A Jewish Psychiatrist’s Views on the Meaning of Life
Two prominent psychiatrists were each asked to articulate their understanding of the meaning of life. Psychiatrist #1, a well-known novelist and Professor-Emeritus of Psychiatry from Stanford University’s School of Medicine, stated, Life has no meaning. The only meaning it has is what we ourselves give it, and, sadly, we often forget we are the ones who gave it the meaning.” Psychiatrist #2, a former professor of Psychiatry and Religion at Yale, Harvard and Georgetown, and now with an international private practice in Nassau, Bahamas, clearly at the opposite end of the spectrum, responded, “Man has a deep need to worship, and if he doesn’t worship the true and living God, he ends up worshipping false gods that are merely projections of himself.”
Clearly experts can disagree.
Sigmund Freud, father of classical psychoanalysis and a founder of present day psychiatry wrote of a universal desire to understand our lives and the world around us. He used the term, “Weltanschauung” or worldview, defining it as “an intellectual construction which solves all the problems of our existence uniformly on the basis of one overriding hypothesis, which, accordingly, leaves no question unanswered and in which everything that interests us finds its fixed place.” He went on to state that, “the possession of a Weltanschauung of this kind is among the ideal wishes of human beings. Believing in it one can feel secure in life, one can know what to strive for, and how one can deal most expediently with one’s emotions and interests.”1 Of note is that Freud referred to himself as a “godless Jew” clearly aligning himself with psychiatrist #1.
How was Freud’s Weltanschauung reflected not only in his writings but also in his personal life? A recent book by a noted Harvard University psychiatrist, Dr. Armand Nicholi,2 addresses this very question and, in addition, contrasts his findings concerning Freud with the personal writings and life of another well-known figure, C.S. Lewis. Lewis is the author of the seven volume series, The Chronicles of Narnia, the bestknown being The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, on which the very popular movie is based.
C.S. Lewis, an Oxford University professor, in his earlier years, in parallel fashion to Freud, called himself “a blaspheming atheist,” only later in life to come to a belief in a benevolent God and then to fully embrace orthodox Christianity. His life was radically changed.
The most fascinating feature of Dr. Nicholi’s book is the contrast between Freud’s and Lewis’ personal lives, especially after Lewis comes to faith in God. True belief is belief that is lived out with all its consequences. The quality of Freud’s and Lewis’ personal relationships with others and how they faced loss, sickness and their own deaths are consistent with and as markedly in contrast as the differences between atheism and faith in God. Freud had difficulty with close relationships throughout his life. C.S. Lewis became a warm, compassionate person with strong intimate friendships. Freud saw little positive meaning in suffering. C.S. Lewis saw that it could have redemptive value. Freud feared death and had his physician give him a lethal dose of morphine to end his pain from oral cancer. C.S. Lewis welcomed death, in its time, seeing with eyes of faith what was yet to come. Dr. Nicholi carefully and artfully presents the evidence and allows the reader to ponder the two contrasting worldview constructs and their accompanying life styles.
We live in a real world of flesh and blood and bones, and rocks and houses…and the need to eat and sleep…and the need for love and relationship. Anyone who thinks otherwise is labeled delusional or psychotic or, at the very least, mistaken. Some speak of intuition, spirituality, transcendence and the mystery of life. The secularist’s understanding of these concepts is limited to the observable world that we experience with our senses. Science deals with this world and has been proven to be extremely useful in helping us not only to live, but also to thrive in it.
Psychiatrist #1 would say that this observable world defines reality and that there is nothing beyond it. Psychiatrist #2 would disagree and posit that this real world is imbedded in an equally real, larger (or of a totally different dimension) world that includes an all-knowing, all-caring, all-powerful God. In the case of Orthodox Judaism—and to an even greater extent, Biblical Christianity—it would also include a real heaven and hell, angels, demons, real supernatural miracles, and prayer that is literal communication between human beings and God with equally real consequences.
Dr. Paul Bloom, a Jewish professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale University, writing in the December 2005 issue of The Atlantic Monthly,3 addresses this issue head on.
