Questioning Psychology By Brian E Levitt

Questioning Psychology By Brian E Levitt

Part 1: Science is dead

Chapter 1 - Life-giver

Every single one of us goes through life depending on and being bound by our individual knowledge and awareness. And we call it reality.

Itachi Uchiha (Kishimoto, 2016: 104)

We often prefer statements to questions. They are more comforting, solid, stable. We can settle into them and make our homes there. Life is simpler when we know what to expect and what to do, when we are certain of how to see things. Questions, on the other hand, require a nomadic existence, a life of change and ambiguity. When questions become our home, we have to trust our ability to survive the changes they may bring. Sometimes facing that change is very uncomfortable. What will it mean to give up something that seemed so certain and solid? Will it be ok? Will I be ok? Will I lose myself? As a child, I wanted to know such things as why the sky is blue, why the sun and moon don’t fall or float away, where babies come from and why we all die. I also came to understand that questions are a part of my cultural inheritance as a Jew. Why start the day with nightfall? Why is this night different from all other nights? Always ‘Why?’ I generally find that answers lead me to more questions and a greater sense of wonder. Asking questions is how I orient to life.

Stating that life is a mystery is as unoriginal as it is obvious. Through the ages, artists, philosophers, scientists and sages have grappled with fundamental questions that many of us also have struggled with at one time or another. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is our purpose? For me, a more compelling question is, how do we make sense of reality? Whether or not we ask questions to orient to the world, we come into a world of abundant stimulation and must learn how to adapt and relate to it, to make sense of reality. We join others who are already here, and we tend to trust them and the reality they teach us, directly and indirectly. We do this before we even have words. Others shape our behaviours and our basic understanding of right and wrong, good and bad. Knowingly or not, we learn the world through those who raise and surround us, in ever-increasing webs of social and cultural complexity.

Woven into the fabric of our social world are family, ethnic, linguistic, regional and national influences. Belief systems are also handed down over generations, and they may transcend all of these influences. They help to give us containers for the world, to simplify it and navigate it. Belief systems offer us ways of thinking and understanding that are accepted on a grand scale by vast multitudes of people as explanatory systems for the world around us. They influence how we behave, how we see ourselves and how we see what is happening around us. They give us certainty and security – thinking that we know reality and that we share this understanding with those around us. Religion and science are among the most influential belief systems. Perhaps you are familiar with them.

Belief systems are so powerful, so compelling, so entrenched that we may have no idea we are held in their thrall. At some point we may begin to mistake a belief system itself for reality and defend it vigorously, while perhaps also denigrating other belief systems that may not seem to fit well for us. A belief system is vast and complex and seems to explain so much. We may see many people around us who seem to agree that this belief system explains reality. And we may respect them highly, reinforcing our belief that we arrive at the truth by seeing things through a particular belief system. There are experts in these belief systems, whose knowledge of the system is so immense that we also may feel intimidated. We may feel could never understand so much, even after a lifetime of study.

And so we may give our authority over to others, eagerly feed on their knowledge and make it our own, without serious question. These figures can seem like titans. Many are truly giants among thinkers. Long before we were born or could form words, they have already shaped the words of the language we are born into and will come to learn, building solid fortresses that house a particular belief system. They may even be worshipped to some degree. Who are we to question? It becomes easier to accept it, to follow it, to get to know our world through this unquestioned lens. We may even call our unquestioning deference ‘respect’.

Yet this is where thinking and life end, when a belief system is swallowed whole and goes unquestioned, and perhaps even unrecognised. In this way, it quietly shapes how we listen and think and the opinions and conclusions we form. The system itself and its products become reified. This is especially powerful when the belief system becomes the assumed world view of most people around us. In order to question a belief system and to see the world less narrowly, we have to first recognise that we have been co-opted, that we operate within a belief system, and that it gives us only a very small sense of the reality that lies beyond it. In order to see people more clearly, it may be necessary at times to challenge our belief systems. In an increasingly secular world, it may be easiest to challenge religion, even to mock it. Science stands tall in our modern world and appears unassailable. But science, too, is not beyond questioning. A belief system that cannot be questioned, and perhaps even mocked, is likely a dead one.

