Psychology and the Abolition of MeaningJEFFREY SATINOVER
The largely invisible cost exacted by the usurpation of faith by psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry has been great, both in our private lives and in the public order.
Among the set of human accomplishments that emerged from the Renaissance transformation of human thought, science — and the technology that derives from it — is certainly one of the most powerful to which we are heir. In keeping with the Renaissance spirit, and with the apotheosis of that spirit in the Enlightenment, a primary goal of any modern, scientific psychology has been to understand human subjectivity and behavior — including those areas that touch on morals, meaning, purpose, and value, and therefore on human motivation and choice — not in terms of ultimate purpose but in terms of prior causes.
In the domain of psychology or psychoanalysis proper, this search for causes inevitably means the reduction of what appears to be a freely acting or choosing agent — man — to prior, more elementary influences: complexes, structures of the psyche, family influences, earlier experiences, archetypes. In the complementary domain of biological psychiatry, this same reduction is to the organic substrates of these functional subsystems at ever finer levels of detail.
From within this truly analytic framework — analysis consisting of the lysis or breaking down of a whole into constituent parts — all areas of seeming autonomy within human experience are illusory, the residue, as it were, of our ignorance of the true causes that lie "beneath" our experience and cause it, and which only for the time being remain obscured.
Unwittingly, and unacknowledged, the scientific study of man thus aims ultimately at his abolition as man — as free agent — and his reconstruction as mechanism.
"No, that's not entirely true," the analytically informed and guided psychotherapist is apt to object. "Yes, we try to explain our patients' behavior in terms of the conflict among various forces: the instincts in conflict with material and social exigency, for example. But each individual arrives at his own unique solution to these conflicts. And, indeed, when he becomes aware of the conflicting forces that influence him, he is better able to make an informed and creative decision."
But upon closer examination, this notion of free — indeed creatively free — choice remaining somewhere outside the scope of analytic reduction is just a comforting illusion. All that has occurred is that the process of analyzing motives at some point stops, and what remains we decide not to examine further. From a therapeutic perspective this makes sense: the surgeon cuts away the diseased tissue and allows the healthy tissue to remain, better functioning after the operation than before.
But the analogy quickly breaks down: the "surgery" of psychotherapy does not consist in the physical elimination of a section of the psyche, it consists of "seeing through" psychic structures, the dissolving of them into their constituent parts, in which state they no longer need be taken seriously. And of course once we believe we've seen through the parts of our selves we don't care for, it's hard not to start seeing through the ones we do care for. Even though at a certain point, pragmatically determined, most of us stop the analytic process, at some level we and our patients know, or at least sense, that our understanding of selfhood, its very integrity, has been unalterably changed and even damaged.
The method itself "sets the ball rolling," as it were, in one inevitable direction: if our choices prior to analysis were only thought to be free, and were, in fact, the result of unconscious conflict (or biochemistry, for that matter), then why should I believe that my current, post-analytic choices are anything more than the result of other as-yet-unanalyzed influences? And indeed, the study, for example, of ego psychology (which came later in psychoanalytic history), of pre-oedipal influences, of individual differences, of family patterning, of intrauterine milieu, of the genetics of mental disorders (and of character itself) all whittle away at whatever remaining area of true choice there might seem to be.
In its very essence the analytic, scientific method is reductive without limit. Applied to man, it is the universal solvent. The alchemists, who first conceived such a thing, of course never found the universal solvent, and were fortunate not to. For they never considered what would happen if ever they laid hands on it: nothing could contain it; it would eat its way through everything, devouring even its creators.
Freud, whatever his flaws, had the courage of his convictions, and so followed the implications of his vision through to their ultimate end. What he found was a universe devoid of meaning; to explain his own mental state he was driven near the end to postulate a "death instinct," a concept no more scientific or measurable than "God" or "purpose" or "meaning," but considerably more grim, and in the end he chose to die by his own hand.
Consider the current debate over homosexuality once (in the pre-psychoanalytic era), homosexual behavior was considered purely a matter of choice. Then, during the psychoanalytic era, it began to be seen as a rough composite of choice and family influences. Now, at least among mental health professionals, a vaguely emerging consensus points toward a complex mixture of genetic and environmental influences with choice being squeezed out altogether.
