Why consequentialists should read Aristotle

Raphael_[detail] Aristotle from The School of Athens

I am a consequentialist. That is, I think the best purpose to which we could put our moral instincts and cognition to work is the enlargement of the well-being of organisms.

However, I am also sympathetic to an approach to normative ethics which has traditionally been contrasted with consequentialism—virtue ethics. I think the traditional antipathy between the two schools of thought is unnecessary, at least in one direction. There are at least four reasons why I think consequentialists and utilitarians should study and take to heart the lessons of virtue ethics:

1.) Virtue ethicists have thought longer and harder about The Good Life than utilitarians. Consequentialists fixate on how we ought to act in particular moral dilemmas (seemingly mostly involving trolleys), but virtue ethicists talk about how we ought to maximize eudaimonia by organizing the overall pattern of our lives. Most of us aren’t Stanislav Petrov, and the overall pattern of our lives will be more impactful than any one decision we make. We’re more likely maximize flourishing in the world if we spend five days a week for a few decades putting our talents to use in a mostly helpful way, than we are patrolling the street looking for good deeds to do. (Bruce Wayne would be better for Gotham if he invested in education reform and mental health services, rather than exhausting himself Batmanning all night.) Contrary to the trolleyologist picture of the world, human moral life is not a series of deliberate decisions. Much of our existence is lead in habits, routines, and the incremental advancement of long-term (even intergenerational) projects. Virtue ethics gives us resources to think about what sorts of habits, routines, and projects we should cultivate in the long run. And the individual who is both a consequentialist and virtue ethicist can think about what habits, routines, and projects one ought to adopt to maximize value in the world.

2.) Doing good requires practice. If we see a drowning child, we can’t do the right thing if we have not cultivated the courage necessary to risk our lives to save them. Virtue ethics can teach us how to hack our personalities to be disposed to act in a flourishing-maximizing manner.

Also, building on 1.), we are not archangels, and don’t always have the time or mental resources to consciously weigh probable consequences and rationally consider what we ought to do in every particular situation. Therefore, we ought to cultivate automatic responses and personality traits which usually produce the best results for the people around us. Think of virtues as welfare-maximizing heuristics of action.

3.) There are objective as well as subjective components to well-being; alternatively, we value things other than pleasant experiences. (This point will be contested by hedonic utilitarians. I myself used to be a hedonic utilitarian, but was convinced of the value of the objective components of well-being after reading Owen Flanagan’s 2008 book The Really Hard Problem.) For example, on the epistemic axis of human flourishing, we consider someone to be thriving if they earnestly pursue the truth, even if that truth is useless or unpleasant (e.g. “pure” mathematicians’ contributions are appreciated, even if they have no bearing on physical sciences, computing, or engineering; and we can admire Nietzsche, even if his exposition of religion and ethics is demoralizing).

Furthermore, few consequentialists and utilitarians want to bite the bullet when presented with rat-brains-on-heroin-tiling or Experience Machine-like thought experiments. If all we valued were pleasurable stimulation, I don’t think we would work so hard to avoid pro-Experience Machine commitments. We want to actually be physically fit, not just to believe we’re physically fit regardless of our actual health. We want the satisfaction of genuine knowledge, not just the warm comfort of certainty. We care (or at least should care) not just about contents of our experiences, but the causes of our experiences. e.g. We value the satisfaction we receive after a day of volunteering for a worthy organization more than the satisfaction we receive finishing a videogame level, even if the intensity of the pleasure of the former is lower.

I think a relatively simple intuition pump can illustrate the key difference between my own view and that of a hedonic utilitarian. It involves the conceit that we can accurately quantify human emotional well-being over the course of a lifetime:

Imagine two women, Aminah and Alex. Both women, because of genetics and early childhood experiences, suffer from chronic major depressive disorders. Because of their disorders, they have identical emotional experiences, despite other differences in their lives. They report identical levels of subjective well-being, their dopamine levels are functionally equivalent, brain scans suggest they have identical levels of negative and positive affect, etc. A hypothetical utility-measuring superintelligence would consider them to be totally equivalent in terms of subjective affect. However, Aminah is comfortably middle class, fit, healthy, and well-educated. She is on good terms with her family, and has a loyal circle of friends. Alex, on the other hand, is poor, sickly, poorly educated, and lonely.

