Depression and Truth

A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong su Wellcome L0026693.jpg

My last post elicited a comment from a reader apparently worried that, based on the contents of the post, I might be clinically depressed. Anyone who knows me personally would find this laughable, although my reader only knows me through my writing so that is an excuse. But the comment did get me to thinking.

First, the comment confused an assessment of human nature and existential reality with the author’s psychological state. I believe that humans are flawed because of their intellectual wiring and that the meaningfulness of life is largely in doubt. (I nonetheless emphasize hope throughout my voluminous writings on meaning and life.) I am a happy man with a loving wife of 40 years and kids and grandkids I adore and who, I’m confident, feel similarly about me. Life may be meaningless, but that’s no reason to be pessimistic!

But even if someone is depressed (or otherwise ill) that doesn’t invalidate their arguments. To claim the opposite is to commit the “ad hominem” fallacy. Additionally, studies show that depressed individuals have a more accurate view of themselves and reality than non-depressed ones and that happy people may be somewhat delusional. So this gives us good reasons to lend more credence to the views of the depressed. I’m not sure I’d go that far but the main point is that the issue of depression is (mostly) irrelevant here.**

Secondly, while my reader may be genuinely concerned about me, the remark could also be interpreted as condescending. (To be clear, I’m not saying the reader meant it this way. One of the problems with the written word is that you don’t have non-verbal clues to help clarify someone’s intent.) But maybe my reader disagrees with me and concludes that I should, therefore, see a doctor. If that’s the case, then I don’t think that argument holds much weight.

But let me reiterate that the basic distinction is between an individual being clinically depressed or otherwise mentally ill (although many categories of the DSM-V are controversial) and being someone who is disappointed at the difference between the world as it is and as you wish it were—which is one of the main points I was trying to convey in my post. Perhaps I didn’t state this as clearly as I could have. If not Bertrand Russell expressed my sentiments exactly in his final manuscript:

Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture.

There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere.


**I’ll admit that the source of a view isn’t completely irrelevant to how seriously you consider someone’s opinion. For example, I don’t get my views about science from athletes or movie actors; I tend to discount arguments of the scientifically illiterate. Still, even here the arguments should be assessed on the basis of their strengths or weaknesses. The simple fact that an athlete or movie star presents an argument for a flat earth (it’s spherical), against biological evolution (true beyond a reasonable doubt) or that vaccines cause autism (they don’t), the fact that they aren’t scientists doesn’t by itself make those arguments ridiculous. Those beliefs are ridiculous because they’re demonstrably false.

Arguments about morality and the meaning of life are somewhat different since they can’t be resolved in the same way that scientific arguments can. In such cases, we have to weigh the evidence as best we can and draw our own conclusions. Still, if someone were clinically depressed or psychopathic that would give us some reason to discount their views, though not a definitive reason to do so.

I believe it was Hume who said that a person’s philosophy mostly reflects their personality. That may be true. But some people, after nurturing the ability to assess impartially as far as this is humanly possible, are better at separating what they want to believe from what is likely to be true. I’ll grant there is no knock-down argument either way and the extent to which personality affects belief is an open question.

Finally, let me say that the scientific method is the best way that humans have ever created for doing separating truth from fiction. Our beliefs should be proportional to the reasons and evidence we have for or against them.

For more on the nature and limits of knowledge see mine and some of my contributors’ musings on epistemology: here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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3 thoughts on “Depression and Truth

  1. Every reason to be depressed entering 2020.
    It isn’t Trump or Putin or the dick-taters in China, and elsewhere. It is the people backing them up, for example the Grand Old Potatoheads in the US who get people to vote for them. Such alone is reason to be depressed. Since Watergate one is rewarded for being bad (i.e. G. Gordon Liddy and Oliver North did much better as celebrities than they did in the public sector. Who says crime doesn’t pay?)

    John: if you’re not depressed, you will be during the next decades. You can see the trouble brewing in DC; too early for any details. At any rate do not feel guilt concerning your mental state in the future: a person of any conscience Ought to be somewhat depressed. And I no longer subscribe to “you’re just as young as you feel.”
    Merely age-smarm.
    After what we have experienced since c. 1966, to wind up with Trump 50 yrs. later; to have the Cold War not end but merely replaced with Cold War 2.0, are reasons for depression. Also, appears we are slowly, but surely, turning the world into a toxic waste dump.

    “Arguments about morality and the meaning of life are somewhat different since they can’t be resolved in the same way that scientific arguments can”

    Not the meaning, albeit the purpose can. And that means the hedonistic imperative– which means morality gives way to situational ethics. And we in some way have to go with the flow rather than be moral imperialists, pushing our idiosyncratic/self-referential values on people far away. People we don’t even care about, as we only really care about family + friends.

    Not the meaning f life– but yet the purpose

  2. Thank you (and Mr. Schrode) for the clarifications. I think that the category and title of your previous essay started me down a mental path toward committing a hasty generalization. I’m glad to know I was wrong and that we’re on to other topics.

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