Fixing Psychology

A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Ecological and Social Psychology - Is it Holt or Nothing?!?

My initial article connecting Holt and Ecological Psychology (see discussion here) generated two comments. The comments covered many points, but the most consistent thread was that Ecological Psychology had studied social behavior and had not needed to turn to Holt to do so. The journal (Integrative Psychological and Behavioral Science, IPBS) invited me to respond. Taking the strongest tact I could, the title of the reply focused on the main bone of contention: "Ecological Psychology and Social Psychology: It is Holt,or Nothing!" (full text available here). While that might have been a bit extreme, seven years later I still believe that if it overstepped, it was not by much. The central problem is that Ecological Psychology is fundamentally a theory of perception, while Social Psychology is fundamentally about how congregations of things with minds are different than collections of things without minds; for Ecological Psychology to truly contribute to Social Psychology, the assertion must be made, at some level, that we can perceive the things that make the interactions of things with minds interesting... we must, at some level, be able to perceive minds. As I set up in the text:

Monday, May 22, 2017

Ecological and Social Psychology - Starting to look back

I have a paper coming out in the next issue of Ecological Psychology. It is an article written for the 50th anniversary of Gibson's The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems. The article lays out the foundation of Ecological Psychology, as I see it, the core insights of the field connected to Gibson's prescient insight regarding what an evolutionary theory of perception must look like. This logic was most well developed in the 1966 book, and because Gibson was not keen on repeating himself, those ideas were not drawn out to nearly the same extent in his later works. Finalizing that article has me thinking again about the relationship between ecological and social psychology.

A decade ago I started a dialog in Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science about the relationship between Ecological Psychology and Social Psychology. It started as my first formal foray into connecting the work of E. B. Holt and J. J. Gibson, and ended up with three articles written by myself, three official comments, and a several articles (both in IPBS and in other venues) that referenced the discussion. My first article was very broad, but the replies focused the exchange on the more radical possibilities of an ecological-social psychology. The start of it al, the lead in for the first paper, was Holt's marvelous metaphor between a coral reef and the peril's of psychological reductionism (especially "bead-theory" approaches to psychology):

Monday, May 1, 2017

Bead Theory and the Problem of Consciousness - Continued

Continuing to unravel the problem of contrasting consciousness and behavior discussed in the prior post, Holt (1915). The influence on people like J.J. Gibson and Skinner continues to be evident, in the search for functional relations. This also connects to my assertion that the goal of William James's later work - and hence Holt's work - was to try to layout the foundational conditions for a science of psychology:

An exact definition of behavior will reveal this. Let us go about this definition. Behavior is, firstly, a process of release. The energy with which plants and animals move ('behave')  is not derived from the stimulus, but is physiologically stored energy previously accumulated by processes of assimilation. The stimulus simply touches off this energy.
Secondly, behavior is not a function of the immediate stimulus. There are cases, it is true, in which behavior is a function, though even here not a very simple function, of the stimulus. These are cases of behavior in its lower stages of development, where it is just emerging from the direct reflex process. They demonstrate the continuity of evolution at this point—a most important fact. But as behavior evolves, any correlation between it and the stimuli which are immediately affecting the organism becomes increasingly remote, so that even in fairly simple cases it can no longer be demonstrated.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Bead Theory and the Problem of Consciousness - Highlights for Holt's writing

E.B. Holt 1915 book continues to be central to my scholarship. Appended to the book are two articles Holt had published the prior year, on "Response and Cognition." There is much overlap between the works, but in a few places I think the articles add significantly. One is in discussion of explanations that Holt disparagingly calls "Bead Theories", characterized by description of a series of events with no reference to the fact that a larger thing is happening. He begins by describing the how other sciences used to be in the same "unstable" state as psychology, and 100 years later, psychology seems to me not to have improved. Remember that a book published in 1915 must have been started quite a bit before Watson's Manifesto, and that this book was influential in the professional development of J.J. Gibson, B.F. Skinner, and J. Jastrow, along with most others who trained at Harvard in the teens or Princeton in the '30s. Indeed many core aspects of Gibson's Ecological Psychology, and Skinner's attempt to separate of "Psychological" questions from "Neurological" questions can be seen here decades earlier:

