Dec 22 2016

Mental Illness and Demonic Possession

A recent article by Emily Korstanje details the story of Nadia, an 18 year old girl from Saudi Arabia who suffered from depression. Her religious parents took her to a faith healer who, through dubious methods involving choking her until she passed out, concluded that her symptoms were the result of demonic possession.

Fortunately Nadia was able to break away from that healer and defy her parents, but she still faces a more difficult challenge – her society.

“They need to separate religion from psychology, especially for us women, who suffer from depression because of our shitty circumstances, or we cannot—and will not—get help,” Nadia sad. “Society also needs to be rid of this of shame toward mental illness and stop saying that people are weak or not perfect believers, or possessed! Spirituality is important but it doesn’t mean that you deny what is really going on because it will only get worse.”

In the past, before science helped us understand things like psychology and neuroscience, it is understandable that prescientific cultures would reach for superstition to explain mental illness and neurological disorders. They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had at hand and decided that such individuals were possessed by evil spirits, or cursed, or were being punished by god or the gods.

It amazes me, however, that in the 21st century this still occurs. Now, with all the knowledge of modern neuroscience, there is no excuse for confusing a brain disorder with spiritual possession. Further, we do not need to look to third world countries to find example – this is still happening in modern industrialized nations.

In 1991 ABC’s 20/20  aired an exorcism of a girl who was allegedly possessed. While the narrator is desperately trying to convince us that what we are seeing is amazing and defies ordinary explanation, what I see is a patient suffering from mental illness who is being abused. Her “acting” of possession is mundane and not compelling. Nothing supernatural, or even mildly interesting, happens.

Amazing, they declared success when after a couple hours she apparently just became exhausted. The audience is told that she later “relapsed” however and eventually had to be treated with standard antipsychotic medication. So the exorcism completely failed, and the case proceeded exactly as if she had schizophrenia which responded to conventional therapy.

Unfortunately exorcisms are not always as benign as what was seen on 20/20. Every year there are deaths from exorcism. Victims are beaten and suffocated. Many more suffer this abuse and survive.

The psychological harm is more difficult to measure. It is generally accepted by mental health professionals that it is harmful and counterproductive to play into a patient’s delusions. You would never tell a schizophrenic that the CIA actually is listening to their thoughts though the fillings in their teeth. But this is the same as telling them they actually are possessed by a demon.

There may be a temporary reduction in acting on their delusions if you perform an exorcism, just as there may be a short term effect from removing the fillings from the teeth in the example above. But neither intervention addresses the underlying problem and has no true or long term benefit.

Nadia’s story highlights that the superstitious belief in possession and barbaric abuse of exorcism is just part of a larger spectrum. We still have a pervasive problem of “demonizing” mental illness, sometime literally. There is a tendency to see mental illness not as an illness, but as a personal failing, or a choice. There are some who even deny the existence of mental illness at all.

I think this largely stems from an assumption that most people make without realizing and which is pervasive in our society. People tend to assume that our brains are blank slates. Problems with the “hardware” affect things like movement and sensation. They are, essentially, neurological disorders. The connection between the brain and our mood, thoughts, and behavior, however, is less intuitive. Perhaps this results from the very fact that our brains function in such a way as to create the seamless illusion of consciousness and free will. We are, by definition, unaware of all the subconscious processing that occurs.

We tend to assume that people’s behavior is deliberate and the result solely of a conscious choice. Even something as fundamentally hardwired as sexual orientation will be explained by some as being a free and conscious choice.

The fact is that our mood, thoughts, and behavior are just as much a manifestation of the firing of the neurons in our brains as is the movement of your hand or the processing of visual information. The neurological correlates of mental function can operate sufficiently far away from a functional range as to be considered a disorder. A certain amount of anxiety and depression is normal and healthy, part of how we deal with the world and our lives. But if you have a crushing depression every day, to the point that you cannot get out of bed, for no apparent external reason, it is perfectly reasonable to conclude that this level of depression is a brain disorder of some kind.

Because we don’t tend to see mood, thoughts, and behavior as brain functions we also don’t see disorders of these things as illness. We tend to stigmatize them, to blame the patient, or to blame an external agent like a demon or a god. This false assumption just adds to the burden that those who deal with mental illness must face. It also can deprive them of a meaningful chance to deal with their disorder in an effective way.

We still have a lot to learn, and psychiatry is still in its infancy in many ways. Psychiatry has a troubled history as well, and it is perhaps only in the latter half of the 20th century that it turned a corner to become a reasonably modern medical profession that can identify and effectively treat many disorders. It still struggles to understand the basic nature of many illnesses, to categorize them meaningfully, and treat them effectively.

Mental health treatment, however, can have a dramatic effect, and there are some illnesses which respond very well to treatment. The biggest barrier to treatment remains the unfair stigma attached to mental illness, and persistent primitive superstitions.

Belief in demonic possession and exorcism is literally a medieval practice that has no place in the modern world. It doubly victimizes people, both physically and mentally, while depriving them often of the modern help they need.

78 responses so far

78 thoughts on “Mental Illness and Demonic Possession”

  1. michaelegnor says:

    The existence or non-existence of demons is a metaphysical question, not a scientific question, if we define the scientific method as methodological naturalism.

    The developed Christian understanding of demons (and angels) is that they are pure forms– intelligences without matter. Metaphysically, they’re certainly plausible. Our modern understanding of seizures as episodic abnormal electrical discharges in the brain does not address whether or not some seizures are caused by intelligences without matter.

