Thursday, January 31, 2013

Higher thoughts.

Summary of the issue//

    “There are some things I will never know. There are somethings I will never fully grasp.” These are the words that I continually have to remind myself. “My thoughts are higher than Your thoughts,” speaks God to my spirit (Or is it my mind He speaks to? Or is it my brain? Or... my soul?). In the past, the study of theology and philosophy has led me to doubt Christian faith. Are we really free? Are we just puppets in God’s puppet show? What is reality? What can we really know? What is truth? What constitutes a human being? These questions opened up my eyes to what I didn’t know, and frankly, what nobody fully can know for sure. There is so much we cannot prove. Can we even really prove anything at all?
    In class, we brought up the ancient metaphysical mystery of the mind and body of man. What distinguishes man from any other creature? Many different ideas exist regarding what makes up a man. William Hasker wonderfully summarizes the philosophy in his book called Metaphysics: constructing a World View.
    A few popular beliefs are as follows. The materialist would say that man is simply material; we are our physical bodies. The materialist view fails to address mental properties and denies the spiritual or immaterial.  Dualism attempts to account for physical and mental properties by separating the body from the mind and addressing the immaterial. The mind is separate from the physical and has no tangible location; yet it is constantly interacting with the physical. Dualism fails to explain how exactly the mind, being fully unphysical, can interact with the brain, a fully physical object. Emergentism, the belief held by Hasker and other Christian philosophers, suggests that the human mind is produced by the brain. The physical, material aspect of man creates the immaterial. However, the mind is distinct from the brain and its activities are not explainable in terms of brain function.

How does this relate to counseling//

    What I’ve grown to question is how I, a humble counseling graduate student, can form an opinion regarding something that philosophers, theologists, and scientists have argued for years upon years and have not figured out.
    Yet, it is worth the effort to come to a personal conclusion; as a counselor, this very question affects the way I perceive myself, and the way that I approach each client that I will see. My counseling theories will depend on my personal philosophies and my worldview.  If I hold to materialism, I will believe that a client’s physical body should be the focus of treatment. Problems are biological, since man is merely biology made up of physical material. Because the mind cannot be empirically measured or tested, modern science is not concerned with immaterial man and problems of the mind.
    The field of mental health implies the existence of the mind/soul by nature. If I hold to dualism or emergentism, I acknowledge the existence of the mind/soul, and can treat both the mind and the body, knowing that the two entities interact in one way or another. The difficulty is pinpointing the location of the mind, and understanding how the immaterial relates to the material.

Personal impact//
    I don’t think that I can adequately even begin to summarize this metaphysical question in a blog post; nor do I think we can adequately come to any conclusions as a class regarding the issue. There seem to be short comings to every view. Every view requires faith: trusting in what is unknown. As stated eloquently by Wilder Penfield, a neurologist, “Whether there is such a thing as communication between man and God and whether energy can come to the mind of man from an outside source after his death is for each person to decide for himself. Science has no such answers.”
    I can only conclude that science, or materialism, has no definitive answers regarding the mysteries of the mind/body; therefore, I turn to faith in God. I turn to the Creator of science and the originator of faith. I believe that man is more than skin and bones; man was created intentionally by God to be more than biology. I believe that the mind/soul does exist and is not something physically detectable in man, but is something spiritual and breathed into the man, setting him apart from all other creation. Perhaps the mind is separate from the brain; perhaps the mind is created by the brain. Nevertheless, a portion of the mind/soul will exist for eternity. Can I prove that scientifically, or really even connect the immaterial with the physicality of man? Nope. But, I chose to cling to the promises of God, the words that He gently speaks to my mind/soul in sweet reminder:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seeing the Light

Almost-four-year-old Colton Burpo is rushed to the emergency room for a burst appendix. His parents anxiously wait as he undergoes surgery. After several hours, they are filled with relief when they discover their son is stable and healthy. But when Colton opens his eyes, he begins to describe how he “died” and then “came back to life.” Dismissing these comments at first, his parents decide he has merely had a dream. But as time goes on, Colton reveals more and more information about his experience that raise some very pressing questions. Somehow, upon waking from surgery, Colton has gained knowledge about relatives he never met, can tell his parents what they each were doing while he was in surgery, and can describe in perfect detail visions of Heaven, Jesus, and Bible figures that have stunning biblical accuracy.  

