Category Archives: New Existentialists

The problem isn’t feminism: the problem is that you can’t become happy by proxy

In 2009 a major study (pdf) showed that women were increasingly unhappy in the modern world – and a host of pundits, psychologists, and sociologists asked “What’s happened to the fairer sex?”

Was it feminism that was making women less happy? Economic inequality? Higher expectations? Loneliness? Feminism? (That one came up a lot. Apparently people like to blame things on feminism).

Two years later, another data set has been analyzed, and it turns out that the reason more women are unhappy has nothing to do with women. According to the data, we’re ALL less satisfied with life than we were 25 years ago.

According to an article by Chris Herbst in the Journal of Economic Psychology, “Both sexes witnessed comparable slippages in self-confidence, growing regrets about the past, and declines in virtually every measure of self-reported physical and mental health” regardless of education and socio-economic status.

How do you like them apples? Apparently not much. Continue reading The problem isn’t feminism: the problem is that you can’t become happy by proxy

Psychology Needs Poetry – Part II

Is too much poetry a sign of maddness?
In an extraordinary article in Poetry Magazine, poet Joshua Mehigan examines the popular link between “poetry” and “madness.”  After all, aren’t poets visionaries and eccentrics?  Aren’t they taken over by the muse and privy to the depths of the human experience?

Well, maybe those last two.  But in general what he finds is that, popular opinion to the contrary, there actually isn’t much of a link between poetry and madness.  On the contrary:  “When Lear is mad,” he points out, “he speaks prose.”

An old artist friend, given to psychotic adventures involving Nazis and the KKK, sometimes said he missed being delusional. But I don’t think he made much art during episodes, and when I last saw him, in 1998, he was living in Central Park. I’ve known several people who suffered psychosis, and he alone felt nostalgic about it. The others fight it or float forever in an alternate universe. Another psychotic friend, dead now, sometimes said things that were arrestingly poetic. She told me that when she left the hospital she wanted to spend some time with me. “You know,” she said casually, “like a billion years.” But her mind was chaos, and soon we couldn’t communicate. I’ve only been approximately psychotic. Once, years ago, alone at my parents’ house during an acid trip, I tried writing. Before long, I lost interest. A week later I found the scrap of nonsense under my bed and felt embarrassed. If deliriants mimic psychosis better than LSD, I don’t see how anyone could write while psychotic. Continue reading Psychology Needs Poetry – Part II

The link between existentialism and spirituality is Awe

Shortly after becoming an existential therapist, Bob Edelstein remembers having a conversation with Rollo May.

“I asked if one could be both existential and spiritual.  He responded that it was essential to be both.”

Edelstein recounts that story in his recent review of Kirk Schneider’s book Awakening to Awe, and it represents one of the most significant aesthetic differences between the traditional view of “philosophical” existentialism we all know, and the more psychologically based New Existentialism: traditional existentialism is frequently seen as harsh and depressing. The New Existentialism explicitly embraces our capacity for joy.

This is not joy in spite of the existential truths we need to confront, but because of them. The New Existentialism is no less concerned with the truths of the human condition: our freedom, the inevitability of death, the need to make meaning in life. But, as Schneider’s work points out: awe is at the center of any honest description of the human experience. We live in a world that constantly surprises us, constantly engages us on new levels, and is always beyond our capacity to fully measure and account for. 

That recognition – the recognition of the nature of life as we live it – is the beginning of a spiritual awakening. It may be an agnostic one, founded as it is in the human capacity to experience the world and not in any particular dogma, but the point is clear: Rollo May was right. A life without awe, without spirituality, is lobotomized. A credible psychology needs to take that into account.

Artificial Intelligence’s biggest success isn’t making computers smarter — it’s making people dumber

Back in 1997, when IBM’s computer “Deep Blue” beat the world’s (human) champion at chess, the news world erupted:  were human beings on the way out?

Well, were they?

Today it doesn’t seem like it.  I doubt you can come up with a single substantive way that a computer being better at chess than Gary Kasparov has affected your life.  Sure, you use computers even more now, in even more ways, than you did ten years ago … but that no longer feels threatening. In fact, when IBM’s newest supercomputer “Watson” beat the all-time (human) Jeopardy champion in a test match, nobody panicked.

The success of Artificial Intelligence (AI) doesn’t seem to threaten humanity at all.

But the failure of AI may be doing lasting and terrible damage. Continue reading Artificial Intelligence’s biggest success isn’t making computers smarter — it’s making people dumber

First chess, now music: just how creative can computers get?

“Nobody’s original,” says composer David Cope.

Here’s what he means: there’s no such thing as “creativity,” only endless copying, theme, and variation. “Everybody copies from everybody. The skill is in how large a fragment you choose to copy and how elegantly you can put them together.”

Cope is making more than just an argument with the idea that “nobody’s original” – he’s making music. Cope is the world’s foremost creator of computer programs that compose classical music, and his latest program, called “Emily Howell,” recently released its first album. In several cases, classical music scholars have been unable to tell an artificial intelligence created work in the style of Bach or Mozart from the original.

That music, Cope says, is proof that creativity, as we commonly understand it, does not exist – and that people are therefore little more than complex machines constantly crunching algorithms.

“The question,” Cope says in a recent article in Miller-McCune,”isn’t whether computers have a soul, but whether humans have a soul.” His answer is “no.”

But what exactly has Cope proved? Very little, according to faculty in Saybrook’s program in Creativity Studies. Continue reading First chess, now music: just how creative can computers get?

Psychology needs poetry

Ask most poets who the biggest influences on them are, and you’ll usually get a list of other poets – Byron, Shelley, Keats, Frost, Whitman, Plath, or Ginsberg.

But when Tom Greening tries to think of the most important influences on his poetry, the two names he comes up with are psychologists.

“Rollo May was a big influence,” Greening remembers.  “And Jim Bugental, with whom I worked for many years.  Jim liked to play with words.  He sometimes made bad puns, which I don’t particularly like, but he certainly had a playful side.”

Perhaps that’s appropriate, because though he’s been a poet in some fashion for most of his life, it’s humanistic psychology – a discipline which he’s done as much as anyone to help shape – that has dominated Greening’s life work.  May and Bugental were two of the pioneers in the field, and they saw a connection between art and scholarship that seems alien in the academic world of today.

There’s now a separation between the humanities and the sciences – one so vast that it seems novel to suggest it could be any other way.  But it could:  perhaps especially in psychology.

Continue reading Psychology needs poetry