For many of us, our earliest learning is religious, though we are increasingly raised on science. Some of us are old enough and lucky enough to have grown up with the joy of watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos when it first aired on public television, his voice full of wonder as he explained the nature of the universe through the lens of science. He opened my mind to the magical and wondrous idea that we are all star stuff – exploded stars that are now looking back at ourselves across time and trying to understand where we come from, what we are and where we are going.

Even as science strengthens its hold, religion is nonetheless all around us. Whether at home, in a place of worship or indirectly, as part of a larger society overflowing with religious images and messages, religion finds its way into our minds, bidden or not. I recall Bible stories as being among the earliest stories I heard. These stories still lead me to continual questioning. The stories of Bereishit, which in Hebrew means ‘to begin with…’, are some of the most well-known in the world, with metaphors that can unfold and become richer over time. Chances are you know these as the stories of Genesis. Unfortunately, they also can be understood concretely, and this is often the case, especially when we don’t take the time or find the interest to engage with them. They have the power to guide us, limit us or turn us off entirely, depending on how we relate to them.

 

I am not a Bible scholar and, depending on who you ask, I may be seen as an atheist, regardless of how I see myself. From my perspective, I am just a Jew who loves to ask questions – questions upon questions. I am uncomfortable when questions are not permitted. An ancient story from Bereishit comes to mind that captures the tension between questioning and remaining in the paradise of ignorance that comes from not questioning: the story of Havva and Adam. In our Christian-centric world, we may view this story in a rigid way, especially given our familiarity with it. Even my describing it as the story of Havva and Adam may be jarring to some readers who are more familiar with calling it the story of Adam and Eve.

Havva and Adam live in a paradise that God made for them. God set out one rule, which actually seems quite simple: don’t eat from that tree. That tree was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Certainly having this knowledge would lead one to question some things. Most of us understand that a serpent tempted Havva to eat the tree’s fruit, and she then tempted Adam. When God finds out, they are supposedly punished for the sin of disobedience and sent out of paradise to live a life in which they will know pain and death. As a secular Jew in a Christian world, it is a challenge for me to see beyond the Christian telling of my ancestors’ stories and to question them properly. But questioning our ancient texts is, in part, what reveals their sacred quality – they don’t break when questioned; rather, they become a source of nourishment, a belief system with life in it, and yes, even star stuff.

What if the story of Havva and Adam were not about sin? Havva and Adam were commanded not to act on the temptation to seek knowledge. And, according to the story, God put the tree in the garden purposefully, pointed it out to them and told them it was dangerous. Of course they would eat from it! What do you think happens when a young person sees an adult content warning appear before a TV show saying it is not suitable for young viewers, or when someone under 18 years of age sees a website that says you must be over 18 to enter? Are you over 18? Yes? No? What if Havva was actually courageous in her questioning of the rules?

If Havva had not initiated this bold act, the Tanakh (Torah, Prophets and the Writings) would not unfold with its ultimate vision of a world beyond politics. She and Adam would still be spending eternity following the rules in ‘paradise’ and not experiencing any challenge, change or growth. They would have remained in a so-called paradise where nothing is questioned. All is given, as long as one rule is followed: don’t be tempted by knowledge. With Havva’s courageous act of questioning authority, the human story actually begins in full. We are beings who struggle with conflicting feelings and thoughts, who know joy and pain. It is not necessary to see our nature as being the result of a sin – it is simply who we are, the nature of being human. Perhaps we are too confined by sexism, along with the Christian yoke, to see this woman’s true courage and power – to see that Havva is our first true hero. Havva was the thinker, the revolutionary, and Adam the follower.

The creation story itself presents a frame that questions the accepted order of things: a single day begins with the night and enters into light. The day does not begin when the sun rises or when our alarm clock rudely wakes us from the joy of sleep. This theme of turning things on their head, questioning everything, even questioning God, runs throughout the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. For me it is an essential part of what makes ancient scripture come alive. I find that the theme of questioning is most profoundly explored in this first human story in Bereishit, which we often call ‘The Fall’. From this perspective, we tell this story as an explanation of when and how our problems began as humans.

