Decision Making: Outcome or Process? Reason or Emotion?

Lecture 16.  October 14 and 20.

Afterthoughts.  In examining the moral question, we looked at two kinds of moral theories, Bentham’s consequentialist utilitarian theory and Kant’s deontological moral duty theory.  Note that the first evaluates the moral rightness of a decision by its outcome, whereas the latter evaluates moral rightness of a decision by the reasoning that led to the decision, no matter what the outcome.  Despite their differences, Bentham’s and Kant’s theories were (and are) part of the Enlightenment Project’s goal of grounding human life in reason, rather than in tradition or revelation (recall what Voltaire said about the aristocrat and the priest).  Bentham and Kant disagreed about what constituted proper moral decision making –a felicific calculus of pleasure and pain vs. formulating universally commanding categorical imperatives — but they agreed that genuinely moral actions must be grounded in reason.  Kant was especially clear that seemingly moral actions that flowed unreflectively out of a person’s character or animal instincts were not really moral at all, since no thought lay behind them.  

On the other hand, the leading Counter-Enlightenment thinker, Herder, argued that moral decisions were rooted in emotion, and the Scottish Commonsense philosophers held that moral intuitions were just that — immediate intuitions of right and wrong produced by a God-given moral sense and felt by us as sentiments of approval or disapproval.  Note that these emotion-based theories of moral action cross in a kind of 2 x 2 design with the concerns of Bentham and Kant.  It might be that our feelings of right and wrong have to do with happiness (a la Bentham) or might result from some larger moral concern for justice (a la Kant).

Forethoughts.  This yields quite a stew of ideas about how people make moral decisions for later psychologists to wrestle with.  The problem will become much more complex when the notion of unconscious mental processes gains favor in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   Let’s take Bentham’s theory as an example.  

Obviously, if someone sits down and weighs the happiness pros and cons of a decision, he or she is adhering to Bentham’s utilitarian precepts.  Charles Darwin, for example, will do this about marriage, not with regard to marrying a specific person, but with regard to whether or not to get married at at all.  Another person might decide to marry without giving the matter any conscious thought.  Is he or she being utilitarian?  On the surface, no, because the decision is reached without conscious consideration, and thus nonrationally.  But on the other hand, the person may have carried out the utilitarian calculus unconsciously, being conscious only of the outcome of the felicific calculus, not its process.  If the latter is the case, determining if the calculation was made, and the decision was, therefore, a rational one may be difficult.  We can see only the outcome, not the process.  Moreover, introducing the unconscious throws new light on the morality-as-thinking vs. morality-as-feeling argument.  It might be that seemingly irrational, emotionally-driven, actions are really rational after all, because the experienced feeling was the outcome of a non-conscious, but rational, calculating process.

These questions are extremely important today.  Recall Condorcet — the day will come when people will live only according to reason.  This was meant as a statement of liberation from blind tradition and ignorant faith, but it lays down a Kantian imperative: Everyone must live only according to reason, just as in former times they had to live according to tradition and God’s law.  Suppose, however, that people routinely make decisions that are not according to reason either consciously or unconsciously.  It’s not hard to set up experiments that put people in situations such as the Ultimatum Game ( requiring a moral decision, and seeing if the outcome of the decision is in accord with normative theory.  If it’s not, then the decider must be either irrational (there’s no calculation going on, consciously or unconsciously) or incompetent (the calculations are attempted, but the obtained answer is wrong).  

Then, what if research along these lines consistently demonstrates that the vast majority of people make such “irrational” decisions all the time?  It would then appear that if people are supposed to live according to reason, they are incapable of doing so on their own, and others will have to do their thinking for them.  For example, in his book What’s the matter with Kansas, pundit Thomas Frank argues that many voters (Kansas is just an example) have been misled into voting against their own self-interest, i.e., irrationally, but appeals to emotionally charged cultural issues such as abortion, gay marriage, religion, and guns.  The psychologist Keith Stanovich, in The robot’s rebellion, concludes from research on thinking and decision making that most people are not rational, and calls for a great project of cognitive reform.  Like Kant, Stanovich believes that values, not just instrumental means-ends calculations must be chosen by reason.

