Why Beliefs Such As Freud’s Doctrine of Psychosexual Development Cannot Be Considered Scientific

Beliefs are just thoughts.

Many act as if beliefs are tangible, platonic, concrete, and immutable concepts. They are not.

We can have beliefs about the universe but this does not necessarily mean that they correspond in any way to reality.

I could believe that the psychoanalytic theory of psychosexual development is empirical, but there is no evidence to say that it is (in light of more accurate explanations and scientific data). Some go so far to call psychoanalysis pseudoscience due to this reason.

The claims of Freud and other psychoanalysts have not been shown to be empirically verified to accurately describe the behaviors of human beings—there are other ways of empirically testing human behavior that more accurately describes our nature than psychoanalysis. In light of these explanations, and when psychoanalysis is shown to be an inaccurate representation of the world, those who purport psychoanalysis to be scientific will find another explanation that works within the psychoanalytic framework, instead of accepting that this part of psychoanalysis is not the most precise way of explaining human psychology.

From the IEP:

In contrast to such paradigmatically scientific theories as GR, Popper argues that non-scientific theories such as Freudian psychoanalysis do not make any predictions that might allow them to be falsified. The reason for this is that these theories are compatible with every possible observation. On Popper’s view, psychoanalysis simply does not provide us with adequate details to rule out any possible human behavior. Absent of these sorts of precise predictions, the theory can be made to fit with, and to provide a purported explanation of, any observed behavior whatsoever.

You can throw Marxism in there as well. Marxists purport that their ideology is as empirical as any of the natural sciences.

We’ll stick to psychoanalysis.

What Freud thought was depending on the stage of psychosexual development (anal, phallic, oral, etc.) you were in when you experienced a trauma in your life, then if you become neurotic later in life, you will exhibit “classic” symptoms of somebody who has experienced trauma in this stage of psychosexual development. The aim is to surpass these stages of development and mature sexually and psychologically. If you don’t then you are destined to be a neurotic fool for the rest of your life in accordance with Freud.

Now, what do modern psychologists say about childhood trauma? They certainly do not believe that depending on Freud’s stage of psychosexual development you were in when you experienced the trauma that this should determine the type of therapy you should receive. It’s not given any credence in the literature. It’s not scientific, in a modern sense.

Modern psychologists, neuroscientists, psychiatrists and so on who research the different aspects of the human mind through a scientific approach have different thoughts with respect to explaining the nature of those who experience childhood trauma and the effects that this has on those individuals as adults.

Attachment theory is the most common but nowhere are Freud’s central ideas of psychosexual development invoked in any serious way. There may be some overlap but his doctrines are not treated as the most accurate way of explaining the psychology of individuals.

There are different types of attachment styles according to attachment theory—anxious, avoidant, secure, etc.— which are determined by the interaction one has with their caregivers early in life. But it is crucial to note that in no way is the interaction one has with their caregivers as a child deterministic in terms of how they will turn out later in life. Yes, the chances are significantly increased if one experiences trauma as a child, they will have a higher chance of having psychological issues later in life, but it must be clearly stated that this is not guaranteed to occur.

Attachment types have nothing to do with the supposed “sexual stage of development” a person was in at the time and any correct diagnosis is due to coincidence rather than empirical science. This approach would be considered inconsistent and it would be an approach to science that sounds more like mysticism.

Freud’s biggest impact was perhaps to leave us with the notion of the subconscious mind. Jung also was central in developing this idea that explains the nature of our psychology. Repression, defense mechanisms, and other types of behaviors we exhibit (that we don’t consciously acknowledge) due to our nature are shown to be aspects of all human’s psychology. Our minds and brains all work similarly due to the fact that we are evolved primates.

The psychosexual development of Freud is simply a set of ideas that have dubious empirical soundness and scientific predictive power.*

It can be very interesting to read his work, but one must not mistake ideas for observable, verifiable facts about the world.

To blunder in this way and confuse ideas for facts that have no grounding, in reality, is to disregard the scientific method (even though psychology struggles to establish itself in the sciences with the sort of robustness that the hard sciences have).

Theories that try to explain everything in reality with respect to psychology in overarching, nominalistic, idealistic and universal ways (that do not yield to empirical data and evidence) are patently unscientific.

It follows that Freud’s notion of psychosexual development can be thought of as a pseudoscience.

*The theory—psychosexual development—can still be falsified but it does not yield to new data. Same with astrology also considered another pseudoscience.

Just because something is falsifiable does not make it a science, at least according to Feyerabend, the philosopher of science that came after Popper.

Lakatos, another contemporary of Popper’s argued that individual hypotheses do not get falsified but entire research programs do. This is when a science becomes a pseudoscience.

Feyerabend would claim that this is not a useful distinction and he took an “anarchist” point of view with regards to the scientific method.

He argues that creationism and astrology can be shown to be a science as these theories can be falsified. Note: he did not think that creationism or astrology were sciences, he was just trying to make a point.


Adolf Grünbaum
American Philosophical Quarterly
Vol. 16, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 131-141


“Karl Popper: Philosophy of Science”
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Popper, Karl: Philosophy of Science

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