Monday, November 10, 2008

Intellectual Psychosis

The hallmark of psychosis is the inability to decipher what is real - or, to believe something is real even when some (or all) evidence proves otherwise. Real things are consistent, and the reality that the psychotic perceives is very inconsistent. Without going into too much detail about my own mental illness, in my psychotic state, I perceived things that never came to fruition. And I'm not the only one: Pete Early, author of Crazy, chronicles the lives of many individuals suffering from mental illness. Most, if not all, had at least some sort of psychotic thought; one even believed he was a prophet, needing to tell the world of the Messiah's return in 2007. The movie A Beautiful Mind, for example, tells of a scientist that finally recognizes his artificial reality when one of his psychotic beliefs proves anachronistic.

If Dr. John Nash, entrenched in his pseudo-reality, could make such a discovery, then why can't most people, who do not suffer from such illnesses, do the same? We can laud Hollywood's portrayal of this schizophrenic man, but rarely do we - the audience - scrutinize our beliefs the same way.

For instance, a recent conversation with my Rabbi proved futile: of course the dinosaurs existed, he proclaimed, they just died in the flood! This is in stark contrast to Kent Hovind or Ken Ham's view, where the dinosaurs were saved in the Ark and actually lived with people. Never mind that the fossil strata and geological column prove both claims erroneous.

But if you've presupposed your conclusion (regardless of its correctness), any valid syllogism will do: the premises may not be falsifiable - or, if you want, you could even try to prove your premises true by backing into them using your conclusion inductively (e.g. that dinosaurs are now extinct is because god's obviously perfect word predicted an irrefutable flood). Though such arguments may on their face appear valid, they aren't. Strictly speaking, they are best described as dogma.

Inevitably, the dogmatic person will see evidence contrary to their beliefs. Faced with rejecting what might be a lifetime of teaching (and even perhaps a culture based around such teachings), the person will fall back on their intuition: "I've got to go with my gut." I've therefore coined a neologism for such faulty thinking: intellectual psychosis.

It's not psychotic, though, to have grounded faith, or to even use your gut. As an auditor for the government, people trust me, but no amount of testing could prove that I am, and will always be, an honest person. When we begin a relationship, we may have no personal experience with which to predict the relationship's success. But we, nonetheless, try, and hope for our partner's requited love and fidelity. We need our gut instincts. Many relationships don't work out, but we still have faith that, one day, one might. Grounded faith, intuition, conviction - these things are important.

Equally important, at least when figuring out why our gut tells us to do something, is critical thinking. We're afraid of being wrong. But it takes more guts to admit that you're wrong than to brainlessly assume you're right. Intellectual psychosis is a treatable malady. Try some critical thinking, it's good for both the head and the stomach.

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