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:

1 comment:

saint-simon said...

Reading his works one is struck how swiftly Freud proceeds from a mere whim of the theoretical imagination to a confident pronouncement of evidence. However, given the cargo-cult nature of our popular mythology of pioneering science, it is not surprising that even the most frivolous of Freud's theoretical beliefs seem like so many signs of visionary genius to those unfamiliar with the manner of their origination. Reading the critical research on Freud's work which started in the 1970s one is astonished, rather, by his complete lack of scruples of any kind in forcing facts to cohere with his theoretical predictions.

Freud was not in the least averse to inventing evidence or interpreting phenomena against his own better knowledge. Not one of the legendary founding analyses of psychoanalysis was a therapeutic success but this did not stop Freud from reporting them as pioneering breakthroughs. What is more, he was fully aware that they were not so by any stretch of conventional thinking. So why did he behave in such a blatantly self-refuting manner if he had high ambitions of being recognised as a serious scientist?

The late Richard Webster is one of those delightful iconoclasts who have taken the time to cross-analyse Freud's studies against what is now known of the circumstances surrounding their origins, including Freud's extremely revealing correspondence with Wilhelm Fliess and its suppression by Anna Freud. Freud's first published research, the one on the therapeutic benefits of cocaine, already exhibits a pattern of thought that would characterise his work ever after. Again and again Freud reports as important discoveries what amount to little more than his own fevered ramblings, entirely unsubstantiated by and sometimes categorically at odds with the available evidence.

Webster explains that such haughty dismissal of logic and reason can only be expected of a theory which sets itself to prove that objective reality is no more than a distorted reflection of a truer reality hidden from plain view -- to all but the theorist himself. Facts for Freud are only the intellectual stimuli to keep his interpretative apparatus going, they do not and cannot weigh very much against his favoured method of evidence-free theorising. This is because ignoring the demands of sober objectivity is precisely what he needs to make psychoanalysis seem both an internally coherent system and a respectable scientific theory. It was neither accidental nor historically inevitable but integral to the system itself. Freud wanted to believe he had discovered something real and important despite there being no evidence to support it, and he wanted to remove any obstacles to his audience believing it also.

Perhaps Freud was not a self-conscious charlatan in quite the way Lacan is said to have been but he did create a cargo cult science of sorts. It is a cliché and a complete myth, propagated by mildly sympathetic critics of his work, that Freud did the best he could with what knowledge was available at the time. His best is precisely what he didn't do, and couldn't. Freud knew that reining in his theoretical fancies and proceeding in a more sober fashion from existing premises would spell certain doom to both his desire for a radically original system and his monstrous ambitions for recognition as a creator-genius. Research on the origins of the "Freud legend" by Frank Cioffi, Frederick Crews, Richard Webster, Michel Onfrey, and others, offers abundant evidence that Freud's thinking is out of control in ways which cannot be simply attributed to not knowing any better. I highly recommend these studies to anyone who thought they knew something about Freud because they read his canonical works.