Peter Spinogatti Says Psychology is More Like Math Than Science, and that Unhappiness is a Self-Referential Paradox

Self-help gurus would probably counter that I’m just afraid of self-improvement, but I find myself very skeptical of the entire movement. New-age mystics and self-proclaimed experts all claim to have the secret recipe for happiness. Whether arguing that reciting affirmations will realign the universe to do your bidding, or providing folksy insight that you’ve already heard from your grandparents, the majority of these books don’t have much to offer.

With that in mind, it shouldn’t be surprising that I was immediately skeptical of Peter Spinogatti when he contacted me for an interview. The marketing surrounding his book, Explaining Unhappiness: Dissolving the Paradox, didn’t get me riled up either. It wasn’t until I exchanged a few words with him that I realized we could have a very interesting conversation.

When it comes to psychology, Peter is skeptical of the scientific method. This simple fact caused me to put my guard up. After spending some time talking with him, however, I found myself realizing that I had always been skeptical about whether or not psychologists can really call what they do science. Instead, Peter argues that psychology is more like math. It’s about definitions, not causes.

That’s when he had me.

The Interview

Thanks for talking to me, Peter.

So your book, Explaining Unhappiness, is pretty ambitious. You claim to offer the solution that is at the heart of every psychological problem: unhappiness. I have to say, I do have some philosophical differences with your approach, but I found myself agreeing with many of your conclusions. Before we get into that, I’d like to hear what inspired you to write this book.

In the last ten or fifteen years several thousand books have been written on the subject of happiness. None that I am aware of deal explicitly with the subject of unhappiness, the very problem that these books are designed to remediate. That is like prescribing a medicine for an ailment that hasn’t been sufficiently diagnosed. Moreover, whereas an ailment befalls us, unhappiness, as my book tries to demonstrate, is self-imposed and is therefore not something to be treated. Unhappiness might be compared to the act of holding one’s breath. Books on happiness, in effect, are tying to teach you how to breathe. But since holding one’s breath already implies you know how to do that, the right question ought to be, “Why are you are holding your breath?”

The second, more important reason is that after talking to troubled souls for many years it occurred to me that irrespective of the presenting complaint, the complaints had the look of sameness about them – very much like the observation that Dr. Hans Selye made when he observed the sameness of sick people which he called at that time “the syndrome of being sick.” Later research produced his theory – the General Adaptation Syndrome. The instigating question that prompted the writing of this book was: “Is there a psychological common denominator, a sine qua non without which a psychological problem could not exist?” I discovered that there was.

Yes you did. Regardless of some of the philosophical differences we have, I have to say your book was a refreshing change of pace from the archetypal “self-help” book. You didn’t appeal to new-age mysticism, didn’t tell me I needed to start reciting affirmations, and you didn’t seem to have any kind of political agenda. While it wasn’t a scientific approach, your relentless logic reminded me of the sort of thinkers that emerged during the enlightenment.

So let’s discuss this “psychological common denominator,” you talk about. One thing that I cautiously admire you for is your willingness to speak in absolutes. I have a natural skepticism toward absolute statements, but you use them quite often. You start the book off by claiming that unhappiness is the only psychological problem. I have some reservations, which you naturally anticipated and addressed. The immediate counterexample that came to my mind is the sociopath, who apparently is willing to harm others without feeling remorse. You counter that sociopaths often complain of feeling empty, and that they are afraid others will discover their imperfections. This is a good point, but I still have my doubts that this is true in every single case. I’d like to know why you feel comfortable making this absolute statement.

I presume that any treatise is motivated by what a writer believes is an original and useful idea aimed at solving a problem. It struck me that there was no subject of greater importance than that of unhappiness. And at the risk of appearing grandiose, I believed I could write a definitive disquisition on that subject. But in order to do that, I had to begin with a premise that was unassailable because any system of thought is only as sound as its starting premise. If I couldn’t be certain of my starting assumption, there would be no point in writing a book. The assumption is: “When anyone says that they are unhappy, they are always saying that they are feeling bad and that is impossible to feel bad and not know it.” We are hard-wired to know this is true.

I, like you, looked for instantial disconfirmations for my premise and I found none. The following is my attempt to disabuse you of any that you may have found.

As to the sociopathic question – as one psychiatrist adroitly put it “They walk among us but they are not one of us.” Sociopaths are perpetual outsiders. They do not feel bad when they kill for sex, money or power because it pleases him to get what he wants. But is it possible for someone who lacks empathy to be at peace with themselves? Has anyone ever encountered such a creature in person or in psychiatric literature. Isn’t it always true that their need to dominate implies that they fear being dominated themselves? Could one exist without the other? Is it possible for a human being to be happy if he is incapable of being kind? Wouldn’t a happy sociopath qualify as an oxymoron?

