The Unconscious versus Scientism

You can spot someone engaged in scientism easily by bringing up the concept of the unconscious mind. Such people, providing they have never explored psychology to any great length, will usually respond with a phrase such as, “I don’t believe in the unconscious.” For these people, who have transformed science from a process into a belief system, such black boxes represent a problem that they can’t accept and dare not examine because they suggest that there are vast unknowns right in front of them—even in them—that their conceptualization of science can’t explain.

But this is the problem with all such belief systems: what apparently exists beyond the axioms of the system isn’t real. It’s true amongst people who accept a religious belief system when they encounter something their system doesn’t acknowledge. For example, it’s almost impossible for a fundamentalist evangelical Christian to contend with evidence of reincarnation. It’s equally impossible for a Calvinist to conceptualize free will or universal salvation. But I digress….

What’s most disturbing is that people who believe in science (as opposed to those who use science as a tool) often have very little understanding of science. They tend to view science as a body of facts rather than a method of inquiry. Pointing out things like the incompleteness theorem of mathematics, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, or even the Heisenberg uncertainty principle is met with unjustified skepticism rooted in ignorance; worse, it may be met with a superficial definition that the believer in scientism accepts as the only way to see such things.

The dogmatic view of science hinges on such definitions that don’t rely on the deeper mathematical understanding of such ideas. Such people are often quick to deny the value of statistical methods through the inane quip “Correlation does not mean causation.” They seldom understand that deeper methods used in statistics can point to causal relationships between variables. But for the believer, all of statistics are just a guessing game and the findings derived from statistics are merely accidents. They have no idea how a t-test works, how that differs from ANOVA, how ANOVA differs from factor analysis, how a chi-squared test works, or even what a confidence interval is. They have a mantra and that suffices for their need to believe in their vision of science.

When confronted with convergent evidence that the unconscious exists and exerts a measurable influence on affect, behavior, and cognition, the believer in scientism will scoff and insist there must be a better explanation. Further, when confronted with emerging evidence converging on the existence of the collective unconscious, these people often result to ad hominem attacks on the people conducting this research. When challenged to perform simple experiments that validate the reality of the unconscious, they refuse, balk, or otherwise do everything they can to hang onto their preconceived notions of psychology.

The difference between those who do science and those who believe in scientism is one of humility. For the scientist, research begins in the humble admission, “I don’t know….” For the believer in scientism, science has all of the answers, knows what’s real and what isn’t, and demands obedience to a dogmatic interpretation—those who do not share this view are “pseudoscientific” or “superstitious.” This kind of response is a defense mechanism, the response of a person frightened by the unknown and desiring desperately for the world-as-they-see-it to be the world-that-is.

The challenge to the limitations of scientism is easy to make: What do we know about the core of Jupiter? If we were to travel 20-billion light-years out from Earth, what would we find? What does evidence of an eternally existing universe do to the Big Bang theory? What are the implications of the incompleteness of mathematics? The honest answer to all of these questions is, “I don’t know.”

To the scientist, the challenges mentioned above inspire curiosity, motivate the design of experiments, and what starts in the humility of ignorance and limitation expands into research which ultimately ends in wonder. To those who believe in scientism, such challenges frustrate and infuriate.

Believers in scientism would do well to remember that psychology and neuroscience are new sciences. For believers in scientism, this is an unacceptable but unavoidable fact. It must suck to be them.

Shriek into the Void...

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