Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Psychiatry: The Illusion of Reality or the Reality of Illusions?

In our discussion of Freud's reflections on war and death, a question was raised in the group as to whether his theory of repression qualified as a "science," or was it instead a kind of literary device masquerading as truth. That question leads us into a discussion of what, exactly, constitutes "science" as opposed to allegory. Most people today assume that science deals with hard facts, such as whether our solar system is heliocentric or geocentric. Allegory and myth, however, are believed to be the provenance of art, and as such are concerned with judgments about human values, such as the origin of beauty or honor. So, in a very superficial way, we might say that science involves the investigation of nature, whereas art investigates man himself. This distinction seems plausible when we compare the subject matter of astronomy compared to the themes of epic poetry, but it really does not solve the problem of what we are to make of Freud. Is he really a scientist or is he a charlatan?

A more useful way of separating science from art is available to us. Both art and science endeavor to reveal the truths about human existence, but they differ in their methodology. Science, once divorced from philosophy (as evidenced by the rise of Francis Bacon and the decline of Aristotle), imposed a sense of order on its investigation of nature. Borrowing from Pythagoras and Euclid a healthy respect for logical proof, science proceeds by linking theory to observation, such that the principle of verification now provides a solid rational foundation upon which science can transform theory into fact. Here is where Freud runs into difficulty. To gain entry into the halls of science, your theory must not only be stimulating, but it needs the support of experimental data. Freud's theory of the unconscious and his explanations of human behavior, though highly stimulating and provocative, have never been verified by experimental data.

In fact, it is difficult to see how it ever could be. Even with the advantages of new technology, no one can detect the presence of the "unconscious" any more than a CAT scan will reveal the presence of a human soul. But Freud's work is based largely on his early clinical practice in which he made careful observations of patients over a period of months and sometimes years. As a result of his work, analyzing the dreams of patients, he came to infer the existence of something he would eventually call the "unconscious." Thus, his work is supported by inferential data (i.e., in a court of law, "circumstantial" evidence) but not by direct observation of the facts. Freud only had access to whatever "facts" the patient could give him. The human psyche, after all, does not lend itself to the same empirical tests as a model of gravitational force. Whereas, Newton succeeded in quantifying gravity in a way that left no doubt as to its veracity. Yet this certainty of proof continues to elude the field of psychiatry. The best that can be said of psychoanalysis is that sometimes patients improve from the treatment, and sometimes they do not. Of course, this is also true of cancer patients, but with MRI scans and toxicology we can positively identify cancerous cells. We are much less confident about the workings of the human mind. Nevertheless, since Freud, psychiatry today has managed to find acceptance by the medical community and is considered to be a bit more like science than astrology. But it still has a long way to go.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

FREUD: Thoughts for the Times on War and Death

The Disillusionment of the War -

Reading Freud’s Thoughts gives the impression that World War I may have been more devastating, psychologically, than any previous wars in history. Why? Why was it any worse than other barbaric wars we read about? Freud gives a couple of good reasons. He says that there were “two…potent factors in the mental distress felt by the noncombatants - (1) disillusionment…and (2) the altered attitude toward death.” In this essay I’ll deal with the first topic: disillusionment.

The 19th century was a period of monumental progress in many areas, notably science and technology. Many people truly believed that humanity had turned a corner in its evolutionary development. Indeed, the theory of evolution sprouted in the 19th century and many thought we were finally on the path to progress. The early 20th century shattered those illusions. Freud says “we had expected to succeed in discovering another way of settling misunderstandings and conflicts of interest.” Unfortunately human psychology and international ethics failed to keep pace with developments in other areas. Scientific and technological advances merely provided more firepower to vanquish enemies. After a period of relative peace in Europe many people believed that a progressive international conscience would prevent future all-out wars. This was the illusion. The reality was a war the likes of which we had never seen before.

Freud believes the First World War may have been self-inflicted. By ignoring real human motivations we merely let loose primitive gratifications that had been bottled up by outwardly civilized behavior. Unpleasant truths about human nature were ignored or glossed over at our own peril. Instead, people indulged in illusions about the progress of man. The real world can be dangerous but Freud feels that “we welcome illusions because they spare us emotional distress and enable us instead to indulge in gratification.” However, “We must not then complain if now and again they come into conflict with some portion of reality and are shattered against it.” This shattering of illusions at the start of the 20th century resulted from the reality of brutal trench warfare.

The most civilized portion of mankind (Europe) reverted to its most primitive desires to kill one another rather than using diplomacy to negotiate conflicts. The unpleasant truth is that we all have a deep human instinct to kill. Living in society requires us to control these primitive instincts. Freud believes that “Civilization is the fruit of renunciation of instinctual satisfaction.” Once we let go of civilized behavior our true selves emerge. Even though we’re not aware of it, the desire to kill still resides deep within us. In other words, civilization is only a thin veneer of proper behavior and “there are very many more hypocrites than truly civilized persons” living amongst us.

When we really feel threatened with injury or death we tend to forget civilized behavior and resort to more primitive modes. Nations do the same thing. Their passions sometimes collectively run away with them. War may not be in their best interests but “nations still obey their immediate passions far more readily than their interests. Their interests serve them, at most, as rationalizations for their passions.” Then, when military tactics like trench warfare break out, we’re shocked by our own ferocity and barbarity. Illusions are shattered. Disillusionment sets in. Death on a massive scale results and is psychologically devastating. This is the modern world according to Freud.

