Category Archives: New Existentialists

The history of Freud and the future of physics

Those who say psychology should be more like physics should read two recent articles and get their heads turned around: physics is becoming more like psychology.

A new article about Freud in Prospect Magazine begins with a fundamental error: it suggests that Freud has been repudiated by psychology for refusing to flatter mankind.

While his insistence that the psyche is neither a happy place nor amenable to reason may be out of step with contemporary culture – very out of step if you look at the self-help section in a book store – that has little or nothing to do with Freud’s reception by psychology. Instead, as Eugene Taylor has so ably documented, psychology was taken over by experimentalists with hard science envy. Freud was repudiated not because his philosophical ideas were out-of-step, but because he had philosophical ideas at all. By the end of the 20th century, mainstream psychology had jettisoned everything that wasn’t provable with computer modeling under laboratory conditions.

A fascinating article in The Atlantic points out that the same thing happened to physics, the hardest of the hard sciences … which also underwent revolutionary transformations during Freud’s lifetime. Continue reading The history of Freud and the future of physics

Rollo May’s last book, The Psychology of Existence, re-issued. An interview with co-author Kirk Schneider

Recently McGraw-Hill announced it was reissuing the seminal 1995 text The Psychology of Existence, by Kirk Schneider and Rollo May.

It was the last book May ever wrote, and he edited a galley copy just two days before his death.

Psychology of Existence was intended to be a foundational book for the revitalization of existential psychology in America, and it has been – introducing a new generation of scholars and practitioners to the concept May pioneered in the 1950s, and expanding them into “existential-integrative” practice for the new millennium.

The New Existentialists interviewed Kirk Schneider, a founding member of this community, about the book and the experience of writing with Rollo May at the end of his life. Continue reading Rollo May’s last book, The Psychology of Existence, re-issued. An interview with co-author Kirk Schneider

Freedom’s just another word for “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

The latest 5 car pileup on the information superhighway is a column called “If I was a poor black kid.”

Naturally it’s written by a white, middle-aged, technology reporter for Forbes, because … well, of course.

It’s advice from writer Gene Marks on how urban poor minority juveniles can use technology to better themselves.  It contains suggestions like:

  • Use Skype to connect to other urban poor minority kids who want to keep their grades up
  • Use Google Scholar as a research tool
  • Learn how to be a computer programmer

There’s no need to point out just how absurd this whole exercise is – it’s been done brilliantly elsewhere.  Megan McArdle expertly points out that when you are a poor urban black juvenile the incentives presented to you don’t line up with those offered to middle-aged white technology reporters for Forbes.  Ta-Nehisi Coates explains that to truly understands someone we need to appreciate why they make the choices they do, rather than how we would do things differently.  Continue reading Freedom’s just another word for “I don’t know what I’m doing.”

I am a computer, therefore I … laugh?

A new book is promoting a new, mechanistic, theory of why we laugh.

According to the authors of  Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind Human being have a sense of humor because the mind is a computer (“our brains are Chevy engines running Maserati software”) dedicated to constantly making sense of the world on the basis of incomplete information.  Because mistakes are inevitable, says co-author Matthew Hurley:

“Finding and disabling these errors is a critical task. But it’s a resource-hungry job that has to compete with everything else our brains are doing. We think the pleasure of humor, the emotion of mirth, is the brain’s reward for discovering its mistaken inferences. Basically, the brain has to bribe itself to do this important work.”

Laughter, then, is an incentive to get your computer-mind to do a critical task.

But wait:  why would the mind need a bribe if it’s a computer? Continue reading I am a computer, therefore I … laugh?

Policy positions are, at heart, an existential choice

Periodically someone will publish the results of a study suggesting that “we” are smarter than our political enemies. Liberals are more open to new ideas, conservatives have more common sense – somehow the idea that our political beliefs are determined by our IQ lets some of us sleep easier at night.

Daniel Klein isn’t one of them. The author of a 2010 study showing that conservatives are smarter about economics than liberals, Klein has publicly retracted his own study after conducting follow-up research. It turns out that conservatives correctly answer questions whose conclusions back up conservatives views on how the world works … and liberals correctly answer questions who conclusions back of liberal views of how the world works. And everyone is bad at answering questions that challenge their assumptions.

Klein writes: “The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups.”

It would be nice if we could do away with the idea that people who disagree with us are of necessity stupid, or immune to evidence: the current Pope is brilliant, as is Richard Dawkins. Barack Obama is extremely intelligent, as is Mitch Daniels. Attempts to reduce their choices to a deficiency of capacity is a kind of dehumanization: it’s not their fault, they can’t help themselves. Continue reading Policy positions are, at heart, an existential choice

The psychology of abundance in a time of joblessness

Questions about work are ubiquitous in Western culture because in many ways we equate “work” with “self.”

