Reliability of Sigmund Freud's claims
TOK – Sigmund Freud and Psychology
Peter Frederiksen Svane
3/10 – 2008
- What did you learn that you considered as useful knowledge/information from watching the movie?
In the TOK course, one is concerned with the extent to which something can be justified, and if the given knowledge is useful. The movie explained Freud’s basic ideas about the forces governing human behavior. Whether these can be believed, or not, is in the end up to the individual to determine, and I will do so later. Freud’s ideas give a way to explain different people’s behavior, and hence a tool to predict how the individual person will most likely act in certain situations. That information, if applied correctly, can be very useful. If I am aware of that, according to Freud, some are more prone to commit various crimes that can directly bring me in danger, because they have grown up under certain conditions, I and society can take our precautions. Similarly, a person who has grown up under “optimal” conditions can benefit society, and one might therefore want to draw upon that person. The danger, however, of such knowledge resembles very much that of stereotypes. Those are by its very definition false, and therefore impose unjustified barriers between two person, cultures, etc. That, in fact, prevents society as whole from gaining knowledge through interaction. In the case with the supposed criminal, his background might not determine his future, and hence the precautions that his bystanders take, will be unfair, and prevent his development as a human being. Determinism versus free will also has a role to play. If we accept Freud’s ideas as true, then we remove the responsibility of the individual’s actions, good or bad, because the criminal’s actions are merely a natural response to a cause: the parents. If Freud’s ideas are discredited, and it is shown that an individual can develop freely from its parents, then the knowledge is useless because it doesn’t apply to the perceived reality. Since Freud’s ideas are neither accepted or rejected, the knowledge is neither useless nor useful. Rather it can be seen as a guide that applies sometimes, which then can be used to explain different concepts. In other words, Freud’s ideas can be useful.
Not to forget, the movie gave an insight into the life and times of Sigmund Freud, which is subject to debate from time to time. Such background knowledge is often useful since it can be used to take part in the debates or be used in other contexts, such as this essay.
- Talk about two major Freudian ideas. Do you agree with the ideas? Can we “prove” these ideas or not? How did Freud try to prove the ideas? Did he do so satisfactorily? What is the role of intuition in these types of ideas? Is intuition a valid way to approach knowledge?
According to Freud, each human being is defined by how one’s ego is balanced by the superego and the id. The superego represents the higher moral values of society, and those traits required for interacting in society. The id seems to be a collection of animal instincts such as the drive for sex (libido) and the drive for death (thanato). Thus a person has to find a balance between the natural selfish drive that seeks to satisfy immediate lust, and the “correct” moral behavior required to interact in society. The only remedy I have to rationally justify such a claim personally is by looking at to which extent the statement seems to be rooted in reality and is confirmed by it. In other words, the basis for whether or not I can agree with this proposition depends on how many times it is confirmed through inductive reasoning. From my own experience, the theory seems to be true since it in myself and others explains why I behave in certain ways. I sometimes feel as though society has pulled a curtain down over me and my natural instincts and innate feelings. In different books I’ve read new examples that support the claim keeps occurring. The Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen wrote a fairy tale 150 years ago called The Shadow, in which a man’s dark shadow materializes and becomes an evil human being. I am surrounded by things that confirm the theory. On the other hand, I sometimes find exceptions. To some extent, the sense of “right” and “wrong” appears to be innate, hence an instinct alongside the libido and the thanato. That contradicts Freud’s idea. Therefore I neither disagree nor agree with his ideas since they can’t be logically justified, but on the other hand gain support from the many instances where they seem to be true.
