Expanded Reason Congress – Round Table: “Are we physically and psychologically determined?”

Paul Vitz. Senior Scholar, Professor, Institute of Psychological Sciences, Divine Mercy University and winner of the 4th Edition of the Expanded Reason Awards with Catholic Christian Meta-Model of the Person: Integration of Psychology and Mental Health Practice.

Therese Lysaught. Professor of Moral Theology and Healthcare at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Healthcare Leadership at the Stritch School of Medicine at Loyola University Chicago and winner (along with her colleagues) of the 5th edition of the Expanded Reason Awards with Biopolitics after neuroscience: morality and the economy of virtue.

The third round table of the Congress was dedicated to neuroscience and psychology. The question of the round table, on whether the human being is physically and psychologically determined, continues to raise great concerns, as pointed out by UFV professor Tasio Pérez, a psychologist and expert in couple therapy and affective-sex education, who moderated the table. “It is a question that is related to the view that is adopted towards the person and the discovery of his or her potential,” he added.

To answer this question, Paul Vitz presented his metamodel in which he defends free will from three positions. Firstly, he spoke of the famous case that became known more than a century ago in the USA when a young deaf-mute girl, Helen Keller, considered by her family to be an animal, was referred to a specialist in Boston who taught her science and other skills. At first, they communicated with signs and physical contact, in the form of patterns representing letters: objects were connected with the patterns of the opposite hand to each brain hemisphere and each was related to a code (analog and digital). One day it happened that he was able to transcend the concept of the water he had in one hand and realized that the pattern was the name of it. That was how he understood that he could name things and began to know the names of his family. He was impressed by the way life could be discovered, for the first time he felt guilt and for the first time he knew there was a tomorrow. “He experienced consciousness at the moment when free will began,” Vitz argued.

Secondly, he has exposed how psychology discovers virtues and in doing so moves from the deterministic model of human beings to a theological one, as they are able to choose a virtue to develop it. In this way, one stops seeing the problem as a pathology caused by the past to understand the solution as a free choice: the decision to go to therapy and choose a virtue to improve. Even as therapists they free their patients from the deterministic past by adopting this free will approach.

Thirdly, he has taught another way of understanding freedom because of the spiritual life it entails: an essence that allows choosing god and experiencing him as a choice. He also emphasized that a good determinist is a scandal for his duty of responsibility because, in his opinion, determinists do not behave consistently with their arguments.

On the other hand, Therese Lysaught has approached the deterministic question from the origin of the question, i.e., where does the idea that neuroscience is determined come from? She and her fellow researchers have studied that in the USA in 2009 there were more and more often public conversations about the claim that the poor were poor not because they had no money, but because they had vices, that is, because they had no virtues, and the counterargument was to attribute poverty to social structures. In any case, there was a relationship between economy and virtue and if there was prosperity it was because of being virtuous, as if virtue could be a prize.

A second part of that public conversation was related to biology. People who lived in poor areas had higher levels of a hormone called cortisol because they had experienced more episodes of violence or traumatic events. They wanted to explore whether it was true that poverty had an effect on the mind and whether it influenced the ability to be virtuous. In 2010, the University of Chicago offered them a grant to study the science of virtues and they embarked on the morality of neuroscience. They found a very significant biological reductionism, and that is that most books argued that the moral or ethical brain was a certain way, so there was an assumption of determination to which neuroscience provided an answer, however, the object was not clearly defined. In addition, they discovered that in the negative part of psychology the word vice was not wanted to be used because of its religious baggage, but in both cases, vice or virtue, the tendency was to develop some clinical powers, especially, in relation to vices, as antisocial attitudes.

Finally, they were surprised that as research progressed, most studies, when looking for variables that were related to negative traits, focused on one variable in particular: socioeconomic status. Therein lay the presumption of correlation between vice and economics. Economic variables appeared in all population-based studies on wisdom as a reason for economic success. Thus, the neuroscience of morality that studied the brain to answer who the human being is, found that cultural anthropology was rooted in economics, mainly, in the most recent mutation of homo economicus, which is why free will and determinism have become so interesting.

ClaraMolineroClara Molinero, director of the degree in Psychology at the University Francisco de Vitoria, has corroborated the limitations of the deterministic proposal in her work for Expanded Reason. By studying reductionisms and investigating some psychological currents of the time, she has uncovered the anthropological and epistemological foundations to bring to the classroom, as well as the Pelagianism that leaves out variables that are essential for the richness of the human being. Therefore, it has opened a new anthropological avenue of research that gives space to spirituality and other topics of discussion: where the good remains, what place does health occupy in emotional well-being, what is data, the gain or loss of the operability of a variable, the purpose pursued when entering the work environment, etc. “The evidence of the physical sheds light on all the faculties of the human being, but the dialogue with empirical data enriches the interpretations,” he noted. He even brought some conclusions about a recent study on the virtue of magnanimity, translated into the manifestation of forgiveness and taken to the intervention in therapy.

In the debate, after the exposition of the different points of view to the initial question, it was asked to what extent psychotherapy is to educate in freedom towards virtues, once the wounds and the patient’s history, so determined, have been ascertained. Paul Vitz has stated that the fact of choosing therapy is already using freedom to improve and that the patient, when he comes to the session, already has many strong points of character that only need to be strengthened. He once did a study on 21 people who shot up some schools in the USA (so-called school mass shooters) and found that none of them had an altruistic goal in their lives or any aspiration, which, in his opinion, implies the absence of a higher meaning.

