Voice of Sanity – April 2014


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April, 2014

The Voice of Sanity

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Second Saturday Brunch, April 12th, 10:00AM to 12:00 noon, at Denny’s restaurant, 2521 Wade Hampton Blvd.
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It is possible to see, hear, smell, taste, or feel something that isn’t there and be crazy, not be crazy, or just accept religious dogma.
 Let’s start with “not crazy” and take a look at hypnagogic hallucinations. These are the most common and are experienced by an astonishing fifty percent of the human population. Many readers may see patterns and geometric shapes some brilliantly colored, just before they fall asleep. Other readers may hear soft babble from a radio or TV in another room before dozing off but get up to find that everything has been shut down. Philosophers as early as Aristotle have written about these illusions and many creative people have taken advantage of them. It is said that Edgar Allen Poe would jerk himself awake purposely so he could make notes on what he saw, insisting that nothing he could experience while awake was as fantastic. Of course Poe had other avenues including opium to achieve the same or better effects.
Other types of hallucination indicate something is wrong and although it usually is a malfunction of the brain, it is not necessarily a malfunction of rationality. In some cases the brain struggles to react to physical damage. “Phantom limbs”, the pain suffered by amputees from their now missing limbs, is a familiar example. Sometimes those who are losing or have lost their sight have Charles Bonnet syndrome. With this condition they see non-existent beings or objects when the brain supplies “missing” information the damaged part of the retina no longer registers. Although this type of illusion has been considered rare since Bonnet described it in the 18th century, it has been more commonly observed in nursing homes since the 1990s.
A list of diseases and physical conditions associated with hallucinations are epilepsy, Parkinson’s, blindness, migraine, post-traumatic-stress disorder, narcolepsy, ergot poisoning, and high fever. Drugs associated with hallucinations are cocaine, heroin, LSD, mescaline, marijuana, and alcohol. Common characteristics of hallucinations are angels, demons, fairies, ghosts, doppelgangers, floating, flying, sudden loud noise, voices, changes in size, and last but not least, the voice or appearance of God.
To be sure, hallucinations can be caused by drug withdrawal as well as ingestion. Delirium tremens is one of these.  Evelyn Waugh provides a graphic account of it in his autobiographic novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. The main character is not only alcoholic but habitually adds a potent sleeping draft to his drink before retiring. Unfortunately, he runs out of the chloral hydrate during his ocean voyage to India. Waugh then puts him through a series of auditory hallucinations starting with music and progressing through sounds of a severe beating, to the crash of a huge pile of metal falling overboard. Meanwhile, everything visual remains perfectly normal. Pinfold’s aural hallucinations eventually make him delusional when voices convince him to kill himself.
Above, Waugh has not only described the effects of drug withdrawal, but the difference between hallucination and delusion, as well. This is also the point in this article where we leave the not-crazy and progress to the crazy. We can overcome malfunctions of sensory areas in the brain with rational control when we have hypnagogic hallucinations. Visions and sounds just before sleep are easy to discredit as real. The visual anomalies brought on by migraine, narcolepsy, and Parkinson’s can be convincingly explained to an individual after the fact. Those who take a drug desiring precisely such an effect probably should understand afterward what happened. . The problem arises when we fail to discount hallucinations as unreal and devise explanations for their existence outside the realm of empirical proof. This is where mental disease enters the picture and most of us are familiar with the generalities of it. Beyond this, though, we should look closer at the definitions of hallucination and delusion and their relationship to religious experience.                                                                                            
On the internet the first definition for hallucination is: “a sensory experience of something that does not exist outside the mind, caused by various physical and mental disorders, or by reaction to certain toxic substances, and usually manifested as visual or auditory images”; a good definition even though it doesn’t cover the hypnagogic hallucinations of the mentally healthy.
The internet definition for delusion is: “a belief held with strong conviction despite superior evidence to the contrary”; and goes on to say “As a pathology, it is distinct from a belief based on false or incomplete information, confabulation, dogma, illusion, or other effects of perception.