As to the question of unhappiness being the only psychological problem, I fully appreciate your aversion to absolutes, but in this case I don’t see how we can avoid it. To begin with, there is nothing real or imagined, nothing in the past, present or future, nothing we can possess or not possess that a human being cannot get unhappy about. What else could be said about that? As to the experience itself, it is impossible to claim to be unhappy and not mean that you are feeling bad.

Further refined, this means that you’re feeling in a way that you don’t want to feel if that were possible. It is also impossible to feel bad and not know it. On the analogy that an un-felt pain would be a perversion of language and experience, the same is true of unhappiness. Even if someone claimed that they didn’t know whether they were unhappy or not, the follow-up question would be: “How do you feel about not knowing?” One never hears “good.” In any case the issue is easily resolved. If you could choose what you were feeling, would you choose what you are feeling? How could you not know?

In other words, your supporting argument for this absolute is definitional, an idea that you return to later on in the book. Starting with the assumption that a psychological problem can only be said to exist if the patient reports that they don’t like the way they feel, you are forced to conclude that unhappiness, as you define it, is the only psychological problem. I’m not sure if I’m comfortable with the starting assumption, because of the possibility that other people could be harmed by somebody who is happy but out of touch with reality. I suppose you might counter by saying that this person has a mental problem, rather than a psychological one.

Psychotherapists are in the unhappiness business in the same way that physicians are in the disease business. Regardless of the presenting complaint, anyone who seeks psychotherapy, by implication, is unhappy, which is the equivalent of saying that they are feeling in a way that they don’t want to feel. So, “feeling in a way you don’t want to feel” is not a supporting argument. It is interchangeable with unhappiness, as is feeling bad. In the interest of parsimony – unhappiness, feeling bad, and unwanted feelings are synonymous.

As to the possibility of a happy person being out of touch with reality. Happiness is not a state of stupefied euphoria. A happy person, as the thesis of my book tries to make clear, is one who is completely self-accepting, one who is at peace with themselves. The oft-quoted Augustinian maxim “Love God and do as you please,” whether understood as a religious pronouncement or an allegorical account of one’s goodness, would make homicidal behavior impossible. That mind-set would preclude even the possibility of ever wanting to demean another human being.

The corollary of you can’t love others unless you love yourself is that you can’t hate others unless you hate yourself. Since happy people, by definition, do not hate themselves, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” ceases to be a prescriptive as to how people ought to behave. It is, rather, a descriptive of how people would behave.

The idea that people who accept themselves wouldn’t want to hurt others seems pretty solid. Presumably the motive for all destructive behavior is to make yourself feel better by making other people feel worse. Somebody who is already happy shouldn’t have any need to make themselves feel better than others.

I guess what I’ve been trying to get at with these questions is the possibility that a happy person could still hurt others, although only in an unintentional way. Miscommunication, bad reasoning, or manipulation by unhappy people could cause somebody who is happy to hurt somebody else. But I’m forced to admit that these aren’t psychological issues, they are cognitive ones.

Anyway. Throughout your book, you systematically disassemble the idea that unhappiness can be cured using the scientific method. Anybody who has spent some time reading the articles on this site should know by now that I am a strong advocate of empiricism. It may surprise some of them to know that I actually find myself agreeing with you, to a certain degree. I’ll add my thoughts, but I’d like you to summarize your position on this first.

I’ll start by responding to the notion of a cure, which presupposes a material problem resolved by material means. Trauma in medicine, for example, is defined as observable damage to tissue. Except for neurological diseases like Parkinsons and paresis, where cellular abnormalities can be confirmed by brain scans and treated medically, psychological trauma has no comparable observable damage to tissue. How does one treat or cure a disorder for which there is no discovered empirical basis?

Researchers of schizophrenia, undoubtedly the most serious of mental disorders, have yet to discover any observable damage in the brain that could be treated. If and when it does, it would then qualify as a bonafide disease and treated accordingly. Until then, when we speak of mental illness or use terms like psychological trauma, we are making a metaphysical leap of faith which, in effect, is only a stammering metaphorical attempt aimed at fleshing out the unobservable. The logic of materialism is quite seductive because they conclude that since all feelings occur in a physical body, there must be a physical cause. They assume the scientific method, as embodied within the hard empirical sciences like genetics and neurochemistry, will eventually cure what they believe is physical in nature.