Perhaps it would be more appropriate to see this story as ‘The Rise’, as this is when the human story begins, by asking questions, seeking out knowledge and not being content to simply follow authority. What if, instead of a tragic expulsion from paradise, this story is actually about when our potential for freedom began, and Havva led the way? Perhaps Havva and Adam were not punished, or at least not for ‘sinning’. Adam calls the first woman ‘Havva’, life-giver, after they learn of the consequences of their actions. Perhaps they simply take on the consequences of thinking for themselves, the consequences of the actions they take without depending on the rules set down by others. By living and questioning, they will inevitably sacrifice comfort, experience pain and take responsibility for their actions. But that is actually alright. It is called being an adult. And perhaps the God of Bereishit knew his children had to grow up; God knew they would want to eat the fruit, to know things and question, and made sure they knew where to find it. He even made sure his children had clothes when they left home, to protect them and keep them warm as they made their way in the outside world.

If Havva had not been courageous, this would have been the Torah story: ‘Meanwhile, back in the Garden, it is pretty much all the same and always will be. Today is like yesterday and tomorrow will be like today.’ No change, no stories, no struggles, no births, no deaths, no triumphs, no pain, and probably also no true joy, which exists because of the contrast with also knowing pain. Just sameness, lack of responsibility and initiative – total, blissful dependence. The Genesis story would end if it were not for Havva’s questioning. No need for wisdom to be passed down. No need to tell stories, no need to study, no need to understand. The end. And no one would have been around to read this very short story, other than Havva and Adam, who had no need to read.

Maybe ignorance really is bliss, but I can’t fathom a world without questions. Abraham argues with God in an effort to prevent the destruction of a city. Moses also famously questions God. But Havva questions and acts. She is willing to face death for a life with the freedom to think for herself and to act independently. She rebels through questioning. But this rebellion is not for the sake of being disobedient or oppositional; rather, it is for knowledge. Havva rebels to understand, and in so doing she changes the course of human history. The genesis of life lies within asking questions. Questioning is the fundamental act that allows us to begin to understand, and I believe Havva was trying to understand, to reach for knowledge. Understanding what lies beyond ourselves and beyond where we are comfortable is the beginning of real empathy. When we ask questions to understand other people, we, too, may find ourselves having to give up the comfort of our own reality to embrace a reality that lies beyond our idyllic garden.

I know this interpretation may be uncomfortable to hear, let alone accept. But these themes reverberate throughout the ancient Jewish scriptures, including the words and acts of the prophets. This first human story is about the choice to question and break free from rules. Havva quite literally did not give birth to life until she was no longer in the garden. Her name, Havva (life-giver), to me means more than being the first mother to us all, but the mother to truly being alive, giving us the possibility of freedom. You might say, ‘Wait a minute! That’s not right! That’s not the story I was taught!’ You might even see my interpretation and questioning of this story as a blasphemy, depending on your view of the world. It may make no sense to you; you may simply see it as wrong. Or maybe science is your belief system, to the exclusion of religion. You may have such a strong reaction to religion as a belief system that you shut down and do not listen because your mind is made up. And that is my point. That is the power of a belief system that goes unquestioned or unexplored because we think we already know it. Questioning it, whether or not you are satisfied with the answers, can open up new ways of thinking and seeing within you.

We now live in a largely secular world, and many of us write off these stories as quaint tales at best, or stories of oppression at worst. So, back to not questioning. We are all, for the most part, born into gardens we don’t question. Not questioning drains the life from a belief system and leaves it dead. Religious groups often adhere strictly to rules and the need for one interpretation – a paradise of sorts in which ignorance is supposedly bliss and imposed on all. Questions are not allowed in paradise.

It is this dogma, this lifeless orthodoxy, that ruled Europe when a man named Galileo Galilei began to look at things around him and ask some questions. He looked for life beyond the deadened world of the orthodoxy around him, and he was seen as a heretic. During his time, dogma held that the earth was the centre of the universe, along with a number of other beliefs that were dangerous to challenge. Pursuing knowledge that challenged dogma could lead to death: a pretty dangerous truth to pursue. Religion, and Christianity in particular, was the dominant source of truth across Europe. But Galileo looked through his telescope and made observations that did not fit dogma. He came to understand that the earth is not the centre of the universe and the sun and planets do not revolve around us. He observed something that challenged the dominant belief system, and those who represented that belief system were perhaps threatened and afraid. They were inflexible and punished him for speaking up.

