The expression “problems for materialism” should not be taken to denote the thesis that materialism faces an insurmountable problem that should lead us to abandon it as the fundamental ontological framework, but rather as indicating a project for materialist to inquiry to resolve or solve. otherwise we would say “problems with materialism”. For example, the materialist does not say that meaning poses a fundamental and insurmountable challenge to materialism, but rather that we require a materialist theory of meaning. Like the increasing acceleration of the universe that is not yet explained by astronomy but which astronomy is working on, meaning is a research project for materialism. The difference between psychotherapeutic and neurological approaches to psychological difficulties helps to illustrate this issue. Here I use the term “psychotherapy” very broadly to denote any clinical approach that focuses on meaning— whatever meaning might turn out to be –as the ground of the symptoms from which a patient suffers. In this regard, existential psychoanalysis, Lacanian psychoanalysis, Jungian psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis, cybernetically informed family therapy, etc., would all be instances of psychotherapies.
While these various therapeutic approaches are opposed to one another on theoretical points, they share the common premise that the symptoms from which we suffer– say depression or chronic hand washing –are meaningful and therefore that addressing these symptoms requires us to work through issues of meaning. Take the example of depression (and here it should be noted that psychotherapeutic approaches have repeatedly been shown to be as effective at treating depression as medication). One common feature of depressive disorders is that they are characterized by a sort of cruelty to self, by an inner voice that continuously lacerates and castigates the self. It’s not difficult to discern, in this cruel and critical voice, the voice of the punishing superego. By why might the superego so cruelly and excessively punish the superego in cases of depression? We can imagine how an existential psychoanalyst might approach depression. Put very crudely, existential psychoanalysis argues that the core of our being is characterized by a fundamental life project– so well described by Heidegger in his account of being-towards-death and Sartre in his conception of projects –that defines all meaningfulness throughout our life. Just as the utensils of a kitchen take on their function or meaning from the project of cooking– the wooden spoon takes on the meaning of stirring in the project of cooking rather than digging dirt –every aspect of a person’s life takes on meaning in terms of the overarching project that defines their life.
Depression, within the existential psychoanalytic framework (the theory would be different in a Lacanian or Freudian psychoanalytic framework) would arise when somehow the person flees from the project that defines their life and gives it meaning. It would occur when the person has fallen into a state of bad faith or inauthenticity. There could be any number of reasons a person betrays their life project. Perhaps the project is too difficult. Perhaps they have conflicting attachments, wishing to please a parent and follow in their steps and pursue their project of being a musician. Perhaps it would bring about exile from their community if they belonged to a particular religious community. There will be as many different reasons for flight as there are depressed people as life projects are singular (and often appear incomprehensible to those that don’t share them). Regardless, in all cases some sort of abandonment or flight would have taken place, and the voice of conscience would return in the form of depressive states marking this flight. Treatment would consist in the patient developing an awareness of this life project– often we’re unaware of these things as we are them and live them, we don’t reflect on them –and developing the resolve to live in accord with them. Becoming one’s project would guarantee happiness as they can often be very difficult and require hard decisions, but we would at least escape the punishing superego that arises when we betray ourselves. Therapy here would unfold entirely at the level of meaning or how we project ourselves into the future and make sense of our past and the decisions that we have made as well as the symptoms from which we suffer. For example, alcoholism might be a symptom of such a self-betrayal relating to a past.
I’m rushed so I’ll have to proceed quickly. Neurology approaches things in an entirely different way. In the case of neurology we would understand depression to be a matter of neurotransmitters and hormones. Depression would be that which occurs when our neurotransmitters go awry. Accordingly, treatment of depression would consist in a regulation of neurotransmitters.
What we have here are two incommensurable descriptions of one and the same fact (the fact being the state of depression). In the first, depression arises from a relation to meaning and a betrayal of meaning. In the second, depression arises from neurotransmitters being awry. We should resist the urge to adopt a “dual aspect” theory the symptom such as that proposed by Spinoza in Book II of the Ethics when he describes the relationship between mind and body, for it could in fact be the case that there are instances of depression that are, indeed, nothing but imbalances in neurotransmitters with no dimension of meaning. Here there might be a certain asymmetry for the materialist. While it would be the case that all instances of symptoms based in meaning have corresponding brain states, it would not be the case that all instances of depression have corresponding meaning states. The issue is open and we can wonder whether all mental states are causatively related to meaning. The question is that of how to reconcile or think together these two incommensurable approaches to mind. More anon.