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Sigmund Freud: The Revelation of Science

from Program One


At university, Freud discovers science and a secular worldview, discarding religion for good.

Narrator: Freud's mentors were from the new world of science. In the early 1870s, scientists were trespassing on the traditional domain of religion. This rebellion against the established order appealed to the young, ambitious Sigmund Freud.

Sander Gilman: Freud enters into the university at a point where materialism, the notion that our bodies are collections of chemicals and chemical processes, has been victorious. The body now becomes something mechanical that can be understood through science, through lab science. I mean, this is a world in which realities of the body are at the center, not the metaphysics of the spirit.

Freud: The theories of Darwin, which were then of topical interest, strongly attracted me because they held out hopes of an extraordinary advance in our understanding of the world.

Gilman: He's a very smart guy, and he's reading the hot philosophers of the late 19th century. He reads Feuerbach, he reads or at least learns about Nietzsche. They argue that human beings have to be understood as biological entities in the world.

Narrator: Freud's passion was science. But the material world didn't replace his old love of the humanities. Along with biology and mathematics, he also chose a class on religious belief given by the philosopher Franz Brentano, a former Catholic priest.

Freud: Brentano demonstrates the existence of God with as little bias and as much precision as another might argue the advantage of the wave over the emission theory.

Gilman: Franz Brentano is one of the cult figures at the university when Freud is studying. He's a guy who has this kind of charisma that we associate with the great teacher. Brentano's philosophy is, in point of fact, a kind of a throw-back philosophy; it's a philosophy that is, to be simplistic about it, romantic in its attempt to tie up every aspect of the universe.

Brentano: I hope that in the end you will all be more persuaded that a casual study of philosophy leads us away from God, but to delve more deeply into it is to be led back to Him again.

Freud: I have not escaped from his influence. I am not capable of refuting the simple theistic argument that constitutes the crown of his deliberations. Indeed I am making a thorough study of his philosophy. Meanwhile I reserve judgment as to the question of theism and materialism.

Harold Blum: Freud, not only with Brentano, but with others, and especially within himself, contemplated and reflected upon the whole question of the proof of the existence of God or the converse ... disproving the existence of God. He came to the conclusion that it was not possible to definitively prove or disprove God's existence, because it is not really a scientific question.

Narrator: Faced with the material world and the spiritual, Freud made his choice.

Freud: I found rest and satisfaction in the physiological laboratory of the great Ernst Brucke. For six years, through painstaking study, I learned the importance of observation in science. This was the foundation of everything.

Gilman: Through the end of the century, there are all sorts of major discoveries about the mechanics of the nervous system and Freud is right in the middle of that. Freud's a neurologist. He learns how nerves work. When Freud goes off and studies the nervous systems of primitive animals, he's doing cutting edge work!

Narrator: But his years in pure research ended in disappointment.

Freud: My teacher strongly advised me, in view of my bad financial position, to abandon my theoretical career. I followed his advice, left the laboratory and entered the General Hospital where I became a junior resident.

Gilman: Freud is establishing himself as a physician. He wants to be a professor, but this is really difficult. He's going to have to establish himself but as somebody who's going to have a practice dealing with sick people. So on the one hand, he's got this professional moment and this is the moment when young men decide they're going to get married.

Narrator: Freud had met Martha Bernays, a young woman from a distinguished and deeply religious Jewish family — and they fell in love.

Freud: If today were to be my last on Earth and someone asked me how I had fared, he would be told I have been happy simply because of the anticipation of one day having you to myself and of the certainty that you love me.

Narrator: Freud worked hard to save money while he courted Martha. They waited for four years. But when they finally married, Freud would not allow Martha to practice her faith in their household.

Gilman: Freud sees himself as Jewish, not religiously as Jewish but ethnically as Jewish, and he wants to have someone who is compatible to that construction. The trade-off is that in their home, after the marriage, ritual is simply not practiced.

Blum: Freud's rejection of religious belief was not just a rejection of Judaism. It was a rejection of what he considered to be a belief in the supernatural, in magic and mysticism, which he regarded as something quite a part from being realistic.

Freud: Science asserts that there are no sources of knowledge of the universe other than carefully scrutinized observations — in other words what we call research — and along side it no knowledge derived from revelation, intuition or inspiration.