Religion, Psychoanalysis and Philosophical Psychology

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The Philosophy of Religion in the 20th century managed two major offensives against what many have regarded as the global force of secularism and one or both of these offensives may turn out to be the decisive territorial gain for religion ensuring its position in the globalizing processes leading to Cosmopolitanism. The Philosophers behind these offensives were Wittgenstein and Ricoeur. They both represent the challenges of Hermeneutics and Philosophical Psychology to the secularization process. They also, I would argue, represent the presence of philosophical cosmopolitan imperatives in the multi-dimensional globalization process.

Popular commentators on the subject of the decline of the authority of Religion have claimed, perhaps prematurely, that God is dead (although no one has actually seen his body). The postulated first cause of all things, it is argued, is no longer efficacious in the world of mobile phones, television sets, computers, driverless cars, robots cutting the lawn, robots hoovering the house, internet diagnoses of physical and mental diseases etc. The major causes involved in what is hopefully an accidental death are 1. The claim of Kant that God was just an idea in the mind. 2 The claim of Darwin that man who was supposed to be made in the image of God in fact evolved from the animal kingdom in accordance with the mechanisms of random variation, natural and sexual selection. 3. The claim of Freud that religious belief may have neurotic and psychotic characteristics, i.e. that the idea of God in man’s mind is not an idea one finds in a healthy mind.  4 Economical systems that seemed to have done more for the poverty of billions of people than divine assistance could ever manage(God died from an extended period of inactivity).

It might also be of interest to point out that in the secular process, the human being seems to have disappeared or receded into the background in relation to the jungle of equipment functioning in accordance with the law of economic/technological efficiency. If a robot/computer can replace a doctor and a psychiatrist and win chess games against chess masters then what hope is there for priests, teachers, philosophers and the rest of us ordinary mortals? Well, as was suggested above there is hope and it comes from Philosophy in general and Philosophical Psychology in particular.

Let us, however, examine more closely the so-called causes of God´s accidental death. Firstly let us remember that Kant was a religious man(as is the case with both Wittgenstein and Ricoeur) who he did not attend Church regularly. Indeed, although his ethical system was logically autonomous in relation to religious authority, this system still needed God, (the idea in man’s minds) to produce the good consequences of a good or flourishing life which otherwise might not follow from pure and good intentions. The philosophical conclusion of Kant’s  argument is that both God and “the good” might be logically related ideas in man’s mind, indeed, they may even be identical. This idea of the good being necessary for man to lead a meaningful flourishing life goes, of course, all the way back to Plato and Aristotle.

Darwin’s ideas initially threw the religious world into a state of ferment for a time but theologians soon realized that all that was needed to survive the Darwinian storm was to claim that Evolution is a process proceeding in accordance with divine laws of creation. God’s invisible hand was steering the process and the mechanism of random variation was not a real mechanism but an illusion of mans fragile and ethically flawed mind. The embarrassing facts of the creation scene in the Bible needed re-interpretation and some scholars began to argue that one should not interpret everything in the Bible literally. Reading the creation scene metaphorically and symbolically could allow space for the existence of mechanisms of natural and sexual selection functioning in accordance with the expression of God´s will.

Freud’s ideas, similarly, when one reads his texts closely may lead one to the conviction that when Freud claimed that a belief in God had the hallucinatory qualities of a schizophrenic delusion, he may have been talking about the way in which some people or even most people relate to God. Blindly rattling off one’s prayers or performing religious rites do remind one of the obsessive compulsive’s repetitious attacks on the world but these repetitions also remind one of the healthy actings out of children who are trying to control the environment that is causing them so much anxiety. Worshipping an invisible figure in public can seem strange, and Freud explains it partly in terms of the defense mechanism of displacement caused by excessive anxiety: a mechanism which substitutes a real ambiguous punishing/forgiving father figure with an equally ambiguous invisible father who promises relief from one´s suffering if one plays the game of religion.  The second part of his explanation involves returning to the origin of the religious belief system as communicated to believers in civilization. Primitive wishes in response to a primitive feeling of helplessness provide the temporary relief we need from the burden of existence in fragile civilizations. Freud may well himself have been ambivalent toward even mature attitudes involving religious conviction as some commentators have claimed but I am sceptical of this description for a number of reasons, amongst which are the following: he claimed to be writing the Psychology Kant would have written if he had interested himself sufficiently in psychological or anthropological matters. Freud did not definitely say that man would never be guided by his reason and place his hope and faith  in some reasonable future probably because he was reluctant to present himself as a prophet for fear that mans destructive instincts may, as a matter of fact, overshadow his constructive instincts(Freud, died in 1939 at a time when the existence of civilization was threatened ideologically. He may have suspected that the time might come when civilization would be threatened by the power of weapons of mass destruction)

Perhaps if Freud had lived in another time and another place, England or France, for example, we may have seen him launching the offensive against a wave of economic/technological  or secular globalization(his comments in his work “The Future of an Illusion” and his remarks on  the USA certainly suggest he would have been one of the ideologues at the forefront of demonstrations against the way in which market economics has dominated all other globalization processes). He certainly attempted to transform psychoanalysis into a global movement in the name of science(sic).

Paul Ricoeur, after Freud’s death, wrote both about the confession of evil in the religious context and the confessions one could witness in the psychoanalyst’s clinic. There appears to be a “symbolic function” of language which takes us far beyond the purview of the scientist in his pursuit of a certain kind of explanation. He like Wittgenstein believed that the route to the understanding of what Aristotle called being qua being needed to proceed more circuitously to its destination via language. Many commentators have commented upon the “confessional” nature of Wittgenstein’s posthumous work, the “Philosophical Investigations”.

