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Friday, March 30, 2007


Build a house on mud, and no matter the breadth and majesty of your architectural imagination, the whole thing will quickly sink and collapse in the goo. Foundations are the unchallenged principles that allow you to freely build castles on the land and conceptual castles in the sky. For architects, your great tower will become a leaning tower in no time if you don't pay attention to the fundamentals of the ground you build upon. The same thing applies to any other contraption that is built without consulting the foundational laws of physics.

Funny thing though, when you are dealing with conceptual neverlands, the concept of a building built on sand can defy gravity forever if we just all sat around a circle and consistently calculate that mud is after all like concrete. Of course, testing your theory against the reality of dirt is what makes your calculations not only right but true. But sometimes we just don't want to get out hands, well, dirtied. So by not questioning foundational issues, whatever we build may have, to say the least, a certain tilt about it.

This is currently a raging problem in of all places, the quite foundational discipline of physics. In his recent book, The Trouble with Physics, the distinguished physicist Lee Smolin argues that Newtonian physics is good enough for macro, quantum physics is good enough for micro, but both rest on a common foundation that is another matter entirely. Thus, good enough is not good enough is you want an integrated theory of everything. The problem is assuming that something is foundational when it is not. Thus a final theory ain't so final.

Former foundation for the building housing
the Center for Evolutionary Psychology

For the psychology of motivation, the foundation is simple, namely a biologically informed and testable theory of how experience changes behavior. This is called a theory of learning. Unfortunately, a biological learning theory constrains how you can interpret observations about behavior. So when you ignore learning theory, you can't build psychological castles in the sky because there is no 'under' under. Thus, social, evolutionary, humanistic psychologies do without a neural foundation (in spite of their lip service to its importance) and equate approximate solutions with exact ones, which end up in a metaphorical sense, leaning. But that's OK if you tilt your head, and your reasoning within it, just so. But as this writer confesses, it is a common skill that I have never learned.

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