Drug Use in American Culture

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Hey guys, here’s an essay I wrote for my English class. It had to relate back to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest in some fashion. Tell me what you think!

The Dialectic Of Drug Use In American Culture
Hundreds of little pills, each uniform and purple, rattle down the assembly line. The conveyor belt is like a street, and the workers dressed in white caps and aprons watch the parade until it reaches their arms’ grasp. White face masks cover their breath. With darting hands and beaming eyes they sort these pills into machines that take each pill, position it just so, and slam it into a small plastic packaging at the speed of sound. Phu-chk, phu-chk, phu-chk, the machine goes until the day is done, casting the purple pill in translucent plastic. The caskets are carefully placed in flimsy cardboard boxes with Brooditor, Pfizer’s latest and greatest “self-stabilizing” laboratory concoction, in large purple letters on the front. They are shipped to the multitudes of 24-hour-a-day pharmacies across the country. The year is 2036. It is the age of cosmetic pharmacology.
Electronic billboards light up the night above the freeway. The screen is white with black lettering. “Brooditor – be yourself.” Brooditor was released as an alternative to Happilex, Pfizer’s other bestselling “self-stabilizer.” As opposed to Happilex, which, as the advertisements claimed, “brought the real you, the happy you, out to play,” Brooditor is a drug – no, not that, public censors won’t allow that word – Brooditor is a “self-stabilizer” that attempts to alter personality bring out your inner brooding poet. In other words, it was for individuals who were eclectic and energetic to a fault –too outgoing, too extroverted, or maybe just too much Happilex. Because in the age of cosmetic pharmacology, people can “be” whoever they want. Need to be more outgoing to get that upper-management position? No problem – Take some Powertex, and watch your inner ambition sprout. Want to give off that brooding, deep aura, like you really have something on your mind? Get some Brooditor. Your friends will be amazed at the deep thoughts you will impress them with at parties. Want to be smarter, more friendly, more aggressive, more suave, more happy? There’s a drug for that.
The future I have depicted above sounds dystopian. It is scary to think that prescription drug companies would mass-produce personality-altering chemicals, each and every American on some form of drug, in some sort of illusory state. A critique of this world from the standpoint of American culture might ask, “where is the individuality? Where is the real self, under all those drugs?”
Dystopian novels, from George Orwell’s 1984 to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, have long played on the concept of constant, society-wide drug use. The drugs in these futures are used to control and manipulate the populace by the corrupt state, and this possible future plays well on American fears. The two aforementioned novels frequently make top-100 novel lists and are read in high schools across the United States because American culture is deeply haunted with visions of what drug use could destroy. Americans have a collective phobia of altered states, especially ones that are endorsed by governments or corporations, which is why it is odd that the United States is leading the world in antidepressant research, proliferation, and use.
The anti-depressant market has forged new ground, unlocking the secrets of personality, and is allowing us to change our personality through drug use. Neuroscience has fostered drugs that can make people go from sad to happy, introverted to outgoing, or anxious to calm. Antidepressants like Prozac, Zoloft, and Cymbalta are being ingested in the United States at record-breaking numbers. An article from the USA today states that, “about 10% of Americans — or 27 million people — were taking antidepressants in 2005, about twice the number in 1995.” With numbers like that, it is not hard to imagine a future where drugs exist for every personality archetype imaginable. It would be a future where human interaction is reduced to drugged-up “fakes” plotting along their daily lives, robbed of their inner self, their soul, their humanity – or so American culture says.
We Americans have a strange relationship with drug use. We at once fear drug use, with our war on drugs, the Just Say No campaign, and DARE. But we are also one of the largest consumers of drugs, legal and illegal. Why are we at once frightened and accepting of drug use? We are a culture that wages a war on drugs while “50.9 percent of adults 18 years of age or older are current, regular drinkers (at least 12 drinks in the past year).” We are disgusted by addicts yet create mental institutions where the patients are fed six different drugs on a daily basis. We fear dystopian mind-control while one in ten of us are on antidepressants. Drug use takes place in a strange dialectic, to say the least. But why? How?
It is our cultural view of selfhood that creates these glaring contradictions with drug use, and it is only through piles and piles of mental dirt that we can bury these contradictions. But to understand this seemingly contradictory attitude, we must first understand the American view of selfhood: the dualistic self.
