My problem with the social sciences strikes again

As I once wrote

This type of psychology demands that human behavior have explanations rather than reasons.  The explanations involve my unconscious fear of new experiences, my unconscious fear of my father, my unconscious homosexual urges, or some other such unconscious prompting.  None of these claims has any credible evidence behind them, and they all clash with the evidence of direct introspection–hence the recurring need for “unconscious” qualifiers.

“The unconscious mind” is one of those things that people are afraid to question for fear of being thought “unscientific”; I’m sure I’ll shock some readers with even the basic observation that “unconscious mind” is a contradiction in terms.

Let us take one of the most celebrated claims of psychoanalysis, that I can have “unconscious” sexual desires.  What does it even mean to say that I have a sexual desire if I don’t experience it?

Thanks to The Elusive Wapiti, I now see this claim

..he added that many women were in denial about what they found to be a turn on. ‘The plethysmograph was showing lots of arousal when women were telling Chivers they didn’t feel turned on at all,’

I suppose it just shows I’m a blue-pill prude if I suggest that the simplest explanation is that blood flow to a lady’s private parts just isn’t a reliable measure of whether she’s sexually aroused?  But wait, I see from this NYT article (also linked by EW) that Professor Chivers, who actually carried out this experiment, is pretty much on my side.  She distinguishes physiological and subjective sexual response and makes no claim that her subjects were lying or “in denial” about the latter.  I would add that when most people talk about sexual arousal or desire they are referring to subjective states, not blood flows.

9 Responses

  1. Not to mention that the subset of the population Chivers’ experiments apply to includes only and specifically the sort of people who will volunteer to look at pornography with apparatus attached to their genitals.

    Social scientists seem to me to frequently project conclusions onto just the sort of people who would never participate in their experiments.

  2. I think that you are right to be wary when psychologists talk about the unconscious mind, particularly when it is made out to be a sort of underground river filled with repressed thoughts that the psychologist in question thinks we should not repress. I wouldn’t write off the unconscious mind altogether, though. It seems to me that habits are largely under the control of the unconscious mind. For instance, I can never remember whether or not I’ve locked the door because I was not conscious of doing so, but when I check the door it is always locked.

    I’m not sure that the unconscious mind is incapable of acting for a reason. An act undertaken for a reason is, I take it, an intentional act, or an act that is caused by something in the future. If I cultivate a habit (such as locking the door), I do so because I wish to forestall a burglary that might otherwise take place in the future. When locking the door becomes habitual, the intentionality of the act is still there.

  3. The correct phrase is “subconscious mind.”

  4. I have difficulty with the whole notion of “subjective experiences.”

    Pain is the classical example of a subjective experience, but, if it really is subjective or “private,” how can the word “pain” be part of our public language?

    Do we merely infer from someone else’s behaviour that they are in pain? Surely not; we see that they are in pain and we ask questions like, “Where does it hurt?”

    So, how do we justify this immediate (non-cogitated) recognition? As Wittgenstein points out, “”But if I suppose that someone is in pain, then I am simply supposing that he has just the same as I have so often had.” — That gets us no further. It is as if I were to say: “You surely know what ‘It is 5 o’clock here’ means; so you also know what ‘It is 5 o’clock on the sun’ means. It means simply that it is just the same there as it is here when it is 5 o’clock. — The explanation by means of identity does not work here For I know well enough that one can call 5 o’clock here and 5 o’clock there “the same time”, but what I do not know is in what cases one is to speak of its being the same time here and there. (Philosophical Investigations 350)

    The “subjective” illusion comes from the mind/body dualism of Descartes. In reality, we live in a shared, public, inter-subjective world. Psychological concepts cannot be thought of, except in terms of language or naturally expressive human behaviour. “I do not know if what I am feeling is pain or something else” is not a statement about feeling, or anything else, but a misuse of language

  5. I’m not sure what Wittgenstein thinks he’s proving with that rambling quote. He states the obvious rejoinder that I presume to know what pain is like for other people because I’ve experienced the same subjective state myself, and because I know what its outward manifestations are. But he says this can’t be true because…something about it not being like the same time on Earth and on the sun. (Incidentally, simultaneity on Earth and the sun is a very problematic concept.) It’s the same whenever I read defenses of the “private language argument”. First, the writer admits something that disproves the argument, like the fact that you can be in pain but hide it so no one notices, that you can lie about being in pain, that you can be in pain while all alone. Then he starts rambling about unrelated hypothetical scenarios and never returns to the main point until the last sentence where out of no where he announces victory, bashes Descartes, and declares that no intelligent person could possibly still have any doubts that subjectivity is an illusion.

  6. I would say most people refer to both, subjective states and bloodflows when they speak about sexual arousal. I don’t see how they can be separated. Certainly, blood can flow to private parts of the body from other reasons so it is not the only sign of sexual arousal but I think it is important and perhaps necessary one. Otherwise I would talk about romantic feelings or about sweating hands from being nervous. It seems to be the same as thinking and brain activity.

  7. Bonald’s comment 15 June comment about Wittgenstein reminds me of when I corresponded people thought some neurological tests seemed to prove that no one has free will. With help from scientism, they ignored an important point. To see it, suppose determinism is true. Then under some conditions, experiments tell you that you have free will. Under others, they say that you don’t have it. Either way, how can you trust your results when deterministic factors force you to get any results you do get? If determinism is true, those factors may still guarantee that you’ll think it’s false.

  8. I suppose it just shows I’m a blue-pill prude if I suggest that the simplest explanation is that blood flow to a lady’s private parts just isn’t a reliable measure of whether she’s sexually aroused?

    If i wanted the conclusion that “turned on” must be conscious in the face of this evidence, I would have argued that most women, in the case that they were turned on by watching two monkeys fuck, lie.

    The deeper answer is that you are being unfair to Chivers in the way that certain types are routinely unfair to Kuhn. Your point is really a tautology or a semantic one. Of course, if you define “turned on” in such a way that it must be a consciously felt phenomenon, then anyone who is turned on knows it.

    She’s not defining it that way. And there isn’t obviously anything wrong with the way she’s defining it. Suppose that right after watching the monkeys (and supposing you are right about the absence of a subjective experience of being turned on), the woman walked into the next room where her husband planted a hot one on her. The question is, would she be more receptive to sex with him after watching the monkeys than after watching a documentary on recent advances in injection molding? I’m betting the answer is yes. And, “turned on” is very reasonably defined as “receptive to sex.”

    . . . awaiting Zippy’s accusations of nominalism . . ..

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