This is a preview of the whole essay
“Prove” is a big word, and it is often misused. Gödel, for example, showed that mathematically a proof is never certain, and that leaves the other lower ranking sciences in the hierarchy in the same state. A large part of proving something is the given thing’s ability to convince someone: to make someone believe. Deductive reasoning is easier to believe because it seems intuitively obvious. But sometimes it can lead to far of conclusion, because it can be used to prove anything (Rocks cannot fly, My sister can’t fly, therefore my sister is a rock). A tool like that has its limits, and cannot be used for many things, and in this case for proving the validity of Freud’s ideas. The tool that is used most often within the sciences (hard or soft) is inductive reasoning. The more times a hypothesis is confirmed, the more probable is the proposed truth, but it is never proved. His ideas are confirmed whenever an individual’s behavior corresponds to how Freud said the person would behave. The more times, the more people are convinced and believe in it, and that is a large part of proving something. Perhaps with MRI scanning we will someday be able to map the mind in a more strict scientifically way, which would prove his ideas to a larger extent. Freud provided support for his ideas by extending them from people around him. He would never be able to do it more satisfactorily than inductive reasoning can be justified. In addition to that, he used women suffering from hysteria as evidence, which seem to me as not being a representation of the population: not all are suffering from hysteria. Furthermore, he developed his idea about the death drive right after losing his beloved daughter, at a time where he was very depressed. Those feelings might have been true for him at the time, but that doesn’t make it universal. This drive for death should according to him be an instinctive thing, which therefore should be perceivable in animals, who operate at this level. I cannot mention any, and therefore, his support for that theory, I think, is not enough to convince me.
To justify such claims inductively we take use of our senses. The problem with these are that they are all directed outwards. The only tool we have to look inwards is our intuitions/mind’s eye/gut feeling. They seem to be able to give a gut sense about the outlook of intangible concepts, such as what is at the root of the mind. Intuition is therefore essential for the individual to be convinced about the ideas, since they tell him/her what is right and what is wrong. Whether those messages are true or not is another case. Sometimes they do tell a valid thing, but other times they do not. Sometimes one can have a very strong intuition about something that in the end can be wrong. And the fact that intuition can be trained, educated and improved indicate that they are not fallible. Therefore one should be cautious about following one’s intuitions blindly, since it does not guarantee the truth. Rather one should let it guide one, and have it double checked with other ways of knowing.
- According to the film, why is Sigmund Freud given the title Father of Psychology? Does he deserve to be remembered as one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century? Why or why not?
For a person like myself, who doesn’t know a lot about psychology, the only ideas that I can mention from that field, I have realized, were developed by Freud. For me, that justifies his claimed position as the father of Psychology. A father is one who brings up his son or daughter, teaches them the important lessons of life, etc. Similarly, Freud lay out the groundwork for his field, and came up with the guidelines that his “child” should follow. It is not only his ideas that justifies such a position, but also the approach that he used to support his ideas. Using a more “scientific” method to establish his ideas, and appealing to intuition, he gave way to clinical psychology. The applications of psychology toady, it appears, are widespread, and in much use, for example, to analyze criminal minds, thus preventing them from committing new crimes. More and more people also claim to be depressed in these days, therefore a tool such as psychology that can alleviate such feelings are very useful. Since Psychology is in great use today, and Sigmund Freud to a large extent is the man behind it, he deserves a position in the hall of fame of influential thinkers. The validity of psychology is, however, not proved, and Freud’s ideas may therefore at some point be discredited, thus leaving only a temporary impact on the world. In that case, it could be argued that he should be left out of the hall of fame. Lastly, most people probably do not consider such questions, which indicates that his influence is limited and that his impact on society isn’t as huge, which also puts a deterrent on his chances of being accepted into the hall of fame.
- Using the van de Lagemaat book, what are some of the problems with human science techniques/research methods, etc… and can you apply this to some of Freud’s technique and research?
The problem of inaccuracy is one faced by all sciences, but at different degrees. While “hard” subjects, such as math are considered fairly accurate and objective, the “softer” the science becomes, the less accurate it becomes, it seems. While mathematical equations find their force in being able to isolate single factors, human sciences face problems already at this stage. Bearing the name of science, it is required that it follows the scientific method, and uses an approach in which only one factor is changed, ceteris paribus, in order to see the impact on a dependent variable. The reliability of the drawn conclusions depend on the extent to which the mentioned procedure can be carried to such a degree of certainty. In the Lagemaat book, however, it is argued that human sciences, including psychology, face many problems on those grounds. Observation of the variables cannot take place at this level of science, Lagemaat says, without the observer interfering with the results. Freud, it was mentioned in the movie, actually made his hysterical test subject claim false things (They were victims of rape, incest, etc.), by simply talking to them. In order to analyze a mind, Freud actually distorted that mind: a kind of observer effect. Dealing with human beings, which is indeed a very complex task, doesn’t minimize the problems associated with the human sciences. Those “creatures” do not seem to be universal in neither physical nor mental terms. Establishing universal laws for something that is not universal seem to be contradictory. But still, maybe the forces governing our behavior is universal: It becomes a discussion of free will vs. determinism. The problem is that we cannot know for sure with the method of inductive reasoning that human sciences applies. Lagemaat points to some of the weaknesses with the application of the scientific method within the human sciences, hereunder psychology. Measuring the observed is another problem, because, at least for psychology, thoughts are hard to quantify. The death wish might exist, but if it is only decisive for behavior a minute fraction of the time, then maybe it is not significant. All the different knowledge inputs that we receive will have to be filtered somehow, because too much useless knowledge makes living an inefficient process. Some people with amazing memory skills, I once saw in a TV interview, actually wanted to get rid of their skills because ideas and irrelevant memories kept popping up in their mind, making it hard to focus on one thing which might require intense concentration. In any case, a piece of knowledge that only applies very rarely is not useful, and replacing it with something more useful might benefit the person more. Concluding upon experiments that face these problems certainly doesn’t seem to justify the truth entirely, and that is not improved if one takes a closer look at the nature of conclusions one can make. Bias in whatever form it might can take can influence the findings a lot. Similarly to stereotypes, one might only look for things that confirms one’s theory. In addition to this one might be able to explain any kind of behavior in terms of one’s proposed theory, and explaining everything might be its weakness. Freud might be able to “prove” his theory despite of contradictory evidence.
Freud would, for example be able to explain with the same reason why a man either saves a drowning child or not, using his theory about the death wish: A man crosses a bridge, unconsciously wanting to die. Suddenly he hears a mother crying because her child has fallen into the roaring water. The man can either jump into the water or not. If he jumps into the water Freud would say: “Ah, he’s is unconsciously driven by a force leading him to death, because it is obvious that he will die if he jumps into the water to save the child.” If the man doesn’t jump into the water Freud would say: “Ah, this man has a death wish, because he refuses to embrace life by saving the dying child.” As Freud has suggested with his numerous ideas, there are incredible many factors governing human behavior: an almost chaotic pool of x and y’s affecting humans. Therefore it is hard to isolate one single factor, and hard to predict to what extent that factor will have an effect. Hence the problem of Freud’s ideas are that they cannot be known for sure to be true, and even if they are true, they are hard to use correctly since their quantity and potential effect is hard to ascertain and predict.
- Why are human sciences considered “soft” subjects while natural sciences are considered “hard” subjects?
The use of the words “hard” and “soft” in regard to the various sciences implies that a hierarchy exists. Whether this is justified or not is another case. The parameters that are used to place the sciences in the hierarchy, with the soft being below the hard, have their roots in how reliable and useful the knowledge is. Reliability, as was discussed earlier, depends on how well each of the steps in the scientific method can be carried out and to a satisfactory extent. The difference between the two are marked by differences in objectivity contra subjectivity. While the hard sciences typically entertains itself with the nature of external things, such as motion, structures, reactions, etc. that are somewhat perceivable, and therefore disassociated from intuition, soft sciences’ focus are directed inwards at things that cannot at this point be perceived inherently. It is possible to observe “hard” objects, such as chemical reactions, but not “soft” objects, such as “the invisible hand” in economics. Some might say that it is not possible to observe such things as atoms within the “hard” spectrum, but while deductive reasoning and indirect measurements provide support for that theory, soft sciences find it harder to use deductive reasoning and often lack tools to measure a certain “force.” The difference between the hard and soft sciences can be summed up using key words, such as reliability, ability to be perceived or measured, to what extent the scientific method can be applied, etc. One day, perhaps it will might be possible to quantify thoughts using MRI or something similar. In that case, psychology might become a little bit harder.