-- RDP

Monday, April 16, 2007

POINCARÉ: The Value of Science

In The Value of Science, Henri Poincaré makes the observation that “most men do not love to think.” Most men do not love to work either but they still do it because they have to pay the bills. That’s not so with thinking. Thinking is more like cleaning out the attic. It’s something we can let slide for a day or two, or even for another twenty or thirty years for that matter. Therefore, Poincaré points out that “It is needful then to think for those who love not thinking.” Since there are so many of us who love not thinking the question is: who should do the thinking? The philosopher Plato addressed this question long ago and for him the answer was obvious: philosophers are best equipped to do this sort of thing. But Poincaré was a scientist. Who did he believe should be in charge of the hard thinking? You don’t even have to read the book to guess the answer.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Poincaré is wrong. He makes a good case that scientists should do the really hard thinking in society. He also believes that the value of science goes far beyond our everyday needs (which is, incidentally, precisely the same argument Plato makes for philosophy). Poincaré says “The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.” Then he goes on to describe in more detail just what he means by beauty: “I mean that profounder beauty which comes from the harmonious order of the parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.” That’s not how most of us define beauty. This definition has a certain Platonic intellectual ring to it and Poincaré openly declares that “intellectual beauty is sufficient unto itself.” Plato himself couldn’t have said it better. We should pursue science for its own sake, not for what we get out of it. It’s an end in itself because it’s both beautiful and inspiring.

But that’s not enough for most folks. Beauty and inspiration are ok but they also want what is called, in modern terminology, a better return on their investment. So Poincaré gets practical and makes the sales pitch that “this disinterested quest of the true for its own beauty is sane also and able to make man better.” Now we’re getting somewhere. Anything that can not only give psychological health but also make us better men is bound to appeal to the practical side of Americans.

The problem is Poincaré’s fanatical devotion to scientific study for its own sake. He has no doubt whatsoever that “The search for truth should be the goal of our activities…” He’s probably right. We should search for truth. It makes us better men and psychologically healthy. But there are other things in life besides studying science. The scientist/philosopher Pascal says that “God alone is man’s true good.” Science is important to Pascal too but he sets a different value on it than Poincaré. Pascal did some hard thinking himself and believed that the goal of our activities should be the salvation of our souls. As Pascal puts it: “when I survey the whole universe...and man left to himself…what will become of him when he dies…I am moved to terror.” For Poincaré this is a non-issue. As far as he’s concerned “geologic history shows us that life is only a short episode between two eternities of death…Thought is only a gleam in the midst of a long night.” When it’s time for us to leave this old world behind, that’s it. It’s lights out. Forever. So much for life in this world. But since we’re here now we should make the best of it and think about what it all means. Science helps us think harder. So do art and music. And for those who do not love to think there’s always baseball and golf.

-- RDP

Thursday, April 12, 2007

IBSEN: An Enemy of the People

Imagine there’s a dying little town somewhere. Someone comes up with the idea of building healthy spa baths to revive the town’s economy. Everything goes smoothly and the town’s doing well again. Then a few folks find out that the spa waters are contaminated. What to do? That’s the basic plot of Ibsen’s play An Enemy of the People.

What to do about the contaminated spa water? That depends on who you talk to. The baths are the great common interest of the town. The baths provide income for the strong economic comeback of the whole community. They’re doing quite well thanks to Dr. Stockmann. Dr. Stockmann originally came up with the idea of the baths but it was his brother, Mayor Stockmann, who converted the idea into a reality. Dr. Stockmann has an orderly, scientific mind and believes the contamination of the water should immediately be brought to public attention. The Mayor, on the other hand, has been schooled in political pragmatism and wants to take a more cautious approach. What the Mayor knows, and the Doctor doesn’t, is that there are powerful economic and political interests lurking out there. They have their own agendas concerning the baths. This isn’t a problem to be taken lightly or one to be pursued without considering the possible outcomes. One newspaperman wants to use the issue to hammer away at official incompetence. He wants to bring down the current administration and replace it with a new one. The problems with the baths are just a journalistic tool he wants to use for political leverage. Dr. Stockmann unwittingly gets caught up in these power struggles. As one character in the play sums it up “In all his talk about the baths, it is really a revolution he is aiming at; he wants to effect a redistribution of power.”

As the play goes on it becomes clear that one of the problems Ibsen is exploring is that of individual needs versus the needs of society. It’s easy for Dr. Stockmann to say that the baths should be shut down. But it would be two years before they would be up and running again and one of the townspeople asks: “What are we homeowners to live on in the meantime?” Even though Dr. Stockmann has a family of his own he becomes determined to close the baths and chides those who are reluctant to go along with his plan to shut them down. As far as he’s concerned those who are reluctant are being anti-democratic: “They all think of nothing but their families, not of the general good.” Dr. Stockmann is convinced that he’s right because he has Truth on his side.

It’s at this point that Dr. Stockmann transforms from an idealistic and sympathetic character into a real threat to the stability and well-being of the community. He starts out believing that “Truth and the People must win the day.” But he soon changes his mind about “the People” of his community. After his ordeal at a political meeting he comes to the conclusion that “all our sources of spiritual life are poisoned, and that our whole society rests upon a pestilential basis of falsehood.” Now he claims that it’s not just the baths that are contaminated but the whole community. At this point Dr. Stockmann’s fanaticism takes over and he really does become “an enemy of the people” - if we define “the people” as the majority. For him the real disease is “the people” he lives amongst. Dr. Stockmann comes to believe that “The most dangerous foe to truth and freedom in our midst is the majority.” The moral of Ibsen’s play seems to be: democracy is a lousy form of government, but with all its flaws it’s still the best one we’ve found so far capable of looking after the common good for most of “the people.”

-- RDP