Dualistic selfhood is defined as “the assumption that mind and body are separate.” Descartes thought that what one experiences as the I, the self, the thing that experiences things, the thing that we feel is “us” is a non-material phenomena, something special and outside the normal functioning of matter. Rene Descartes is the “father of modern philosophy.” His ideas make up the foundations of western existence, and dualism, the basic lens through which American culture views the world, is his ever-lasting mark on history. This thought can be traced back to its religious roots of the Christian soul.
Christianity holds the belief that the self, calling it the soul, is transported into another world upon death. Christians believe that awareness is something special given to us by God and that our physical bodies are merely vessels in which our souls are temporarily carried. This belief plays a large role in American culture. Although the United States is a secular nation in its government, it is still religious. A Gallop Poll from May, 2011 found that, “more than 9 in 10 Americans still say “yes” when asked the basic question “Do you believe in God?” Belief in God necessitates belief in a soul, and this concept plays heavily on American culture.
Whether or not they believe it to be a Christian soul, most Americans believe that what is between our ears is something more than a soup of neurons and grey matter, a meaningless algorithm or animal-like instinct organizer. Something “more” exists there, we think. The self, our fundamental building-block for our experience of the world, is “special.”
It seems obvious to us that the “self” exists. After all, we experience it every day. We think to ourselves, asking ourselves questions like “is that right? Do I like that? Is this good?” We feel the self inside. We feel it because we feel experiences from the outside world, and something, we feel, exists as an observer, a judge of this phenomenon. This judge, we feel, is us, the thing that controls our bodies and moves our arms, the thing that decides whether or not the pizza was good, the thing that decides whether or not we are tired, hungry, or angry. But what American culture’s dualistic attitude attempts to do is divorce our experience of reality from reality. It attempts to say that our emotions, memories, and cognitions exist on a different plane than the rest of matter. It attempts to say that awareness is special. But this belief is under attack from all sides at all hours of the day, from the research lab to the junkie’s heroin den.
American culture, and western culture at large, is inexorably intertwined with a dualistic view of selfhood. Dualistic selfhood, however, is failing the test of progress – science is ripping its foundations out day by day, study by study. Neuroscience is painting a new picture of the brain, and we don’t like it. It’s allowing us to destroy our “self,” and the century-long war with drugs, from prohibition to the war on drugs, is bearing down on our culture like cement shoes on a drowning man. The foundations of our civilization are crumbling before our eyes, but damned if we aren’t furiously painting over the cracks, carefully placing that Terry Redlin over the gaping hole in our culture’s psyche.
A specter is haunting the United States: the specter of non-dualistic selfhood. All our politicians, pundits, and priests have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this specter. This ghoul lurks in our shadows, hides under our beds, and haunts our dreams – It is our greatest fear, and we’ll go to any length to quickly pull the blanket over our heads, to keep the nightlight on in the dark basement of our inner conscious.
Cognitive dissonance is defined as “a discomfort caused by holding conflicting cognitions simultaneously.” For example: “The following sentence is true. The previous sentence is false.” When we view this statement, we don’t attempt to believe both facts, and we instead recognize that it is a paradox, a breach of logic. But if we were to believe both statements at the same time, we would experience cognitive dissonance. This is what should be happening in American culture. Dualistic selfhood states that “something more” exists between our ears and that the self is an extra-material phenomena, but American culture is wrought with evidence to the contrary: recreational drug use, antidepressants, psychiatric wards, neuroscience. All those things point to the fact that our experience of the world is little more than a series of brain algorithms, like a computer or a complex snail. Yet they exist side by side our dualistic attitude. How?
Dirt. Lots and lots of dirt.
In my dystopian story, I called the drugs “self-stabilizers” for a reason. I say “self-stabilizer” because that, I imagine, is how those drugs would be have to be marketed for an American audience. Americans would not swallow pills that drugged them up, changing their “inner self,” but they just might take a drug to bring out their inner self, however nonsensical such an idea may actually be. Americans love drugs, but they love their idea of dualistic selfhood even more, which is what creates this strange love-hate relationship with drug use.
What does it mean to take an antidepressant? In truth, in the neuroscientific actuality, you are altering neural pathways with psychotropic chemicals. This fact destroys dualistic selfhood. It points out that the brain is a series of codes that act on environmental stimuli, not a special “carrier for the self.” It points out that invisible hexagons called serotonin are the fundamental determinants of brain function, not God or the soul. It points out that we are not special. It points out that we are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. But that doesn’t jive with American culture. With the emergence of antidepressants came the emergence of a cognitive dissonance which we quickly buried six feet deep in careful wording.

