Life and Life Energy: An Essay in Psychology Roy Lisker 1960 2004 -2012 Chapter One



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Life and Life Energy:

An Essay in Psychology

Roy Lisker

1960 - 2004 -2012

Chapter One


  1. Introduction

We advance the hypothesis that there is, in Life (sentience) , a form of psychic energy which we can call life energy that enters fundamentally into the process of psychological adjustment. The word emotion refers directly to the manifold transformations of psychic energy in the progression of states of adjustment. Although it shares many of the characteristics of material or physical energy, this dynamic force underlying consciousness is of a different nature .

That they differ does not mean that they can be treated independently: “psychic” and “material” energies overlap in the interactions of brain chemistry which modern research in biochemistry have correlated with recognizable emotional states. Although the science of “psychopharmacology” is still in its rudimentary stages, this has not prevented the official institutions of the psychiatric profession from asserting that a class of drugs (‘neuroleptic’ or ‘psychotropic’) can cure or relieve highly specific emotional pathologies. Indeed, there is an entire section of the psychiatric profession which has abandoned the study of emotional health, to investigate its’ chemistry!

Evidently the psychiatric practice has gone algorithmic! A rigorous functional association of symptoms to drugs underlies the robotic computation of prices that now passes for medical practice in this field. It could be better done with computers (and often is).

Granted: there will always be a debate at the heart of Medicine over the relative therapeutic merits of ‘personal’ versus ‘impersonal’ methods for diagnosing disease. It is neither unscientific nor unhealthy that psychiatry would have finally rebelled against the wild, self-righteously unquantifiable ‘personal judgments’ of psycho-analysis and its offshoots. Yet this has been replaced by a therapeutics that is equally questionable: an excessive reliance on dubious diagnoses based on the quantifications of the infant science of psychochemistry. This degree of abdication of medical responsibility in the name of the infallibility of a dubious recipe book (e.g., the series of DSM manuals) is totally deplorable.

Many psychiatrists have disowned this extreme reductionism. 1 We also must oppose this direction of psychotherapy, without disavowing its positive achievements: were it not for Thorazine, our societies would still be funding the ubiquitous madhouse!

  1. Free Will and Determinism

The hypothesis of a living psychic energy leads to numerous insights. I will endeavor to show in a convincing manner, how the hypothesis of an underlying living energy at work in the processes of psychic adjustment makes a decisive contribution to the philosophical debates over the existence of free will, volition and intentionality. Moving away from the extreme poles of free will versus total determinism in the description of sentient behavior , I make the assertion that there exists, within the living nature, an intrinsic creativity, this faculty of creativity being present not only in human beings but in all animate entities. Even plants have imagination!

Thereby are all living beings simultaneously determined and free: determined in the sense that body and mind remain subject to all the fundamental forces of nature: gravity, electro-magnetism, chemical interaction, atomic, and so on; free in the sense that psychic energy manifests itself as a creative force, capable of initiating phenomena in a way that transcends the basic physical constraints of space, time, matter and the force fields.

  1. Life” defined

There are few words on which there are bound to be as many disagreements as to their meaning as that of “life”. (Not to be confused with the idiom “The meaning of life”, in which “meaning” signifies “purpose”). One unavoidable characteristic that all scientific definitions of “life” must have in common is that they must be self-referencing2. Any definition must include or account for the phenomena of consciousness, understanding and morality; and all such definitions must derive from, and include, our own consciousness and intellect.

The definition I am proposing goes beyond even simple self-referencing: I will be explaining one undefined term by substituting another! Although this looks like a shallow play on words, I will give arguments to show why it is not. For me this definition is scientific; I expect many people to disagree with me:

Life is that universal phenomenon which, when found in association with a physical body, it is immoral to injure.

Replacing “life” by “morality” would appear to be begging the question. In my estimation there is only one way to avoid circularity: one must evoke the existence of a moral faculty; this conclusion is unavoidable. This definition is scientific in the sense that it is based on the universally acknowledged observation that human beings never feel that it is right to injure a living creature without a reason for doing so. One’s freedom to act within its requirements are limited, and , alas, often all too easy to invent.

To begin with: the above definition can be interpreted as a restatement of the ancient Talmudic injunction: Do unto others what you would have them do unto you.3 The word “others”, normally applied only to human beings, can by a natural extension be taken to include all living creatures, including the Archaea and those who may exist on other planets yet unknown to us.

