The future of humanity in the light of psychoanalysis
What I am going to talk to you about is a very personal opinion on an important matter: The future of humanity in the light of psychoanalysis. First, I have to say that I am not religious. I don’t believe in God or in afterlife. So I hope I won’t upset anyone.
I believe humanity is now at a turning point in its existence, with current changes more radical than those that happened during the neolithic revolution, with the appearance of agriculture and societies. Humanity is facing many challenges at the same time. The way we will manage these challenges will shape the future of the human species. There are mainly 3 challenges. Ecology is certainly one of these important challenges. The absence of an economic model that could tackle the problem of extreme inequalities is another one. The third challenge and the one I will speak to you about is the consequences of the advances currently made by science and technology, and I will focus on 2 aspects which are:
First, the disappearance of work.
Secondly, the prospect of immortality.
I believe that if we want to do this reflection seriously, we have to take into account who humans really are and not who humans like to think they are, and this is where psychoanalysis can help.
Psychoanalysis is one of the 3 discoveries that made mankind climb dowm from his pedestal:
First, there was the discovery by Copernicus that Earth is not at the center of the universe.
Then, there was the discovery by Darwin that humans descend from animals.
And lastly, there was the discovery that “ego is not the master in its own house”. This was the discovery by Freud of the unconscious and the invention of psychoanalysis.
But what is the unconscious? Freud discovered it is an important part of ourself, that is repressed and hidden. Our consciousness has access to this unconscious only through manifestations like dreams, or slips of the tongue. It is fuelled by sexual and death drives, but also has access to the most elaborate of our cognitive abilities.
It is the place for repressed feelings, subliminal perceptions, automatic reactions, but also for complexes like hidden phobias and desires. The oedipus complex is at the core of it. What is the oedipus complex? It is something universal. When as a child we reach 3 years old, we start having sexual desire for the parent of the opposite sex. This desire is soon followed by an hostile feeling for the parent of the same sex. The oedipus complex is the fear and the repression of those feelings, repulsing them in the unconscious. The way we deal with this repression is at the core of our personality. But since its discovery by Freud, this complex has been something very difficult to accept. Some of you may not agree with that we all have to go through this; but if you have the opportunity to observe young children, it becomes clear.
But pyschoanalysis is foremost a therapy of the mind, in which patients are invited to speak to their analyst and tell them whatever they have in mind, taking care not to exclude anything. And what it tells is that unconscious is the real master in the mind.
But let’s go back to the first consequence of technological progress: work is going to disappear. Most of what we need to do to be able to live will be made by computers and machines. At first, that idea may seem ridiculous. It is true that we already have cars that drive themselves or military drones that take decisions without human intervention and we know automation will keep on progressing at fast pace. But how can a computer replace teachers, layers, doctors, researchers and other professions that require creativity and social interactions? Their replacement may not happen in the next 10 years, but it will definitely happen. Until now, computers have been very effective at automating things but very bad at things like recognising a cat on a picture. But that will change. With the enormous mass of data that we are collecting and computing processors continuing to double their capacity every 18 months, a new computing era is ahead of us. In 2011, a computer program called Watson competed on TV game Jeopardy! against 2 former winners, and it won. It was able to understand the questions without any human help. In February 2013, it was announced that Watson software would be used for management decisions in lung cancer treatment. Watson is now preparing for the entrance examination of the Tokyo university and it is hoped it will pass in 2021.
What will be the impacts of this? Obviously, there will be an economic issue: most of us need to work to get money and be able to live. That’s a fundemental question but I believe that may not be the biggest issue. In a book titled Civilization and Its Discontents, published in 1930, Freud mentioned the importance of work and sublimation in our psychic balance. Humankind’s sexual and aggressive drives are clearly harmful to the well-being of a human community. To make social life possible, civilization imposes on its members the control of their desires. But at the same time this control becomes the source of frustation and unhappiness. Sublimation, in which sexual and aggressive drives are transformed into acts of high social value, is an interesting substitute and has the advantage of reducing frustration. Ordinary work can to play a similar role in deflecting libidinal and narcissistic drives. Freud seems to agree with Voltaire who said work saves us from three great evils: boredom, vice and need. If work disappears, our psychic balance could be strongly shaken. Strange as it may seem, it is conceivable that we may have to work to find a substitute for work.
The second aspect of progress consequences is the prospect of immortality. Advances in science and technology regarding the human body in the last 20 years have been unheardof. Some scientists believe that we are very close to achieving immortality or at least being able to live several centuries. In a TED speach he made in 2012, Laurent Alexandre, a surgeon and the author of the book La mort de la mort, explained how nano-technology, bio-technology, information technology and cognitive sciences will soon transform medicine. Researches in those domains have not made the headlines but they nevertheless promise to make giant leaps in the treatment of all kinds of diseases. But when we hear about the prospect of science making immortality possible, we tend associate it with Frankenstein and the idea that it is against nature. Should we be afraid? What would the impacts of immortality on our mind?
In 1915, Freud wrote a paper called “On transience”, where he discussed the ephemeral nature of beauty. Should we prevent ourselves from enjoying the beauty of something because we know it will ultimately die? On the contrary says Freud, the ephemeral nature of things give them value. Protesting against this is “an attitude mostly determined by the mind’s inborn tendency to avoid pain”.
Lacan is more provocative. In 1972, he said to students at the University of Louvain, among many other things : “You are right to believe that you will die, it supports you. Do you think you would be able to endure life if you didn’t believe in death?” That’s a shocking idea but I believe there’s truth in it. My interpretation is that, sometimes life is so difficult that we accept to live because of a moral duty and only on the condition that one day it will end.
Does it mean there is no desire for immortality? Surely not, otherwise scientists won’t be doing these researches on the human body. But what could be behind this desire? There might be a link with the oedipus complex. Immortality can be seen as the end of the differences between generations. If there is a 30-year gap between you and your parents, that difference becomes negligible if you are both more than 200. The difference between generations is at the core of the oedipus complex. Erasing this difference would be a breach against the taboo of desire for the parent of this other sex.
So, should the prospect of immortality please us or should we fear life could become unbearable? As often with human mind I think things are complex, and I don’t have the answer to that question. I do believe, however, that psychoanalysis gives us invaluable insight on that matter.
I would like to conclude by a question: is there a physical or biological law that dictates humanity’s destiny? I don’t know. However, I like to think that the impressive and scary challenges we’re facing are, for the first time, the opportunity for humanity to take control of its destiny. But we should not expect luck, godsend or extraterrestial help. On this matter we can only rely on our collective intelligence.