Friday, February 13, 2009

A hundred years of arrant nonsense

I received an email the other day from a friend, telling me about this book, by James Hillman and Michael Ventura, entitled "We've had 100 years of psychotherapy—and the world's getting worse!"
To paraphrase the email, Hillman is a psychotherapist and Ventura is a journalist who has reported often on psychotherapy. These people believe that there is a link between psychotherapy and the worsening state of the world—and Hillman believes that psychotherapy makes people focus inwards on themselves, whereas in order to achieve any change, one ought to look outward on the world. He believes that one must do this in order to affect any change in the world.

I thought about this, and it occurred to me after a while that from this description of the book, every part of it is evil. Let's start at the bottom and work up.

Evil number one: Don't consider yourself, consider the world.
Hillman apparently believes that what is best for oneself is not the same thing as is best for the world. But, why would this be the case? Let us consider it in reverse: what's best for everyone isn't what's best for me personally. It should be easy to see that this is a complete contradiction; if it isn't best for me it can't possibly be best for everybody. It isn't best for everybody. It can only be best for everybody if it's best for me, too.
Therefore it follows that if all of us figure out what is best for ourselves, and then apply this knowledge in our everyday life, we will have what is best for everybody. Does this work? Invariably, people will end up having arguments. What one person wants will conflict with what another person wants.
Many people think that this is proof that humans cannot live together without conflict, and conflict is bad and mean and therefore human life is bad and mean. Another way of looking at it, however, and in my opinion the correct way, is that it is proof that humans are fallible. The interests of rational people—moral people—do not conflict. Rational people find mutual preferences. This happens more often than not in real life: I want to write a blog post, and my friend wants to play DDR. We do so. I am hungry, my friend is peckish. We cook dinner and I eat more than her. All mutual preferences, best for all those involved.
What happens when there are disputes? Well, rational people talk about them and solve the problem. And if you don't believe that the problem is mistakenness—ie, a lack of knowledge—consider this: there are small disputes, like, i want chicken and she wants pork. In such a situation, there are lots of very obvious solutions; maybe we will cook our own dinners. Or, I don't care so much about eating chicken so I eat pork instead, or vice versa. Or we both decide we like beef better than either chicken or pork. So on. Then there are larger disputes; I think it is wicked to hit children, and she thinks one cannot be a good parent without hitting them. Such disputes are the cause of considerable debate. They are difficult to solve. This is because it requires a lot more knowledge to solve a big and complex problem like that than chicken vs pork. The difference between a mutual preference and dispute is knowledge creation. And therefore, as people become more rational and create more knowledge, the less disputes and the more mutual preferences they will have.
Therefore if we go back to considering the situation in which everyone does what is best for themselves, there is no logical reason why this cannot work. Sometimes people will be mistaken, and they will solve the problem, ie, they will find a mutual preference. The end result is everyone getting what is best for them. The end result is a situation best for everyone.
So I conclude that it cannot possibly be true that focusing on oneself results in a situation that is not best for everybody, and that Hillman is wrong, and what's more he is deeply, viciously anti-human.

(Note: there are lots of other ways of showing this statement to be bad—I'm thinking along the lines of "Man cannot use his brain to think for his fellow man"—but I will keep those for another time.)

Evil number two: Psychotherapy is potentially meritous
This isn't nearly as bad as one or three, in part because it isn't quite as anti-human and in part because part of the point of the book is "psychotherapy doesn't work", but it's worth pointing out. Psychotherapy is utter nonsense. It helps people feel better about themselves, but so can joining a cult or snorting cocaine. Feeling better doesn't correspond directly to objectively good. Psychotherapy has no grounding in science and no grounding in logic. Any attempt at explaining that it works is at best inductivist—"We see that many people feel better after psychotherapy, therefore psychotherapy works" (See chapter 7 of the Fabric of Reality for why Induction does not work)—and at worst subjective—"What is best for me is what I feel is best for me." This denies the value of logic and reason. To take seriously any theory founded on such spurious grounds is to imagine that it is possible for induction and subjectivism, or rather, for mysticism, to work. The evil isn't that Hillman and Venture propose that psychotherapy is good—apparently they don't—but simply that they don't just dismiss it as the made-up whimsy that it is. They even go so far as to charge it with the source of the world's problems, again, a piece of completely made-up information. There are better explanations, one of which I will propose below.

Evil number three: the world is getting worse

This is probably the worst one, and it is bad. It's a part of the unnervingly common belief that we're regressing, not progressing. I hold that despite even the prevalence of wicked ideas like this, we are still improving. We live longer, we are freer, we have better technology and more of our wants fulfilled than at any other time in history. The worst thing about Hillman's theory is that it presumes the world is getting worse—the world is not getting worse. Humanity has no cause to hate itself.

(Again, this topic is a gallon-sized can of worms, and this is all I'll say on the subject in this post.)

To conclude, nothing about the premise of this book seems in any way good. I propose instead that the reason there are problems with the world is due to a lack of knowledge creation, nothing more, nothing less. It certainly has nothing directly to do with too much or too little psychotherapy. It's not a major cause. It's hardly a minor cause, except insofar as it is one of a multitude of mystical ideas that isn't helping us solve problems. A better title for a book might have been something like, "A hundred years of arrant nonsense—and we're only slightly more rational!"