To translate into statistical language: as the number of studies increase, and correlation is found with an increasing number of factors extrinsic to "free will," the amount of variance in human sexual behavior that remains unaccounted for by known factors will continue to shrink, and so the amount left over to attribute to choice will by default likewise shrink.
But more importantly, the experience of a line of progress consisting of an ever-smaller proportion of variance left unaccounted for will inevitably suggest — quite plausibly — that with sufficient effort and advances in technique all the remaining variance could be accounted for and nothing of it left to choice. And even if this theoretical end point is never quite achieved, the remaining proportion left unexplained is apt to be so small that we shall dismiss it anyway.
The example of homosexuality is particularly useful in the context of this discussion because the social and political forces arrayed around the question just happen, at this moment, to be constellated in such a way as to make many people want to find little or no choice involved in it. The homosexuality debate is thus configuring itself in precisely the reverse way of most debates about the medical bases of human behavior: people usually resist the idea that their behavior is driven by unchangeable, biological factors (consider the feminist arguments). But in the case of homosexuality, many people are today quite open to the idea of a line of research progress that will reduce this particular behavior mostly to prior causes, and even to the end point this line marches toward, that of no choice involved in homosexuality at all.
But, if we think about it carefully, all aspects of human behavior are at least in principle subject to a similar analysis. That is, after all, the end point of all scientific research. From a scientific perspective there is never any room whatever for freely acting agents. At best, a given analysis only leaves us with remaining areas for which we have not (yet) discovered, or are (as yet) incapable of discovering, the true, prior causes. It is in the very nature of science and the scientific method that it cannot at all address or understand free agency. If there is such a thing, it lies entirely outside the domain of scientific analysis, for to the extent that an analysis of the behavior of any agent is successful, to that extent the agent's behavior has been demonstrated no longer to be free, but predetermined.
Here we have introduced a new observation, namely, that there is such a thing as a profound common human longing for meaning and purpose. If it is true that, unlike our longings for food, water, nurturance, accomplishment, and romance (to name a few), our longing for meaning and purpose has no attainable object, then it makes perfect sense to label such a longing as neurotic. The repetitive, compulsive pursuit of illusory and therefore unattainable goals is, after all, almost a definition of the term.
The tacit goal, then, of a rigorous psychoanalytic, and hence reductionist, worldview is a unique kind of renunciation. One is, on the one hand, meant to attain a stoic abstemiousness with respect to spirit, while embracing, with all due practicality, the world of matter (practically speaking, the instincts). Anatomy, gross and fine, especially that of the nervous system, indeed becomes destiny.*
Along with the majority of his fellow psychoanalytic adventurers, Freud seems to have assumed that to understand the sources of our neurotic longing for meaning would somehow relieve us of it, in the same way that understanding may relieve us of other, more mundane, neuroses; or that a more creative solution to the problems caused by instinctive conflict would ipso facto translate into a subjective and satisfying, even if ultimately meaningless, feeling of meaningfulness. This has not proven true. Either psychoanalytic theories about the source of religious longings are false, or if they are not, then mere knowledge of how these longings come about no more satisfies them than would a lengthy discourse on gastronomy serve as food to a starving man.
Granted, there are some individuals who seem to us at first blush to be exemplars of this new kind of maturity of character. They appear entirely abstemious with respect to spirit, and are quick to let us know it. But a careful examination of this particular post-Enlightenment vanity allows us on closer look to acknowledge that all of us — psychiatrists, psychologists, psychoanalysts of whatever stripe, or simply laymen who have inhaled the reductionist worldview with the spirits of the air — merely recreate within our supposedly secular domains all the same structures of dogma, devotion, and worship (of our fellow creatures) that we criticize as neurotic among the religious. The mature psychoanalyst works through his projections onto his family and friends, and his transference of all this onto his analyst, only to re-project it all over again onto his Institute, or onto Freud or Jung or — mirabile dictu — John Bradshaw. Nor do we count it as an advance should he find some way to mutilate his soul and so never again fall in love.
