Freud vs God; Round 2

I said I would look at the second of Freud’s categorical errors when discussing belief, and here it is. He thinks that idiots believe in the same sense as intellectuals: that what they say about God is an unclear expression of a clear propositional thought which represents the real content of their beliefs and can be criticised. Everything we have learned, from politics, science, and sociology since he wrote (in 1929) says that this is just not true, and especially not true in the sphere of religion. When undisciplined people talk they are not inferring what they say from a hazily understood set of beliefs about the world. We, the listening critics, are inferring the existence of these beliefs from what they feel compelled to do or say. They act, or talk, as if they believed certain things, but actually they are merely saying whatever the situation seems to demand.

There is a trivial and not particularly religious example of this in yesterday’s Guardian, where Decca Aikenhead interviews a star of breakfast TV, and is driven mad because she is simply unable to make sense of her opinions. Each, individually, is plausible, and obviously sincerely held. But it bears no relation at all to the previous one. The overwhelming effect is one of bewildering incoherence. It’s not as if Lorraine Kelly, the presenter, is stupid or nasty. But she has no shame about contradicting herself any more than a television set remembers the last commercial that it shows.
“She greets me in the GMTV offices with unselfconscious warmth, bustles me into her dressing room trailing giggly apologies for the mess, and blethers away generously for well over an hour. What is hard is to get her to stop for long enough to actually think about anything – or follow the logic of it through.”
The point is that if you were to assemble everything she said, and try to sift through it for an expression of a coherent philosophy, the task would be entirely pointless. There is in fact a coherent belief system behind what she says: that every question should have an answer that will divert a housewife for thirty seconds. But that’s not a belief about how the world is, though it may imply some. It is a belief about what Lorraine Kelly should do. Nor is it clear to me that this belief really exists, or whether it is merely something we can she can reconstruct from her behaviour1

The larger point is that almost everything people say about their religious beliefs should be understood as coming from Lorraine Kelly and not from Decca Aikenhead. It follows that it pointless to criticise their theologies because these don’t really exist. As Pascal Boyer puts it:

“In the description of modes of thought and modalities of belief, we find a mistake that is in fact general to anthro­pological descriptions of religious representations. The mistake consists in describing such ideas from an epistemic rather than a cognitive view­point. Describing a set of ideas from an epistemic viewpoint consists in viewing them as an attempt to say something about the world, as constituting some form of knowledge (however vague, inconsistent, or actually false) of the world. For instance, the Fang representations de­scribed above in some detail can be said to constitute a certain view of the supernatural world, which aims to account for otherwise inexplicable occurrences. In contrast, describing a set of representations from a cognitive viewpoint consists in showing what processes lead people to entertain the thoughts they actually entertain. The question of whether they constitute a system, represent the world, explain it, and so on is irrelevant in a cognitive study. Religious representations are almost invariably described in epistemic terms in anthropology. They are ex­plained as abstract intellectual systems, not as mental representations actually entertained by human subjects.”

Now it is not necessary to go along with Boyer’s beliefs about the cognitive roots of religious representations to see the force of his criticism when it is applied to Freud. They would apply with just as much force if you believe that the roots of religious utterances are social, or even, as Freud supposed them to be, sexual. What matters in both cases is that they are not attempts to describe the things the appear to describe. Fragments of behaviour do not amount to a belief system. They are not even fragments of a belief system. They are just fragments of behaviour — in this instance the behaviour of trying to entertaining people. In other contexts, we’re all familiar with this kind of thing, and with the ambiguities needed to judge it properly. The kinds of things that people say to one another while manoeuvring towards a bed are not best understood as factual statements about the world.

There is a clear discussion of this in Dennett somewhere: at least I know that I have talked to him about it when I was profiling him in Boston.2

It’s not natural to suppose that our emotions should be in line with our intellectual representations of the world and consistent and coherent over time: but as an ideal it’s tremendously important. Even as an ideal it has to be transmitted by a culture: as a discipline, it needs years of education and of practice. You might call it thinking for yourself, in a rather silly clever way, if by that you meant not independence from society, but using thinking as a tool with which to build yourself. Getting to that point is just about the central task of education, moral as well as intellectual, which means that almost everyone pays lip service to it. Yet the evidence suggests that most people, certainly most believers, don’t entertain it as a serious possibility. But neither do most unbelievers.

If that is the case, then it is absolutely pointless to criticise believers for being rotten theologians. They are not doing theology at all. Similarly, it’s pretty pointless criticising most unbelievers for being lousy philosophers, when by jeering at things they don’t understand they are not doing anything more than distancing themselves from the tribe of believers. But it is fair to criticise atheists who set out to be philosophers, or scientists of religion when they get it wrong. In fact it’s essential. How else can knowledge be increased?

So back to Freud. After his great denunciation of religion he goes on to enumerate the various ways in which we can hope to gain happiness, or minimise unhappiness, in the world: there is intoxication, work, art, neurosis — and love itself:

“People who are receptive to the influence of art cannot set too high a value on it as a source of pleasure and consolation in life. Nevertheless the mild narcosis induced in us by art can do no more than bring about a transient withdrawal from the pressure of vital needs, and it is not strong enough to make us forget real misery.

