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Puncturing Australia's cult of the mind


'The mind' by Chris JohnstonIn addition to more than half a million Australians who currently live with an intellectual disability, nearly 600,000 Australians are projected to be living with dementia by 2030. Yet for most of us, our daily lives have become increasingly dependent upon advanced cognitive activity.

Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter exemplify the ways in which new technology continues to draw out and emphasise the life of the mind above all else. At the same time, convenient new tools like online banking and shopping carry a hidden burden of knowledge, memory, and comprehension borne entirely by the individual user. The cognitive demands of active social participation have never been so high.

We seem set on a trajectory of ever increasing reliance on individual autonomy, rationality, and self-awareness augmented by complex technologies. But if our culture glorifies the mental life of the autonomous, empowered individual, what does it offer those whose mental faculties are limited or impaired?

We are living in what ethicist Stephen G. Post has called a 'hyper-cognitive' society — a society which not only demands but idealises the mental life as the essence of personhood and individuality. Post has critiqued our present culture's implicit affront to people suffering cognitive deficits such as dementia:

I associate hypercognitive values with the Enlightenment notion of salvation by reason alone and suggest that this imperils people with dementia. Very simplistically, 'I think, therefore I am,' implies that if I do not think, I am not. In essence, the values of rationality and productivity blind us to other ways of thinking about the meaning of our humanity.

The moral implications of such values are clear. The acclaimed Princeton Philosopher Professor Peter Singer has infamously championed the view that:

The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference.

Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings.

It may be no coincidence that an academic philosopher would place elevated moral weight on the life of the mind. But the values put forward by Singer are advanced implicitly by our whole culture: independence, choice, identity, personal narrative.

Perhaps this is why we are so afraid of illnesses and conditions which impair the mind: according to Alzheimer's Australia 63 per cent of Australians over the age of 18 are afraid of developing dementia — making it the second most widely feared medical condition after cancer.

Yet despite our high regard for these mental powers, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, people with an intellectual disability are not receiving adequate levels of assistance for cognition, emotion, and communication. These unmet needs seem obvious, and we should hope to see them fulfilled.

Less obvious are the unmet needs of the rest of society, brought to the fore by illnesses and disabilities that challenge our sense of what it means to be a human person, and force us to confront our underlying values. On a religious level this 'unmet need' has always been implied by doctrines such as the fall of man, which established as a most basic premise the broken and impaired state of all creation.

But outside of a religious context, the difficulties and suffering in life push us inexorably toward the same reappraisal of our deepest values. Another philosopher, Professor Eva Kittay, has written of how her values changed upon learning of her own daughter's intellectual disability:

Loving Sesha and loving the life of the mind forced me to think — to feel — differently about that latter love. My own child could not share its treasures, could not even remotely approach that which had, I had thought, given my life its meaning.

I had to reassess the meaning and value of cognitive capacities as the defining feature of humanity. I discovered that a love for one's child transcended any denumerable set of defining characteristics.

Kittay's realisation has great significance for the present trajectory of our broader society: where is our ideal of the independent, autonomous, intellectual human being taking us? Can the fullness of life really be encompassed by our ever-increasing immersion in the life of the mind?

The fall of man is set in the context of another vital religious concept: Imago Dei. The belief that human beings were created 'in the image of God' has been interpreted in various ways but never explicitly defined according to some particular aspect of the human being.

We can recognise the goodness and value of human reason and human will, without allowing the importance of these mental faculties to eclipse the more profound and mysterious claim that human beings are imprinted with the divine image.

Perhaps it is a special challenge of our age to recognise that 'I think therefore I am' cannot approach the mystery of 'I am that I am'.

Zac AlstinZac Alstin is a freelance writer and part-time research officer for Southern Cross Bioethics Institute in Adelaide. He has an honours degree in philosophy, a graduate certificate in applied linguistics, and an amateur interest in Chinese philosophy. 


Topic tags: Zac Alstin, mental illness, disability, Peter Singer



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Existing comments

Thoughtful and thought-provoking article Zac. As part of a ministry with my church, I am involved with a couple in their late 70s. The wife has Alzheimer's and initially it was her needs that I focussed on. But as time went by I could see the heavy demands placed on her husband - caring for his wife and, in a very real sense, 'losing' her. But I was also struck by the continuing love and devotion between them - perhaps in a different form for much of the time. Nevertheless, its value is paramount to both of them. And to me in caring for them.

Pam | 16 September 2012  

I'm sympathetic with Zac Alstin's thesis, but I'm afraid I can't make any sense of "I am that I am". A mystery indeed!

Rob Brennan | 16 September 2012  

Each of Zac's paragraphs could merit a thesis in itself. With great self-restraint I shall limit my comment to the third last. "The fall of man is set in the context of another vital religious context: Imago Dei." My Good News translation of Genesis 1:26-27 reads: Then God said: "And now we will make human beings; they will be like us and resemble us. So God created human beings, making them to be like himself. He created them male and female." Or as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) would have it: "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." I prefer the Good News version whereas the The Catechism of the Catholic Church uses the NRSV. Of course not completely like himself. For a start God always was, complete within Himself, outside the confines of space and time, whereas human beings are brought into being,completely dependent on God, limited by the confines of space and time. Only the mind can escape these confines. And that is where human beings can communicate with God, that is where they are like God.