A practical example of this approach can be found in the claim of some economists who think the recent sell-offs on Wall Street have been produced by a non-rational cognitive shortcut called the availability heuristic (see

An example of a moral conundrum that has been extensively researched is the Trolley Problem (  We will return to it later, because bringing evolution into the decision-making picture will complicate things still further.


Universal and Particular: Implications for Social Science

Lecture 15.  October 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  Essential to the Enlightenment Project was (is) the universal claim of reason found in Condorcet’s Sketch, in which he looks forward to the day when all men everywhere will be governed only by their own reason, when particular religions and cultures will have given way to a universal, rational, way of life.  Thinkers of the Counter-Enlightenment, such as Herder, on the other hand, defend the particularities of culture and language against the universal empire of reason.

While it looks like this is fundamentally a disagreement about values and human nature, it has important implications for conceiving of psychology and the other social sciences as sciences.  The possibility and practice of natural science rests upon the idea that the laws of nature are universally the same everywhere and everywhen, as in Newton’s law of universal gravity: This is the View from Nowhere I discussed in our first week.  If the Enlightenment’s claim of universal reason is correct, then psychology and the other social sciences can be sciences in the same sense as physics.

Consider one path to such a conception of psychology as science, the one taken today by mainstream cognitive science, the symbol system concept of mind.  If people are to be universally governed by reason, then one has to have an idea about what reason is.  We have met one candidate for defining reason, in the Classical period with Plato and the Stoics.  Plato modeled rationality on geometry, and the Stoics developed the idea of mind as logic (logos) in their propositional calculus.  Key to both views is separating reason as a universal process from the particular things reasoned about.  The Pythagorean theorem is not about any particular triangle with a specific shape or size.  The logical argument

  1. If p, then q;
  2. q is true;
  3. therefore q is true 

is a valid argument no matter what particular propositions we plug into p and q.  Reason is thus truly universal: The same logico-mathematical rules govern thought regardless what cultural or era specific content is thought about.  

Psychology can, then, be the universal science of the mind-as-reason just as physics is the universal science of nature as matter-in-motion.  Cognitive science marries the Classical view of mind as rational calculus with the Scientific Revolution’s idea of the world as a machine.  People think with evolved meat-machine brains, and computers think with artificial silicon brains, and cognitive science is about the logical programs that control both of them.  While people in different cultures think about different topics, and may even have different values, the course of their thinking is determined by the universal laws of reason, and psychology is the science of those laws.  Associationist conceptions of the mind dispense with logic, but share the notion that the rules governing the mind — Hume’s “gravity of the mind” of association — are the same everywhere and in all people, indeed in all animals.  

Counter-Enlightenment thinkers, on the other hand, defended the particularities of culture and language.  Herder, for example, thought that because different languages had different grammars and concepts, that speakers of different languages would think in different ways.  Against the philosophes, who thought that human nature was everywhere and in every period much the same, Herder insisted that the peoples of different cultures and epochs could vary tremendously in how they thought and acted.  With regard to ethics, Herder rejected Kant’s proposal that moral decisions were based on reasoning from abstract moral premises, arguing that moral decisions derived more from feeling than from reason.

Herder’s viewpoint throws cold water on the ambition of psychology, or any of the so-called social sciences to be universal sciences along the lines of physics.  If reasoning varies from culture to culture and from era to era, and if morality is rooted in sentiment more than reason, then there may be no universal laws of human behavior, or they may be so few (e.g., all people get hungry) as to be scientifically uninteresting.  Or, perhaps, there are laws of human thought and action, but they are different in different cultures, and are not universal like the law of gravity. 