No, it is clear that the thirst for ultimate meaning and purpose is not at all slaked by simply describing, classifying, and analyzing it. No more so than is deconstructing a poem (or doing a word count on it) the same as loving it. When we have no higher object of our devotion, we make gods of the lower objects at hand. When we do not, or feel we cannot, worship God, we worship our own instinctive cravings instead, mostly not knowing what we are doing, and certainly not admitting it. But willy-nilly, one way or the other, worship we will.
Now draw a line across the triangle about one-quarter of the way up from the base and fill it in. The area below this line represents, say, genetic influences, the biological differences among individuals that account for a significant proportion of the variability in action. The remaining area, still blank, represents what is left to us to attribute, if we wish, to choice and free will.
Next, draw a second line, perhaps another quarter of the way up, and fill in that space with a different color. This second area represents, say, nongenetic biological factors: intrauterine influences, diet, the effect of pollutants, viruses, and bacteria, etc. Again, the remaining even smaller area left blank above the line constitutes, presumably, what remains of free will and choice.
Now draw a third line yet further up and fill in this space with a third color representing family influences, and then a fourth line to demarcate the area of social influences, and so on. Each successive space we so delineate accounts for less and less of the remaining variability because the analyses grow increasingly complex and costly to perform and contribute less and less to our explanatory model. But slowly, relentlessly, the area remaining to "free will and choice" grows progressively smaller. Will it perhaps disappear altogether?
Well it may, and it will certainly grow ever smaller, perhaps asymptotically, as our scientific analysis grows ever more precise. But here is an astonishing thing: when it comes to almost every action that matters to us, no matter how small this space becomes, even if it shrinks to a mere point, we all — the most rigorous, rational, insistent scientist, even the Bertrand Russells among us — will live our lives just as though that tiny point were as dense as a neutron star, weightier by magnitudes than the weight of all the rest of the triangle, no matter how densely and fully filled in. And when that tiny point at the very peak of the triangle finds itself in a struggle against the pressing impact of all the rest, from the biological base on up; when the odds seem hopeless, and the struggle ordained to fail; not only will we ourselves still wrestle, our fellows will cheer us on as well, sometimes with tears barely choked back, at this quintessential manifestation of the human spirit.
Under what circumstances do we experience this sense of higher triumph? Do we cheer the Ivan Boeskys of this world who, overcoming not just the constraints of modest birth, but of modesty as well, have attained solid gold bathroom fixtures? Do we cheer the man who in spite of his physical unattractiveness beds a thousand women and, undefeated by the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, lives to tell of it? Hardly. Rather, we cheer, at the deepest levels of our being, the triumph of good over evil — over the evil that lies outside ourselves, and also the evil that lies within.
Upon reflection, we realize that the only domain of potential choice that means anything to us and which, if it exists at all, needs be a priori free is that of moral choice.
As a science, psychology thus inevitably tends toward an amoral view of man, in just the same way that it tends toward a view of him that has no place for free will and choice. Some psychologists have had the courage — if that is indeed what it is: foolhardiness might be a better term; intellectual consistency, at least — to claim that if the scientific view of man is both true and complete, and if this view leads inevitably to the abolition of "man" as embodied in such concepts as "freedom" and "goodness" (and consequent upon these, such concepts as "dignity" and "nobility of character"), why then, let us be truly abstemious and do away with them entirely, as has proposed B. F. Skinner.
But no more than Freud can Skinner pull himself up by his bootstraps to an Archimedean point of psychological leverage above his own dual being, instinctively selfish as anyone else, yet longing for something good beyond mere selfishness. For when asked, "Who shall lead us into this brave new world?" he chooses . . . himself, of course, and can find no better metaphor for this vaunted role than that of Jesus Christ the savior of mankind. Yet when asked to what end, he replies that it will make a better — not merely "an inevitable," "a better" — world.
