Thursday, December 30, 2010

Schizophrenia and apologetics

I read this post by Koda on religion and mental illness, and it reminded me of something I read a while back.

It was a fascinating personal account of schizophrenic thinking (h/t: Mind Hacks). It immediately reminded me of my post about "Star Wars apologetics."

The author of the account, Erin Stefanidis, at the time a graduate student in neuroscience, believed that tiny rats were inside her brain eating her neurons, which were regenerating so fast that she suffered no severe physical impairments.
"As a neuroscientist, how can you believe all this?" the doctors queried.

"Because it is all of the Deep Meaning."

"But it doesn't make sense. It's irrational. You surely know that."

"Because," I replied deliberately, as if talking to a child. "The Deep Meaning transcends scientific logic." How else could it be true? I did know all the logical limitations of my ideas, but I was also receiving such intense messages that the rats and my regenerating brain were also true. So I rationally concluded that the one superseded the other. Still, I could use some of my scientific understanding to deal with that which the Deep Meaning imposed on me.
Reading the article, Stefanidis's thinking seemed so bizarre, yet somehow so familiar. Each rational objection is met with logical but ridiculous reasoning. Why don't the rats cause more severe damage to her brain? Well, since she knows rats are damaging her brain, there are only two possible explanations: compensation by other cells, or rapid regeneration. The Deep Meaning informed her it was because her brain regenerates so fast. In fact, that was the reason these things were happening to her. She was part of a Great Experiment because of her unique brain. I won't go into the other delusions she described, but her explanations for each one followed similarly "logical" reasoning.

In essence, what Stefanidis was doing was engaging in apologetics, "the discipline of defending a position (usually religious) through the systematic use of reason." She was attempting to use reason to explain how something others saw as impossible, i.e., tiny rats eating her brain (moreover, without the expected ill effects) could actually be possible.

In the case of Christian or Mormon apologists, they attempt to use reason to explain impossible things such as how the Earth can be only 6,000 years old when all the evidence points to it actually being around 4.5 billion old, or how Noah could get two of every kind of animal from every continent onto his ship in the Middle East, or how a virgin could give birth to a god-man who walked on water, healed the sick, and rose from the dead, or how a man could accurately translate an ancient record by looking at a rock in his hat.
I did know all the logical limitations of my ideas, but I was also receiving such intense messages that [my religion] also true. So I rationally concluded that the one superseded the other. Still, I could use some of my scientific understanding to deal with that which [God] imposed on me.
Substitute "God" for "the Deep Meaning" and "my religion" for "the rats and my regenerating brain," and what, really, is the difference between what Stefanidis did and what apologists do? Are tiny brain-eating rats any less plausible than a 6,000-year-old Earth, or a universal flood, or a virgin-birthed god-man, or angel-delivered records?

Stefanidis was diagnosed with schizophrenia, but how did the way she thought differ from the way apologists think? Is there any meaningful difference other than Stefanidis being the sole believer in brain-eating rats and millions of people believing in gods and theologies? Is even that a meaningful difference? Or is religion simply delusion and apologetics no more than an attempt to put a more reasonable face on madness?

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