Sandeep Gautam: Asato Ma Sadgamay (lead me from Falsity to Truth)

Sandeep Gautam has a background in Computer Science and Engineering. He is passionate about psychology and has educated himself in the field using a combination of the internet, text and popular science books and open access journals. He is an avid blogger and maintains a blog dedicated to conginitive psycholgy and neuroscience called The Mouse Trap.

Consider the problem posed by some people whose behavior is crazy or erratic as compared to the rest of the ‘normal’ and ‘sane’ individuals. These might have been labeled heretics or witches in the dark ages and deemed to be possessed by demons / spirits. Lacking a scientific insight into what really haunts and ails this ‘mad’ condition, the cure advised for the treatment / containment of the problem (insanity) would also be similarly non-scientific and irrational. Thus the burning at stakes in the middle ages of those who were perhaps suffering from some form of a mental illness, but were nevertheless characterized as being possessed by ‘spirits’ and thus in need of exorcism. If insanity is seen form this dualistic lens of an alien spirit having possessed the body, then one can easily see how witch-burning might have been a legitimate solution to the problem of insanity.

Lest we be sidetracked to consider that Science is just opposed to religion / spiritualistic thinking, let us consider the same insanity problem and how it was historically understood by the ‘scientists’ of their time. From the earliest Greek imbalance of the four humors leading to insanity theory to the comparatively recent frontal region dysfunction theory, which led respectively to treatments like letting the person bleed profusely to correct presumed humoral imbalances, to the now infamous frontal lobotomies that left the operated person’s whole personality transformed, history of science is replete with some pseudo-scientific as well as some rudimentary scientific theories that have had corresponding treatment implications, most of the implications being bad.

What is heartening to note is, that as the understanding of brain processes implied in insanity increases, the treatment options become not only more realistic but also more humane. They do not involve needless burning at the stakes, bleeding or even removing a whole portion of your brain; based on a scientific understanding of how our brains work, how they have evolved and how they may dysfunction, we now have much more reasonable treatment options: chemical imbalance theory of schizophrenia / depression leads to appropriate medications designed to restore the neurotransmitter levels in the brain and though the procedure still is not specific and the medications have many other side-effects, it is the best and most humane treatment option we have based on our current scientific understanding of the brain.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me clarify that I am all for adjunct psychotherapy like CBT or even plain old psychoanalytical therapy - but I would advice caution here and highlight that though evidence-based studies have backed some of these and even neuroimaging studies have revealed how CBT may act differently from medication and bring about the same end-result while treating depression, we need to be cautious here and develop a more elaborate scientific framework for how therapy works and what its side-effects can be - side effects like planting false memories or planting harmful and counter-productive suggestions. Also, just to clarify, our scientific understanding of brain processes involved in psychopathology is still being refined and based on new findings like the neurogenesis model of depression, new and better treatment options may be available soon.

However, the important thing to note is that Science is incremental, and each new discovery adds to our previous knowledge and enables us to make better applications and better decisions. Thus, we may be proved incorrect that the chemical imbalance theory of most psychological pathologies is correct; yet on lack of a more ‘True’ theory of most psychological pathologies, that is a reasonable working hypothesis and may lead to better and more viable treatment options than other pseudo-scientific or non-scientific theories like demon-possession / moral frailty / frigid mothers or even homeopathy.

The beautiful thing about Science is that the facts uncovered by it, and the theories resulting from them are amenable to re-interpretation / overhaul based on new discoveries that contradict or question them. This openness to change in the direction of more and more truth makes Science the ideal candidate on which to base your applications. Applications in the above example being the treatment methods developed for curing psychopathology. Science without any applications (the so called basic sciences) to me looks like a nonentity - to me each and every scientific discovery has widespread implications; but even if we leave aside the case of basic sciences that have supposedly no applications, science in general leads to great applications and the better our grasp on the truth the better we can rely on our moral intuitions that the available knowledge would be put to good and best possible use.

History is replete with examples where lack of scientific knowledge or scientific frame of mind led to unnecessary suffering be it through idiocy or inefficiency and the best one can do is to develop the moral and aesthetic sensibilities also in the same proportion and with same pace as that of scientific and technological revolution. Given the fact that humans come equipped with a universal moral grammar and are by mature moral, we should not be afraid of scientific breakthroughs or curtail some of the most scientific discoveries of our time like the theory of evolution out of a misplaced fear that such knowledge could be misused and lead to nihilism, lack of meaning in life or a eugenicist mindset. With Science revealing more and more Truth about the human nature we will be more and more equipped to solve the problems of hatred, meaninglessness or war and not by suppressing what science tells us is True.

While so-called alternatives to Science (Truth) like Morality (Decisions and choices) and Arts (Beauty) are legitimate in their own ways , it should be emphasized that each has its own domain and work area and improvements in one would only lead to better outcomes in the other. While what IS (truth) will not lead us to find any better what OUGHT we do (choices), yet what IS will definitely guide not only what needs to be done, but also how to realistically achieve it. Thus, the importance of Science in leading us to Truth.

As they say in Sanskrit, Asato Ma Sadgamay (lead me from Falsity to Truth).

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