Notice the careful wording in the advertisement I found on www.prozac.com According to the ad, Prozac has not fundamentally altered the concept of selfhood – it has “been a catalyst in bringing attention to mental health.” It has not drugged people out of their original self – it has “helped people in their battle with depression.” It is not a psychotropic chemical that alters your neural pathways and fundamentally changes your perception of the world around you – it is a treatment for a disease, Major Depressive Disorder.
The fact that Prozac, or any other anti-depressant, is a drug is carefully avoided in the advertisement. It is a “treatment.” It is a “medicine.” It is for a “disorder,” usually depression. It is not marketed as something that changes you – the disorder did that. It is marketed as something that brings the “real you” out from the grips of an ailment. Any cognitive dissonance was carefully buried under wording and pathos.
The advertisement’s treatment of the concept of depression brings another cultural burial to light: our dialectic of disorder.
In Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, the reader is taken inside a mental ward through the eyes of Chief, a patient. Through Chief’s eyes we see the metaphorical tyranny of nurse Ratchet, who is the epitome of dictatorship. She keeps an iron grip on the mental ward and carefully manipulates the patients into her control. Taken allegorically, Kesey is attempting to relate our cultural concepts of mental disorders to tyranny. He has got a point.
Due to American culture’s entanglement with dualistic selfhood, we must be very careful about how we go about labeling the condition of sanity. We cannot merely denote those individuals who act differently or strangely as just different or strange. We must denote them as wrong, sick, and unhealthy in the brain. We must denote them as broken selves.
What does it mean to be “mentally disordered?” A “mental disorder” is merely a product of genetic recombination that resulted in neurological coding that caused a human to differ, or appear to differ, from the normal range of human actions. And as for what is considered normal? As George Orwell put it, “sanity is statistical.” What the existence of what we consider “mental disorders” points out is that people are different. They are born that way. Their actions are merely the result of deviation in genetic encoding, and if that’s the case, then “sane’ people’s actions are merely genetic encoding too. It points out that just because a majority of people’s brains function a certain way, it does not mean that that way is “special” or contains any kind of soul or innate self. If normalcy were special, then the mentally disordered would have to be soulless and wrong, which is exactly how we treat them.
The concept of “mental disorder” is itself an extension of our dualistic culture. Due to the fact that we believe our neuron soup to contain a special soul, we grew diagnostic labels like depression, multiple personality disorder, and neurosis to account for the fact that not everybody acts the same. The multiple personality disorder patient does not have, or even have the capability of having, the same concepts of selfhood as most Americans do. Instead of recognizing this as an inherent difference in individuality, we label the patients as “wrong,” disordered, and insane. And then we attempt to fix them.
Ken Kesey’s nurse Ratchet metaphor is about how American culture attempts to fix anybody who is different. Are you depressed? Something’s wrong. Take a pill. Do you view the world through a different lens? Something’s wrong. You’re disordered. Let us fix you. By attempting to fix people, with so much emphasis on treatment, we avoid dealing with the reality – people are different, and that’s just the way it is. It is not the fact that we recognize mental disorder that is the outgrowth of this dualistic viewpoint. Rather, it is the way in which we treat the disorder. Everywhere we throw these labels, wrong, insane, depressed, but the true function of these labels is to pile more dirt on our cognitive dissonance, to avoid the truth that dualistic selfhood is not congruent with the concept of mental disorders.
It is ironic that we pile dirt on the cognitive dissonance caused by pharmacotherapy when pharmacotherapy is itself a result of attempting to cover up the cognitive dissonance mental disorders themselves cause. Just as there was an old lady who swallowed a fly, there is a culture that shovels dirt on top of dirt, only to cover it up with… more dirt. But on the flip side lies the most hysterical, the most sickening and destructive attempt to pile dirt on our cognitive dissonance. It comes in the form of an all-out war, being waged right now, to save us from ourselves.
Right now there is a whole army of heavily armed, highly trained troops, armed to the teeth with fully automatics, armored personnel carriers, combat helicopters. This army is fully-funded by a two-billion-dollar-a-year salary. It is dedicated to destroying certain plants. This army even has an official cabinet position within the United States government, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Dirt-piling is now official business. We are in a perpetual war, the War on Drugs: a war for our sanity; a war for our culture; a war in which our soldiers do vicious combat against plants and pills. The plants are dangerous, after all, but not nearly as dangerous to the user as to American culture.
What is a drug? It is a bullet that creates a gaping hole in dualistic theory. Drugs are the death of the self because they point out that hexagons and sticks are the cause of our actions, not an innate specialness between our ears. To the right is a picture of tetrahydrocannabinol. It is the active component in the cannabis plant. The dried buds of the cannabis plant can be smoked to achieve psychoactive effect, meaning that that thing over there gets put in your brain and causes your emotions, your ideas, and your perceptions to change. If you live in the United States and you possess any material that contains that certain combination of hexagons and sticks, you will be hunted. The army of dirt-loaders will suffocate you under piles and piles. You can be sent to a cage. You can be sent to a cage forever, if you possess enough of it, even though it is a victimless crime. The crime may be victimless, but the sin is cardinal: thou shall not violate dualistic selfhood.
The nature of drug use challenges the nature of dualistic selfhood. Cognitive dissonance arose. We piled it under dirt, from DARE to Just Say No, from the DEA to MADD. All psychoactive substances are illegal or stigmatized in the United States unless they exist to correct a mental or physical disorder. Tobacco and alcohol remain semi-legal for today, but the fight is never ending. Tobacco is being banned from establishments left and right, its users stigmatized and demonized through massive propaganda campaigns. Alcohol was illegal during prohibition. But now that prohibition is over, alcohol use still faces great stigmatization. More and more restrictions are placed on its consumption every day, and the fact that it is a beverage, not a pill or injection, gives it partial legitimization.
Ultimately, drugs are illegal or stigmatized because they point out that hexagons and sticks are the cause of our actions, not an innate specialness between our ears. The DEA is dirt. Lots and lots of dirt.
How contradictory is it that we at once label individuals as disordered and mandate they take drugs to fix themselves while condemning others for taking drugs in a recreational context? It is only after an exhaustive day of shoveling dirt that logic like that could pass as legitimate.
The fact of the matter is that dualistic selfhood cannot exist side by side drug use. One cannot take antidepressants and believe that their brain has “something more” to it. One cannot smoke a joint without realizing dualism is dead. One cannot live with the mentally disordered while maintaining a belief in the soul. But we do it. We have cognitive barriers, dirt mounds set up to block our dissonance. American culture needs to have a war on drugs. It needs careful marketing and diagnostic labels followed by treatment. Our culture needs these elaborate contradictions. Otherwise we would experience cognitive dissonance, and our fear would creep through our clever disguise, our mountain of dirt washing away in the rain.
The reason why we love Huxley and fear drug-induced dystopia, the reason why marketers for antidepressants perform an intricate ballet of words in their ads, the reason why we treat disorders and lock drug-users in cages is fear. We fear the idea that our lives, our existence on this earth and in this reality, are not special. We fear that our neuron soup floating in our skull is not forever, momentous, or perfect. We fear that we are the same decaying organic matter as everything else. We fear non-dualistic selfhood. We fear that, in the end, we are hairless apes madly shoveling dirt over an idea we know is truth, on one pale dot out of nine, in the sea of infinity. 

