faith, not of science - that complex phenomena (such as the human mind) can be reduced to simple ones (such as the physics and chemistry of the brain). Furthermore, to them the act of reduction is, in itself, an explanation and a form of pertinent understanding. Human thought, fantasy, imagination, and emotions are nothing but electric currents and spurts of chemicals in the brain, they say.
Holists, on the other hand, refuse to consider the possibility that some higher-level phenomena can, indeed, be fully reduced to base components and primitive interactions. They ignore the fact that reductionism sometimes does provide explanations and understanding. The properties of water, for instance, do spring forth from its chemical and physical composition and from the interactions between its constituent atoms and subatomic particles.
Still, there is a general agreement that scientific theories must be abstract (independent of specific time or place), intersubjectively explicit (contain detailed descriptions of the subject matter in unambiguous terms), logically rigorous (make use of logical systems shared and accepted by the practitioners in the field), empirically relevant (correspond to results of empirical research), useful (in describing and/or explaining the world), and provide typologies and predictions.
A scientific theory should resort to primitive (atomic) terminology and all its complex (derived) terms and concepts should be defined in these indivisible terms. It should offer a map unequivocally and consistently connecting operational definitions to theoretical concepts.
Operational definitions that connect to the same theoretical concept should not contradict each other (be negatively correlated). They should yield agreement on measurement conducted independently by trained experimenters. But investigation of the theory of its implication can proceed even without quantification.
Theoretical concepts need not necessarily be measurable or quantifiable or observable. But a scientific theory should afford at least four levels of quantification of its operational and theoretical definitions of concepts: nominal (labeling), ordinal (ranking), interval and ratio.
As we said, scientific theories are not confined to quantified definitions or to a classificatory apparatus. To qualify as scientific they must contain statements about relationships (mostly causal) between concepts - empirically-supported laws and/or propositions (statements derived from axioms).
Philosophers like Carl Hempel and Ernest Nagel regard a theory as scientific if it is hypothetico-deductive. To them, scientific theories are sets of inter-related laws. We know that they are inter-related because a minimum number of axioms and hypotheses yield, in an inexorable deductive sequence, everything else known in the field the theory pertains to.
Explanation is about retrodiction - using the laws to show how things happened. Prediction is using the laws to show how things will happen. Understanding is explanation and prediction combined.
William Whewell augmented this somewhat simplistic point of view with his principle of "consilience of inductions". Often, he observed, inductive explanations of disparate phenomena are unexpectedly traced to one underlying cause. This is what scientific theorizing is about - finding the common source of the apparently separate.
This omnipotent view of the scientific endeavor competes with a more modest, semantic school of philosophy of science.
Many theories - especially ones with breadth, width, and profundity, such as Darwin's theory of evolution - are not deductively integrated and are very difficult to test (falsify) conclusively. Their predictions are either scant or ambiguous.
Scientific theories, goes the semantic view, are amalgams of models of reality. These are empirically meaningful only inasmuch as they are empirically (directly and therefore semantically) applicable to a limited area. A typical scientific theory is not constructed with explanatory and predictive aims in mind. Quite the opposite: the choice of models incorporated in it dictates its ultimate success in explaining the Universe and predicting the outcomes of experiments.
To qualify as meaningful and instrumental, a scientific explanation (or "theory") must be:
i. Predictive (prognostic)– The explanation must possess the ability to predict future events, including the future behavior of the subject.
k. Elastic– The explanation must possess the intrinsic abilities to self organize, reorganize, give room to emerging order, accommodate new data comfortably, and react flexibly to attacks from within and from without.
Scientific theories must also be testable, verifiable, and refutable (falsifiable). The experiments that test their predictions must be repeatable and replicable in tightly controlled laboratory settings. All these elements are largely missing from creationist and intelligent design "theories" and explanations. No experiment could be designed to test the statements within such explanations, to establish their truth-value and, thus, to convert them to theorems or hypotheses in a theory.
This is mainly because of a problem known as the undergeneration of testable hypotheses: Creationism and intelligent Design do not generate a sufficient number of hypotheses, which can be subjected to scientific testing. This has to do with their fabulous (i.e., storytelling) nature and the resort to an untestable, omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent Supreme Being.
In a way, Creationism and Intelligent Design show affinity with some private languages. They are forms of art and, as such, are self-sufficient and self-contained. If structural, internal constraints are met, a statement is deemed true within the "canon" even if it does not satisfy external scientific requirements.
The Life Cycle of Scientific Theories
"There was a time when the newspapers said that
only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that
there ever was such a time... On the other hand, I think it is safe to say that
no one understands quantum mechanics... Do not keep saying to yourself, if you
can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?', because you will get
'down the drain' into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody
knows how it can be like that."
R. P. Feynman (1967)
"The first processes, therefore, in the
effectual studies of the sciences, must be ones of simplification and reduction
of the results of previous investigations to a form in which the mind can grasp
J. C. Maxwell, On Faraday's lines of force
" ...conventional formulations of quantum theory,
and of quantum field theory in particular, are unprofessionally vague and
ambiguous. Professional theoretical physicists ought to be able to do better.
Bohm has shown us a way."
John S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
"It would seem that the theory [quantum mechanics] is exclusively concerned about 'results of measurement', and has nothing to say about anything else. What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of 'measurer'? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single-celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system ... with a Ph.D.? If the theory is to apply to anything but highly idealized laboratory operations, are we not obliged to admit that more or less 'measurement-like' processes are going on more or less all the time, more or less everywhere. Do we not have jumping then all the time?
The first charge against 'measurement', in the fundamental axioms of quantum mechanics, is that it anchors the shifty split of the world into 'system' and 'apparatus'. A second charge is that the word comes loaded with meaning from everyday life, meaning which is entirely inappropriate in the quantum context. When it is said that something is 'measured' it is difficult not to think of the result as referring to some pre-existing property of the object in question. This is to disregard Bohr's insistence that in quantum phenomena the apparatus as well as the system is essentially involved. If it were not so, how could we understand, for example, that 'measurement' of a component of 'angular momentum' ... in an arbitrarily chosen direction ... yields one of a discrete set of values? When one forgets the role of the apparatus, as the word 'measurement' makes all too likely, one despairs of ordinary logic ... hence 'quantum logic'. When one remembers the role of the apparatus, ordinary logic is just fine.
In other contexts, physicists have been able to take
words from ordinary language and use them as technical terms with no great harm
done. Take for example the 'strangeness', 'charm', and 'beauty' of elementary
particle physics. No one is taken in by this 'baby talk'... Would that it were
so with 'measurement'. But in fact the word has had such a damaging effect on
the discussion, that I think it should now be banned altogether in quantum
J. S. Bell, Against "Measurement"
"Is it not clear from the smallness of the
scintillation on the screen that we have to do with a particle? And is it not
clear, from the diffraction and interference patterns, that the motion of the
particle is directed by a wave? De Broglie showed in detail how the motion of a
particle, passing through just one of two holes in screen, could be influenced
by waves propagating through both holes. And so influenced that the particle
does not go where the waves cancel out, but is attracted to where they
co-operate. This idea seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the
wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great
mystery to me that it was so generally ignored."
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
"...in physics the only observations we must
consider are position observations, if only the positions of instrument
pointers. It is a great merit of the de Broglie-Bohm picture to force us to
consider this fact. If you make axioms, rather than definitions and theorems,
about the "measurement" of anything else, then you commit redundancy
and risk inconsistency."
J. S. Bell, Speakable and Unspeakable in Quantum Mechanics
"To outward appearance, the modern world was
born of an anti religious movement: man becoming self-sufficient and reason
supplanting belief. Our generation and the two that preceded it have heard
little of but talk of the conflict between science and faith; indeed it seemed
at one moment a foregone conclusion that the former was destined to take the
place of the latter... After close on two centuries of passionate struggles,
neither science nor faith has succeeded in discrediting its adversary.
On the contrary, it becomes obvious that neither can develop normally without the other. And the reason is simple: the same life animates both. Neither in its impetus nor its achievements can science go to its limits without becoming tinged with mysticism and charged with faith."
