Sigmund Freud

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In The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud defines "illusion" as something which people want to believe but can be neither proved nor disproved. But there are many common-sense things which we believe simply because it is easier to believe them than to discard them. For example, we believe that our physical world is made up of real atoms which follow permanent physical laws, as opposed to our entire universe being a fantasy run by a computer program somewhere which can change the physical variables or our memories to suit its purpose. There is no way to prove or disprove this statement; in philosophy, such a position is called philosophical skepticism, and the system of beliefs that results from it pyrrhonism. Science, however, is not based on pyrrhonism, but on the assumption that there is an empirical, physical universe. This assumption is by Freud’s exact definition an "illusion," but it is silly to say that we should ignore science because it has an underlying belief, and Freud himself would admit as much. Why is Freud so dismissive of such "illusions"? To understand his belief we cannot simply follow his argument, since it contradicts his statement that science is the way of reason, but rather examine why the religious illusion in particular is so offensive to him.

The benefits of science are easy to tick off, which is enticing to Freud. The knowledge acquired by science can be confirmed accurate through experiment. The benefits of religion are not so simple to explain. In Mama Lola, an anthropological encounter with vodou, the central figure Lola assembles a table of food for the spirit Azaka, in which Karen McCarthy Brown sees "the cuisine of a simpler time, when the spirits pervaded everyday life and were readily accessible." There is the concept of integrating material things into the order of the universe, restoring harmony to satisfy the gods. The concept of sacred time is simultaneously evoked. The ritual returns the faithful to an earlier time when the divine was closer to the world. For Mama Lola and other practitioners of vodou, ensuring the happiness of the gods is the ticket to ensuring their own happiness. There is nothing lacking here, no fundamental problem that society needs to erase for them.

To Freud, though, these reconnections are a spiritual crutch, accepted as true only because the people want them to be true. He would claim the table is a waste of food and nothing more. Freud would additionally claim that if the Haitians enjoyed the ceremony and think vodou is a necessary part of their world, they are only deluding themselves. But who is he to judge? The only objective statement which can be made is that they find it useful. You cannot claim, therefore, that it is not useful without taking a stance that you know better than they do how to run their own lives. By making this judgment Freud is placing himself inside some other culture which is forcing itself onto the Haitians—creating exactly the "coercion and suppression of the instincts" he seeks to eliminate.

The necessary animal instincts of the human race, according to Freud, are systematically oppressed by religion to encourage actions that are useful to civilization. In Mama Lola, though, vodou does not suppress those instincts but brings out the subjects suppressed by other aspects of the dominant culture. Papa Gede in particular is a comic figure who always speaks the truth without regard to social customs: his humor is often about the forbidden subjects of sex and death. Even Christianity is not free from his mocking. Religion becomes a form of freedom from the culture that suppresses these people. Rather than a disconnection from one's animal instincts, the rituals in Mama Lola are simultaneously a celebration of connection with the true self and the gods, providing comic relief and comfort in times of suffering.

Freud seems to actually be examining a small subset of all religion: the monotheistic, consoling religion. Examining Elie Wiesel's loss of faith in Night, we find Freud correctly describes religion as an illusory backbone behind one’s entire worldview, which must be defended for fear of losing all hope. "If [your religion] is discredited," Freud warns, "then your world collapses. There is nothing left for you but to despair of everything, of civilization and the future of mankind." Indeed, when Wiesel realized God had no covenant with him and nobody could help him through his pain, the religious elements which were previously so important to his life now became meaningless. It is difficult, though, to think of an alternative backbone, based on reason alone, which could account for and provide support through the Holocaust. Furthermore, Wiesel's despair does not translate into an active attempt at suicide: he finds the will to live, and to keep his father alive, an enduring force which provides that basic amount of humanity.

What would Freud say about Buddhism, which has no consoling god? "There is no use in trying to get rid of men's aggressive instincts," he wrote. Rather, the instincts should be employed against each other. For Freud, this would be the central illusion of Buddhism: the idea that one could suppress animal instincts and operate on a level free from all desire. Yet the aim of Buddhism is to free oneself from all illusions, which are the result of a lack of mindfulness. For Buddhists the self, which Freud has so neatly divided into id, ego, and super-ego, is an illusion made up of five aggregates, or skandhas. When the illusion of the self is eliminated, the reality of a physical body which is interdependent with the rest of the universe can be understood. Freud himself never aimed to examine reality at this level, preferring instead to work inside his theoretical subdivisions of the self which can be neither proved nor disproved through empirical observation. What can we take home from the fact that Freud created an unprovable assertion out of an underlying wish to write a long and ponderous theory, i.e. an illusion? Let's see what he says about himself: His irrational belief is "comparable to a childhood neurosis." "The terrifying impression of helplessness in childhood aroused the need for protection ... and the recognition that this helplessness lasts throughout life made it necessary to cling to the existence of a father, but this time a more powerful one." If this were true the belief in external reality as described above, or the belief in psychotherapy, would be caused by a feeling of helplessness. Of course, this is in no way an accurate description of reality. Nor is it an accurate description of Buddhism.

Freud bluntly states that "civilization has little to fear from educated people and brainworkers ... such people are to a large extent themselves vehicles of civilization." One may want to forgive him for this statement because it was written before the Holocaust, but it was written after World War I, when chemical weapons made mass extermination horridly efficient and painful. Absurdly, Freud is not worried about the capability of the scientifically deluded to cause suffering, but rather with the "great mass of the uneducated and oppressed" who he thinks will start killing people at random if they realize that God is a hoax. The silliness of this idea is evident from human history. Freud does not even begin to examine the possibility that the atheist "brainworkers," i.e. those who have freed themselves from the religious illusion, might put themselves to work on far more terrible projects than those who are subject to it.

When Freud talks about despair for the "future of mankind" he really is thinking that religion and science see the human race as a collective unit marching forward. He views the history of human civilization as a linear progression from a "state of nature" when malevolent desire was not controlled to our current civilization. For Freud the past is something which needs to be abandoned, the product of "our wretched, ignorant and downtrodden ancestors." The work of thousands of years of premodern philosophers is summarily discarded with this remarkably ignorant phrase. This theme is constant throughout The Future of an Illusion: he opens the book with his quest for understanding "along what path [civilization] has developed," asks why humans "replaced" the animal gods with human ones on this path, and ends the work declaring that religion's time is up: "It has ruled human society for many thousands of years and has had time to show what it can achieve." It is time to move on to a more perfect civilization. Isn't such a utopian belief dangerous?

"The belief that rational and quantifiable disciplines such as science can be used to perfect human society is no less absurd than a belief in magic, angels, and divine intervention," writes Chris Hedges in I Don’t Believe in Atheists. "The greatest danger that besets us does not come from atheists or believers; it comes from those who, under the guise of guise of religion, science or reason, imagine that we can free ourselves from the limitations of human nature and perfect the human species." To give credit to Freud, he admits this possibility. "I will moderate my zeal," he writes at the end of his screed, "and admit the possibility that I, too, am chasing an illusion. Perhaps the effect of the religious prohibition of thought may not be so bad as I suppose; perhaps it will turn out that human nature remains the same even if education is not abused in order to subject people to religion." Freud’s hope was based in the irrational belief that "perhaps there is a treasure to be dug up capable of enriching civilization." The study of science, to be sure, has produced good fruit. But so has the pursuit of a wholesome religious life. When employed as a tool to make the world over in a utopian image, both science and religion can be dangerous. But when they are used for the purpose of finding truth and meaning and coping with suffering, both can find a useful place in one's life.

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