Fixing Psychology

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

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Abduction and the myth of introspection

First question from most people: What the heck is abduction? 

There are many answers to that question. 

My preferred (at the moment): Abduction is that it's that thing scientists do that definitely isn't deduction or induction, but which has been mindbogglingly successful over the last few hundred years.

Nick's preferred answer, and figure 1 in the paper: 

That's a teaser, and here is the abstract: 
Much of the history of psychology can be understood as a debate over what we do when we attribute psychological states to ourselves and to others. In the classic Cartesian view, those activities are quite distinct: We engage an infallible ability—introspection—when examining our own psychological states, but merely speculate when trying to identify the psychological states of others. The American Philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce dedicated several early papers to a critique of the Cartesian approach. He concluded that attempts at self-knowledge require the same inferential processes that we use when attributing mental states to others, and therefore incur the same logical risks. By pursing these ideas further, we intend to show that self-knowledge results from a special kind of abduction; the inference of behavior states from particular observed behaviors. Such inferences allow us to anticipate yet-unseen patterns of behavior in yet-to-be-manifested circumstances.

Full text available on ResearchGate: (PDF) Abductive Inference, Self-Knowledge, and the Myth of Introspection (

Friday, October 29, 2021

Deep thoughts: P Zombie Couches


I wrote several years ago about the classic "Stomach in a Jar" problem that has vexed philosophers for decades. I write today about the equally complex Philosophical Zombie Couch problem, which has fascinated philosophers since Keith Campbell and Robert Kirk introduced the idea in the early 1970s, and David Chalmers popularized it in the mid 1990s. Many of you will not be familiar with the problem, so let me lay it out simply to start out with. 

You could summarize the argument with a single premise: We can all imagine an object with all the properties of a couch, but which does not contain couchishness. 

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Veridical Perception (In Verse)

 The APA Journal History of Psychology started a News an Notes section a few years ago, including a "Poetry Corner." Most contributions are archival finds of poems by historically-eminent psychologists, but they also invited poems about the history of psychology. So far as I know, I am the only person to take them up on the latter offer. This was my first contribution:

Veridical Perception

Debate about whether perception can ever be veridical – true to reality, accurate with respect to the world – holds an important place in the history of psychology, driving both theory and research. Due to Descartes’s legacy, most early psychologists took for granted that perception was always indirect, and therefore inherently inaccurate. An alternative tradition began maturing in the final phase of William James’s career, but it’s implications for perception were not developed significantly until nearly half-a-century later, when James J. Gibson developed his system that showed how direct perception was possible. This re-enlivened the debate for several decades, though Gibson’s key points in the debate, the key features of the resulting research programs, and much of the crucial terminology, remains poorly understood. Nevertheless, the work of James and Eleanor Gibson inspired a field, Ecological Psychology, which endures, focusing on perception-action cycles, particularly in situations where veridical perception can be, and often is, achieved. Harry Heft, Ed Reed, Alan Costall,  Robert Shaw, and Joel Michell are among the psychologists who have explored the history of this work.

A. A. Milne is now best known as the author of the Winnie the Pooh book, but was quite well reputed before that for his plays and his poetry, including collections such as “When We Were Very Young.” The style of “Veridical Perception” will be familiar to any who have read his work.


Veridical Perception

Passive sensations, from watching or hearing,

Sensations of those types are often quite strange,

But active perception, like looking or feeling,

Perceptions of those types one might well explain.


For all is,


When sitting back,


Sight is,


When cast to a plain.

The world,


(Impinges, impinges).

“The world,


The dualist exclaims.


Darwin, he changed this, with his focus on function,

A focus on function, James would soon mend,

The field, Psychology, from backwater drudgery,

But Watson derailed it, ‘fore his Hopkins upend.



Had inspired,

As Radical,


New Realists,

Who emerged,

And captured the stage.

But only,

In philosophy,

(Philosophy, philosophy).

Some stayed,

At Harvard,

Holt retired to Maine.


Holt was self-exiled, when Langfeld retrieved him,

To a decade at Princeton, where little was said.

But Gibson, his student, was there much inspired.

And therefore the realism continued to spread.



Studied prisms,

Which flipped,

Around visions.

His reputation,


On the curving of lines.

Then war came,

And flying,

(By pilots, in airplanes),

Took him,

To question,

Psychophysic’s hard line.


Just-noticed differences, had little merit,

When trying to determine who could land a plane.

Movement and motion resolved ambiguity,

And all this transpired outside of the brain.




At Yale,


by Yerkes.

For “there are,

No women in my lab.”

Finds Hull,

Grand planning,

(With symbol, equations).


Becomes hers to divine.


Discrimination, perceptual learning,

Distinguishing things, out there and in hand,

Humans with flash cards, but no reinforcement,

Still there’s improvement, Law-of-Effect be damned.




To “out there”,




‘T out there - not ‘n mind.

But what of,


(Reality, reality)



Still sounds like,

a line.