At this point, Clara Molinero wanted to prevent virtue from becoming another determinism and therefore speaks of fullness, flourishing, integration of all areas of life, with a phenomenological approach in which reality is the one that manifests itself and only has to collect information with different registers.

On the other hand, Therese Lysaught stressed that when a patient comes for consultation the aim is to fit better into society, but she wondered why improve if society generates so many malformations. He recalled that since 1980 a neoliberal model has spread, which has a correlation with mental problems, above all, due to the communities that have disappeared and the biological model that has been established based on medication. In his opinion, the change in psychological practice moves away from the person-centered model and the solution would be to train “broken” people to work better in a “broken” system, that is, to teach psychologists to question the underlying anthropology in their professional practice so that human flourishing takes into account the social context.

P. Vitz has added that it is urgent to include the concept of the human soul in the framework of psychology in order to understand the whole person, since consciousness is qualitatively different from any other aspect. In fact, the implementation of the Catholic Christian metamodel at the University of Virginia did not imply that it was theological. Clara M. has expressed her hope that with this new approach, students will be awakened and uneasiness will be generated, at the very least, that it will give clues to the blank spaces that have been left unresolved throughout the history of psychology.

Apart from neuroscience of morality, Therese L., has explained that the project they have presented encompasses implications from all fields and the findings are relevant to any science. When they went back to the history of economics, social sciences and physics, they showed that any discipline harbors an implicit anthropology, beyond the parameters of the culture itself. For this reason, he encouraged the creation of open spaces that address questions indirectly related to each specific science.

In the question and answer session, more doubts were raised about the reductionism of current psychological intervention. According to Therese L., it is about eliminating the negative in society (with eugenics, medication, arrest), but what has been observed is that the economic theory that precedes neuroscientific morality has been the cause of the radical change of the rational and free person. Suddenly, capitalism became natural and the economic vision of the human being ceased to be free, so he wondered whether aid should be aimed at aligning with the human vision that fits neo-capitalism. At this point, she spoke of the bifurcated anthropology, which she develops in the book, throughout socioeconomic history: when it was argued that the poor were not free, controlled by their lust and laziness, identified as a burden; and when in the 20th century everyone ceased to be free.

Clara Molinero empathized with all those problems that do not seem to be overcome with effort and invited to discover what is inside the human being, since knowing is the first step to be free and serves as an engine for other developments. She confessed that in therapy she uses those two initial levers and then opens the mind to other resources that do not depend on herself, but on forces that converge beyond the will and the purpose of making the patient more skilled. “You have to give up predicting behavior and ask God to compensate,” she said.

Therese L. regretted that determinism looks to genes and neurons for a technological solution. He took the opportunity to tell the case of a colleague of his who lived for a long time in a community of homeless people and discovered that this “brokenness” was due to such strong blows from society that sometimes it was necessary to open up to institutions capable of sheltering such brokenness, such as the Church. In this regard, Tasio Perez added that in the relationship in the face of any determination one can also find the welcome of who one is and can become an engine of change.

For his part, Paul Vitz corroborated that the Christian message provides answers to many questions and remedies for many psychological illnesses, but some that seem incurable have led him to introduce a spiritual response, which is to carry the cross. “Psychology has limits, a psychological problem does not necessarily have a psychological answer, science must be more humble,” he said.

For her, the feeling of being unfinished and that knowledge can continue to grow is an incentive, as well as sharing concerns without having to defend particular psychological currents: “Setting out on the road and being accompanied by people who stimulate makes it possible to move forward.

Therese L. stressed that the teaching of virtues needs a model and the context needs to support psychologists to live them: “Virtues must flourish both in societies and in professionals”. Fr. Vitz, in turn, regretted that psychiatrists have had to be so poorly paid to resort to medication as a treatment and to accept bribes from some pharmaceutical companies.

When it is thought that decisions are determined by brain processes, Therese L. argued that the scope of the field of genetics is exaggerated: “One should be cautious before establishing certain relationships”.

P. Vitz recounted an analysis that was published a few years ago of a French bureaucrat who had only a thin layer of brain, but behaved normally: “There may be psychological problems from childhood, but the case of the man without a brain shows that they are not so determinant.” In addition, he emphasized a curious fact: memories and emotions can be stimulated, but there is no stimulation that causes existential crises, which shows that there is a level of consciousness that cannot be stimulated neurologically, and this qualitatively distinguishes consciousness from physiology. Therese L. contrasted epigenetics with the central dogma of zen-protein, i.e., that there are genes that, due to personal history, can manifest themselves in one way or another.

Finally, with regard to recent brain measurements preceding a decision and which have attempted to link freedom with brain activity, Therese L. introduced the question of the time in which a decision is made or the number of people involved to validate other variables in addition to the electrical signals. P. Vitz pointed out that in that prior neurodevelopment it is not clear whether there is more than one neurodevelopment when talking about two choice possibilities. For example, Therese L. would not speak of determinism when she loves her children, as she does not consider the body to be a passive vessel.

Finally, P. Vitz concluded by expressing that virtues are like an art, just thinking about them does not make them virtues: “You have to do homework for virtue to be practiced,” he joked.

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