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19 Responses to Drug Use in American Culture

  1. SeanM says:

    Overall this was well written. There’s clearly some good thinking going on, whether you’re in high school or college. That said, this reads like an essay. One of the worst lessons students learn in schools now is that a good essay is a long essay. In reality, a good essay is a good essay, and you’ll know one when you see one or write one.

    Some people are going to skip this because you said it was an essay. Or because the formatting screwed up. But since the ideas are interesting, here’s a tl;dr:

    -Americans believe in a “dualistic self”. The body is a vessel for a soul.
    -Drugs and mental disorders disprove the “dualistic self” — they do not “make you more you” or “bring you out”. They directly alter the physical being that you are.
    -Through the scientific process we are finding out that, at best, we are chemical soups. Drugs are making this clear.
    -This whole situation engages massive cognitive dissonance, so as a society we become anti-drug use.

    I agree with the general ideas. Though I would go further “nondualist”. The Buddhist idea of dependent origination explains everything in terms of processes. To quote wikipedia: “Dependent origination posits that certain specific events, concepts, or realities are always dependent on other specific things. Craving, for example, is always dependent on, and caused by, emotion. Emotion is always dependent on contact with our surroundings. . . . This concept leaves no room for the existence of everlasting, absolute entities. The world must be thought of in procedural terms.”

    We are a chemical process the universe is doing, interchangeable and interacting with all its other processes. Hopefully this isn’t all bad news. On the bright side, even at the extreme, there is no real self. That makes it rather difficult to be depressed or narcisstic, since no one is there for all those images and narrative to apply to.

  2. Red says:

    Thanks for the feedback, SeanM. Looking back, I see there are some things i could’ve cut to make it shorter.

    The fact that we are, as you said, “a chemical process the universe is doing” can be a hard one to face. We are told that “something more” exists, and when we find out there isn’t, we are disappointed. But had we not been brought up believing this, it would not be sad to find out we are not special, much like how a child who was never brought up with the Santa Claus myth would not be hurt by finding out he doesn’t exist. Hopefully, over time, our culture’s reactions to this fact will fade as people become more comfortable with not being “special.”

    I thought your tl;dr summed up my thoughts perfectly. Thanks for reading!

  3. donk says:

    I know the essay wasn’t really meant to address this, Red, but do you see any social solution when someone exhibits severe mental deviancies such as MPD and schizophrenia? Can they be synthesized with the larger human “endeavor,” or are they unfortunately stranded?

    Honestly, I don’t know of a culture in which the schizophrenic isn’t either left to the dogs or given some form of drug–maybe the most benevolent model is that of the Amazonian tribes who acquiant schizos with large doses of hallucinogens and set them up as prophets.

