Mention the word ‘psychology’ and the first name anyone thinks of is Sigmund Freud. In fact, for many people, it’s the only name they can associate with the word. Just as Marx was for communism and Einstein was for physics, Freud was for psychology. In fact, of the ‘big three’ (Marx, Freud, Einstein) there is no question that Freud’s influence is felt much more on a daily level than that of either Marx of Einstein.
Freud came from an Austrian secular Jewish family who, though poor, managed to give him a thorough secular education. He entered the hardly existing field of psychology through experimentation with hypnosis, an area of great interest at the time. His great discovery, which he hit on quite early in his career (during the 1880’s) was that much of our feelings, desires, and emotions, and even our intellectual thoughts, are rooted in a hidden and almost uncontrollable region of the mind called the unconscious. It is in that murky realm, which he later called the id, that all the repressed memories and desires from childhood emerge to wreak havoc on the conscious part of the mind he referred to as the ego. His theories on how the id influences the ego, and what the ego does in response, were developed and refined over the course of his long career (about 1885–1935). His method of treatment of mental illness that results from the effects of the id was given the name psychoanalysis. It was and still is controversial in almost every aspect.
Freud broadened his theories to include all kinds of human activities that by all appearances had nothing to do with the ego and the id. One of the most controversial of these highly controversial extensions was religion. Freud was an atheist. He considered religion and the entire concept of God to be nothing more than the result of another repressed fantasy from childhood that resided somewhere in the unconscious. Spirituality was a complete mystery to him, meaning that he thought it was all baloney. The attempt of his famous protégé, Carl Jung, to integrate spirituality with psychology, irked him to no end. He saw religion in general as an example of individuals or societies attempting to cope with mental problems through a convenient escape mechanism.
He wrote a well-received book in 1929 called ‘Civilization and its Discontents’ which deals with the conflicts between individual psychological needs and the demands of society. In it (p.22-23 of the 1962 edition) he finally asks the big question, ‘What is the purpose of life?’ Of course, to an atheist like Freud there can be no ultimate meaning, so the question had to be qualified. Immediately after asking the question he writes that there may not be a definite answer. He goes further, writing that there may not be any meaning to life at all. That this will disturb people and make life not worth living is immaterial to the matter. He then claims that the entire question is ill-founded, based on ‘human presumptuousness’ - that we are so important that we actually have some ultimate meaning. In the end, he relegates the issue to religion, a subject that he had dealt with a few years earlier.
But he goes on. He asks the ‘less ambitious question of what men show by their behavior to be the purpose and intention of their lives. What do they demand of life and wish to achieve of it? The answer to this can hardly be in doubt. They strive after happiness; they want to become happy and to remain so. This endeavor has two sides, a positive and a negative aim. It aims, on the one hand, at the absence of pain and unpleasure, and, on the other, at the experiencing of strong feelings of pleasure…As we see, what decides the purpose of life is simply the program of the pleasure principle.’
Well, there we have it, straight from the horse’s mouth. It’s all about having a good time. Now maybe we can get on to more pressing issues like where socks go when they get lost in the dryer. Of course, there is much more to it than that. The Pleasure Principle was a major component of Freud’s view of the mind. It is one of ‘preprogrammed’ aspects of the id. It simply is the way we are regardless of our childhood experiences or anything else along the way. Human beings want pleasure and they don’t want pain. What could be more obvious than that?
But we all know that it is not so simple. If life was one big orgy of physical pleasure, then perhaps an unfettered pleasure-seeking drive would indeed be appropriate. But it isn’t. There is real life to deal with, or as Freud calls it, the ‘Reality Principle’. Confronting reality places major obstacles in our infantile drive for pleasure. In fact, practically all of life is just one big obstacle to unlimited pleasure fulfillment. Freud was by no means ignorant of this fact of life. In fact, the very next paragraph brings this point up: ‘One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be happy is not included in the plan of Creation’. He partially resolves the problem by suggesting that we really should spend our time striving after the second of the two paths to happiness – avoiding pain. He presents many options as to how one may go about avoiding pain while getting an occasional fix of pleasure. These are the various paths that people use to get through life.
The rest of the book deals with how civilization works against the individual pursuit of happiness. No real solution is presented to the numerous problems. It’s vintage Freud, speculating away, but also telling it like it is. Nevertheless, the point about the meaning of life is fascinating – we behave as if the purpose of life is to be happy and to avoid pain. When God and religion are removed from the mix, this is truly all that remains. And being as they were just an illusion to begin with, that is really all there is.
