Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"Do not disturb yourself by picturing your life as a whole; do not assemble in your mind the many and varied troubles which have come to you in the past and will come again in the future, but ask yourself with regard to every present difficulty: 'What is there in this that is unbearable and beyond endurance?' You would be ashamed to confess it! And then remind yourself that it is not the future or what has passed that afflicts you, but always the present, and the power of this is much diminished if you take it in isolation and call your mind to task if it thinks that it cannot stand up to it when taken on its own."

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
(Source: The Atlantic)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

"It all goes back and back, to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance on in our steads." (Tyrion Lannister)

George R. R. MartinA Storm of Swords

Thursday, May 23, 2013

"What gets eaten, what gets aborted, what gets smashed, will never be decisively resolved by an inspection of internal structures and capacities of a given candidate for destruction. Even smashing a mere chunk of solidified lava -- evidently purely passive, and homoeomerous from one end to the other -- can be experienced as a  transgression by the person who is properly sensitized, for whom the chunk shows up as salient within her ethically charged environment. Are fetuses morally relevant? Yes, they are. So are chunks of lava. Does that mean you mustn't destroy them? Not necessarily, but you shouldn't suppose that the way to gain license to destroy them, whether this license is conceived cosmically, socially, or individually, is to produce arguments that cut them off from the sphere of moral relevance." 

Justin Erik Halldór SmithThe Moral Status of Rocks. An excellent post, worth reading in full.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"If we are cursed to forget much of what we read, there are still charms in the moments of reading a particular book in a particular place. What I remember most about Malamud’s short-story collection “The Magic Barrel,” is the warm sunlight in the coffee shop on the consecutive Friday mornings I read it before high school. That is missing the more important points, but it is something. Reading has many facets, one of which might be the rather indescribable, and naturally fleeting, mix of thought and emotion and sensory manipulations that happen in the moment and then fade. How much of reading, then, is just a kind of narcissism—a marker of who you were and what you were thinking when you encountered a text? Perhaps thinking of that book later, a trace of whatever admixture moved you while reading it will spark out of the brain’s dark places."

Ian Crouch, The Curse of Reading and Forgetting at The New Yorker

Monday, May 20, 2013

Gordon Finlayson: "What I don’t like about [moral error theory] is the view that all our moral judgments are false and that, notwithstanding this, we keep believing them anyway. Why does the ordinary forensic process of experience, whereby falsehoods are eventually discovered, overturned and, when all goes well, replaced by truths, not function in this case? Skeptics about ‘morality’ owe an explanation for the fact that morality as a whole (not in part) has proven to be pretty durable and that people have continued to hold their moral beliefs, with as much certainty as their ordinary epistemic beliefs."


Sunday, May 19, 2013

"I'm post-skeptic but pre-mystic."

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

I am the second author of this review article published in Pakistan Journal of Medical Sciences.

Ali Madeeh Hashmi, Muhammad Awais Aftab, Nauman Mazhar, Muhammad Umair, Zeeshan Butt

Abstract

The purpose of this article is to review the evidence linking depression with inflammation, to examine the bi-directional relationship between the neuro-humeral circuitry of depression and the inflammatory response, and point out new treatment implications of these ideas. The evidence available is in areas of genetic links, association of depression with raised inflammatory markers such as Tumour Necrosis Factor (TNF)-alpha, Interleukin (IL)-1, IL-6, co-morbidity of depression with inflammatory medical illnesses, administration of cytokines leading to depression, and the recognition that anti-depressants have anti-inflammatory and neuro-protective properties. Inflammatory response and mood regulation constitute a system of bi-directional communication such that inflammatory cytokines can penetrate the CNS and influence behavior. Activation of the CNS cytokine network leads to a cascade of effects such as disturbed metabolism of amino acids, neurotoxicity, diminished neurotrophic support, decreased neurogenesis, impaired negative feedback regulation of HPA axis function and glucocorticoid resistance. Treatment implications include strategies to screen for patients with increased inflammatory activity, possible treatment with anti-inflammatory agents, and the recognition of new target areas for antidepressant medications.

Weltschmerz. 
German for 'world-weariness', 'world-pain', 'world-grief'.

