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RS67 - Freudianism as Pseudoscience, With Assorted Comments on Masturbation and Castration...

Release date: August 12, 2012

Can everyone's problems always be traced back to sex, love, and masturbation? In this episode, Massimo and Julia talk about the pseudoscientific aspects of Freud's theories of human psychology. Along the way they explore what philosophy of science has to say about testing theories -- and some of the similarities that Freudianism has with religion, new age mysticism, and psychic reading.

Julia's pick: "Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal"
Massimo's pick: "10 Totally Different TV Shows that Doctor Who Has Been Over the Years"


Reader Comments (14)

"Uncle Sigmund, I renounce you as a charlatan, a bully, and a fabricator of data. A corrupter of language, a destroyer of lives." 

~ Greg Egan, "Distress"

I love that quote, but it's so hard to find a place where it's relevant.

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark P

The Einstein example is unconvincing. He did not get the constant speed of light from his thought experiment. He got it from Lorentz. Lorentz got it from experiments.

August 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

The links for the picks are broken.

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Ok, psychoanalysis is not a science... but I think that it is possible to say the same about all the social (pseudo)sciences. Take Neoclassical Economics, where all economic behaviour is explained remiting to 'Utility'... Because humans are pleasure seekers and pain avoiders... But this explanation ('the economic behavior is explained by Utility') is not falsible. And this is the base on which all economic behavior is explained by 'mainstream economics'. So...

August 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterabilio

I'm disappointed you guys couldn't work in a comparison with SETI.

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim

Massimo's mispronunciation of Freud's surname as "Fraud" several times constitutes a "Fraudian slip"... perhaps the first in recorded history! :)

August 14, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterullrich fischer

Dear Massimo,

Usually I'm a fan of your show, but I was very disappointed today.
I was expecting a good epistemological discussion on Freud's theories and hoped to learn something about the condition of psychology today but all I got was one very sloppy reading and some jokes adequate only for college freshmen.

I have to admit that I listened only until the end of the section dedicated to Libido because what I heard made me cringe.

The question of Libido is more understandable if we see how Freud got there.
We have to remember that Freud was both a Neurologist and a Naturalist. As both, he faced mainly two oppositions: from one side the generally anti-naturalist German academy (still influenced by a romantic conception of nature and having problems with Newton) and from the other side faculty psychology of Aristotelian descent.

So Freud's idea was to think of a neural system regulating the flux of a single energy. Depending on the stimulation that the neural system would receive, that energy would accumulate in a certain zone of the neural system instead of another. Strong simulations would cause a strong accumulation of energy on a certain representation. The stronger the energy invested, the stronger is the power of the representation on the mind.

That energy is what Libido is for Freud.
So when Freud talks about Narcissism as the origin of Ego, the idea is not that you sexually love yourself, but that you invest that energy in the representation of your own self. Investing Libido is how everything works in Freud's idea of mind. You perceive the real world because you invest neural energy in the perception-consciousness system. You remember certain data because you invest energy in that representation. The memory of a lover comes back to you because you invested in the representation of that event.

This is neither an absurd idea nor a trivial one, especially considering when it was stated.

The problem with Freud are others.

One of the problems is that Freud is still a 19th century scientist steeped in Victorian era psychology. So when he was faced with the problem of determining what that energy was he could not just say electricity because he would have faced the problem of explaining why electricity is directing an organism towards an object of desire. So what he implemented was the idea of sexual instinct that came with its whole set of perversions (like the ideas that homosexuality and masturbation are deformations of sexual instinct pointing now towards the wrong objects) and everything we have seen in Krafft-Ebing.

Another problem of Freud is that his is a representational theory of the mind that is not capable of explaining how representations emerge from the neuronal basis nor how they interact with each other. The result is not an organized mind, but a mind crowded by disconnected ideas. A sort of gaseous mind where representations bump around like atoms of a gas. It is not surprising then that the only regulating forces Freud found are Eros and the death drive (basically gravity and entropy) and the unerring interpretation of the analyst.

Again I don't think that all this is as laughable as you made it out to be. Maybe in the second part you took a more serious and in depth tone, I don't know. But I was certainly disappointed by how you approached the problem.