    Clearly Steven believes that such things don’t exist, but that’s a metaphysical viewpoint, not a scientific conclusion.

    Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who believes in space aliens, is quite a chortle.

  2. mumadadd says:

    A brain surgeon defending belief in demons; who’da thunk it?

    I’m spotting a pattern here: whatever ridiculous nonsense Michael wants to defend is always a metaphysical issue, not one of evidence…

    “Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who believes in space aliens, is quite a chortle.”

    Honestly, it’s like this whole thread, where ME’s caricature was repeatedly corrected, never happened:

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/a-psychiatrist-falls-for-exorcism/

  3. Willy says:

    “Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who believes in space aliens, is quite a chortle.”

    Are you serious, Dr. Egnor?

    Ah well, Merry Christmas to you anyway.

  4. wellerpond says:

    Steve’s beliefs aside, if someone is acting like they are having a seizure, there is no need to evoke metaphysicalism. We know methodological naturalism can explain it.

    If your argument is we don’t know it’s NOT demons, it also could NOT be aliens. Both are equally plausible if you don’t accept what can already be explained.

  5. Tio says:

    But I have to question though: you say that we now understand what ‘schizophrenia’ is – thought what is it? And in general what is a mental ‘disease’? What studies are out there to showcase biomarkers that lead to any kind of mental disorder? And more to the point are there any studies showcasing that drugs for instance are better in ‘treating’ any mental disorder compared to therapy or placebo?

    What I am trying to point is that although it is true that there are many people out there who are ‘mentally suffering’ and they need professional help (medical help) isn’t it too risky and unscientific to label people with simple notions like “depression” or “schizophrenia” and other such ‘mental disorders’ instead of looking at their cases individually especially when there seems to be no agreement on any such mental disorder (what causes them, what are them, what can ‘treat’ them, etc.)?

    Is Nadia (from the story) feeling the way she feels because of her environment? Or is it because something is ‘wrong’ with her brain? Or is it that the environment affected her brain and that’s why she feels this way?

    I would like to hear from you Steven – I am genuinely curious about this subject since I’ve been ‘depressed’ for 5-6 years time in which I lost all my friends and I tried to commit suicide a few times, one time I was very close to ‘achieve’ that – but what made me change 180 degrees was changing my environment. That’s a ‘personal’ story, I know, but since then I’ve tried to understand ‘psychology’ and ‘psychiatry’ and every time I get into this confusion with labels and the inability to find biomarkers for any mental ‘disorder’ and my thoughts are that whatever makes one feel down or whatever, it has to do with the environment primarily.

    Cheers!

  6. Tio – I address those issues in this multipart post starting here:http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/mental-illness-denial-part-i/

    I would be happy to address any follow up questions.

  7. Michael – your learning curve is flat, and as a result you are tilting at straw men that (as others have quickly pointed out) have already been demolished on this very blog. To illustrate:

    Demons are a metaphysical question – If they affect the physical world, then they are amenable to scientific investigation. If you want to believe in invisible demons that don’t actually affect anything, go right ahead.

    “Metaphysically, they’re certainly plausible.” – what does it mean to be metaphysically plausible? If you accept “magic” as an explanation, how could anything be implausible? I suspect this just means it comports with your faith.

    “Clearly Steven believes that such things don’t exist,” – Wrong. I don’t believe they exist, which is distinct from believing they don’t exist. I have stated countless times, including in response to you, that philosophically I take an agnostic position toward any claim that is outside the realm of science. Of course, how you frame the claim determines if it is within or outside the reach of methodological naturalism. If you say demons cause seizures, that is a scientific question. You then take the profoundly philosophically naive position that it is “plausible” to believe metaphysically that demons may cause some seizures because we can’t prove they don’t (how could we?). As with all such magical notions based on absence of evidence – they are not wrong, they are unnecessary. They are worse than wrong.

    “Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who believes in space aliens, is quite a chortle.” – I don’t believe in space aliens. I simply acknowledge the very clear fact that there is no scientific basis to conclude that life is unique to Earth, that it cannot exist elsewhere, and the universe, in case you haven’t noticed, is a damn big place. I have never claimed that we have evidence that any aliens exist, either on Earth or elsewhere. Their existence would not brake any laws of physics and is compatible with existing scientific knowledge. That is all.

    I know this breaks your narrative, to which you are a helpless slave, and so endless corrections will have no affect on your thinking. But thanks for the spectacle.

  8. TheGorilla says:

    Thank you egnor for making anything I write sound sane.

    The major issue I have with psychiatry is that identification of emotions etc with the brain (activity). It internalizes the problem to the patient. Which would be fine if there were obvious abnormalities like tumors, but that’s simply not the case in the overwhelming majority of patients – clinical depression is not a broken leg. That’s a level you get in maybe things like schizophrenia.

    So what you do get is deviations in structure – maybe bipolar people like myself have different sized amygdala on average – but this is a far cry from some easily identifiable “brain malfunction.” The whole talk of chemical imbalances (I am aware that this isn’t the technical language of the field, I’m using it to illustrate the concept I’m worried about) privileges the brain in an unjustifiable way – we know all about the impact of environment – including sociocultural – on the psychology of the patient (which, importantly, impacts the structure and function of the brain itself).

