Was Freud Right?

September 11th, 2017

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Sigmund Freud was critical of the Enlightenment. I believe he was right about that. What do you think?

Freud is considered the father of psychoanalysis. But he was first a philosopher—and a deeply insightful and prescient one at that. Prior to about 1879, when Freud started his studies, psychology was considered to be part of philosophy. Early psychologists were trying to develop a philosophy of the human mind. They mostly worked within a paradigm they had inherited from René Descartes, the father of the Enlightenment.

Descartes’ paradigm was based on two issues. The first is the “mind-body problem.” What is the precise relation between our mental states and our physical body? The second is the “mind-mind problem.” How are our minds related to ourselves?

Descartes held that our minds and bodies are essentially unrelated. I am entirely a thinking being (“I think, therefore I am”). Descartes added that the mind is entirely conscious (solving the mind-mind problem). Individuals relate to themselves by having direct access to 100 percent of their mental states. In sum, I am what I think I am. Period. I am totally self-aware and cannot be mistaken about my mental states.

Freud doubted that Descartes was right. The work of Charles Darwin, a contemporary of Freud, indicated our mind and body are deeply connected. We are more than thought. And research into hypnosis indicated that the mind is not 100 percent transparent to itself. Freud’s hypnotic experiments seemed to demonstrate that we have subconscious ideas, refuting the belief that our mind is entirely conscious.

Freud would became a critic of the Enlightenment. In 1915, he wrote, “ideas come into our head, we know not from where, and with intellectual conclusions arrived at, we do not know how.” He felt there is vast subconscious thought process that is inaccessible to those who self-report their mental (or spiritual) states.

Yet that is what most Americans do. Especially evangelical Christians. Beginning in the late 1700s, evangelicals stirred up what is called the Second Great Awakening. Alan Taylor, a professor of history at the University of Virginia, writes that they “championed individualism.”[1] Evangelicals felt the state of your soul is 100 percent transparent to yourself. No authority or institution should obstruct your religious assessment of yourself. This individualistic faith caught fire in independence-minded America.

Today, Enlightenment individualism typifies American evangelicalism. Consider Descartes’ mind-body solution. Like Descartes, most evangelicals believe our minds and bodies are unrelated. Spiritual growth doesn’t require our body; just our brain. Few evangelicals I know practice the bodily disciplines, like silence or fasting. If we think right—by listening to sermons, studying scripture, or hearing the Spirit—we’ll act right.

All three are necessary but insufficient. Bodily appetites and impulses shape behavior far more than conscious thinking processes. They require training, i.e., spiritual disciplines.

And consider Descartes’ mind-mind solution. Like Descartes, most evangelicals assume that individuals are 100 percent conscious of their motives. No one can challenge my take on my spiritual state. If you try, I’ll rebuff you. I understand me. You don’t.

This is dangerous nonsense. Blaise Pascal, a Christian from an earlier age, wrote: “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.” The truth is that only about five percent of what we do is the outcome of conscious thinking. Ninety-five percent of our behaviors are nonconscious, shaped by cultures, writes Timothy Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Virginia and author of Strangers to Ourselves.

Scripture agrees. The prophet Jeremiah warned that our conscience—what ought to make us self-aware—often dupes us (Jer. 17:7-9). Individuals self-reporting are notoriously unreliable. William Wilberforce, an English evangelical, cited Jeremiah in urging his daughter Elizabeth to instead cultivate “self-suspicion.” We benefit “from the friendly reproofs of a real friend” for our souls are 100 percent transparent to ourselves.

I’m coming to see I’m an English evangelical more than an American one. That’s why I see Freud as a real friend of the faith. I think Americans, including evangelicals, would be wise to take seriously his critique of the Enlightenment.

 

[1] Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2016), p. 30.

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12 Responses to “Was Freud Right?”

  1. Gerard says:

    Are you missing a ‘not’ near the end when referring to our souls being 100 percent transparent.

    Is the summary of an English evangelical ‘I am what authorities and institutions say I am’?

    I agree perhaps Frued is a help with debunking errors of the enlightenment but wonder if there might be a higher requirement to be considered a friend.

  2. Gerard says:

    Deeply grateful for the way you traverse the thread of an idea through history. Always thought provoking.

  3. Mike Metzger says:

    Gerard: Good catch. Corrected.

  4. marble says:

    Interesting. . . . It was an Irish friend who shook my confidence in my own individualistic independence and assumption of 100% awareness. Like Gerard, I questioned then what you would say the difference would be between an American Evangelical and an English one. Unlike Gerard, I do not think that you would say that it is what authorities or institutions say it is. . . . although institutions would undoubtedly have a role to play.

    I’m thinking here is where you might say that family and community also come in, as also embodied in institutions. Have you read much of Paul Ricoeur – the French philosopher (a Christian) who was fascinated by some of the thought of Freud? His Oneself as Another is thought-provoking.

