Motivation speculation

"That Darwinist authorities find public scrutiny of their theory so threatening indicates to me that there is a hidden insecurity in their intellectual position which will eventually become so visible it can no longer be concealed."
Phillip E. Johnson, Think, Issue 11

One of the most intractable puzzles in the history of philosophy is the problem of other minds. This isn’t the difficulty of knowing exactly what other people are feeling or thinking, but that of knowing whether other people have minds at all. Might they simply be senseless automata, behaving as though they had thoughts and feelings, but not really having them at all?

This kind of philosophical difficulty is of a different order to the everyday challenge of working out what others are thinking. In that sense, we are actually pretty good at knowing the contents of other people’s heads. Most of us find feelings of boredom, irritation or attraction very hard to conceal, and often it takes just one look to detect someone’s mood.

What we detect in others is usually evident to the person we are scrutinising. But one of Freud’s more regrettable legacies is that he seems to have convinced a large number of us that we are better judges of others’ minds than those others are themselves. The subconscious may be hidden from ourselves, but it seems transparent to others.

There is a set of crass pop-psychology rules for making these sweeping judgements about people’s true motivations. One is the inverse-proportion denial rule – otherwise known as The Lady Doth Protest Too Much manoeuvre – which states that the more someone denies something the more likely it is to be true. As every schoolboy knows, someone who makes a big point of denying he is gay, for example, is probably gay himself.

Another related rule is the hatred equals fear rule, otherwise known as the cornered rat response. This states that the more someone professes to hate something, the more likely she is to actually be afraid of it. The ability to apply this rule is not usually mastered until we become self-righteous undergraduates.

Then there is the arrogance as insecurity rule, otherwise known as the soft-centre principle. This states that anyone who is judged to be excessively confident is almost certainly compensating for a deep-rooted insecurity. This can be confused with idiotically making excuses for people’s bad behaviour: “He may behave like a predatory love rat, but deep down he’s just insecure.”

The trouble with all these rules is that they are all utter rubbish. Of course, there are specific instances when they hold. Sometimes the person who aggressively denies his homosexuality, claims to hate “poofs” and acts more macho than Ernest Hemingway at a bachelor party, really is struggling to come to terms with his own sexual feelings for other men. But it might equally be the case that he’s just a bigoted, macho homophobe.

On many other occasions, these kinds of “explanations” are utterly bogus. Often people protest that something is not true because they really think it isn’t true, and the truth in this instance matters to them. I hate Earl Grey tea, but I’m not afraid of it. And some people are arrogant precisely because they’re not insecure about anything.

So much should be evident. And yet we still find people who in so-called intellectual discussions invoke just these kinds of crass psychological generalisations to support their case. Creation scientist Phillip Johnson’s swipe against the “Darwinist authorities” is one stunningly crude example. He very cleverly describes their resistance to people such as himself in terms of its being “threatening”, which is to already imply their reaction is not an intellectual but a defensive, psychological one. He then suggests that the vociferous nature of their defence against creation scientists is due to some “hidden insecurity”. Johnson seems so confident that his analysis is accurate that he even says the reaction of Darwinists “indicates” to him that they are insecure. Not “suggests” or “might indicate” but “indicates”. In a single sentence it manages to encapsulate facets of all three of the trite piece of amateur psychologising I’ve described: call it “The Cornered Rat has a Soft Centre and Protests Too Much” move, henceforth to be known as “Doing a Johnson”.

If we were to apply this kind of analysis back on the analyst, we might suggest that Johnson is so fixed in the rightness (and righteousness) of his own position that he cannot comprehend that people might just object to him on good intellectual and scientific grounds rather than just emotional ones. That may well be true, but it might equally well not be. If we want to criticise him, we should just point out that his attempt to play the analyst is trite and completely fails to address any of the serious issues. Speculating as to what subconscious psychological desire motivated him to do so may be good fun and tremendously interesting, but it is both futile and irrelevant to judging the soundness of his case.

Julian Baggini’s latest book, The Pig that Wants to be Eaten and 99 Other Thought Experiments is published by Granta.

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