What I said yesterday about psychoanalysis not being scientific needs a bit of revision, especially since it may have given the impression that psychoanalysis, for those who ‘believe in’ it, is some kind of religion. It probably is for some people; not too many I hope and certainly not for me.
Any real, bona fide, kosher scientist will tell you that scientific advance proceeds by speculation; the formation of theories, often far-fetched and certainly as creative as the ideas of poets or composers. He might — like Newton — wonder what, say, light actually is, and say to himself ‘Perhaps it’s a stream of very tiny particles, not themselves visible, that enter the eye.’ Now there’s no way that theory can directly be tested — the particles are invisible, and perhaps weightless too — so he thinks further — pushes his speculation into a corner — and says ‘Well if it is, then so-and-so ought to happen,’ and this is, with any luck, something that can indeed be tested, so he devises an experiment to see if he’s right. If he is, then he hasn’t ‘proved’ that light is indeed a stream of tiny particles, but he has — this is important — failed to disprove it. If he’s a conscientious scientist, he will try to devise further experiments, all designed to, if possible, disprove his idea. Finding he can’t, he hasn’t ‘confirmed’ his hypothesis, but what he has done is shown that we can, for the moment, carry on as if light is a stream of tiny particles, and, if it’s a good theory, find that it has explanatory value; that it enables us to understand various observable facts. At no point does it matter at all whether or not light ‘really is’ (whatever that means) a stream of tiny particles. (Perhaps there is no such thing, for light or anything else, as a ‘really is’, but that might look too much like a leap into a terrifying existential void.)
So if we look at it like that, psychoanalysis does after all have a reasonable claim to be scientific. It posits the existence of something quite unknowable called ‘The Unconscious’ and finds that if we carry on as if there really were such a thing, we can explain lots of things and, more to the point, reduce the sufferings of neurotic people.