"it's the depression you feel when the world as it is does not line up with the world as you think it should be."
(as defined by David Levithan in Will Grayson, Will Grayson)

Sunday, May 12, 2013


"[I]n the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship -- be it JC or Allah, bet it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles -- is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It's the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you. On one level, we all know this stuff already. It's been codified as myths, proverbs, clichés, epigrams, parables; the skeleton of every great story. The whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.

Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they're evil or sinful, it's that they're unconscious. They are default settings.

They're the kind of worship you just gradually slip into, day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that's what you're doing."

David Foster Wallace, excerpt from 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address 

Friday, May 10, 2013

Thomas Insel, the Director of National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) writes on the Director’s Blog :

"While DSM has been described as a “Bible” for the field, it is, at best, a dictionary, creating a set of labels and defining each. The strength of each of the editions of DSM has been “reliability” – each edition has ensured that clinicians use the same terms in the same ways. The weakness is its lack of validity. Unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma, or AIDS, the DSM diagnoses are based on a consensus about clusters of clinical symptoms, not any objective laboratory measure. In the rest of medicine, this would be equivalent to creating diagnostic systems based on the nature of chest pain or the quality of fever. Indeed, symptom-based diagnosis, once common in other areas of medicine, has been largely replaced in the past half century as we have understood that symptoms alone rarely indicate the best choice of treatment.

Patients with mental disorders deserve better. NIMH has launched the Research Domain Criteria (RDoC) project to transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information to lay the foundation for a new classification system....

... it is critical to realize that we cannot succeed if we use DSM categories as the “gold standard.” The diagnostic system has to be based on the emerging research data, not on the current symptom-based categories. Imagine deciding that EKGs were not useful because many patients with chest pain did not have EKG changes. That is what we have been doing for decades when we reject a biomarker because it does not detect a DSM category. We need to begin collecting the genetic, imaging, physiologic, and cognitive data to see how all the data – not just the symptoms – cluster and how these clusters relate to treatment response.

That is why NIMH will be re-orienting its research away from DSM categories. Going forward, we will be supporting research projects that look across current categories – or sub-divide current categories – to begin to develop a better system."

Wednesday, May 8, 2013


"The place the essay has ended up can be described as sceptical – a scepticism of the gentle variety. Having considered the ways in which mental disorder is understood in psychiatric practice, the explicit definitions in the diagnostic manuals, and bearing in mind the clinical problems that they characterise, and having examined the more elaborate, rigorous definitions in the surrounding literature, the most influential of which is due to Jerry Wakefield, and the sociological approaches, and the paradigms and general findings of the current science – there ends up being, so far as I can see, no stable reality or concept of mental disorder; it breaks up into many, quite different kinds, some reminiscent of an old idea of madness or mental illness, others nothing like this at all. This instability and fragmentation corresponds to diversity in the phenomena, in current clinical services, and in current terminology. I would have settled for one clear proposal as to what mental disorder really is, but couldn’t find one. 

That said, the scepticism is just about whether there is something stable, fixed and distinctive here, for which ‘mental disorder’ is a suitable name. It does not include doubts about the reality of the phenomena: the distress and disabilities that people bring to the clinic, and the need for psychiatric, or more generally mental health professional care. The domain of healthcare as a response to personal distress and disability seems to me permanent, only mistakenly seen as something to be deconstructed away. There may be no clear basis for distinguishing between mental health problems and social problems, or between mental health problems and ‘normal – more or less normal – problems of living’, but what distinguishes healthcare is the response to the person involved. The response is care for the individual, based on professional training, science and expertise, distinct from social or political action, or religious judgement, or demands for self-reliance. By all means there is then a debate to be had as to the pros and cons of one kind of response as opposed to another, a debate involving many stakeholders, with some clear cases, and many controversial boundary issues, but healthcare has a permanent seat in the debating chamber."


From the Oxford series 'International Perspectives in Philosophy and Psychiatry'

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


William Vallicella (aka Maverick Philosopher) recently made a series of posts on the topic of meaning of life, and these contain some of the most philosophically sophisticated and refined discussions that I have read on the matter. In this post I’d like to summarize some of his main conclusions, primarily for my own clarity of thought. For a detailed understanding of his reasoning and arguments, I’d strongly urge the readers to look up the original posts.


