Times Online - September 06, 2006

A plea for empiricism

Jerry A. Coyne

Frederick Crews
Dissenting essays
405pp. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker and Hoard. $26.
1 59376 101 5

Some years ago, I decided to become a more well-rounded scientist and, on the advice of friends in the humanities, started to read Freud. Expecting deep insights, I began with the work of which Freud himself was proudest, The Interpretation of Dreams. But I found it puzzling. His analyses of nocturnal productions, such as his own dream of “Irma’s Injection”, are clever. But as a scientist, I couldn’t understand why Freud saw his interpretation (that he wished to be the primordial “father” possessing all of the women embodied by Irma) as correct, when there are numerous plausible alternatives. Nor was I convinced by his flat assertion that every dream represents the disguised fulfilment of a wish. The whole enterprise reminded me of the excesses of evolutionary psychology, where adaptive stories about human behaviour pass for scientific truth.

My discomfort with Freud’s lack of rigour only grew as I continued to read his books and case histories. The latter were especially problematic: surely there were better explanations of Little Hans’s fear of horses than their symbolic representation of his father, haunting Hans with the threat of retaliation for his Oedipal fantasies. (It has since more plausibly been suggested that Hans was simply traumatized after seeing a horse collapse in the street.) Was Freud making it all up as he went along? Or did I have a personality flaw that blinded me to the power of his contributions? After all, he is touted (along with Darwin and Marx) as one of the three greatest modern thinkers, and only a hermit could be unaware of how deeply his ideas permeate Western society.

Fortunately, Frederick Crews has made a much more thorough study of Freud, distilling and interpreting not only his whole corpus but also the past three decades of Freud scholarship. His conclusion is that Freud was indeed making it up as he went along. In Follies of the Wise, Crews takes on not only Freud and psychoanalysis, but also other fields of intellectual inquiry which have caused rational people to succumb to irrational ideas: recovered-memory therapy, alien abduction, theosophy, Rorschach inkblot analysis, intelligent design creationism, and even poststructuralist literary theory. All of these, asserts Crews, violate “the ethic of respecting that which is known, acknowledging what is still unknown, and acting as if one cared about the difference”.
This, then, is a collection about epistemology, and one that should be read by anyone still harbouring the delusion that Freud was an important thinker, that psychoanalysis is an important cure, that intelligent design is a credible alternative to Darwinism, or that religion and science can coexist happily. It is perhaps strange that a retired professor of literature should become our preeminent critic of Freudianism and other intellectual follies on empirical grounds. But Crews has a keen mind, whetted by decades of arguing about the meaning of American literature, a scientific temperament, and is a fine prose stylist. And his credentials, at least for criticizing Freud, are authenticated by the fact that he was once an ardent Freudian, having written a psychoanalytic analysis of Nathaniel Hawthorne (The Sins of the Fathers, 1966), and then later disowned much of that book after developing misgivings about Freud’s system.

Laid out in the first four essays, Crews’s brief against Freud is hard to refute. 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. In four further essays, Crews documents the continuing pernicious influence of Freud in 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.

Realizing the scientific weaknesses of Freud, many diehards have taken the fall-back position that he was nevertheless a thinker of the first rank. Didn’t Freud give us the idea of the unconscious, they argue? Well, not really, for there was a whole history of pre-Freudian thought about people’s buried motives, including the writings of Shakespeare and Nietzsche. The “unconscious” was a commonplace of Romantic psychology and philosophy. And those who champion Freud as a philosopher must realize that his package also includes less savoury items like penis envy, the amorality of women, and our Lamarckian inheritance of “racial memory”.

The quality of Crews’s prose is particularly evident in his two chapters on evolution versus creationism. In the first, he takes on creationists in their new guise as intelligent-design advocates, chastising them for pushing not only bad science, but contorted faith:

“Intelligent design awkwardly embraces two clashing deities – one a glutton for praise and a dispenser of wrath, absolution, and grace, the other a curiously inept cobbler of species that need to be periodically revised and that keep getting snuffed out by the very conditions he provided for them. Why, we must wonder, would the shaper of the universe have frittered away some fourteen billion years, turning out quadrillions of useless stars, before getting around to the one thing he really cared about, seeing to it that a minuscule minority of earthling vertebrates are washed clean of sin and guaranteed an eternal place in his company?”

But after demolishing creationists, Crews gives peacemaking scientists their own hiding, reproving them for trying to show that there is no contradiction between science and theology. Regardless of what they say to placate the faithful, most scientists probably know in their hearts that science and religion are incompatible ways of viewing the world. Supernatural forces and events, essential aspects of most religions, play no role in science, not because we exclude them deliberately, but because they have never been a useful way to understand nature. Scientific “truths” are empirically supported observations agreed on by different observers. Religious “truths,” on the other hand, are personal, unverifiable and contested by those of different faiths. Science is nonsectarian: those who disagree on scientific issues do not blow each other up. Science encourages doubt; most religions quash it.

But religion is not completely separable from science. Virtually all religions make improbable claims that are in principle empirically testable, and thus within the domain of science: Mary, in Catholic teaching, was bodily taken to heaven, while Muhammad rode up on a white horse; and Jesus (born of a virgin) came back from the dead. None of these claims has been corroborated, and while science would never accept them as true without evidence, religion does. A mind that accepts both science and religion is thus a mind in conflict.Yet scientists, especially beleaguered American evolutionists, need the support of the many faithful who respect science. It is not politically or tactically useful to point out the fundamental and unbreachable gaps between science and theology. Indeed, scientists and philosophers have written many books (equivalents of Leibnizian theodicy) desperately trying to show how these areas can happily cohabit.

In his essay, “Darwin goes to Sunday School”, Crews reviews several of these works, pointing out with brio the intellectual contortions and dishonesties involved in harmonizing religion and science. Assessing work by the evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould, the philosopher Michael Ruse, the theologian John Haught and others, Crews concludes, “When coldly examined . . . these productions invariably prove to have adulterated scientific doctrine or to have emptied religious dogma of its commonly accepted meaning”. Rather than suggesting any solution (indeed, there is none save adopting a form of “religion” that makes no untenable empirical claims), Crews points out the dangers to the survival of our planet arising from a rejection of Darwinism. Such rejection promotes apathy towards overpopulation, pollution, deforestation and other environmental crimes: “So long as we regard ourselves as creatures apart who need only repent of our personal sins to retain heaven’s blessing, we won’t take the full measure of our species-wise responsibility for these calamities”.

Crews includes three final essays on deconstruction and other misguided movements in literary theory. These also show “follies of the wise” in that they involve interpretations of texts that are unanchored by evidence. Fortunately, the harm inflicted by Lacan and his epigones is limited to the good judgement of professors of literature. Follies of the Wise is one of the most refreshing and edifying collections of essays in recent years. Much like Christopher Hitchens in the UK, Crews serves a vital function as National Sceptic. He ends on a ringing note:

“The human race has produced only one successfully validated epistemology, characterizing all scrupulous inquiry into the real world, from quarks to poems. It is, simply, empiricism, or the submitting of propositions to the arbitration of evidence that is acknowledged to be such by all of the contending parties. Ideas that claim immunity from such review, whether because of mystical faith or privileged “clinical insight” or the say-so of eminent authorities, are not to be countenanced until they can pass the same skeptical ordeal to which all other contenders are subjected.”

As science in America becomes ever more harried and debased by politics and religion, we desperately need to heed Crews’s plea for empiricism.