The future of wellbeing

August 25, 2011 in General

An eternal debate rages daily around the world over right and wrong, in various situations and contexts, from the smallest transgression (perceived or otherwise), to the most heinous of injustices.

Who gets to decide what’s right or wrong? Who the goodies and baddies are?

Some conservatives, particularly religious ones, would have us turn to the laws of holy books, the same holy books that while advocating such things as “thou shalt not kill” and “love thy neighbour” also advocate for the murder of gay people, slavery and rape.

Some liberals engage in the copout of moral and cultural relativism: refusing to intervene in matters such as the burqa, for example, because they believe it is not our place to interfere in others’ cultural practices, even if they can be seen to be doing harm.

Author and neuroscientist Sam Harris has a third way, which he outlines in his new book “The Moral Landscape”. He believes that, increasingly, science will have a role to play in determining the answers to moral questions.

This work is as controversial as his previous two books – “The End Of Faith” and “Letter To A Chrisrtian Nation” – both assaults on the evils of organised religion.

But while those two books sought to wake up the world to the damage done historically and to the future of mankind by blind faith, “The Moral Landscape” seeks to move the battle lines between science and religion forward.

Harris rejects the view of the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion do not and should not overlap:

“The underlying claim is that while science is the best authority on the workings of the physical universe, religion is the best authority on meaning, values, morality, and the good life. I hope to persuade you that this is not only untrue, it could not possibly be true.”

What does all this have to do with our mental health? Harris argues that all our questions about morals, ethics and life’s purpose come down to our wellbeing. The things we value, he believes, can be translated into facts that are capable of being understood scientifically:

“The most important of these facts are bound to transcend culture—just as facts about physical and mental health do. Cancer in the highlands of New Guinea is still cancer; cholera is still cholera; schizophrenia is still schizophrenia; and so, too, I will argue, compassion is still compassion, and well-being is still well-being.”

Does this mean a one-size-fits-all approach, in which culture and diversity becomes homogenised and lost? No:

“…if there are important cultural differences in how people flourish—if, for instance, there are incompatible but equivalent ways to raise happy, intelligent, and creative children—these differences are also facts that must depend upon the organization of the human brain.

“In principle, therefore, we can account for the ways in which culture defines us within the context of neuroscience and psychology. The more we understand ourselves at the level of the brain, the more we will see that there are right and wrong answers to questions of human values.”

Some may find the idea of placing such questions in the hands of science to be frightening, particularly those with experience of mental illness that have suffered under the system, and mistrust medicine.

But I think we should be equally frightened by the alternative: leaving questions about right and wrong in the hands of religiously-motivated moralists, who in a rally held at Government House in Australia recently and attended by several MPs, spent a whole day decrying the “evil” of same-sex marriage and demonising Australia’s gay citizens.

This hate comes not from evidence, but in beliefs gleaned from the ancient scribblings of a time in our history when we still thought the earth was flat.

We should also beware of hand-wringing liberals, who with their commitment to relativism are happy to drink riesling and fiddle while Rome burns around them, terrified to criticise lest they offend.

The brain is the last undiscovered country of the human body, and there is much for us still to understand. While psychiatry has made mistakes in the past, it is at its heart dedicated to the scientific method – discovering truth.

Knowledge evolves with understanding. The beliefs espoused above do not evolve – they stay rigid and fixed, until they’re discarded into the dustbin of history where they should remain forever.

Wellbeing, like recovery, is a journey, and on journeys we make discoveries that change us and (hopefully) the world around us for the better.

I’m really excited about the possibilities ahead.

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