Thursday, January 31, 2008

Has Freud been a Cargo Cult Scientist?

Feynman tought us to "look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science". As a definition for this kind of science he proposed "something ahout which nobody knows
anything" and explicitly mentioned "the efficacy of various forms of psychotherapy". The goal of Freudian psychotherapy, or psychoanalysis, was to make repressed thoughts and feelings conscious to the patient, thereby letting him develop a stronger ego. This leads us directly to the first weak point in Freud's theory, his structural model of the mind, which he first discussed in an 1920 essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle and fully developed in The Ego and the Id (1923).

This model postulates three components of the human mind, id, ego, and superego. In Freud's theory, the ego mediates among the id, the super-ego and the external world. Its task is to balance between primitive drives from id, morals from super-ego, and reality. Its main concern is with safety and allows some of the id's desires to be expressed, but only when consequences of these actions are marginal. The main criticism has to be leveled at the arbitrariness of this model .

This starts with the term "id" itself. The term id (inner desire) is a Latinised derivation from Groddeck's "Es" and represents for Freud the "pleasure principle". In this view the mind of a newborn is completely "id-ridden" with regard to the mass of instinctive drives and impulses that demand immediate satisfaction. Freud describes the id as responsible for our basic drives such as food, sex, and aggressive impulses. It is amoral and egocentric, ruled by the pleasure–pain principle; it is without a sense of time, completely illogical, primarily sexual, infantile in its emotional development, and will not take "no" for an answer. It is regarded as the reservoir of the libido.

Freud then divided the id's drives and instincts into two categories: life (Eros) and death (Thanatos) instincts - the latter not so usually regarded because Freud thought of it later in his lifetime. Life instincts are those that are crucial to pleasurable survival, such as eating and copulation. Death instincts, as stated by Freud, are our unconscious wish to die, as death puts an end to the everyday struggles for happiness and survival. Freud noticed the death instinct in our desire for peace and attempts to escape reality through fiction, media, and substances such as alcohol and drugs. It also indirectly represents itself through aggression.

The major point of criticism on this model has to refer to the artificial division of our mind. Like Descartes Freud was not able to think the human mind as being both, instinct-driven animal and foreseeing philosopher at the same time. In ignoring the human developmental perspective he masked the incredible human learning ability with his description in terms of pure instinct.

Even his division of instincts is arbitraty. His assumption of a death instinct contradicts every basic biological concept. Although Darwin published his evolutionary theory already 1858, Freud (1856-1939) did not use this concept to reconsider his theory. This maybe can be explained by the overall time evolutionary concepts needed to break through in society. To sum up, Freud surely understood some basic mental processes, as we can see from his contributions to understand unconsciousness. But he used misleading, arbitraty terms and techniques for his research. This uncritical approach does not make himself, but many uncritical followers Cargo Cult Scientists.

The genuine criteria for being a Cargo Cult Scientist is not doing something in a wrong way or with the wrong method. It is doing it wrong but having had the chance and knowledge to do it better. Hence, we have to look for scientists who are repeating the errors of Freud, even 100 years after him.

One candidate offered this model, which reminds me very much of the methods of Freud: