I’ve already shared my complaints about the humanities and the natural sciences; now I’d like to turn to the social sciences. As with these other disciplines, my “problem” with the social sciences has more to do with a general attitude I sense pervading the whole enterprise than with any particular result. That attitude can be summed up in the following statement: the correct way to understand a human being or a social system is to look at it from the point of view of a hostile outsider. The hostile outsider has a privileged perspective. The ways human beings and social organisms understand themselves are illusions; they are unscientific; they are masks behind which hide the reality of structures of oppression, unconscious desires, blind economic or sexual striving. Thus, the skill college students are to learn above all else is critical thinking, which basically means learning to assume the perspective of the hostile outsider. They are to critically question the assumptions of their upbringing (unless, of course, they are from urban Leftist homes). And if the student decides his inherited religion and ethnic loyalties are defensible? Well, then, he obviously hasn’t thought critically enough! The “questioning” of gender roles and inherited tradition has a predetermined outcome.
Needless to say, social scientists–psychologists, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists–are, by and large, my political enemies. However, my ultimate objection is philosophical. I don’t disagree that one can study human beings in terms of their psychic desires, or that one can study societies in terms of economic forces and structures of coercion. Nor do I deny that some insights can be drawn from this. What I do deny is that this gives us the ultimate truth about men or communities. It is an exercise in abstraction, of systematically ignoring aspects of the subject in order to more clearly focus on some particular structure of interest. The most important thing about a social practice is how it is experienced and understood by its participants. Even when the things critics claim to find “beneath the surface” are really there, it’s the “surface”–the lived conscious reality–that is most fundamental and most real.
This is even more true when it comes to the study of the individual human being. I myself have had two types of encounters with psychology. (My experiences with the psychiatric profession I’ll save for another post.) First, as a teacher I’ve been exposed to some of the results of research on how people learn. Overall, this work is empirically grounded and consistent with common sense and my own experience. The studies of memory, cognition, visual perception–basically of any type of mental activity that we humans are conscious of performing–also seem relatively healthy by soft science standards (although I am here speaking without much knowledge). On the other hand, as a reactionary I am also exposed to psychological claims purporting to explain my authoritarian, homophobic pathologies. That I might actually have reasons for my beliefs is dismissed out of hand. This type of psychology demands that human behavior have explanations rather than reasons. The explanations involve my unconscious fear of new experiences, my unconscious fear of my father, my unconscious homosexual urges, or some other such unconscious prompting. None of these claims has any credible evidence behind them, and they all clash with the evidence of direct introspection–hence the recurring need for “unconscious” qualifiers.
“The unconscious mind” is one of those things that people are afraid to question for fear of being thought “unscientific”; I’m sure I’ll shock some readers with even the basic observation that “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.
Let us take one of the most celebrated claims of psychoanalysis, that I can have “unconscious” sexual desires. What does it even mean to say that I have a sexual desire if I don’t experience it? To me, “sexual desire” refers to a particular qualia, meaning it is conscious by definition. How about other definitions? A desire might refer to a tendency, so that one could say I sexually desire another person if, regardless of my experienced desires, I keep finding myself sleeping with her or him. Of course, nobody claims that, e.g. boys with Oedipus complexes ever actually have sex with their mothers, so that can’t be it. One might say that “desire” refers to a physiological response. That’s no good either: for male sexual desire, the physiological response is quite easy to recognize. Alternatively, one can distinguish between desires of which we are reflectively aware and those that we aren’t. Just because I experience X doesn’t mean I always take the time to tell myself “I am experiencing X.” I suspect this is what gives the idea of “unconscious desire” what plausibility it has. What, then, are the impediments to reflective consciousness of desires? 