Pierre Thierry de Chardin, "The Phenomenon of Man"
I opened with lengthy quotations by John S. Bell, the main proponent of the Bohemian Mechanics interpretation of Quantum Mechanics (really, an alternative rather than an interpretation). The renowned physicist, David Bohm (in the 50s), basing himself on work done much earlier by de Broglie (the unwilling father of the wave-particle dualism), embedded the Schrödinger Equation (SE) in a deterministic physical theory which postulated a non-Newtonian motion of particles.
This is a fine example of the life cycle of scientific theories, comprised of three phases: Growth, Transitional Pathology, and Ossification.
Witchcraft, Religion, Alchemy and Science succeeded one another and each such transition was characterized by transitional pathologies reminiscent of psychotic disorders. The exceptions are (arguably) the disciplines of medicine and biology. A phenomenology of ossified bodies of knowledge would make a fascinating read.
Science is currently in its Ossification Phase. It is soon to be succeeded by another discipline or magisterium. Other explanations to the current dismal state of science should be rejected: that human knowledge is limited by its very nature; that the world is inherently incomprehensible; that methods of thought and understanding tend to self-organize to form closed mythic systems; and that there is a problem with the language which we employ to make our inquiries of the world describable and communicable.
Kuhn's approach to Scientific Revolutions is but one of many that deal with theory and paradigm shifts in scientific thought and its resulting evolution. Scientific theories seem to be subject to a process of natural selection every bit as organisms in nature are.
Animals could be thought of as theorems (with a positive truth value) in the logical system "Nature". But species become extinct because nature itself changes (not nature as a set of potentials - but the relevant natural phenomena to which the species are exposed). Could we say the same about scientific theories? Are they being selected and deselected partly due to a changing, shifting backdrop?
Indeed, the whole debate between "realists" and "anti-realists" in the philosophy of Science can be settled by adopting this single premise: that the Universe itself is not immutable. By contrasting the fixed subject of study ("The World") with the transient nature of Science anti-realists gained the upper hand.
Arguments such as the under-determination of theories by data and the pessimistic meta-inductions from past falsity (of scientific "knowledge") emphasize the transience and asymptotic nature of the fruits of the scientific endeavor. But such arguments rest on the implicit assumption that there is some universal, invariant, truth out there (which science strives to asymptotically approximate). This apparent problematic evaporates if we allow that both the observer and the observed, the theory and its subject, are alterable.
Science develops through reduction of miracles. Laws of nature are formulated. They are assumed to encompass all the (relevant) natural phenomena (that is, phenomena governed by natural forces and within nature). Ex definitio, nothing can exist outside nature: it is all-inclusive and all-pervasive, or omnipresent (formerly the attributes of the divine).
Supernatural forces, supernatural intervention, are contradictions in terms, oxymorons. If some thing or force exists, it is natural. That which is supernatural does not exist. Miracles do not only contravene (or violate) the laws of nature, they are impossible, not only physically, but also logically. That which is logically possible and can be experienced (observed), is physically possible.
But, again, we are faced with the assumption of a "fixed background". What if nature itself changes in ways that are bound to confound ever-truer knowledge? Then, the very shifts of nature as a whole, as a system, could be called "supernatural" or "miraculous".
In a way, this is how science evolves. A law of nature is proposed or accepted. An event occurs or an observation made which are not described or predicted by it. It is, by definition, a violation of the suggested or accepted law which is, thus, falsified. Subsequently and consequently, the laws of nature are modified, or re-written entirely, in order to reflect and encompass this extraordinary event. Result: Hume's comforting distinction between "extraordinary" and "miraculous" events is upheld (the latter being ruled out).
Extraordinary events can be compared to previous experience - miraculous events entail some supernatural interference with the normal course of things (a "wonder" in Biblical terms). It is by confronting the extraordinary and eliminating its "abnormal" or "supernatural" attributes that science progresses as a miraculous activity. This, of course, is not the view of the likes of David Deutsch (see his book, "The Fabric of Reality").
Back to the last phase of this Life Cycle, to Ossification. The discipline degenerates and, following the "psychotic" transitional phase, it sinks into a paralytic state which is characterized by the following:
All the practical and technological aspects of the dying discipline are preserved and continue to be utilized. Gradually the conceptual and theoretical underpinnings vanish or are replaced by the tenets and postulates of a new discipline - but the inventions, processes and practical know-how do not evaporate. They are incorporated into the new discipline and, in time, are erroneously attributed to it, marking it as the legitimate successor of the now defunct, preceding discipline.
The practitioners of the old discipline confine themselves to copying and replicating the various aspects of the old discipline, mainly its intellectual property (writings, inventions, other theoretical material). This replication does not lead to the creation of new knowledge or even to the dissemination of old one. It is a hermetic process, limited to the ever decreasing circle of the initiated. Special institutions govern the rehashing of the materials related to the old discipline, their processing and copying. Institutions related to the dead discipline are often financed and supported by the state which is always an agent of conservation, preservation and conformity.
Thus, the creative-evolutionary dimension of the now-dead discipline is gone. No new paradigms or revolutions happen. The exegesis and replication of canonical writings become the predominant activities. Formalisms are not subjected to scrutiny and laws assume eternal, immutable, quality.
All the activities of the adherents of the old discipline become ritualized. The old discipline itself becomes a pillar of the extant power structures and, as such, is condoned and supported by them. The old discipline's practitioners synergistically collaborate with the powers that be: with the industrial base, the military complex, the political elite, the intellectual cliques in vogue. Institutionalization inevitably leads to the formation of a (mostly bureaucratic) hierarchy.
Emerging rituals serve the purpose of diverting attention from subversive, "forbidden" thinking. These rigid ceremonies are reminiscent of obsessive-compulsive disorders in individuals who engage in ritualistic behavior patterns to deflect "wrong" or "corrupt" thoughts.
Practitioners of the old discipline seek to cement the power of its "clergy". Rituals are a specialized form of knowledge which can be obtained only by initiation ("rites of passage"). One's status in the hierarchy of the dead discipline is not the result of objectively quantifiable variables or even of judgment of merit. It is the outcome of politics and other power-related interactions.
The need to ensure conformity leads to doctrinarian dogmatism and to the establishment of enforcement mechanisms. Dissidents are subjected to both social and economic sanctions. They find themselves ex-communicated, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, their works banished or not published, ridiculed and so on.
This is really the triumph of text over the human spirit. At this late stage in the Life Cycle, the members of the old discipline's community are oblivious to the original reasons and causes for their pursuits. Why was the discipline developed in the first place? What were the original riddles, questions, queries it faced and tackled? Long gone are the moving forces behind the old discipline. Its cold ashes are the texts and their preservation is an expression of longing and desire for things past.
The vacuum left by the absence of positive emotions is filled by negative ones. The discipline and its disciples become phobic, paranoid, defensive, and with a faulty reality test. Devoid of the ability to generate new, attractive content, the old discipline resorts to motivation by manipulation of negative emotions. People are frightened, threatened, herded, cajoled. The world is painted in an apocalyptic palette as ruled by irrationality, disorderly, chaotic, dangerous, or even lethal. Only the old discipline stands between its adherents and apocalypse.
New, emerging disciplines, are presented as heretic, fringe lunacies, inconsistent, reactionary and bound to regress humanity to some dark ages. This is the inter-disciplinary or inter-paradigm clash. It follows the Psychotic Phase. The old discipline resorts to some transcendental entity (God, Satan, or the conscious intelligent observer in the Copenhagen interpretation of the formalism of Quantum Mechanics). In this sense, the dying discipline is already psychotic and afoul of the test of reality. It develops messianic aspirations and is inspired by a missionary zeal and zest. The fight against new ideas and theories is bloody and ruthless and every possible device is employed.
But the very characteristics of the older nomenclature is in the old discipline's disfavor. It is closed, based on ritualistic initiation, and patronizing. It relies on intimidation. The numbers of the faithful dwindle the more the "church" needs them and the more it resorts to oppressive recruitment tactics. The emerging discipline wins by default. Even the initiated, who stand most to lose, finally abandon the old discipline. Their belief unravels when confronted with the truth value, explanatory and predictive powers, and the comprehensiveness of the emerging discipline.
