Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Epistemology and Depth Psychology

Originally posted on March 4, 2010

Epistemology is that branch of philosophy that inquires into the problem of how we know what we know.  Can some of what we think we know be illusions or errors? How could that be? Can Truth be known? Reality?

The first point here is that most people seem to buy into the idea that truth exists, that there is a “Truth.” It’s part of the modern paradigm, and also partakes of the pre-modern, traditionalist world-view. On the other hand, might Truth be a mere ideal, an abstraction, something that operates in relative terms in many contexts, but other than that, as being thought of as more than a concept, it might be misleading? This mini-essay suggests that the ideal of Truth should be reconsidered in light of the fact that we have entered an era (i.e., the postmodern era) in which the nature of mind, language, culture, and the like have all revealed themselves to be far more complex than previously known.

An analogy to the shift in worldviews about the nature of truth might be the way astronomy was imagined before the technology of more precise measurements revealed to Copernicus and then Galileo certain insufficiencies in the geocentric cosmos (earth as the center of the universe). Yet this more traditionalist astronomy and worldview was adequate for most people and their everyday and sacred purposes. HoweverIt became inadequate as the complexities of astronomy emerged.

The general present (traditional and modern, but not post-modern) paradigm is that Truth does exist. There are objective truths that theoretically can be discovered and known, and these operate apart from the biases of human mind. These Truths express the essential nature of reality and are true for all time, for all people. Also, these are non-trivial truths. There are corollaries to this which feed into the experience that this is true.
1. If we could only find and know the Truth, everything would be better. In truth there is power. The advances in science have supported this idea. (This concept avoids the inconvenient truths of unintended consequences. Ultimately, science and technology will solve all problems and no shifts in consciousness, political ideologies, philosophy, social norms, etc. will be possible. The population explosion can be managed with no need to promote contraception or abortion or anything else that goes against traditional values.)

2. When we do find the truth, its majesty and reasonableness will be unassailable, overwhelmingly impressive. (At least it seems that way to those who claim to have discovered it!) The attitude of strong belief, confidence, is impressive. (That the feeling that one really knows might itself be self-deceptive is hardly appreciated. Hypocrisy is believed to be conscious.)
(As a contrary epistemology, one of my favorite philosophers, Alfred North Whitehead, said, “There are no whole truths; all truths are half truths. It is trying to treat them as whole truths that plays the devil.”)

3. When we affirm the truth, the plausibility of our argument will be compelling. Everyone will believe it, unless they are tempted by various forms of bad faith, wickedness, etc.

4. People are reasonable. A further corollary is that it seems perfectly reasonable to believe in the Bible or Quran or some other authoritative sacred scripture as the literal word of God. This leads to a whole ‘nother string of seemingly plausible steps in the chain of what is actually rather flagrantly faulty but nevertheless plausible logic.

5. Another reason to affirm that there MUST be a truth, an objective reality is, simply, that it is inconceivable to deny this. (Of course, that’s what a paradigm shift is about, that new paradigms are literally inconceivable for many people at first!) Inconceivability is not in fact a statement about what is objectively true, but rather an admission of the limits of one’s own thought. It is a product of a mixture of ignorance and an intolerance to the feeling of humility, so that one develops a strong illusion that what can imagine is as far as imagination can be taken.)

6. Truth has a moral imperative. To advocate for the truth, to carry forward the implications of the truth as we all understand them to be—no interpretation here— is righteous. To do less is if not wicked, then wishy-washy, timid, and less-than-really-moral. To follow the path of righteousness is tremendously reassuring, and there’s a lot of morale, communion, collective energy that comes with people in groups feeding on each other’s beliefs. There is no appreciation here of the psychology of co-dependency, the unconscious power of collusion and pressures to conform. If many people believe it, that only makes it more true, even, and “we” are even more good. (This also combats the debilitating power of doubt and burden.)