Forethoughts.  The various social sciences will begin to emerge in the nineteenth century, and this battle between the universal and the particular will shape debates about their proper methods and goals.  On the one side will be the universalists, primarily British and French, who will maintain the Unity of Science: All sciences, whether of the physical or human worlds, aim at universal law use the same methods, and should develop the same sorts of theories.  On the other side will be particularists, primarily German, who will say that human and natural sciences are radically different in method, theory, and ultimate ambitions.  Unlike the natural sciences, which predict and control nature, the human sciences interpret human thought and behavior within its meaning-giving cultural context.

Variations on the Cartesian Paradigm: Dualism and its Place in Science

Lecture 14.  October 7 and 13.

Afterthoughts.  The second aspect of the Cartesian Paradigm to which I want to draw special attention is its substantial dualism, the claim that body and mind (or soul) are separate things: res extensa and res cogitans.  Dualism as such, of course, is not new.  The Bronze Age Greeks were dualists to a degree, Pythagoras, Plato, and the Neoplatonists were dualists.  Aristotle was a dualist, but not a substantial dualist, because he did not say that soul was a thing.

What made Descartes’ dualism different from these earlier substantial dualism lies less in his conception of the soul, than in his conception of matter.  The Scientific Revolution was developing a powerful, detailed, and new conception of the material world as a machine, and thus Descartes proposed that animal and human bodies are likewise machines.   Human beings, then, must be seen as machines inhabited by souls that interact with them, raising the problems of interaction noted in the Lecture 12 post.

What emerge in the eighteenth century are alternatives to Cartesian dualism, along with alternatives to his conception of consciousness (Lecture 13 post).  There are 3; in each, one aspect of Descartes’ own dualism is rejected as an illusion.  The first to emerge is psychophysical parallelism, which we discussed in class in connection with Leibniz.  Parallelism retains the separation of mind and body (it’s a dualism), but says that the apparent interaction between them is an illusion: Mind and body are synchronized, like 2 synchronized swimmers, but, like the swimmers, they are not causally connected.

The other two alternatives are monisms, which means that they say only one thing exists, the mind or the body, but not both.  One form of monism is idealism, which we find in different forms in Berkeley and Kant. In ontological idealism, the material world does not exist — though there are many, many variations on idealism.  They will not concern us much, because the more influential form of monism in psychology, especially American psychology, and in contemporary thought more broadly, is materialism.  We have met materialism in Hobbes, La Mettrie, and in the French naturalists of the Enlightenment Project.  Materialists hold (like the atomists) that only matter and space exist in reality, that there is no soul, and that therefore the mind (and the appearance of mind-body interaction) is some sort of an illusion.

Forethoughts.  Together with the problems regarding the privacy of consciousness and the accuracy of introspection, Cartesian materialism helped push psychology towards behaviorism.  Parallelism, which was quite popular among psychologists of the founding generation, says that while mind exists, it does not do anything.  Materialism says that mind is an illusion.  Thus to define psychology as the study of the mind — and remember, in the Cartesian version mind = consciousness — is to define it as the science of something pointless or as the science of nothing at all.  As we will see, evolution adds a new aspect to the problem of mind and consciousness — is it adaptive?  The Cartesian paradigm concerning mind and consciousness, already present as psychology’s working framework, is pre-set to answer, “No, it’s not.”

Variations on the Cartesian Paradigm: Consciousness and its Place in Science

Lecture 13.  October 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  In the last post, I discussed two aspects of the Cartesian Paradigm that will cause problems for doing psychology as a science within it.  In this one, I will elaborate on one of them, the Cartesian conception of consciousness as developed by thinkers we are just taking up, the Scottish Realists and Kantian Critical Idealism.  All three variations on the Cartesian theme, Descartes’, Reid’s, and Kant’s pose serious challenges for psyche-logos as a science.

The Cartesian challenge we considered in the last post.  If consciousness is private, then studying it is much more problematic than studying the physical world.  