Those of us who question the twin dogmas of materialism and reductionism as applicable to all phenomena do so, not only on methodological basis, but also on historical grounds. All attempts in the past at trying to cure mental problems by material means produced lamentable results. Hydrotherapy, the fever cure, induced insulin shock, the use of powerful emetics and laxatives, the removal of various bodily parts such as gonads, ovaries, colons, thyroids, unnecessary hysterectomies, and the tragic legacy of lobotomies were not only worthless, they violated the Hippocratic oath – “First do no harm.”

ECT and drugs are the last hold outs. ECT, if successful, lasts about four months. Psychopharmacological accomplishments are mixed, to say the least. It is a point of interest that the former editor–in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine recently stated unqualifiedly that psychotropic medications were “useless.”

Bertrand Russell said “Believing is the most mental thing we do.” I wholeheartedly agree and I would add that beliefs are also the irreducible core of everything we do and feel. That being the case, neuroscience will never be able tell us anything about unhappiness. Every neuroscientist knows that the brain’s massive interconnectiviy of neurons would make any attempt to locate a brain structure tied to a specific belief a non-starter. And since unhappiness is tied to the belief that there is something wrong with us, as I have tried to show, what could neuroscience add to the conversation?

There are so many things to respond to here. First off, I agree that the notion of psychological trauma is little more than a metaphor, and lacks the one-to-one nature of a scientifically useful analogy. Many people who undergo supposedly traumatic experiences go on to live perfectly normal lives. The notion that trauma has to stay with us forever is a relatively recent idea.

Here’s where I start to develop a philosophical difference with you, though. You draw a distinction between the mind and the brain. Are you arguing that the mind is somehow disembodied from the brain?

I am not arguing for a Cartesian mind-brain dualism, but you could make a rational case for it if you eschew the materialistic paradigm that requires all phenomena be reduced to its constituent material parts. As an aside, we don’t even know enough about matter to be able to do that. More important, this kind of entrenched reductionism has been rejected by some of the smartest scientists and philosophers of science in the twentieth century. This is especially true when dealing with the mind, consciousness if you will. Although it exists in a material brain, this does not necessarily mean that it can be reduced to neural mechanisms. Nor, for that matter, can it be understood as mere computational thinking, as most AI people claim. The rejection of this reductionist and algorithmic understanding of human consciousness inevitably leads to a holistic point of view.

Let me cite one important advocate of this. Roger Sperry, a Nobel laureate and neuroscientist, among others, claims that when a phenomenon reaches a certain point of complexity, a state of synergy exists where the whole is greater and different than the sum of its parts. Consciousness, unarguably the most complex phenomenon of all, qualifies because it is a non-linear, dynamic and unstable phenomenon whose causal explanation will never be understood in traditional material terms. He speaks of “downward causation,” which means that consciousness downwardly determines the fate of its component parts, not the other way around.

Finally, I know of no neuroscientist who claims that they are close to explaining consciousness, if ever, let alone locating the “self,” which has been conclusively demonstrated to have no spatio-temporal location in the brain. The same goes for self-consciousness and negative self-consciousness, which is my concern because that is what I maintain is the source of our unhappiness. Those who deny this subscribe to “eliminative materialism” which is an attempt to eliminate such meddlesome “mental entities” like the self and beliefs about the self – a point of view that Karl Popper, a dominant figure in the philosophy of science, disparagingly characterized as “promissory materialism.”

All interesting stuff to think about, Peter. You might have noticed my recent blog post about emergence and complex adaptive systems. I think it’s worth pointing out that emergent systems are not disconnected from the individual parts that make them up. Emergence can be modeled on a computer, for example, which means that it is still assumed to be a deterministic system.

The point is that, like you said, it is highly non-linear and unpredictable, where even the smallest change in starting conditions will lead to dramatically different results. It also allows for “downward causation,” as you said, where the emergent behavior can effect the behavior of the individual parts.

At the same time, I think it is important to point out that it’s not only downward causation. The parts affect the whole, the whole affects the parts, each is influenced by the environment, and each influences the environment. That is the nature of any complex adaptive system, which is what I believe the mind is.

Whether or not we share the same understanding of emergence, I believe we reach a similar conclusion. While breakthroughs in the science of the mind will almost certainly be made, there is a good chance that it will never be possible, in any practical sense, to predict with precision the beliefs that any given person will choose to hold. As you mention in the book, there is also the possibility that the mind could be a quantum system, which would make this impossible even in principle.