Galileo was the Havva of his time. He was tempted by knowledge, and his questions ultimately turned Europe upside down and led to the rapid emergence of a powerful new belief system: science. Science introduced a new way of understanding the world. Theories are developed and challenged through observing, gathering information in a systematic way and asking whether or not this information supports theory. Experiments are carefully designed to test or challenge theories, and they are carried out repeatedly. When data don’t support a theory, the theory falls and a new theory may develop. Science holds within it an endless process of questioning – not only questioning our views of the world but questioning the current state of our scientific understanding.

In today’s world, where science has risen to prominence over religion as a belief system, it may be difficult to rush headlong into questioning its limits. Since Galileo’s brave statements, born from his observations of the world and the worlds beyond us in the night sky, science has steadily taken hold as a powerful belief system, pushing religion further and further from a place of relevance for many. With the rise of science, many are now able to recognise and objectively examine the dominant belief system of religion. With the comfort and power of belonging to a world that increasingly values science over religion, it becomes easier to be critical of religious belief systems, to question their relevance as explanatory models, and to see more possibilities beyond religion.

Unfortunately, it can also result in becoming so over-identified with science that religion is easily and too quickly ridiculed and discounted. Understanding religion as a belief system that can still be relevant is lost in an either-or, us-versus-them struggle. And science, like any belief system, may carry within it the seeds of earlier belief systems. It is just as vulnerable to the human tendency to create an orthodoxy and to reify that system, rather than stay open to ambiguity and questions. Indeed, as Havelock Ellis wrote almost 100 years ago, in The Dance of Life:

Matter is a fiction, just as the fundamental ideas with which the sciences generally operate are mostly fictions, and the scientific materialisation of the world has proved a necessary and useful fiction, only harmful when we regard it as hypothesis and therefore possibly true. The representative world is a system of fictions. It is a symbol by the help of which we orient ourselves. The business of science is to make the symbol ever more adequate, but it remains a symbol, a means of action, for action is the last end of thinking. (1926: 97)

In other words, belief systems themselves are not real, but always point to something beyond them. Our mistake is to make them real and believe wholeheartedly in those realities we have created simply to help us think about things and try to understand and find our way in the world. Given the power that science now enjoys, Galileo’s act of giving voice to his observations that challenged the previously dominant belief system may not be seen readily for the radical and dangerous act it actually was. It is possible now to see even more clearly why Galileo was so threatening – he was largely alone in offering an alternative to the prevailing belief system. This is, interestingly, what we face now if we question science. Any views that are not obviously scientific are written off as soft. Ironically, they may even be described by some as heretical. If we challenge a view or statement that appears to be steeped in science, we run the risk of being branded heretics. To be a clinician accused of not being scientific is a fate many of us strive to avoid.

Although religion is still powerful, science arguably has become the central source of truth for many, especially in the field of psychology. Science has become a belief system so big and powerful that it may not even be seen as such and appears to be beyond questioning. Picasso is credited with once saying that painting is a lie that tells the truth. When misused or adhered to blindly, science is a truth that tells a lie. And for many, that is a very hard pill to swallow – that science may not hold all the answers, or that science might hold answers that mislead and misdirect us.

Science presents a new potential for tyranny, and the products of the scientific method can go unquestioned. This is perhaps ironic, since science is a system of questioning. However, those questions can be misleading because of the tools we have to answer them, or because of the limitations in the very questions we pose. A tendency to gravitate towards the more concrete can also lead us astray when we interpret our findings. Much of what I explore in the next chapters is a reflection of the various ways scientific pronouncements and findings can fall short of offering a fuller truth and sometimes can cause great harm by masquerading as a truth that does not fit the human reality it was meant to somehow summarise. Science does not answer everything and does not hold the only truths, or perhaps even the most meaningful or fullest truths. Even a so-called theory of everything does not explain everything.

