Wednesday, February 6, 2019
Adventures in the Old Atheism, Part III: Freud
Our sojourn among the Old Atheists was briefer than I’d intended. To my great surprise, I see that the previous installment in this series dates from roughly the middle of 2016! So let’s make a return visit. Our theme has been the tendency of the best-known Old Atheists to show greater insight vis-à-vis the consequences of atheism than we find in their shallow New Atheist descendants. This was true of and of , and it is true of Sigmund Freud. So lay back on the couch and light up a cigar. And before you start speculating about what hidden meaning lay behind my sudden return to this topic, remember: Sometimes a blog post is just a blog post.
Mechanism and mind
Modern atheism is more than just the denial of God’s existence. It is closely associated with a conception of nature as a vast, meaningless mechanism – to a first approximation, as nothing more than particles in motion, pushing and pulling against one another the way the metal parts of a machine might, but without any purpose of the kind that the machines we construct have.
As I have often emphasized, the more precise way of spelling out this mechanical world picture is to start with its rejection of the essentialism and teleology that were central to the Aristotelian conception of nature that early modern philosophy and science replaced. For the Aristotelian, as for common sense, there is a sharp and objective difference in kind between stone, water, trees, grass, dogs, cats, and all other natural objects. Each of these things has its own distinctive essence or nature, which the human mind discovers rather than invents. But the mechanical world picture treats them instead as just superficially different arrangements of the same one basic stuff. There is no sharp essence or nature of being a tree or a dog per se. These are just loosely cobbled together arrangements of particles.
For the Aristotelian, as for common sense, there are also ends or goals toward which things naturally aim or point, given their essences. Water aims at being liquid at room temperature, trees aim at sinking roots and growing leaves, dogs aim at eating and mating and running about, and so on. But for the mechanical world picture, such aiming or teleology is illusory. Objectively, nothing really aims at or points at or is for anything.
In short, the idea that anything has a natural purpose is an illusion, because natures and purposes are illusions. Now, few thinkers push this idea through with total consistency. Indeed, it cannot be made totally consistent, though eliminative materialists like Alex Rosenberg . The Aristotelians were right, as I argue constantly and . The point for the moment, though, is that whether they work out its implications consistently or not, modern atheists tend to be committed to this general mechanical view of nature.
Now, perhaps if you could instead marry atheism to some broadly Aristotelian view of nature, Perhaps you could maintain the idea that human beings have an essence, that there is as a matter of objective fact an end or point toward which human beings aim given that essence, and that this can give human life meaning and purpose even in the absence of God. , then you could end up with an optimistic view of the human condition.
But what you can’t do is to defend such an optimistic position given the mechanical world picture. If the mechanical world picture is correct, then there is no reason to believe that a human being is anything more than a roughly cobbled together aggregate, like the random pile of junk you collect from around the house and quickly toss into a closet in anticipation of guests arriving, or like the heap of various unrelated bits of debris you find on the beach after a hurricane. There is no reason to think that the parts of human nature can ever cohere, and there can certainly be no point or purpose to human existence that isn’t an entirely made-up one (given the assumption that there are no purposes at all).
Accordingly, any atheism that is informed by the mechanical world picture must, if it is realistic and honest, take a tragic and pessimistic view of human existence. There ought to be no delusional happy talk of the kind that (as we saw in ) one sometimes finds coming from New Atheists like Richard Dawkins.
Which brings us to Freud. The popular image of the father of psychoanalysis has it that he thought human happiness could be secured if only we would free ourselves of stifling repressions, especially regarding sex. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact Freud believed that human beings were likely doomed always to be unhappy, and that this was probably the inevitable price of our enjoying the benefits of civilization.
This is famously the theme of Freud’s As maturity brings one to follow the sober “reality principle” more than the “pleasure principle,” one will find that merely avoiding pain and suffering as far as one can – as opposed to finding positive fulfillment – is the best that can be hoped for. “[T]he idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system” (p. 42), Freud says, and since (he thinks) religion is an illusion, there can be no purpose to life and thus nothing the realization of which could bring genuine happiness., wherein he avers that “the intention that man should be ‘happy’ is not included in the plan of ‘Creation’” (p. 43).
Intellectual pursuits like science and art can provide a few people with some consolation, but the majority of human beings cannot appreciate these things and will likely always need the illusion of religion (pp. 39-41). And even so, though science and technology have made modern man “almost become a god himself,” they have not thereby produced happiness (p. 66). Work, too, can provide only relatively few people with satisfaction, and for most people is merely a necessity rather than a source of fulfillment (p. 49).
The three main sources of our unhappiness are, in Freud’s view, natural forces that lie outside our control, the weaknesses of our bodies, and frustration with the ways we relate to other human beings (p. 57). The idea that civilization is the source of our unhappiness, and a return to primitive conditions the remedy for it, strikes Freud as “strange,” even “astonishing” (p.58). In fact it is only civilization that allows us to mitigate the sources of suffering to the extent that we can. Enmity against civilization and nostalgia for pre-civilized times is rooted in resentment at the frustration of desire that civilization entails:
[I]t is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression or some other means?) of powerful instincts. This ‘cultural frustration’ dominates the large field of social relationships among human beings. As we already know, it is the cause of the hostility against which all civilizations have to struggle. (p. 75)
Prominent among these frustrated desires are those concerned with sexual relationships, for “civilization threatens love with substantial restrictions” (p. 83). Needless to say, Freud is no traditional moralist, but neither is he politically correct. “Women represent the interests of the family and of sexual life,” he says, whereas a man is drawn by the demands of modern civilization ever further away from home and family to the world of work, to the extent that these demands “even estrange him from his duties as a husband and father” (p. 84). Hence, Freud judges, women are on that account likely to resent civilization.
