Friday, July 8, 2016

The Null Hypothesis, Epilepsy, and Evil Spirits

"A null hypothesis is a type of hypothesis used in statistics that proposes that no statistical difference exists in a set of given observations. The null hypothesis attempts to show no variation exists between variables, or that a single variable is no different than zero. It is presumed to be true until statistical evidence nullifies it for an alternative." http://www.investopedia.com/terms/n/null_hypothesis.asp
 
               As I understand it: the null hypothesis is the point where discussion bogged down in responses to my last blog (June 25, 2016): Gene suggested that we might be mired in a null hypothesis—that is to say, it is just as plausible to believe in spirits as not to believe in them. He asked Jim to suggest a scientific study showing that not believing in spirits is a more reasonable position than accepting that there were such entities as spirits. In this brief essay I will try to move us forward by attempting to show that it is more plausible to attribute the effects of illness, disease, and mental abnormalities to natural causes than to possession by unseen spirits.
 
               In the common tradition shared by Matthew, Mark, and Luke the three evangelists report the same story, each in his own way. The current generally-accepted theory of their relationship is that Mark wrote first, and then Mark's narrative was used as a source independently by Mathew and Luke. Mark (9:14-29) recounts that a boy, possessed by a mute spirit (9:17, i.e., a spirit causing muteness), was brought to the disciples who could not "cast it out" (9:18). The description of the spirit's effect on the boy is frightening (9:20-22). Jesus casts the spirit out, adding that it was also a spirit causing deafness (9:25-26). Luke's narrative (9:37-43a) is shorter and attributes the boy's ailment simply to "a spirit" (9:38), which later turns out to be "an unclean spirit" (9:42), which Jesus "rebukes and heals the boy" (9:42).
 
               Matthew's narrative (17:14-21) is also shorter than Mark and adds that the boy is an epileptic (17:15) and, more to the point, describes his epilepsy as caused by a demon (17:18), which Jesus rebukes and cures the boy. The word translated epilepsy is literally translated "moon struck," for "in the ancient world epileptic seizure was associated with the transcendent powers of the moon."* Matthew gives the disease its "proper" medical term for antiquity, but regards epilepsy as a disease caused by demon possession.
 
               Today the medical profession (and most of the Western world) does not regard epilepsy as caused by demon possession. In the 21st century epilepsy is thought to be "caused by abnormal activity in brain cells": The Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/symptoms-causes/dxc-20117207
 
               Medical practitioners have shown that it is more effective to treat epilepsy with medication than it is to subject a patient to an exorcism: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/epilepsy/diagnosis-treatment/treatment/txc-20117241
 
               The history of the diagnosis and treatment of epilepsy, which brings the rational world to a medical explanation for epilepsy, is anything but reassuring.  The stigma attached to epilepsy lasted well into the 1990s and its treatment has not always been competent: A brief history of epilepsy: http://nawrot.psych.ndsu.nodak.edu/courses/465Projects05/epilepsy/History.htm
 
               Hence, I offer this single statistic, a single variable: that is, epilepsy responds to medical treatment. This datum shows, conclusively in my judgment, that believing epilepsy is caused by evil spirits is a flawed perception of reality and may very well be dangerous to the welfare of those afflicted with epilepsy if their immediate caregivers persist in believing that epilepsy is caused by evil spirits. While it is only a single variable, I suggest that the number of variables will greatly multiply if one makes a study of other illness and diseases, previously thought to be caused by evil spirits, which with the advent of modernity have been shown to be the result of natural causes.
 
               Nevertheless, not all who live in the 21st century are really completely a part of the 21st century, and persist in the belief of evil spirits.  A case in point is Dr. Richard Gallagher, a board-certified psychiatrist, who is described as a professor of clinical psychiatry at New York Medical College.  Mr. Gallagher seems clearly to believe in demon possession. http://wapo.st/293X0vb?tid=ss_mails Has Mr. Gallagher matched my single variable with multiple variables of his own?  If so, we are still mired in the null hypothesis—that is to say, because of Mr. Gallagher's testimony about exorcising evil spirits, it is as reasonable to seek help from exorcists for illness, disease, and mental abnormalities, as it is to seek help from medical professionals.
 