Let’s look at the four exceptions above to parse the difference between sane, mentally ill, and religious. The first, incomplete information, is understandable for supporting a delusional idea. Only a few people still believe the earth is flat, although many of them held this as truth long ago. Second, confabulation, is entirely possible if a person incorrectly describes an event and really believes what he thought he saw. We can place sightings of UFOs and Bigfoot in this category. Third, illusions such as mirages are usually explained scientifically and easily after a little reflection.
The fourth, dogma is defined as a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true. Unlike the first three, which can be reconciled with more accurate information, dogma is workable for as long as the authority says it is. An example is the authority of the Catholic Church declaring Joan of Arc’s angels and Bernadette’s vision of the Virgin Mary at Lourdes as real, or, in 2013 the Bishop of Pavia, Italy officially stating that the 69th miracle cure had taken place in Lourdes. Although the Catholic Church is a handy source for visions of angels, demons, and manifestations of God, nearly all of traditional religion is peppered with similar representations.
To review, the four exceptional hallucinations listed above are bases for delusions in ordinary people. They are not necessarily pathological, but nevertheless are sensory experiences that do not exist outside the mind. Delusions result from them when explanations are invented which are not based on any factual information, and are clung to despite physical proof to the contrary.
There was a time in the past when we could explain our hallucinations as ghosts, supernatural beings, psychic visions, and voices of God. Historically, this was acceptable because there was no adequate scientific explanation for any of them. People popularly attended séances and consulted mediums well up to the end of the 19th century. During the 20th century, however, progress was made into scientific understanding of how the brain processes sensory input. The advent of the fMRI has enabled us to see the areas that are active during this process. So, it is no longer acceptable to suggest a hallucination is anything beyond a mistake in mental processing, whether healthy or pathological. If a person believes something more, it is the result of his cultural, social, and religious upbringing and entirely subjective.                                           JB                                                                                  
Note: Much of the above came from Oliver Sacks book Hallucinations; 2012; Random House, an excellent read.
Other sources:
                                         DEATH AND DYING AS VIEWED BY A SECULAR HUMANIST    
                                                                      By Richard G. Dumont, Ph.D.                                                                                                                     
 If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do things worth writing about.  Benjamin Franklin                                                                                                                                                                                     I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens. Woody Allen
The hypothesis that humans are alone in the animal kingdom in having an awareness of their own mortality has yet to be disproved. Such awareness can be both a blessing and a curse: a blessing in the sense that it can influence the ways in which we choose to live our lives for the betterment of ourselves as individuals as well as for our fellow humans; but a curse in that, regardless of what we wish or do, life’s finality is inevitable and inescapable. As I have expressed previously, with tongue-in-cheek, “No one has ever died and lived to tell about it.”
Among the numerous occurrences and phenomena that have been attributed to humankind’s awareness of personal mortality, religion must be counted among the most universal and dysfunctional: First, and most importantly, has been its tendency to encourage the “in group vs. out group” syndrome, with its accompanying baggage of prejudice and discrimination, a dastardly dynamic duo that can lead to genocide. Second, it has allowed countless opportunists, known variously as priests, ministers, rabbis, or imams, to assert power (authority) over followers, by claiming special abilities to communicate with or influence the god or gods of their congregations. Such authority has been used to extract taxes (think tithing) or to exploit congregants in other ways (think pedophile priests). Third, through numerous prohibitions and proscriptions, it has robbed many of opportunities to live happy lives enjoying the realization of physical and emotional pleasures and satisfactions. Fourth and finally, it has stifled creativity based upon fears that certain expressions of art, music, poetry or literature might be offensive to particular entities in the spirit world. Yes, I know that religion has also inspired artistic and creative expression, and I agree with the adage that the best thing to come out of religion has been the music.
Holy arias notwithstanding, religion and the practice thereof have, on balance, been pernicious in their effects upon humankind. But, again, to give religion its proper due, it has functioned relatively effectively as an important mechanism of social control in many and probably most societies. Let’s face it, not all individuals, or probably even small majorities, are capable of or willing to undergo the rigorous processes of thought and analyses necessary for the development of coherent, comprehensive and compelling secular humanist philosophies and worldviews.
