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Saturday, July 02, 2005

The Universal Philosophical Principle

(It’s much simpler than you think!)

It began with one man observing the world. The world he saw was a universe filled with ordinary objects moving about in a flowing time. His observations however were immutable, as what he saw was what he saw. He observed the regularities of time, space, and motion, and put it down in algorithms that encapsulated the world in a mathematical phrase. Using this shorthand or script for the ways of the world has enabled mankind to predict the motions of the planets, the trajectory of cannon balls, and for the industrial age, the mechanics of steam engines and rocket ships.

Without the mathematical laws of force and motion laid down by Isaac Newton, our modern world could never be. Newton’s laws of physics enabled mankind to manipulate and predict the physical world, and thus produce the mechanical contraptions that get us to work and fly us to the stars. The world had to fit the observations Newton made because the world could only be what he observed of it, and divine movers were removed from the equation not because they did not exist, but because they were not necessary to make it all work.

Our world reflects the observations we make, and the Newtonian clockwork universe serves us well because it fits the observations we make as we go about our everyday lives. However, if we change our perspective a bit and observe the very large or the very small, the world begins to reflect a reality that provides a bizarre counterpoint to what we see in the here and now. If we enlarge our perspective to encompass galaxies and the universe, we see that space and time are relative, and the world is populated by fantastic entities such as black holes, time warps, and anti-gravity. But if we shrink our perspective to encompass atoms and the infinitesimal components of matter, we see that time and motion are indeterminate and perhaps non-existent, and encounter even stranger entities such as parallel universes and a platonic universe of relationships or ideas rather than objects.

These observations are not mere idle speculation, but are necessary for the technology of the modern age. Einsteinian relativity and Quantum mechanics enable computers, lasers, TV's, and even time machines. Thus, in order to have technology we must do science, and understand and apply the laws that reflect realities that are incompatible with what we experience.

In physics, we must address multiple realities, and the observations we make depend upon the questions we ask. Thus we can reconcile a workaday world filled with a flowing time with a timeless universe on a universal or quantum scale because we can shift easily from one question to another. This of course reflects all the sciences, as we can move from the molecular to the molar, from the objective to subjective, depending upon our point of view.

A common error in philosophy is that one level of thinking can answer all questions, and represents 'holistic' and 'reductionistic' points of view. This of course is not true, as one can hardly hope to predict where a rocket will land through common sense metaphors, just as one cannot use the language of mathematical strings or quanta to determine which type of cereal to buy. In the first case an answer is impossible for subjective and 'molar' reasoning and for the second case is intractable to objective and 'molecular' reasoning.
So what's the point of knowing these different perspectives? One, it constrains or limits the metaphors we can engage for the questions we use, and two, it enables us to construct new procedures for the manipulation of our world. The questions we ask are linked by sets of metaphors that denote the detail we are attempting to describe. Thus I can look at a green leaf, but can move to different metaphorical levels that are denoted by that leaf, such as its organic, molecular, and in turn atomic structure. By being able to move down to the molecular level of the leaf, we are constrained from hypothesizing different metaphors that describe the leaf, such as vitalistic forces that give it life. Similarly, by being able to move from a subjective appraisal of disease (it hurts) to an organic (head ache, swollen blood vessels) to a molecular (viral infection) level of appraisal, we can likewise be constrained from offering vitalistic forces (possessing demons) as causes. Finally, by knowing the subjective and objective levels of leaves and life, we can derive the procedures from genetic engineering to simple flower arranging that enable us to control and appreciate our world.

Ultimately, metaphorical hypotheses of how the world works are not constrained by their respective logics but by lower levels of analysis that integrate with and inform them. Thus although the subjective aspect of pain remains real, vitalistic and animistic explanations of why pain occurs are dispelled by deeper biological explanations of human physiology and disease. Practically, the physical and biological sciences must engage multiple levels of thinking, and academic and common people alike accept the way that science looks at the world in no small measure because they could not cope with the world if they did not. However, in the social sciences, this is not the case, and for a very simple reason. Until recently, the metaphorical ways that we use to investigate human value could not be constrained by a biologically based definition of reward or reinforcement, since one simply did not exist. In other words, because we did not know the biology or more aptly neuro-biology of reward, the origins or etiology of behavior, much as the origins of diseases or the behavior of matter in past centuries could become attributed to a host of vitalistic forces.

This is demonstrated by even the most cursory review of the literature of psychology, which reveals a host of inferred processes from ‘needs’ for achievement, power, and security, meditative and flow ‘states’, and obscure extrinsic and intrinsic motivational ‘processes’. These metaphorical processes are not informed and thus are not constrained by any biologically based definition of reward, and can therefore multiply as profusely as theories of the universe and disease in ancient times. But superceding all the theoretical reveries of modern psychology is a common sense appraisal of reward that owes its vitality not to psychology, but to economics. It is also, if we look to the large and the small of it, quite wrong.