Before proceeding … we shall probably find useful an illustration from another science, which was once in the same unstable state of transition as psychology is now. In physics a theory of causation once prevailed, which tried to describe causal process in terms of successive ‘states,’ the ‘state’ of a body at one moment being the cause of its ‘state’ and position at the next. Thus the course of a falling body was described as a series of states (a, b, c, d, etc.), each one of which was the effect of the state preceding, and cause of the one next following. This may be designated as the ‘bead theory ' of causation. In asmuch, however, … [the states] gave no clue toward explaining the course or even the continuance of the process, an unobservable impetus (vis viva, Anstoss, ‘force') was postulated. This hidden impetus was said to be the ultimate secret of physical causation. But, alas, a secret! For it remained, just as the ‘consciousness’ of one's fellow-man remains today in psychology, utterly refractory to further investigation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The problem with alternatives to cognitive psychology

In the last post, I pointed out the problem with cognitive psychology: While often hopelessly ambiguous, it creates a practical and useful sense of solidity, making it easy to use for normal professional activities. But what about alternative approaches?

Alas, the situation is almost the complete opposite for most attempts to get “beyond cognitivism”: They are not, or at least do not seem, useful in the above sense. They are not flexible, in that they are picky about which theoretical constructs are plugged into a given hole; they are not utilitarian, in that it is often unclear how to implement a program of research based on the theories, even if you agree with them completely; and they are non-conformist, in that they involve rejecting the way lay westerners think of the world. Further (or perhaps as a result), though the terms used might be quite concrete, they provide a firm illusion of being hopelessly ambiguous. The combination of little flexibility, little usefulness, unintuitiveness and seeming ambiguity, make it difficult for aspiring psychologists to understand, and further, once the neophytes become convinced, it will be difficult for them to go about standard professional activities. (p. 195)

Monday, April 3, 2017

The Probelm with Cognitive Psychology

Martin Dege and I shared an office for a year at Clark University. He was a grad student studying cultural psychology, I a post doc studying parent-infant interaction from an evolutionary and ecological perspective. Our work was not very similar, but we got along well, including collaborating on a paper. It was, technically, a comment on a target article, but we did our best to make it stand alone. The focus was on explaining why "alternative approaches" to psychology - alternatives to the cognitive paradigm - struggled so much. To make this more clear, I started the paper with as blunt a statement as I could about the bar set by the current paradigm. Here are the first 2 paragraphs, with a link to full manuscript at the bottom:

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Radical Empiricism and treating experiences as they are

A few years ago, the "Kitchen Group" at Clark University (now based at Aalborg University in Denmark) put together a book on "Recursivity" in psychology, edited by Zach Beckstead (who recently got hired on at BYU Hawaii, congrats!). I contributed a chapter on William James's Radical Empiricism, including his confounding notion of "pure experience". In it, I illustrate how this "radical" approach to psychology is largely just a dog headed application and reapplication of first-principles reasoning (i.e., the logic just keeps being applied recursively onto the output of any analysis). I'm going to start putting bits of that paper here and expounding on them. Radical Empiricism is relevant to many issues discussed here as, in my read, James intended it to fill in the much-lamented gaps in his earlier work, and to serve as the NECESSSARY foundation for psychological science. That is, it is not a part of the science of psychology properly speaking, it is the thing that has to be true if psychology can be a science at all. That will probably become more clear in future chunks, but I it was this passage (invoked in another discussion) that brought the paper to mind. .  