Civilization has also tended to confine sexual activity to intercourse between one man and one woman within marriage (even if it sometimes winks at transgressions), and this is another source of frustration (pp. 85-86). Famously, Freud thinks that repressed sexual desire is a source of neuroses, which can be eliminated by indulging rather than repressing the desire. At the same time, he says:
Sometimes one seems to perceive that it is not only the pressure of civilization but something in the nature of the function itself which denies us full satisfaction and urges us along other paths. This may be wrong; it is hard to decide. (p. 87)
This last remark illustrates Freud’s tendency often to put things tentatively. He isn’t sure that sexual dissatisfaction has something to do with the nature of sex itself rather than merely with the repressions of civilization, but he also isn’t sure that it doesn’t. He even finds it “very understandable” that some would propose that civilization’s restrictions on sexual indulgence “cannot be averted or turned aside and [are something] to which it is best for us to yield as though they were necessities of nature” (pp. 148-9), though he also says that he isn’t certain this is really the case. In any event, he does not regard sexual indulgence as a panacea.
Another key instinct that civilization represses is aggression. Freud thinks it a delusion to suppose that this can ever be eliminated from the human condition:
[M]en are not gentle creatures who want to be loved, and who at the most can defend themselves if they are attacked; they are, on the contrary, creatures among whose instinctual endowments is to be reckoned a powerful share of aggressiveness. (p. 94)
For this reason, he regards the psychological assumptions underlying communism as an “untenable illusion” (p. 97). Competitiveness and aggression were not created by the institution of private property, and if that institution were abolished they would simply manifest themselves in some other way. Abolishing all restraints on sexual desire, and the family along with it, will not eliminate the “indestructible feature” of aggression either (p. 98). Any group of human beings, no matter how affectionate toward one another, will always find some other group at which to direct hostility. Communists themselves manifest this tendency in their hatred of the bourgeois (pp. 99-100). ( I proposed my own explanation for the paradox that people prone to sentimental chatter about love and peace are often extremely nasty themselves.)
The bottom line, for Freud, is that while primitive man was freer to indulge his instinctive sexual and aggressive drives, he also did not live long enough to enjoy this freedom much, and was subject to other restrictions (p. 100). The security and other benefits of civilization require some repression of instinct and the frustration this entails, and we should “familiarize ourselves with the idea that there are difficulties attaching to the nature of civilization which will not yield to any attempt at reform” (p. 101).
An attractive feature of Freud’s Old Atheism, then, is its realism and sobriety. Science, art, work, a return to primitive living, sexual indulgence, an ethic of nonviolence, socialism, the abandonment of religion – none of these are going to bring human happiness or otherwise substitute for the meaning that religion promised. Neither Burning Man festivals, nor Reason Rallies, nor Bernie Sanders can save us. Deal with it.
Freud famously cribs from Plato, transforming the latter’s distinction between the desiring, spirited, and rational parts of the soul into the distinction between id, ego, and super-ego. That is not to say that the distinction is exactly the same, but it is similar. Moreover, a naturalist like Freud is bound to get certain important things wrong, especially where the nature of rationality is concerned. All the same, you can’t go too far wrong starting from Plato’s classic distinction. Freud also has some interesting things to say about the social influences on the formation of the super-ego – particularly his analysis of it as a kind of voice of the father figure. And, let’s face it, id, ego, and super-ego just sounds cooler than desiring part, spirited part, and rational part.
Another merit of Freud’s psychology is its anti-reductionism. Of course, Freud was highly prone to reductionism in one sense, insofar as he tried to account for vast swaths of human behavior in terms of the instincts for sexual indulgence and aggression. That was one of his great errors. But he nevertheless resisted psychological reductionism in the metaphysical sense of supposing that descriptions at the psychological level could be reduced to, or eliminated in favor of, descriptions at the physiological level. That doesn’t mean he was a metaphysical dualist – of course he was not – but he was nevertheless skeptical of the idea that in the analysis of human nature, physiology is privileged. He complained that:
The medical profession had been educated to esteem highly only anatomical, physical, and chemical factors….They clearly doubted that psychic things admit of any exact scientific treatment… In this materialistic – or better: mechanistic – period medicine made magnificent advances, but also failed myopically to recognize the noblest and most difficult problems of life. (Quoted in Walter Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Volume 3: Freud, Adler, and Jung, p. 55)
I always envy the physicists and mathematicians who can stand on firm ground. I hover, so to speak, in the air. Mental events seem to me immeasurable and probably always will be. (Ibid., p. 100)
The area where Freud was least interesting was his analysis of religion. Not because he was an atheist, and not because of his tone or anything like that. (He was certainly peremptory and condescending, but he was not shrill or sophomoric after the fashion of a New Atheist.) The reason is just that what he has to say typically has the flavor of anticlimactic out-of-left-field speculation. For example, all the stuff in Totem and Taboo about religion’s purported origin in a primitive band of brothers killing and eating their father and then feeling guilty about it, is just cringemakingly silly. Even Walter Kaufmann, a more serious and interesting critic of religion who is otherwise sometimes effusive in his praise of Freud, regarded Freud’s writings on religion as subpar. (Cf. Kaufmann, Discovering the Mind, Volume 3, Chapter 32)
In fairness, though, here too Freud sets an example of intellectual honesty that his New Atheist successors would do well to follow. About Totem and Taboo, Freud once said: “Oh, don’t take that seriously – I made that up on a rainy Sunday afternoon” (quoted in Anthony Storr, Freud, at p. 86). You could say the same thing about pretty much the entire New Atheist literature, with .