Uncle Pat | 16 September 2012  

A wonderful article. Thank you. A spiritual teacher i know once pointed to his hand and said 'this is my mind'. We have equated mind with brain, mind with thinking. Perhaps mind is akin to something like spirit or soul - a much more inclusive term and experience (and one more consistent with the Christian story of spirituality). Mind then includes feelings and the phrase 'bodymind' becomes a truly wholistic expression. A practice like Christian Meditation, or meditation generally, can gently work against the grain of this mind=thinking=me dynamic. We are human beings, not human thinkings.

Andrew | 16 September 2012  

"And I yam what I yam and I yam what I yam that I yam" Did Popeye the sailor man say it first?

Lynn Davidson | 16 September 2012  

Dear Zac, Please write another article on the antidote to mind worship. I so appreciated this one. Blessings, Rev Ruth

Ruth Buxton | 16 September 2012  

Thanks for sharing your observations Pam. Your example is close to what I wanted to describe: while the love does not negate the loss, nor does the loss put an end to the love.

Zac | 16 September 2012  

Thanks Rob. Forgive me if I've taken you too literally, but: "I am that I am" is the name God gives himself when he speaks to Moses. It can also be translated as "I am He who is", or even just as "I am". The name has profound theological significance.

Zac | 16 September 2012  

Having visited the dementia wing of a nursing home on numerous occasions, I often ponder how much suffering is involved with dementia inherently, and how much is suffering due to anxiety created trying to work against it (both by the person and the family, carers etc)
I guess it's impossible to know without having experienced it, but my gut feeling is that a lot of the suffering would be alleviated if nursing homes took a radical approach and treated dementia like a gift rather than something that needed to be suppressed with tranquilising drugs to make them sleep all day.
Incontinence isn't really such a big deal, but being scolded and rushed to the toilet by underpaid/overworked staff is humiliating and hurtful. And the boredom of sitting around looking at each other, watching freeview tv full of ads about funeral insurance.
The best approach I've seen to dementia care is on an ABC doco about a humour therapist who visits nursing homes.
I tried humour myself when visiting an old grumpy old lady friend at a home - I started throwing a big inflatable ball around and knowing it was irritating her at first, kept doing it. The other residence thought it was funny and she eventually started laughing and let down her defences and something miraculous happened - she reacted like a playful little girl. All her grumpiness and unhappiness was because she was afraid to return to how she was when she was a little girl - but once she let go of trying to control, she laughed for the first time in ages.

AURELIUS | 16 September 2012  

Another brilliant and apposite reflection, Zac! The Imago Dei idea reminded me of a type of learning my wife and I went through in teaching Joseph, our son with Down Syndrome, how to read. We learnt that DS children capture words as images (to which they attach word meaning) long before they can begin to look at an unknown word and parse it for themselves. There is something of this image concept that is lacking in our society in odd ways; yet, paradoxically, it is rampant in our learned attachment to icons (by that I mean the facebook, twitter etc. icons). But images that hold meaning because they draw us to spiritual thoughts - even non-religious ones like wonder & fond memories - are being replaced by 'icon and picture overload' where such images do nothing in the human heart.

Paul Russell | 16 September 2012  

Great restraint indeed, Uncle Pat!
I'm at risk of revealing my limited theological knowledge, but I think the slight danger in identifying the mind as the seat of our likeness to God is that we risk adopting a simple dualism of mind against body. Even though the Western Christian tradition recognises the intellect and the will as our uniquely spiritual faculties, it does not forget the context of the human being as an 'embodied soul'. Hence we have the idea of receiving 'spiritual bodies' after death.

Zac | 16 September 2012  

Thanks Andrew. From the small portions of Thomas Aquinas I have digested, it seems he had what we might consider a very 'holistic' view of the human person, yet while still able to maintain the great complexity of our different faculties. It's hard to get one's head around - our worldview has changed so much since then - but his model of the human being seems quite able to describe (for example) mental processes that trigger certain emotional responses which in turn correlate with changes in the physical body. It's all very intriguing, albeit challenging.

Zac | 16 September 2012  

Well according to wikipedia, Popeye first appeared in 1929, whereas the God who created the universe is widely believed to have existed always and eternally.
I'm gonna have to attribute it to God.

Zac | 16 September 2012  

Thanks Ruth, I'll have a think about it!

Zac | 16 September 2012  

I deeply appreciate your article Zac. Catholic philosophy has (almost) always maintained that 'being' precedes 'knowing'. As you point out the consequences of placing knowing before being are evident in the kinds of logic employed by Peter Singer to justify a particular moral philosophy. I am often encouraged by the teaching authority of human experience, such as Eva Kittay's. It can be a powerful and heart breaking corrective to the overblown rationalism we have inherited from Cartesianism and Transcendentalism.

Christopher Cotter | 16 September 2012  

Interesting story, Aurelius. I don't want to play down the negative aspects of such conditions, but it is good to hear some positive experiences.