This, indeed, is the main presenting symptom, the distinguishing hallmark, of paralytic old disciplines. They deny reality. They are rendered mere belief-systems, myths. They require the suspension of judgment and disbelief, the voluntary limitation of one's quest for truth and beauty, the agreement to leave swathes of the map in a state of "terra incognita". This reductionism, this schizoid avoidance, the resort to hermeticism and transcendental authority mark the beginning of the end.
Jacobsen: How are the mentally ill disconnected from reality in various ways?
Mental illness is about opting out of the intersubjective agreement: disagreeing with most other people about what constitutes “reality”. In various periods in history, the mentally ill were considered to be in possession of privileged or exceptional access to a more fundamental stratum of reality, beyond commonly shared experiences.
Is there a way to tell “objective” reality from dreams or mental illness? No, there isn’t. To decide which version of reality is widely accepted, we use statistics (a polling of all the participants in any given worldline) or measures of efficacy (if it works, it must be real or it is based on a correct assessment of reality).
Jacobsen: Why is psychology not science, though following the forms?
Are psychological theories scientific theories by any definition (prescriptive or descriptive)? Hardly.
First, we must distinguish between psychological theories and the way that some of them are applied (psychotherapy and psychological plots). Psychological plots are the narratives co-authored by the therapist and the patient during psychotherapy. These narratives are the outcomes of applying psychological theories and models to the patient's specific circumstances.
Psychological plots amount to storytelling - but they are still instances of the psychological theories used. The instances of theoretical concepts in concrete situations form part of every theory. Actually, the only way to test psychological theories - with their dearth of measurable entities and concepts - is by examining such instances (plots).
Storytelling has been with us since the days of campfire and besieging wild animals. It serves a number of important functions: amelioration of fears, communication of vital information (regarding survival tactics and the characteristics of animals, for instance), the satisfaction of a sense of order (predictability and justice), the development of the ability to hypothesize, predict and introduce new or additional theories and so on.
We are all endowed with a sense of wonder. The world around us in inexplicable, baffling in its diversity and myriad forms. We experience an urge to organize it, to "explain the wonder away", to order it so that we know what to expect next (predict). These are the essentials of survival. But while we have been successful at imposing our mind on the outside world – we have been much less successful when we tried to explain and comprehend our internal universe and our behavior.
Psychology is not an exact science, nor can it ever be. This is because its "raw material" (humans and their behavior as individuals and en masse) is not exact. It will never yield natural laws or universal constants (like in physics). Experimentation in the field is constrained by legal and ethical rules. Humans tend to be opinionated, develop resistance, and become self-conscious when observed.
The relationship between the structure and functioning of our (ephemeral) mind, the structure and modes of operation of our (physical) brain, and the structure and conduct of the outside world have been a matter for heated debate for millennia.
Broadly speaking, there are two schools of thought:
One camp identify the substrate (brain) with its product (mind). Some of these scholars postulate the existence of a lattice of preconceived, born, categorical knowledge about the universe – the vessels into which we pour our experience and which mould it.
Others within this group regard the mind as a black box. While it is possible in principle to know its input and output, it is impossible, again in principle, to understand its internal functioning and management of information. To describe this input-output mechanism, Pavlov coined the word "conditioning", Watson adopted it and invented "behaviorism", Skinner came up with "reinforcement".
Epiphenomenologists (proponents of theories of emergent phenomena) regard the mind as the by-product of the complexity of the brain's "hardware" and "wiring". But all of them ignore the psychophysical question: what IS the mind and HOW is it linked to the brain?
The other camp assumes the airs of "scientific" and "positivist" thinking. It speculates that the mind (whether a physical entity, an epiphenomenon, a non-physical principle of organization, or the result of introspection) has a structure and a limited set of functions. It is argued that a "mind owner's manual" could be composed, replete with engineering and maintenance instructions. It proffers a dynamics of the psyche.
The most prominent of these "psychodynamists" was, of course, Freud. Though his disciples (Adler, Horney, the object-relations lot) diverged wildly from his initial theories, they all shared his belief in the need to "scientify" and objectify psychology.
Freud, a medical doctor by profession (neurologist) - preceded by another M.D., Josef Breuer – put forth a theory regarding the structure of the mind and its mechanics: (suppressed) energies and (reactive) forces. Flow charts were provided together with a method of analysis, a mathematical physics of the mind.
Many hold all psychodynamic theories to be a mirage. An essential part is missing, they observe: the ability to test the hypotheses, which derive from these "theories". Though very convincing and, surprisingly, possessed of great explanatory powers, being non-verifiable and non-falsifiable as they are – psychodynamic models of the mind cannot be deemed to possess the redeeming features of scientific theories.
Deciding between the two camps was and is a crucial matter. Consider the clash - however repressed - between psychiatry and psychology. The former regards "mental disorders" as euphemisms - it acknowledges only the reality of brain dysfunctions (such as biochemical or electric imbalances) and of hereditary factors. The latter (psychology) implicitly assumes that something exists (the "mind", the "psyche") which cannot be reduced to hardware or to wiring diagrams. Talk therapy is aimed at that something and supposedly interacts with it.
But perhaps the distinction is artificial. Perhaps the mind is simply the way we experience our brains. Endowed with the gift (or curse) of introspection, we experience a duality, a split, constantly being both observer and observed. Moreover, talk therapy involves TALKING - which is the transfer of energy from one brain to another through the air. This is a directed, specifically formed energy, intended to trigger certain circuits in the recipient brain. It should come as no surprise if it were to be discovered that talk therapy has clear physiological effects upon the brain of the patient (blood volume, electrical activity, discharge and absorption of hormones, etc.).
All this would be doubly true if the mind were, indeed, only an emergent phenomenon of the complex brain - two sides of the same coin.
Psychological theories of the mind are metaphors of the mind. They are fables and myths, narratives, stories, hypotheses, conjunctures. They play (exceedingly) important roles in the psychotherapeutic setting – but not in the laboratory. Their form is artistic, not rigorous, not testable, less structured than theories in the natural sciences. The language used is polyvalent, rich, effusive, ambiguous, evocative, and fuzzy – in short, metaphorical. These theories are suffused with value judgments, preferences, fears, post facto and ad hoc constructions. None of this has methodological, systematic, analytic and predictive merits.
Still, the theories in psychology are powerful instruments, admirable constructs, and they satisfy important needs to explain and understand ourselves, our interactions with others, and with our environment.
The attainment of peace of mind is a need, which was neglected by Maslow in his famous hierarchy. People sometimes sacrifice material wealth and welfare, resist temptations, forgo opportunities, and risk their lives – in order to secure it. There is, in other words, a preference of inner equilibrium over homeostasis. It is the fulfillment of this overwhelming need that psychological theories cater to. In this, they are no different to other collective narratives (myths, for instance).
Still, psychology is desperately trying to maintain contact with reality and to be thought of as a scientific discipline. It employs observation and measurement and organizes the results, often presenting them in the language of mathematics. In some quarters, these practices lends it an air of credibility and rigorousness. Others snidely regard the as an elaborate camouflage and a sham. Psychology, they insist, is a pseudo-science. It has the trappings of science but not its substance.
Worse still, while historical narratives are rigid and immutable, the application of psychological theories (in the form of psychotherapy) is "tailored" and "customized" to the circumstances of each and every patient (client). The user or consumer is incorporated in the resulting narrative as the main hero (or anti-hero). This flexible "production line" seems to be the result of an age of increasing individualism.
True, the "language units" (large chunks of denotates and connotates) used in psychology and psychotherapy are one and the same, regardless of the identity of the patient and his therapist. In psychoanalysis, the analyst is likely to always employ the tripartite structure (Id, Ego, Superego). But these are merely the language elements and need not be confused with the idiosyncratic plots that are weaved in every encounter. Each client, each person, and his own, unique, irreplicable, plot.
To qualify as a "psychological" (both meaningful and instrumental) plot, the narrative, offered to the patient by the therapist, must be:
In all these respects, a psychological plot is a theory in disguise. Scientific theories satisfy most of the above conditions as well. But this apparent identity is flawed. The important elements of testability, verifiability, refutability, falsifiability, and repeatability – are all largely missing from psychological theories and plots. No experiment could be designed to test the statements within the plot, to establish their truth-value and, thus, to convert them to theorems or hypotheses in a theory.