Now, I think a hedonist is committed to saying Aminah and Alex are equally well-off, full stop. As the hedonic utilitarian only considers subjective experience ultimately important, they (probably?) think because Aminah and Alex are equivalently depressed, their welfare is identical. The hedonist might even say that the resources used making Aminah employed, healthy, and educated would be better spent elsewhere, on someone without depression who could enjoy employment, health, and education more than Aminah.

I disagree; I think Aminah is better off than Alex, even though they are equally depressed. And I don’t think the resources spent on Aminah are wasted. I want to maximize things like economic security, health, and social standing in addition to positive conscious experiences. That’s why I’m a consequentialist, but not a utilitarian: I think there’s more to flourishing than pleasure.

I think this is especially important for a non-speciesist ecological ethic. Plants probably don’t have subjective experiences, and unless Eric Schwitzgebel is right about materialism, whole ecosystems don’t have consciousness, either. But flora and ecosystems clearly can be sickly or healthy, unharmed or harmed. If we care about the future of life on this planet and beyond, we ought to care about maximizing the welfare of non-experiencing organisms and environmental systems.

4.) Relationships matter. Utilitarianism is usually contrasted with virtue ethics, in that the former supposedly demands its adherents adopt a degree of detachment from family and friends in the name of adopting agent-neutral reasons for action and a Sidgwickian Point of View of the Universe; while the latter commands us to special partiality for our kin, neighbors, and country. I think this contrast is superficial and ill-founded, and that even after the adoption of a Sidgwickian universalist perspective, we are obliged to cultivate special relationships with those near and dear to us.

It is undeniable that we humans are social animals. A necessary condition of our thriving is having partial relationships with other people—familial love, dear friendship, romantic partnership, workplace solidarity, soldierly comradery, patriotic unity, etc. Just as they need food, clean water, and shelter, men and women need the affectionate attention of familiars, without which they will wither and die as surely as if they are deprived of nourishment. A world that isn’t filled with people partial to their neighbors and kin is a world full of miserable, stunted persons. Therefore, even though the consequentialist finds herself obligated to lend aid to distant strangers, she is also required to be supportive of the people she happens to be close to, and be an upright citizen of the state she happens to live in. No one can provide friendly personal warmth, except a friend. And no one can make a nation livable and just, except its nationals.

Virtue ethicists (and also proponents of Confucianism and the ethics of care) have literatures on how best to fulfill our social roles, and should therefore be of interest to consequentialists.

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Useful and useless fictions

red bullAs I’ve argued recently, useful fictions have their place in a respectable epistemic toolkit. Some theoretical apparatuses must simplify or caricaturize their target phenomena in order to allow us to get a grasp on things (for example, talking and thinking like naïve color realists allows us to track different objects’ dispositions to evoke particular colorful experiences, though they do not possess the “objective colors” we impute to them).

However, I do not wish to give the impression of being soft on falsehood. Not all fictions are equal, and most will mislead us, even if they have some degree of instrumental utility. Read that again: Even the pragmatist who equates truth with usefulness needs a way to distinguish prudence from mere and lazy expedience.

The expedient belief passes a first-glance test of likelihood, and might even teach us a new trick for manipulating our environment. But even if it appears to explain existing facts, it will fail to gain substantiation in ongoing observation; afford few or no new predictions; or grant us only a slippery hold on the phenomena we attempt to influence.

For example, a student might more effectively study for her finals if she believes that willpower is an unlimited resource. However, the fact that accepting this theory helps her with one task (studying) cannot by itself decisively validate the theory. The pragmatic maxim, as always, is helpful to clarify this point. When considering the truthfulness of a claim, Peirce urged inquirers to consider all the effects that would obtain if a given hypothesis were true. The key here is that all effects must be considered, not only those relevant to a particular task or experiment. In this case, the reality of self-control’s finiteness has effects that cannot help but exert themselves. Our student might eventually realize that even during a good stretch of studying she has to take breaks to replenish herself; that even people of exemplary willpower who consistently push themselves always eventually burn out; that no matter how many Red Bulls she pounds, she can’t pull an all-nighter every night, etc.

Therefore, for our student to assent to the limitlessness of willpower contradicts experience, and moreover, limits her ability to successfully pursue her own goals (e.g. if she works on a group project under the assumption that her teammates are limitless wells of self-control, she’s less likely to end up with an exemplary final project than she is shoddy work made by worn-out, disgruntled colleagues). In the long run, our student will be hampered, not helped, by her belief in indefatigability. The limitlessness of willpower will reveal itself as a useless fiction.