The existential meaning of life refers to ‘the ultimate and objective point, purpose, end, or goal of human willing and striving, if there is one’.

Existential meaning has a teleological aspect: a meaningful life is a purpose-driven life. This is a purpose that the individual has to choose for himself out of his own free will. This purpose has to be both non-trivial and achievable. 

Existential meaning has an axiological aspect: a meaningful life contains some positive noninstrumental value, a source of personal satisfaction for the agent. Furthermore, it is necessary that this value has to be objective; the pursuit of an immoral life may bring personal satisfaction, but it cannot be called meaningful.

There are also anthropic and cosmic aspects to the question of meaning.
Anthropic question: What is the objective purpose of human existence? 
Cosmic question: Is the nature of the world whole such as to enable and further the meaningfulness of human existence?

The meaning can be either exogenous (objective) or endogenous (subjective).
An objective meaning is assigned by an external agent, such as God or ‘the nature of things’. A subjective meaning comes from within and assigned by oneself.

The philosophical question is distinct from the psychological question of a meaningful life. 


The philosophical thesis that the meaning of life is subjective (Subjectivism) comes in an extreme and a moderate version. I will only talk about extreme subjectivism here, and will refer the reader to the original post for the discussion of moderate subjectivism.

Subjectivism does not claim that there is no meaning (which is Nihilism) but that there is meaning in life, and this meaning is subjective by its very nature. Vallicella argues that Subjectivism collapses into Nihilism.
Extreme subjectivism states that you give meaning to your own life. Meaning is invented by the agent in a life that is otherwise meaningless. 

“On extreme subjectivism, then, the agent freely decides (i) whether or not his life will have meaning, (ii) what meaning it will have, and (iii) whether and to what extent he will live out this meaning day by day.”

Vallicella argues that extreme subjectivism is incoherent. “Anyone who sincerely asks himself whether he is wasting or has wasted his life presupposes by his very posing of the question that there are objective factors that bear on the question of the meaning of life.  To raise the question is to presuppose that existential meaning cannot be identified with agent-conferred meaning… if the meaning of one’s life is the meaning one gives it, then one cannot fail to live a meaningful life since any meaning is as good as any other. ” The subjectivist answer contradicts the presupposition of the philosophical question of meaning of life that one can fail to live a meaningful life. If subjectivism were true, a failure of meaningful life would be impossible.

Secondly, Vallicella argues that extreme subjectivism collapses into nihilism. “For if the meaning of my life is the meaning I give it, then my life has no meaning in the sense of ‘meaning’ that gave rise both to the question and the extreme subjectivist answer…. A conferred meaning is no meaning.”

Thirdly, extreme subjectivism entails a vicious infinite regress. For life to be meaningful, there has to be an act of meaning-bestowal, and these acts of meaning-bestowal must be meaningful if life has to have meaning. In subjectivism, however, nothing is intrinsically meaning. If an act of meaning-bestowal (A) is not intrinsically meaningful, then this act of meaning-bestowal needs to have meaning bestowed on it by a second act of meaning-bestowal (A*) and that in turn would require a third act (A**), and so on.

“if a life is meaningful due to acts of meaning-bestowal, and these latter are meaningless, then the life as a whole is meaningless.”

“As soon as the agent reflects that the bestowal of meaning on his chosen purpose is not a response to any objective value such as the elimination of unnecessary suffering, he should see that his meaning-bestowal is a gratuitous and arbitrary and meaningless act.  A meaningful life, one wants to protest, is one in response to objective values, where one's responding is itself an objective value.”


“The meaning of life, if there is one, cannot be subjective…  But the meaning of life cannot be purely objective either. The meaning of life, if there is one, must somehow involve a mediation of the subjective and the objective: the meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable.”

“An objective meaning or purpose of X is a purpose that is as it were assigned to X  from without…. if X has a purely objective purpose, then X plays no role in the realization or enactment or embodiment of its purpose.”

“We may or may not have an objective purpose, but if we have one, it cannot be a purely objective purpose; it must be a purpose that can be made our purpose. But it is best to speak in the first-person. A purpose that I cannot make my purpose is of no consequence to me. Such a purpose would be meaningless to me. An objective purpose that I could not come to know about, or could not realize, or an objective purpose that I knew about and could realize but whose realization would destroy me or cause a preponderance of misery over happiness or thwart my flourishing or destroy my autonomy would not be a purpose I could make my own.”

