Psychology Disenchants the Human World

Lecture 10.  September 23 and 29.

Afterthoughts.  

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  Their newly unified (1871) empire had been replaced by what seemed to many a bland, bourgeois, unexciting, unambitious democracy, known now to history as the Weimar Republic.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. 

Published in: on October 6, 2008 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Relevance of Stoicism

Lecture 9.  September 18 and 24.

Afterthoughts.  In class, I put up a new slide about why the Greeks still mattered, which cited the al Qaeda training manual’s rejection of Socratic logic and Platonic ideals.  I’ve just started reading Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, by Nancy Sherman (Oxford University Press, 2005).  She begins this way:

In a remarkably prescient moment, James B. Stockdale, then a senior Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam, muttered to himself on September 9, 1965, as he parachuted into enemy hands, “Five years down there at least.  I’m leaving behind the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus….”  Stoic philosophy resonated with Stockdale’s temperament and profession and he committed many of Epictetus’s pithy remarks to memory.  [They] would hold the key to his survival for seven and a half years … as a prisoner of war. … [and] they would form the backbone of his leadership style as the senior officer in the POW chain of command.” 

Sherman taught ethics at the United States Naval Academy for several years in the 1990s, and she assigned as reading the Enchiridion, or handbook, of the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus (55-135 BCE).  Stockdale was obviously not her student, but she found that for today’s soldiers in training Epictetus remains as resonant with their character and calling as Stockdale did (recall the Euphronius Krater, and think of Stockdale as Sarpedon).

Forethoughts.  Will the paths to arete, eudaemonia, and ataraxia offered by contemporary psychology be as resonant for anyone two millennia from now as Homer’s, Socrates’, or Epictetus’ are with USNA graduates today?

Published in: on September 29, 2008 at 5:24 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Psyche and Purpose

Lecture 8.  September 16 and 22.

Afterthoughts.  Aristotle is important for us in his treatment of two of the things we take for granted in psychology.  The first is the existence of a psyche, or soul, as discussed in class and in earlier posts; the second is purpose.  I remarked that positing the existence of a soul-thing would create problems for psychology, because how soul as a non-material entity interacts with the body as a material entity will prove deeply puzzling.  Aristotle’s analysis of the soul-body relationship offers a way out.  He agrees with intuition and Plato that we need to distinguish soul and body, but disagrees that we need therefore to separate soul and body.  

Plato’s postulation of transcendental Forms existing apart from their earthly copies is called the doctrine of “the separability of the Forms,” and we learned in class that Aristotle rejected it, and replaced it with his form (note the lower case) vs. matter distinction, in which form is defined as what individuates an object — defines what it is — rather than as a thing separate from matter.  Thus according to Aristotle, but not Plato, form cannot exist without embodiment.  Applied to psychology, the soul is the form of the body, and cannot exist without a body.  Moreover, his discussion of the types of soul indicates that he defines soul as biological processes, not immaterial things; for example the animal soul consists in sensation and movement.  It is important to observe that Aristotle does not say the soul carries out these functions, because that would lead to dualism.  Instead, the soul is these functions in a living body.  When life ceases, the functions, and the soul, cease, too.  

In certain respects Aristotle’s theory of the soul-body relation is similar to that of modern information-processing psychology, which says that the human mind is a set of computational functions carried out by the brain similar to the way a computer program is a set of computational functions running in a computer (mind is to body as program is to computer).  Indeed, on this “functionalist” theory of mind and body, it’s logically possible to figure out what program code constitutes your personality and then load the code into a computer, which would then be mentally identical to you (see this famous paper, “Where am I?” by philosopher Daniel Dennett: http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/psych100f/dennett/dennettframe.htm .)  In fact, some folks in AI hope to achieve immortality that way (http://inventorspot.com/articles/transhumanists_upload_brains_pur_7564).  For a criticism of the idea that Aristotle was a functionalist, see http://www.yorku.ca/christo/papers/Aristotle-functionalist.htm ).