    But psychiatry is a scientific enterprise, and medical research requires standardization and quantification, especially when you’re prescribing drugs. Patients fill out so many mood scales. That’s a major flaw when an individual’s “being” is not anything to capture quantitatively. And it’s not like the interview questions asked of the patient are anything but loaded by the research – few psychiatrists are able to, due to the state of the practice, administer truly personalized psychotherapy (and the common CBT has an identical philosophy of the patient).

    The post mentions extreme depression without any clear external (non biomedical) reasons. But this is frequently just treating lack of patient insight as a brain malfunction; people hate self reflection, hate doing real work in therapy, and mental health services don’t offer non rich people real options to change this. People aren’t input -output computers

    These are all foundational issues, not the correctable patient abuses. The majority of psychiatry is not dealing with things that are obvious brain failings. Then there are allll the issues with political power, pharmaceutical research and marketing, and, to be cute, brain activity in dead salmon.

    That a lot of psychiatry criticism is from weird cultists acts as alibi for these issues.

  9. NotAMarsupial says:

    I agree with Egnor. I actually have an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon…errr, demon… who spits heatless fire in my garage. What more evidence do you materialists need?

  10. chikoppi says:

    I’m unclear on the current state of medicine with respect to measuring physical factors such as cortisol and dopamine regulation. Is it possible to diagnose many deficiencies or hyperactivity without relying on self-reporting? I suspect that some symptoms, such as those visible via EEG, are easier to objectively measure than others.

    To the extent that a person may have non-normative brain function it might be difficult to assess the actual impact of environmental factors, as self-reporting would be unreliable.

  11. leonet says:

    @ chikoppi, Tio et al.

    My understanding, based on some personal experience with OCD and studies of it, is that there is evidence of atypical fMRI results in people with clear mental illness. In effect, functional relationships between brain regions are unusually strong or unusually weak and the relationships are consistent with self-reported symptoms.

    However, the brain builds and rebuilds itself in response to environmental stimuli to a much greater extent than any other organ, so it’s not surprising that it is difficult to pinpoint one biological pathway that leads to a given mental illness. It may be the case that no two patients have precisely the same biological anomaly.

  12. leonet says:

    Just to give a more concrete example of my point, disorders that produce anxiety (Generalized Anxiety, Social Anxiety, OCD, PTSD etc.) are broadly associated with atypical connections between the cortex and the limbic system. The details might differ from disorder to disorder or even from patient to patient but the evidence can still be clear that there is a biological process at work, rendering the demon hypothesis largely unnecessary 😛

  13. mumadadd says:

    NotAMarsupial,

    “what more evidence do you materialists need?”

    That’s a metaphysical question, therefore demons are certainly plausible. Photonic tetryon domain verteron data nutation thermal quantum variance flux distortion is the only thing that can account for consciousness.

    If only you atheist morons understood philosophy…

  14. michaelegnor says:

    Steven,

    One can evaluate metaphysical claims empirically to some extent of course, if the claim is that the metaphysical entity has a naturalistic effect. That would entail specific scientifically rigorous evaluation of demonic possession and exorcism. I am not aware of such studies.

    Regarding your agnosticism on non-scientific questions, I point out that most of what we debate is philosophical more than scientific, and you are most certainly not agnostic. I also point out that logic, mathematics, politics, ethics and countless other endeavors are not scientific, and I doubt you are agnostic about any of them, let alone all of them.

    Modern science is a wonderful thing, and we have learned much about mental illness, epilepsy, etc. None of our scientific knowledge speaks to the existence or non-existence of demons in any specific way, and a groundless claim that science disproves demons obfuscates, rather than clarifies, discussion of such matters.

    Regarding the plausibility of immaterial intellegences, I point out that theories in modern cosmology and theoretical physics routinely posit the existence of countless parallel universes, invisible dimensions wrapped up in spacetime, etc.

    Heck, demons are mundane compared to the stuff scientists talk about over coffee.

  15. mumadadd says:

    “Heck, demons are mundane compared to the stuff scientists talk about over coffee.”

    The process is entirely different:

    Cosmology: What mathematical models best account for the data we have; data garnered though highly sophisticated technological methods. Of these, which make the best predictions about new data? What are some of the other implications of these models, and do they rule the model out of contention?

    Everyday religion: What have I heard of, within the explanatory framework I was indoctrinated in to as a child, that best explains this behaviour I don’t understand ?

    ME’s Catholicism: What sophisticated nonsense can I use to confuse the conversation about evidence for my beliefs?

  16. Michael – you are confusing empirical claims with value judgments and logic. I am agnostic toward any empirical claim that is untestable. However, I can still evaluate the validity of logic, and I certainly have values. I just don’t confuse them with facts.

  17. mumadadd says:

    “That would entail specific scientifically rigorous evaluation of demonic possession and exorcism. I am not aware of such studies.”

    This reminds me of the light fairy dualism argument*. You may be able to demonstrate that demonic possession responds to psychiatric medication, but of course demons must interact with the brain to cause it to enact these behaviours; until you can prove (metaphysically, of course) that demons aren’t in the loop, they’re perfectly plausible. Go ahead, prove me wrong!

    * http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/the-brain-is-not-a-receiver/

  18. Steve Cross says:

    michaelegnor:

    None of our scientific knowledge speaks to the existence or non-existence of demons in any specific way, and a groundless claim that science disproves demons obfuscates, rather than clarifies, discussion of such matters.

    Speaking of obfuscation, literally no one here has made the statement (or even tried to imply) that science disproves demons. That is a fabrication completely invented by your own internal demons.

