Opinion psychology

The Hard Problem of Psychology

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To what extent can experiments in a laboratory inform us about the human mind? The replication crisis in the social sciences suggest the answer is “to some extent” but not much more.

Brian Nosek estimated the reproducibility of 100 studies in psychological science from three high-ranking psychology journals.[40] Overall, 36% of the replications yielded significant findings (p value below 0.05) compared to 97% of the original studies that had significant effects. – Wikipedia

According to the Atlantic, a different attempt to replicate findings from psychology failed half the time, some of these studies include the ideas of social priming (subliminal messages affect behavior), ego depletion (our will power is limited and can run out), and facial feedback (forcing ourselves to smile makes us feel happier)

There may be simple explanations to why this crisis exists, including incompetent researchers, insufficient replication attempts, and the fact that people who live in different areas don’t think the same way. In any case, the problem of gaining insight into the human mind through hard science is an old one.  

The Discovery of the Unconscious by Ellenberger traces the development of psychoanalysis across time. One of the pioneers of psychoanalysis, Carl Jung, repeated a word association test for years that he thought would help detect criminals, but he abandoned the test when he realized that it was much more complicated. Jung proclaimed that “whatsoever wishes to know about the human mind will learn nothing, or almost nothing, from experimental psychology.”

Unlike Adler or Janet, who were more concerned with knowledge derived from clinical expertise, Jung belonged to the Romantic tradition, he believed people were driven by collective unconscious ideas that were much deeper than human rationality, and that there was a powerful need for people to subscribe to these archetypal modes of thinking, and enact them through their behavior.

Useful Fictions

There is the idea of “useful fictions” which are stories that benefit you regardless of whether they are factually true. These may come in the form of inter-subjective truths, such as money, which drives the capitalist system. There is nothing “real” about money other than the fact that everybody believes in its value. And there are other useful fictions that do not need to be shared with the collective but can be useful to the individual himself.

In Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl emphasized the point that even in the worst conditions, men who had something meaningful to work for, whether it be the publishing of a book, or the reunion with a loved one, were able to put up with the worst conditions of imprisonment during war. Even though these events may never happen, the belief in them happening, can imbue a sense of optimism and resilience in the individual in the face of adversity.

The sovereignty of the individual is an idea, which, if discarded, would lead to social chaos.

We have these beliefs, implicitly or explicitly, and they drive our behavior. They give us stories that we can tell ourselves and others, and it is these stories – that are underlined with a religious substructure or system of axiomatic presuppositions – that we inherit from ancestors and pass down to future generations.

What Jung discovered was that one category of stories that are biologically inherited are ancient myths – and these myths inform our modern stories such as “the sovereignty of the individual.” The Christian myths are an articulation of ancient patterns of behavior that have led to the flourishing of society. The idea that all men are equal before God, regardless of their position in society or their race, is a non-rational archetypal idea that informs our legal and political systems.

It as if the human organism has slowly been gaining self-knowledge, but in a process that has been loosely structured and difficult to fully understand, religions have been able to communicate these implicit presuppositions through stories.

This makes me wonder, that given the popularity that people like Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and more recently Jordan Peterson have gained, in large part, thanks to their effort to restore our connection to these ancient ideas, if individuals have an innate need for these ideas, in the midst of the hyper-rational and scientific epoch we live in.

It is the dichotomy of power vs meaning, that while, is not a logically necessary dichotomy as I have discussed, is one that has manifest itself. Harari discusses this in his book, Homo Deus. Namely, that in our effort to dominate and control the world, we have given up our connection to the stories of the past, and thus have lost our sense of meaning.

Friedrich Nietzsche: The Prophet of Human Psychology

It is my ambition to say in ten sentences what others say in a whole book.” ~Nietzsche

The human mind wants to be liberated from the narrow confines of the scientific method when it comes to understanding itself, and more importantly, its role in the world. Science has been described by Nietzsche as a disguised wish for death.

He said that science is “a principal inimical to life and destructive. The will for truth could be a disguised wish for death.” Science affirms a world that is not our own, and is therefore the negation of our world, the world of life. (Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious)

Is science inimical to life, or are these the scribbles of a mad philosopher?

A look at the world today may suggest that science has moved humanity in the right direction, improving health care, standards of living, and quality of life. But the world since Nietzsche said those words is armed with nuclear weapons, sophisticated drone and missile technology, and potentially fatal biological and chemical forms of warfare. The simultaneous drive to know more may be the precursor to the destruction of the human species – this was very close to happening over the past century.

Interestingly, Freud spoke about the death drive, Thanatos, as the antithesis of the life drive, Eros. In fact, Freud, Adler, and Jung – the pioneers of psychoanalysis – are all heavily influenced by Nietzsche’s ideas, so much so that their main contributions to psychology have clear Nietzschean roots.

The superman idea by Nietzsche, that is, that “man is something that must be overcome” (Zarathustra’s first message) has its equivalent in Adler’s principle “to be human means to be stimulated by a feeling of inferiority which aims at being overcome.” The idea that the one basic drive in man is the will to power is reflected in Adler’s idea of man’s basic striving toward superiority.

Nietzsche’s works contain many examples of how the will to power manifests under many disguised forms, including ascetism and moral masochism (an idea by Freud that explained how repressed feelings of guilt lead to a need for suffering or to the voluntary subjection to others).

The main difference between Adler and Nietzsche is that Adler accepts the “community feeling” as a way for man to overcome himself while Nietzsche, a radical individualist, thought that the “herd instinct” was contemptible. But Nietzsche’s idea that “the error about life is necessary to life” and that self-deceit is necessary to the individual are similar to Adler’s idea of the “guiding fiction” of the neurotic.

