Definitions of insanity and mental illness and the impossibility of temporary insanity

© 2002 Graham Little

Note: this discussion is not intended as a stand-alone paper, and must be read in conjunction with and as derived from the other papers in the series.

Causal necessity in human conduct
Theoretical structure arising from previous papers
These distinctions predictable from epistemological considerations alone
The problem of causal identification
Depression as an affliction of the spirit
The impossibility of temporary insanity

There remain many social and legal issues surrounding the problem of the definition of mental illness and of insanity. For instance legal definitions of psychologist and psychiatrist, issues of temporary insanity in serious crimes, and the social impact of poor and inadequate conceptions of these issues on humanity itself, especially when as I have shown, ideas themselves shape behaviors, therefore how we think and see and conceptualize mental illness and insanity will in itself shape how we act toward it and how it is lived out in our societies. We remain a species with great potential to live out our own conceptions, to create and develop self-fulfilling prophecies; therefore we need become more conscious of those conceptions and strive to build the best set possible.

In large part it is the role of the philosopher to explore and challenge our conceptions. Philosophy not as a ‘subject’ taught, not focused on what some long dead person said, or some sterile aspect of artificial logic. To teach Plato as if relevant today is to denigrate the man and his efforts in his time.

Philosophy as a process of now, of exploring the living thought of the day, the assumptions and convolutions in that thought, the consequences obvious and implicit and subtle, to bring these forth, and where able to propose alternatives, but always to make the implicit and unclear, clear and precise, offering all the opportunity to then decide. It is not for the philosopher to decide, but to make clear so that people make informed choices: philosophy as a process for achieving clarity and greater understanding today, this as I see the role of the ‘living philosopher’1. Humankind’s only route to salvation is to pause reflect, and make choices whereby we strive to be better than we are. I can only hope that in some small way what I do helps others make clearer what those choices might be.

Causal necessity in human conduct

Causal necessity is a long-standing problem in psychology and philosophy of social science generally. On the one hand, if ideas do influence behavior, how then do ideas - metaphysical objects - result in the movement or change of neurons or limbs etc, - physical objects? On the other hand, if ideas do not influence behavior, then humankind is determined by physical things, like physics and chemistry, then wherein lies free will? Until the ideas at this site there was no satisfactory resolution to this conflict.

The analysis of the issues and their resolution lies in the preceding papers. Comments made here are in relation to ideas and theories of psychology and of knowledge in the earlier papers, and this work cannot be read in isolation from those earlier works.

The theory here is that ideas do in fact shape and result in behavior, but that only physical objects can and do move physical objects. It is a theory of consciousness I call the ‘scratch pad theory of consciousness’. We are able to create and see ideas, we can test them in situations and see if they work, we can test them in our mind first: on the scratch pad. Then, if it works as an idea, we know how to act in a manner so the idea is lived out. This learning how to do things is the lengthy human childhood. Essentially we know the state we need achieve to move our left leg to the right just a little. It took a decade or more to refine and fully sharpen that skill. The ‘state’ is what happens inside, so that outside the leg moves. The scratch pad enables us to see the behaviors in sequence, our training and trial and error, as might be needed enables us to refine the states inside that achieve the result outside. A state inside equate to the set of neurons firing a certain way, it is physical things that move physical things.

Where does this leave causal necessity in human affairs?

First we need be precise on what we mean, by causal necessity I mean those factors that leave the person no choice other than to act as they did. The theory of psychology at this site then specifies what those factors are.

Consider the diagram above, it is from the paper Why We Do What We Do, the ‘cause’ of our behavior is distributed among the many, many systems of mental sets with only a very small number shown here to illustrate. This leaves causal necessity in human affairs tightly intertwined with choice, free will and our allowing (actively or passively) some mental sets and resisting others, which is to say we choose deliberately or through passive release.

Consider a simple example I often discuss in my business consulting and coaching. Typically people have within them two often quite contradictory mental sets about work as follows.