Simply stated: if one is sincere in one’s desire to follow the Golden Rule, one must have some way of determining that the being one is acting upon is not a robot, or a film, or a fantasy, but some entity truly capable of being harmed by one’s actions. How does one come to know this? How can one say in confidence that there must exist a Kantian Categorical Imperative that governs equally my own thoughts and feelings, and those of the entity I am faced with, unless I have some direct evidence that we share the same nature?

Should one feel inhibited when banging a nail into a piece of wood on the grounds that it may be a sentient being? Why do we not normally feel guilty from the thought that something within the nail might be injured?

If a house is on fire and all of its inhabitants have been rescued, shouldn’t one grieve over the possibility that the wood, glass, steel and concrete in the house are all experiencing suffering? There must be some way of knowing that the beings that have been rescued are, in this respect, more sentient than the house itself!

It is from such considerations I have been led to assert (both by logic and through direct experience) that all sentient beings possess a sense, as concrete as sight, taste, hearing and all others, through which they can actually feel and even see that the object they are dealing with is alive.

I’ve called this the moral faculty.

Briefly: the injunction to Do No Harm (and other reformulations of the same idea) can only apply to entities for which it is possible to do harm, namely those that experience injury, suffering and death. It assumes that there exists a way of distinguishing animate from inanimate activity. Otherwise all such injunctions are meaningless. True moral conduct must be based on a direct perception of the living nature of others. Since the author does not believe that the Golden Rule, the Hippocratic Oath, or the Categorical Imperative are meaningless, he concludes that such a faculty must exist. One is not always conscious of its presence, yet it determines all moral behavior. Sometimes one is very conscious indeed of the phenomenon, and it is given the names of “love”, “empathy”, “telepathy”, etc.

Another implication of this point of view is that we exist in a plenum of life energy or life force that extends far beyond the individual. To assert that we share in a universal nature does not limit our freedom; quite the contrary. If one adopts the viewpoint that individual minds are subsumed with a universal mind, notions such as freedom and determinism become particular instances of a universal phenomenon of creative will.

Note that, as a discipline within Psychology, Psychiatry has never felt comfortable with the possibility of real mental freedom. In The Interpretation of Dreams Freud invokes a law of psychic determinism to support his quite arbitrary and far-fetched hermeneutic schema of image -to-symbol translations of the contents of dreams:

" The authorities are wrong only in regarding the modifications the dream undergoes when remembered and put into words as being arbitrary, impossible to interpret further, and so very likely to put us on the wrong track in understanding the dreams. They underestimate the factor of determination in matters of the psyche. Nothing is arbitrary there. It can be shown quite generally that a second train of thought will promptly take over the determination of an element left undetermined by the first. I try to think of a number quite at random; it is not possible; the number that occurs to me is unambiguously and necessarily determined by thoughts within me that may well be remote from my present intention." (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams pg. 344. All references are to the Bibliography at the end of each chapter.)
The well-worn example (used as evidence for the existence of unconscious processes) of being unable to trace the origins of a number that pops into the mind (Stanislavski invokes the same analogy in An Actor Prepares) is not really what we're talking about when we speak above the creativity inherent in the living nature. In this instance we agree with Freud, that “broken symmetry” phenomena of this sort have their origins in some kind of unconscious mind. The way this works is not clear. We are inclined to speculate that that there may exist structures in the brain, reflexes perhaps, that incorporate random number generators. Indeed this must be so, given that natural selection must, at an early stage of Life's presence on Earth, have be forced to invent mechanisms for symmetry-breaking and decision making . Every living creature must choose between options on a moment-by-moment basis. 4 An important idea adapted from particle physics, symmetry breaking occurs when a simple choice between equally likely options leads to far-reaching consequences. The classical example is the following: the dining table for a banquet is so arranged that the wine glasses are symmetrically placed half-way between the large dinner plates. The first person to select a glass will determine the direction, to the right or the left, in which all other glasses will be picked up.

For us, free will is not a breaker of symmetries. It does not therefore disturb us overmuch to learn that it has little or no part in pulling a number, word, color or sound out of a box. To our understanding, free will makes its presence known in the resolution of essentially spiritual quandaries, dilemmas, paradoxes, and obligations and urgent needs, whatever oppresses our innate freedom by a psychological bondage.

Middle Way, Golden Mean, Third Path solutions are closer to what we mean by essential creativity in decision making and the directing of life energy. This is the deeper meaning of the injunction in the Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are the peace-makers”. A mediator or peace-maker is someone who sets out to find a third alternative between two hostile parties in active conflict. The qualities of imagination, patience and dispassionate inquiry, combined with the intention of genuine good-will, indicate the ways in which a creative response to a living situation differs from pulling a number out of a hat.