At the same time, great belief systems also have something important to offer. I am not advocating for their destruction when I advocate for questioning. Every belief system offers a unique lens that can contribute to how we see the world and other people. Discounting religion, for example, means neglecting such great thinkers as Maimonides, whose medical ethics sprang from deep spiritual devotion and study. It means ignoring the rich intellectual and personal growth that comes from questioning, interpreting and even debating Torah. Likewise, discounting science means neglecting a powerful check on our blind spots and assumptions – we can observe that the earth revolves around the sun and then reflect on what this means about how we see ourselves and others and our place in the universe. Scientists can ask wonderful questions that stretch our imaginations. What we learn shapes how we see, and this becomes a trap we may not be able to see beyond.

Science actually helps us to know we are wired this way. Contemporary neuroscience reveals that emotions actually play a critical role in rational thought (Damasio, 1994). It also reveals that we create our emotions and that our personal emotions are actually not universal. According to Lisa Feldman Barret, ‘variation is the norm. Emotion fingerprints are a myth’ (2017: 23). In other words, emotions are as individual as we are. Our understanding of our facts and experiences may change, sometimes uncomfortably, as we come across new facts. Carl Rogers once said, ‘The facts are friendly’ (1961: 25). My concern is that the facts may be a little too friendly, perhaps seductive, and may sometimes blind us from seeing the context around them. Fortunately, the scientific method itself suggests continual questioning, offering a way to break free from the seductiveness of the facts, a way to open our eyes, a way to shatter dangerous orthodoxies and dogmas. Just like ancient spiritual wisdom, science won’t break if we question it, explore what its limits are and reconsider how it fits with other ways of seeing and being.

Because I am publicly questioning science, or at least how we sometimes use it, it would be easy to give into fear and write this book in some other way, or perhaps not write it at all. I am reminded, of course, of Freud’s work. What if he had drawn upon Hebrew source stories instead of Greek, as I have done here? Would Sigmund Freud, born Sigismund Schlomo Freud, have reached his non-Jewish Austrian audience, the dominant culture he assimilated to? Would he have put himself or others in grave danger? His last work, Moses and Monotheism (1967), reveals that he was acutely aware of these dangers.

My present situation does not appear to be as immediately dangerous as Freud’s, nor as dangerous as Galileo’s. Nonetheless, I question science here with some trepidation about the potential consequences. I do it because I know it is the right thing to do when I see that adhering to a narrow view of science gets in the way of seeing another person more fully. I accept, uncomfortably, there may be consequences. However, seeing another person is more important to me, a more worthy act than adhering blindly or rigidly to a belief system for the sake of that system and my identification with it.

There are many ways of looking at the world and trying to understand ourselves and other people. Reality is necessarily limited by our filters: senses, perceptions, unchallenged beliefs, theories, culture, ethnicity and language. These shape our truths, our thinking and how we observe and think about what we have observed. If we then use only one belief system as a lens to view the world, we are unnecessarily restricted. It is important to recognise when one is blindly and exclusively following a belief system. Such a rigid perspective is likely to interfere with information that can come readily and more directly through experience and other sources of knowing.

Strict adherence to a belief system can interfere with our humility and our ability to see what is right in front of us. We rarely question our culture or ethnicity, the books we read, the information we are bombarded with and the way our language and the aesthetic of what is around us shapes our reality. Beyond this, our own experience and the experiences of other people are uniquely complex and individual. They are powerful ways of knowing. And what are knowledge and knowing without wonder, awe and respect, without the humility of recognising our own uniquely complex identities as sources of influence on the answers we come to? Recognition of all that goes into us, and how that unique and infinitely diverse mix shapes our view of other people, is an ongoing challenge.

A first step towards seeing other people more fully is recognising our belief systems for what they are, appreciating and valuing what may be useful about them, and not being bound by them. Confronting science is as good a place as any to start. I believe that, wherever psychology rigidly applies science without encountering the other person and asking questions, science is dead. Questioning is the ultimate life-giver. We each live in our own Eden, and I recommend eating some forbidden fruit. Ask a question.

References

Barret LF (2017). How Emotions Are Made: the secret life of the brain. Boston, MA: Mariner Books.

Damasio A (1994). Descartes’ Error: emotion, reason, and the human brain. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

Ellis H (1923). The Dance of Life. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Freud S (1967). Moses and Monotheism. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Kishimoto M (2016). Naurto, volume 42 (Shonen Jump Manga edition). San Francisco, CA: VIZ Media.

Rogers CR (1961). On Becoming a Person: a therapist's view of psychotherapy. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company