Qualia and Quiddities in Psychotherapy By Margaret Arnd-Caddigan on 7/10/19 - 4:25 PM

In this world of S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and careers, I’m an outcast. I’ve invented a new word for my position: “ascientism.” I am an ascientismist. It means that I do not believe that science can answer all of the important questions in life. Let me be clear: I am not anti-science. I am not a climate change denier; I am not an anti-vaxxer and I am not a flat-earther. In fact, I’m an academic who does research (albeit qualitative). I think most real scientists are also ascientismists. I think that an exclusive focus on STEM education may impair a generation of psychotherapists.

On a basic level, many of us who prize science (I really do) do not believe that the scientific method can answer all of the questions that are relevant to existence, and cannot in-and-of-itself provide for the quality of life of the planet and its inhabitants. The scientific method, like everything, is highly biased, and can only point toward a limited type of answer to the limited questions that can be processed through the method. This bias strangulates those of us who wish to help people who are suffering in multiple complex ways.

The answers you can get from the scientific method are answers to questions about amount: a quantity. The rise of scientism has thus contributed to the quantification of life. Culturally, we judge everything based on its number. How important are you? Well, how much money do you have? How much do you weigh? How many social media contacts do you have? The numerical bias inherent in scientism skews our values. This leaves clients unsure of their own relevance as humans and leave us therapists highly limited in terms of how we can understand and help our clients.

Like what you are reading? For more stimulating stories, thought-provoking articles and new video announcements, sign up for our monthly newsletter.

The skewing of values is exacerbated by the fact that the scientific method elevates “objectivity.” What objectivity suggests is that one can shut off things like feelings, desires and motivations in order to apprehend the world as it really is. This is neither possible, nor is it desirable. It has contributed to a culture that is affect-phobic. People think that they should somehow be able to free themselves of all difficult feelings. Don’t be sad, don’t be angry, don’t feel guilt. When we turn off our own feelings, we lose a great deal of important information about ourselves and the world. We also lose the ability to connect to the motivations and desires of others. This decimates relationships. How many of your clients have diagnosed themselves as socially phobic? Most of my late millennials and gen Z’s do. Scientism may contribute to this particular problem in living.

Scientism is not an alternative to fundamentalist beliefs, as so many of the social media memes suggest. It is one. And as a fundamentalist belief, it is not an appropriate belief system on which we should completely base psychotherapy. Do we need some science to help us understand problems in living and how to help people resolve them? Yes! And we need the humanities in equal measure. The branches of knowledge subsumed under the term humanities include art, literature, music, history, philosophy, religion and language. They are called the humanities because they all in their own ways explore what it means to be human and some of the variations in the human experience. One of the advantages they have over the scientific method is that they explore humanity in the particular (an ideographic view), versus humanity in the abstract (a nomothetic view). We don’t work with aggregated “humanity.” We work with actual, concrete people whose complexity and uniqueness cannot be captured by any nomothetic technique or description.

We help people whose lives have been so quantified that they have no idea who they are or why they exist. Then we ask, “what is the frequency, intensity, and duration of these specific symptoms of codified mental illnesses?” We put more numbers on them. A humanist-enhanced therapy explores qualia and quiddities over and above symptom counts. Qualia (singular, quale) are “what it’s like.” It is a subjective experience that is difficult to succinctly describe. What is it like to fall in love? There are times these experiences undermine one’s well-being and become habitual: all experiences generate the same qualia. This then becomes the focus of change in therapy. As difficult as these experiences are to put into words, the process of attempting to understand, and to a small degree share, someone’s qualia is at the heart of ascientismist therapies.

The word quiddity means “essence.” Quiddities are those things that make an individual unique among humans: their particularities. “Who are you? How are you special?” Therapy becomes an opportunity to help people celebrate those quiddities that enhance the client’s quality of life and alter those that contribute to problems in living. This is an old kind of therapy. Perhaps what is old can become new again.

Yes, use science! Read outcome studies and meta-analyses. They are helpful. Also read religion, philosophy and literature. Attend to your clients’ language. Ask about what music and other art forms they enjoy. You might even “prescribe” specific artistic expressions to open up your clients’ experiences and trigger specific qualia. By all means, inquire about your clients’ religious/spiritual beliefs. Much of therapy often becomes helping them develop or refine their beliefs in meaning-systems. The meaning system does not need to be any organized meaning system, such as a religion or specific philosophy, but it can be.

Life is more than numbers. More than how many symptoms you have, more than the number of likes you get on a social media post, and for us therapists, more than a client’s score on a diagnostic or even treatment rating scale. But the STEM wave has some serious shortcomings. The humanities are necessary areas of knowledge for psychotherapists who wish to help people free themselves from the quantification of their lives. The humanities help us understand and celebrate or contribute to change in our clients’ qualia and quiddities.  

File under: The Art of Psychotherapy, Musings and Reflections