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

Sunday, October 6, 2019

How we got to the muddle of "The Hard Problem" in psychology

Once upon a time we knew almost nothing about how vision worked, then, at just about the same time, all of the following happened:
  1. Artists figured out perspectival drawing, and people went nuts over it.
  2. It was discovered that they eye of a bull could act like a “camera obscura.” Camera obscuras were small dark rooms in the middle of a garden, built so that they cast an inverted view of the garden in one wall, by virtue of a pinhole in the opposite wall. Those were all the rage, because rich creepers could jerk off in them while spying on the ladies walking the garden. At that point, everyone assumed that vision was this passive thing that started with a still image in the back of the eye, and involved the opposite of whatever intellectual activity artists engaged in when creating a flat picture.
  3. Newton figured out that “white” light could be divided into all the colors, but that already divided colors couldn’t be divided further, and other people figured out that the colors divided because they had different wavelengths.  

Right after all that, philosophers start to try to do science in the realm of psychology (recall that all branches of science were once philosophy, and they only broke off after they got a handle on how to play the research game within their respective discipline). The first groups are the psychophysics and empiricist philosophers, i.e., the British Empiricists. Those people took a small amount of the day’s best sciencey stuff and tried to put it at the center of the emerging science of psychology. However, when they did that, they put everything backwards.

The British Empiricists declared, on the authority of “Newton!” and “Science!”, that “red” was certain wavelengths of light. But science only called those wavelengths red because that’s how people saw them!

The British Empiricists then declared that anyone who saw “red” in any conditions where the key wavelengths were not present, those people had been duped by their senses! Worse yet, the researchers soon discovered that sometimes people didn’t see “red” when the wavelengths were present. That darn phenomenal experience can’t get it right at all.

The British Empiricists would rather declare that perfectly normal phenomenal experiences as being constantly in error, than risk the embarrassment of suggesting that their physicists idols had overplayed their hand when talking about color. They can’t even fathom the contradiction they are in when they assume that whatever the physicists perceive when doing their experiments, THOSE perceptions are clearly 100% awesome and accurate. THOSE experiences, the experiences of the physicist, somehow gives us an “objective” understanding of the world, against which to compare the crude “subjective experience” of every-person-except-the-physicist. (Oh, and also the physicist-under-normal-conditions.)

Those early psychologists and philosophers of psychology didn’t even consider the possibility of engaging in the interesting scientific task of mapping out the conditions under which particular people experienced red. They certainly didn’t comprehend the much more challenging task of mapping out the similarities and differences in response between people. Instead, they invented a mystery whereby almost all perception was wrong, because people didn’t always report perceptions that matched what the physicists thought they should be.

This muddle resulted in psychology and philosophy having a “hard” problem. It is “hard” to explain why normal people experience “red” when super-smart-well-educated people with a spectrograph declare there isn’t “red light” there. Why is phenomenal experience so unrelated to what “Science!” (17th century “Science!”) tells us it SHOULD be? As a result, tons of people think psychology is impossible, because we can’t solve the grand mystery of “what is red like?”. And it is really hard to convince people that instead of asking that question, we should see psychology’s job as solving very difficult, but ultimately tractable scientific question of “under what conditions is red experienced?”

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