There are four reasons to account for this inability to test and prove (or falsify) psychological theories:
So, what are psychological theories and plots good for? They are the instruments used in the procedures which induce peace of mind (even happiness) in the client. This is done with the help of a few embedded mechanisms:
a. The Organizing Principle – Psychological plots offer the client an organizing principle, a sense of order, meaningfulness, and justice, an inexorable drive toward well defined (though, perhaps, hidden) goals, the feeling of being part of a whole. They strive to answer the "why’s" and "how’s" of life. They are dialogic. The client asks: "why am I (suffering from a syndrome) and how (can I successfully tackle it)". Then, the plot is spun: "you are like this not because the world is whimsically cruel but because your parents mistreated you when you were very young, or because a person important to you died, or was taken away from you when you were still impressionable, or because you were sexually abused and so on". The client is becalmed by the very fact that there is an explanation to that which until now monstrously taunted and haunted him, that he is not the plaything of vicious Gods, that there is a culprit (focusing his diffuse anger). His belief in the existence of order and justice and their administration by some supreme, transcendental principle is restored. This sense of "law and order" is further enhanced when the plot yields predictions which come true (either because they are self-fulfilling or because some real, underlying "law" has been discovered).
b. The Integrative Principle – The client is offered, through the plot, access to the innermost, hitherto inaccessible, recesses of his mind. He feels that he is being reintegrated, that "things fall into place". In psychodynamic terms, the energy is released to do productive and positive work, rather than to induce distorted and destructive forces.
c. The Purgatory Principle – In most cases, the client feels sinful, debased, inhuman, decrepit, corrupting, guilty, punishable, hateful, alienated, strange, mocked and so on. The plot offers him absolution. The client's suffering expurgates, cleanses, absolves, and atones for his sins and handicaps. A feeling of hard won achievement accompanies a successful plot. The client sheds layers of functional, adaptive stratagems rendered dysfunctional and maladaptive. This is inordinately painful. The client feels dangerously naked, precariously exposed. He then assimilates the plot offered to him, thus enjoying the benefits emanating from the previous two principles and only then does he develop new mechanisms of coping. Therapy is a mental crucifixion and resurrection and atonement for the patient's sins. It is a religious experience. Psychological theories and plots are in the role of the scriptures from which solace and consolation can be always gleaned.
Jacobsen: If psychology is not a science, what are the ultimate odds of the development of a true taxonomy of mental illness (and mental health)?
Taxonomy is not synonymous with science, nor does it have to rely on it. It could be descriptive-literary, for example.
The classificatory texts in psychology - such as the DSM and the ICD - are extensive and ample. They capture the gamut of manifested and observable human behaviors coupled with self-reported states of mind.
Jacobsen: How does science pierce the veil of reality, and give a modicum of comprehension and insight about reality?
It is a common misconception that science is about “reality” (whatever this fuzzy concept may mean).
Science is about science. The texts of science provide self-referential allegories, metaphors, symbols, similes, and syncdoches. These texts build on each other in a hermetic loop of hermeneutics.
Ultimately, science is a methodology of constructing algorithmic narratives that enhance our efficacy in our environments through technologies. Good science is never teleological or tautological - and so, it is never explanatory.
Our uncanny ability to translate science to technology misleads us to believe that science endows us with a grasp of reality. It doesn’t. Technology is merely the manipulation of symbols to yield “real life” outcomes. Science is the confluence of texts which often resolve into technology.
Jacobsen: Cranks, Creationism, cults, Intelligent Design advocates, non-falsifiable theoretical constructs, pseudoscience, religious fundamentalism, quack medicine, socio-political dogmatisms, the god concept, woo, and the like, are hindrances to a more full and robust comprehension of reality, by more people – an accurate view of the world. How does delusion play into science, as delusion plays into human psychology, as human psychology plays an implicit part in the scientific process?
By far the most pernicious and hubristic delusion in science is the belief that it ultimately captures the “truth” or “reality” however incrementally or asymptotically.
The other, equally pervasive delusion, is the confusion between language and the scientific method. Many disciplines - most notably psychology and its close kin, economics - erroneously believe that the use of mathematics and statistics renders them “scientific”.
Jacobsen: Will there ever be a true Grand Unified Theory (GUT), if not a Theory of Everything (ToE)?
Elusive and tedious as the process may be, I have no doubt that we will end up having a TOE. Simply because both the mind and the universe are unitary. Eastern teachings are right: “reality” is nothing but illusory appearance. Underneath it all, there is a single engine of meaning.
How do I know that? Parsimony, Occam’s razor. In all disciplines, even as we have been multiplying our knowledge, we have witnessed a massive reduction in the number of theoretical constructs and entities required to account for this ever proliferating cornucopia of observations.
Jacobsen: Will we need new principles of scientific methodology to construct a more comprehensive image of reality?
No. The crowning achievement of the human mind is the scientific methodology as it stands today. I see no need to tinker with it.
We may, however, gain a new understanding of how to use it best. Popper’s principle of falsification is an example of such an evolution in thinking.
We should also avoid all kinds of fads and fashions that masquerade as the scientific method or abuse it.
Finally, we should never confuse the use of language (maths) with the algorithmic nature of the scientific method (for example: the requirement that experiments be replicable).
There are no limits to the applicability of the scientific methodology. I wholeheartedly disagree with attempts to exclude any aspects of reality or existence from its remit.
Jacobsen: Is reality bound to full comprehension in principle or to asymptotic understanding while never reaching capital “T” Truth by some operators in the universe (e.g., human beings)? Of course, we can include an apparent statistical phenomenon: Mean knowledge of all human beings oscillating within and between the epochs of human history.
Though I accept that reality exists, albeit beyond our access, I reject the notion of “truth”. The only measure is efficacy in any given environment. The kind of narrative that allows us to be efficacious and is conducive to survival is science. It has no truth value.
The extent of confusion that reigns when we discuss the concept of truth is evident in the film “The Invention of Lying”. The movie takes place in a world where people are genetically unable to lie. When one of them, presumably an aberrant mutant (his son inherits his newfound ability), stumbles across the art of confabulation, his life is transformed overnight: he becomes rich, a celebrity, and marries the girl of his dreams (who scorned him before).
But, this clever piece of comedy is philosophically muddled. The denizens of this dystopian cosmos (yes, the truth hurts) not only respond veraciously when prompted – they actually and often sadistically share their innermost thoughts, opinions, and observations. The film fails to realize that volunteering the truth is not the same as being truthful.
What’s worse, the characters in the movie take all statements about the future to be true. Yet, statements about the future can be and often are false even in a world where lying is unknown. As Aristotle has put it: nothing we say about the future has a truth value (can be confidently and rigorously determined to be true or false). We can lie only by making statements that we know with certainty to be false, but such certainty exists only with regard to the past and the present. We can make statements about the future that may be false, or that are probably false, or that we believe to be false – but we can never be sure that they are false. Therefore, we can never lie (or tell the truth!) about the future.
Still, it is not as simple as that. Truth must also be possible (there is no such thing as an impossible truth, though, of course, there are many improbable truths). Yet, the very concept of possibility has to do with the future. Moreover: only facts are possible. If something is not possible it is also not factual and nothing that is a fact is impossible.
Consider the following:
Thought experiments (Gedankenexperimenten) are "facts" in the sense that they have a "real life" correlate in the form of electrochemical activity in the brain. But it is quite obvious that they do not relate to facts "out there". They are not true statements.
But do they lack truth because they do not relate to facts? How are Truth and Fact interrelated?
One answer is that Truth pertains to the possibility that an event will occur. If true – it must occur and if false – it cannot occur. This is a binary world of extreme existential conditions. Must all possible events occur? Of course not. If they do not occur would they still be true? Must a statement have a real life correlate to be true?
Instinctively, the answer is yes. We cannot conceive of a thought divorced from brainwaves. A statement which remains a mere potential seems to exist only in the nether land between truth and falsity. It becomes true only by materializing, by occurring, by matching up with real life. If we could prove that it will never do so, we would have felt justified in classifying it as false. This is the outgrowth of millennia of concrete, Aristotelian logic. Logical statements talk about the world and, therefore, if a statement cannot be shown to relate directly to the world, it is not true.
