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

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.
Now  ‘myth' is the accepted term to apply to an entity which is believed in, but which eludes empirical inquiry. This mythical vis viva has now, in good part owing to the efforts of Kirchhoff and Hertz, been rejected, and, what is more important, with it has gone the bead theory itself. It is not the ' previous state' of the falling body which causes it to fall, but the earth's mass. And it is not in the ‘previous state' but in laws that explanation resides, and no laws for falling bodies or for any other process could, on the terms of the bead theory, be extracted from the phenomena. But laws were easily found for physical processes, if the observer persuaded himself to make the simple inquiry, What are the objects doing? Now the falling body is not merely moving downwards past the successive divisions of a meter-stick which I have placed beside it (which is all that the bead theory would have us consider), nor is it essentially moving toward the floor which, since a floor happens to be there, it will presently strike. The body is essentially moving toward the center of the earth, and these other objects could be removed without altering the influence of gravity. In short, the fall of a body is adequately described as a function of its mass, of the earth's mass, and of the distance between the centers of the two. And the function is constant, is that which in change remains unchanged (in the case cited it is a constant acceleration)… Every physical law is in the last analysis the statement of a constant function between one process or thing and some other process or thing…

Now psychology is at the present moment addicted to the bead theory, and I believe that this is responsible for the dispute about ‘consciousness ' versus behavior….

We are prone, even the ' behaviorists ' among us, to think of behavior as somehow consisting of reflex activities. Quite true, so far as it goes. So, too, coral reefs in the last analysis consist of positive and negative ions, but the biologist, geographer, or sea-captain would miss his point if he conceived them in any such terms. Yet we are doing the very same thing when we conceive the behavior of a man or animal in the unintegrated terms of neural process; which means, agreeably to the bead theory, the impinging of stimulus on sense-organ, the propagation of ionization waves along a fiber, their spread among various other fibers, their combining with other similar waves, and eventually causing the lowered or heightened tonus of muscle. All this is happening. But our account has overlooked the most essential thing of all—the organization of these processes.

If now we pitch the misleading bead theory straight overboard, and put our microscope back into its case, we shall be free to look at our behaving organism, and to propound the only pertinent, scientific question — What is this organism doing? All agree that empirical study will elicit the answer to this question, and in the end the complete answer.

What, then, is it doing? Well, the plant is being hit by the sun's rays and is turning its leaves until they all lie exactly at right angles to the direction of these rays : the stentor, having swum into a region of CO2, is backing off, turning on its axis, and striking out in a new direction : the hen has got a retinal image of a hawk and she is clucking to her brood — shoot the hawk or remove the brood and she stops clucking, for she is reacting to neither one nor the other, but to a situation in which both are involved : the man is walking past my window ; no, I am wrong, it is not past my window that he is walking; it is to the theater; or am I wrong again? Perhaps the man is a journalist, and not the theater, nor yet the play, but the 'society write-up' it is to which the creature's movements are adjusted; further investigation is needed. This last instance is important, for the man 'walking past my window' is generally doing so in no more pertinent a sense than does the dead leaf fall to the ground ‘past my window.' Both are doing something else. Herein the folly of the bead theory becomes clear. This theory says that in order to understand the man's actions, as he walks by, we must consider his successive ‘states,' for each one is the cause of each succeeding one. And if we follow the theory faithfully, it leads us back to the successive ‘states' of each component process, and ever back, till we arrive at the flow of ions in neuro-muscular tissue; in which disintegrating process the man with which he started is completely dissolved and lost. But now the functional view, moving in precisely the opposite direction, admonishes us to keep the man whole (if it is behavior that we are studying) and to study his movements until we have discovered exactly what he is doing, that is, until we have found that object, situation, process (or perhaps merely that relation) of which his behavior is a constant function. The analysis of this behavior, as thus exactly described, will come in later; but it in turn will be carried on in the same spirit — i.e., of discovering always and solely functions. The movements of a plant, animal, or man are always a constant function of something, or a combination of such constant functions, and these — the movements, the functions, and the things of which the movements are a function — are always open to empirical investigation. (p. 157-163)

---- More in the next post.

Related Posts:
  • Holt's "Railway Man" example, which argued that the "mystery" of consciousness was to be found in future behavior, rather than in present introspection.
  • Holt's discussion of "Word Magic", whereby a restatement of a mystery is mistaken as an explanation/solution to the problem.
  • And published a book of collected essays reflecting on Holt's work and its continuing influence.

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