Dr. Bloom and his colleagues studied very young children, acknowledging that it is very difficult to know what they are thinking since they can’t speak. The main means of understanding the children’s responses was to note how long they looked at different events and to record their facial and physical reactions. For example, they discovered that six-month olds understand that physical objects obey gravity. “If you put an object on a table and then remove the table, and the object stays there (held by a hidden wire), babies are surprised; they expect the object to fall…and contrary to what is still being taught in some psychology classes, they understand that objects persist over time even when hidden. (Show a baby an object and then put it behind a screen. Wait a little while and then remove the screen. If the object is gone, the baby is surprised.)”
Fascinating! He goes on to discuss the babies’ responses to their mothers’ different emotions. “Before they are a year old, they [the babies] can determine the target of an adult’s gaze, and can learn by attending to the emotions of others; if a baby is crawling toward an area that might be dangerous and an adult makes a horrified or disgusted face, the baby usually knows enough to stay away.”
From these data he makes an attempt to understand the underlying principles at work. “Understanding of the physical world and understanding of the social world can be seen as akin to two distinct computers in a baby’s brain, running separate programs and performing separate tasks. The understandings develop at different rates: the social one emerges somewhat later than the physical one.” So far, so good. Dr. Bloom is being a social scientist, gathering data and making objective hypotheses, that is, educated guesses at what might be going on, to explain the data.
Later in the article, he looks at autism and wonders whether the problems of this developmental disorder might be related to a breakdown in the functioning of one of these “computers.” “In the most extreme cases, children with autism see people as nothing more than objects—objects that move in unpredictable ways and make unexpected noises and are therefore frightening.” He wonders whether their “social computers” are malfunctioning. He is still being the objective social scientist.
But then he brings in belief—his own—as he continues to ponder the meaning of his findings. “They [the computers] evolved at different points in our prehistory; our physical understanding is shared by many species, whereas our social understanding is a relatively recent adaptation, and in some regards might be uniquely human.” He gives no scientific evidence to underpin his statement but presents it within the context of objective science. He favors atheistic evolution rather than “intelligent design” though he admits that most Americans (including college graduates and even scientists) believe that God created human beings.
Bloom is no longer being the pure scientist. Let’s investigate what is happening here. Early in his article, in a very transparent manner, Dr. Bloom reveals his Weltanschauung, or worldview. He states that he rejects supernatural beliefs. He describes himself as a “secular” person who is “comfortable with religion as a source of spirituality and transcendence, tolerance and love, charity and good works.” He is, “uncomfortable, however, with religion when it makes claims about the natural world, let alone a world beyond nature.” He would approve if “science gets the realm of facts, religion the realm of values.”
Using Dr. Bloom’s criteria, the Bible would be in trouble from the beginning. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1). Whoops! Here is an example of faith stepping on the toes of science, making claims about the natural world as well as the world beyond nature (heaven, God). Or what about instances when the laws of natural science give way to supernatural acts of God such as in a burning bush that is not consumed by fire or in the parting of the Red Sea in the Exodus account: “…and all that night the LORD drove the sea back with a strong east wind and turned it into dry land” (Exodus 14:21). Dr. Bloom’s categories don’t leave much room for biblical truth to say anything meaningful about history, our lives and the world around us.
In fact, he states, according to recent polls, that most people don’t agree with a secular, non-supernatural understanding of life. (From a practical perspective, many people who say they believe in God, heaven and judgment, live as if they don’t, but that is the topic of another discussion.) Dr. Bloom quotes statistics that “96 percent of people in the United States believe in God. Well over half of Americans believe in miracles, the devil, and angels. Most believe in an afterlife…most Americans say they believe that after death they will actually reunite with relatives and get to meet God.” He goes on to say that “the rest of the world—Asia, Africa, the Middle East—is not exactly filled with hardcore atheists” and that “most polls from European countries show that a majority of their people are believers.”
These facts disturb Dr. Bloom. Even 40% of scientists, when polled, believe in “a real Biblical God, one believers could pray to and actually get answers from…Only the most elite scientists—members of the National Academy of Sciences…[have a] strong majority of atheists and agnostics.”
This “embarrassment for those who see supernatural beliefs as a cultural anachronism soon to be eroded by scientific discoveries and the spread of cosmopolitan values” leads these scientists to pursue theories that will be consistent with their worldview. And they use the techniques available to them—evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience, and developmental psychology—with all the prestige and “authority” that accompany these learned pursuits.
But science doesn’t have the authority or the expertise to make judgments about these matters. A biopsy, an X Ray, or a blood test cannot reveal the answers to our deepest questions.
