Why Freud is important to the future of science

Most of Freud’s ideas are considered rather old-fashioned today, but I suspect that, before we exiled the old boy so completely, we should have checked his luggage more carefully. For among his box of conjuring tricks was one idea that I believe will be of importance to the future of science.

Freud and his fellow psychoanalysts believed that dreams were the royal road to the unconscious mind; that dreams provided access to the irrational or non-rational side of human motivation and behaviour. Patients were encouraged to learn to recall their dreams, note them down and present them for analysis to discover their hidden meaning.

Unfortunately it became clear that the dreams of patients of Freudian analysts were always interpreted sexually, while those of Adlerian analysts were always interpreted in terms of inferiority feelings and those of Jungians always seemed to have something to do with the Jungian archetypes.  Tainted with the accusation of subjectivity, analysis of the content of dreams was relegated to the psychological junk-room, along with phrenology and palmistry.

But it is not analysis of the content of dreams that I believe is important for future science so much as analysis of their structure, and it this that I want to write about here.

The world of dreams is notoriously crazy, illogical and seemingly impossible. I may dream of a companion who is not merely one person but simultaneously two people – say an older man and a young girl: simultaneously my father and my daughter. Or I may decide in my dream world to travel to my office while sitting in my armchair, rolling on castors along the streets of London. Or I may decide to travel by aircraft, but my Jumbo Jet is capable of taking off and landing in the village high street without accident.

All these paradoxes, which seem impossible to the rational mind in the waking,  rational world, do in fact have some underlying basis in reality. It is possible for a single individual to behave sometimes like a girl and sometimes like a man. An armchair really can roll along the road. Passenger jets actually do take off and land on runways that resemble suburban roads, complete with a white line down the middle.

What I think is important about these correspondences – however tenuous – is that they show the irrational or non-rational world of dreams has a structure that is intelligible to the unconscious mind, just as the waking world has a structure that is intelligible to the rational mind. But what exactly is the mechanism that can interpret two such dissimilar structures? It seems to me that the mechanism must be what we call intuition.

Intuition undoubtedly can play a part in scientific discovery – famous cases include Kekule dreaming of the chemical structure of the benzene ring and Tesla dreaming of the polyphase induction motor. While the scientific scaffolding for these discoveries came from the rational mind, the impulse that took the leap of discovery came from the depths of the non-rational unconscious mind.

I suspect that any scientific rationalist who has followed me so far is at this point thinking, “So what?”

My point is that, in its present state of development, science has limits. There are some places that science cannot access because they are not rational and current science can handle only that which is rational.  Probably the best example of such a no-go area is the famous double slit experiment. If a beam of light is shone on a plate with two slits, the light beams interfere on a screen behind the slits, behaving like waves. But the light is also found to be absorbed at discrete points on the screen, behaving  as discrete particles. If individual photons are detected, they stop behaving like waves.

Physics deals with this by saying that photons – and other particles – can sometimes behave like particles and sometimes behave like waves – deliberately choosing to ignore the fact that “particle” and “wave”  are mutually exclusive states but hoping that somehow further research will clear up the paradox. This, of course, is not a scientific explanation but a piece of flummery to mask our cognitive dissonance.

The hope remains unfulfilled a century later and the two slit experiment remains as baffling as ever. And during the intervening century more and more phenomena have been observed, or inferred, that defy rational analysis.  Black holes, Higgs Bosons, quantum entanglement, and many others have been added to the irrational menagerie that appears to mock science, like a Victorian cabinet of inexplicable curiosities.

Physics has soldiered on bravely, building paradox on paradox and believing more and more impossible things before breakfast. But at some point science is going to have to admit that the scientific method of the Enlightenment has run out of steam and some kind of fundamental change is going to have to be made to its methods if science is to make any progress in the growing list of no-go areas.

I have a strong feeling that when it comes, that change is going to involve expanding the limits of science to encompass the non-rational as well as the rational and that its first step will to accept Carl Jung’s observation that “Some things are not merely irrational, they are beyond reason.”

The second step may well be to follow Freud’s idea of accessing the unconscious mind, perhaps by means of guided intuition, and that it will be dreams that provide the royal road for such access.

Perhaps scientists in future will be dreaming their discoveries.

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