Among the frequently-cited functions of religion is its provision of solace in the face of the recognition of personal mortality, by providing answers to the ever-present questions of “Why?” and “What next?” “Why must I die?” “What happens to me after I die?” Recognizing the absolute profundity of these questions for most of humankind, it becomes evident why power might readily accrue to those able to provide plausible and persuasive answers.
Even the most skeptical among us must admit that the formulation of the post-mortem alternatives of “Heaven” and “Hell” was an act of absolute creative genius. Among the world’s major religions, Judaism remains unique in not latching on to this veritable gold mine of social control and potential accumulation of wealth and power. Ever-ready to exploit carpe diem opportunities, the Catholic Church conjured up “Purgatory,” a stop on the road to Heaven, for those souls not yet quite pure enough to reside in the presence of the almighty. Since the Church made certain that virtually all of its congregants became aware of their roles as sinners, it thereby created a market for those willing and eager to purchase “indulgences” that could be used to buy one’s way out of Purgatory and into Heaven. What a clever racket!
In the interest of full personal disclosure, I must confess that I was raised in the Catholic tradition. For a period of time in my childhood, I even served as an altar boy and briefly contemplated entering the priesthood or becoming a “Brother of Christian Instruction.” By my early teen years, these yearnings gave way to growing doubts, prompted largely by the hypocrisy I observed in the daily lives of practicing Catholics that I knew. It is likely that increasing levels of testosterone and interest in girls proved to be equally important motivators. Gradually, my questioning gave way to agnosticism and over many additional years to atheism. My belief, or lack thereof, is not a blind one; it is based, rather, on the reality that I have yet to find any evidence for the existence of a god. Reason and science appear to provide persuasive and verifiable bases for the description and explanation of a wide variety of observable natural and social phenomena, including religion itself.
It is likely that the most reasonable and scientific, hence secular humanist, definition of death is contained in the “Uniform Determination of Death Act,” prepared as a joint effort involving the National Conference of Commissioners of Uniform State Law, the American Medical Association and the American Bar Association, approved October 19,1980 and February 10, 1981. Its major provisions read as follows: “An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead. A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.” To a layperson, such as myself, this definition seems straightforward and unambiguous, but I’m certain that countless physicians have struggled mightily in particular instances of its application.
For many religions, the definition explicated above is apparently insufficiently unambiguous. Far more useful, for their pecuniary purposes especially, are characterizations of death as either punishment for sinning and/or as a gateway to the afterlife (Heaven, Hell or Purgatory).
As a potentially promising alternative and challenge to the above, the human imagination can be a useful instrument. Eschewing both the threat of punishment and the promise of an afterlife, I personally take great pleasure and pride in being able to imagine an immense span of time between the Big Bang and my birth at 5:30 a.m. on a summer day in 1940. Similarly, I can readily project to and beyond the not-too-distant future, when there is no more me and a lot more time for humankind, depending upon its ability to avert nuclear annihilation and climate change catastrophe. I am trying very hard to be optimistic here, but history is proving to be an irresistible reality check.
Having determined that death is both inevitable and, thus, non-problematic, let’s turn our attention to the more multifaceted and more challenging topic of dying. Let’s face it, thinking about and doing dying can be scary stuff. Think lynching, falling off a tall building, burning by fire, drowning, starving, being stabbed by knife or sword, or being shot by a firing squad. None of them are pretty, nor are they preferred. Neither are the ten leading causes of death in the United States particularly appealing. In rank order, they are:  Heart disease, Cancer, Chronic lower respiratory disease, Stroke, Accidents, Alzheimer’s disease, Diabetes, Kidney disease, Influenza and pneumonia, and Suicide.

When asked how they would prefer to die, most people answer “at night, while I am asleep.” Of course, there are always the warriors who would choose to die while fighting for cause or country, but they are the exceptions. If most of us prefer to die “at night, while I am asleep,” does that not render all other ways of dying as un- or at least less desirable, maybe even unacceptable and to be avoided, if possible? The answer is obvious and eminently rational. This is one reason why I take a lot of naps.

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