  5. Gerard says:

    Marble – I appreciate the tip of Paul Ricoeur. After an initial peek, I look forward to learning from his insight.

  6. Mike Metzger says:

    Marble: I would point you to Alan Taylor’s “American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804.” Taylor writes that the individualistic faith of the American evangelists would have more than English evangelist George Whitefield “had ever bargained on.” Taylor implies there is a difference between English and American evangelicalism.

  7. Jonathan Jones says:

    So good Mike…as always.

    I have a friend who personifies this paragraph.

    And consider Descartes’ mind-mind solution. Like Descartes, most evangelicals assume that individuals are 100 percent conscious of their motives. No one can challenge my take on my spiritual state. If you try, I’ll rebuff you. I understand me. You don’t.

    He has no room for push back because of his enlightened state.

    Also, nothing gets by Gerard. 🙂

  8. Barnabas says:

    The link you offer on Freud states
    “In his view, all cognitive processes are unconscious, and all unconscious mental processes are cognitive”

  9. J Nathan Beck says:

    Hey Michael, medicine verified genetically (dna) our bodies are made up of a combination of the dna of everyone before us. Genetically connected that is…

    What’s to say thought is not a part of that process? This would contribute to generational sin passed on generation to generation…

  10. Stan Wallace says:

    Mike, I agree with most of your points. However, I think your first point needs a bit more nuance. You write, ““Descartes’ paradigm was based on two issues. The first is the ‘mind-body problem.’ What is the precise relation between our mental states and our physical body?…Descartes held that our minds and bodies are essentially unrelated…Freud doubted Descartes was right. The work of Charles Darwin, a contemporary of Freud, indicated our mind and body are deeply connected.”

    Yes, the precise relation of mind and body was a major concern of Descartes (philosophically speaking, how are the two substances—mind and body—related?). It is the issue of whether Substance Dualism is true (the idea that we are a composite of body and soul), and if true, how the two are related.

    And yes, there have been many who critique Descartes’ answer. My worry is that the way you framed this may give the impression that Darwin and Freud were the first to observe these problems with his conception of the mind-body relation, and their answer is the only other alternative.

    In fact, the view Descartes advances originated in Plato and has a long history before Descartes. And it was Aristotle who first offered substantial critiques, including the worry you link to Darwin and Freud. From this developed a long history of an alternative view of body-soul relation, focusing on this deep unity. Thomas Aquinas writes much to support this alternative view.

    Therefore, today these two options are named after Descartes (Cartesian Substance Dualism) and Aquinas (Thomistic Substance Dualism). In a blog series I recently wrote I argue Christians should be Substance Dualists, but of the Thomistic variety. (https://www.stanwallace.org/blog/2017/6/29/what-are-we-the-three-answers-underlying-many-spiritual-moral-and-political-disagreements-and-why-one-answer-is-better-than-the-other-two-post-1-of-6)

    Furthermore, you suggest most believers today are of the Cartesian variety (“Like Descartes, most evangelicals believe our minds and bodies are unrelated. Spiritual growth doesn’t require our body; just our brain”) I’m not so sure this is true today. Most of the thoughtful believers I know are Thomistic Substance Dualists, and therefore place a high value on the spiritual disciplines, the physical realm of being, etc. The writings of Christian thinkers like Dallas Willard have helped in this shift. For instance, in his _The Spirit of the Disciplines_ he first outlines Thomistic Substance Dualism, and then goes on to show how this anthropology entails practicing the spiritual disciplines, and why therefore disciplines are effective in spiritual formation.

    Lastly, I worry that if we as believers are only familiar with Cartesian Substance Dualism, when confronted with its problems we may reject Substance Dualism altogether (not knowing Thomistic Substance Dualism is an option that addresses these concerns). We are then left choosing between two other even less desirable options: (1) we are essentially physical things (“Physicalism,” or (2) we are essentially nothing (what I call “Postmodern Anti-Essentialism”). Both of these alternatives are fundamentally contrary to biblical teaching. (I also unpack these two other views and offer reasons to embrace Thomistic Substance Dualism in my blog series referenced above). I’d be interested in your response.

  11. Mike Metzger says:

    Stan:

    You make many fine points. Perhaps I should have you write an upcoming column here. You are correct that Darwin and Freud were not the first. Limitations of word count for my column are largely why I didn’t go as far back as you suggest. But you are right.

    I would suggest that you are in largely different networks than I am. I operate more in networks of practitioners. Yours are more academician, where I am pleased to hear your report. I wish it were true of mine as well. it isn’t.

  12. Stan Wallace says:

    Thanks for your note. You do a great job saying much within the limited word count–kudos!

    And sorry to hear you encounter this Christian Gnosticism so often. Blessings on your good work to counter this thought and its pernicious effects on spiritual life and cultural engagement for the Kingdom!

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