The psychological impacts of secularization | Part 1

Zeichnung: Greta Husemann

The attendance of the psychology orientated courses at this university clearly shows a general interest in this apparently fascinating area of science. The fact that at the same time there seems to be a limitation to psychology courses offered at this university lead me to writing this article to share some insights I have gained into the fields of psychology and neurology whilst researching psychological impacts caused by the loss of faith in religious narratives (Secularization). The subject of this text is the underestimated issue of “spiritual poverty” posed by Carl Jung and aims to show that our quest for rationality could in practice cause an increase in irrational behaviors. I am writing this rather long and slightly flamboyant article to establish a general basis for further, shorter and more focused articles. Moreover, I am planning to extend the issues raised in this article onto phenomena such as modern criticism on hierarchical structures and political separation while exploring their possible neurological and psychological origins.

Explanatory note: “Ich schreibe diesen Text auf Englisch, da ich mich auf Deutsch nur ziemlich wack artikulieren kann und bitte behandelt diesen Artikel nicht wie einen Wissenschaftlichen.“

Let’s take a glance at the thesis of the psyche by Carl Jung and then try to bring it into context with reality.

The mystical mind

Jung believes that the psyche can be divided up into three main parts. The consciousness, the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious. To avoid endless discussion let’s simply state that being conscious is the cognitive phenomenon of being aware of certain environmental factors. Jung believes that diving into the collective unconscious is to dive into one’s nature. I am consciously using the word dive here. Jung states, that the people’s natural symbolism of their unconscious in dreams is in the form of water, “water like blood for the instinct driven body”. In dreams the unconscious is hereby perceived as a dark sea that “lies (…) underneath consciousness” (Jung, C. P-34), lies underneath what can be seen, what one is aware of. The claim that water may be the most prominent way for the psyche to hallucinate the unconscious may be due to Jung’s research that showed that “scary water” related dreams are prominent dreams among protestant religious figures. Figures that struggle with what Jung calls “spiritual poverty”, due to the secularization embedded into their religious ideologies. We are, however, unable to dive into the sea of our unconscious as “psychic existence can be recognized only by the presence of contents that are capable of consciousness” (Jung, C. P-21). Hence, we are not and cannot be aware of the contents of our unconscious. There is an inherit undiscovered part of our being that is and will likely remain undiscovered for the discovery itself would alter its contents. Quantum Physics would describe this state as superposition. A Quantum is in a constant state of shifting until by being observed it is perceived to settle on a particular state. Jung would describe the “super-positioned” contents that the collective unconscious withholds as the Archetypes (Jung, C. P-56). 

To pay homage to Aristotle’s anima where Aristotle’s gives a definition of the soul in which “it gives the soul as principle of body and living being” (Polanski, R. De Anima, P.145). Just like water forms 70% of our brain and heart, the Archetypes may, due to the hidden nature of  their “super positioned” contents, be a greater structural component of the psyche than we realize. Now Jung states there is a collective and a personal unconscious. The contents of the personal unconscious are derived from personal experience, in particular contents that have been conscious at some point but then “forgotten” or repressed (Jung, C. P-56). Given the psyches inability to look into the collective unconscious could it be the personal unconscious which formed and adheres to religion to repress its inability to fully discover the natural aspects of the human world? With the decline of symbolism and the rise of atheism being blind to the magnitude of the unconscious we fear inevitable doom as the dams of the spirit are starting to crackle. What may the consequences of the terror of our undead god be?

To disenchant our way out of the quicksand of metaphors and study the role of symbolism in human thinking, let’s take a modern perspective at the…

Hierarchical structure of the consciousness

Let`s take a look at the different layers of the consciousness with a focus on the religious aspects of the psyche. More about the “hierarchical” character of the psyche in another article.

The consciousness

It can be derived from Jung’s text that our consciousness is what we see every day. What we think about. What makes us take decisions. It forms the tip of the psyche‘s iceberg. 