The Economic Model of Reward

What is reward? The answer comes naturally from our own experience, the 'folk' psychology that comprises the ways we cope with our world. This psychology is codified in the practical disciplines of economics and marketing. Thus as experience and advertising leads us to believe, rewards are objective things that pull us along in trajectories as predictable as the Newtonian path of a planet about a star. Objects such as money, hamburgers, cars, and vacations on the beach pull as back and forth according to an entirely predictable or economic logic. Manipulate that logic through tax cuts, monetary incentives, and zero percent financing plans, and the gears are greased that allow us to fall into faster and tighter orbit with the things we crave. The more we 'look forward to' events the more we experience them virtually and are further impelled to pursue them. Wanting is a scaled down version of having, and both are equivalent both psychologically and physiologically. This makes common sense, as we can just 'feel' a day at the beach, a night with a loved one, or a bite out of a hamburger.

In our daily lives, we find little cause to doubt this wisdom, and so happiness is continually denominated by an endless parade of material objects that are laid about economically ‘just so’ to keep us in their chase. The problem though is that if we enlarge our perspective, this economic view is fraught with problems. If we look at the aggregate behavior of mankind and their cultural values, we find that people are often motivated by events that entail no material payoff, and that spiritual and moral values are often far greater motivators than materialistic values. Thus we will work for family, God, and country, even though the reward may be no more than a dream. But even more remarkably, if we shrink our perspective to the micro-behavioral facts of the human brain, the psychic pull of material objects disappears almost entirely, and value becomes denominated not in objects, but in the abstract and uncertain informative properties of objects. In other words, like physics, reward must submit to a new uncertainty principle. And as with modern physics, the philosophical and practical implications are just as great.

The Universal Reinforcement Principle

Neuro-psychological theories of learning do not mirror our common sense appraisal of our psychological world. Indeed, contrary to common sense and economic theory, ‘wanting’ is psychologically and physiologically quite a different thing from ‘having’, thus making a materialistic view of motivation neurally impossible. Indeed, according to modern neurally based ‘discrepancy’ theories of reward, reward is virtual, not real, relational, not fixed, and is dependent upon how we arrange our world rather than what we make out of our world. There is no conflict between material and spiritual values because all values are ‘spiritual’ in some way. So value is endless and free, and scales with our ability to virtually model or be empathic with the world.

Its not for this article to explain these theories and their ramifications (that belongs to other places on this site), save to reaffirm a commitment that science requires us to integrate all levels of knowledge, and to discipline our speech by our metaphorical knowledge of the large and small. To be a biologist, one must know the small and large scale metaphors of DNA and evolution; and to be a physicist, must know the small and large scale metaphors of relativity and the quantum. Likewise, to be a psychologist, one must know not only know the metaphors of motivation as it drives people, but also the metaphors that describe how motivation emerges from the neurology of minds.

But what are these neurological theories of reward, and how do they impact our world philosophically and practically? That is the purpose ultimately of this site. First it is important to demonstrate through irony and analysis that a exclusive reliance on singular metaphorical ways of looking at the world, whether focused on the large or small, is a recipe for intellectual disaster, or to put it mildly, bad psychology. Secondly, it is to show how practical procedures for behavioral control are suggested by an integrated science of psychology, and that it demonstrates that virtue is our only reward, and that we are naturally impelled to make it so. So you see, human psychology has a happy ending after all, and a simple one!

A Brief Note as to why I am not original:

Einstein said he could see so far because he stood on the shoulders of giants. For my part, I attribute my own odd vision to the citations of giants, who by the way live among us at this moment.

Modern integrated psychology is known by many names, although it embodies the same epistemological (i.e. how we know things) principles. To the neuropsychologist Jaak Pankespp, it is known as affective neuroscience, to the neuropsvchologist Kent Berridge, it is known as bio-psychology, to the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, it is called 2nd generation cognitive science, and to the behaviorist J. E. R. Staddon, it is known as theoretical behaviorism. The two best introductions to modern biologically based theories of reward or reinforcement come from the neuro-psychologists John Donahoe and Kent Berridge (In particular: Berridge’s article ‘Reward Learning: Reinforcement Incentives, and Expectations’, found on his site.) Unfortunately, because the work of these authors is quite new, and directed mainly to other academic eyes, it still awaits an account for a popular audience. Until then I guess, you’ll have to put up with my own cruder take on it.

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