Back at Smith college, Jimmy and Jackie,

Restless, but not, too eager to leave,

Hoping for Cor-nell, which soon comes a calling,

And the Seer of Ithaca’s, sabbatical reprieve.






Retinal flow,

Not enough,

With evolution in mind.


To the world,

(Ecology, Ecology).

A brand new,


Must now be defined.


Ecological optics, the light that surrounds us,

Converging at points, where our eyes can reside,

Then even the insects, and primitive crustacea,

Adapt ‘t the same structure, with quite different eyes.


The Senses,


As Perceptual,


Eyes in head,

In a body,

Exploring to find,



(invariants, invariants).



Which can specify!


Systems designed through evolution and developed,

Embodied and enactive, and fully alive.

Attuned to possibility, opportunity, of behavior.

Attuned to affordances, so the animal can thrive.


But we,

Most surely,

Are not,

Always perfect.

Not long,

Without error,

The critics complained.

But focus,

On success,

(In action, in action).


Is the thing,

Perception explains. 


Speci-fication, is the crux of the argument.

How’s an organism accurate, in the best of times?

Perceptual attunement, makes action a function,

Of invariants that specify, the world’s confines.


With error,

It matters,

What kind,

Of a system,

Has failed,

In pursing,

That towards which it strives.

Not coherence, nor


(from world, to ideas).

A Convergence system

Finds truth,

Given time.


Peirce’s legacy stretches, to James and Holt realism,

Nothing is added, by mental design.

Behavior’s a function, of out-there, world-happenings,

And part of the “out there”, James Gibson defined.






No magic,

No ghost soul,

No dualist’s,


The truth of,

The matter

(The matter, the matter)

The truth of the matter can really be plain.


 Charles, E. P. (2018) Veridical Perception. History of Psychology 21, 172-175.


Monday, March 1, 2021

Defining key terms in Ecological Psychology

Andrew Wilson and I had a tiff on twitter about whether "Affordances" are by-definition "perceivable". Well... backing up... it was a tiff about whether it is fair for a researcher to start talking about something as an example of an affordance, when they have not bothering to demonstrate that the thing in question is perceived. This actually has deep implications for all the key terms in Ecological Psychology. As it is the type of thing you can't really discuss in 240 characters, we decided to return to the blogosphere. Who knows, maybe we can crank out a second blog-driven co-publication when this is done!*

I am extremely sensitive to the problems that occur in a theory when terms start to get mutually inter-defined. You quickly end up with tautologies, and tautologies stop your theory from being a theory in any proper sense. My post-doc advisor and occasional co-author Nick Thompson wrote about this problem extensively in the context of learning theory and evolutionary theory and other contexts in psychology. I don't think any prominent members of the Eco Psych community have such a problem when they are doing research. However, when they start writing theory, the problem pops up fairly often, and it is behind many of the long-term disputes in the literature. The temptation to inter-define terms is strong, because when terms are mutually defined, deduction is easier, and that makes the theory feel intellectually safe and well-founded. However, that feeling is misleading in a scientific context. you can't test things that are deducible from each other, so if you find yourself just stating things that are true by definition, you don't have a theory anymore, because the exact part this is supposed to be testable can't be tested. The way out of this is to rigorously ensure that your terms point to things that can be verified independently of each other, leaving it open for testing whether the things in question relate in the manner proposed. 

Friday, January 10, 2020

The Ecological Revolution: The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, 50 Years Later

In 1997, the journal Ecological Psychology published two issues in tribute to James Gibson's The Senses Considered as Perceptual Systems, which was published in 1966. I am creating this page as a landing pad for my posts regarding the articles in those issues. I will also add links, as I find them, to other places on the internet where these issues are discussed (suggestions in the comments are strongly encouraged). I reviewed a few of the articles when they first came out, but recently found the issues again and realized how negligent I have been in covering more of them. One special treat about those issues is that they feature articles by several of my favorite contributors to the field, and the quality of the articles is very high.

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.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Chicago APA Convention 2019 - Society for the History of Psychology

FYI: Cathy Faye, President-Elect of the Society for the History of Psychology (American Psychological Association Division 26), asked a while ago if I would be program chair for the 2019 APA convention in Chicago. I foolishly agreed pretty readily! Three quick things:

1) If you or someone you know might be interested in being the co-chair, with me shouldering most of the work, please give me a heads up.

2) This weekend (June 1-3, 2018) I will be attending a training event for program chairs in Washington DC. The most obvious goal of this event is to help the program chairs figure out APA's convoluted process to create "Collaborative Programing." That has such a long timeline, it requires multiple divisions to join forces over a year ahead of the conference. I will post details here as I get them, but in the meantime, if you might have ideas for collaborative programs, or have interest in putting together a regular session for the 2019 conference, give me a heads up.

3) Cathy's presidential theme hasn't officially been announced yet, but she strongly shares my interest historic research that provide practical guidance for emerging issues in the field. So we will be looking for both straightforward history of psychology papers and historic critiques of currently emerging issues.