Could Colton’s soul have really left his body, and then returned again? Was this an authentic spiritual experience, or was it just the product of child’s vivid imagination? Could there be some biological explanation? If so, how can we explain the knowledge he gained? These are the questions that scientists and theologians have been asking for years regarding these events known as Near Death Experiences (or NDEs). 

A class discussion on personhood was diverted to this intriguing topic as students were trying to determine which aspects of the person were material, and which were immaterial.  The primary question at hand was "does the mind exist outside the observable world?" Personal accounts of Near Death Experiences all over the globe certainly pose some significant talking points when trying to answer this question. To learn more about this phenomenon, click here.

 So how do we explain this phenomenon? Well, there are two primary theories. One is solely “material” in that is proposes NDEs are caused by, and experienced within, the physical realm. This theory establishes that NDEs are an evolutionary response caused by neural and chemical reactions in the central nervous system, and serve as a coping mechanism for stress or trauma. The second theory could be characterized as “immaterial” in that it proposes that NDEs are caused by something outside the physical realm, and have spiritual validity. Evidence can be found to support both theories. The problem that is often noted with the “material” theory is that it fails to explain the out-of-body experiences that result in people receiving some kind of knowledge they would not otherwise have any other way of receiving. It also does not explain the often life-altering effects these experiences tend to have on people. One argument against the “immaterial” theory is that the experiences can be inconsistent. This still leaves open the possibility that some NDEs are authentically spiritual, and some are not.   

So how does all of this relate to the world of counseling? In addition to the fact that we may encounter clients who have had these experiences and are seeking help to cope with the after-effects (social, emotional, spiritual, etc.), talking about this complex subject reminds us that not everything can be easily explained. There are mysteries in the world that we won't be equipped to completely untangle. How we choose to handle these types of subjects will affect our personal worldview, our relationships with people, and our counseling practice. Unexplainable phenomena should be put to the test by both our scientific knowledge and theological wisdom. It is the responsibility of the Christian counselor to use discernment in analyzing all the available scientific data, and view it through a Christian lens.

In light of this perspective, I found it reasonable to determine that some of these NDEs could quite possibly be authentic spiritual experiences, and could still align with the collection of scientific evidence. These views are not strictly opposed to one another, and it would make sense to conclude that the immaterial world simply manifests itself in the material. And here lies the difference between the secular and Christian approach; one addresses only the material and neglects the immaterial, and the other addresses the interaction between the two. For the Christian counselor, this concept is extremely important, because to only address the material would be to neglect a significant part of the person, and would therefore be incompetent practice. My greatest discovery was that sifting through the mysteries of the human experience can be an enlightening adventure if we are willing to examine the evidence with an open mind.  


Sunday, January 27, 2013

A Person is a Dog is a Disorder, ALWAYS. Except When…

A [Very] Brief Overview of Personhood
Personhood: This is a topic that a graduate-level counseling class took a rocky ride to discover that without some sort of moral compass, there is no definitition. It was peculiar to see a sheep trying on a wolf’s clothing instead of the opposite, but no one could answer the question Dr. Corsini gave, “What makes a person?” It has bothered me since I left the class last week, and it should you too.

Is a human being a person? If so, what characteristics determine a human being? Is it the presence of cognitive functioning or reasoning? Is it an ability to determine right and wrong? It is the fact we can realize and ponder our existence? I would answer yes to all of these but then the ubiquitous scientists in the COUN 507 class would likely say, “Not necessarily.” Determining who or what entity is a person is important for our pleasing of God and for the law and order of society. For example, in Lynchburg, VA it is perfectly legal to have a domesticated animal living outdoors under a shelter and given food, water, and medical care, but without being given anything else (e.g. a dog bed, attention, or training). It would be illegal anywhere in the United States to treat a human child in the same way. 

Abortion is the subject that is currently in the hot seat regarding the issue of Personhood. If a nation like America can say that murdering is illegal and those committing such acts should be punished, then shouldn’t we define what a person is? God forbid congress passes a law that contradicts the Constitution—because that never happens, right? 