In which I fill out the PhilPapers survey

In 2013, philosophers David Chalmers and David Bourget polled their colleagues on a wide range of philosophical issues to answer the question “What do philosophers believe?” (Answers were broken down in detail here.) The questionnaire itself asks enough questions on enough Big Issues that to fill it out is to articulate a worldview. It’s a fascinating exercise. So I can’t help but to give my own answers, and put my own philosophical commitments on the record:

Question Answer Comments
A priori knowledge: yes or no? Lean toward: no
Abstract objects: Platonism or nominalism? Lean toward: nominalism If not nominalism, I suspect some sort of Aristotelian realism is true about mathematical entities. Full-blooded Pythagoreanism is a very distantly favored third option.
Aesthetic value: objective or subjective? Accept: subjective
Analytic-synthetic distinction: yes or no? Lean towards: no
Epistemic justification: internalism or externalism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
External world: idealism, skepticism, or non-skeptical realism? Accept: non-skeptical realism Some days I am tempted in the direction of transcendental idealism; but even this resembles realism, in that there is an objective, mind-independent noumenon.
Free will: compatibilism, libertarianism, or no free will? Accept an intermediate position between compatibilism and hard incompatibilism. Libertarianism is incoherent, and that there are no facts of the matter in regards to desert. However, most of our responsibility-holding practices can be justified on utilitarian grounds.
God: theism or atheism? Accept: atheism
Knowledge: empiricism or rationalism? Accept: empiricism
Knowledge claims: contextualism, relativism, or invariantism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Laws of nature: Humean or non-Humean? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Logic: classical or non-classical? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Mental content: internalism or externalism? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Meta-ethics: moral realism or moral anti-realism? Accept: moral anti-realism
Metaphilosophy: naturalism or non-naturalism? Accept: naturalism
Mind: physicalism or non-physicalism? Accept: physicalism
Moral judgment: cognitivism or non-cognitivism? Accept: cognitivism I am an error theorist.
Moral motivation: internalism or externalism? Accept: internalism
Newcomb’s problem: one box or two boxes? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Normative ethics: deontology, consequentialism, or virtue ethics? Lean towards an intermediate position between consequentialism and virtue ethics. I am a consequentialist, but I think consequentialists have good reasons to act like virtue ethicists most of the time. However, explicitly utilitarian reasoning is demanded in certain situations, especially those involving large numbers of people.
Perceptual experience: disjunctivism, qualia theory, representationalism, or sense-datum theory? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Personal identity: biological view, psychological view, or further-fact view? Lean towards: No fact of the matter.
Politics: communitarianism, egalitarianism, or libertarianism? Reject all answers as poorly defined.
Proper names: Fregean or Millian? Insufficiently familiar with the issue.
Science: scientific realism or scientific anti-realism? Lean towards: structural realism
Teletransporter (new matter): survival or death? Lean towards: survive
Time: A-theory or B-theory? Lean towards: B-theory
Trolley problem (five straight ahead, one on side track, turn requires switching, what ought one do?): switch or don’t switch? Accept: switch
Truth: correspondence, deflationary, or epistemic? Accept: The pragmatist theory of truth
Zombies: inconceivable, conceivable but not metaphysically possible, or metaphysically possible? Lean towards: Type-Q materialism

“Infinite possibilities” vs. “Anything can happen”

To say that within a given space there are infinitely many possible states of affairs is not to say that literally anything can happen in that space. It only means that everything possible may happen. One might rebut that given an infinite number of possibilities, nothing is impossible. However, this is not correct; a system can still be governed by laws which preclude some facts, while still permitting an infinite number of states of affairs.

For example: Let us grant that language is a purely biological phenomenon, and all linguistic expressions occur in finite physical systems (i.e. systems constituted by material organisms, responding to natural environments by communicating with spoken words, signs, or writing). Many linguists believe that languages are infinitely generative—that is, within any language composed of a finite number of words and grammatical rules, an infinite number of grammatical sentences can be stated. That is, generativity posits that there are finite physical systems—like the brain/body of a fluent language speaker, or a legal pad and pencil wielded by that speaker—which can enter into an infinite number of configurations, corresponding to the infinity of possible sentences expressible and interpretable by a speaker/hearer.

However, some material configurations are impossible. For example, brain-states or pencil marks on a legal pad cannot embody a correct formula for squaring the circle, because squaring the circle is mathematically impossible. That some configurations are forbidden to a system does not necessarily mean that the possible states for that system to be in is finite. Not every infinite set contains every number—there are different, non-overlapping infinities. (e.g. There are more composite numbers than there are prime numbers, but there are infinite quantities of both.)

