Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Blinded by Culture

The truth (or value) of any new theory is measured in two ways: does it make accurate (and verifiable) predictions about the way nature operates; and if so, does it offer a better explanation than the existing theory?

The Greeks of Homer (or Oedipus) weren't fools, but they could be foolish in the same way that children are when they believe in fairies, Santa Claus, and other mythical creatures. Are we smarter than Aristotle or Oedipus?  Probably not. But we are better informed which means we have access to better information.  We also have the ability to think critically about what is true and what isn't true, which is something that people in Homer's day lacked. We don't burn incense or sacrifice bulls or chickens on altars to bring us good fortune. We use logic, technology, and a knowledge of the past to inform our decisions regarding the future. We don't believe in fate, but we do believe in DNA, cause and effect, and statistical probability.

When it comes to Freud's work on dreams, there continues today to be much doubt whether it even qualifies as science. Much of it is highly speculative, just as his work on infantile sexuality remains mired in controversy. But a theory doesn't always have to be true in order to be useful. Dreaming is so common a human experience as to be almost universal. Often, people are troubled by dreams and are confused, embarrassed, and even ashamed by the content of their dreams. Freud had the insight that dreams are connected with feelings, especially feelings that are often suppressed, such as erotic feelings for other people. He developed a theory about why people have such dreams, and how these dreams be interpreted in a useful way.

What is not clear to many people today is how Freud's early work on dreams qualifies as science rather than mythology.  A person goes to her analyst and describes a dream. How does the analyst know that the person lying on his couch is not inventing the dream as she speaks? Well, there are techniques for separating lies from truth, but are the same techniques able to distinguish hallucinations from dreams? Maybe or maybe not. But people do not spend large sums of money to lie on a couch and discuss their dreams if they don't get some benefit. The proof is in the pudding. Some people feel better going to a priest and giving their confession. Other people go to a psychiatrist and feel better after talking to someone who listens to what they have to say. Even after 2,000 years of human development, our mind is largely a mystery. We don't understand ourselves, nor do we understand the people around us. We live in confusion and we experience anxiety over our inability to control our lives. What Freud attempted to do, with his theory and his practice, was to provide relief from anxiety.

The popular word in use today is stress. And it is far from certain whether this condition is related to our biology or our way of living. Kierkegaard believed that anxiety or stress is existential, meaning it is part of the human condition. Freud, on the other hand, believed that anxiety is treatable and that the ultimate goal of psychiatry should be to make people feel better (or less miserable) than they otherwise would. Of course, Aristotle, along with the Greek dramatists like Sophocles, might say the same thing: tragedy makes people feel better about themselves. Wasn't this the whole point of "katharsis"-- the purgation or cleansing of our soul which, in today's language, we describe as the release of anxiety?


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