This tiny, empty point at the apex of causality is indeed, to use T. S. Eliot's phrase, "the still point of the turning world." And toward this infinitesimal point of ultimate weight there emanates downward, as it were, a second, inverted triangle — one with no topmost boundary — a world of spirit utterly irreducible to the material world of causation below. The essential feature of this, the Jewish and Christian view of reality, is that it turns on the entirely nonmaterial, unnatural question of individual moral choice. With laser-like intensity, at every moment of our existence, this question is aimed and focused at the invisible apex of our being. In answering this question, over a lifetime, again and again, in thought, word, and action, a man discovers the only source of true and lasting joy, or else of deceptive, fleeting pleasure. He turns left, and legions of demons descend in flaming torture; he turns right, and a chorus of angels raise their voices in a holy song of which Handel's Messiah is but the dimmest foreshadowing. The spiritual dimension of reality has, in this view, little to do with "magic," or altered states of consciousness, or healthy ego development, or the Goddess, or n-dimensional parallel universes, or the Earth as God's body, or archetypes that have a representation in the world of instinct; it claims, rather, that the overarching principle of existence, and therefore especially of man, is the revealed moral law. It is from this upper triangle alone that pours out upon us the living water that alone can slake our deepest thirst.
Invisible and intangible, no "thing" whatsoever, this dimension exerts the greatest possible impact on our lives, as much in the myriads of tiny decisions that constitute our quotidian existence in relation to ourselves and others as in the rarer moments of genius that define a culture. Freud said, "Before Art, psychoanalysis lays down its arms," but in this he was being rather too like Nietszche (for whom, also, art was the only appropriate metaphysical arena). Before all manifestations of the Spirit in man, psychoanalysis lays down its arms, or should.
A more tolerant, "hermenuetic" form of psychoanalysis treats the religious impulse, and therefore the human spirit, as a kind of sublimation akin to art: in essence derivative, still, of unconscious instinctive conflict, but acceptable as a better compromise — a story we tell ourselves because we are creatures of "narrative." This approach, too, bows (sometimes unwittingly) to mechanical reductionism as the superordinate form of understanding, but adds to it a kind of condescending noblesse oblige. The patient, unaware that his spirit is being so perceived, may benefit indeed from the kindly tolerance of the wise and caring therapist, but the therapist himself, ironically, is left to shoulder the burden of a frame of mind in which all of his own nobler impulses are subtly undermined by the keen edge of his own understanding.
When men do not worship God, they do not worship nothing, they worship anything. In my view, a proper psychoanalysis, and psychiatry, should assume a welcome place at the table of human understanding, not at its head but as a guest. It should recognize in a faith that orients itself toward the moral order the highest expression of human character, whose place at the head of table it would be abashed to supplant. It should not claim for itself an ability to stand above that faith and "understand" it, thereby itself turning into an ersatz faith; it can, and should, however, help people to clear away the neurotic obstacles that make faith — and hence a moral life — as difficult to achieve as it has of late become for so many.
The largely invisible cost exacted by the usurpation of faith by psychology, psychoanalysis, and psychiatry has been great, both in our private lives and in the public order. Shelley said of the romantic poets that they were "the unacknowledged legislators of mankind." The description, it seems to me, is more apt today (and equally grandiose) with regard to Freud, Jung, and their many fractious heirs. What is frightening is that this very influential faction of society should be as secular as it is: more than 90 percent of Americans believe in God, fewer than 10 percent do not; the figures are the reverse among mental health professionals. We professionals by and large also continue to believe, however improbably, that a better, not a worse, society will result from the more widespread adoption of our secular perspective.
In fact, the reverse is true, and the evidence is all around us.
Satinover, Jeffrey. "Psychology and the Abolition of Meaning." First Things 40 (February 1994): 14-18.
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Dr. Jeffrey Satinover, MS, MD is a former Fellow in Psychiatry and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and the past president of the C.G. Jung Foundation. He holds degrees from MIT, the University of Texas, and Harvard University. He is presently Visiting Lecturer in Civil Liberties & Constitutional Law in the Department of Politics, Princeton University.
His most recent book, The Quantum Brain, explores current developments at the interface of physics, computation, artificial intelligence and neuroscience (April, 2001, Wiley). It has been described by George Gilder, best-selling author and publisher of the Gilder Technology Report and of the American Spectator as "...the first great book of the 21st century and the first definitively 21st century book. It will be read with admiration and amazement for centuries to come." He is also the author of Cracking the Bible Code (William Morrow & Co.). Jeffrey Satinover and his wife have three children.
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