Realism poses a different challenge.  If there is no private realm of ideas, then the subject matter of psyche-logos would seem not to exist.  There is the external physical world, there are organisms, including people, who respond to and act on the physical world, but there is no inner world of ideas to study, and introspection is an illusion.  Moreover, if there is no world of ideas, questions such as Hume’s about the principles that govern the world of ideas are moot.  If there is no mind, there is no “gravity of the mind” to theorize about.

Kantian idealism, as we’ve seen, straightforwardly concludes that psychology, defined as the study of consciousness, cannot be a science.  While idealism admits that ideas exist and therefore might be introspected, such study cannot rise to the status of science.  The ideas populating consciousness are the end product of cognitive processes that cannot be subjected to scientific scrutiny.  In addition, because ideas are produced by the processes of the Transcendental Ego, there will be no “gravity of the mind” acting on ideas, as Hume proposed.  On this view, introspective descriptions of consciousness are more like butterfly collecting or bird-watching than science.  One can describe particular butterflies, birds, or conscious sensations, but that is all.  Explaining experience requires penetration of the Transcendental Ego, which, on Kant’s view, can’t be done.

Forethoughts.  Each of these three variations on the Cartesian Paradigm leads inevitably to redefiningscientific psychology (it will be important to remember that qualification) as the study of behavior.  Descartes’ own position will lead to methodological behaviorism.  Methodological behaviorism says, with Descartes, that consciousness exists and is private.  But, it then argues, because consciousness is private, it is not a fit subject for scientific investigation.  Any science that concerns itself with people must study what’s public, i.e., human behavior, not what’s private, human consciousness.  Kant himself reached a similar conclusion, as we have seen, endorsing his anthropology as a behavioral science of human beings.  Realism will lead to B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism.  If there are no ideas, only the world and organisms’ responses to and actions on, the world, then psychology becomes the study of the relationship between the the environment and the behaving organism.  Mental events drop out of the picture.

The Cartesian Paradigm

Lecture 12.  October 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  I talked about a Cartesian Paradigm, or Framework, that would guide scientific psychology for much of the twentieth century.  Here I want to amplify two aspects of the paradigm that will be especially important and trouble-making as we move through the rest of the course.

The first aspect is Descartes’ consideration of the mind-body problem and his particular solution to it, interactive dualism.  Most people share an intuition that there is something unique about people that sets us off from things and from the other animals, and we have seen how the Greek philosophers articulated this intuition in different ways.  However, Cartesian dualism is different from Greek dualisms, especially Aristotle’s, in important ways, and I want to stress here how Descartes’ situation is different from Aristotle’s (or all premodern thinkers) not so much because of his conception of mind or soul, but because of the new conception of matter as machine ushered in by the Scientific Revolution.

The key distinction for Descartes is between the soul and the machine-body, but for Aristotle (and the Bronze Age Greeks, too) the key distinction to be drawn was between the living and the nonliving.  For Aristotle, soul was the presence of life, in plants, animals, and humans alike.  The soul was not a thing apart from the living body, but defined the essence of each kind of creature, animated it, and gave it purpose: Soul was form, body was matter.  Soul was life-process, and what distinguished each grade of soul were the processes unique to it: animals had sensation and movement, to which humans added the ability to formulate universal truths.

Descartes, however, had to jettison the idea that plants and animals had souls, because in Christian thought only humans have souls, and he came to regard all physical things, including plant, animal, and human bodies, as machines whose various movements could be explained in the same mechanical terms as the movements of a clock or of the new Newtonian clock-universe.  For Aristotle on the one side there was unformed, unanimated matter and on the other was defining, change-giving form, or soul; for Descartes, on one side were machines, capable of motions of their own, having mechanical causes, and on the other was disembodied nonphysical soul.  Animal behavior had mechanical causes, as seemed clear from Vaucanson’s Duck and other clever automata.  Most importantly, animals had internal cognitive-mechanical processes too, responsible for sensation, awareness, imagination, memory, and learning, things traditionally associated with soul.  But for Descartes, these were no longer life-processes of the soul, as for Aristotle, but mechanical processes of the presumed reflexive gears, springs, and wheels of the nervous system and brain.  Soul was limited to one arena, consciousness, and found in only kind of creature, human beings.