In Ricoeur’s work “the Symbolism of Evil” it is claimed that the confession of evil is of interest for the philosopher because it is an utterance man makes about himself. A confession is an act of religious consciousness but as yet is not Philosophy until it becomes an object of reflection. Myth, for Ricoeur, is not,as is the case with Freud, an expression of a primitive helpless mind filled with fantasy-laden wishes. It too has a symbolic function which is expressive of the power of discovery and revelation in the realm of Being. It reveals the bond between man and what he considers sacred and important. “Evil is the crisis of this bond”.  The experience of sin, according to Ricoeur is the ground upon which the feeling of guilt occurs but:

“The experience of which the penitent makes a confession is a blind experience, still embedded in the matrix of emotion, fear, anguish. It is this emotional note that gives rise to objectification in discourse: the confession expresses, pushes to the outside, the emotion which without it would be shut up within itself, as an impression in the soul. Language is the light of the emotions.”

A myth is obviously partly a traditional response to suffering and contains elements of a lamentation about that suffering but it is also a language with a complex relation to being, the self, time, and imagery. That is why it has a non-confessional narrative structure. A confession of ones suffering occurring in the realm of the symbolic does not necessarily have to be embedded in a narrative structure. It has a cosmic and ethical/psychological significance. Both myths and confessions require philosophical interpretation and hermeneutics, according to Ricoeur, is the reflective instrument required for this work. In a paper given at a conference on “Hermeneutics and Tradition” Ricoeur points out that time is lived and used in two different ways. Tradition transmits symbols and myths and hermeneutics interprets myth and symbols. Interpretation, he argues keeps a tradition alive. “Every tradition lives by the grace of interpretation”. Ricoeur then points out that these two temporalities intersect in a third profound temporality which constitutes the elusive field of “Meaning”. Symbols live in this sphere of the relation of a physical literal meaning to a figurative, spiritual ontological existential meaning. A symbol always says more than it says and therefore is in constant need of interpretation. According to Ricoeur the study of the time of symbols would be a much more important philosophical pursuit than, for example, the interpretation of myths. He points out in support of his thesis that a myth can never exhaust the semantic constitution of the symbol. Insofar as the symbolism of evil is concerned Ricoeur has the following to say:

“The symbols embraced by the avowal of evil appeared to me to fall into three signifying levels: the primary symbolic level of stain, sin, and guilt, the mythical level of the great narratives of the fall or the exile, and the level of mythical dogmatisms of Gnosticism and original sin…….It appeared to me…that the store of the meaning of primary symbols was richer than that of mythical symbols and even more so than that of rationalizing mythologies.”

Much more can be said about the relation of the confession of the patient seeking a cure in relation to the confession of the religious man seeking salvation but let me now turn to Wittgenstein’s arguments and their claim to restore the lost object of religious discourse to the house of Deus absconditus in our robotic secularized cities. Firstly, the language of religion is not a factual language, nor a language of observation, cause, and effect. It is a language game and as such, according to Wittgenstein, it is embedded in a form of life in which the participants operate with tacit presuppositions: Not the tacit presuppositions of a science in which for example it is assumed that the heavenly bodies which are only subject to infrequent observation nevertheless enjoy a continuous real existence, but rather the tacit presuppositions relating to the activities of a soul, for example:

“Why is the soul moved by idle thoughts–since they are after all idle? Well, it is just moved by them.(How can the wind move a tree, since it is after all just wind? Well it does move it and do not forget it)”

This is the philosophical idea of psychogenesis that Freud thought played a role in mental illness. Freud was one of the few psychologists Wittgenstein studied: perhaps both thinkers believed that surrounding the heart of our understanding was a kind of madness or soul blindness, the cure for which was therapy.  But Wittgenstein probably did not subscribe to psychoanalysis as the sole route to understanding the human condition for he turned to a higher power for his succor, namely Christianity. One year before his death we find Wittgenstein reflecting upon God and suffering and suggesting that if Christianity is the truth about the human condition, then all the philosophy about it is false. He rejects the concentration on the argument that  Gods essence guarantees his existence and claims that if one leads one’s life in the right way a belief in God will naturally condense from the cloud of suffering that surrounds man. Donald Hudson, a religious philosopher, and commentator on Wittgenstein’s work, points out that we should not expect the religious man to reason about his beliefs in the religious language-game in the same way in which the scientist reasons about his theories. A man believing in the Last Judgment may act every day against the background of the fear or promise of such an event. Is this not reasonable asks Hudson? Does not this practical belief system seem to be stronger than any hypothetical belief system any scientist can produce? The scientist has his set of commitments and expects that every event which occurs has an explanatory cause in a systematically uniform world-view in which moons continuously exist. The scientist is building a system of knowledge which does not know what to do with transcendental truths.  Wittgenstein  realized this from his earlier work but let us conclude with a quote from Kant’s “Religion within the bounds of mere Reason.”:

“The nature and intrinsic limits of thought and human knowledge preclude any demonstration of the existence of God”

And further on:

“non-existence cannot be demonstrated either”

How then are we to interpret the avowals of the suffering souls of the Psalms or the suffering patients in secularized psychiatric waiting rooms? Surely their cries are not just facts being stated, the effects of causes or the consequences of observations? surely the realm of Hope and Faith that Kant referred to is the home of their language games? Surely their cries are symbolic?  Surely these cries are relating to how the soul believes the world ought to be.