    Good article–sure its academic provenance shows, but it outlines some great concepts, and I’ll be sharing it.

  4. OttomanVampire says:

    Great article overall. I have nothing to contribute rather than saying job well done.

  5. Comus says:

    I liked the essay, yet I’m having some difficulty in digesting the main thesis. You appear to rely on a hard-line reductionist view on matters mental, not unlike that of the Churchlands. This by no means is the only tenable option. On dismissing the dualism strictly because of neuronal evidence, even Descartes thought that the mind was connected to the body by the pituitary gland, and thus it would seem plausible that hacking and poking at the gland would have caused some disruption in the broadcasting of the psyche.

    Hardly anyone believes anymore that we are the hapless victims of our pre-determined genetic make-up. Sure, they do set the rough sidelines, but multifarious environmental effects from prenatal experiences onward affect how and which genes activate and which are suppressed. That means there are a lot more degrees of freedom for the environment than might at first appear.

    To say that the self is only neuronal activity (an ontological simple) based on the assumption, that because chemicals alter behavior or personality therefore behavior is caused by chemicals (or drugs … neurons) is taking quite a logical leap of faith. Now I’m not advocating a view point of rough substance dualism a’la Descartes, but there are tenable viewpoints for example on the emergent materialist side, which agree that a mind can not exist on it’s own, but is still more than a sum of it’s parts. That when enough complexity is crammed together a new feature organizes itself. To state that a drug that affects for example serotonine-uptake or some network of neuronal activity is telling us something profound on the organisation of the mind [and for that matter on the functions of serotonine(1)] is jejune until we can figure out the hard problem of consciousness: how and why we have a phenomenal consciousness and qualia.

    Now back to your main issue before I completely tangentially fling myself in too deep in the wrong corner of your essay; the drug-industry and the cognitive dissonance between it and the drug trade (even more scrambled by the use of nootropics to enhance academic performance). I think you’re on the right tracks here, but that it is more sleight-of-hands. Drugs have to be demonized because a) then the legislative and juridicial actions against them plays nicely to the idea of state as protecting it’s citizens from impulsivity and change and b) because that restricts the acts of rebellion into causing self-harm (either by passivization or by making the object of desire the drug instead of what it stands for (the good life, happiness, reduction of anxiety)). The state functions as a huge defense mechanism that is in place either to secure your private illusion of safety or to function as a safe surrogate for your lack of omnipotence to rebel against. It takes care and it punishes. It prescribes drugs or it bans them. It all depends on the market. An allusion to the old saying would be that medicine is what they call the illegal drugs that actually make you feel better. There still is a huge gap between say black tar heroin and SSRI’s though. You sort of blur the line between the two just as you blur the line between what might be called normalcy and mental disorders. I would like to have heard more on your ideas on how to actually change the situation.

    People are categorizing beings. That is how we work and what our brains mainly are for. We categorize everything from civilization to race to money to mental disorders. We do this by the cunning use of Gaussian U-curves. We also categorize people and create ideals of the good life or well-being. It is true that a one-eyed man rules in the kingdom of the blind, but that doesn’t mean the society would be best streamlined for catering to this minority. I’m all for Laingian anarchy and for all your personal white psychoses, but I also think that people feel better when they can join the masses and the middle of the U, be it by drugs, therapy or whatever. Isolation is only good if it’s a choice.

    Okay, I’ve rambled on too much,and a bit too critically as I did really like your essay and your style. Hope you write more!

    1) There are for example case studies of people who have basically no serotonine in their body, yet appear not at all more gloomy than your average neighbour (only a bit dimmer and more obese)

    • Red says:

      Thanks for the critique Comus.

      Emergentism is certainly an interesting position. One might say that emergentism, however, is only a translation of our wish to have “something special” into modern scientific terms, as opposed to the religious terms it was formerly described in. But, as you said, such a criticism is meaningless because we don’t really know enough about “the hard problem of consciousness” to make such a claim.

      I found your conception of the state interesting. In response to point a, I wonder if the reason why drug demonization plays nicely to us is because we are afraid of non-dualism.

      Thanks for reading!

  6. Guy Fox says:

    Hi Red. SeanM is absolutely right about not advertising your writing as ‘here’s something I wrote for X class.’ 99.99% of people will use that as a proxy for your identity, and proceed to use your identity as a proxy to discount your ideas. Or they’ll give themselves a bye with reference to their own identity (“Grading papers in my free time, oh boy.”, forgetting why they chose a job that entails grading papers in the first place). You have anonymity, so use it.