Anyway my esteem for your persona is still high and I'll continue to follow both your blog and your podcasts.

August 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteriro

I loved Julia’s comment about post-modernist being much more palatable when viewed as poets.

August 19, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlan


Freudianism isn't science; I don't think anyone (alive) even disputes that, and to enumerate all the ways in which Freudianism isn't science is almost a trivial exercise. But there are a lot of issues and interesting questions that Freud raises that are pertinent to rationalists, namely, his assertion that human nature is inherently irrational -- that humans often act against their own self-interest, hurting themselves and hurting the ones they love.

I think a point that Julia made illustrates this point very well. She described a scene from a conference on psychoanalysis and the scientific method, and was surprised that, when backed into a corner against irrefutable evidence to the contrary, a person would still hold onto their mistaken beliefs. In fact, there is some scientific evidence that this is generally the case -- when presented with evidence contrary to one's beliefs, it seems to serve only to make those beliefs stronger.

You can't sway someones beliefs by throwing science at them, no matter how persuasive the evidence. In this case, Freud could be instructive, if you read his case studies. In his interactions with his patients, he actively engages in their point of view, and you can really see psychoanlysis at work not as a science, but as a powerful technique of persuasion, slowly converting the patient's motives into ones that are useful to Freud. What is important is that Freud takes the patient's words seriously, listens carefully, and really tries to understand them. On the other hand, when, for example, Julia dismissively describes post-modernism as poetry or Freudianism as comedy (although boh poetry and comedy are very serious genres), she makes dialogue impossible; there is no possibility of a common ground, no possibility of communication. Although, as a scientist, you might wish that science could be the common ground to start a discussion, as a scientist, you would also know that there is sociological evidence that this doesn't work.

September 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterIreneo

Good posts by Iro & ireneo, and, more generally than their useful detail, there is a reason why Freud is branded non-scientific. The most secure reductive level is physics, followed by chemistry based on it, then biology based on chemistry with the proviso of environmental fitness, and finally psychology. We are still exploring how certain the more reductive levels are, and whether such a thing as emergence means they are not longer relevant as we move up, but it's a fair bet their fixed laws (such as we have discovered them to date) remain relevant to shaping the upper levels.

So, Freud operates at the level of psychology, one level up from biology, and uses biological clues to explain human psychology. He does this even though the certainties of connection of psychology to biology are unknown. Like Evolutionary Psychology, Psychoanalysis becomes a rational narrative about behavior rather than one rooted in certainties, and prey to a subjective view of the analyst to test the subjective accounts of the analyzed.

Freud had no choice. Biology failed to provide him with a secure connection to psychology (perhaps using chemistry), and he was not clever enough to do that massive work himself. Thankfully, I have done it for you in my free book at The error of biology is in promoting narratives under the umbrella of "whatever survives in the environment", extending into societies made up of individuals' behaviors, and relying always on statistical expost analysis of what has already survived and (maybe) how.

Lakatos said Darwinism is non-scientific because it is not predictive, and I agree with that view of expost analysis. The missing piece is to predict what, in the first place, can be constructed by DNA in an environment, even before it is tested for survival. DNA is just a strand, and all else in phenotype construction comes from the environment. The phenotype is literally the embodiment of the proximate environmental chemicals used for its construction, thus the pre-existing environment determines what can evolve within it (dryness, wetness, solidity, gaseous, liquidity, etc). I hope you enjoy my book, where I put this into perspective for you.

September 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMarcus Morgan

Early on, Massimo refers to statements that appear to have a deep, profound meaning that is false, but have a second meaning that is true but mundane and uninteresting. Dan Dennett has coined a term, "deepity", for such assertions.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge
Thanks for sharing such an enjoyable discussion. It's good to be able to laugh at things and not be so serious all the time when addressing these type of all-encompassing ideas. cheers ;)
February 24, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
We can recognize psychology a genuine science. We can also regard Freudian Psychology as terribly wrong. I love the idea of looking at Freud's ideas as comedy, since in fact they do indeed elicit intense laughter.
January 21, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Thank you very much. I’m always looking for an excuse to add new things!
August 1, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLeah Pertlo

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