I have often wondered what the point of materialist psychology is. Set aside mental illnesses that are manifestations of biological pathologies. I am talking about, for example, the man who goes to a therapist because he is having marital difficulties Why shouldn’t the therapy session proceed along these lines:
Patient (let’s call him John): Doc, I feel terrible. My marriage is on the rocks.
Therapist (let’s call him Sigmund): Let’s explore why that might be.
John: Oh, way ahead of you there doc. My wife Jill caught me having sex with her best friend Sally. Let me tell you; she was not keen on that. And you know I feel kinda bad about it too.
Sigmund: Do you hope to save your marriage and reconcile with Jill?
John: Of course. I really love that woman.
Sigmund: Then you should stop having sex with Sally.
John: Well, that’s the problem. I really enjoy having sex with Sally. I don’t want to stop.
Sigmund: You have to choose Jill or Sally. You can’t have both.
John: Why not? You aren’t one of those religious nuts are you?
Sigmund: No, of course not. 90% of psychologists are materialists, and I count myself in that vast majority of my colleagues. I just mean that as a practical matter Jill is unlikely to tolerate you having sex with Sally while you are married to her, and even you mentioned that it made you feel bad.
John: Those are both practical problems to overcome, not insurmountable obstacles to me getting what I want. Suppose I figure out a way to hide my trysts with Sally from Jill. That problem is solved. Now, I just need to get over the “makes me feel bad” part, and that’s why I came to you. I’ve read a little in your field, and I assume I feel bad because of the tension between my actions and the outdated and restrictive societal norms holding up monogamy within marriage as an ideal, not to mention the fact that when I married Jill I swore an oath to “forsake all others until death do us part.”
Sigmund: Yes, those tensions could lead to anxiety.
John: Exactly. So what do you think? How can I stop feeling so anxious?
Sigmund: I am not sure I can help you. For better or worse, society considers adultery and oath-breaking to be immoral.
John: But you and I both know the word “immoral” has no real meaning. As materialists you and I have seen past all of that religious mumbo jumbo. We know that particles in motion just are. At bottom everything is caused by blind, unguided, amoral material forces. There is nothing wrong with me having sex with Sally while I am married to Jill, because there is nothing really wrong with anything at all.
Sigmund: Still, powerful societal forces millennia-in-the-making are arrayed against you. You’ve already told me you feel bad, so you are not a sociopath with no empathy. The tension you describe won’t just go away.
John: But isn’t the very essence of the psychoanalytical model of treatment helping people – people like me – to get past a mental conflict that triggers anxiety?
Sigmund: Well, yes, that’s a large part of what we do . . .
John: Well, I have some kind of conflict that causes me anxiety when I have sex with Sally and hide it from Jill. I know it is not wrong in any meaningful sense. But I still feel bad. What do you mean you can’t help me? That’s what you do.
Psychiatrist Jeffrey Burke Satinover wrote:
As a science, psychology thus inevitably tends toward an amoral view of man, in just the same way that it tends toward a view of him that has no place for free will and choice. Some psychologists have had the courage—if that is indeed what it is: foolhardiness might be a better term; intellectual consistency, at least—to claim that if the scientific view of man is both true and complete, and if this view leads inevitably to the abolition of “man” as embodied in such concepts as “freedom” and “goodness” (and consequent upon these, such concepts as “dignity” and “nobility of character”), why then, let us be truly abstemious and do away with them entirely, as has proposed B. F. Skinner.
Why indeed, John asks Sigmund. Why doesn’t the materialist, reductionist psychoanalyst try to help John stop feeling bad and enjoy the freedom that comes from his clear-eyed metaphysics?
A hearty “thank you” to Sev for his response to the post. Sev tries to address the points raised in the post from a materialist perspective. So let’s fisk his comment:
Sev says “The fact that we live in a material world . . .”
Of course, that is not a “fact” at all, and Sev knows it as well as anyone. Sev says he believes we live in a material world, but like every sane person he lives his life as if that is not a fact at all. Isn’t it odd that materialists live their lives as if their most fundamental belief is totally false. Why do they do that?