In any case, if the mind is truly an emergent system, this means that it has properties different from the parts it is made from. We are therefore free to discuss the mind using the language of the mind, rather than the language of the biology, chemistry, and physics that power the brain. So tell me about the realization you had regarding the world of the mind, and how you approached it without appealing to any material cause.

My understanding of emergent systems is not that they are disconnected from their individual parts but rather they supersede them. I am not conversant with emergence and computer modeling so I can’t comment. My concern is strictly psychological and although you and I enjoy theorizing, at the end of the day, I am a single-minded pragmatist. Unless our discourse leads to eliminating unhappiness, theorizing for me will only have ancillary appeal. As you might suspect, my whole approach to unhappiness is existential. And one cannot claim to be an existentialist where choice and free will are not center stage. So when you speak of determinism in any context, that gets my attention because determined behavior would undermine the thesis of my book.

I have a smattering knowledge of compatibilism which, as you probably know, tries to reconcile determinism and free will. I found none of the theories compelling. Let me propose my compatiblist theory where determinism and free will can be reconciled. As an existentialist, I affirm that we are absolutely free to believe anything we want. Dostoevsky, in his Notes From the Underground, noted that no one can prevent anyone from freely choosing to believe anything, including that 2+2= 5. However, I would point out there is one ineluctable constraint. All our choices are determined by our inability to choose what we do not believe is in our best interest.

When faced with two alternatives, no one has ever chosen what they believed was the worst of two options. Whether it is Aristotle who said that “all knowledge and every pursuit seeks the good,” or Abraham Maslow 2500 years later declaring that “neurosis is therapy” and numerous others throughout history making equivalent observations, all were pointing out that it is impossible to hold a belief or engage in a behavior for which there is no redeeming value. That includes unhappiness and suicide.

As to your last question – appealing to the mind without recourse to a material cause. When science studies inanimate or non-human phenomena, the search for cause focuses on initial conditions. I have no argument there although one could make a cogent case for information, not matter, being the irreducible.

In any case, I believe that empiricists overreach. In order to maintain their scientific persona, they also insist on using the same methodological approach when studying people – the pitchfork, as it were, as opposed to the carrot. They tend to ignore the teleological meaning of cause, which invokes the notion of purpose, because it smacks of our pre-scientific past. They seem to ignore Wittgenstein’s apt pronouncement “The most fundamental fact about us is that we have interests and purposes.” Denying the centrality of purpose in human affairs and focusing on initial conditions is why our progress in the human sciences, when compared to that of the hard sciences, has been negligible.

In order to underscore the primacy of belief and the fundamental irrelevancy of any alleged mental causes of neurochemistry and genetics, I concocted the following narrative:

You are about to leave your doctor’s office having just taken an x-ray. Your doctor stops you and informs you that another x-ray is required. While waiting for the results, you become anxious because you believe that something serious might be afoot. Moments later the doctor returns and reassures you that everything is normal. Within seconds, feelings of anxiety morph into total calm. By simply changing what you were believing, your unhappiness ends. What advances in the hard sciences could ever alter our ability to do that? Is there anything that life could throw at us, where what one believes may not matter? Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychiatrist and survivor of Auschwitz said, “The last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitudes in a given situation.” He was right.

This is some very interesting territory we’ve just stumbled into. To start with, I don’t quite agree with emergent systems superseding the parts they are made from. I would agree that a new set of rules is created, but the new set of rules doesn’t replace the old set of rules. It simply coincides with them.

Whether or not matter or information is the irreducible is a very interesting question. I think the two are inexorably linked with one another, and I’m not sure whether you can have one without the other.

Like you, I don’t believe we live in a classically deterministic universe. Quantum mechanics demonstrates that the universe is fundamentally unpredictable. Of course, that doesn’t answer the question of free will. In fact, the concept of free will is scientifically meaningless. Scientifically speaking, phenomena are predictable, random, or somewhere in between. If the mind harnesses the unpredictable nature of quantum mechanics, we could only say that our actions are partially “determined” by randomness, not that we are “free.”

Philosophically speaking, I like the concept of free will. I don’t like believing that my actions are “controlled” by outside forces. At the same time, I have no idea how to satisfactorily define free will. I’ll tell you one thing. Even if we lived in a completely material, completely deterministic universe, I still think I could justify believing that my decisions were my own.