The set of conceivable states of affairs, which includes worlds with circle-squaring formulae, may very well be larger than the set of possible states of affairs, which contains no worlds with circle-squaring formulae. However, that does not mean the second set is any less infinite (if it is indeed infinite).

Why does effort hurt?

Via (http://to.pbs.org/1tP1RUZ)
Via (http://to.pbs.org/1tP1RUZ)

Psychologist Robert Kurzban has observed an apparent paradox in human motivation: Many activities which promote our evolutionary fitness—such as eating and sex—are pleasurable, and their pleasantness motivates us to do them. However, other fitness-enhancing activities which require involved, effortful work produce a feeling of mental exertion, which is unpleasant, and encourages us not to do them, or only do them as much as we need to. In short, it’s often painful to advance our own well being. If it’s good for us, why isn’t it fun to concentrate on work, or defer gratification now under the promise of greater rewards later?

Reviewing the literature on the question, Kurzban summarizes his own theory, by which boredom and the strain of attention are crude efforts to represent the magnitude of the opportunity costs agents incur by working on a single task for a long period of time:

Kurzban et al. [24••] have advanced a similar proposal, but, according to this view, the costs of exerting self-control are neither intrinsic [25] nor energetic [17]. Instead, their focus is on opportunity costs. To see the structure of the argument, consider the habituation paradigm, used to measure what pre-verbal infants find novel. Day and McKenzie [26], for instance, presented infants with images of cubes from different angles, finding that their young subjects decreased their looking time at these cubes, as much as they did to a cube being presented from the same orientation repeatedly. The idea behind the use of looking time is that a tableau the baby finds familiar will be boring, and thus will not be worthy of much continued attention; a surprising scene, in contrast, merits more attention, in the same way that an adult might let her gaze linger on something they were not expecting to see. More attention translates to greater looking time indicates greater surprise; less attention connotes boredom.

A key function of the systems that direct attention likely has to do with the value of gathering information: information carries value, so organisms’ brains have design features that motivate them to attend to more informative stimuli over less informative stimuli [27]. Boredom, on this construal, is the feeling the baby gets when little additional information is to be gained from continued attention [28 and 29]. The marginal benefit of attending elsewhere is greater than the marginal benefit of continuing to inspect the experimenter’s scene. Foraging organisms move to a new patch when the opportunity cost of staying is overtaken by the expected benefit of moving on [30]. Similarly,information foraging organisms such as humans move on in an adaptive way. The (opportunity) cost of gathering no new information explains why boredom is unpleasant; looking away reduces this unpleasant sensation.

The habituation paradigm illustrates the problem of simultaneity. Because one cannot look in more than one place at once, looking at one thing carries the cost of looking at everything else. Related, some computational systems in the brain can, in principle, be used for many different tasks–e.g., executive systems–necessitating decisions regarding which task to prioritize. Similarly, memory systems, which can maintain only a finite number data structures [ 31]. This limit requires decisions about which structures to keep in working memory.

According to the opportunity cost view, when systems that can be used for multiple purposes are engaged in a task, the potential benefit of ending the present task in order to perform some other task is computed. This computation is the opportunity cost of persisting in whatever it is that one is doing, which increases over time (e.g., [32]). When this cost is sufficiently great, outweighing the computation of the (potentially long term benefits of persisting), the task is abandoned [12].

The reason, according to this view, that even some fitness-good tasks are unpleasant is that the system or systems that compute the costs and benefits of persisting seem to be designed to favor short-term benefits. Tasks that recruit executive systems might be fitness-good in the long term, but they do not yield short-term gains, or associated phenomenological reward. The increasingly aversive sensation over time is due to the aggregation of opportunity costs [23]. It is plausible that similar arguments might be marshalled to explain the unpleasant sensation of resisting other temptations, such as marshmallows; not eating a sweet carries the (short term) cost of the foregone calories [33].

When “curing” hurts

Painting of a cat by mental patient Louis Wain (1860-1939).
Painting of a cat by mental patient Louis Wain (1860-1939).

Mental health advocate Marvin Ross implores patients, clinicians,  researchers, and advocates to be clear-eyed about the likelihood of “recovering” from schizophrenia:

[I]t has long been recognized that there are three outcomes to schizophrenia. Roughly a third are treatment resistant and remain very ill, a third can be helped with meds and other treatment modalities to improve sufficiently to lead a reasonable but disabled life, and a third will have one psychotic episode, receive treatment and never have another or any long term deficits.