On a very practical level, it sounds like we are just stuck in a situation in which there is no meaning to life when one really thinks about it, but we act as if there is. But even this has the reality deck stacked against it. Freud would probably be the first to say that life is a tough road to walk down – being forced to do something that we can’t really succeed at and that doesn’t really matter anyway. It is a bit tempting to suggest that the only real way out of this Freudian dilemma is either to commit suicide or to follow Bob Marley’s advice: ‘Don’t worry, be happy’.
One final point about Freud, he has no problem leaving us empty-handed in the ultimate purpose of life question. This is truly the bottom line as far as genuine atheism is concerned. Anything else is just misleading. That it’s not going to go over too well with people doesn’t make it any less true from an atheistic standpoint. This is a very important matter that cannot be overstated. Ultimate meaning does not exist to an atheist. Any search for it, is at worst the pursuit of an illusion, and at best one more path to satisfying an innate biological drive that we are stuck with. For an atheist, this is the naked truth.
However, Freud does add a puzzling statement: ‘Once again, only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life. One can hardly be wrong in concluding that the idea of life having a purpose stands and falls with the religious system’. Is he conceding a point to religion here? Hardly, he relegates the whole system to ‘mass delusion’ a few pages later. But he does recognize that the only possible way out of the ‘purpose’ dilemma, if one desires to be extricated, is through religion. This is an amazing statement. The only solution to the ultimate dilemma of life is through an illusion, or mass delusion, or childhood fantasy. If one were to ask Freud the question: ‘What should I do if I really want to find ultimate meaning in life’, how would he respond? It seems that he couldn’t really suggest religion because it is a sham, but there is no viable alternative either.
This is a glaring problem, a problem that atheists conveniently sweep under the rug. At the end of the day, whatever meaning they come up with is really nothing better than some preprogrammed drive or some random response to random circumstances. Why should we shoot for happiness, in whatever form is comes? Is it anything other than a mechanized response to mechanized stimulation? Pleasure principle or not, is happiness really any better than unhappiness? Atheists have no answers for these questions, because there are no answers. What is a card-carrying atheist to do if he or she is no longer satisfied with satisfying a biological drive? Where should they go for ultimate meaning?
There must be a way out of the dilemma. Perhaps even Freud would concede that some solution has to be found. Perhaps there is a way. Maybe Freud’s odd suggestion/dismissal that religion holds whatever key there may be to the ultimate purpose of life can be used even by the atheists. The advantage the religious believers have over atheist non-believers is that the former are genuinely convinced that what they are doing matters, while the latter are uncomfortably aware that they cannot say the same about themselves.
But what if they could? What if an atheist could work up enough belief that whatever it is they devote their life to really does matter in an ultimate sense - maybe that would be enough to level the playing field. Even without a god, saving the earth is important in some spiritual sense that goes beyond the molecules and neurotransmitters. Art has some cosmic significance that somehow actually does something permanent. Science, intellect, kindness, happiness, progress, personal fulfillment – these can all be true goals and quests that have some enduring meaning and do not just go up in smoke. Maybe even non-believers can convince themselves, that, in spite of their rejection of religion and all it stands for, they still have a place in their conscience for a reality that exists beyond the nuts and bolts of the physical world. This could be the path to salvation for ultimate meaning-seeking atheists.
Aside from this rather prosaic advice, Freud did leave us with something else. Happiness, even in this non-ultimate sense, is something that we as human beings, need. It may go against the ‘plan of Creation’, but that doesn’t make it any less pressing. In order for a person to feel a sense of purpose they must be happy. How each one gets their happiness is their own business, but we all need it. If anything positive is to be gleaned from Freud’s gloomy take on our lot in life, it is that happiness is paramount. The important thing is to find the right path or paths for you, according to your situation in life, and do it. Don’t let yourself be satisfied with mediocrity when it comes to your own happiness. When the dust clears, when the ego and the id have sorted themselves out, it’s what we all really want.
Food for Thought
A heck of a lot of well-informed, well-rounded, productive people, are genuine atheists. They are not nut cases and they try to find, and frequently do find, fulfillment in life. If the ultimate truth is that everything is just one big can of meaningless particles, how can this fulfillment actually work? Shouldn’t they wake up one day and realize that it is just an illusion?
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