Sev knows as well as anyone that materialism is false. How can I be so certain? Because the fact that Sev wrote a comment on a blog means that he is conscious, and the entailments of consciousness — intentionality, subjective self-awareness, qualia, awareness of subject-object duality, just to name a few — are inescapable for any conscious being and mutually exclusive with materialism.
Not only does Sev espouse a metaphyics that is easily demonstrated to be false, we know that he knows it is false and he espouses it anyway. Why? You’ll have to ask Sev, but one suspects he is antagonistic to the entailments of dualism.
says nothing one way or the other about how we should behave. The is/ought gap precludes the validity of any such inferences.
Of course. IF – and that is a very big if – materialism is true, nothing says anything about how we should live. That is the whole point of the post Sev.
The science of psychology is not in the business of providing moral guidance to patients.
Again, from a materialist perspective that is true and again it is the point of the post. If the materialist therapist does not provide moral guidance what is the point of the therapy? I take it the point of therapy is to reduce the patient’s anxiety, and if the therapist can reduce the patient’s anxiety while he continues to engage in whatever behavior he chooses, why shouldn’t he? That is the question John asks Sigmund at the end. What is your answer Sev?
you cannot argue from the nature of the material world to how we should behave towards each other.
And yet the materialist says “the nature of the material world” is all there is. It follows from what you say that there is absolutely nothing from which to “argue . . . how we should behave towards each other.” Thank you for demonstrating the point of the post again Sev.
If the knowledge of the pain caused to Jill by John and Sally having sex is not sufficient to stop them doing it then Jill has to decide whether the marriage and the friendship are worth continuing.
Now Sev starts to veer off course. The post is not about Jill and what she will or will not do. The post about is about John and how his therapist should advise him.
Whatever John might say about valuing his marriage, his lack of remorse suggests otherwise.
Notice how Sev changes the facts to suit his argument. The fact (within the hypothetical construct of the post) is that John does feel bad about his behavior. Call it remorse or something else, his behavior causes him some level of anxiety. And the point of the post is whether, given materialism, the therapist should help John reduce that anxiety while continuing the behavior.
The question is if empathy is not sufficient to make people considerate of others is religion any better?
If that is a question, it is an absurd question. Of course religion helps people behave better. It would be absurd to even suggest for a moment that it would have no affect on a person’s behavior if he sincerely believed good behavior results in eternal reward and bad behavior results in eternal punishment.
I would suggest not . . .
And that is absurd.
and as evidence I give you our current president, the appalling number of Catholic priests who have abused children in their care and the prominent Evangelical Christians who have fallen short of the moral standards they have so loudly proclaimed.
So you judge billions by the behavior of the worst few hundred among them? Of course you do, because otherwise you would have to admit the obvious.
Is some behavior morally “right” only because some deity is alleged to have decreed it to be so or is morally “right” because it is an intrinsic property of that behavior regardless of what anyone thinks or is it morally “right” because as responsible, intelligent agents we have agreed amongst ourselves that this is how we should all behave towards one another?
And this is the part where, inevitably, the materialist contradicts himself. It is inevitable because, again, no sane person actually lives their life as if materialism is true.
Sev asks what makes something “right.” I have an answer for that question. But that is not what this post is about. This post is about materialism and its entailments.
Sev, the answer to your question about what makes something “right” if materialism is true is very very easy. In fact, you have already answered it. You said: “You cannot argue from the nature of the material world to how we should behave towards each other.” And you have also said that the “nature of the material world” is all there is. That is what it means to be a materialist after all.
Put those two things together Sev. What makes something “right” from a materialist perspective? Absolutely nothing at all.
And the fact that you know for a certain fact that some things are right and some things are wrong is fundamentally incompatible with your materialism. You cannot give up on the belief that some things are right and some things are wrong. No sane person can. And you will not (for reasons only you know) give up on your materialism.
So you are left coping with the cognitive dissonance caused by trying to hold two mutually exclusive ideas in your head at the same time. Maybe you should see a materialist therapist to help you with that.