These two extremes can be seen as two mental sets, each available to the person, and they know the types of behaviors and consequences arising from each. The can choose to ignore one, to resist it, and when the thoughts arise they can produce the counter argument to deal with them. Slowly, one or other would become the ‘habituated manner of acting and being at work’. But even if habituated, the other set never goes away, it is always there, always available, and always able to be released.

The model proposes the existence of systems of thought, and that there is and can be such conflicting systems of thought in any or all situations. This means that in any actual situation the causal factors underlying our behavior are very complex.

Within this complexity there is much choice and causal necessity that is the lack of choice does not exist. We do not always recognize our choices, but they are there, habit is not necessity, it is merely passive acceptance of our learning from what has gone before.

There are only two circumstances where causal necessity does in fact arise,

  1. Where there is failure of the mechanisms of our psychology, then the person is not given the choice, it is chemical and physical determinism that directs the thoughts and feeling and behavior.
  2. The second factor relates to the values of variables describing our psychology, that is the mechanisms are normal, but in the situation the values of the variables that result in our response or actions or feelings are such that no matter the mental set chosen by the person, no matter the choice the person made, the action would be the same and be determined by values of those variables. It is important to note that even creative choice by the person would under this coherent structure result in the same response.

Only under one or other of these two circumstances can it be said that the person had no choice. This analysis is very important for, as I will show it bears directly on definitions of mental illness and insanity, and in particular precludes the existence of temporary insanity.

Theoretical structure arising from previous papers

In the previous papers I have developed definitions of mental illness and insanity. These definitions are as follows.

It is crucial to understand these definitions as arising from fundamentally different circumstances of failure and malfunction in the theory. In the first case, the malfunction is of the mechanisms whereby psychology comes to be, in the second and third, the malfunction (to the extent it can be called such) is of the values of the variables selected or emergent in the person and the relation these values make with the averaged values in the society whereby the person is referenced.

These two circumstances are not independent any more than many heart conditions are independent of life style and diet. The distinction is made on the basis of theoretical structure within the theory, this rooting the fundamental cause of any disorder in either the underlying mechanisms or in the choices the person makes for the way they will live their life.

These distinctions predictable from epistemological considerations alone

The theory of psychology as developed here leads conclusively to these conclusions and predictions. However, this consequence could have been seen much earlier, and is in fact a necessary circumstance of the distinction between a variable and its value.

Variables are and can only be the grouping of events with common properties; they do not and cannot in and of themselves exist in any form other than as ideas. Any occurrence then describes a unique set of values for the variable such that the occurrence is described in its pure unique form. Similarities exist identities do not. So each and every event can be described by the unique set of values of the variables that describe the general qualities of the event.

For example, a table has a certain list of properties. A particular table then involves sufficient of these properties in a particular object such as enabling us to describe the particular object is a ‘table’ - because it exhibits properties consistent with the general list of properties of the idea we call table.

Scientific ideas of variables and values need definitions much tighter than that used in common language. So a Variable is defined as an idea with a single property, this I call a coherent idea. For example, length is a variable with the property of extension.

A scientific theory is then a system of variables that describe how some event or circumstance comes to be, then to assess some particular circumstance, one places in the theory values of the known variables thus enabling the calculation of the unknown, for example, if the system of known structure, that is with known variables interacting in a known way, in some specific state is subject to some perturbation, what would the system do? By establishing the values of the variables at the start, and by then following the impact of the perturbation as it traveled through the system, that is as each of the interacting variables in turn is affected, the final state can be established.

What then in is the system of variables, and what are the values of those variables given the distinction between variable and its value highlighted above?

The set of variables and their interaction is statement about the understanding of how things happen in the system (note, this implies causality, and needs be read in conjunction with the statements and analysis of cause in the papers). When some set of values is installed in the system of variables, what then emerges is a statement of what is actually predicted to happen under the precise circumstances as described by the values of the variables. Then, depending on the nature of the theory, it will describe an actual event of the universe.