    We have said that there is no evidence for demons (or fairies, or leprechauns, or bigfoot, or unicorns, etc.) but that is a completely different assertion. And, we have said that it is completely unjustified to diagnose someone as demon possessed with absolutely no evidence since no one has ever proved the existence of demons or even how to detect them or their influence.

    For someone pretending to be smart and logical, you have abysmal reading comprehension.

  19. leonet says:

    @ michaelegnor

    Your assertions about cosmology and theoretical physics reflect a common misunderstanding of the distinction between the ontological complexity of a theory and the complexity (or number) of physical entities that it entails.

    Sean Carroll explained this in the most elegant way I’ve heard by pointing out that the molecular theory of gases could be considered implausible because it holds that a room is filled with untold trillions of entities called molecules rather than one simple entity called “air”. Yet, molecular theory is obviously correct.

    Hypotheses of extra dimensions try to explain observations by extending an ontology that we’ve already established: a dimension being something we know exists. Hypotheses of demons, in contrast, posit a thing that we don’t know exists in order to explain observations and then uses those observations to claim that the thing exists. Surely you can spot the problem with that way of thinking.

  20. mumadadd says:

    ” None of our scientific knowledge speaks to the existence or non-existence of demons in any specific way, and a groundless claim that science disproves demons obfuscates, rather than clarifies, discussion of such matters.”

    Yeah, this is a good one. Reasoning for dummies: you aren’t obliged to prove that any fanciful thing that anyone can think up isn’t true.

    Let’s redirect the efforts of the world’s scientific communities: concentrate on quashing the daydreams of every 6 yr old on the planet. Only then can the work of discovering actual causes begin.

  21. RickK says:

    Demons are no more required for seizures than fairies are required to open spring flowers.

    Once again, Michael Egnor sacrifices his integrity on the altar of tribal defense. Once again he invokes “metaphysics” to justify anything he is predisposed to believe.

    It is interesting to note that just before reading this thread, I read a discussion among conspiracy theorists who believe the truck attacks in Nice and Berlin were faked. They had to defend their pre-existing beliefs, they invoked an undefined but all-powerful “them” who were responsible for the hoaxes, and they were supremely smug in their confidence in their own conclusions. There is no daylight between those people and the good Dr. Egnor.

  22. Willy says:

    “Regarding the plausibility of immaterial intelligences, I point out that theories in modern cosmology and theoretical physics routinely posit the existence of countless parallel universes, invisible dimensions wrapped up in spacetime, etc.”

    These things fall out of mathematical formulations that have proven use “up to a point”. One difference between your demons/unicorns/fairies and speculation on extra-dimensions or parallel universes is that no one is claiming these dimensions or universes positively exist (hypotheses vs actual theories)and no one is claiming that an observable physical occurrence is explained because of extra dimensions or parallel universes.

  23. BillyJoe7 says:

    EGNORANCE CORRECTED:

    The existence or non-existence of demons THAT DO NOT INTERACT WITH THE NATURAL WORLD is a metaphysical question (OR METAPHYSICAL MASTURBATION), not a scientific question, if we define the scientific method as methodological naturalism. BUT THE EXISTENCE OR NON-EXISTENCE OF DEMONS THAT DO INTERACT WITH THE NATURAL WORLD IS A SCIENTIFIC QUESTION.

    The developed Christian METAPSYCHOBABBLE of demons (and angels) is that they are pure forms– intelligences without matter. Metaphysically, they’re certainly plausible, BUT MASTURBATORY NONSENSE IF THEY DO NOT INTERACT WITH THE NATURAL WORLD.

    Our modern understanding of seizures as episodic abnormal electrical discharges in the brain does not address whether or not some seizures are caused by intelligences without matter, JUST LIKE OUR UNDERSTANDING OF THE WORKINGS OF A LIGHT SWITCH DOES NOT ADDRESS WHETHER OR NOT SOME LIGHT SWITCHES ARE OPERATED BY LIGHT FAERIES.

    Clearly Steven, BEING THE GROUNDED PERSON THAT HE IS, DOES NOT believe that such things don’t exist, but BECAUSE that’s a IRRELEVANT metaphysical viewpoint, not a scientific conclusion.

    Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who ALSO DISbelieves in space aliens (THOUGH, IN CONTRAST TO DEMONS, SPACE ALIENS ARE ACTUALLY CONSISTENT WITH THE LAWS OF PHYSICS AND THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE0 is quite a chortle PERFECTLY CONSISTENT.

  24. mumadadd says:

    Michael,

    Ignore the barbs — I think you can get stuck into this question.

    “One can evaluate metaphysical claims empirically to some extent of course, if the claim is that the metaphysical entity has a naturalistic effect. That would entail specific scientifically rigorous evaluation of demonic possession and exorcism. I am not aware of such studies.”

    The claim is that god has an effect on reality. So, the claim is that the metaphysical entity has a naturalistic effect. That would entail specific scientifically rigorous evaluation of the claim…

    Right?

    So give us a testable claim about god..?

  25. pdeboer says:

    Great article Steve,

    I’m grateful for what little knowledge I have of how my mind works.

    It gives me humility when I perceive the frailties of the people around me and pause when my motives and emotions are challenged.

    Regarding Egnor,

    He is usually good for a laugh and interesting just to see an opposing opinion, but this time I’m tempted to call this trolling. He’s gotten lazy.