Perceptual suggestions

Jung tends to reside in his mystical world of the psyche. Not bound by any empirical rules he could let his creativity flow and came up with grandiose theories on the psyche which are difficult to falsify as he projects them on the, difficult to study “super positioned” unconscious. Jung however believes “Psychology (…) is neither biology nor physiology nor any other science than just this knowledge of the psyche” (Jung, C. P-45). I am not trying to minimize the scientific value of Jung’s work, acknowledging that he was probably one of the most insightful and one of the most influential psychologists in modern scientific history. But with recent discoveries in the fields of psychology and developments in the fields of neurology like the MRI, we may bring Jung’s mystical world into context with concepts that may be closer to reality, say biology and physiology.

Research on consciousness on a neurological basis has only recently inspired interest among researchers (Seth, A. K. P-1). The consciousness research favorite examples of consciousness at work are optical illusions. Optical illusions are possible as the brain constantly tries to fill information gaps with preexisting information from the brain. This action is described as perceptual suggestion (Prasad, S. Galetta, S. L. P-15).

Landscape interpreted by perceptual suggestion algorithm

Perceptual suggestions are an integral part of perceiving the world around us. The information flowing back from the higher visual processing areas in the brain by far outweighs that of the information flow towards the higher visual cortexes by organs such as the eyes (Prasad, S. Galetta, S. L. P-15). So, the information we are processing seems to predominantly derive from the inside of the brain. This backward flow could be severely influenced by the archetypes. The information from the inside could be considered the brains suggestion of reality and it is only when we agree to these suggestions among each other, we consider it to be reality. (Seth, A. K. 2017).

Research in the fields of artificial intelligence has made it possible to visualize overly strong perceptual suggestions. The image above shows an excerpt from a “painting” by an Artifical Intelligence Algorithm, where the effect of perceptual suggestions is increased with the “algorithmic archetypes” having an overly strong affinity for dogs, birds, cars, buildings and bikes. You may notice it looks very similar to the hallucinations of a person on psychedelic drugs. Now if this type of perception is a type of uncontrolled hallucination you could conclude that everyday perception is simply a type of “controlled” hallucination (Seth, A. K. 2017).

Early interpretations of the unconscious like that of Carl Jung and Freud agree with modern ones on the fact that the unconscious forms the basis of human thought and is difficult to outrun, cannot be turned off (Kahneman, D. P-397).

The personal unconscious

Before we dive into the mystical collective unconscious let’s look at Jung’s personal unconscious. The personal unconscious holds repressed experiences such as being caught masturbating, although I hope this is more collective. 

Psyche unchained

In the most basic sense, some of the neurological structures inside your brain are not triggered by whether or not there is information send between the synapses, but rather by when and to what extend a flow across neurological channels is stopped. This could be interpreted to be the neurological structures of recurring events. This type of neurological communication is more common than one might think. This could explain why for example, often the first thing a psychologist asks a patient with depression is: Is your day predictable? (Is there a flow?)

What is the realm in which humans create predictability? 

When trying to define freedom most people would say freedom correlates with an increase in choices and a lesser degree of submersion to authority. Each individual encounters decision situations relatively specific to the individual’s environment on which such individual interprets the situation based on its personal experience. The guiding principle regarding decision situations in the modern world is rationality which is a rather new phenomenon and allegedly a contribution of Western post-enlightenment (March, J. G, P-202). I believe however in Luhmann’s view that the question is not about the rightfulness of decision making but the complexity of the decision situation. I believe the longing for freedom could be seen as the modern societal consequence of the psyche on a quest for rationality. Rationalization has destroyed the information gap formerly filled and therefore bridged by religious beliefs, thus discontinuing the flow from a massive neurological network guiding our perception. As a reaction thoughts venture into the emptiness of the battlefield, Luhmann’s complexity of the situation. Longing to bear loose from the shackles of religion and god at which point Erich Fromm would ask “Can freedom become a burden, too heavy for man to bear, something he tries to escape from?”