The other taken-for-granted concept, purpose, is closely linked to soul.  In saying that the soul is the form of the body, Aristotle says that soul is the final cause of the body, both the purpose for which living bodies exist (the proper end of living tissue is to perform the functions of the soul) and the giver of purposes to the body (the soul is, as it were, the body’s CEO).  As I said in class, the history of science, however, is marked by the erasure of purpose from nature, including living things and human beings.  Although Aristotle was committed to purposive explanation in all the sciences (even physics), by making purpose a concept for conscious reflection, he began its downfall.  Only when something is remarked upon can it become a topic of conversation and argument.  Aristotle began the conversation about purpose.

Forethoughts.  Christianity’s commitment to dualism meant that Aristotle’s functional definition of the soul would not catch on in European thought, even when Aristotle’s philosophy and science were assimilated into the university curricula of the high Middle Ages.  However, his treatment of the workings of the soul were accepted, but an attempt was made to see them as workings of the immortal divine soul of Plato and Christian religion.  This will soon lead, as we shall see, to two related problems.  The first is called by philosophers the homunculus [“little man”] problem.  Because the soul is the essence of who you are, it is tempting to think of the soul as a mini-you living in your head, giving the body orders.  But who is in the head of the mini-you?  a mini-mini-you?  with a mini-mini-mini-you inside, and so on absurdly ad infinitum?  A further difficulty arises when theologians and medieval natural philosophers had to identify the Christian soul with Aristotle’s rational soul (more technically, with Aristotle’s passive mind, or agent intellect, but that is not important here).  Memory is important to your personal identity; without it you would literally not know who you are.  But because memory is part of the animal sensitive soul, Christian doctrine has to exclude it from immortality.  It then follows that if only your rational soul is immortal, then you cannot have personal immortality, only immortality as pure thought without sensation, movement, or memory of your life on earth.  These issues will loom large for Descartes, arguably the most influential philosopher-psychologist of all.

Published in: on September 22, 2008 at 4:20 pm  Leave a Comment  

Expertise

Lecture 7.  September 11 and 17.

Afterthoughts.  In Plato’s Socratic dialogues a repeating theme is expertise, especially when the issue at hand is how a state (polis) should be governed.  In motivating his idea of rule by Guardians, Plato has Socrates ask his students whom they would consult for wisdom about health (physicians) or cookery (chefs), and then suggests that just as there are experts in health and cookery, there must be experts in government.  And, just as we follow the wisdom of physicians and chefs, we should follow — be governed by — the wisdom of the Guardians he so fully describes in the Republic.

For now, let’s put aside the question of whether or not there can be expertise in governing and look at the notion of expertise itself, because Socrates and Plato raise an important question about expertise and rational decision making more generally.  Obviously, one way to define expertise and to determine who is an expert is to look at the outcomes of a person’s decisions and actions.  An expert doctor is one who consistently makes the right diagnosis and comes up with the right treatment; an expert chef is one who consistently cooks good food.  But recall that Socrates and Plato (and Western thought in general) demand more, that intuition (right action) is not real expertise; the true expert must be able to reflect upon, and thus give a theoretical account of his or her decisions.  This argument suggests that the correctness, the rationality, of a decision lies not (or not entirely) in its outcome, but in the process of making the decision.

Let me give an example of how this separation of outcome (intuition) and process (theory) has influenced psychological studies of decision making in Socrates’ field of concern, moral decision making.  Perhaps the most influential psychologist of moral development in the 20th century was Lawrence Kohlberg.  He put to his participants a series of moral conundrums (like the trolley problem we discussed in class, though he did not use it in his research), and then asked them what they would do in such a case and to provide an explanation for their chosen action.  His procedure was very Socratic — elicit an intuition about what’s right and wrong in a specific case and then require that the decision be justified.

Based on his findings, Kohlberg claimed that children and adolescents progress through a series of stages of increasingly adequate moral judgment.  Kohlberg’s proposal was based on many considerations (such as being influenced by Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development), but what’s most important for us now is that he defined his stages not with regard to the moral choice made but with regard to the process by which it was made.  In Kohlberg’s account of morality, the developmental level of expertise of a decision-maker was determined not by the outcome of the decision but by an evaluation of how the decision was reached.  Viewed through the lens of the history of psychology, Kohlberg was following the path blazed by Socrates and Plato.