The second critical aspect of the Cartesian Paradigm was the creation of the private realm of consciousness that flowed from the new scientific withdrawal of soul from the material world.  Ideas existed in consciousness only (and animals did not and could not) have them.  Because there seemed to be a New World of consciousness, it invited exploration and study with a special tool for making the voyage, introspection.  Thus was created the idea of a science devoted to consciousness, psyche-logos, the science of the soul.

Forethoughts.  We will soon see the problems raised by this new definition of human science; indeed, we have already met one in Princess Elizabeth’s observations about the difficulties of claiming that a machine can act on spirit and spirit on a machine, the problem of interaction.  What I want to point out here is a more basic problem for psychology defined according to the Cartesian framework: It makes doing psychology as a science nearly impossible, especially as science, especially physiology advances, and as the enterprise of science itself becomes more precisely formed in the nineteenth century.  

So little is left to soul in the Cartesian view that it will become tempting to simply eliminate the concept altogether and say that men are machines as are all animals, albeit more complicated ones.  If one takes this step, then since there is no psyche there can be no psyche-logos anymore then there can be Zeus-logos.  

On the other hand, if one retains the idea of consciousness, other problems arise.  If consciousness is real, but does not interact with body (the view of psycho-physical parallelism we’ll soon meet), then one can have a disciplined study of consciousness, but its point becomes unclear, especially when science is linked to application.  If consciousness exists but does not do anything, its study can have little, if any, practical pay-off.  In addition, introspection is necessarily a private exploration of one person’s consciousness, and even if it’s done in a lab with the best intentions and the tightest methodological controls, the resulting data are tainted with subjectivity, including the possibility of individual differences, the powers of suggestion and expectation, and the difficulties of verifying the accuracy of introspective reports.  While disputes of course arise in any science over the validity of data, the data of introspection will seem especially dodgy, and the enterprise of psyche-logos, while logically possible, will seem to many not to be worth the effort.

Note that these problems would not have arisen for an Aristotelean psyche-logos, because in Aristotle there is no private world of non-physical ideas populating a non-physical soul.  There is, of course, experience in Aristotle’s psychology, but experience is the process of sensation and perception; it is not the collective set of ideas present at some moment in consciousness.  There are no ideas needing description and reduction to lawful order.

That is why my last slide on Descartes said that while he invited the creation of psyche-logos, he made its practice impossible, even paradoxical.

Science as an Institution

Lecture 11.  September 25 and October 1.

Afterthoughts.  The question that we considered in today’s lecture — the “civilizational question” of why the Scientific Revolution took place only in Europe — is part of a larger picture concerned with seeing science as an institution.  When we think of science and scientists we tend to think of laboratories and researchers, but, as Weber observed in “Science as a vocation,” science is something much larger, a social institution composed not just of scientists, professional societies, and universities, but as a way of thinking with implications far outside the bounds of scientific investigation as such.

In this lecture, we looked at the the birth of science as an institution, and learned that it could not have been created without a variegated set of pre-existing values, practices, ideas, concepts, and institutions, many of which, such as corporations, had little or nothing to do with science to begin with.  The story exemplified the New History of Science I discussed in the first week of class.  

  • We saw that the spirit of certain times and places made the invention of science likely or unlikely.
  • We saw that the invention of science was not a thought out plan, but represented the coming together of numerous social, economic, and philosophical developments that coalesced in a remarkably creative way — almost a miracle and certainly unforeseeable.
  • We saw that the Scientific Revolution was not an inevitable step leading to modernity, but depended critically upon contingent historical processes that could have come out differently.
  • We saw that understanding the origin and course of the Scientific Revolution requires looking outside the technical problems addressed by early modern scientists such as Galileo and Newton to external factors such as Christianity’s recognition of the power of reason to at least partly grasp truth unaided by revelation.

