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

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Pragmatism and Behaviorism: "Hypotheses"

Below is a quote from psychologist E. C. Tolman. It shows the clear influence of Pragmatist thinking on Radical Behaviorism. (Personally, I think it could be done better without reference to something "within the organism", but that is a minor point.)


(2) But let us turn, now, to a brief consideration of the second main subtype of cognitive behavior-readiness, what I called hypotheses; or intentions, expectations and attainments as to relations. Suppose a rat be run in a successive discrimination box. Such a box is an apparatus in which the animal has to choose one of two doors at each of four successive choice points. One of the two doors at each such point is lighted and one is dark. The lighted door may be either the one on the left or the one on the right in chance order. Thus at each such point the animal has the possibility of responding either on the basis of light-darkness or on that of right-leftness. Suppose, now further, that it be arranged by the experimenter that the correct choices shall in a day's series of 10 trials, or 40 choices in all, fall an equal number of times to the left and an equal number of times to the right, and suppose it also be arranged that the correct door be an equal number of times a dark door and an equal number of times a lighted door. Under these conditions it was found by Krechevsky, whose experiments it is I am reporting, that the rat will pick up one systematic way of behaving after another. In the first two or three days he may pick up, say, the propensity of choosing always the right hand doors. But then he will shift sooner or later to some new propensity, to that say, of choosing only the left hand doors; and then still later to that of choosing alternate right and left doors; or he may shift to choosing all the lighted doors, irrespective of side, or all the dark doors, or to choosing alternately light and dark; and so on. Each such systematic propensity will be adopted for a time and then dropped in favor of some other. And, following Krechevsky, we may now define each such intervening condition (or "I") in the organism, behind any one such systematic way of behaving, as an hypothesis. An hypothesis, behavioristically, in other words, is to be defined as nothing more nor less than a condition in the organism which, while it lasts, produces just such a systematic selectivity in behavior. Further, it appears that such an hypothesis or selectivity is equivalent to an intention or assertion of a specific relation as obtaining in the environment. In the above case these assertions are to the effect that it is such and such types of door which lead on and such and such other types which are closed. The rats assert-hypothesize-that it is the right hand doors, or the left hand doors, or alternate right and left doors or dark doors, or whatever, which, as such, lead on. And when any one such assertion proves incorrect, an animal sooner or later drops it for a new one.

In the experiment as thus far described, the problem given to the animals was actually insoluble. The correct doors were, that is, determined by chance. And no hypotheses--none of the systematic selectivities in the behaviors of the animals-could prove successful. This meant that during the entire duration of the experiment the rats kept shifting from one hypothesis to another. In other experiments, however, the situation was different. Thus in one case it was arranged that after a rat had once adopted some hypothesis with a given degree of consistency the experimenter then made that hypothesis correct. Under these conditions the animals persisted in their now correct hypothesis throughout the entire remainder of the investigation. Or, again in still another set-up, a certain hypothesis was made correct from the very beginning. In such a case the rats might begin with various wrong hypotheses. But they always ended sooner or later with the single correct one. So much for rats, let us turn now to human beings….

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Why it is important that we see the things we see

A little bit ago there was a nice post over on Gary William's blog about "Panpsychism vs. Inogranicism" - usually taken as two extremes at which either everything is said to have mental properties to some degree (panpsychism) or the existence of mental things is denied across the board (inorganicism). This grew out of a book review from a few months ago, in which Gary claimed the author endorsed panpsychism, for the slightly less extreme position of claiming at least some inorganic things should be considered to have mental properties. At any rate, the comments on the post got interesting, and I was posed a question that would take too long to answer in there... so I'll try to answer it here... The answer requires a bit of discussion about radical empiricism and realism, in particular regarding color perception. These are crucial issues for creating a psychological science with any chance of making sense. 

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Holiday Special - A Year of Scandals 2012

A bit delayed but... its that time of year again. Time to look back on the Year of Scandals in psychology. (Last year's edition of holiday joy can be found here, and here.) This past year has seen a number of problems with our field come to light. It has also seen a rise of public consciousness regarding these problems, and a host of suggested solutions. Much is still up in the air, but it does feel like we are moving in the right direction. In addition, there is growing consciousness of some wider problems in science and in academia.

What salacious stuff happened this year?

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Why am I suspicious of the Ecological Approach to touch (haptic perception)?

I have never done haptic research, but it is a rapidly emerging part of Eco-Psych these days. I have seen many talks at conferences, and overall I think the work is quite interesting. Touch is understudied in psychology, as a whole, and it is good that it is getting this increased attention. That said, I have been getting increasingly uncomfortable hearing these talks at Ecological Psychology conferences, because something often seems a bit off. Something seems, to me, to contradict fundamental tenants of the ecological approach. I have never been able to convince any of these researchers to even see the problem I see, nevertheless take it seriously. They don’t have any particular reason to cares what I think, and that’s alright. However, when preparing the previous post on one of the foundational papers in the discipline TSRM, 1981, I found a passage in which Turvey, Shaw, Reed, and Mace explain the problem (30 years ago). Most people in the field seem to care what those people think (and what they thought before), so maybe my concern will make more sense if I let them explain it.