This approach, however, is the outcome of some underlying assumptions:
First, that the world is finite and also close to its end. To say that something that did not happen cannot be true is to say that it will never happen (i.e., to say that time and space – the world – are finite and are about to end momentarily).
Second, truth and falsity are assumed to be mutually exclusive. Quantum and fuzzy logics have long laid this one to rest. There are real world situations that are both true and not-true. A particle can "be" in two places at the same time. This fuzzy logic is incompatible with our daily experiences but if there is anything that we have learnt from physics in the last seven decades it is that the world is incompatible with our daily experiences.
The third assumption is that the psychic realm is but a subset of the material one. We are membranes with a very particular hole-size. We filter through only well defined types of experiences, are equipped with limited (and evolutionarily biased) senses, programmed in a way which tends to sustain us until we die. We are not neutral, objective observers. Actually, the very concept of observer is disputable – as modern physics, on the one hand and Eastern philosophy, on the other hand, have shown.
Imagine that a mad scientist has succeeded to infuse all the water in the world with a strong hallucinogen. At a given moment, all the people in the world see a huge flying saucer. What can we say about this saucer? Is it true? Is it "real"?
There is little doubt that the saucer does not exist. But who is to say so? If this statement is left unsaid – does it mean that it cannot exist and, therefore, is untrue? In this case (of the illusionary flying saucer), the statement that remains unsaid is a true statement – and the statement that is uttered by millions is patently false.
Still, the argument can be made that the flying saucer did exist – though only in the minds of those who drank the contaminated water. What is this form of existence? In which sense does a hallucination "exist"? The psychophysical problem is that no causal relationship can be established between a thought and its real life correlate, the brainwaves that accompany it. Moreover, this leads to infinite regression. If the brainwaves created the thought – who created them, who made them happen? In other words: who is it (perhaps what is it) that thinks?
The subject is so convoluted that to say that the mental is a mere subset of the material is to speculate
It is, therefore, advisable to separate the ontological from the epistemological. But which is which? Facts are determined epistemologically and statistically by conscious and intelligent observers. Their "existence" rests on a sound epistemological footing. Yet we assume that in the absence of observers facts will continue their existence, will not lose their "factuality", their real life quality which is observer-independent and invariant.
What about truth? Surely, it rests on solid ontological foundations. Something is or is not true in reality and that is it. But then we saw that truth is determined psychically and, therefore, is vulnerable, for instance, to hallucinations. Moreover, the blurring of the lines in Quantum, non-Aristotelian, logics implies one of two: either that true and false are only "in our heads" (epistemological) – or that something is wrong with our interpretation of the world, with our exegetic mechanism (brain). If the latter case is true that the world does contain mutually exclusive true and false values – but the organ which identifies these entities (the brain) has gone awry. The paradox is that the second approach also assumes that at least the perception of true and false values is dependent on the existence of an epistemological detection device.
Can something be true and reality and false in our minds? Of course it can (remember "Rashomon"). Could the reverse be true? Yes, it can. This is what we call optical or sensory illusions. Even solidity is an illusion of our senses – there are no such things as solid objects (remember the physicist's desk which is 99.99999% vacuum with minute granules of matter floating about).
To reconcile these two concepts, we must let go of the old belief (probably vital to our sanity) that we can know the world. We probably cannot and this is the source of our confusion. The world may be inhabited by "true" things and "false" things. It may be true that truth is existence and falsity is non-existence. But we will never know because we are incapable of knowing anything about the world as it is.
We are, however, fully equipped to know about the mental events inside our heads. It is there that the representations of the real world form. We are acquainted with these representations (concepts, images, symbols, language in general) – and mistake them for the world itself. Since we have no way of directly knowing the world (without the intervention of our interpretative mechanisms) we are unable to tell when a certain representation corresponds to an event which is observer-independent and invariant and when it corresponds to nothing of the kind. When we see an image – it could be the result of an interaction with light outside us (objectively "real"), or the result of a dream, a drug induced illusion, fatigue and any other number of brain events not correlated with the real world. These are observer-dependent phenomena and, subject to an agreement between a sufficient number of observers, they are judged to be true or "to have happened" (e.g., religious miracles).
To ask if something is true or not is not a meaningful question unless it relates to our internal world and to our capacity as observers. When we say "true" we mean "exists", or "existed", or "most definitely will exist" (the sun will rise tomorrow). But existence can only be ascertained in our minds. Truth, therefore, is nothing but a state of mind. Existence is determined by observing and comparing the two (the outside and the inside, the real and the mental). This yields a picture of the world which may be closely correlated to reality – and, yet again, may not.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Vaknin.
Vaknin: Thank you for giving me this space and for your excellent questions.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: Sex and gender, you’ve done a decent amount of material on this subject matter. First, what is sex?
Prof. Shmuel “Sam” Vaknin: Sex is biological, albeit fluid. You are born with it, or at least with the corporeal propensity for it. It is a hardware issue.
Jacobsen: Second, what is gender?
Vaknin: Gender is performative, the outcome of socialization, an expression of dominance, and of a gendered personality. It is largely a sociocultural construct grounded in a specific history (see my response to your next question).
Jacobsen: Third, what are other pertinent terms within this context?
Vaknin: "One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.", Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
With same-sex marriage becoming a legal reality throughout the world, many more children are going to be raised by homosexual (gay and lesbian) parents, or even by transgendered or transsexual ones. How is this going to affect the child’s masculinity or femininity?
Is being a gay man less manly than being a heterosexual one? Is a woman who is the outcome of a sex change operation less feminine than her natural-born sisters? In which sense is a “virile” lesbian less of a man than an effeminate heterosexual or homosexual man? And how should we classify and treat bisexuals and asexuals?
What about modern she-breadwinners? All those feminist women in traditional male positions who are as sexually aggressive as men and prone to the same varieties of misconduct (e.g., cheating on their spouses)? Are they less womanly? And are their stay-at-home-dad partners not men enough? How are sex preferences related to gender differentiation? And if one’s sex and genitalia can be chosen and altered at will – why not one’s gender, regardless of one’s natural equipment? Can we decouple gender roles from sexual functions and endowments?
Aren’t the feminist-liberal-emancipated woman and her responsive, transformed male partner as moulded by specific social norms and narratives as their more traditional and conservative counterparts? And when men adapted to the demands of the “new”, post-modernist woman – were they not then rebuffed by that very same female as emasculated and unmanly? What is the source of this gender chaos? Why do people act “modern” while, at heart, they still hark back to erstwhile mores and ethos?
We assume erroneously that some roles
are instinctual because,
in nature, other species do it, too: parenting and mating come to mind. The
discipline of sociobiology encourages us to counterfactually learn from animals
about our social functioning.
But humans and their societies are so much more complex that there is little we can evince from lobsters, chimpanzees, or gorillas.
In nature, there is "male" and "female", not "man" and "woman" which are learned and acquired gender roles. There is no "mother" and "father", even among apes - just progenitors.
To fulfill any of these demanding and multifarious human functions, we must be exposed to good enough and working role models in childhood and then practice tirelessly through adulthood, constantly reframing and evolving as demands and expectations change with social mores and the times. Evolution in the human species is no longer predominantly genetic - but social and cultural.
So, many people simply don't know how to act as men or as women, as mothers or as fathers. Here, faking it never makes it.
In nature, male and female are distinct. She-elephants are gregarious, he-elephants solitary. Male zebra finches are loquacious - the females mute. Female green spoon worms are 200,000 times larger than their male mates. These striking differences are biological - yet they lead to differentiation in social roles and skill acquisition.
Alan Pease, author of a book titled "Why Men Don't Listen and Women Can't Read Maps", believes that women are spatially-challenged compared to men. The British firm, Admiral Insurance, conducted a study of half a million claims. They found that "women were almost twice as likely as men to have a collision in a car park, 23 percent more likely to hit a stationary car, and 15 percent more likely to reverse into another vehicle" (Reuters).