According to the Treatment Advocacy Center, 10 years after diagnosis, “one-fourth of those with schizophrenia have recovered completely, one-fourth have improved considerably, and one-fourth have improved modestly. Fifteen percent have not improved, and 10 percent are dead.”

How do you think the families of the majority of those with non recoverable schizophrenia or the individuals themselves will feel when we hold up to them what is achievable by only 25%? And, we tell them that it is achievable. Why can’t I (or my son or daughter) achieve that. Have I done something wrong? Cancer is an interesting analogy. There is not one cancer but many. And each cancer has its own unique characteristics and prognosis.

Non melanoma skin cancer (basal cell and squamous cell) have 5 year survivals of 95% and 90%. In contrast, the 5 year survival for pancreatic cancer ranges from 1% for stage IV to 14% from stage 1A. Imagine if we told those with stage IV pancreatic cancer not to worry because 5 year survival is 95%. Ridiculous isn’t it but that is what we tell people with schizophrenia. Don’t worry, you should be able to recover because 25% do.

Now, I’m not saying to abandon hope but rather to be realistic and pushing recovery is not realistic if it is not qualified.

The second problem was mentioned to me by my friend Kathy Mochnacki of Home on the Hill in Richmond Hill Ontario. She pointed out that if you claim that recovery is possible, then why continue doing research. People can recover so no need for it. Of course, scientists know better but they are dependent on funding from governments and other agencies.

So, let’s all inject some scientific reality into a very troubling and serious disease.

Can we bracket metaphysics when we do philosophy of mind?

In the most recent episode of SpaceTimeMind, philosophers Richard Brown and Pete Mandik discussed physicalism. More precisely, they discussed “local physicalism” or physicalism about the mind, the proposal that mentality is explicable in terms of entities which are governed by the most fundamental laws of the material world (i.e. the brain). Early on in the conversation (6:10), the two bracketed the question of the feasibility of physicalism as a global thesis—the theory that everything which exists supervenes on physical entities.

Brown names mathematical entities and moral facts as potential candidates for entities which exist outside of physics. However, he says we can do philosophy of mind without settling the ontology of math and meta-ethics, and implies that one can be a physicalist about the mind without being a physicalist about those two domains.

I disagree with the first point. I think a philosophy of mind must be embedded in a larger metaphysical picture, one which accounts for and situates the objects of perception and thought, and explains how they interact with mentality. Since mathematics and morality are clearly things humans think about, we thus have to account for how they get into our cognitive systems. If a physicalistic account of numbers or ethical facts can’t be given, then we are obliged to either explain how a physical system like the brain can access supernatural realms, quine immaterial entities, or abandon physicalism. Without doing one of these three things, we will have left our philosophy of mind incomplete. It would be just as if the Cartesian never addressed how the immaterial mind could interact with the mechanical body—an ontological gap would beg to be bridged.

Placebos can have painkiller effects even when patients know what they’re getting

…but it still takes some prep work (and maybe even deception) on doctors’ behalf. PsyPost breaks down a study conducted by CU-Boulder graduate student Scott Schafer, Associate Professor Tor Wager, and Luana Colloca:

[Schafer] discovered that the placebo effect still works even if research participants know the treatment they are receiving to ease pain has no medical value whatsoever.

Here’s the hitch: The subjects need ample time – in this case four sessions – to be conditioned to believe the placebo works. Then, even after it is revealed that the treatment is fake, they continue to get pain relief. When participants are told the truth about the treatment after only one session, they don’t show a continued placebo effect.

The findings suggest that reinforcing treatment cues with positive outcomes can create placebo effects that are independent of reported expectations for pain relief. Wager, the senior author of the study, explains: “We’re still learning a lot about the critical ingredients of placebo effects. What we think now is that they require both belief in the power of the treatment and experiences that are consistent with those beliefs. Those experiences make the brain learn to respond to the treatment as a real event. After the learning has occurred, your brain can still respond to the placebo even if you no longer believe in it.”

To conduct the research, Schafer and Colloca applied a ceramic heating element to research subjects’ forearms. They applied enough heat to induce strong pain sensations, though not enough to burn the skin.

Interestingly, Schafer ended up having to turn some potential test subjects away because of a higher than normal pain tolerance on their forearms. Turns out, some of these people were food servers accustomed to carrying hot plates of food to hungry diners.