I composed this poem and offer it to many of my patients as an introduction to a discussion of worldview and belief.
But where do our beliefs come from? How do they grow into mature belief? And how do they run amuck? For those who would want to pursue these questions, Ana Marie Rizzuto, M.D., a Catholic psychoanalyst and author of Birth of the Living God, speaks of belief as a foundational psychological function and outlines the rich, healthy supernatural beliefs of the developing youngster. James Fowler, Ph.D., in his writing, outlines Stages of Faith. And for those who would like to investigate the dark side, M. Scott Peck, M.D., presents this in his book, People of the Lie: The Hope of Healing Human Evil.
And while books can offer meaningful insights, I have found that my personal experience has had a most powerful influence on my own life. I was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family and participated in all its rich customs and practices—my mother kept a kosher home, I laid tephillin, went to the synagogue with my father on Shabbat, even led the Musaf services as a junior cantor. I laid aside these practices when I went into medicine, eventually going into psychiatry, thinking it would solve my own personal problems as well as enable me to help others.
I learned, very painfully, that psychiatry doesn’t have the answers I so longed for. It is a tool, just as a scalpel is a healing instrument in the hands of a skilled surgeon. The same scalpel in the hands of an unskilled or even a criminal person will bring about quite different results.
I discovered that psychiatry, as a science, could not answer the questions that I desperately was asking. Nor could it provide for my deepest needs. I didn’t turn to faith in God because it provided these answers and filled these needs in a utilitarian manner alone, but because I believed that this faith was true…true in a way that science could not confirm or deny…true because my soul, my spirit, confirmed that it was true. When I read the words of Yeshua (Jesus) they brought relief, healing and clarity. He said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). His words were comforting, but also challenging: “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me” (John 12:26).
Once I was drawn to the truth of the Bible in the New Testament, I began to read the Hebrew Scriptures with understanding for the first time. I saw that there was a unity that I had never imagined, that the New Testament truths were the fulfillment of the prophecies of the Hebrew Scriptures and that the New Testament was incomplete without that which preceded it. For the first time, I felt God drawing me to himself in love through both of them.
I had already been a psychiatrist for several years and so I had quite a bit of rethinking to do when I came to faith in Jesus. I had to reevaluate my beliefs that were basically atheistic or at best agnostic, and give up seeing psychiatry as the answer in and of itself. I had based my efforts on facts that had no solid foundation in objective truth. In my existential pain and despair, I cried out and began to pray as I had learned to do from my mother as a young child. I was drawn to the words of Jesus by a religious pamphlet I picked up off the street.
At first I was very frightened to even consider anything from the New Testament since I had been taught that Jesus was for the goyim (the Gentiles) and that I was not to consider anything related to Christianity…but I was desperate…and in my desperation, God met me.
It wasn’t quick and it wasn’t easy. I was very proud and very rebellious by nature. I can admit this now, many years into my faith walk, because it has been clearly shown to me by a loving God who patiently has provided for me as he taught me through others, through Scripture, and through circumstances. He showed me my need to give up childish things and be the man he created me to be.
How sad that the atheistic or agnostic scientists don’t see this truth and, as articulated by Dr. Bloom, entertain a “view that religion emerged not to serve a purpose—not as an opiate or a social glue—but by accident. It is a byproduct of biological adaptations gone awry.” Dr. Bloom struggles with the fact that much of the intellectual argument against the existence of God doesn’t make intuitive sense. He acknowledges,”[This theory] is like quantum physics; we might intellectually grasp it, but it will never feel right to us. When we see a complex structure, we see it as the product of beliefs and goals and desires. Our social mode of understanding leaves it difficult for us to make sense of it any other way. Our gut feeling is that design requires a designer…”
I am glad that Dr. Bloom is struggling with this. It is a good sign that perhaps he will pursue truth until it finds him…until the Way, the Truth and the Life—Jesus himself—finds him in intimate loving relationship. It takes both heart and mind, facts and feelings, to be whole men and women. True faith never pits one against the other. At least that’s what I think.
What do you think?
- Freud, Sigmund. “The Question of a Weltanschauung.” In New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co., 1933.
- The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex and the Meaning of Life. Simon and Shuster, August 2003.
- Bloom, Paul. “Is God An Accident?” The Atlantic Monthly, December 2005.