Michelangelo’s „Creation of Adam“ |

The combat between the thesis of the big bang – the expansion of the universe – and the thesis of God – or any higher being defined by the individual’s religion – is being fought in the modern individuals’ psyche. Without God to clearly state the beginning and end of our world a new decision situation unfolds. The complexity constantly expands so that reaching the outer edges of it becomes impossible, and as a result the modern individual becomes lost in the dark void of the ever-expanding complexity of perceived reality. 

The deep reach of our religion and our God resulted in the unconscious acceptance of irrationality. The consciousness at the top of the hierarchy of the psyche can no longer rely on the symbolism of our God to deal with uncertainty. Spiritual poverty has woken the beast within, and people are not willing to confront it. Without knowing what it might bring the modern human longs for freedom, for more space to escape from themselves. The quest for rationality could be the personal unconscious translation of the collective unconscious problem of secularization.

To understand how freedom may be an elusive goal, addiction may show how the formation of god was conceived to protect us from the complexity issue…

The personal unconscious

The collective unconscious may be our animal brain. Our nervous system. Something that we may call hunger. 

Humans and addiction

For a brief moment ask yourself what causes addiction? You may find it difficult to come up with anything other than things that have an incredibly shortly rewarding effect on humans and have chemical hooks that the brain becomes dependent on after a while. Professor Bruce K. Alexander has questioned the current views on addiction when looking at the most common experiment to study the phenomenon. The experiment with a rat in a cage with nothing but water and water laced with a kind of drug. The rat almost always chooses the drug laced water and dies from an overdose as a consequence. In this experiment however Alexander points out that the rat has nothing else but the water and water infused with drugs. So, Alexander created a rat heaven. The rat was put in a paradise of toys, comfortable housing and sexual partners and noticed that the rats went from almost 100% drug water usage to almost 0% percent in the Rat heaven. 

This suggests that addiction has more to do with reintegration into some kind of guiding structure. The guiding structure inside the rat heaven bears resemblance to the modern social structure of humans. It is undeniable that humans are social beings as shown in a study by Robert Waldinger under the Harvard Institution, dubbed the longest ongoing study in the world (80 years). It studied Adult Development and found that the ultimate source for “happiness” seems to be solid social connections and the moods of people with happy marriages did not suffer as much instability (Mineo, L. 2017). Humans in general seem to have a tendency to bond to something excessively for constant stimuli – cognitive flow – to gain a kind of stability. Addiction might not be the right term for the phenomena it tries to describe but it is still prominent in modern research on addiction. The symbolism of drug addiction has illusioned the perception and understanding of addiction itself. Drugs form the basis on how addiction is commonly understood. This may to an extend be well grounded, but it gives the wrong impression of the human relationship with addiction. Many philosophers have tried to change the term addiction to something less potent, as addiction should only be viewed as a scalable natural phenomenon and not an inevitable fate of drug usage.

The neurological research on addiction has moved from focusing “on the neurochemical changes associated with the acute reinforcing effects of drugs of abuse to understanding the neuroadaptive changes that occur during the transition from taking drugs to addiction” (Koob, G. F. and Simon E. J. P-2). In rat heaven it could be observed that the rats that were isolated early on in their live had a greater intake of drug laced water than the rats that were “born into” this fictional rat society. Many theories of addiction stress the importance of early development and early environmental affinity (Alexander, B. K. and Beyerstein, B. L. P-1). Early social integration paves the cognitive roads for sociability showing that just like addiction the cognitive social process is adaptive. Secularization has turned the roads to water and society has not had the chance to adapt, drowning what has balanced the relationship between the spirit and reality in the depths of the unconscious. Without it the mind finds it difficult to connect with society and so is more susceptible to easy and quick solutions (like drugs) posing a kind of danger of increased irrationality as a result from our quest for rationality. 