In the following quote (TSRM, 1981, p. 242-243), they explain why it is absolutely crucial that vision be understood as reliant on optical information outside the organism….

-----Start quote------

The intentionality of visual perception can work only by explaining how organisms can “come into psychological contact” with objects with which they are not in physical or, more aptly, mechanical contact. Solving this problem of perceptual “action at a distance” is the function of Gibson’s theory of ecological information for perception. As Gibson (1975, p. 310) once wrote in reply to a critic:

"When Boynton (1975, pp. 300--l) asserts that 'we are not in visual contact with objects, or edges, facets, faces or textures, we are in contact only with photons' this assertion is loaded with epistemology. It is a strictly philosophical conclusion. I disagree with it. There is a misunderstanding of the metaphor of visual contact, one that goes back to Johannes Muller, and it is one that I discussed repeatedly in The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems (1966). It leads to the doctrine that all we can ever see (or at least all we can ever see directly) is light.”

The philosophical assumption underlying virtually all research on vision, and underlying all criticisms of Gibson, is that visual contact must be reduced to a physical or mechanical contact of the sort described above. Thus the intentionality of vision is claimed to be only apparent, and is reduced by assumption to causality of an absurdly simply sort. For centuries students of visual perception have been asserting that all that organisms ever see directly is light because (they claim) only light comes into contact with the ocular apparatus of organisms. The fact that critics of Gibson (e.g., Ullman, 1980) repeatedly ask how it is that optimal information gets “into” the organism shows that this simplistic doctrine of physical contact is still being invoked as the material basis of psychological contact.

------End Quote------

So… at least when we are talking about visual perception, Gibson, and TSRM are insistent that the information (the patterns in ambient light that specify the state of the organism's surroundings) are not in the organism. This is considered crucially important to creating a sound foundation for our discipline. It is also crucial for professional posturing, as they assert, roughly:
One of the biggest and most important differences between Ecological Psychology and the so-called Cognitive approaches, is that we are not talking locating the functional basis of perception inside the organism, and they are. When they do this, they got caught in many philosophical quagmires. Our insistence on the existence of information external to organism avoids those quagmires, and render many of the classic Problems of Perception moot.
I imagine that the equivalent version of this for haptic perception is to insist that the higher-order properties of 'things that can be felt' exist out-there, in the object itself. Sometimes the object must be moved by the organism to detect these properties (e.g., you often can't tell the difference between a functional sword and a decent copy without wielding it), but center of mass and other such properties are 'out there' in the object, and the resistance the sword gives to certain types of movements is similarly 'out there', when the one tries those movements.

However, that is not the way the field seems to be going (it has gone that way at least sometimes in the past, but that is not the direction it seems to be headed in now). At the last ICPA in particular there was a wide range of talks trying to determine where, inside the organism, the information might be. People were looking at different structures at joint points, as well as looking at the elaborate interconnections created by connective tissues across the whole body.

Because my intuitive thinking is in line with the above quotes, I am pretty suspicious when people talk about haptic information being specified inside the organism. Within the ecological approach, certainly the default assumption think that the haptic information, like the optic information, would need to be outside the organism.There might be convincing arguments to allow an exception in this case, but I have not heard them. How will we go this route without falling prey to the Problems of Perception?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Defending John Watson - Asshole Behaviorist

Mike Samsa had a post a few weeks ago explaining common misunderstandings about behaviorism. There were some good points. Among them was discussion of Watson's claim regarding his ability to manipulate children:
Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors... (1930, p.82)
Now, I don't really like Watson. I think he derailed what was supposed to be a brilliant next step in the development of American Philosophy, and turned into something trite and hollow. Also, he was clearly an asshole, both as a member of the profession and as a human being.

That said, I am certainly willing to defend this claim. I think, when it is examined carefully, that it is quite reasonable, and that history has proved him right.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

TSRM 1981 & The New Connecticut Approcah to Eco Psych

Warning: If you aren't interested in Ecological Psychology, this will probably be a boring post....

In past posts I talked about the two ecological psychologies article by Cutting, which asserted that Turvey and Shaw were doing something fundamentally different from Gibson. I've also argued that Gibson was doing something grounded in American Philosophy, which his latter standard bearers did not appreciate. Much of the impetus for the new direction comes from the debate in 1981 between Fodor and Pylyshyn on the one hand and Turvey, Shaw, Reed, and Mace on the other. I've already summarized F&P's arguments, and stated in two places the main points I think should have made in a reply. If you recall, F&P started all this by publishing a 58 page critique of Gibson's 1979 book. Apparently, TSRM felt the need to up the anti with a 68 page reply. Good lord. Luckily for F&P we were past the days of duels!

TSRM is a philosophical tour de force, bordering on an unfocused mess. They spend an incredible amount of time getting sidetracked into trying to undermine more or less everything F&P say.  I don't want to discuss too much of that here, and instead want to summarize how they defend the ecological approach, and where they see the field going.