We don’t ask children “who do you want to be when you grow up?” we ask them “what do you want to do when you grow up?”  Similarly, when we first meet someone we are more likely to ask “what do you do?” than “what do you think?”

While we understand that there are more dimensions to a person than their work, we tend to think of them as secondary at best:  someone who has a rich inner life but has trouble getting a job is not going to be invited to give a commencement address.  No one will be impressed if you go to your 20 year reunion and say you’ve spent the last several years being a great friend.

For the most part, western culture only pays lip service to the aspects of selfhood that don’t look good on a résumé. Continue reading The psychology of abundance in a time of joblessness

The State of Psychology in 2011

From crushing unemployment to multiple global conflicts – 2011 is a year that desperately needs a psychology that helps people tap their inner reserves and find their sense of purpose.

Yet too often academic psychology seems to have set everything human about humanity in its crosshairs.  Evolutionary Psychology tries to tell us that we are nothing but our ancestors’ habit patterns playing out in a new environment;  neuropsychologists try to reduce consciousness to an accident of neurons;   psychopharmacologists suggest we drug ourselves into a stupor rather than learning to address our issues.

We hear a lot about these psychological sub-areas in 2011, and at every turn its message seems to be:  you don’t really have choices, you just have instincts and neurons and chemicals.  At a time when psychology is called upon to elevate our capacity as human beings, the major movements in academic psychology are trying to strip us to base components.  Their reductionism is not just a tool:  it’s an obsession.

What about Humanistic Psychology?  Where does it stand in 2011? Continue reading The State of Psychology in 2011

We fear death – but why do we want to live?

America’s obsession with health can easily be seen as a fear of death – but is also a sign that we’re forgetting how to live?

The intriguing premise of an essay by English professor Mark Edmundson is that health consciousness can be the flip side of nihilism – what one does when nothing matters.  Because, Edmundson says, to live for its own sake is not to live at all.

“Since the beginning of time (or close),” Edmundson writes, “men and women have sought immortality. They have sought to live as the gods do—eternally and in bliss. (They have, one might say, invented gods so as to show them an image of eternal life to which they might, with whatever daring, aspire.)”

But as he points out, the Gods were never content just to be alive.  “They love to make things—or inspire humans to do so. Athena presides over the creation of the city that bears her name; Apollo makes music and invents mathematics; Diana creates the arts of the hunt and all the woodland crafts; Aphrodite schools gods and mortals in the ways of love. Gods live forever in order to make things, to create where there was nothing, and to enjoy the fruits of their creation.” Continue reading We fear death – but why do we want to live?

A society that only does technology well will age badly

The first American baby boomer reached retirement age this year.  By 2030, one-in-five Americans will be a Boomer past 65.  This “silver tsunami” as it’s been called, will carry much of what we know about American culture with it:  when one-in-five people are over 65, our economy is just one aspect of society that will warp around the caring for the elderly. How we organize our cities, build our buildings, and spend our resources will follow.

Or it could follow.  The problem is that we live in a culture obsessed with youth, and with technological fixes.  The one makes it difficult to even see, let alone confront, what it is to grow older.  The other makes it difficult to address aging on a human level — where it really matters.

A fascinating article about MIT’s “AgeLab” describes the problem and the cutting edge technological fixes that are being developed:  cars augmented with sensors to help support elderly drivers;  shoes to improve mobility and balance;  tricked-out home appliances to make it easier to live independently (such as the e-trash can);  electronic pets to provide something for the elderly to care for (does that seem creepy to you?);  and improved exercise machines.

Yet even Joseph Coughlin, AgeLab’s founder, clearly knows that technological fixes are far from enough.  As the article notes: Continue reading A society that only does technology well will age badly

The 21st century suffers from an “existential famine”

It’s not easy being empathetic when conditions aren’t right

In response to several studies showing that empathy has declined significantly among the young, and that social media is correlated with narcissism, a new group of educators are hoping to counter the trend by teaching empathy in college classes.

Previous research, some by Saybrook University’s Joel Federman, has shown this can be done. But the idea of using the classroom to counteract a generational divide raises an interesting question:  what does it mean that we now feel we need to teach a generation of students what once was a basic human emotion?

Is our technology changing what it means to be human that much?  Continue reading The 21st century suffers from an “existential famine”