For most Christians, there is no doubt that life begins with a thought of God. This website contains great arguments about what God likely says about being a person. It discusses the beginning, definition, and sanctity of human life. In Psalm 139: 13-15, the great former King David alludes to the fact that God knew him before his mother knew him, even--that he was knit in his mother's womb. The scientists would ask rather hauntingly, "Are you saying that a person a person when an amoeba-like thing comes together with an egg-like thing and they fuse together their coils of protein material just hours after conception?" The Christians would likely answer, "Exactly!" But there are other questions scientists could ask that would stump Christians' answers. This article poses many thought-provoking questions about the zygote as a human being. I recommend it if you want to expand your knowledge of the biological debate.

Even though some Pro-choicers even believe that a zygote is the beginning of a human life, they still don't want to be told what they may or may not do with their bodies. So, if we conclude that abortion is premeditated murder it is yet irrelevant because the laws that govern society permit it. Let us not forget that not all things that are permissible are profitable, but how far is society going to push the envelope (1 Corinthians 10: 23)? Let me give you an idea of how far we've come and the lines we've already crossed.

In 1972, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM) IV, determined that sexual orientation disturbance (homosexuality) was a disorder. In 1973, it was no longer a disorder but instead a normal variant of human behavior. (Information on this debate in the 1970's is here.) In the soon-to-come (for years, now, by the way—similar to many preachers' preaching of Christ’s coming—VERY soon…) DSM V will lack some personality disorders. Paranoid, Schizoid, Histrionic, and Borderline Personality Disorders will be cut for different reasons. Granted, science in all fields is improving every day, however, politicians who listen to lobbyists are not, and they have a big impact on which empirical results get put into practice.

From Personhood, Digression, and To Counseling
The most seemingly obvious way to relate Personhood to counseling is in a situation in which a Christian who is a counselor and has a client considering abortion or even a client who has had a miscarriage. For the former, we as counselors should be able to teach the clients the consequences of each action. Ultimately it would be ethical to have the client, not the counselor, rule out abortion as an option. One of our jobs as counselors is to empower our clients to make their own decisions--hopefully ones that are profitable. Some of you reading this may think, "Well, I'm planning to be a Christian-specific counselor and all I have to do is tell them about God's distaste for murder, as it says in the Ten Commandments." You are wrong. Christian counselors should have the highest ethical code in whatever they do, and part of that ethical code requires us to be competent. We need to know the discourse of the position we hold. If all truth is God's truth, then I strongly believe that empirically-based science points directly to God. Let us not be afraid to use our God-given brain plus the Bible to help people make tough decisions, such as whether to keep an unborn baby or not. Part of that knowledge is explaining to the client that the newly-formed zygote is a person--a small human being with inalienable rights. Regarding the woman who has gone through a miscarriage, counselors of all types must understand that there is a period of mourning of a person--not just a clump of cells.

The Other, Other Point?
Personhood is not an easy topic to discuss and it's SO easy to go off on a tangent. It's important to know how the topic of Personhood, psychology, and competent counseling are connected, and I hope I have given a glimpse of how it could be. I feel as the world is going mad and I wonder how much further science and politics will reject metaphysics as a form of truth or fact. I do not feel as though the American police should be like Saudi Arabia and punish those who sin, but I do feel as though Christians who feel called to enter the political world should use their gifts and passions for changing laws and keep morality in society. I feel as though those who are gifted in science and philosophy should study hard and figure out ways to make people healthier and society better. I give my word as a future psychologist that I will try to improve my field of work and find ways to prove that the principles that God wants us to live by are logically sound, provable, and relevant to society.

There are many directions one could take when discussing Personhood, but if it's not the Christians but non-Christians that we are trying to convince of our beliefs, we must use their language to enlighten them on the way, the truth, and the life.

Post-script and Liability [of Hurt Feelings] Notice
Please note if that although my writing voice is a bit on the biting side, I have not intended to judge actions--only character. I do not attempt to make assumptions as to why a person does something; I ask. I have friends who have had abortions and I have friends who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and have personality disorders. I love them all the same because Jesus loved them and me first. All I know is that they are people and I've learned that people generally and genuinely want to help other people and are basically good. They need Jesus the same as everyone else, but I believe that no one chooses God first; He chose us first and then we responded (John 6:44). We can't drag people to God and expect them to stay. Everyone has their own philosophy but this is the philosophy I stand by until corrected.

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