    As for the substance, this would be brilliant for a high school essay, pretty darn good for a junior undergrad, decent for a senior, etc. (See? It’s impossible not to try to put these ideas ‘in their place’ instead of judging them on the merits.) Good brain, don’t waste it. The best part, generally speaking, is the critical engagement with the apparently natural order of things. Asking why things are the way they are and if that’s good or even necessary.

    Here are some criticisms I jotted down while reading it, but beware that I’m not a professional anglicist or englishian or whatever people who teach and take English classes are called.

    There are some leaps in reasoning, e.g.:
    -Descartes’s ideas are the ‘foundation of western existence’ > this is a tough claim to make, given that many if not most have never heard of him, and statistically speaking, nobody has read him. You can make the argument, but not just be boldly stating it.
    -Belief in God necessitates a belief in a soul > God presumably would have also made coconuts, comets, and phosphorus ions. Do they also have souls? Again, you can make the argument, but the necessary relation isn’t obvious or intuitive.
    -”The multiple personality disorder patient does not have, *or even have the capability of having*, the same concepts of selfhood as most Americans.” What? Do they lose the faculty of language? How do we know that two people without this disorder have the same concept of selfhood? Why are Americans the baseline?

    There are also some forced metaphors:
    -dirt is sometimes cognitive gunk to be expunged, and sometimes it’s a metaphor for systemic coercion. Are these supposed to be the same thing? If so, you gotta spell out the relation.
    - “Just as there was an old lady who swallowed a fly, there is a culture that shovels dirt on top of dirt…” Wha? Why drag the old biddy into this? That nursery rhyme is just nonsense, like the cow jumping over the moon or most pop music. What does that have to do with your dirt-as-coercion metaphor?
    -soupsoup of neurons, meaningless algorithm, animal instinct organizer = neuron, algorithm, animal, gadget soup? less is more. focus.
    -’bearing down like cement shoes on a drowning man’? bearing?
    -”the world is little more than a series of brain algorithms, like a computer or a complex snail” In what sense is a snail or a computer a brain algorithm (and while we’re at it, what’s a brain algorithm)?

    And then some general points about the argument/counterarguments:
    -We still have to do something about serial killers, honor killers, negligent junkie parents, etc. right? Either you get punitive or you get rehabilitative on their a$$es, and right now rehabilitation usually means medication. What else do you suggest?
    -Look more at the system. For example, codeine is a narcotic derived from coca, it is legal, and it’s distribution and profits are kept inside the prevailing system of authority. Cocaine is a narcotic derived from coca, but it is illegal, and it’s distribution and profits are outside the prevailing system of authority. Smart money says that’s no coincidence.
    -Dualistic selfhood can be violated with ‘proper authority’ (e.g. a prescription pad), not on one’s own account. Ergo, it’s not protected everywhere and all the time, so look at when, how, and why (You hint at this with the Nurse Ratchet allusion, but you don’t really unpack it.)
    -Alcohol and tobacco have a totally different history than Xanax or Cymbalta. They are both used in religious rituals practiced in America, and they have been in use for thousands of years. Neither is a patented product, etc. If they are equivalent to prescription drugs, you need to work harder to show it.
    -Self isn’t necessarily the same as the soul. You can think of the self as a narrative construct (a la Dennett) while believing in a soul as a metaphysical essence. Something like the self is the locus of conscious sensory apprehension, and the soul is the transcendent part with God on speed dial.

    So if I had to summarize my criticism, it would be something like: 1) the figures of speech and vocabulary sometimes seem affected, so don’t worry so much about ‘sounding right’ or ‘sounding like a real…’, just focus on the ideas, and find your own words to carry them without affectation; 2) some of the steps in the argument are apparently much clearer in your own head than for everyone else, so try to proofread your work from your parent’s/sibling’s/friend’s perspective to see what parts are totally natural for you but might be leaps for them.

    Again, good job, amigo. Keep thinking and writing. I look forward to more.

    • operator says:

      Look more at the system. For example, codeine is a narcotic derived from coca, it is legal, and it’s distribution and profits are kept inside the prevailing system of authority. Cocaine is a narcotic derived from coca, but it is illegal, and it’s distribution and profits are outside the prevailing system of authority. Smart money says that’s no coincidence.

      Dunno what you’re (freely?) basing that on, but codeine is not related to coca and you’re freebasing things I can’t believe in if you think you have evidence to back that up.

      • Guy Fox says:

        Sunnammabich! You’re right. Codeine is derived from opium, not coca. Well, I suppose my point goes down the drain/in the vein then, doesn’t it? Oh wait. Hm. No.

        Hey Z.C., why is your favourite tree spelled with a Y?

        • operator says:

          Whether your statement reflected an error of understanding or a typographical error kinda matters, and – either way – misinformation is absolutely verboten (unless, of course, it’s intentional/used to obvious comedic effect) in the latest revisions of Hecklington’s International Pedant Style Guide.