Forethoughts.  The tension between action and explanation is one that will haunt the rest of the course especially when we come to consider psychology’s influence on society.  Like most of us, Socrates thought that there is an explanation, or account, of an action that justifies it rationally.  Moreover, he implicitly assumed that this justification was also a causal explanation of why the action was taken, even if the actor was not aware of it.  If this is the case, then scientific psychologists could study how people make decisions, discover what the processes of good decision making are, and then distill them into methods and policies employable by the state.  Suppose, on the other hand, that good decision making is an intuitive process that cannot be turned into a rational theory stable as a series of propositions; for example, the best explanation of decision making might be neuroscientific, not rational, ones.  Are voters rational (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Myth_of_the_Rational_Voter)? Should politicians learn psychology, economics, or neuroscience (http://www.neuroeconomics.org/)?

Contemplation, Intuition, and Action

Lecture 6.  September 9 and 15.

Afterthoughts.  In some respects, the most important legacy of Socrates to Western thought and to psychology was his insistence on being able to explain one’s actions.  No matter how virtuous one’s behavior might be, one was not truly virtuous unless one could give an account of what virtue was.  Giving an account was theoria in Greek, which more precisely meant contemplation rather than doing.  The tension between contemplation/theory and action/productivity is an important one in understanding the ideas, values, and problems of the Western tradition of which we are a part, and will play an important role in the history of science and psychology as well.   This tension has many aspects, one of which begins to appear in the thought of Plato, which we took up later in the lecture.  

Recall that although Greeks posited the existence of a soul, or breath of life, few posited the existence of a soul that constituted one’s personal essence and that could and would continue to exist outside the body. Plato, however, in his Theory of the Forms posits not only the existence of an immortal, transcendent, personal soul, but also the existence of a transcendent world of Forms that is perfect, unchanging, and the true home of the soul — the Reality he points to in Raphael’s School of Athens.  His teacher’s theoria becomes contemplation of the Real world of the Forms, detached from the inferior world of Opinion about material things that are imperfect copies of the Forms.  Socrates wanted people to think about living well in the world in which we act, but Plato turns our concern to a world in which we do not live and in which we do not act (because we do not have bodies), the World of the Forms.  I said in earlier lectures that for the ancient Greeks virtue was arete earned by action, but that this concept of virtue would change into the Christian one of a state of being anyone might possess.  Plato makes a key move to the modern conception of virtue as a state of being (remember the tension between Being and Becoming), because virtue for Plato is contemplating and grasping the Form of the Good, which can be done by the soul alone without bodily action.  More flippantly, for Plato, “Soul good; Body bad,” a thought Socrates, and other non-dualist Greeks, could not have thought.

Forethoughts.  As I said, the contemplation – action tension will be an important theme of the course; for example, it’s one reason why experimentation comes so late to science.  In our next lecture, when we finish Plato, we will see some of its implications for politics and psychology.  

Contemplation of the Good, for Plato, is the ideal way to live, and in his Republic the ultimate rulers are philosopher-kings whose education is devoted to contemplating the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.  Action in the Greek sense — political action — is left to the Guardian’s inferiors and subordinates, the Auxiliaries, who protect and manage the Republic.  The mass of people belong to the most inferior class, the Productive Class, incapable of political action, and stuck with mere material production, as far from the Empyrean realm of the Forms as possible.

In Plato’s model of personality, the same trio of values and roles continues.  Personality is a chariot pulled by the Spirited Soul and the Desiring Soul under the direction of the Rational Soul.  The Rational Soul, observe, is pure contemplation — it knows (or should know) the Good  — but it is incapable of action or of production.  It somehow — and in that “somehow” is buried many of the puzzles of the psychologies of motivation, decision making, and even cognitive neuroscience — must command the body’s lesser souls to follow the path of virtue.  Can it?  Or is asking this question a fundamental mistake brought on by Plato and later Descartes, the mistake called by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, Descartes error?  If soul and body are one, then worrying about how they interact, and constructing theories about their interaction, are misbegotten projects from the get-go, and the get-go was long ago in a universe far far away, but remains ours nevertheless.

Published in: on September 17, 2008 at 5:53 pm  Leave a Comment  

Know thyself

Lecture 5.  September 4 and 10.

