Tag Archives: science

Science, psychoanalyzed

“The problem for us is not, are our desires satisfied or not? The problem is, how do we know what we desire?”

-Slavoj Žižek

The most fundamental dramatic tension is the tension between the divided self. We have all on occasion experienced an internal dialogue like the following: `I ate the cookie despite myself. I knew it was wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. Afterwards, I hated myself’. On one hand, this dialogue makes sense to us and its meaning seems clear; on the other hand, it makes no sense without a division of the self. Who is the myself against whose wishes I eat the cookie? Who is the I that could not help myself? Who, afterwards, is hated, and who is the hater? To admit that the self can be both the subject and object of an action is equivalent to admitting that the self is divided.

Let us therefore deliver ourselves into the hands of Freud, who will lead us down a rabbit-hole of self-discovery. Who are these characters, the id, ego and superego? The id is the instinctive, reactive, animalistic part of the mind. It expresses emotion without reflection, it is wordless, mute, free of morals, shame or self-consciousness. The superego is the embodiment of laws and limitations. When the child learns that it is separate from the world, confined to a small, weak body and cannot have everything it wants – when it learns that it is at the mercy of beings far more powerful who dictate its life – it internalises these limitations and laws by creating the superego. The superego tells us what we are not allowed to do, where we cannot go, and what is forbidden by physical, moral or societal laws.


The fundamental tension between superego and id demands a mediator to decide whether to go with the desires of the id or follow the rules of the superego. This mediator, haplessly caught between the two, is our hero, ourselves: the ego. When the ego obeys the superego, the id is suppressed and frustrated, while the ego becomes more powerful and more strict in its demands. When the ego obeys the id instead, the satisfaction is short-lived, for the id knows only the present moment, and is hungry again no sooner it is fed. Meanwhile, the superego brings its vengeance on the ego for the transgression, afflicting it with guilt and feelings of inferiority. The id expresses our desires and fears, the superego expresses our judgements, and the ego determines how we respond in our actions. Before reading the end of this paragraph, take a moment to re-read the dialogue about the cookie and try to name the actors and the victims. Did you do it? The id wanted to eat the cookie, the superego knew it was wrong, and the ego ate it. The superego was helpless to stop the ego, but afterwards, it hated the ego, and punished it with feelings of guilt. Now it makes sense.


Humans have a curious obsession with the number three. There are three wise men, the holy trinity, the `third eye’ of Hinduism. Dramatic tension between fictional characters also frequently relies on combinations of three. It is an entertaining exercise (but not always fruitful) to identify the roles of id, ego and superego in famous triplets from mythology and fiction. Here is a puzzle for you. In Brisbane, I used to frequent a coffee house called Three Monkeys. Inside, they had amassed a collection of depictions and statuettes of the `Three Wise Monkeys’, a mystical image originating from Japan in which the first monkey has covered its eyes, the second its ears, and the last one its mouth. The image is typically associated with the maxim: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, thought to originate from a similar passage in the Chinese Analects of Confucius. The puzzle is this: if the monkeys were to represent the different aspects of the divided self, which monkey is the id, which is the ego and which is the superego? Or does the comparison simply fail? My own answer is given at the end of this essay.


Tension is by nature unsustainable. It must eventually resolve itself in one of three ways: destruction, reconciliation, or transformation into a new kind of tension (which just means the destruction of some things and the reconciliation of others). Destruction can occur when the division between the id and superego is too extreme, tearing apart the ego with opposing forces. Since the ego exists only to mediate the conflict between the other two, a reconciliation of the id with the superego automatically conciliates the ego as well. This represents a dissolution of the ego, meaning a loss of the distinction between the self and the external world: the attainment of Nirvana in the eastern philosophies. In reality, however, most of us experience only a very small and partial conciliation of this type, a sort of secret collaboration between the superego and the id. This secret collaboration is at the core of science, so let us examine it in more detail.

The easiest way to appreciate the perverse but necessary collaboration between superego and id is to look at stories and films. There, the characters are nicely separated into roles that often reflect the roles of our divided selves. Take Batman and the Joker as depicted in Christopher Nolan’s film, The Dark Knight. The Joker is obviously a candidate for the id:

The Dark Knight
“Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just… do things.”