  1. Mind, Brain and Psycho-chemistry

One can understand the current rage for reducing feeling to chemistry by recalling a perennial theme in the history of Psychiatry as a science: its’ many attempts to side-step Philosophy. By relegating the investigation of emotion as a subject in its own right to a sub-branch within the science of brain chemistry, Psychiatry seeks to restrict the focus of inquiry to whatever is quantifiable in physical terms. To us this has about as much merit as Pythagoras’ claim that everything in the universe comes from Number.

To be fair, herein medicine is only doing what it does best. It isn't concerned with “deep questions”. Established over thousands of years, the standard paradigm of medical research begins by setting up a classification scheme for diseases on the basis of symptoms. 5

In modern psychiatry, these schemes are translated into the hierarchic lists of 'dysfunctions' of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuals of Mental Disorders (DSM I to IV) 6

In its mechanistic certitude the therapeutics in the DSM manuals differ little from the behaviorist's stimulus/response paradigm, although the new mantras are being chanted in the language of dysfunction/drug.

Effacing “mind” as an attribute of “body”, collapsing “psyche” into “soma”, cannot begin to capture the many dimensions of mental activity. In a rudimentary way, one may analyze the functions of the human psyche into:

  1. Intellect (understanding)

  2. Volition (will)

  3. Judgment (conscience)

  4. Imagination (association of ideas, insights, hypotheses)

  5. Sensation (physical and mental)

Both body and the mind share in sensation; and, to some extent, in imagination (psychosomatic symptoms, conditioned reflexes, etc.). However there are no somatic equivalents to understanding, will and conscience.

It could be argued that intellect can be studied by Cognitive Science; yet this gives no insight into understanding. A student can recite a poem, word by word, without a single mistake, yet have no understanding of what it means. “Semantics” is acknowledged to lie outside the orbit of Information Theory; why should it be any more welcome in Cognitive Science? We do not normally attribute "thinking" or "understanding", to a muscle, tissue, blood vessel or bone; nor do we ascribe "will power" or a "sense of justice" to a ligament or lymph node. “Conscience” has a special place in this schema as it contains the moral faculty: it extends the boundaries of psyche and self to admit the existence of other living beings.

Cognitive Science will, as it should, continue to explore those aspects of mind co-extensive with the brain, such as the activities of computation in which the brain functions as a computer and no conscious effort need be involved, or the relationships between perception and sensation revealed by psychophysics, the nature of memory and neurological phenomena such as those so dramatically illustrated in the works of Oliver Sacks and Vilayanur S. Ramchandran.

Yet if everything mental could be explained away by physics and chemistry, the philosophical dispute would not be between Determinism and Free Will, but between classical and quantum physics, between the determinism of Newton’s science and the qualified randomness of the Uncertainty Principle.

(v) Emotion

Despite intellectual understanding, conditioning, reflexes, and all but the strongest physical sensations, emotion is normally the dominant factor in human behavior. While logic produces only a neutral recognition of certainty, and imposed pain translates into resentment and resistance, only emotion carries conviction. As long as emotion itself has not found some accommodation with one’s intellectual judgments and understanding , emotion must prevail in the long run. I am thinking in particular of prejudice: I can know and believe all the arguments for ethnic equality, but until the emotional basis for racial discrimination are present, I will continue to be prejudiced and act in a prejudiced manner. These observations apply to all forms of opinion, notably fixed ideas.

Emotion has a basis in both the psyche and the body and cannot be fully understood exclusively in terms of one or the other. Likewise, one cannot expect that emotional illness can be cured by the nostrums in some biochemical catalogue. The process is somewhat indirect: psychotropic drugs may relieve symptoms long enough for thought to be consciously redirected onto more wholesome paths. Yet consciousness, sensation and emotion must be deemed primary, brain chemistry being merely the technology whereby intentionality is realized. To 'feel better' may be the indispensable initial phase for the cure of disease, yet it can never be anything more than symptom relief, not the cure itself.