Afterthoughts.  “Know thyself” was an ancient Greek motto, attributed to many thinkers and oracles.  For psychology, it’s the most important Greek saying.  As touched on in earlier lectures, a key goal of this course is questioning those beliefs and practices we take most for granted — so much for granted that we don’t know they are there.  We have now met the Greeks who began this Western tradition, in metaphysics with the difference between Being and Becoming, in epistemology with the distinction between Appearance and Reality, and we have seen how these distinctions helped lead to the first theory in psychology, the representational theory of perception, which was meant not only to be an account of perception but a defense of empiricism, Emedocles’ Way of True Seeming.  We have also learned about the very tight connection between Greek democracy and the birth and maintenance of the critical tradition in philosophy and science.

A decisive turn has now been made by the Sophists, who brought Greek skepticism and self-inquiry into the social realm itself, questioning the connection between human nature (physis) — the object of psychology — and nomos — the structure of society.  The Sophists were the first Greeks to refuse to take social beliefs for granted, and to wonder what, if any, social arrangement is most conducive to human happiness, or eudaemonia, human flourishing, as the Greeks then understood happiness.  Their concerns broaden the scope of disciplined inquiry into the human mind to include social and motivational factors as well as cognitive ones.

Forethoughts.  Although Socrates will reject the Sophist’s separation of human physis and nomos (they claim that human nature can flourish in any society and he will not), he, more than anyone, inaugurates the Western tradition of reflexivity, of knowing — and, more important, being able to justify — one’s beliefs and actions.  In the next Lecture we will see how Socrates does this and the immense implications of his approach and assumptions on the project of self-knowledge and psychology, and how Plato tries to answer Socrates’ provocative questions.

Psyche and Psychology

Lecture 4.  September 2 and 8.

Afterthoughts.  The deepest problems of biology and psychology began with explaining the difference between the living and the non-living by positing the existence of an entity, the psyche, that inhabits the bodies of living creatures.  In biology, this line of thought led to vitalism, the idea that living tissue possesses a vital “spark of life” making it absolutely and decisively different from mere matter.  In psychology (note we still call our field after the breath of life), it leads to the problem of dualism.  It is clear that animals and people are material beings in some sense like rocks–drop me and a rock off of a tall building and we both break.  And it is also clear that animals and people are different — I move sense the world and respond to it, the rock does not.  The problem arises when we explain the difference by saying I (or an animal) possess a secret thing inside, a psyche,  responsible for my sensing and behavior.  If the psyche is a thing, rather than a process, we immediately want to know what it looks like, how it works, how it controls the body, whether it can exist without a body, and so on, and these questions become the subject matter of psyche-logos, the study of the soul.  But suppose that there is no such thing?  Can there be a science about nothing?

Forethoughts.  The problems posed by dualism will be important in understanding Plato and Aristotle. Plato will follow Pythagoras and accept the idea that the soul can exist without the body, that it ought to exist without the body, and, going past the Bronze Age definition of psyche as a breath of life, hold that the soul is the essence of each individual person, and that all, not just a few, are eternal.  This point of view will help give Plato’s philosophy its rather religious, otherworldly, and puritanical cast: The Good is not to be found in this life but in heaven (Plato’s upward hand in Raphael’s painting).  Aristotle, on the other hand, will to a large degree accept the Bronze Age collection of mini-souls, but will resist the notion that souls are things, preferring to see them as life-processes rather than as indwelling entities.  Moreover, Aristotle does not see the body as a dangerous tomb wherein the soul is stored between happy existences in heaven, but as the proper and necessary condition of living a full life (Aristotle’s downward gesture in The School of Athens).  Aristotle’s psychology could have avoided the problems that will plague dualism (and psychology) well into the twentieth century, but, as we will learn, dualism trumps naturalism in the history of psychology.

Human Nature in/and History

Lecture 3.  August 28 and September 3.

Afterthoughts.  Psychology is different from other sciences in a way that is often called reflexivity.  This idea is extremely important in this course, but can be hard to understand because the concept is difficult and the term is used in different ways in different contexts.  The idea of reflexivity appeared for the first time in this lecture, although I did not use the term.  I will introduce it here and continue to comment on it in future posts as the course unfolds.

