Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Empirical Evidence and the Soul

There's an interesting discussion over at the Ink Desk in the comment section of a post by Colin Jory, in which he criticizes what he calls the "sub humanities" in academia, including

Women’s Studies, Social Work (at the level of theory), Sociology, Psychology, and Education (at the level of theory)

about which Jory says (my emphasis)

... in practice all five are almost everywhere rooted in poisonous dogmatics regarding man in his individual and social nature which makes them overwhelmingly toxic. Indeed, a predominant feature of them is a denial that there is any immutable human nature, unchangeable by social engineering, or anything sacrosanct about any aspect of human life.

Now this is nice and provocative.

I responded by talking a bit about psychology.  Since I'm personally crazy, I am an expert in psychology.  I said

The problem, Colin, is that psychology need not be a sub-humanity, though it often is. There is a place in learning for the study of the psyche, for the study of human nature and how best to treat mental illness and behavioral problems. And, indeed, in a day when actual priests have often abandoned the call to counsel their flock based on a true understanding of sin and virtue, the surrogate priests of psychology have often filled the breach, sometimes doing good, sometimes doing harm. And while I don't know the state of the field in academia, the psychologists and psychiatrists I've known have a very keen understanding of human nature, based on years of practice. 

Indeed, the psychology I actually studied was that of Freud and especially Jung, and the problem was not that Freud and Jung denied immutable human nature, but that their view of human nature was so skewed.  For Freud, everything was about sex, and for Jung everything was about integrating the dark side of our human nature so that we would overcome our illusion that there was any difference between good and evil, and so that we could encounter occult forces directly and benefit from them.  And after we'd done that, we could then have sex, with anyone we chose, including our patients in therapy, as Jung did.  So Jung affirmed Freud in a round about way.

Other commenters to Jory's post pointed out that psychiatry was more about the medical and scientific side of the study of the soul, while psychology was not quite so scientific.

Either way, I would assert that the biggest problem in the general field of psychology today is the assumption that temporal happiness is paramount.  The unspoken goal of most therapists is to help a patient adjust to life in such a way as to maximize pleasure without causing too much pain - which means of course that virtue and God and eternal life get short shrift, except in so far as these transcendent things are no longer transcendent, and are only tools for the pragmatic problem of happiness on earth.  In other words, if the God-of-your-understanding or the virtue-you-choose-to-value or the myth-about-eternal-life you arbitrarily assert makes you feel good, then do it.  Go for it.  Life may or may not have meaning, but if you can find something that works for you, then make it happen, baby.

That's the dogma that lurks beneath most psycho therapy, from the pop variety of the Dr. Phil type shows to the nuts and bolts of counselling.  It's helpful as far as it goes, but harmful when it does not go far enough.  It is ultimately subjectivist and values the subject's private worldview more than objective truths - and in this sense is exactly what Colin Jory said it is, a denial of any objective constraints upon human nature.

And yet ... and yet ...

There are facts that the therapist runs up against time and again.  Drugs do not make for happiness.  Promiscuity does not make for happiness.  Adultery does not make for happiness.  Sodomy - yes, even sodomy - does not make for happiness (shocking!).  And none of these things make for even short term, here-and-now, this-world-is-all-there-is happiness.  Not even contraception, much as we worship it.

It is that empirical evidence, the evidence of the effect of sin on the soul, and the effect of virtue on the soul - and their effects in this life and on this earth - that holds out the promise that psychology may yet become the queen of the practical sciences.

And it is the Church's insight into psychology that convinces me more than anything that she is the Body of Christ.


Benjamin. said...

I was having a debate with a man, mostly through email, who calls himself "spiritual" but doesn't seem to believe in God at all, (he seems to be almost pantheist, but it is hard to tell. Modern people seem obsessed with being identified as "agnostic" and "independent".)

He was bragging about how much better Scandinavian countries are than here, not stopping at the economy implying that life in general is perfect over there. I suggested the sadness of the lack of belief in God, and the sometimes restrictive laws against "offensive" doctrines.

After a while he started bragging about the often mentioned idea that places like Denmark have the "happiest people in the world." I accept that they MAY have a better and more fair economy, but I was skeptical about the concept that they were really so "happy." After some research I found that these countries also have extremely high suicide rates, above that of the U.S.
This did not seem to compute with his understanding and he essentially denied that this is possible, (although most studies show it to be true.) He seems to have accepted this but still insists they are ALSO the "happiest," mentioning the studies that show the increased welfare. As much as this may be a good thing, I have tried to emphasize for him the importance of more than material goods, even more than "financial security." Yet he seems stuck in a Marxist view of a "perfect world" through economics.

Sort of off topic, but it seemed to be somewhat discussed in this article. I just don't know what more I can do to reach him. It feels like I'm talking to a computer, and not just because its email.

Stuart said...

An excellent post and coincidentally the relationship between Psychology / Spirituality is one I'm wrestling with myself.

I posted today my ramblings on this subject, if it may be of any interest:

Know Thyself: Should everyone be in therapy?

ps I am also quite crazy ;-)