Batman, although a vigilante, is a good fit for the superego: he is the true enforcer of law, both the judge and the executioner. In fact it is the police force, embodied by Commissioner Gordon, that best represents the ego in its unenviable position, caught between the two rogue elements. Given these roles, we finally understand this brilliant exchange:
Batman: Then why do you want to kill me?
Joker: I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You… you complete me.
You could not ask for a more perfect exposition of the mutual dependence of the superego and the id.

Sometimes the bond is more subtle. Consider one of fiction’s greatest characters: Sherlock Holmes. Not coincidentally, Holmes is a poster boy for scientists, with his strict adherence to a method based on evidence, reasoning and deduction. Quite obviously, he is a manifestation of the superego, leaving Watson to carry the banner of the ego. He wears it well enough, constantly being lectured and berated by Holmes, occasionally skeptical and rebellious but always respectful of Holmes’ superior judgement. Where, then, could the id be hiding? Therein lies a profound mystery, worthy of Holmes himself! One is tempted to point at Moriarty, the great enemy of Holmes – but the shoe does not fit. In Moriarty one finds exactly the kind of characteristics more typical of the superego: self-confidence verging on megalomania, mercilessness, a strict adherence to methodology. He is more like Holmes’s evil twin – the vindictive, cruel side of the superego – than the impulsive and chaotic id.


My own theory is that Holmes is a much more subtle character than he first appears. Who is the Holmes that we find, lost in a wordless reverie, playing the violin? Who is the Holmes that disguises himself to play a prank on poor Watson – the Holmes who, indeed, delights in upsetting Watson with eccentric and erratic behaviour? Who is the Holmes that goes missing for days, only to be found curled up in a den of iniquity, his eyes clouded with Opium? I contend that Holmes has an instinctive, intuitive and sensitive side that embodies the id, working in harmony with his superego aspect. Indeed, the seedy side of Holmes – his indulgent, drug-taking, reckless aspect – is somehow essential to completing the portrait of his genius. We would not find him so credible, so impressive, so almost mystical in his virtuosity if it were not for this dark side.

The superego and id can indeed collaborate, but it is usually only in a secretive, almost illicit way as though neither can admit that it depends on the other. The superego turns a blind eye, allowing the id to run wild, and then acts surprised and disappointed when it discovers the transgression. Then ensues what is in essence a sadomasochistic mock-punishment, since the id secretly enjoys the flogging, and the superego knows it, but plays along. In short, the union between superego and id is possible through the hypocritical self-awareness of both parties that they depend on each other to exist. They throw themselves into their respective roles with even more gusto, maintaining as it were a secret conspiracy against the ego, keeping up the tension but with a knowing cynicism.

We now begin to see the first inklings of the mad scientist. The quintessential mad scientist is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, whose two faces represent unmistakably a perverse union of superego and id; other examples in fiction abound. The mad scientist is in fact the manifestation in an individual character of the public’s view of scientific activity in general. Since (as Kuhn tells us) science is a human activity, its attributes can be traced to attributes of the human mind. In other words, science as an institution can be psychoanalyzed.
Science is defined on one hand by its rationality, its strict adherence to method, zero tolerance for transgression of its rules, and a claim to superiority in its judgements and conclusions about the world. On the other hand, science is a powerful vehicle for the realisation of our (human) fantasies: what technology is not born from the dream of a science-fiction nerd? Technology is transgressive in the same way that dreams are transgressive: there is no taboo in science, no political correctness, no boundaries. At its purest, science and technology is obscene, disturbing and visionary all at once. Medicine is born of the desire to be immortal, chemistry is born of our desire to have power over the substances and forces of the world, to make gold and riches from lead; physics is born of our desire to fly through the sky like a bird, to be invisible, telepathic, omnipotent. Biology promises us the power to make animals and other organisms serve our needs, and psychology offers us power over each other. Science, with all of its adherence to evidence, logic and deduction, remains silent on matters of its purpose, has nothing to suggest about the ends to which it should be used. There lies hidden the id of science: an amoral, primitive, instinctive drive of humanity, just like the indignant infant trying to come to terms with the world. Without an effective intermediary in the form of public discussion and deliberation over scientific advances, science risks becoming a Sherlock without a Watson, that is, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Of course, just as it does in the individual’s psyche, the scientific id also plays a beneficial role: it supplies the creative drive and aesthetic sensibility without which science would be impossible. This is why we cannot divorce the id from the superego in science without destroying science altogether. Eliminate the id from Science, and you are left with a stagnant dogma; eliminate the superego, the methodology and tools of rational inquiry, and you are left with mysticism and superstition. The philosophy of science does an injustice to the true mechanism of scientific progress by focusing too much on the methodology – how to evaluate evidence and test hypotheses – and neglecting to address the aesthetic side of science.