  26. BillyJoe7 says:

    EGNORANCE SPEAKS:

    One can evaluate metaphysical claims empirically to some extent of course, if the claim is that the metaphysical entity has a naturalistic effect. That would entail specific scientifically rigorous evaluation WHAT EXACTLY THOSE FAERIES ARE ACTUALLY DOING AT THE BOTTOM OF MY GARDENI. I am not aware of such studies.

    Modern science is a wonderful thing, and we have learned much about mental illness, epilepsy, etc. None of our scientific knowledge speaks to the existence or non-existence of FAERIES in any specific way, and a groundless claim that science disproves FAERIES obfuscates, rather than clarifies, discussion of such matters.

  27. BillyJoe7 says:

    leonet on 22 Dec 2016 at 3:31 pm

    SLAM DUNK!

  28. mumadadd says:

    I just went for a poo. According to Aristotle, there is a wacky non-physical, abstract “form” of poo, and my poo is but a pale shadow of it. Same for the petrol I put in my car and the foam bungs I put in my ears at night.

    And this is the frame of reference by which he approaches physics and neuroscience…

  29. EBMOD says:

    This hits very close to home for me, as I was raised a fundamentalist/charismatic Christian, and used to hold just such a belief. I can speak from personal experience how damaging this belief can be. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with depression, and was essentially told by others it was my own weakness and lack of faith.

    I have since embraced rationalism and it has paid huge dividends to my own well-being and view of others.

    One passage that really started me down the road to skepticism was this story of Jesus casting out a demon found in Matthew 17:

    “Jesus Heals a Demon-Possessed Boy
    14 When they came to the crowd, a man approached Jesus and knelt before him. 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son,” he said. “He has seizures and is suffering greatly. He often falls into the fire or into the water. 16 I brought him to your disciples, but they could not heal him.”

    17 “You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy here to me.” 18 Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of the boy, and he was healed at that moment.

    19 Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?”

    20 He replied, “Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” [21] [a]”

    It was extremely problematic, that Jesus, supposedly the wisest man who ever lived as he was part of an omniscient being, KNEW this child was epileptic, yet simply lied about it? Pretty clear evidence that the Bible was written by a bunch of 2nd century fisherman who had no concept of the deeper biology at play.

  30. Willy says:

    But, but, but, Jesus hisself claimed demons exist!!! He even used ’em to kill a bunch of pigs, if’n I recall correctly.

  31. Ryan Martin says:

    I think there is a very interesting point raised in toward the beginning of the article, which seems to make sense in terms of the co-existence of scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas in our modern society. As Steven points out, it makes sense that prescientific cultures would invent explanations for things they couldn’t explain. People have a natural need to have some working sense of the world around them. This doesn’t have to be correct, rather, just good enough to survive.

    It seems to me that religion and other mystical and magical explanations are still so prominent because of an inability to admit that it’s wrong. At one time, the best explanation for the origin of the universe was that God created it in 6 days. It used to be that the best explanation for why someone was acting erratically was because there was a demon possessing them. So at one time, the theologians and religious community were the “scientists” of their day. However, these communities seem to have forgotten that they were simply putting forth theories about something, and now that we have better theories and explanations, they are unwilling to step aside and admit these new theories are not necessarily correct, but are closer to the truth than their attempt was.

    That is definitely me taking some leaps. That isn’t based on research I’ve done, rather just how I would fit together the pieces looking at what I have encountered.

  32. mumadadd says:

    Ryan Martin,

    “I think there is a very interesting point raised in toward the beginning of the article, which seems to make sense in terms of the co-existence of scientific and pseudo-scientific ideas in our modern society. As Steven points out, it makes sense that prescientific cultures would invent explanations for things they couldn’t explain. People have a natural need to have some working sense of the world around them. This doesn’t have to be correct, rather, just good enough to survive. ”

    That seems bang-on to me.

  33. mumadadd says:

    “So at one time, the theologians and religious community were the “scientists” of their day. However, these communities seem to have forgotten that they were simply putting forth theories about something, and now that we have better theories and explanations, they are unwilling to step aside and admit these new theories are not necessarily correct, but are closer to the truth than their attempt was.”

    No citations, so obvz my own opinions: I have a vague sense of process by which Christianity came to dominate the discourse, and:

    – It appealed to the masses by promoting monogamy
    – Societies at the time tended to favour polygamy: men could have multiple wives
    – powerful men had more wives
    – depletion of stock for non-powerful men
    – revolt!
    – Christianity = monogamy = good for the common man (fewer revolts!)
    – Christianity = popular
    – Christianity = societal advantage

    Obviously this is but one possible facet, but I find that kind of angle endlessly fascinating.

  34. hardnose says:

    “They had no way of understanding what a seizure was, let alone schizophrenia. So they used what explanations they had”

    And what explanation do you have for schizophrenia?

  35. hardnose says:

    “Mental health treatment, however, can have a dramatic effect, and there are some illnesses which respond very well to treatment.”

    By “treatment” I am sure you mean drugs that may dull symptoms in the short term, but can make patients worse long term, in addition to having harmful side effects.

    There is little or no understanding of the causes of serious mental illness. Patients may recover naturally, or never recover, but there are no psychiatric cures.

    For a while psychiatrists were saying depression results from abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. The drugs were supposed to correct the imbalances.

    There hasn’t been a replacement for that stupid theory.

    If you get a mental illness you can go to a psychiatrist or a witch doctor with the same result. So why does this post imply that things are oh so much better now?

