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Friedman, L. (1972). Difficulties of a Computer Model of the Mind—A Critical Review of Emanuel Peterfreund's Book Information, Systems, and Psychoanalysis: An Evolutionary Biological Approach to Psychoanalytic Theory. Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 53:547-554.

(1972). International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 53:547-554

Difficulties of a Computer Model of the Mind—A Critical Review of Emanuel Peterfreund's Book Information, Systems, and Psychoanalysis: An Evolutionary Biological Approach to Psychoanalytic Theory Related Papers

Lawrence Friedman


Emanuel Peterfreund has suggested that psychoanalytic theory be replaced by an information-systems theory using the computer as a model, in order to connect psychology with the other sciences.

To account for resistance and therapeutic change in his new terms, Peterfreund uses a new learning theory which represents the mind's reactions as servants of homeostasis.

But I object that homeostasis is not a complete description of a goal. The goal must be adaptation of a specific organism or a specific psyche. And if the mind as a whole tries to maintain its own configuration, there is no reason why the dispositions that compose it should not be thought to do the same. Component reactions would not then be dispensable means to a general goal of homeostasis, but would seek also their own homeostasis and thus constitute motives of their own. But Peterfreund's learning theory explains only the learning of means and not motives. (He simply says that means may be considered as motives.)

Piaget offers the contrast of a theory in which each of the organism's component patterns seeks its own equilibrium. Whereas Peterfreund pictures the organism as trying out one rigid means after another to reach its general purpose, Piaget sees each means as a flexible attempt to attain a subordinate

goal. Consequently every 'means' is altered by its use and is not just accepted or rejected by the organism's over-all goal management. Piaget, in other words, provides a theory of goal learning.

In Piaget's theory every organismic activity has both an aspect of adapting itself to the environment, and an aspect of selecting out of the environment something that already fits its pattern. Peterfreund artificially separates these aspects of organismic reaction. On the one hand, adaptation to the environment becomes a very abstract goal attributed to the organism as a whole, which, in turn, is extremely flexible in striving for it. On the other hand, the organism's various programmes react rigidly and only to those elements of the environment that they are already prepared for.

The distinction between receptive, fixed programmes and active, flexible adaptation is an abstraction in the theorist's mind. It comes to look like a distinction between separate phases of an actual system only because of the ambiguity of the concept of information. Information sounds like something relevant enough to fit into a passive, preformed programme, and at the same time objective enough to be grounds for revision by the organism's adaptive centres. Because information is already relevant the right programme does not need to seek homeostasis. And because information is independent of programmes, the organism's homeostatic centres can, so to speak, use information as a basis to hire and fire programmes. But information cannot really have both qualities. One must finally decide whether information is a personally relevant organization of data or simply the way things are in the environment. Peterfreund chooses the latter definition. But that makes information practically the same as reality. And it therefore makes the programmes that process information equivalent to potential effects of reality. Equilibrium becomes a mere abstract reference to the organism's identity.

On its face, the information-systems alternative to psychoanalytic theory seems almost industrially concrete, but it turns out to be really a high abstraction of potential causes and potential effects. It is doubtful that so abstract and formal a theory can make a bridge between physics and behaviour.

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