    • Red says:

      Hey, Guy Fox. Thanks for the critique. You make a number of great points, especially on the third and fifth point in the argument/counterargument section. I agree, and I totally should have “unpacked” that point about violation with proper authority. I certainly made some totalizing and generalizing statements, like the Descartes comment. I often find these unavoidable, but you’re right in noting they present leaps in logic: duly noted. Thanks for the tips!

  7. Gabe Ruth says:

    Unless it’s a high school English class or English is your second language, I’m going to dissent from the apparent consensus that this essay is well written. Aside from the clumsy grammatical mistakes (not that many, but some professors get weird about that shit), it’s much too long and repetitive (it’s all dirt, man!). Your synthesis of TLP’s theme and hard materialism is thought provoking, but ultimately vapid, and your insistence that any non-materialist position is motivated by a desire to be special is childish.

    Your thesis: The drug war is motivated by an atavistic (and narcissistic!) self-understanding that is imperiled by the fact that drugs can affect your mind, which proves materialism is true. What ails the world is a surfeit of dualism, and the solution is naked materialism. The solution to the the USA’s cognitive dissonance is the destruction of the concept of the soul, so that we can be comfortable with chemical mood enhancement. And it’s all dirt. “Embrace your chemical potential.” “The pharmaceutically optimized you is the real one, if you want it to be.” Well, I dissent.

    First, your understanding of the Christian metaphysics is confused. This probably won’t affect you, since you think God is an unnecessary hypothesis, but there it is. Improvements in pharmaceuticals and our understanding of brain chemistry do not phase a Thomist, and not because he sticks his fingers in his ears when you explain what you have learned about his brain (you will see Aquinas described as a dualist; don’t buy it, that is not the dualism you are looking for).

    As for the “mental disorder paradigms are tyranny” meme, bite me. We live under the tyranny of utilitarian individualists now, and any non-materialist aspect of their program is quite irrelevant to its ultimate aims: minimize labor costs. Don’t go trying to sneak in your mushy headed psychological relativism and tell me we’re all a little bit crazy so we should unlock all the doors or we’ll be hypocrites. The reigning philosophy says quite consistently that one may do as one likes up until it impinges on the freedom of another to do so, and then it’s shoot first, ask questions later. Our elites are quite consistent in this (the exception being illegal drugs, but this inconsistency is based on assumptions you don’t share, and you must admit you don’t know your assumptions are true either). If you are arguing from a materialist position, the optimal mental condition is an empirical point, one that our rulers believe they are quite well qualified to define. It comes down to a question of efficiency, really. And if you begin to question the legitimacy of efficiency as an ordering principle, well, better go hide under the bed because no one cares what you think and they will fix you until you see the value in raising your productivity. If you keep asking questions, people will begin to wonder if you’re really a materialist after all. You’ll have to confess to some ridiculous position like neutral monism.

    To be clear, our mistreatment of the mentally ill and the pot heads is a travesty, but fear that their existence disproves our preferred national understanding of self-hood is not the reason for this, and becoming more explicitly materialist in our assumptions as a nation would not improve things for them. I’m unprepared to claim it will make them worse, but again, it all comes down to labor costs. The belief in specialness that you sneeringly identify as the root of our desire to continue in incoherence also prevents us from calling in air strikes on crack houses and downtown Detroit.

    All that said, keep writing. The quality of writing is secondary to the development of your thinking, and both will only improve with practice.

    • Red says:

      Hey, Gabe Ruth. Thanks for the critique. You said I misunderstood Christian metaphysics, and I’d be interested in knowing how. Also, it is an interesting idea that it is the desire to be efficient — not fear of non-dualistic selfhood — that causes certain drugs to be illegal. However, i disagree with your point that our elites are consistent with the non-aggression principle, besides drug use. I would argue that the entire basis of the state — the fictitious social contract — is a violation of the non-aggression principle.

      • Gabe Ruth says:

        I’d say your idea is much more interesting, but not terribly likely. Did I say the elites believe in the non-aggression principle? Utilitarian individualism is not limited by any such scruple. You see the word individualism and think it means the USG cares about individuals, but it only cares about the composite, the least common denominator. The smallest entity on its radar is the identity group. The USG’s understanding of humanity is Hobbesian to the core. Thus no matter what they do, the people are better off with them in charge. Utilitarian means that if an act brings more good than harm, go for it. Since the USG has not yet developed the ability to predict the future, and has developed a stunning ability to forget the past, it is able to do what it does and believe itself righteous.

        If by Christian metaphysics you mean the metaphysical beliefs of your average modern Christian, your understanding is probably correct. But this is because the average modern Christian has accepted that science can prove materialism correct, because he doesn’t understand actual Christian metaphysics.