“We can sum this up by saying that an objective purpose, if there is one, must be subjectively appropriable if it is to be relevant to existential meaning. To appropriate a thing is to make it one's own, to take possession of it.”

“The subjectively appropriable is not merely that which is able to be appropriated, but that which is worthy of being appropriated.  I take it as axiomatic that a meaningful life for a human being must be a life worthy of a human being.”

An objective purpose is available to all, the same for all, applicable to all. “The meaning of life, if there is one, must be the same for all and available to all.  A rational world plays no favorites.  If the objective meaning of life were not available to all, then that would be an evil arrangement, one that could not be objectively meaningful.”


Vallicella defines aporia as ‘a set of propositions each member of which has a strong claim on our acceptance, but whose members are collectively inconsistent.’

With regards to the existential meaning of life, he presents the following aporetic tetrad:

A. If life has a meaning, then it cannot be subjective.
B. The meaning of life must be subjectively appropriable by all.
C. There is no meaning that is both nonsubjective and subjectively appropriable by all.
D. Life has a meaning.

All four statements cannot be true simultaneously. Reasons have been given for A and B. The choice then is between C and D. One of these has to be rejected in order for the contradiction to be resolved.

The case for C can be made as countless millions of humans have not had the capacity or the opportunity to investigate the questions of whether there is an objective purpose in life, what is it and how one may live in accordance with it. Those who have the capacity and opportunity to investigate these questions are confronted with a plethora of conflicting opinions and doctrines, and little means of gleaning out the knowledge of the objective purpose.

“Redemption from absurdity must be possible for all if it is be possible for any.  If the world is so arranged that you are barred from redemption through no fault of your own, then my redemption is not a redemption from absurdity.”

Rejecting C, therefore, is not easy. Rejecting D is not an easy alternative either. The biggest argument in its support is a pragmatic argument. One cannot live a life of zest, vigor, passion and commitment, unless it is presupposed that life is objectively meaningful. One who denies this simply does not appreciate the full force of what life’s lack of objective meaning entails. Such a person “maintains at the level of theory that his life has only the meaning he confers upon it, but he ‘contradicts’ this theoretical belief by the energy and passion with which he pursues his projects and perhaps also by the passion with which he tries to convince the rest of us that nothing matters except what we make matter.”

“We must presuppose the intelligibility of the world if we are to embark seriously upon the arduous quest for understanding, but it is logically and epistemically possible that the world is unintelligible in itself.  Likewise, we must presuppose the objective meaningfulness of life if we are to live rich and full and committed lives, but it is logically and epistemically possible that our lives are objectively meaningless nonetheless.”

We end, therefore, in an impasse. We have good reasons not to reject all four limbs of the aporetic tetrad, but all of them cannot be true. It is up to the reader, then, to decide which one he/she will choose to reject.

------------------

My comment on Vallicella’s post: “Your discussion of limb C seems to have the underlying assumption that the search for meaning terminates at death. If everyone has just one shot at this earthly existence, then indeed it is hard to reject C. However, if some variant of reincarnation is the case, then the search for meaning is no longer restricted to one particular individual life, and will carry on even afterwards by means of another life. If such a possibility is entertained, then one may hope (cosmic optimism!) that over the course of many lives, an objective meaning will eventually be subjectively appropriable by all.”

Vallicella’s reply: “That is a good suggestion and may be a way of solving the problem. My very stringent knowability condition on the appropriability of meaning makes it impossible for most of us to appropriate the meaning of life in one lifetime. But if there are multiple lifetimes then one can hope that mere belief that there is an objective meaning might transform itself into knowledge that there is one.

Or if God exists, then one hope that after death one will come to know what we can only believe in this life. It may be -- and this is what I really think -- that the only way to subjectively appropriate the objective meaning of life in this life is by faith and hope. Just as we cannot live well (or at all) in this life without hope, we must hope beyond this life, and indeed to live well in this life.”

Thursday, May 2, 2013


"When you're single, you're exactly as happy as you are.

When you're married, you can only be as happy as the least happy person in the relationship."

Rules of Engagement
 

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