Rick and Morty
“Sometimes science is more art than science. A lot of people don’t get that.”

How do we generate hypotheses? Where do ideas come from? Scientists themselves often don’t acknowledge the role that instinct and intuition plays in proposing new theories – we tend to downplay it, or insist that science progresses without any creative input. If that were really true, computer programs could do science in the foreseeable future. But most of us consider the revolution of the machines to still be far away, for the simple reason that we don’t yet know how to teach computers to be creative and to select `good’ hypotheses from the vast pool of logically possible hypotheses. This is (so far) a uniquely human ability, which has everything to do with gut feelings, impulsive thoughts and secret desires. The philosophy of science would perhaps benefit greatly from a more careful examination of this hidden aspect of scientific progress.

My answer to the three monkey’s question is this: The monkey who cannot speak is the id, because the id is voiceless. That leaves the blind monkey and the deaf monkey. It boils down to a matter of opinion here, but the argument that appeals to me most is this one: the superego has a closer relationship with the id than the ego does. Since the blind monkey can neither see nor hear the id (because the id can’t talk), but the deaf monkey can at least see the id, it stands to reason that the deaf monkey is the superego and the blind monkey is the ego.


Ten Rules for Research

I see a lot of articles out there giving advice in the form of a list of rules. People have a fascination with rule lists. You’ve got the rules of Fight Club, the writer who uses a personal formula, policemen who follow “The Book” to the letter, gangsters with a personal code of ethics, and so on. So here’s my list of rules for being a scientist.

1. Keep reading everything.

2. The value of public speaking skills cannot be underestimated.

3. Remember the big questions that got you here in the first place.

4. Take philosophy seriously, but only the parts you can understand.

5. Sometimes, you just have to shut up and calculate.

6. Don’t distract yourself from the things you don’t know by working on things you do know.

7. The best defense against politics is integrity and a smile.

8. The more certain you are of a result, the more you should double check it.

9. If you aren’t curious to know the result of a calculation, it isn’t worth doing it.

10.  Ask dumb questions. If you are truly an idiot, you’ll be found out eventually, so you might as well satisfy your curiosity in the meantime.

In the end, I think Rule 1 is most important.  So, you should go and read Michael Nielsen’s classic advice to researchers, which is far more eloquent than the garbage you read on my blog.

Calvin and Hobbes
© 2013 Bill Watterson

Stories to explode your mind.

As you might have guessed from posts like this one, I am a huge fan of the technique of using a fictional story to get across an idea or a concept. The following are links to some of my favourite examples of this underrated art form, more or less in order of preference.

1. Scott Aaronson, On Self-Delusion and Bounded Rationality. Clearly inspired by the classic sci-fi story “Flowers for Algernon“, Aaronson’s own fable is a meditation on what it means to be rational.

2. Nick Bostrom, The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. I’ve mentioned Bostrom before, but I was unaware of his storytelling powers until I came across this gem. Here, he weaves a story that cleverly gets the reader on his side, before drawing back the curtain to show us what was really at stake the whole time.

3. Eliezer Yudkowski, Zombies: The Movie. For a change of tone, I love this light-hearted jab at philosopher David Chalmer’s idea of a philosophical zombie, in the form of a movie-script.

Finally, although it is in a somewhat different vein to the above links, I have to mention the work of writer Greg Egan, which epitomizes the concept of “hard sci-fi”: flights of the imagination conceived not only in the spirit of modern science, but in its very clothing. Excerpts from his novels and complete versions of his short stories can be read online here.