The variables and their interrelation describe the mechanisms of in a system, and parallel how the universe works. The values of the variables describe actual circumstances of the universe, so placing values into the system of variables; actual events of the universe are then paralleled and predicted.

The crucial conclusion, the inescapable is that consciousness cannot work; it cannot conceive it cannot model the universe in any other way. This structure is an inescapable boundary for all intelligent life. Currently, human species is the only species that has developed this ability into an all-embracing tool whereby as a species we have raised and raised and yet again raised ourselves above the restrictions imposed by the physical essentials of the brain.

If we now apply this structure to the human species, what predictions then emerge? First, that any theory must consist of the variables that describe the mechanisms of how the system under study does in fact work. So, any general theory of psychology must consist of some set of variables linked in a specific manner, such that the variables and their linking describe the underlying mechanisms of the system ‘human being’. Second, by placing values into the system of variables, then we can predict and parallel actual circumstances of the person and so predict what they will do under the precise circumstances of the variables values.

Any scientific theory must have this structure. It then follows that this structure is able to malfunction in two ways: first, the structure may not work as expected; in short the mechanisms may malfunction. In effect, this malfunction lies in the structure Aè B, where this is expected, then what may happen is Aè Z, and the system can be described as having the Z-bug. No values of variables are implied nor needed for the Z-bug to occur. Second, and this only applies in circumstance where the values that a variable can adopt describes some significant uniqueness of the system under study, values of the variables may fall into a range that describes some unacceptable uniqueness for the entity. This malfunction is not to do with the relations between variables, but to do with the values and range of values exhibited by the entity.

So in the actual case of people, with attitudes as part of the causal structure, then the mechanisms can malfunction giving rise to mental illness, or values can be exhibited for those attitudes that make it likely that person will not be accepted among their peers or society, and in extreme cases, values can arise whereby the person is seen as malfunctioning, in which case they are said to be insane.

The problem of causal identification

Currently there is no thorough or scientific system whereby malfunctions of mechanism (mental illness) can be conclusively distinguished from malfunctions of psychology (insanity).

The problem is further compounded by the interaction of our psychology with our neural mechanisms. For example, if certain patterns of thought persist, then these patterns can become the habitual manner of thought, and if that manner of thought induces emotions of despair, lack of energy, and resigned desperation then this may become also habitual. Once a system of thinking and emotions becomes habitual and if that is a self-destructive system of thought and emotions, such as might occur in depression, then renewed thinking on its own may not be strong enough to defeat or overcome the depression. Treatment could well entail drugs to aid lift the person, and supportive counseling to shift the thinking so that the drugs become not needed.

A person in the grip of a serious depressive episode is not mentally ill, the mechanisms of the person’s brain and neural system are not malfunctioning, and a more apt description is that they are functioning normally, but the result is thoughts and feelings that are maladaptive. The issue is psychology, despite the fact that drugs may be needed to enable the person to cope initially until longer term remedies, involving restructuring maladaptive mental sets are instituted. Problems of living of this nature are described as ‘personality problems’.

Depression as an affliction of the spirit

Depression is not a problem of malfunction of mechanism, it is an issue of psychology, and of the malfunction of the values of variables being developed by the causal system that produces our experience of being.

For my own part, in a twenty-month period I experienced a heart attack, open-heart surgery, enforced closure of my business, personal bankruptcy and separation from my second wife. Any one of these is a major life event. With the loss of health, wealth and family there was little of my life left. I experienced an extended (four to five year) period of moderate to serious depression. But within that, I had little or no choice but to press forward, to rebuild some form of life for myself.

For several years I had to go to bed early in the afternoon two sometimes three times per week in order to cope. I could only manage myself for so long and to a certain point when I simply had to surrender to the feelings. The depression came as an old friend, a comfortable coat, and a habit of the spirit that required little energy and seemed a natural state: ‘give up’ it urged.

