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Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Reductio ad Absurdum

One of the biggest debates in philosophy, and sources of confusion, is the respective difference and importance of explanations vs. predictions. To many psychologists, the fact that some procedure, chain of logic, or therapy 'works' is good enough for them, seeing they can churn out predicted results time and again like sausages without having to bother about other perspectives that describe from different vantages how the parts of that procedure, logic, or therapy do what they do. But I would argue that without explanations, procedures could never be bettered. Take medicine for example, in the 19th century, the disease of malaria, which literally means bad air, was thought to originate from, you guessed it, bad air. So bar all that bad air from getting into your house, and you will be far less likely to get the disease. The procedure worked, but for entirely different reasons, namely that closing off your house didn't let the air in, but it also didn't allow in the mosquitoes which came in with that air. As it turned out, an explanation of malaria, or a description from the large (epidemiology) to the small (micro-biological) permitted new and better procedures involving new medicines and pest control. You would think of course that scientists would have a great respect for explanation. And you would be wrong.

Although it is easy to see how explanation can make procedures better, it's not really too helpful for folks who have developed a lot of time and effort in creating a procedure that is useful to have that same procedure become useless when it is systematically explained. It shows them to be big dopes, and that is something they cannot abide. So what's a poor theorist to do? Why eliminate those darned explanations of course! Thus many psychologists, enamored of their pet therapy or procedure are understandably fearful of explanations. In the physical and biological sciences, we can spot this phobic behavior in a flash, as who today would accept a description of the universe or a biological function without understanding it from the macro to the micro? Tragically, much of psychology is caught up in the mindset of centuries ago, where the lack of adequate tools such as telescopes and microscopes precluded true descriptions or explanations of how things work. Presently, with the advent of new tools that like telescopes of old describe how the mind actually works, many psychologists are beset by a new enemy, the explanation. And they are not happy.

As an illustration, consider this recent email exchange that spun my head about several times, exorcist like. It was with Dr. Steven Hayes, a creator and proponent of something called relational frame theory, a somewhat inexplicable (to me at least) psychological theory that attributes how we behave through a behavioristic analysis of language. It has even gave birth to a therapeutic approach called ACT, which presumably will cure all that psychologically ails you. The problem is that modern neuroscience tells us that much of our behavior is caused by nonconcious and affective events that have little or nothing to do with language. Would it not be prudent, I asked, that your procedure be a little informed by the facts of how the human mind works? To which I got this paean to the pragmatism of prediction.

"I understand behavior when I can predict and control behavior with precision, scope, and depth. That is behavior analysis as I understand it. You understand behavior when you've modeled the mechanical system. But why stop at those three? Why not say "to understand behavior you have to understand biochemistry?" Sure that underlies the brain systems you point to. But why stop there? Why not say "to understand behavior you have to understand subatomic particles?" Doesn't that underlie the physical and chemical systems that underlie the biological systems you are speaking of? How can your understanding be firm if you do not know what underlies it? That is the import of your statement: "To understand behavior you have to understand all three." OK -- so be consistent. Follow out the logic of what you believe.

Dr. Hayes:
a predictable little guy Posted by Hello

The key is this last sentence, whether one should follow the logic of what one believes, or (as I would have it) the logic of what one sees. If you have a broader vision of the very large to the very small, one's logic would doubtless become a lot better, though the procedures it would support would likely, like our malaria example, be a whole lot different. The true logic that Hayes was hinting about was a bit different, namely that different levels of perspective are really complex, and that they cause us to lose focus on the subject at hand. This is the time worn argument against reductionism, which is a philosophy of science that assumes that reducing the whole to its parts causes you lose perspective on what's truly important (namely the prediction), and (shudder) will cause you to look up the world as a mere collection of atoms. This is a common logical scarecrow used to frighten those who care about explanations, and is nonsense.

Every child in an elementary science class learns about things from the large to the small, but learns not the intractable minutiae of calculation, but rather metaphors that encapsulate the large and the small in a phrase. Called 'level adequate' concepts by the early neuroscientist Erich von Holst, it gives us a metaphorical perspective of the world that integrates many levels of observation. You don't have to be a brain scientist to understand the mind, nor a rocket scientist to understand physics. Because neuroscience is a relatively young field, it has not yet formed the level adequate descriptions of how the brain works that can sweep away the postures of those who would figuratively shut us indoors without air. In time, I will be looking forward to finally breathing free.

For much more on explanation and common sense (and no hint whatsoever of RFT) check out my new e-book on the psychology of the internet: 

And here's a bit longer video on explanation by the distinguished physicist David Deutsch.

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