Where do you come down on this statement: exorcism and medical treatment are two equally valid ways of treating epilepsy?
 
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University
 
*F. W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature (3rd ed.; Chicago and London: University of Chicago, 2000), 919.

12 comments:

  1. Hi Charlie, not sure where you're going with this.

    For some time now epilepsy has been treated as a scientifically demonstrated impairment of brain function, and numerous interventions, non-invasive and invasive, have been used to treat symptoms with various degrees of success, as your references indicate. The null hypothesis has been disproven in favor of science based medical interventions.

    Here's the complicated case in the 1970's(psychoses and seizures) of a young woman and her family who had access to both seizure control and psychotic medicines but not the more invasive interventions. She died, weighing 68 pounds, following a year of exorcism intervention.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anneliese_Michel

    I don't think there's any debate today about not using exorcism for epilepsy, in spite of the occasional outlier belief system.

    For those conditions and symptoms which cannot scientifically be shown to have a physiological basis, and which do not respond to medication, I would recommend psychotherapy and social support, not exorcism, in the context of respecting the client's belief system.

    Will science eventually identify all "aberrant" conditions as having a physiological causal basis?
    I don't think so, but who am I to say?

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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    1. Hi Gene,
      Would you have a comment on Gr. Gallagher's involvement in the use of exorcism as a treatment of patients? For example, on the basis of your experience in a similar field is such activity common practice among board-certified psychiatrists?
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Hi Charlie,

      In 25 years of practice in Penna. and as an active member of the Pa Psychological Association, I've never heard of a psychologist associating him/herself with exorcism. Here is a view of exorcism that I think 99.9% of psychiatrists and psychologists hold:

      http://psychology.news/news/2016/04/28/is-speaking-out-against-exorcism-taboo-for-us/
      "Is it time for us to take a new and public approach to exorcism? The practice of exorcism has been fatal in multiple documented cases. In addition, it is not hard to consider the likelihood that a person who is presumed to be possessed by a “demon” actually likely has a mental health concern. They should receive appropriate, evidence based treatment from mental health professionals. They should not be treated like their problems are caused by “evil spirits.”

      In the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual published by the American Psychiatric Association, 2013) Dissociative Identity Disorder was altered to include a reference to 'an experience of possession,'" and further:

      DSM V: "The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. (Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.)"

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

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  2. Interesting blog, Charlie. I hadn't realized there were people of presumed intelligence who believed that epilepsy was caused by evil spirits. How difficult it must be for those afflicted with this dreadful condition!
    I believe in the medical viewpoint all the way.
    Sandra

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  3. Charlie, I looked up the article Jim referenced regarding the difference between mind and brain... Here is part of what it said: "So, in summation, your mind is the sum of the wisdom of your neuropeptides, and other informational substances, under the advisement of your gut-bacteria (which is like your personal google)."

    When I read the article- I did not see any scientific proof that a mind exists- just a very well thought out, educated theory. Again, we can't see the mind- so how do we know of its existence? Educated theories are interesting, but nothing more than guesses. The same guesses and metaphors are used to describe energy, conscious mind, subconscious mind... And spirit.

    You've made it clear that evil spirits do not cause epilepsy, but do all medical conditions have a scientific medical explanation? In other words- have you ever heard of a documented case of a human foaming at the mouth who does not have epilepsy? And doctors cannot find a cause for it?