  36. hardnose says:

    “Such disbelief in demons, coming from someone who believes in space aliens, is quite a chortle.”

    Steve N never said he believes in space aliens.

    And the existence of demons, or any non-physical entities is of course a scientific question. Why not?

  37. TheGorilla says:

    Hardnose it’s not accurate to say that the chemical imbalance theory is the field’s view – it’s more of a catch phrase for reducing stigma.

    The mainstream model is the biopsychosocial view, which is as it sounds. Basically that disorders are the result of biology, cognitive processes, and milieu. This is literally the DSM view, and what any psychiatrist will tell you. There are mountains of research on the role of therapy, meditation, socioeconomic status, familial relationship, past trauma, etc. Your portrayal is a total strawman (and the reason I disclaimer when I used it earlier above).

    That said, the psychiatric approach is super problematic, and the mainstream psychological field as a whole has an impoverished understanding of the extent of sociocultural impact and by nature valorizes the existing power structures – the goal, after all, is a functional human within the oppressive architecture we have… but the architecture itself is taken for granted.

  38. michaelegnor says:

    hn:

    [Steve N never said he believes in space aliens.]

    Steven: “Perhaps it is inevitable that machines will rule the universe, and biology is just a stepping stone. When we finally meet aliens, will they be biological, machines, or a fusion of the two?”

    and this link:

    http://theness.com/neurologicablog/index.php/should-we-hide-from-aliens/

    I’ll take him at his word that he doesn’t believe in aliens now. But that’s hard to square with several of his posts.

    hn:
    [And the existence of demons, or any non-physical entities is of course a scientific question. Why not?]

    It’s two questions: whether the existence of demons makes any logical sense (is it self-refuting, is it nonsensical), and whether there’s any empirical evidence. The first is a logical question, the second is a scientific question.

    And of course the question of existence of many non-physical entities is purely logical/philosophical and not scientific at all, for example the question of existence of mathematical and logical entities.

  39. BBBlue says:

    Not to diminish the metal health aspects of this post, a discussion related to delusions seems an appropriate time to…

    Wish you all a Merry Christmas!

  40. Willy says:

    Regarding Dr. Egnor’s post at 7:50 PM (right above): How friggin’ clueless can someone be???????? Can anyone here say “cherry pick”(VERY selectively) and “intentional blindness”??

  41. Willy says:

    Dr. Egnor: I’ve been following this blog and listening to the SGU podcast for more than two years. Never once have I formed or perceived such simplistic, narrow, and idiotic opinions of Dr. Novella’s views as those you express. You seem to have a complete lack of nuance and subtlety. You seem intent on jabbing, not discussing. You have complained more than once about being “slandered” and worrying about the effect on your reputation since you (apparently) proudly post under your real name. If I were you, I also be worried about the opinions of potential clients, not because of what some other posters say but because of what you yourself say.

    You regularly embarrass yourself and, sadly, you don’t even begin to recognize that you do.

  42. Joe vandenEnden says:

    Thanks, Dr Egnor; you made me feel smart for a change.
    The last paragraph of your 7:50 pm post was:

    “And of course the question of existence of many non-physical entities is purely logical/philosophical and not scientific at all, for example the question of existence of mathematical and logical entities.”

    Here you’re rapidly switching betwixt usages of the word “entities.” It’s the same tactic creationists use when they’re glad-handing the word “information.” It used to be a clever rhetorical trick, but if I can see through it, you can be sure actually-clever people can too.

    Do you really believe that a mathematical theorem is an entity in the same way that a non-physical demon is an entity? If so, then your demon is a construct existing only in the minds of believers.

    Corrections from smart people welcome.

  43. BillyJoe7 says:

    Joe vandenEnden,

    It’s called a Category Error or Category Mistake…
    Egnor is full of ($h)it.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category_mistake

  44. BillyJoe7 says:

    Egnorance of Context.

    In the context of alien visitations and alien abductions, aliens do not exist.
    In the context of the laws of physics and scientific evidence, aliens could exist.
    In the context of the hypothetical world of possible defences against possible extraterrestrials, aliens do exist.

  45. jayarava says:

    I study ancient Indian Buddhist texts which were probably composed before the common era. They clearly distinguish between madness and possession at least in some cases. So it’s not a given that the two were confused in the past.

  46. mumadadd says:

    “They clearly distinguish between madness and possession at least in some cases.”

    Hmm, I think that’s a self-defeating point — what was actually happening in the cases that were considered possession?

  47. hardnose says:

    Novella thinks space aliens might exist. Almost everyone considers the probability to be high. Saying he “believes in” space aliens implies he has actually been abducted and spent time getting to know them. Ridiculous.

  48. Maj-Maj says:

    Hello everybody, I’m Joe Casual. I’m a casual visitor of this blog.

    I want to tell you my story.

    My priest says demons are real, but I was thinking that’s probably baloney.
    (I may have no degree, but I’m no fool!)

    So I wanted to know what science says about demons, and I went to the Google.

    I searched for “do demons exist proof” and “what science says about demons”

    Those are very good searches: Google itself suggests them when you start typing!
    (Try it yourself)

    Usually I tend to trust the Google – because, come on, it’s the Google. Last week I needed to change the carburetor in my van, and the Google had right there everything I needed to know. It’s just a good source.

    Anyway, turns out the first page of the Google results has all the scientific proofs that demons exists.
    Clearly the Google has no doubts about demons.