        • Tim says:

          You’ve said a few times now that some version of ‘Christian Metaphysics’ does not exclude materialism.
          Can you summarize your favourite such version, or just drop some links to it’s core writers?

  8. foxfire says:

    Overall, it is a good essay, and worth reading.

    If I had to choose one thing to nitpick, it would be your assumption that modern pharmocology completely disproves the dualistic self.

    Given the nebulous nature of how you defined the “something extra” of the dualistic self people believe in, it is possible to come up with a definition of “something extra” that does not require any cognative dissonence to maintian. It only takes one false case to disprove a hypothesis. A disproven hypothesis may still be used as a generalization, but it lack the punch of a solid hypothesis. I am not sure if you were intending to make a hypothesis or a generalization, but generalizations allow people to tell themselves they are the exception to the generalization.

    Example: Define that “something extra” to be the ability to exercise free will with that understanding that most of the time people do not exercise free will and instead operate on instinct(nature) and training(nurture). Free will gives an individual the ability to overcome both nature and nurture, but doesn’t make any promises that they actually will. It is well accepted that drugs can alter nature and nurture, thus weakening or suppressing free will. Simply being put to sleep can suppress free will. It does not require any cognative dissonence to maintain this belief system.

    • Tim says:

      Wut? What is this free will thing?
      Are you saying that a person can have an idea not based on past experience, or the structure of thier cognition?

      Like, some tribal kid somewhere gets up one day and draws a nuclear reactor plan on his cave wall? Surely not.

      So by extention, a person set up by his nature and nurture to believe others are hostile won’t assume they are not unless he experiences (perhaps by proxy, by media) the idea that they might not be. Are his actions random? As in, given that he has experienced hostile and non-hostile people, is his decision to believe they are hostile based on probability? Or is it deterministic to and completely predictable from his sequence of events, starting before his birth? Not real free will either way.
      If we say that the self emerges from the physical, then surely the only thing we can say about it’s specialness is that ‘the self exists, we can observe it through our own cognitions, and we call it special the same way that a painting is special, even though it is smears of pigment on a canvas’.
      Probably too late but interested to hear your reply.

  9. HP says:

    Ditto all of Gabe Ruth’s comments.

    Small side note:

    If you want to trash on the idea of free will, you need to expand on the concept. That is to say, if you assert that the self is nothing more than the brain and the brain is nothing more than predetermined (via environment and breeding) chemical reactions…then there’s actually no such thing as free will at all, and we’re just automatons. That idea, then, does not apply just to humanity – it gives us a clockwork universe.

    The much bigger question you have to ask yourself before diving into all this is, do you believe in any such thing as “random”?

  10. CatharticBard says:

    “Wut? What is this free will thing?”


    I’m going to raise my hand and admit that I’m one of those big-bad dualists. As such, I’m convinced that the chemical composition of your brain influences behavior, but I believe that to say the universe is purely materialistic ignores the reality of quantum mechanics. I’d forgive you for describing people as automatons, and it is after all not a new idea. After the advent of neuroscience in the mid-1600′s and the development of nascent theories about the relationship between mind and brain, the French physician Julien Offray de la Mettrie in his notorious 1747 book, L’homme machine (Man the Machine), took materialism to its logical conclusion by treating the brain as a machine that responds reflexively to external stimuli. This argument was grounded in Cartesian space and Newtonian physics. We know today that the universe is much more complicated than this; quantum mechanics allows for randomness, for we must talk in terms of probabilities, and not certainties, to describe phenomena at the quantum level. How can we be so sure that materialism can provide all the answers to the mind and brain quandry? What questions can materialism not answer? If quantum mechanics tells us that matter behaves probabilistically, and can actually manifest from nothing, and disappear as well, then surely there is still room for much speculation as to how the brain works at a fundamental level (and the rest of the universe for that matter), and whether or not an extra-material concept like a soul or freewill may exist. Yes, taking drugs does change the way one behaves or thinks. But is the brain a one way street? OCD patients have a sense of self independent of their illness, an intuitive sense that the brain is sending the wrong messages. The use of conscious will and effort to change and cure OCD and re-wire brain circuity is very compelling, and perhaps is evidence of self controlling the brain, and not the other way around. But this is food for thought. Perhaps one would discredit this and logically argue that the self is an illusion. But again, this too is speculative because the idea is based on assumptions about the nature of matter, and I have trouble accepting the idea that a large enough mass of neurons results in the phenomena of consciousness. In conclusion, there are many unanswered questions, and we’re just going to have to be satisfied with our own speculations. I identify as a dualist because I see a happy medium between materialism and the self/conscience dilemma for the reasons I mentioned previously.

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