7. Doubt in the face of evident truth (as defined by true believers) is, if not mere stubbornness, worthy of punishment (if a child), then adult wilfulness and rebelliousness, worthy of eternal torture in hell as a just response of an otherwise loving (to those who are obedient) God. Some doubt is permissible as a form of madness, weak-mindedness, sickness—as long as it is ultimately submissive to the forces of authoritative truth.

8. It should be noted that these corollaries about the traditional-modern belief in the existence of Truth actually reflect the nature of depth psychology and the profound temptations to follow desires rather than pure reason—tendencies noted by many thinkers, such as Friederich Nietzsche in the late 19th century, who said something like: “My mind tells me this must be so. My heart tells me this cannot be so. Eventually, my mind gives in.”

The paradigm shift introduced a century ago by Freud and others challenged the prevalent idea that people are essentially reasonable. This was a 19th and 20th century paradigm. (Previous paradigms included the belief that the world was flat; the earth was the center of the universe (pre-Copernicus, as alluded to earlier); there were no “new” worlds to be discovered (pre-Columbus); that all life and the universe was created in a week and that evolution was nonsense (pre-Darwin); slavery was okay; women were rightly imagined to be so caught up in child-rearing that they were incapable of good judgment; and others.)

The paradigm shift that is upon us today involves the nature of mind, the nature of the phenomenon of knowing, the feeling of knowledge, and the possibility of self-deception. The earlier paradigm was that obviously reasonably clever men were free of major currents of self-deception. This paradigm was able to include exceptions: Some people were ignorant, foolish, limited in intelligence, or perhaps mad. On the whole, though, it was widely believed by reasonable men that people were capable of using their reason to ascertain the Truth.

The newer paradigm idea is that consciousness is highly complex and that virtually all humans operate with a cognitive structure that is inevitably laced with self-deceptive tendencies. This newer paradigm is still hardly accepted by the majority of people today—and is not taught in the schools.  Most people think Freud was about all his theories, more than half of which have been shown to be more than half wrong or misleading. But the essential insight—and Freud was only one of the boldest to advance what was emerging among creatively thoughtful people—, i.e., that reasonably bright people can nevertheless be plagued by innumerable irrational tendencies—is still hard to appreciate.

(I find that role theory helps: We play numerous roles, some of which are more skilled and integrated than others, and there is room within this view of personality to recognize also continued operations of immature role elements, the inner vulnerable child, unrecognized continuations of immature attitudes, and so forth.)

I think challenging the complex of illusions surrounding the abstract ideal of Truth is similar to challenging complexes of illusions and beliefs surrounding other key ideas such as the earth being the center of the universe. There seems to be relatively little awareness of alternative ways of thinking about truth in our present world. This also fits with the paper on my website on the nature of paradigm shifts.

Finally, in keeping with this theme, note that my own ideas may change and that I am able to go back, revise a paper on my website—it’s much easier than doing it for a printed book, or even paying the publisher for putting out a revised edition whenever I change my mind. Therefore, I am open to your thoughts and reasoned suggestions for revision or correction. If I like what you say, and with your permission, I’ll mention your name.

3 Responses to “Epistemology and Depth Psychology”

  • John Rubel says:

    Nietzche said “There are no facts, only interpretations.” So how can people choose more wisely the interpretations they believe in?

  • Cory Ramirec says:

    i really do like the expression on that model’s face for the cover.

  • I found this book quite insightful, both with myself and my relationships with other women. I now understand why my closest friend is always trying to get me involved with political protests and ‘acting for the Cause.’ I also understand why my relationship with my boyfriend is so effected by my relationship/friendship with my mother. Our’s being a definitive Persephone/Demeter relationship. The uses of the seven Goddess archetypes (Artemis/Athena/Hestia, Hera/Demeter/Persephone, and Aphrodite) as a mode to understanding why a woman acts in a particular way. This book will definately help women to define themselves, and why they seem attracted to a specific type of lover/mate. I definately recommend this book to all, women and men.

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