Science studies nature; psychology studies human nature.  But when we study protons (for example), they do not study us back or study themselves, they do not read or hear or care about our theories concerning them, and they do not change over time.  But when psychology studies human nature, it’s studying itself (we study it and it studies us, as it were), people do learn and care about what we say about human nature, and humans have a history, opening up the possibility that human nature, unlike proton nature, has changed over time, in part because of what we have said about ourselves.  Note that I did not write “because of what we have learned about ourselves.”  “Learn about” is a success verb–it asserts that what we found out is true.  But science can make mistakes.  When we are wrong about protons, it does not change them.  But when psychology makes mistakes, the dissemination of its findings can change people, and thus what we find out later about them.  This is reflexivity: Psychology as a science holds up a mirror to human nature, as physics holds up a mirror to physical nature.  But, as I said before, the protons don’t look back, but people do; putting up a mirror on the sidewalk doesn’t change the behavior of the tree it reflects, but it certainly changes the behavior of people who see themselves in it.  Psychology as science seeks to describe human nature, but as a social institution cannot help but alter what people do and how they think about themselves.

Let me bring this back to the Lecture.  In slide 21 I wrote that the course of history is constrained by human nature.  In its first aspect, this looks like no more than a physicist saying that science and engineering are constrained by physical nature: We can’t do anything about the fact that F = M x A nor can we travel faster than light.  But in the case of human nature, things are more complicated.  In the first place, biological constraints are much less rigid than physical constraints.  A creature’s genes set a sort of leash on development past which development is impossible but within which much variation can occur.  Genetically identical twins, even when reared together, are similar but not absolutely identical.  Second, humans are, like all mammals, a learning species, capable of changing behavior in response to the challenges of the environment and, as a social species, are able to pass what we have learned as individuals on to others.

Finally, and uniquely, we reflect –there’s that word — on what we have learned, how we learned it, what it means, and how it fits into our lives.  This reflection is the key point.  It used to be thought that only humans made tools, but then chimps were found using and improving sticks to hunt ants.  It used to thought that that only humans had social traditions, but then monkeys were discovered who shared potato-washing skills and birds who shared how to pull tops off milk bottle skills.  But the chimps don’t ask “What’s a tool” or birds “What’s a skill?”

Much of our own use of technology is not too different from the chimp with the ant-hunting stick; we use our iPods and cell phones, but don’t think much about them.  The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once said (fans call it Clarke’s Law), that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.  Thus my daughter reported that her grandmother looked at her (our daughter’s) cell phone as if it were space alien technology.  This does not mean she can’t learn to use one, only that it’s magic, albeit useful magic.  She does not reflect on it.

So, in a sense, without psychology, we use our brain/minds as powerful and useful magics.  As I remarked later in the lecture, modernity and modernism are not the same thing; postmodernity and postmodernism are not the same thing.  The latter are reflections of and on the former.  A magician watching a magic act sees something very different from the ordinary person.  Psychology is a reflection of and on the human nature.  And just as modernism in turn changed human life — a city of Bauhaus factories and offices is different from one of cathedrals and palaces — psychology has in turned changed human nature.  Or has it?  That’s a big question for us to answer in the coming weeks.

Forethoughts.  Western thought is the most reflective tradition of human thought — ultimately, nothing has been taken for granted or gone unquestioned.  There’s even a resulting paranoid tendency in Western thought that reached a dead end in psychoanalysis and some forms of postmodernism.  As we will presently see, the reflexive/self-reflexive fount of Western philosophy, science, and psychology is to be found in the proudly autonomous, free, democracies of Greece.  When they began to separate human physis, human nature, from human nomos, human law, radical reflexivity began.  F = M x A is a law of nature; “Thou shalt not covet” is not a law of human nature, because people covet (slide 22, “The envious have inherited the earth”) but it acknowledges human nature, reflects on it, and tries to control it, the explicit goal of modernism and postmodernism.

History of Psychology: Rationality and Science

Lecture 2 (August 26 and 27).