As for Freud, there are many similarities, which include the idea of sublimation, which Nietzsche applied to both the sexual and aggressive instincts. Nietzsche thought that sublimation was an intellectual process or a result of inhibition, and that it was very common. “Good actions are sublimated evil ones.”

Even when they are most sublimated, instincts say something about a person’s sexuality: “The degree and quality of a person’s sexuality finds its way into the topmost reaches of his spirit.”

Inhibition (Hemmung) is what is known as repression today, Nietzsche applies the idea to memory and perception. “Oblivion is not a mere force of inertia … On the contrary, it is an active, and in the strictest sense, a positive capacity for inhibition.” “I have done it, says my memory. I cannot have done it, says my pride and remains inexorable. Finally, the memory gives way. “

Freud also agreed with Nietzsche that words and actions are manifestations of unconscious desires, mainly of instincts and conflicts of instincts. The unconscious is the realm of the brutish instincts that cannot find acceptable outlets and are rooted in earlier stages of the individual and of mankind – these unconscious instincts are represented in passion, dreams, and mental illness. The term “id” which constitutes Freud’s framework of the human mind (Id, ego, superego) comes from Nietzsche’s “Das Es.”

Nietzsche thought of the mind as a system of drives that can collide or fuse into each other. Freud developed the same idea and gave much importance to the sexual instinct. While Nietzsche acknowledged the importance of the sexual instinct, he saw the aggressive and self-destructive drives as primary.

To summarize the comparisons, Nietzsche understood what would later be known as defense mechanisms (sublimation, repression, the turning of instincts toward oneself). He also had concepts of the imago of father and mother (Freud’s Oedipal complex), and descriptions of resentment, false morality, and false conscience that were the preludes for Freud’s descriptions of neurotic guilt and the superego.

Freud speaks of Nietzsche as a philosopher “whose guesses and intuitions often agree in the most astonishing way with the laborious findings of psychoanalysis.”

Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious

This is not to say that Nietzsche was a wholly original thinker, many of his ideas can also be traced to different authors, but his insight into the human condition may have few parallels in the history of philosophy.

Carl Jung was fascinated by Nietzsche’s philosophy, and he was very open about it, working on a series of unpublished lectures on Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Many of Jung’s idea are modified forms of Nietzsche’s ideas, including his reflection on the problem of evil, the superior instincts in man, the unconscious, the dream, archetypes, the shadow, the persona, the old wise man, and other concepts. Jung thought that Zarathustra was Nietzsche’s secondary personality that slowly developed in his unconscious until it suddenly erupted with an enormous amount of archetypal material.

The Scientific Objective

The goal of science is to unite knowledge. Before the Enlightenment, if you wanted to learn about how the world works, you would need to read about the different a priori conceptions of other people, that were often simply a matter of opinion, or a product of their cultural or economic position. Psychotherapists gained knowledge about the human psyche by reading about the guesses and observations of a philosopher like Nietzsche.

Whatever knowledge you could glean was not verified in any pragmatic way, and for that reason, could never be universal.

But what if the usefulness of fictions informs us about a feature of the human condition that we would be disinclined, and perhaps averse to acknowledging? What if the human mind, unlike other randomly arranged atoms, is too complex for a universal theory?

That is, there is no formula that can be applied to everyone. Each person believes in a fiction that drives their behavior, but these fictions are sometimes useful, and other times are destructive, while each person responds to some kinds of fictions, but not to others.

To put it in psychoanalytic terms, Freud’s patients would not respond to Adlerian therapy, perhaps because of their preconceived ideas, social class, or distinct pathologies, while Jung’s clients would not have responded to Freudian psychoanalysis, perhaps because of their high degree of openness, and lower levels of extroversion.

Ellenberger has also showed us that there are uncanny similarities between ancient Greek philosophical systems (Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Platonism) and the psychological schools that later developed thousands of years later.

It is as if these systems of thought are different kinds of software that can only be run by their respective hardware. You cannot be an Epicurean and Stoic at the same time, but if you subscribe to one of these systems, depending on who you are, and what your conditions are like, you stand to benefit in a great way.

As Nietzsche put it, the Stoic philosophy works perfectly well in times of uncertainty, but Epicureanism works much better when conditions are stable and predictable.

The Hard Problem

When studying the philosophy of mind, one of the more popular papers is titled, “The Hard Problem of Consciousness” by David Chalmers.

The hard problem of consciousness is the problem of explaining how and why sentient organisms have qualia or phenomenal experiences—how and why it is that some internal states are felt states, such as heat or pain, rather than unfelt states, as in a thermostat or a toaster.[1] The philosopher David Chalmers, who introduced the term “hard problem” of consciousness,[2] contrasts this with the “easy problems” of explaining the ability to discriminate, integrate information, report mental states, focus attention, and so forth.


In the same way, the hard problem of psychology may be that the neurotic introvert will be unable to understand the mind of an agreeable extrovert. Jung was very high in openness, and people that respond to his message are too. Freud, on the other hand, more easily connects with extroverted people.

It is difficult to explain the human experience of emotions like pain and happiness with crude, quantitative figures that describe an objective reality, but not a qualitative one. And it is unlikely for behavioral studies done in a laboratory setting to generalize to a world that is far more complex, and it is inconceivable for any psychoanalytic idea to appeal to all people, who are very differently psychologically. We know a lot about the world, but we know very little about ourselves.

It may be wiser to accept these differences, while suppressing the need to unify at all costs – the experiments of the 20th century have proved that the urge to unify all thoughts under one emblem or ideology, had nearly led to the self-destruction of the species. It is in this sense, that science is inimical to life. To totalize and unify knowledge risks the total annihilation of homo sapiens.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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