Two key factors enabled my spirit to survive. First, I had for many years been involved in these areas, my business was one of coaching others in how to achieve more in their life, and issues of emotional intelligence were a crucial component. I knew what was happening and knew I had the skills and insights to deal with it. Second, I fought hard to give myself hope. Each day I planned on how it would be better, slowly I could plan for next week to be better, then next month, I often regressed and in despair would wonder if it would ever be consistently different, slowly I crawled from the pit, and begun to plot and mould a life.

Understanding, skills and hope, and of them, hope is crucial.

The human spirit is not something given to us it is something that emerges from within, how we are in the world and how we deal with what happens to us. It is not a thing within us, but something we create albeit unconsciously and certainly most often without deliberation. Through the period outlined above I understood I was fighting to save my soul, the very essence of me was at risk. I knew that if I lost this battle there was nothing beyond.

It is within this context that I see particularly depression, but other forms of personality problem, as afflictions of the spirit, distortions of soul and self that we must overcome to be better than we are. They are certainly not mental illness, nor afflictions of insanity though at times the behaviors that emerge even at times against our better judgment and will, could at times be described as ‘insane acts’.

Only by retreating to our core and deciding on how we want to be, then striving and giving hope to our daily awareness that we can realize the ‘us’ we see and seek. Only by re-embracing the very core of our spirituality, the essence of us, our soul, will we survive and come through such life events. Without locating and re-building the wholeness in our core and guiding that to enlighten our way of being in the world, we will remain only some small, stunted part of that which we can be.

The impossibility of temporary insanity

If we consider diagram 6 and its implications then we are forced to the conclusion that there is no necessity other than habit for a person to act from within any particular subset that is from within some particular mental set.

Within the complexity of diagram 6 it is possible even likely that there are undeclared mental sets of ‘insane’ nature, that is thoughts and images that if declared or lived out would result in the actions being unacceptable in society. If extreme then the actions would be insane, but is the person insane?

For insanity to be offered under these circumstances is to excuse the person of their conduct and of the responsibility for it. That is, causal necessity is invoked. The argument for causal necessity in cases of outbreaks of unacceptable behavior fails in that it does not meet the criteria required for causal necessity.

If the person had mental sets of a normal and acceptable nature prior to events, then those sets continued to be during and after any such events. The fact the person did not allow the acceptable mental sets, or did not resist the unacceptable mental sets is not insanity, merely collusion of the person with the release of actions they knew to be unacceptable before and contained but chose to release for reasons perhaps only they can truly understand. For the person to be insane requires causal necessity, that is the whole system of mental sets left the person no choice other than to do as they did, the person may even understand societies attitude, but not accept or live it, it is as an abstract idea, intellectual but not touching any of the key variables that shape the existence or actions of the person. Such is insanity.

In any and all circumstances where after some event the person shows remorse, then again causal necessity cannot be invoked, and insanity cannot be invoked. For remorse after the event can only mean they had within them were mental sets able to influence behavior, but they chose deliberately or passively not to allow such sets prior to the events for such sets could have modified the events.

The only circumstance left where there is some release of the person from responsibility for their conduct is in circumstances beyond which a reasonable person could be expected to ensure their conduct remained within socially accepted bounds. That is, the situation was such as to mitigate the person’s conduct, such as defending their daughter from rape. Here, the passion deep and primal could be seen as sufficient as to result in causal necessity.

Temporary insanity in the form of causal necessity that mitigates the conduct of the person does not and cannot exist. Emotions arising from situations beyond that with which a reasonable person can be expected to cope are the only temporary circumstances wherein causal necessity can be invoked in human affairs. Top

1 'Living' in the sense of actively seeking better understanding of today's thoughts, only using historical thought where and when appropriate in such a quest. Not 'living' in the sense of being alive today. It is the thought the philosopher explores and that is the crucial 'living thing'; the role of the philosopher being to make clear the thought, and all its implications and propose improved alternatives.