Afterthoughts.  A key point in considering the special issues and controversies in history of science is science’s claim to be a uniquely rational enterprise. As we will learn, rationality — being able to give a coherent, logical, and understandable explanation of and justification for one’s beliefs and actions — is a critical idea in the history of the West.  Indeed, being rational defines one’s status as a free, adult, human being.  If a person is deemed irrational they may be confined in an institution, have someone else placed in charge of their affairs, or found not guilty of a crime.  The success of the scientific revolution led the leaders of the Enlightenment Project (which we will get to in a few weeks) to see science as providing solutions to problems of human living that had not been solved by politics, tradition, or religion.  In the same vein, in the twentieth century a very influential group of philosophers of science, the Logical Positivists, tried to distill the essence of scientific rationality into a set of methods that could be applied to any area of human endeavor, exerting a tremendous influence on psychology from the middle of the century onward.  (We won’t get to them in this class, but they can be found in the text).  The considerable public authority of psychology and psychologists today derives in large part from psychology’s claim to be a science.

Traditional (“Old History”) history of science tended to support science’s unique image by following the approaches I discussed in class.  However, the “New History” of science undermines science’s special status, by showing that change in science is often caused by factors outside scientists’ control and about which they often have little awareness: In short, scientists are not Vulcans, they are human beings, and the history of science is not separable from the rest of history.  In our first class, I talked about how a goal of this class is questioning assumptions we take for granted; the special status of science-as-rationality-embodied is one of them; I also said that this can be disturbing (Socrates was put to death for doing it). So, it is unsurprising that history of science is sometimes seen by scientists themselves as dangerous, and the teaching of history of science as akin to Socrates’ weakening of the moral values of the youth of Athens.  They fear that learning about history of science may be bad for the training of young scientists, that the history of science should be rated X (S. G. Brush (1974). Should the history of science be rated X? (Science, 183, 1164-72))  So you can tell people your history class is x-rated!.

An example of exoteric and esoteric reading of a modern work of art — Star Wars — can be found at http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2005/05/the_public_choi.html.  Darth Vader is the hero, not the villain in this Struassian reading.

Forethoughts.  In the next lectures I will be describing world history at the most abstract level.  The important points to pay attention to are how human nature (the subject matter of psychology) has been itself an important determiner of the course of human history, and then how psychology as a social institution has been shaped by — and shapes — by the broader processes of social and cultural change.

Evolution of Psychological Systems: What is science?

 

During its short formal history, psychology has proclaimed itself to be a science, though this claim has sometimes been disputed (as we’ll see) and what goes after the intro text definition “Psychology is the science of ….” has changed.  However, it’s rarely the case (outside Division 24 types) that psychologists tackle the question of what science is and how it works.  There’s a huge literature on this (it’s called philosophy of science), but as Thomas Kuhn observed about sciences in general, scientists consult this literature only during periods of doubt and crisis.  This literature is the focus of the first 2 weeks’ classes, though I try to tame it by focussing on one important question: What is scientific explanation? Thus we also will ask, can psychology give scientific explanations of the same type given in other sciences?  Should it?

Afterthoughts on class of August 21.  On our first day, I took up the question of scientific explanation, and covered the most traditional way of treating it, associated with positivism and logical positivism. The positivist movement is of great importance in philosophy of science, because it basically created the field.  Positivists saw science as a uniquely (in the strong sense) successful human institution, and strove to distill the essence of science into a content-free set of methods that could be applied to any topic whatsoever, from the movements of the planets to the question of god’s existence.  As it did so, positivism began to influence the practice of science, especially those sciences, such as psychology, that were uncertain of their status as sciences (we’ll get to this historical part later).

Positivists proposed a very precise definition of scientific explanation, the deductive-nomological model, that I covered in the first lecture.  Critical to the the D-N model are these ideas: laws of nature, explanation as deduction, and explanation as prediction.

Forethoughts.  In the next class, we will consider criticisms of the D-N model and alternatives to it, most importantly the causal approach and the semantic conception of theories.  One thing to do before class is to think about the term “model” as you have encountered it in psychology and the use of the term “model” in the economics paper I have asked you to read.  Of course, that paper’s authors are writing for fellow economists, so their definition is implicit (though, as we’ll see, closer to the formal meaning in philosophy of science) and thus hard to grasp.  But I hope the exercise in encountering a mysterious, even alien, scientific, culture, will help in achieving one of my major goals for the course: Seeing psychology from the outside.