The important lesson is that science is not, as scientists themselves sometimes seem to think, a uniquely rational enterprise that is (or, perhaps, ought to be) radically independent from everything else, but is an institution whose existence is interwoven with a network of other institutions which gave it life and continue to sustain it.

Forethoughts.  And as Weber observed, once science becomes part of this network of institutions, it begins to affect them.  In coming lectures we will look at psychology in light of these two insights.  We will see how the origin and nature of different psychologies were conditioned by the social institutions in which they originated.  For example, the psychology of consciousness was born in the (then) uniquely German new model universities that embodied a  certain values, such as pure research undertaken for its own sake, while in Britain and America the psychology of adaptation had no firm, yet defining, home, and developed in an atmosphere pervaded by different values, in which practical application of science was taken for granted.  We will then see (especially in the case of psychoanalysis) how psychological concepts were not only shaped by, but began powerfully to shape, peoples’ understanding of themselves in their innermost being and in their relation to others and to society.

Psychology Disenchants the Human World

Lecture 10.  September 23 and 29.


Hence, it means that principally there are no mysterious incalculable forces that come into play, but rather that one can, in principle, master all things by calculation. This means that the world is disenchanted [de-magified]. One need no longer have recourse to magical means in order to master or implore the spirits, as did the savage, for whom such mysterious powers existed. Technical means and calculations perform the service. This above all is what intellectualization means. This process of disenchantment, which has continued to exist in Occidental culture for millennia, and, in general, this ‘progress,’ to which science belongs as a link and motive force.

Max Weber, “Science as a Vocation” (1918)


Weber was one of the most important social thinkers of the twentieth century.  He was very concerned about the effects of the application of reason to all spheres of life, an application resulting in what he elsewhere called the “iron cage” of reason and bureaucracy.  The talk I just quoted was given by Weber to German college students in 1918.  Members of his audience felt especially disenchanted just then.  What had started for them as a romantic, noble, cause — World War 1 — had ended in European horror and German defeat.  Their newly unified (1871) empire had been replaced by what seemed to many a bland, bourgeois, unexciting, unambitious democracy, known now to history as the Weimar Republic.

Weber was addressing an important theme in the history of science, the creation of a new social role, that of scientist, and what might and should be expected of scientists and their new institution, science.  Organized science is the epitome of the application of reason, and the Scientific Revolution had created a triumphant picture of the world as a machine knowable by reason, whose movements could be precisely calculated and technically controlled.  The problem for many people, including especially, as he notes several times, the youth in Weber’s audience, was that science was invading human relations, too, reducing them to rational calculation and technical adjustment.  They deeply resented this, and Weber discussed what science can and cannot offer as a replacement for religion, feeling, and mystery — enchantment — in living a flourishing life.  The answer was, very little.

The profound questions raised by Weber are of great importance for the history of psychology as an institution, because psychology (especially in the United States) is the central science through which the discipline of reason and technocracy have been brought to bear on everyday life.  Your life has been sorted by numbers from the Apgar test applied when you were but seconds old, to the SAT test you took in high school, to usage data collected from your most recent Google search, and conclusions about your behavior and life’s prospects calculated by equations.  Priests used to offer guidance on negotiating life’s vicissitudes, now scientifically-trained psychologists do.  This is Weber’s iron cage.

Forethoughts.  Science will make its move from the heavens to the earth, from the planets to people, during the 18th century and the Enlightenment Project of the philosophes, the topics of the next 2 lectures.  All will question, some will reject, and a few will seek to erase, what they see as the irrational institutions that had controlled Europe up to then, unreflective aristocratic tradition and revelatory religion. 

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