Boat on scary waters

The rats with much more choices deemed it unnecessary to get high. If we established earlier that freedom may be an elusive goal, why do the rats in rat heaven with much more choices seem “happier” (less reliant on quick and easy stimuli). This very much resembles the illusion of freedom. The rats in rat heaven are in a box only with more options but take the box away. The rat may wander outside and exposed to the horrors of the real world – the dangers of the lab in which they were held – they may realize that life in the box was in fact much better, much easier. 

This is what I see in the modern struggle with the quest for rationality, where God formed an equivalent box for humans with the Archetypes being its contents. Unsatisfied with the contents of the box, humans tear down the walls to find new toys. Humans are sociable beings and it is in the brains own interest to keep its permanent guest most comfortable i.e. sociable. Religion could have been conceived by our brains for a reason. Religion is a great moral connection to other people. It sets rules that guide how to be social, it forms the walls of our box and no one would dare to break them, or else one would fall victim to Hell. Perceptual suggestions give an idea of the importance of symbolism in human thinking. Hell seems to be the brains interpretation of not being social and it might have conceived hell to keep the conscious mind sociable. Heaven and hell are what lies beyond the box and you can either be let in through the gate to heaven or left to die with your natural body, the Archetypes, with Hell burning through the walls. You may hereby reference to religious wars but let’s simply state that the social attribute can be observed within one religion. At this point Yuval Noah Harari might question if humans are even capable of being sociable with the amount of people that surround them in the modern world, but that is a different Pandora’s box. Heaven and Hell / Good and Evil is a prominent theme among several different kind of religions. Under Manichaeism god is who created the soul whereas the natural body and matter itself is the work of evil. The fight against nature is embedded in our deeply wired relationship between the body (archetypes) and our soul (consciousness). Greta Thunberg is often criticized for her age and lack of credibility and with this text I find myself in a similar position. With the issues sparked by the rationality movement I find myself trying to apply Greta’s philosophy to our minds and propose for an end to any kind of the demonization of our roots, of our nature.

In general I see how it may not help my argument comparing us with rats but if you sexy beasts can trust bunnies with your high beauty standards, as make-up testing on animals seems to still be an issue (Hirsh, S. 2020), I believe you can for the sake of this argument briefly ask yourself: Can the rat find its way back to the box? 

Find out in Part 2.


Quellen:

Jung, C. G. (1968). The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious. Second Edition. The collected works of C. G. Jung I Complete Digital Edition. 1969 unter Princeton University Press. Übersetzt ins Englische von Hull R. F. C.

Prasad, S. Galetta, S. L. (2011). Anatomy and physiology of the afferent visual system. Handbook of Clinical Neurology, Vol. 102 (3. Serie). Elsevier B.V.

Seth, A. K. (2018). Consciousness: The last 50 years (and the next). Brain and Neuroscience Advances. SAGE Journals

Seth, A. K. (2017). Your Brain Hallucinates Your Conscious Reality. TED-ideas worth spreading. (04.04.2020)

Kahneman, D. (2011). Schnelles Denken, Langsames Denken. Siedler, München.

March, J. G. (2006). Rationality, Foolishness and Adaptive Intelligence. Strategic Management Journal, Vol. 27, Nr.3, P 201-214.

Mineo, L. (2017). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. The Harvard Gazette, Health and Medicine. 

Koob, G. F. and Simon, E. J. (2009). The Neurobiology of Addiction: Where We Have Been And Where We Are Going. J Drug Issues, Vol. 39 (1. Serie), P. 115-132. Author Manuscript

Alexander, B. K. and Beyerstein, B. L. (1980). Effect of Early and Later Colony Housing on Oral Ingestion of Morphine in Rats. Pharmarology, Biochemistry & Behavior, Vol. 14, P. 571-576

Hirsh, S. (2020). Mexico Moves Toward Banning Animal Testing After Unanimous Senate Vote. Green Matters.

Polansky, R. (2007). Aristotle’s De anima. Cambridge University Press.

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