Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sigmund Freud: Fallen so far and so fast ... ?

No demise of a materialist idol has been more swift and complete than that of Sigmund Freud. He dominated my youth in the Fifties and Sixties, when freelance pop psychologists explained virtually everything in his name, just as today's evolutionary psychologists explain everything in Darwin's name.

American evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne, no friend to evolutionary psychology (or to intelligent design, as the linked review will show),
reviewing Frederick Crews' Follies of the Wise , notes regarding Freud,
Through Freud's letters and documents, Crews reveals him to be not the compassionate healer of legend, but a cold and calculating megalomaniac, determined to go down in history as the Darwin of the psyche. Not only did he not care about patients (he sometimes napped or wrote letters while they were free-associating): there is no historical evidence that he effectively cured any of them. And the propositions of psychoanalysis have proven to be either untestable or falsified. How can we disprove the idea, for example, that we have a death drive? Or that dreams always represent wish fulfilments? When faced with counter-examples, Freudianism always proves malleable enough to incorporate them as evidence for the theory. Other key elements of Freudian theory have never been corroborated. There are no scientifically convincing experiments, for example, demonstrating the repression of traumatic memories. As Crews points out, work with survivors of the Holocaust and other traumatic episodes has shown not a single case in which such memories are quashed and then recovered.

Coyne also addresses a problem that caused me anguish for years, as a journalist - the "recovered memory" movement:
The idea that childhood sexual abuse can be repressed and then recalled originated with Freud, and has been used by therapists to evoke false memories which have traumatized patients and shattered families.

Yes. Many of us guessed that recovered memories were often no more than an explanation for angst that originates in the human condition itself, and has no "cure" because its other name is life. That was at best. At worst, the recovered memories sounded like manipulations. It was terrible to witness lives and families shattered by Freudian ideology, and to have few or no weapons with which to shed light and perhaps rescue the perishing.

Priest sociologist Andrew Greeley gets the mood of the mid-twentieth century right when he notes the captivity of even the churches - which might have been expected to provide a bulwark against it - to (largely) Freudian nonsense:
Transformation of religion by pop psychology has been so complete that we take it for granted and are no longer surprised that it happens. Yet, before the fact, one could hardly have predicted it. The founders of modern psychology, be they psychoanalytic or behaviorist, were not religious and, with the exception of Jung, were vehemently anti-religious. The reaction of most religious leaders to psychology, for several decades, was hostile; psychology was not taught in Catholic seminaries (save for "philosophical psychology"). I can still remember the New York Catholic psychiatrists who left the church the day after Bishop Sheen denounced psychoanalysis. (Apparently the good bishop was seen as the unquestioned official spokesman of the church.) Even in the late 1960's, Pope Paul VI condemned the psychoanalytic monastery at Cuernavaca (an action which only locked the barn door well after the horse was gone). Yet by the late 1950's and early 1960's, sacrament of salvation.

When I was sixteen, I was an assistant Sunday School teacher at a liberal church. One day, we were called to a meeting and informed that children who had troubled relationships with their fathers should not be told about God the Father, lest it upset their faith. At that time, it sounded very clever, but remember, I was only sixteen. By the time I was twenty-six, I realized that that was clever-sounding rubbish. No reasonable person who believes that God can be viewed as a father expects as a matter of course that every earthly father is an image of God. Non sequitur - it does not follow. But it served the Freudian purpose of pathologizing a concept that had once merely been a statement of doctrine, "I believe in God the Father Almighty ..." , believed by some and ignored by others.

My sense is that the definitive explanation of how Freud fell from grace so suddenly has not been written yet. The cause cannot be merely the dreadful injustices and destructions perpetrated by the recovered memory movement. That phase only signaled an existing decay without actually creating it, much as mob rule signals a decline of democracy without actually creating it.

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