Monday, August 20, 2012

Freud, Lewis, and Neuropsychoanalysis

Yesterday, I was one of three participants in a panel discussion of the play "Freud's Last Session" at the Mercury Theater in Chicago.  The discussion came just after the 1:00 p.m. performance.  Most of the audience for the performance stayed for the discussion.

This play is a dramatization of a meeting between C. S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud at Freud's home in London on September 3, 1939, the day of Great Britain's declaration of war against Germany.  Lewis and Freud debate their disagreements over God, sex, and the meaning of life and death.

When I first saw this play a few weeks ago, I wrote a post indicating that the play seemed to me to lean towards Lewis--depicting him as a more likable human being than Freud--and thus favored Lewis's Christian position over Freud's atheism.  This leaning towards the side of Lewis is evident in Armand Nicholi's book The Question of God, which is the primary source for almost everything in Mark St. Germain's play.

After this second viewing of the play, however, I am not so sure about my first impression, because now the play seems more even-handed than it did the first time.  My wife Mary had the same experience.

Although I still see a clear bias towards Lewis in Nicholi's book, I now think St. Germain goes far towards evening out the debate between Lewis and Freud.  The clearest example of this is how St. Germain introduces a scene where Freud questions Lewis about his relationship  with Mrs. Janie Moore--the mother of Lewis's dead friend Paddy Moore who lived with Lewis.  Mrs. Moore became a surrogate mother for Lewis, who had lost his mother at age 9.  When Freud intimates that Lewis developed a romantic relationship with her, Lewis falls silent: "I won't discuss this further."

But then Lewis notices a picture of Freud together with his daughter Anna, and this leads him to question Freud about his usually close relationship with his unmarried daughter, which draws out the suggestion that Freud has an erotic tie to his daughter.  Thus, St. Germain sets up a good dramatic symmetry between Lewis and Freud.

Oddly enough, Lewis implicitly adopts Freud's theory of the Oedipal urge and turns it against Freud, just as Freud had used it against him.

While Nicholi dismisses in one sentence the possibility that Lewis had a sexual affair with Mrs. Moore, A. N. Wilson--in his biography of Lewis--presents all the evidence that indeed Lewis and Mrs. Moore were romantically entangled.  Lewis had to keep this secret to avoid a scandal that would have ruined his life--including the loss of his position at Oxford. 

For me, one of the clearest pieces of evidence for this is an enigmatic passage in Lewis's Surprised by Joy (Harcourt, Brace, 1955):
I returned to Oxford--'demobbed'--in January 1919.  But before I say anything of my life there I must warn the reader that one huge and complex episode will be omitted.  I have no choice about this reticence.  All I can or need say is that my earlier hostility to the emotions was very fully and variously avenged.  But even were I free to tell the story, I doubt if it has much to do with the subject of the book. (198)
His erotic experiences with Mrs. Moore would seem to be the most likely "huge and complex episode" that he cannot reveal here.  This is what St. Germain brings into his play as one way of presenting Lewis as an imperfect human being moved by the illicit eroticism that was so prominent in Freud's psychological science.

This leads to another theme that became clear to me only in my second viewing of the play.  At one point, Freud expresses some frustration with their discussion:
FREUD.  . . . We speak different languages.  You believe in revelation.  I believe in science, the dictatorship of reason.  There is no common ground.
LEWIS.  There's also a dictatorship of pride.  It builds walls that make common ground impossible.  Why is it religion makes room for science, but science refuses to make room for religion?
FREUD.  How roomy was Galileo's cell when he told the Pope that sun did not move around the Earth?
LEWIS.  The stupidity of  church leaders is too easy a target.  But look at our scientists: None agree what caused the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I don't feel anger at them for not having the answer.  So why is it so difficult to accept that theologians are not all-knowing as well?
The play shows that there really is some "common ground" for Lewis and Freud, which allows them to have a discussion.  Despite the seemingly irresolvable tension between revelation and reason, they agree that science and religion must make room for one another.  Lewis is open to science.  And Freud's science is open to religion at least in the sense that Freud recognizes religious belief as a powerful psychological propensity that must be explained by his science.

Moreover, Lewis and Freud also agree here on the importance of psychology.  They both make psychological arguments.  One of Lewis's favorite arguments is that all human beings show a deep desire--a longing for what he calls "joy"--that can only be fulfilled by the supernatural reality of God.
A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food.  A duckling wants to swim, water exists to do it.  So if I find within myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most likely explanation is that I was made for another world.

In response, Freud asserts that this is only fantasy and wish-fulfillment, because "Our deepest cravings are never satisfied or even identified."

So here we have a debate over human psychology--over how best to explain the "deepest cravings" of the human mind.  Freud knows that he must explain scientifically the deep longings that Lewis and perhaps all human beings feel.

And, indeed, as I have indicated in various posts, Darwinian psychologists and neuroscientists continue today to debate over how best to explain religious belief.  Has the scientific study of this issue advanced beyond what was available to Freud and Lewis?  Certainly, we do seem to have much more precise evidence about the structure and functioning of the human brain coming from the neuroscientific research of the past 50 years, and some of that research can be applied to the scientific study of religion.

Until recently, however, Freudian psychoanalysts have largely ignored neuroscience, because they have assumed that the study of the human mind promoted by Freud depends on subjective introspection that cannot be reduced to the objective study of the human brain.

And yet Freud himself was a brain scientist for the first twenty years of his career.  In 1895, he wrote an unpublished manuscript--"Project for a Scientific Psychology"--in which he indicated that his goal was to turn psychology into a natural science of the brain.  He indicated, however, that this biological psychology might not be achievable in his lifetime, because the biological science of the brain would take a long time to develop.  In developing psychoanalysis without any clear explanation of its biological basis in the brain, Freud was working within the limits of the science of his time.

In recent decades, a growing number of psychoanalysts have concluded that neuroscience has now developed far enough to revive Freud's original project for what some of them now call "neuropsychoanalysis."  Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull has written an article surveying this interdisciplinary field.

Certainly, one of the primary conclusions of modern neuroscience--that most of human thought is carried out at an unconscious level--coincides with the fundamental insight of Freud's psychoanalysis.

We might wonder, then, whether this new research could advance the debate over the psychology of religious belief that was begun by Lewis and Freud.  What are the correlates in the brain for Lewis's longing for joy that Lewis sees as pointing beyond this world?  How should we explain that?

Solms and Turnbull say that Freud was a "dual-aspect monist," who assumed that brain and mind were two aspects of an underlying natural reality, and that this dual-aspect monism could support neuropsychoanalysis.

To me, this is another way of expressing what I have called the evolutionary emergence of the mind in the brain, the mind displaying an irreducible complexity that arises from the evolution of the primate brain passing over a critical threshold of size and complexity. 

Religious belief is uniquely human because it depends on the uniquely human traits of the human brain.  And yet that human brain can explained as the product of an evolutionary history that ties us to our prehuman ancestors.

Since Lewis was a theistic evolutionist, he might have been open to this kind of reasoning.

A few of the many posts on related themes can be found herehere, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

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