Psychopharmacology itself admits to an inability to discriminate between euphoria, associated with dopamine uptake, and anti-depression, associated with serotonin. One can reasonably ask if an emotion named “anti-depression” actually exists. (Robert Julien; Peter Breggin ). Thus, confusion reigns in this area of medicine between “feeling good” (or “feeling good about oneself” which can be increased by donating an old sweater to the Salvation Army) and “curing depression”; which requires working through one's grief at the loss of a loved friend or relative. There is also a condition which I’ve designated as “right depression”, defined as the healthy response to one’s mature awareness of a world filled with war, violence, famine, epidemics and injustice. 7

Everything can be abused by excess: even this kind of ‘depression’ can become pathological. Though safe in London, Simone Weil is said to have starved herself to death from being overwhelmed by the horrors of WW2. It is claimed that Virginia Woolf drowned herself for the same reason. We are aware of traditions in other cultures in which setting oneself on fire is seen as a legitimate political strategy, yet in the Western world it more commonly interpreted as a state of extreme hysterical derangement linked with too much of what I am calling ‘right depression’.

The sad truth is that it is this essentially healthy mental state of ‘right depression’ which most of the commercial palliatives and psychological pain-killers are designed to relieve: drugs, tobacco, alcohol, mindless entertainment, promiscuity and so on. Perhaps we need a new word altogether, to cover the various shades of meaning contained in the word “depression”.

One could, of course, turn logic on its head, and define depression as the emotional state relieved by serotonin uptake !

(vi) Psychoanalysis

Not all current theories of the mind are reductionist, that is to say, ones which reduce thinking and feeling to chemistry and physics. There exists a theory of emotional states, based, so it claims, on observation, but really more on literature, which continues to exercise great influence in medicine, human relations, fiction, theoretical psychology and education. We refer to Freud's psychoanalysis and its many associated confessions. To many people it continues to function as the paradigm of a scientific theory of the origin of neuroses, that is to say the emotional pathologies now given the ridiculous appellation of ‘dysfunctions’.

The persistence of an idea over a long period of time is wrongly interpreted by the popular mind as sufficient evidence of its credibility. Despite 500 years of attacks on the account in Genesis of the creation of the world, millions still believe in its literal truth. Stalinism reigned over much of the world from 1922 to 1991 and is still going strong in North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and China. The appeal of Astrology has not diminished since its invention in Babylonia 5000 years ago.

Psychoanalysis has long outlived its lack of credibility. Numerous exposes have demonstrated that it lacks any foundation in scientific method, observation, experiment or therapeutic effectiveness (Fisher and Greenberg; Dawes; Crews; Masson and others ). Yet its presumption of authority, though considerably tarnished, continues to emanate its aura of confusion. As an ideology it is more a religion than a science.

Psychoanalysis exists in both popular and professional brands. At a certain moment in history the popular version conquered Hollywood; it continues to infect the film industry. It has also spawned numerous pathologies of its own, most notoriously the False Memory Syndrome diagnosis. The continuing popular endorsement of the Freud/ Jung paradigm is in line with its ready adaptability to stereotypes, prejudices and superstitions, its arrant sexism, its ad hoc ‘systems’ of interpretation, and its gross fascination with unnatural sexual desires.

Yet less scientific evidence exists for the Oedipus Complex than for the divine nature of Christ, for which there is no evidence whatsoever. One is dealing with a delusional system, that is to say an ideology.

Ideologies may enshackle the minds of entire civilizations for centuries, even though there may have been no more corroborative evidence for them at their beginnings than in their fading away.

Still, ideologies have some positive benefits. The successful ones are often a brilliant synthesis of a wide range of philosophical and ethical thought. Our experience with Christianity, Islam, Communism, Psycho-Analysis and so on, show that they can, by means of an ingenious syncretism of incompatible belief systems, carry into the future the spirit of the age from which they originated. Unfortunately ideologies then proceed to petrify a thriving context of intellectual discourse into a sterile catechism of dogma, that is to say some reductive, over-simplified doctrine.

Christianity began as a magnificent synthesis of Hellenistic philosophy and Semitic religion in the period of the greatest flourishing of both. It combines Stoicism, Jewish monotheism, the fertility cults of the Ancient Near East, Platonism in the concept of the Trinity, neo-Platonism in magical rituals of purification, and the Persian/Hellenistic institution of a god-king.

This heavy burden of syncretism is leavened with charming metaphors and fables drawn from a 3000-year tradition of wisdom literature going back to ancient Sumer and Egypt.

Likewise, the synthesis of psychotherapy which goes under the name of "psychoanalysis" is a fascinating, if exotic redaction of all the components of the rich ferment of ideas in 19th century psychology: Mesmer's discovery of hypnosis; the study of reflexes; the evidences for an unconscious mind; the views of John Locke and others about the free association of ideas, and even the synthetic apriori of Immanuel Kant in its positing of the innate structure of id, ego and superego.
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