Yet gender "differences" are often the outcomes of bad scholarship. Consider Admiral Insurance’s data. As Britain's Automobile Association (AA) correctly pointed out - women drivers tend to make more short journeys around towns and shopping centers and these involve frequent parking. Hence their ubiquity in certain kinds of claims. Regarding women's alleged spatial deficiency, in Britain, girls have been outperforming boys in scholastic aptitude tests - including geometry and maths - since 1988.
In an Op-Ed published by the New York Times on January 23, 2005, Olivia Judson cited this example
"Beliefs that men are intrinsically better at this or that have repeatedly led to discrimination and prejudice, and then they've been proved to be nonsense. Women were thought not to be world-class musicians. But when American symphony orchestras introduced blind auditions in the 1970's - the musician plays behind a screen so that his or her gender is invisible to those listening - the number of women offered jobs in professional orchestras increased. Similarly, in science, studies of the ways that grant applications are evaluated have shown that women are more likely to get financing when those reading the applications do not know the sex of the applicant."
On the other wing of the divide, Anthony Clare, a British psychiatrist and author of "On Men" wrote:
"At the beginning of the 21st century it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that men are in serious trouble. Throughout the world, developed and developing, antisocial behavior is essentially male. Violence, sexual abuse of children, illicit drug use, alcohol misuse, gambling, all are overwhelmingly male activities. The courts and prisons bulge with men. When it comes to aggression, delinquent behavior, risk taking and social mayhem, men win gold."
Men also mature later, die earlier, are more susceptible to infections and most types of cancer, are more likely to be dyslexic, to suffer from a host of mental health disorders, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and to commit suicide.
In her book, "Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man", Susan Faludi describes a crisis of masculinity following the breakdown of manhood models and work and family structures in the last five decades. In the film "Boys don't Cry", a teenage girl binds her breasts and acts the male in a caricatured relish of stereotypes of virility. Being a man is merely a state of mind, the movie implies.
But what does it really mean to be a "male" or a "female"? Are gender identity and sexual preferences genetically determined? Can they be reduced to one's sex? Or are they amalgams of biological, social, and psychological factors in constant interaction? Are they immutable lifelong features or dynamically evolving frames of self-reference?
In rural northern Albania, until recently, in families with no male heir, women could choose to forego sex and childbearing, alter their external appearance and "become" men and the patriarchs of their clans, with all the attendant rights and obligations.
In the aforementioned New York Times Op-Ed, Olivia Judson opines:
"Many sex differences are not, therefore, the result of his having one gene while she has another. Rather, they are attributable to the way particular genes behave when they find themselves in him instead of her. The magnificent difference between male and female green spoon worms, for example, has nothing to do with their having different genes: each green spoon worm larva could go either way. Which sex it becomes depends on whether it meets a female during its first three weeks of life. If it meets a female, it becomes male and prepares to regurgitate; if it doesn't, it becomes female and settles into a crack on the sea floor."
Yet, certain traits attributed to one's sex are surely better accounted for by the demands of one's environment, by cultural factors, the process of socialization, gender roles, and what George Devereux called "ethnopsychiatry" in "Basic Problems of Ethnopsychiatry" (University of Chicago Press, 1980). He suggested to divide the unconscious into the id (the part that was always instinctual and unconscious) and the "ethnic unconscious" (repressed material that was once conscious). The latter is mostly molded by prevailing cultural mores and includes all our defense mechanisms and most of the superego.
So, how can we tell whether our sexual role is mostly in our blood or in our brains?
The scrutiny of borderline cases of human sexuality - notably the transgendered or intersexed - can yield clues as to the distribution and relative weights of biological, social, and psychological determinants of gender identity formation.
The results of a study conducted by Uwe Hartmann, Hinnerk Becker, and Claudia Rueffer-Hesse in 1997 and titled "Self and Gender: Narcissistic Pathology and Personality Factors in Gender Dysphoric Patients", published in the "International Journal of Transgenderism", "indicate significant psychopathological aspects and narcissistic dysregulation in a substantial proportion of patients." Are these "psychopathological aspects" merely reactions to underlying physiological realities and changes? Could social ostracism and labeling have induced them in the "patients"?
The authors conclude:
"The cumulative evidence of our study ... is consistent with the view that gender dysphoria is a disorder of the sense of self as has been proposed by Beitel (1985) or Pfäfflin (1993). The central problem in our patients is about identity and the self in general and the transsexual wish seems to be an attempt at reassuring and stabilizing the self-coherence which in turn can lead to a further destabilization if the self is already too fragile. In this view the body is instrumentalized to create a sense of identity and the splitting symbolized in the hiatus between the rejected body-self and other parts of the self is more between good and bad objects than between masculine and feminine."
Freud, Kraft-Ebbing, and Fliess suggested that we are all bisexual to a certain degree. As early as 1910, Dr. Magnus Hirschfeld argued, in Berlin, that absolute genders are "abstractions, invented extremes". The consensus today is that one's sexuality is, mostly, a psychological construct which reflects gender role orientation.
Joanne Meyerowitz, a professor of history at Indiana University and the editor of The Journal of American History observes, in her recently published tome, "How Sex Changed: A History of Transsexuality in the United States", that the very meaning of masculinity and femininity is in constant flux.
Transgender activists, says Meyerowitz, insist that gender and sexuality represent "distinct analytical categories". The New York Times wrote in its review of the book: "Some male-to-female transsexuals have sex with men and call themselves homosexuals. Some female-to-male transsexuals have sex with women and call themselves lesbians. Some transsexuals call themselves asexual."
So, it is all in the mind, you see.
This would be taking it too far. A large body of scientific evidence points to the genetic and biological underpinnings of sexual behavior and preferences.
The German science magazine, "Geo", reported recently that the males of the fruit fly "drosophila melanogaster" switched from heterosexuality to homosexuality as the temperature in the lab was increased from 19 to 30 degrees Celsius. They reverted to chasing females as it was lowered.
The brain structures of homosexual sheep are different to those of straight sheep, a study conducted recently by the Oregon Health & Science University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Sheep Experiment Station in Dubois, Idaho, revealed. Similar differences were found between gay men and straight ones in 1995 in Holland and elsewhere. The preoptic area of the hypothalamus was larger in heterosexual men than in both homosexual men and straight women.
According an article, titled "When Sexual Development Goes Awry", by Suzanne Miller, published in the September 2000 issue of the "World and I", various medical conditions give rise to sexual ambiguity. Congenital adrenal hyperplasia (CAH), involving excessive androgen production by the adrenal cortex, results in mixed genitalia. A person with the complete androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS) has a vagina, external female genitalia and functioning, androgen-producing, testes - but no uterus or fallopian tubes.
People with the rare 5-alpha reductase deficiency syndrome are born with ambiguous genitalia. They appear at first to be girls. At puberty, such a person develops testicles and his clitoris swells and becomes a penis. Hermaphrodites possess both ovaries and testicles (both, in most cases, rather undeveloped). Sometimes the ovaries and testicles are combined into a chimera called ovotestis.
Most of these individuals have the chromosomal composition of a woman together with traces of the Y, male, chromosome. All hermaphrodites have a sizable penis, though rarely generate sperm. Some hermaphrodites develop breasts during puberty and menstruate. Very few even get pregnant and give birth.
Anne Fausto-Sterling, a developmental geneticist, professor of medical science at Brown University, and author of "Sexing the Body", postulated, in 1993, a continuum of 5 sexes to supplant the current dimorphism: males, merms (male pseudohermaphrodites), herms (true hermaphrodites), ferms (female pseudohermaphrodites), and females.
Intersexuality (hermpahroditism) is a natural human state. We are all conceived with the potential to develop into either sex. The embryonic developmental default is female. A series of triggers during the first weeks of pregnancy places the fetus on the path to maleness.
In rare cases, some women have a male's genetic makeup (XY chromosomes) and vice versa. But, in the vast majority of cases, one of the sexes is clearly selected. Relics of the stifled sex remain, though. Women have the clitoris as a kind of symbolic penis. Men have breasts (mammary glands) and nipples.
The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 edition describes the formation of ovaries and testes thus:
"In the young embryo a pair of gonads develop that are indifferent or neutral, showing no indication whether they are destined to develop into testes or ovaries. There are also two different duct systems, one of which can develop into the female system of oviducts and related apparatus and the other into the male sperm duct system. As development of the embryo proceeds, either the male or the female reproductive tissue differentiates in the originally neutral gonad of the mammal."