As for your approach, I think it makes perfect sense. Even if it is possible, in principle, to predict the behavior of the human mind, there’s a good chance it would require knowing the quantum state of every subatomic particle that could possibly interact with your brain within a given time-frame. The only way to adjust the behavior would be to selectively adjust every single particle in that system. Furthermore, any technology that were capable of doing such a thing would be even more complex than the human mind, and could be put to much better use.

As a treatment for unhappiness, obviously that is completely useless. Isolating a belief as the cause for a behavior is much easier, and it can be done with little more than a pen and paper, or less if you like. Knowing exactly where that belief came from isn’t really the point, since you can’t go back and adjust the possibly infinite number of factors that helped produce that belief. All that matters is addressing the belief. And, as you point out, we don’t choose to hold any belief unless we think there is something redeeming about it.

This brings us to one of the ideas in your book that I found very interesting. This is the idea that pain, suffering, anger, depression, or any other negative sensation or emotion is really self-inflicted. You argue that what we typically think of as pain or fear can also be interpreted as pleasure or excitement, for example.

The etymological origin of pain in both the Greek and Latin is punishment. This suggests that since our early beginnings pain, albeit subconsciously, has been usually associated with being punished. How else might we explain why we so often hear people declare, “Why me?” Anyone who felt otherwise would instantly know that they were not being singled out for some special punishment and would answer, “Why anybody?”

I am not suggesting that pain exists in a neurophysiological vacuum, that there aren’t actual physical sensations. However, how we experience pain is dependent, like all internal and external events, on how the percipient views himself. The ascetic and the masochist sees pain as desirable for their respective reasons. Wouldn’t their experience of pain be both exciting and pleasurable?” How does hypnosis create analgesia if not for the existence of one’s point of view?

So what you’re getting at here is that we are in control of how we interpret any sensation in our body. You go on to talk about how this applies to emotions.

Biological observables such as the stress response can be associated with a wide range of emotional states, even though physiologically they are all essentially the same thing: a rush of adrenaline. These emotional states can be either positive or negative, depending on the beliefs of the person feeling the emotions. You argue that there is no observable way of determining a person’s emotional state.

Right. The short version of The General Adaptation Syndrome is that it doesn’t matter whether you are experiencing a dentist’s drill or an orgasm, the stress reaction is a non-specific stereotyped response. Carter, as a fellow lover of empiricism (and its limitations), this discovery was arrived at by highly objective quantitative biochemical determinations. In other words, this discovery, other than informing us of “the intensity of the demand for readjustment and adaptation, ” tells us nothing. There is no observable way of determining one’s emotional state by observing one’s physiological state.

I might also mention the countless experiments that have failed trying to create an emotional state by injecting subjects with adrenaline, which is known to raise pulses, flush faces, accelerate heart beats, and so on. In the literature they are known as “cold emotions” which is to say they have all the physiological trappings of an emotion but none of the negative associations.

So the idea of getting in touch with our feelings is a misguided enterprise. Feelings neither start the emotional process nor explain anything about our emotions. A “gut reaction” is a fallacy. Visceral responses are not separate from what we do in our head. They are interpretations made in our head and the internal and external events of the world are filtered through how we see ourselves. See my examples of jealousy, resentment, humiliation, and so on.

So what you are saying is that our mind tells our body when to prepare for action, but it tells itself why it needs to. I might disagree about the idea of a gut reaction being a fallacy. In my opinion, some reactions are clearly instinctual, and have little or nothing to do with the mind. But I would probably agree that these reactions are not emotional until the mind is involved.

And this brings us to the central question of your book, “What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t unhappy?” Given what we’ve talked about so far, why did you choose that particular question, and how do you answer it? Would you argue that the answer to this question can cure unhappiness?

So far, this question has never failed to resonate when asked. If it were rejected, I don’t see it as possible for anyone to ever stop being unhappy. Why? What is there about this question that we intuitively know is on target? For a question that gets our attention we must intuitively recognize the assumptions contained with it are valid. What are those assumptions?
Here I quote from the introduction of my book:

“What are you afraid would happen if you weren’t unhappy?”

First, we’re suggesting that it is possible not to be unhappy regardless of the present circumstances in which we find ourselves, that unhappiness doesn’t just happen, but that it may be self-imposed. Further, this chosen state may have less to do with what is happening in the present and more to do with warding off a fearfully anticipated future. Finally, we must also believe that, somehow, unhappiness pays off . We are forced to conclude, then, that we value unhappiness, which qualifies as the apogee of human contradiction. It would mean that people who seek help actually value what they hate. They are souls in pain hitting their heads against the wall in their therapists’ offices, perversely ignorant that they are choosing to do so, and asking their therapists to treat their headache.

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