Mental illness can be caused by a variety of things, from abuse and neglect to genetics and hormonal imbalances. But people are also affected by their society and culture. It is often said that, thanks to video games, DVD players, and internet devices, people are more isolated today than ever before. This may be true. But the sense of isolation and disconnection goes far deeper than that.
The Modern Paradigm
A paradigm is a generally accepted model of reality, one that shapes how people see themselves and the world around them. Of course, such a model varies. An Amazonian Indian, for example, would have a different world-view to the average New Yorker. The paradigm dominating much of the western world has sometimes been labelled “mechanistic”, “Baconian”, or “Cartesian”. Whatever name is chosen, it unquestionably began with the birth of modern science in England, Holland, and France in the 17th century.
The modern paradigm can best be understood in contrast to its predecessor. Until the 17th century, the natural world was thought of as a place in which the spiritual and material were intertwined. And most people lived in small, rural communities in which there was little sense of individuality.
All this changed in the 17th century. In England, writers like Francis Bacon set out to define the new scientific method. For Bacon, the very idea that human beings were part of a living, organic world was blasphemous. The view of nature as a “Great Organism” was to be replaced by the “Great Machine”, with man the detached experimenter and observer. Rather than seeking ways to live in harmony with nature, as medieval philosophers had done, the new science would enable humanity to predict and control the movements of this great machine. The goal was now power, not wisdom.
Bacon’s contemporary, Rene Descartes, agreed. But Descartes took the division between man and nature even further. For Descartes, the only certainty was thought itself: “I think therefore I am,” as he famously put it. In The Rebirth of Nature, the British writer Rupert Sheldrake notes that, in spite of orthodox Christian belief, Europe’s great medieval universities had taught a form of Animism: all living creatures had souls, but the soul was not in the body; instead, the body was part of a great soul of nature, one which permeated and animated the physical body. Descartes fundamentally disagreed with this. Nature, including animals, was soulless. And the human soul (or ego) was a unique and entirely different entity from the human body, which was a material object — a machine in a world of machines.
Towards the end of the 17th century, the Cambridge physicist Isaac Newton demonstrated the laws governing the workings of this “Great Machine.” For him, God resembled a clock maker or craftsman, one who set the great machine going, then stood back to admire his work. As the 17th century gave way to the 18th and 19th centuries, belief in such a God faltered. But the “Baconian” or “Cartesian” model persisted, leaving many people feeling like abandoned souls, adrift in a clockwork universe.
Such a view of reality has had a devastating effect on people’s mental health. Very often, depression and anxiety can be traced back to a sense of emptiness, disconnection, and ultimate futility. In The Turning Point, Fritjof Capra writes that “To be limited to the Cartesian mode of perception is madness; it is the madness of our dominant culture… a person functioning exclusively in the Cartesian mode cannot be considered mentally healthy. Such individuals typically lead ego-centred lives.”
In other words, the modern paradigm has shaped the way people perceive and experience the world. They have been turned into egotists. Most feel themselves to be an entity of some kind, a self which is the thinker of their thoughts and the subject of their experiences. And for many that is all they feel themselves to be. The frantic desire for money, possessions, and success is often nothing more than a futile attempt to bolster and enlarge this fragile, finite, disconnected ego.
Capra is diplomatic in his choice of words. If those with such a narrow, limited sense of self “cannot be considered mentally healthy,” as he puts it, then most people are mentally ill! They have lost the sense of themselves as part of a living, organic whole.
The phrase “deep ecology” was first used by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess in the early 1970s. In essence, he argued that the environmental crisis could only be solved through a fundamental shift in the way people perceived the world around them; the old paradigm would have to be replaced with a new one. Overpopulation, fossil fuels, and so on, were important issues, but things would truly change only when people changed.
Naess called for a new relationship between human beings and the natural world. People must stop thinking of nature as raw material, as something to be used solely for human benefit. The natural world has been reduced to a mere stage on which human beings act.
More generally, Naess argued that people must develop a new sense of self. In other words, they must cease thinking of themselves as isolated egos and begin identifying with the living world around them. Naess refers to this process as “self-realising.” The narrow, finite ego has to be transcended and a sense of belonging to the “Great Organism” re-established. If people began to think of themselves in this way, they would lose the sense of isolation and disconnection responsible for so much mental illness.
Of course, no supporter of deep ecology would claim that a simple environmental movement holds all the answers to mental illness. But there can be little doubt that the sense of isolation and disconnection experienced by so many people is partly to blame. Deep ecology would at least correct that.