........I will start with a quick episode, presented as a standard, first-person narrative. Next I will analyze the story from both a traditional perspective and a radical empiricist perspective. The traditional perspective will take dualism for granted, as well as the rightness or wrongness of any judgment about the world. The radical empiricist perspective will simply examine the experiences themselves.
The Episode
It is dark, but I slowly become able to make out a form. It is a man. I call out, but get no reply. I approach, and squint. It is not a man, it is statue, a very good statue, maybe wax. I thought I saw a man, but I was wrong, it was only a man in my mind, the statue is real. Wait, now my eyes are opening again. It was all a dream. There was never anything there at all.
Traditional Dualistic Translation
            This story is about a person doubly tricked. At first they think they are seeing a man, then that is replaced by thinking they are seeing a statue. In fact, there never was any such form anywhere. Everything that supposedly ‘happened’ was merely in their head. Mid-dream, they were correct in asserting there was no man, but wrong in asserting there was a statue. They are correct only at the end, when they judge both objects to have never existed.
Radical Empiricist Translation
This story is about a person’s transforming experiences. The form is experienced first as not having a clear shape, but then quickly comes to be distinguished as a man. Then the form is experienced as a statue. After the form is experienced as a statue, the original experience is re-experienced as wrong. After it is experienced as wrong, it is also experienced as having been mental. Then the person experiences all of those happenings as ‘mental’ and the room he finds himself in as real. More specifically, the prior things are re-experienced as having been ‘dreamt’ and as having been ‘mental’, whereas the current surroundings are experienced as physical.
Elaboration of Radical Empiricist Translation
There are crucial differences between the radical empiricist translation and the traditional translation that are easy to miss. To highlight but a few: 1) In the traditional translation, the original experience of the man is declared to have been purely mental. In the radical empiricist translation, it is emphasized that no such distinction originally existed – there was nothing about the original experience to suggest that it was ‘wrong’ or ‘mental.’ Those are aspects of new experiences, not the original experiences. 2) In the traditional translation, there is no thing being experienced. Part of what the dualist asserts by declaring something to be ‘mental’ is that it is ‘not real.’ Even were we to somehow force the dualist to accept the dreamt form as “a thing”, they would still insist that the experienced man was distinct from the experienced statue, i.e., that there was one some-thing originally and a different some-thing later. The radical empiricist, on the other hand accepts both the experienced form as a thing, and as the same thing despite the transformation. It is necessary to refer to the form as a stable thing, because a stable ‘sameness’ was part of the dreamer’s experience. 3) In the traditional translation, once everything is revealed to be a dream, this retroactively dictates our treatment of the original experiences as composed of ‘dream stuff’ (be it ideas, misfiring neurons, illusion, or some other substance). In the radical empiricist translation, we stay true to the obvious fact that such is a post hoc judgment. Unless the original experience was somehow ‘dreamy’ as, for example in the case of a lucid dream, it is a gross violation to treat the original experience as somehow having been of ‘dream stuff’. The last experience is of the previous experiences as dreams, i.e., the last experience only.
To focus on the final point: If we want to understand the difference between ‘dream’ and ‘real’ we need to look at the difference between the original experience (of the statue as ‘real statue’) and the last experience (of the statue as ‘dream statue’). Whatever is different between those two concrete experiences is the meaning of ‘dream’. It does no good to simply declare that the first experience was of ‘dream statue’; in fact, to do so completely undercuts our ability to investigate the phenomenon of interest.
The radical empiricist stays true to experiences in ways that the traditional approach does not. The original experience was not of a ‘real statue’ nor of a ‘dream statue,’ but merely of ‘statue.’ In this sense, the original experience was neutral with respect to that distinction (see Dewey, 1917). As we found in our multi-philosopher discussion above, we again find that all categories are post hoc, in that they are part of a later re-experience. However, and here is the recursion, those later re-experiences are also themselves experiences. Thus, the re-experience must be subjected to the same analysis as the original experience. The categories revealed in our re-experience are themselves first-order members of the particular experience in which they are found. No amount of compounding experiences can escape this. It is not that we are getting nowhere with our thinking, re-thinking, or meta-thinking, it is only that wherever we get, we are still within the realm of pure experience.