Another procedure operates more energetically and more thoroughly. It regards reality as the sole enemy and as the source of all suffering, with which it is impossible to live, so that one must break off all relations with it if one is to be in any way happy. The hermit turns his back on the world and will have no truck with it. But one can do more than that; one can try to re-create the world, to build up in its stead another world in which its most unbearable features are eliminated and replaced by others that are in conformity with one’s own wishes. But whoever, in desperate defiance, sets out upon this path to happiness will as a rule attain nothing. Reality is too strong for him. He becomes a madman, who for the most part finds no one to help him in carrying through his delusion. It is asserted, how­ever, that each one of us behaves in some one respect like a paranoic, corrects some aspect of the world which is unbear­able to him by the construction of a wish and introduces this delusion into reality. A special importance attaches to the case in which this attempt to procure a certainty of happiness and a protection against suffering through a delusional remoulding of reality is made by a considerable number of people in common. The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.

I do not think that I have made a complete enumeration of the methods by which men strive to gain happiness and keep suffering away and I know, too, that the material might have been differently arranged. One procedure I have not yet mentioned–not because I have forgotten it but because it will concern us later in another connection. And how could one possibly forget, of all others, this technique in the art of living? It is conspicuous for a most remarkable combination of characteristic features. It, too, aims of course at making the subject independent of Fate (as it is best to call it), and to that end it locates satisfaction in internal mental processes, making use, in so doing, of the displaceability of the libido of which we have already spoken [p. 26]. But it does not turn away from the external world; on the contrary, it clings to the objects belonging to that world and obtains happiness from an emotional relationship to them. Nor is it content to aim at an avoidance of un-pleasure–a goal, as we might call it, of weary resignation; it passes this by without heed and holds fast to the original, passionate striving for a positive fulfilment of happiness. And perhaps it does in fact come nearer to this goal than any other method. I am, of course, speaking of the way of life which makes love the centre of everything, which looks for all satisfaction in loving and being loved. A psychical attitude of this sort comes naturally enough to all of us; one of the forms in which love manifests itself–sexual love–has given us our most intense experience of an overwhelming sensation of pleasure and has thus furnished us with a pattern for our search for happiness. What is more natural than that we should persist in looking for happiness along the path on which we first encountered it? The weak side of this technique of living is easy to see; otherwise no human being would have thought of abandoning this path to happiness for any other. It is that we are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love, never so helplessly unhappy as when we have lost our loved object or its love. But this does not dispose of the technique of living based on the value of love as a means to happiness. There is much more to be said about it.”

And one of the things is that this is actually a way of describing some forms of Christianity. I know very few Christians who actually live up to it, just as I know very few real, integral intellectuals. But I do know some, and I do know that many try to, and understand their religion in those terms. Whether this should best be understood as an intellectual error or an emotional bullseye is not so simple a matter as Freud would have it.

1 (which I take to be the Dennett line, since Dennett, as I understand it, takes all beliefs to be predispositions to behaviour which can be understood as if they had intent behind them).

2 (or Cambridge, as he would no doubt point out in a letter to the editor).

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4 Responses to Freud vs God; Round 2

  1. Simon Pride says:

    Fascinating. I know it drives mutual friends mad when they encounter the ‘Lorraine Kelley’ behavior (which they often link with agnotology) precisely because they are trying to ‘reconstruct’ the cognitive model that ought to lie behind the behaviors and expressions emitted by the person, and are unable because there is no way a sane person could hold such a model and have it be internally consistent as a coherent belief model. Having it be a coherent set of behaviors makes more sense.

  2. ptet says:

    An absolutely fascinating post.

    Quite by accident, I watched GMTV’s coverage of the Large hadron Collider this morning. After about 10 minutes of vaguely sciency chat, Fiona Phillips asked a poor scientist they’d dragged in “so will this let us understand how life began”.

    The stupidity is endemic in the place.


    On the intellectual side of religion, it certainly looks through my eyes like all theology is made up on the spot,as incoherent as Lorraine Kelly in her Guardian interview. or a four year old babbling away… But I think religious people do think theology is coherent… That they pretend to themselves that it does all logically follow, and they see non-believers as the ones with defective reasoning, because (for example) we just don’t get that some parts of the Bible don’t mean what the words say and other bits do.

    “Just believe”, as we’e so often told, “and it will all make sense”.

    Scary stuff.

  3. acb says:

    The trouble is, ptet, that quite often acting, does come before understanding, and it must, and when religious believers talk about “belief” they are not always talking about supposing that something might be true, but about acting as if it were true. That’s different, and very hard to answer. I have grown more sympathetic to the idea that it makes sense to believe in order to understand, simply because there are lots of things you only learn, or come to understand, by doing. This is most obviously true of practical skills: I will never understand writing, or playing the piano, or flycasting,1 without doing them; it might be possible for some infinite or godlike non-biological intelligence to understand them from the outside, but it isn’t for humans.

    1. I still don’t understand fly casting, or piano playing, or much of writing.

  4. ptet says:

    Fair enough ACB, and you are right that in learning anything there is a leap of faith of some sort or another.

    I guess it comes down to this. Any understanding we can ever hope to achieve is, if you like, a “model” of the real world.

    And when a model disagrees with reality, it is very rarely reality which is wrong…

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