Escape 24: So, where do we go from here?
At the end of Chapter 8 Becker has a short section on transference. Freud wrote a book on transference, a phenomenon he observed in clinical practice where a patient would transfer to his doctor feelings she once had towards her parents. Patients were quick to abandon their egos to the new power figure in their lives. Others, among them Adler, Rank, Jung and Fromm extended Freud’s observations. It’s because of them, Becker argues that “today we can say that transference is a reflex of the fatality of the human condition. Transference to a powerful other takes care of the overwhelmingness of the universe.” (p.127). Transference is an incredibly powerful impulse. How is it that “men were so sheeplike when they functioned in groups – how they abandoned their egos to the leader, identified with his powers just as they did once before when as dependent children they yielded to their parents.” (p.127)
Years ago I taught courses on studying skills on the Knowledge Network. As part of a course called Advanced Study Skills I talked about self-esteem and the need for self-esteem. Well it seems that one of my esteemed colleagues, an administrator at the college he was, took exception to the idea of self-esteem. He actually wrote a paper called Self-Esteem: The Scourge of the Twentieth Century. In simple terms his argument is that any self-love detracts from the love of God. A Christian, (but he could have subscribed to any number of immortality-ideologies and come up with the same conclusion) he argues in his paper must invest his whole being in his love of God. The only being deserving of esteem is God. I think that this is a classic example of extreme transference. Of course, his logic is impeccable if you buy into his basic premise, which is that the body, the ego, the self, are the carriers of death and the only way to eternal life is by a complete abandonment to God, the ultimate symbol of the other side of life, the spiritual side, the one that doesn’t die.
Becker turns to transference in the last two chapters of EFE. He wrote a whole chapter on transference in The Denial of Death. In EFE his consideration is: where do we go from here? How can science deal with the fact that people are so willingly dominated by leaders who promise them health, prosperity and immortality, and the defeat of death?
My daughter, an evolutionary biologist, has always impressed me with her dedication to science and what Veblen called the search for truth. For her and scientists generally, science does nothing but create models of how the world works. Obviously ‘the world’ here refers to the physical world, the world amenable to our senses. In practice, our senses can be extended by telescopes, microscopes and a myriad of other technologies. We can ‘see’ into cells, DNA, galaxies and universes and create models for how they ‘work’. We can also ‘see’ into the behaviour or plants and animals. We can create models of how ‘things’ interact with each other and are interdependent.
I think that social scientists can also create models for how the world works. It gets more complicated when ‘looking at people (to use a visual metaphor) because we are people too and we are involved in our social worlds. It’s difficult to get enough detachment from the social world to study it ‘objectively.’ Becker advocated the scientific approach, but for him science had to contribute to making the world a better place. Many social scientists make the same assumption. So where do we go from here? Well, in the next chapter Becker takes on social theory, particularly Freud and Marx. As scientists, he argues that we have to “conceive of the possibility of a nondestructive yet victorious social system.” (p.126) He writes (and I end on this):
One of the reasons social scientists have been slow in getting around to such designs has been the lack of an adequate and agreed general theory of human nature…right now it is important to direct the reader to the quest for an agreed upon general theory of human nature to exactly what cripples the autonomy of the individual.