    Have a good weekend! Elizabeth

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    1. Good Sunday Afternoon Elizabeth,
      With respect to your second paragraph: As I understand it, the mind is not a "thing" but is intangible. So in that sense it is like what some people regard as invisible spirits, ghosts, etc., but that is not the whole story. Resources that enable the mind to function are stored in the brain, and people who study the brain have actually mapped the various territories of the brain associated with those resources: http://www.brainwaves.com/

      With respect to your question in your third paragraph: I cannot answer your question. I seem to call that Gene is a clinical psychologist and he may have a comment. In general I would say there might be many reasons why a person might "foam at the mouth" and have seizures. But I am not a medical practitioner.
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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    2. Good afternoon Charlie,

      I would think that if resources are stored in the brain which enable the mind to function- those same resources (i.e. brain waves) also enable our emotions and our spirit to function as well. In other words- if it is possible to divide the mind into both a conscious and subconscious part... It seems at least plausible to be able to further divide it into soul/spirit.

      I know this is not your area of expertise, but I will look up the brain mapping you mentioned in your previous reply. It does sound very interesting.

      Thank as always- Elizabeth

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  4. I read your blog about spirits and epilepsy. As usual my simple mind cannot take it all in BUT - your comment this morning made sense to me. You said about these people who are experiencing manifestations, "It is in their mind." That I can accept.

    My computer would not let me comment on your blog.

    Pat Elliott, author
    Murder on Tour

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    1. Good Morning Pat,
      Actually you did comment on the blog as your comment here shows.
      I was hoping that you would go into the archive (see on the right side of the page near the bottom where it says "archive"). Go into the archive to my post on March 4, 2010 and read "Forces at Play in the Garden of the Lord." Tell me what you think of that one.
      Charlie

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  5. Hi Charlie,

    Returning to our original concern of the treatment of epileptic conditions by the casting out of the believed to exist spirit (Mark 9:26-27), it strikes me that whatever practices of exorcism exist today, they do not resemble what is described in the Christian testament, and I wonder if they are even comparable.

    I took the following modern description from the exorcism article found on the net at Wikipedia: "In Catholic practice the person performing the exorcism, known as an exorcist, is a consecrated priest. The exorcist recites prayers according to the rubrics of the rite, and may make use of religious materials such as icons and sacramentals. The exorcist invokes God—specifically the Name of Jesus—as well as members of the Church Triumphant and the Archangel Michael to intervene with the exorcism. According to Catholic understanding, several weekly exorcisms over many years are sometimes required to expel a deeply entrenched demon."

    On the other hand, NT descriptions of Jesus' method are about as brief as one can get: the afflicted cries out, Jesus makes a verbal command, and the demon comes out, sometimes rather violently (cf. Mark 1:26, 9:26), all in a matter of seconds. We have a saying, as different as apples and oranges, but the ancient and modern descriptions don't even sound like the same fruit.

    On the other hand, perhaps the ancient descriptions suggest a false sense of permanency and minimize any long term intervention. We too often forget the parable of the exorcised demon who later returns to a cleaned house and brings seven pals with him. In other words, the patient hadn't done what he needed to do to change his life to prevent demon possession.

    In fact, we don't know how long Jesus' "clients" remained free of their demon, or whether they could have benefited from further medical, surgical, social, or psychological intervention. In at least one case Jesus is reported to use an additional social intervention with the Gerasene demoniac, "Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you." (Mark 5:19). But regarding the epileptic in Mark 9, all we have is "never enter him again" (vs. 25).

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

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  6. I would think, Charlie, that your proposal would also work for the existence of God or gods (a "good" spirit," if one wants). That means there is no rational reason to posit the existence of God. Spirits are spirits!
    Dennis Dean Carpenter
    Dahlonega, Ga.

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    1. Good rainy morning to you Dennis,
      You are exactly right, it seems to me Dennis: what is good for one spirit is good for another Spirit. But I don't agree with your conclusion that "there is no rational reason to posit the existence of God." See my blog dated August 14, 2015 (check the historical file on the lower right side of the page) entitled: "Matter and Spirit. Making Sense of it All," And in any case I would not use the term "exist" for either God or spirits,
      Cordially,
      Charlie

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