    But as I said, I’m no fool.
    Even if the Google and my priest both agree on demons – i’m still not convinced.

    So I kept clicking around, and I found this page here, casually. It seems a good page! It’s all about science and skepticism.

    What do I read here?

    The article at the top says there are no demons, that much I understand.

    But then, there is this very long comment thread – and I don’t have patience for all them big words.

    What I can tell for sure by scrolling quickly, is that smart people are discussing about demons, in a very long and complicated way. Even on a science page like this. And smart people, clearly.

    And also clearly, this Michaelegnor person is taken seriously, otherwise people would not have long discussions about demons with him. He uses big words like everybody else here!

    I listened to my priest, used Google, and even scrolled a bit through the comments here.

    My conclusion is that science is not too sure about demons. Maybe they exist, maybe not. They say this thing about proving a negative, but I don’t know what that means – all i know is that the priest perhaps was right.

    Thank you all for your skeptical help. Now I know I have to take demons more seriously than I thought.

    Joe Casual

  49. BillyJoe7 says:

    Well, Joe Casual, forget about demons. Google is full of pictures of faeries. You will definitely need to take them seriously, because there they are in Google. And I talk about them all the time and I’m not an idiot. There’s even a faery at the bottom of my garden who tells me gods are not real and that, actually, she is the only supernatural creature that has ever existed. So maybe Google can be wrong after all because there is actually only one Faery. And she has chosen me to be her messenger. She chose me because I am not an idiot. Michael Egnorance did not even get a look in.

    http://gwen2499.tripod.com/faeries/ForestFaerie.jpg

  50. mumadadd says:

    BJ7,

    Your link just takes me to page with a sticker saying ‘Image hosted by Tripod’. But no image. 🙁

  51. BillyJoe7 says:

    Goddamn.

  52. BillyJoe7 says:

    …for some reason, the link does work on my iPad.

  53. mumadadd says:

    BJ7,

    “…for some reason, the link does work on my iPad.”

    Did you take the picture? If so, you may be accidentally linking to your own picture library.

  54. magazine says:

    Hi people. New commenting but been reading for a long time. This question of the existence of immaterial things is interesting. First let me state that I am a pure materialist. That being said there are some interesting things that seem to try to hint at being immaterial. Mathematics for one, seems to be a language “out there” that exists with or without the material world. Of course it’s not but it’s trying to be! Thoughts and intellect are similar. All we have are these bio-electric pulses but we have these great and complicated discussions that seem to be so much more than mere physical pulses of electricity. The idea of emergent properties is so interesting because it describes things are of course not immaterial but really seem to be.

  55. BillyJoe7 says:

    Nope. She won’t allow herself to be photographed.

  56. Maj-Maj says:

    BJ7,

    I’m just concerned that Joe Casual, when seeing the comment thread, may distill the takeaway that “there’s a controversy about demons”.

    I have no perfect solution to propose, and I’m not saying that Michael Egnor should stay unchallenged.

    However, it’s notable that every time someone like Michael manages to stir some discussion on a place like this on stuff like demons, it’s a small victory for him – because of the Joe Casual effect.

    Replying to him is a cost/benefit trade off.

  57. BillyJoe7 says:

    Maj-Maj,

    Yes, I understood what you were saying, and my comment was not meant to disparage it. In fact, to a large degree, I agree. Replying to nonsense elevates the standing of the nonsense peddlers and the nonsense they peddle but, on the other hand, we owe a response to the un-committed and to those not sufficiently knowledgable to see the nonsense for what it is. It’s a tough call.

    (As for my last comment – I was just having a bit of fun. Egnor can have his baby Jesus, if I can have my little faery 🙂 )

  58. sarah_theviper says:

    I have never had anyone think I was possessed, but I do get people who think that I am talking to ghosts. That doesn’t help either. My delusion surrounding my voices is that they have bugged my apartment and place of employment, and I am talking to various real people. Given the solitary nature of my job cleaning the clinic I do sometimes end up talking to them while I work. I did have an incident last year with a Doctor who is no where around in clinic where I work approach me in the hospital when I was picking up. He said something related to what I had been talking about. Threw me for a bit of a loop and actually had me rethinking if the voices were real or not. Although I suppose I should be grateful on the whole for where I work, I think anywhere else I might be in trouble.

  59. mumadadd says:

    sarah_theviper,

    Do you have a diagnosis for that? Are you getting some help with it?

  60. hardnose says:

    “Do you have a diagnosis for that? Are you getting some help with it?”

    Good advice mumadadd. She could benefit from the expert help of a psychiatrist and get a prescription for those wonderful drugs that make schizophrenia worse in the long term, and damage health meanwhile.

  61. sarah_theviper says:

    I am on risperidone. I am not always good about taking it, and I like coffee. Although it also seems like if there is something exciting going on it overrides the meds. I actually just started keeping track of what days I take my meds, what days I hear voices, my coffee consumption, and what is going on. I am between psychiatrists right now, my former one told me as long as I wasn’t feeling threatened it was fine, although he also came in at one star on healthgrades if that site is worth anything.

  62. BillyJoe7 says:

    sarah,

    “he also came in at one star on healthgrades if that site is worth anything”

    I would be wary of healthgrades.

    Apart from relying on incomplete information and unreliable patient reports (patients have no clinical expertise and therefore cannot distinguish between “sounds good” and “is good”, and perhaps their doctor told them what they needed to hear rather than what they wanted to hear and they didn’t like that and gave him a bad grade), they also do not use risk assessments of the patients treated by the doctors they grade.