Yet, sexual preferences, genitalia and even secondary sex characteristics, such as facial and pubic hair are first order phenomena. Can genetics and biology account for male and female behavior patterns and social interactions ("gender identity")? Can the multi-tiered complexity and richness of human masculinity and femininity arise from simpler, deterministic, building blocks?
Sociobiologists would have us think so.
For instance: the fact that we are mammals is astonishingly often overlooked. Most mammalian families are composed of mother and offspring. Males are peripatetic absentees. Arguably, high rates of divorce and birth out of wedlock coupled with rising promiscuity merely reinstate this natural "default mode", observes Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University in New Jersey. That three quarters of all divorces are initiated by women tends to support this view.
Furthermore, gender identity is determined during gestation, claim some scholars.
Milton Diamond of the University of Hawaii and Dr. Keith Sigmundson, a practicing psychiatrist, studied the much-celebrated John/Joan case. An accidentally castrated normal male was surgically modified to look female, and raised as a girl but to no avail. He reverted to being a male at puberty.
His gender identity seems to have been inborn (assuming he was not subjected to conflicting cues from his human environment). The case is extensively described in John Colapinto's tome "As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl".
HealthScoutNews cited a study published in the November 2002 issue of "Child Development". The researchers, from City University of London, found that the level of maternal testosterone during pregnancy affects the behavior of neonatal girls and renders it more masculine. "High testosterone" girls "enjoy activities typically considered male behavior, like playing with trucks or guns". Boys' behavior remains unaltered, according to the study.
Yet, other scholars, like John Money, insist that newborns are a "blank slate" as far as their gender identity is concerned. This is also the prevailing view. Gender and sex-role identities, we are taught, are fully formed in a process of socialization which ends by the third year of life. The Encyclopedia Britannica 2003 edition sums it up thus:
"Like an individual's concept of his or her sex role, gender identity develops by means of parental example, social reinforcement, and language. Parents teach sex-appropriate behavior to their children from an early age, and this behavior is reinforced as the child grows older and enters a wider social world. As the child acquires language, he also learns very early the distinction between "he" and "she" and understands which pertains to him- or herself."
So, which is it - nature or nurture? There is no disputing the fact that our sexual physiology and, in all probability, our sexual preferences are determined in the womb. Men and women are different - physiologically and, as a result, also psychologically.
Society, through its agents - foremost amongst which are family, peers, and teachers - represses or encourages these genetic propensities. It does so by propagating "gender roles" - gender-specific lists of alleged traits, permissible behavior patterns, and prescriptive morals and norms. Our "gender identity" or "sex role" is shorthand for the way we make use of our natural genotypic-phenotypic endowments in conformity with social-cultural "gender roles".
Inevitably as the composition and bias of these lists change, so does the meaning of being "male" or "female". Gender roles are constantly redefined by tectonic shifts in the definition and functioning of basic social units, such as the nuclear family and the workplace. The cross-fertilization of gender-related cultural memes renders "masculinity" and "femininity" fluid concepts.
One's sex equals one's bodily equipment, an objective, finite, and, usually, immutable inventory. But our endowments can be put to many uses, in different cognitive and affective contexts, and subject to varying exegetic frameworks. As opposed to "sex" - "gender" is, therefore, a socio-cultural narrative. Both heterosexual and homosexual men ejaculate. Both straight and lesbian women climax. What distinguishes them from each other are subjective introjects of socio-cultural conventions, not objective, immutable "facts".
In "The New Gender Wars", published in the November/December 2000 issue of "Psychology Today", Sarah Blustain sums up the "bio-social" model proposed by Mice Eagly, a professor of psychology at Northwestern University and a former student of his, Wendy Wood, now a professor at the Texas A&M University:
"Like (the evolutionary psychologists), Eagly and Wood reject social constructionist notions that all gender differences are created by culture. But to the question of where they come from, they answer differently: not our genes but our roles in society. This narrative focuses on how societies respond to the basic biological differences - men's strength and women's reproductive capabilities - and how they encourage men and women to follow certain patterns.
'If you're spending a lot of time nursing your kid', explains Wood, 'then you don't have the opportunity to devote large amounts of time to developing specialized skills and engaging tasks outside of the home'. And, adds Eagly, 'if women are charged with caring for infants, what happens is that women are more nurturing. Societies have to make the adult system work [so] socialization of girls is arranged to give them experience in nurturing'.
According to this interpretation, as the environment changes, so will the range and texture of gender differences. At a time in Western countries when female reproduction is extremely low, nursing is totally optional, childcare alternatives are many, and mechanization lessens the importance of male size and strength, women are no longer restricted as much by their smaller size and by child-bearing. That means, argue Eagly and Wood, that role structures for men and women will change and, not surprisingly, the way we socialize people in these new roles will change too. (Indeed, says Wood, 'sex differences seem to be reduced in societies where men and women have similar status,' she says. If you're looking to live in more gender-neutral environment, try Scandinavia.)"
Jacobsen: You wrote and spoke on the ‘gender wars,’ as such. What is the gender war, or are the gender wars?
Vaknin: The gender wars started 150 years ago, with the suffragettes and the first wave of feminism. Women acquired access to jobs, financial independence, and increasing political power. Men resented this relinquishment of traditionally male powers and the incursions on their turf. But the process of gaining equality and equity was inexorable.
Women are better educated than men and better suited for the modern, networked economy. They earn more than men do in some age groups. They are gaining ground in business (where one fifth of CEOs are female) and in politics.
Today, men are saying:
Women! You are too independent! I am terrified that you will no longer tolerate my abuse and my infantilism, you will decline to serve me, you will abandon me, and I will lose you. You are too well-educated. I feel inferior, inadequate, and outcompeted in the workplace. You sleep around with strangers and friends alike. It makes me feel like a statistic, a number, a mere conquest, objectified, not special, insecure, and unsafe. In short: you are too much like the men of yore!
It is actually a rational choice to not form a relationship with promiscuous people. They tend to be way more prone to serial cheating and to breakups or divorces.
Ask any man: women went too far. Too far not in terms of rights or equal pay, but in terms of militancy (zero sum game, men as the enemy); aggressiveness (reactance, defiance, in your face); usurpation of masculine traits, behaviors, norms, and roles; and raunch culture (gratuitous, “empowering” promiscuity).
Now, men are hitting back:
Domestic violence laws were abrogated in Russia; women are again confined to home under a male guardian in Afghanistan; Roe vs. Wade (the right to abortion) is being repealed in the USA; and toxic masculinity is spreading like wildfire, especially in online communities collectively known as the manosphere (MGTOW, incels, redpillers, dating coaches).
Men have one trump card left: intimate relationships, including physical intimacy (sex) where they are largely irreplaceable.
The “stalled revolution” means that when it comes to sexual mores, marriage, relationships, and family, men remain stuck in a Victorian England mindset while women have progressed into a feminist 21st century.
Confronted with this abyss, women face a stark choice:
1. They can give up on men altogether and go it alone while assuming masculine traits and roles; or
2. They can regress and subject themselves to male dominance and objectification in raunch culture and in supposedly "intimate" relationships.
There is no other alternative. Men won’t budge. Men are fighting back. About one third of all men are celibate or lifelong singles.
As things stand now, most men are merely taking advantage of women’s newfangled sex positivity and then walk away from casual sex, unscathed.
Women are paying the price of this male sexual opportunism in terms of heartbreak, bad sex, childlessness, loneliness, and career or financial damage.
Even as they make strides in the real world, when it comes to intimate relationships, women are more abused and disempowered than ever. And men just joyfully roam around, humping dozens of throwaway women in the promiscuous Disneyland of post-modernity.
Jacobsen: Does this antipathy, even outright hatred, signal a threat to the species in some ways? In that, if, traditionally speaking, couples can’t negotiate the modern landscape of inter-relations for the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for the next generations, then the next generations may simply become an afterthought, something dismissed, if not outright discarded from individual life plans.
In most industrial societies, so few couples are having children and they are having so few offspring that they fail to meet the replacement rate (the number of the dead exceeds the number of the newborns). Many modern men and women remain purposefully childless, prioritizing career, self-actualization, and fun way above procreation.
