Politics & Policy

Doubting Psychology

A review of Admirable Evasions, by Theodore Dalrymple.

Contrarian Theodore Dalrymple, who investigated the mentality of the British underclass in Life at the Bottom, has frequently described psychology as a modern religion, or pseudo-religion. The medical establishment is the brave new priest class, while the anxious therapy patient replaces the penitent sinner.

If so, then Dalrymple must be a heretic of the first order. On March 24, Encounter Books will release his latest, Admirable Evasions: How Psychology Undermines Morality, in which he contends that psychology has done more to impede human self-understanding than to advance it. Moreover, deference to psychology has led to a culture of self-obsession and a diminution of personal responsibility.

The book opens with a provocative thought experiment. Suppose all the world’s anti-depressants were flung into the sea, all the psychology books turned into pulp, all psychology departments shut down, and all psychological research halted. Would humanity be the wiser or the more foolish?

Dalrymple clearly thinks: the wiser. However, it’s also clear from the outset that the primary target of his scathing critique is not psychology but reductionism, the view that all aspects of human life and values can be exhaustively explained in terms of physical processes:

Before long, if there is sufficient research funding . . . the question of the good life will have been settled once and for all, indubitably and scientifically, without the necessity of endless and unprovable metaphysical speculations. . . . History will come to an end, this time not by virtue of the triumph of liberal democracy throughout the world, but by that of the triumph of psychology and neuroscience.

To assert this is to go well beyond the findings of psychology and neuroscience to rather extravagant philosophical claims. A more accurate, if less attention-grabbing, subtitle for the book would have been: “How a Culture of Reductionism Undermines Morality.”

If there is a blurry line between psychology and reductionism, then psychologists have themselves, in part, to blame, because too many of them have been eager and uncritical in their embrace of reductionist accounts of the mind.

At the dawn of the 20th century, many people were enamored of the ideas of Sigmund Freud, who treated everything noble in human thought as disguised impulses toward sex and aggression. Unsatisfied desire was supposed to be the source of much — not to say the root of all — evil.

Dalrymple alleges that Freudianism is not only false but harmful because it provides a scientific rationale for destructive self-indulgence. His verdict is memorably harsh: “Shallowness can go no deeper.”

Eventually and inevitably, Freudianism fell out of favor, but the new kid on the block, behaviorism, was no better. According to behaviorism, the human mind is wholly reducible to a system of empirically observable inputs (stimuli) and outputs (behavior). Although Dalrymple has no trouble thrashing behaviorism’s impoverished picture of the human person, I believe it’s a little unfair of him to describe it as “a mindless psychology.” 

Behaviorists believed the mind existed and took it seriously enough to give an account of it. By contrast, adherents of “eliminative materialism,” a school in the philosophy of mind pioneered by Paul and Patricia Churchland, deny the existence of the mind altogether.

Today, neither Freudianism nor behaviorism is taken very seriously. Psychology students have difficulty understanding how either came to have such sway over ostensibly scientific minds. But the storm hasn’t passed. Dalrymple wants to persuade his readers that the reductionism that gave rise to both remains as entrenched as ever, and may even be gaining ground.

Consider the drastic expansion of the number of professionally recognized mental disorders: “ . . . when you add all the annual prevalence rates given in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychological Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, it is clear that the average citizen suffers from at least two psychological disturbances per annum, and possibly quite a lot more,” Dalrymple writes. “It is a wonder that any work is done in society other than care for its incapacitated.”

It’s not clear from those data whether the average citizen suffers from two or more disturbances per annum, or whether a small percentage who suffer from many more than two boost the statistics. But the fact that one in five Americans is now taking some kind of psychotropic medication is, according to Dalrymple, evidence of a wide-ranging trend.

A change in the English language attests to this medicalization of ordinary life: The word “unhappiness” has almost fallen out of common parlance in favor of the medical term “depression.” While Dalrymple does not deny that the term has legitimate applications, its overuse subsumes all human dissatisfaction under medical dysfunction. 

A similar point might be made about the popular use of “crazy” to describe sane but evil jihadists who carry out acts of terrorism.

As ordinary anxieties are elevated — or degraded, depending on your perspective — to the status of mental illnesses, real mental illness is trivialized. Thus the increased attention to mental health has brought no relief to the schizophrenics left to rot in the streets. Sure, they’re mentally ill. Aren’t we all?

The trivialization of mental illness and the medicalization of everyday life contribute to an exculpatory culture. Criminals find it easy to blame their actions on material forces in the way earlier generations blamed them on astrological forces. This is what the bastard Edmund lamented in King Lear: “ . . . an admirable evasion of whoremaster man, to lay his goatish disposition to the charge of a star.”

As always, Dalrymple’s writing is enthralling. When he lands his devastating rhetorical blows, he seems to do so with the booming voice of a prophet of doom. Unfortunately, his strength is also his weakness: Prophets of doom rarely pause to register nuance or to consider counterevidence.

Dalrymple’s exclusive focus on the reductive tendencies of psychology overlooks the fact that psychiatrists often do recommend lifestyle changes to their patients and emphasize the importance of close relationships with other people. They are far from being technocrats of the soul, eager to pump their patients full of happy pills to relieve their existential angst.

A close friend of mine who saw a therapist during a trying period in his life reported that the therapy enabled him to see his troubles from a more enlightened perspective. He felt respected, not dissected, during the sessions. I assume his experience is common. To judge from reading Dalrymple’s take on psychology, one would think that this happened rarely, if ever.

In Admirable Evasions, Dalrymple identifies plenty of alarming trends. The main problem with the book is that he often doesn’t distinguish psychology from the philosophy of reductionism that some, in the name of science, have foolishly tried to elevate to the level of orthodoxy. 

— Spencer Case is a philosophy graduate student at the University of Colorado. He is a U.S. Army veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and an Egypt Fulbright alumnus.

 

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