After applying heat of up to 117.5 degrees Fahrenheit to the research subjects who passed the initial screening, Schafer applied what the subject thought was an analgesic gel on the affected skin then – unbeknownst to the research subject – turned down the temperature. To aid in the charade, the subject was asked to read drug forms and indicate whether they had liver problems or were taking other medications prior to receiving the treatment..

In fact, the treatment was Vaseline with blue food coloring in an official-looking pharmaceutical container.

“They believed the treatment was effective in relieving pain,” Schafer said. “After this process, they had acquired the placebo effect. We tested them with and without the treatment on medium intensity. They reported less pain with the placebo.”

For Schafer, the research findings could open doors to new ways to treat drug addiction or aid in pain management for children or adults who have undergone surgery and are taking strong and potentially addictive painkillers.

“If a child has experience with a drug working, you could wean them off the drug, or switch that drug a placebo, and have them continue taking it,” Schafer said.

What does mindfulness accomplish?

Via http://bit.ly/1OxQNXK.
Via http://bit.ly/1OxQNXK.

A few weeks ago, my therapist suggested I begin practicing mindfulness exercises to deal with depression and attention deficits. Any meditative practice I undertake will be administered in concert with more conventional CBT.

I welcome the excuse to begin mindfulness; I crave discipline for its own sake, and wish to explore the various states of consciousness which meditation can facilitate (e.g. the experience of no-self, the oceanic feeling, and tulpa apparitions).

However, character-building and psychonautics aside, will mindfulness work? That is, will it alleviate my depressive and inattentive symptoms?

Serendipitously, just as the question became relevant to me, Adam Frank of 13.7 Cosmos and Culture wrote about a recent meta-analysis of therapeutic mindfulness. Frank—himself a meditator—reports that while not negligible, the clinical effects of meditation are not as life-changing as their most enthusiastic proponents claim:

There have been many studies showing the effectiveness of meditation for different conditions (particularly those related to stress). But a meta-review of these studies by the Association for Health and Research Quality showed only moderate evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation. This overarching review study didn’t necessarily say the effects were not there. Instead, it told us that, taken together, the quality of the studies (based on sample sizes, research protocols, etc.) were not strong enough to support the strong conclusions many mindfulness advocates hope for.

The recognition that more is being made of mindfulness research than the research can support has led some scientists in the field to call for a kind of “time out.” For example, in an article in Tricycle magazine, Brown University professor Catherine Kerr points to news outlets like the The Huffington Post and calls foul:

“The Huffington Post features mindfulness a lot and tends to represent only the positive findings (and in the most positive light imaginable) rather than offering a balanced reading of the science. They use that approach to justify the idea that every person who has any mental abilities should be doing mindfulness meditation. I don’t think the science supports that. The Huffington Post has really done mindfulness a disservice by framing it in that way.”

Of course, The Huffington Post is not alone in hyping mindfulness. For Kerr, who runs the Contemplative Studies Initiative and leads a mindfulness research program at Providence’s Miriam Hospital, the issue becomes how the public receives the hype and what it means.

As she says, “The message [these stories] deliver becomes a ubiquitous, circulating meme that people put up on their Facebook pages and that becomes “true” through repetition alone.” But, according to Kerr, the claims are of the kind even the scientists doing the research wouldn’t support. As she put it:

“Scientists are, for the most part, circumspect about making claims for cures attributed to mindfulness. The science doesn’t support that. Scientists know from looking at meditation trials that not every person benefits from mindfulness therapies, but this is something non-scientists seem to have difficulty with. Individuals should not make clinically based decisions based only on neuroscientific studies because the sample sizes are too small.”

Pointing to specifics of stress and depression she adds:

“The clinical trial data on mindfulness for depression relapse, for example, is not a slam-dunk. The results are really not better than those for antidepressants[1]. In general, mindfulness is not orders of magnitude stronger than other things that people are doing right now to help manage stress and mood disorders. So you have to look at mindfulness in the context of a range of options.”

In other words, the research is still too incomplete to support the strongest claims for scientifically grounded benefits from mindfulness. It doesn’t mean they aren’t there or that there aren’t effects, it just means we don’t really know yet.

Though it compares the effects of mindfulness to antidepressants, Frank’s piece says nothing about the efficacy of mindfulness combined with those drugs, which will be the regimen I’ll be undertaking.  It appears I will have to find out on my own.

[1] On some analyses, antidepressants barely perform better than placebos.