The gender wars are by far the greatest threat to the survival of the species, far greater than climate change.
Jacobsen: Natality rates globally have been declining for decades. Different regions of the world have different pressing concerns in regards to birth rates. In some regions, there are too many mouths to feed with too few resources to commit to them, sufficiently. In other regions, the rates of newborns are well below the proverbial replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman. In short, some regions need more children, while others need fewer, for a balanced, sustainable growth pyramid generation after generation.
Vaknin: To sustain the global economic structure, we need to have more children. The population in the developed world is aging fast and safety nets such as pension schemes (social security) and healthcare are already technically insolvent. Immigration is only a partial solution because it strains the social fabric and results in conflicts.
The Black Death – an epidemic of bubonic plague in the 14th century – decimated between one third and one half of Europe’s population, yet it was the best thing to have happened to Mankind in many centuries. The depleted number of survivors shared in the vast fortunes of the deceased, laying the foundation for modern, entrepreneurial capitalism; the added physical spaces and vacancies made available via the devastation of numerous households spurred urban renewal and magisterial architecture on an unprecedented scale; the crumbling authority of the Church and its minions led to reformist religious stirrings and the emergence of the Renaissance in arts and sciences; labourers and women saw their standing in society much improved as the scarcity of workforce rendered them much sought-after commodities.
Seven centuries later, an “inflation of humans” led to an ineluctable devaluation and may have erased at least the latter of these achievements: wage growth. Wages have stagnated in direct correlation with the explosion in global population. The social fabric itself has been rent by the mounting pressure of an annual net growth in population which exceeds the citizenry of Germany: interpersonal relationships, social organizational units, tolerant co-existence, peaceful multiculturalism and diversity have all crumbled worldwide.
So, is the solution to our global and escalating woes another pandemic?
The latest census in Ukraine revealed an apocalyptic drop of 10% in its population - from 52.5 million three decades ago to a mere 45.7 million a decade ago. Demographers predict a precipitous decline of one third in Russia's impoverished, inebriated, disillusioned, and ageing citizenry. Births in many countries in the rich, industrialized West are below the replacement rate. These bastions of conspicuous affluence are shrivelling.
Scholars and decision-makers - once terrified by the Malthusian dystopia of a "population bomb" - are more sanguine now. Advances in agricultural technology eradicated hunger even in teeming places like India and China. And then there is the old idea of progress: birth rates tend to decline with higher education levels and growing incomes. Family planning has had resounding successes in places as diverse as Thailand, China, and western Africa.
Some intellectuals even regard the increase in the world’s population as a form of “quantitative diversification”: as technology homogenizes cultures, societies, and civilizations everywhere, the risks associated with such a monoculture grow. Homogeneous populations are less adaptable and, therefore, less fit for survival. The only defense lies in the sheer force of numbers. The greater the number of people, goes this strain of thinking, the more varied the human species, such variety and variation being the sole guarantors and generators of adaptability and, therefore, survival.
In the near past, fecundity used to compensate for infant mortality. As the latter declined - so did the former. Children are means of production in many destitute countries. Hence the inordinately large families of the past - a form of insurance against the economic outcomes of the inevitable demise of some of one's off-spring.
Yet, despite these trends, the world's populace is augmented by 130 million people annually. All of them are born to the younger inhabitants of the more penurious corners of the Earth. There were only 1 billion people alive in 1804. The number doubled a century later.
But our last billions - the sixth and the seventh - required only 19 fertile years. The entire population of Germany is added every half a decade to both India and China. Clearly, Mankind's growth is out of control, as affirmed in the 1994 Cairo International Conference on Population and Development.
Dozens of millions of people regularly starve - many of them to death. In only one corner of the Earth - southern Africa - food aid is the sole subsistence of entire countries. More than 18 million people in Zambia, Malawi, and Angola survived on charitable donations in 1992. More than 10 million expect the same this year, among them the emaciated denizens of erstwhile food exporter, Zimbabwe.
According to Medecins Sans Frontiere, AIDS kills 3 million people a year, Tuberculosis another 2 million. Malaria decimates 2 people every minute. More than 14 million people fall prey to parasitic and infectious diseases every year - 90% of them in the developing countries.
Millions emigrate every year in search of a better life. These massive shifts are facilitated by modern modes of transportation. But, despite these tectonic relocations - and despite famine, disease, and war, the classic Malthusian regulatory mechanisms - the depletion of natural resources - from arable land to water - is undeniable and gargantuan.
Our pressing environmental issues - global warming, water stress, salinization, desertification, deforestation, pollution, loss of biological diversity - and our ominous social ills - crime at the forefront - are traceable to one, politically incorrect, truth:
There are too many of us. We are way too numerous. The population load is unsustainable. We, the survivors, would be better off if others were to perish. Should population growth continue unabated - we are all doomed.
Doomed to what?
Numerous Cassandras and countless Jeremiads have been falsified by history. With proper governance, scientific research, education, affordable medicines, effective family planning, and economic growth, this planet can support even 10-12 billion people. We are not at risk of physical extinction and never have been.
What is hazarded is not our life - but our quality of life. As any insurance actuary will attest, we are governed by statistical datasets.
Consider this single fact:
About 1% of the population suffer from the perniciously debilitating and all-pervasive mental health disorder, schizophrenia. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were 16.5 million schizophrenics - nowadays there are 64 million. Their impact on friends, family, and colleagues is exponential - and incalculable. This is not a merely quantitative leap. It is a qualitative phase transition.
Large populations lead to the emergence of high density urban centers. It is inefficient to cultivate ever smaller plots of land. Surplus manpower moves to centers of industrial production. A second wave of internal migrants caters to their needs, thus spawning a service sector. Network effects generate excess capital and a virtuous cycle of investment, employment, and consumption ensues.
But over-crowding breeds violence (as has been demonstrated in behavioral sink experiments with mice). The sheer numbers involved serve to magnify and amplify social anomies, deviate behaviour, and antisocial traits. In the city, there are more criminals, more perverts, more victims, more immigrants, and more racists per square mile.
Moreover, only a planned and orderly urbanization is desirable. The blights that pass for cities in most third world countries are the outgrowth of neither premeditation nor method. These mega-cities are infested with non-disposed of waste and prone to natural catastrophes and epidemics.
No one can vouchsafe for a "critical mass" of humans, a threshold beyond which the species will implode and vanish.
Jacobsen: What are the root dynamics of the gender wars in time, in global cultures, in collective psychologies in the early 21st century?
The gender war is no different to any other conflict between erstwhile masters and their emancipated chattel or property. To this very day, whites are in pitched battles with blacks (their former slaves) and not only in the USA.
Women were domestic slaves. Then they leveraged the enlightenment and the age of revolutions to unshackle themselves in every way: sexually, politically, financially, and psychologically. Their former owners are incensed and are trying to turn back the wheel. Nothing new under the sun.
Jacobsen: What are the possible paths ahead for the genders and the sexes amid this conceptive whirlpool of personal and collective identities? What are the solutions? What are things to do now to rectify the bitterness, contempt, irascibility, and antagonisms for the sustainability of global culture reliant upon new generations of human beings? We all leave the stage, eventually. Even though, the play signifies nothing and is, indeed, written by an idiot.
I see only two possible trajectories:
(a) We renounce the contentious and adversarial organizing principles of gender and sex and allow for complete fluidity within a unigender; or
(b) We revert to the 1950s in terms of more or less rigid gender roles and sexual scripts.
The most likely scenario is that some part of the population will opt for the former and others will adopt the latter. Whether these two camps could co-exist peacefully remains to be seen.
There is nothing much we can do but wait. The gender war is a part of a way more massive upheaval in human affairs. For the first time in human history, all social institutions and mores are crumbling simultaneously. Our hermeneutic narratives have been rendered useless.
When the dust settles, we will face a new world, based on the radical, technology-empowered self-sufficiency of the individual. Society and relationships – intimate or otherwise – may well be a thing of the past: redundant, obsolete, and burdensome.
Jacobsen: Thank you for the opportunity and your time, Professor Vaknin.
Vaknin: Thank you again for having me.
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