    For example, doctors who are less skilled may take on only low risk cases passing the difficult higher risk patients onto more highly skilled doctors. Whereas those who have special skills might take on the challenge of the difficult high risk cases. As a result the former will have a better grade than the latter. But who would you rather have treating you.

    I would also be wary of random strangers on the internet giving you advice about your health.
    Their advice is likely to be worse than no advice at all.
    And they are unlikely to take any responsibility when you come to harm as a result.

  63. BillyJoe7 says:

    hardnose,

    STFU.
    You are a dangerous, self-conceited, clueless fool.

  64. tb29607 says:

    BJ7,
    Amen to that

  65. hardnose says:

    “You are a dangerous, self-conceited, clueless fool.”

    Because I tell the sad truth about modern psychiatry. You could have looked it up and found it for yourself, but you would rather stay ignorant and arrogant.

    They have found — and this is mainstream research — that schizophrenics who take anti-psychotic drugs are less likely to recover and less likely to function well long term.

    The new drugs are also awful for the body in general, increasing the risk of all the modern chronic diseases.

    This lady might as well know the facts and make her own decision.

  66. arnie says:

    Sarah,

    Let me just affirm that BillyJoe7 wrote the truth in both of his last two comments.

    Hardnose most certainly did not.

  67. tb29607 says:

    HN,

    Have you ever seen or cared for a schizophrenic patient?
    Or worked with schizophrenic patients who were off medications and/or hallucinating?

    I assume the answer is “no” because you have a Phd which you have said was “easy”.
    So at a minimum you are giving advice about an illness of which you have no understanding.

    I also doubt you know that active hallucinations are a valid legal defense for MURDER.
    If you are aware of that, then I can only conclude that you do not care about the other peoples’ lives and families that could be ended and/or ruined because someone took your advice.

  68. hardnose says:

    “Let me just affirm that BillyJoe7 wrote the truth in both of his last two comments.”

    The gospel according to one “skeptical” commenter.

  69. hardnose says:

    “I also doubt you know that active hallucinations are a valid legal defense for MURDER.”

    Oh I see, Sarah better take those drugs or she is likely to murder someone. That’s a terrific way to show sympathy for the mentally ill.

  70. hardnose says:

    Schizophrenia can be a terrible ordeal for many patients, and it can be impossible for them to function in society. I am not minimizing the disease.

    I am only mentioning the fact that modern medicine knows almost nothing about mental illness, and it has no good treatments.

    Of course you all love the wonderful new drugs, and you have only scorn for ancient beliefs. You have discarded the ancient ideas and replaced them with drugs that dull symptoms while making the disease worse.

  71. Willy says:

    No, hn, you know nothing about mental illness. I have a family member who is bipolar–for over 40 years. I have seen with my own eyes how drugs help this person–and how, when drugs were not used, this person went “off her nut”. Inexplicably, when she had to discontinue lithium (start of kidney damage), the psychiatrist didn’t medicate her with something else. You have no idea what an unmedicated person who is manic-y or suffering from depression is capable of. I’ve seen both and both extremes scared the snot out of me. You need to crawl back under your rock and shut the F*** up. You are dangerous, as are many ignorant people. GO AWAY, you ignorant fool!!!!!!!!!!!!!! GO AWAY!!!!!

  72. hardnose says:

    I never said mental illness is not serious. I said the drugs are harmful, only dull symptoms, and according to recent research they are often ineffective.

  73. hardnose says:

    The post glorifies modern medicine, as usual, and expresses contempt for any kind of ancient beliefs. Novella never mentions the failures and inadequacies of modern medicine.

  74. hardnose says:

    [you have a Phd which you have said was “easy”]

    It was easy for me, maybe it would be hard for most of you here.

    My point was there is no reason to be in awe of PhDs, it is not such a big deal. As long as you can pretend to agree with everything the professors say.

  75. Willy says:

    Hey hardnose: You ignored the content of my post, you know, where I said “modern medicine” was effective in dealing with mental illness. Why don’t you explain to us all how “the ancients” were so good at dealing with mental illness? Or any other kind of illness.

    Better yet–shut the F * C K up, you pathetic excuse for a thinking human being. Ponder the advice you gave above to someone who may well be struggling with some form of mental illness. Are you going to assume responsibility if something goes awry based on your “advice”? Does your “easy PhD” qualify you to speak on medical matters?

    GO AWAY! You are dangerous.

  76. sarah_theviper says:

    I have no intention of going fully off of meds again. I was for the first four years, and it was hell. As to side effects, the only one I am worried about is diabetes. I stopped eating as many sweets when I went on and trying to eat healthier. Now my fasting glucose test things are coming back lower than before I started the risperidone.

  77. tb29607 says:

    Thank you Sarah. That is good to know.

  78. alhill says:

    Thank you Willy. It makes me angry, too, when people over simplify the issue and judge the people that suffer from mental illness and the treatments that are necessary.

    My children have Tourette Syndrome, OCD, severe anxiety, etc….Without a team of support; a psychiatrist, psychologist, neurologist, occupational therapist, teachers PLUS medications, I can’t imagine what would have happened to my kids. They are now all highly successful adults because of the progressive treatments provided by the team. Is it perfect? No. Finding the correct medication and therapy that works can take time and be very challenging. But I feel psychiatry and psychology is moving in the right direction.

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