Zac | 17 September 2012  

Thanks Paul!
That's a very profound idea about images, and I also like the sense that in the course of learning to manage a disability we can have insights that the rest of society misses or simply takes for granted.

I think both words and images have been cheapened by the ease with which they are now created and shared. Perhaps there would be more merit in having fewer of them, more deeply appreciated?

Zac | 17 September 2012  

Thanks Christopher!
The theology of 'being' is the most impressive stuff I've ever read. Contemplating our own contingent existence as created beings is...well words don't really do it justice. ;)

Zac | 17 September 2012  

Dear Zac! Words have lost all meaning when theologians talk about "spiritual bodies". The writers of the Scriptures, like us today,have to use symbolic language. "The Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living thing." However I cannot write about death like this: God withrew his breath from man and he became a dead thing, because "the breath of God" is an eternal life giving force. Vita mutatur, non tollitur. Life is changed, not taken away. That is the mystery. Oxymorons like "spiritual bodies" do nothing to eludicate the mystery - which shouldn't surprise me - but they make me think that maybe the Pantheists have at least consistency on their side when they postulate God as the ever present Life Force of the whole universe. They can say:At this moment God's will is that I exist in this body. When I die God's will is that I exist in Him. It is not easy to talk about metaphysical subjects without resorting to the language of space and time - by analogy. But let us try to avoid some theologians' terms, like "spiritual bodies".

Uncle Pat | 17 September 2012  

Uncle Pat, According to ye olde Catholic Encyclopedia (which I quote for elaboration, not authoritatively) "the body becomes subject to the absolute dominion of the soul. This is inferred from the words of the Apostle: "It is sown a natural body, it shall rise a spiritual body" (1 Corinthians 15:44). The body participates in the soul's more perfect and spiritual life to such an extent that it becomes itself like a spirit. We see this quality exemplified in the fact that Christ passed through material objects." So not all meaning is lost, I think, in this interpretation of 'spiritual body' - perhaps 'spirit-like body' is more amenable? Pantheism is like a rough, intuitive sense of God's immanence; but the more elaborate and nuanced metaphysics of Aquinas can satisfy the sense of immanence *as well as* the problem of evil, and the fragility of our existence as creations. It's like the difference between very basic and very advanced physics or biology.

Zac | 17 September 2012  

I couldn't agree more. As the mother of a 41yr old son who has Down Syndrome I too have had to learn to live with a different set of priorities. I too am a writer but I have learned so much from my son and our whole family is the richer for his existence. We value very highly the attitude and work of Jean Vanier, founder of L'Arche.

Jean Sietzema-Dickson | 18 September 2012  

Thank you, Zac, for taking the time to comment on my comment. I remember well being told by a Jesuit teacher (appealing to authority here) that the great St Thomas Aquinas is alleged to have said on his deathbed: all I have written is dross. Some of what St Paul wrote was based on a long superseded cosmology. "He (God) will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body (?) of his glory, by the power (dunamis) that enables him to make all things subject to himself." (Philippians 3:21) We (created dependent human beings) will be raised in power, sharing in the power of our Risen Lord. In place of (see I am compelled to use a compound preposition of place/space) the body which we now experience (are aware of,our medium to the created world), a natural body energised and enlivened by the human soul(psuchikos), our whole being will be an expression of our communion with God, energised and enlivened by the Spirit (pneumatikos). "The first man was from the earth, the second man is from heaven." Paul's answers to the Corinthians' expectations from their conversion to Christianity are bewildering rather than elucidating.

Uncle Pat | 18 September 2012  

Pat, we live in an age that doesn't seem to know what our ancestors meant by 'spirit'; I'm not put off by bewilderment, only intrigued by it. To me it suggests depth. Though I have to admit we're unlikely to work it all out in this venue ; ) I've heard a similar story about Aquinas: what I heard was that he had some kind of mystical experience after which he regarded all his writing as being 'like straw', and never wrote again!

Zac | 18 September 2012  

Thanks Jean for sharing your experience. Perhaps as a writer you've also found that the much vaunted 'life of the mind' is not all it's made out to be.

Zac | 18 September 2012  

I also, thank you Zac for this most thought-provoking article. My thoughts, prompted at times by some of your correspondents, focus on the biblical "I am" (qualified by 'who am') as our creating God who endowed us with a basic 'knowing' from which human beings develop their understanding of living in this world. Relationships, loving or not, experience, helpful or destructive, 'education' positive or tedious, and the assorted circumstances of living, all contribute to forming the precious 'being' regardless of his/her contribution to society. Each individual, given the opportunity, can contribute in some measure. Every individual, regardless of learnt skills, operates from this knowing as a cohesive body-mind-spirit being formed in the context of their experience. It is only the facet of 'education' which allows us to consider separately mind, body and spirit for the sake of easier focus by the various institutions. Thus 'teaching' from biblical times via Apostles, Paul and others of different systems, must be unpacked to its essential message rather than imposing examples of behaviour or scientific knowledge which only cause heart-ache and confusion. I also was puzzled by your term "I am that I am".

Michelle | 20 September 2012  

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