1) Distraction. Example: My bladder is full, but I don’t think to myself “I have to pee” because something important is happening. That’s obviously not what we’re talking about here. 2) Lack of conceptual tools. Example: Someone who didn’t know what sexual desire is could experience it without being able to explain his own mental state to himself. (Remember The Blue Lagoon?) Also irrelevant here. 3) Self-deception/rationalization. Example: I don’t enjoy gossiping; it’s just that people have a right to know. Here the qualia is acknowledged but explained in a way that protects one’s self-image. This seems to be the claim being made against defenders of natural law sexual morality, that we are reacting to sexual desires that we not only do not act on, but somehow conceal from our own consciousness. This would be something quite unlike ordinary rationalization, in which one must have some awareness of the urge or emotional state in question before one gives it a respectable rationalization. This claim, that all my reasoning on sexual matters is an epiphenomenon of my mad hatred of homosexuals (of which I am unaware) which in turn is an epiphenomenon of my own homosexual lust (of which I am also unaware), is fantastic on its face. It is so different from the way we ordinarily interpret beliefs. (I notice that no one ever claims that atheist utilitarianism or Marxism has psychological causes of this sort. Let me ask what hard evidence there is that reactionaries form their opinions in a less rational way than other people. Why should we not regard this belief as itself a manifestation of the “introspection illusion” on the part of Leftist psychologists?) In any case, it just shifts the issue of the reason for my beliefs back. Why am I supposedly ashamed of my supposed homosexuality? If it is because I have reasons to think that such desires are wicked, then my beliefs are reasoned ones after all. If it is because of social pressure, then society’s choice to exert pressure must be explained. Somewhere, sometime–perhaps thousands of years ago–somebody must have had an actual reason for thinking sodomy should be discouraged. And if they could think that then, why can’t I think it now? What was wrong, anyway, with the simplest explanation: that I hold my beliefs for the reasons I’ve given?
Let’s take another egregious example: childhood sexuality. As I’ve said before
I actually do believe that children are “sexual beings”, although not in the way that the sickos Laura Wood quotes mean it. There’s a strand of progressive thought that likes to insinuate that children have sexual desires. Freud is their big hero. I’m always baffled that this opinion is given so much respect, given that EVERY ONE OF US remembers being a child and not having sexual urges until puberty. Scientism is the enemy of science. The prestige of science comes from its grounding in experiment and observation. The mark of scientism is that one will believe a claim that directly contradicts all experience if only it’s made by someone claiming to be a scientist.
So here we have a claim that every one of us knows by simple direct observation is false but that no one dares to contradict. Trust your own memory and they’ll call you an antiscientific ignoramus who’s hung-up on “Victorian” illusions of childhood innocence. Bull shit. Being a scientist means I get to trust my observations over their supposed authority, and I encourage everyone else to be a scientist on this matter too.
How did we get to this point? Let me propose a story, which like any story will be an over-simplification. By the nineteenth century, the educated public had a clear idea of what scientific explanations were supposed to look like. They were supposed to look like mechanics: stationary states are seen as equilibria formed by the balance of opposing blind forces. Now a science of the mind was called for, and what could it be but a mechanistic modeling of the mind, filled with barely concealed hydraulic metaphors (not recognized as metaphors) of pressure, outlets, redirection, and repression? Thus, when Freud presented his plumber’s model of the mind, he quickly became an intellectual hero of the age. However, because the hydraulic model of the mind is so completely contradicted by all introspective experience, it was necessary to split the mind in two. On the one hand, there is the conscious mind of intellect, will, and recognized desires. In addition to this mind (the only one we previously knew we had), each of us was given an invisible alter ego, the “unconscious mind”, the hydraulic mind which is not empirically observed (hence “unconscious”) but which is required by nineteenth-century mechanistic prejudice to exist and, furthermore, to be our real selves. In the hydraulic metaphor it is meaningful to talk about unconscious sexual desires. Eros is a sort of ethereal water flow, and a flow can be pointed in one direction at its base but be redirected downstream along different channels. Hence, psychology splits in two. Study of the empirical mind–meaning ultimately the conscious mind, although some aspects of conscious perception (e.g. how the mind constructs three dimensional pictures from two-dimensional input or how it extracts interesting data from a complex picture) may themselves be mostly automatic rather than reflectively conscious–can proceed in a genuinely scientific fashion. On the other hand is the study of disreputable unconscious desires, generally of political opponents or other people the researcher doesn’t like. I’m not saying that all of this is pseudoscientific garbage, but–well, actually, yes, I guess that is what I’m saying.
P.S. Here’s my previous defense of Descartes from the neuroscientists.