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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Behavior and its 'Isms

As little kids, we find the world to be a generally incomprehensible and often hostile place. So we make quick and comfortable affiliation with other kids who are equally clueless and fearful, and form clubs, gangs, and Cub Scout packs. We meet in tree houses or playgrounds, and beat up on or malign anybody who seems different (and thus threatening), like grownups, girls, and the kids who live on the other side of the tracks.

As compared to being totally ignorant or totally informed, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, and we can trace the social consequences of information with our growing maturity. Thus, as infants, no social knowledge makes you needy, but as kids a little knowledge makes us precocious self-centered snots. However, when our social knowledge is ‘complete’, we know better than to trumpet our specialized knowledge on how to drive cars, shop for groceries, and put on our pants (one leg at a time usually).

When knowledge is universal and easily accessible, and its authors are obscure, forgotten, or dead, then we forget about the controversy that once surrounded it, and simply use it, as if it was as mundane as a wheel or a fork. That is, when special knowledge becomes ordinary, then we forget about all the contentiousness about who thought it first, the ideas it replaced, whose feelings got hurt, or why it was unique to begin with. Thus, we don’t know and don’t care about why our ancestors got bent out of shape when confronted with the flat vs. round earth controversy, evil spirits as the cause of disease, or why Noah left behind all those dinosaurs.

Ultimately, the mystery of knowledge surrenders to the mastery of knowledge, and we achieve mastery through various schooling or through the school of hard knocks. Yet because there is so much to know, and we have scant time and capability to know it all, we rely upon experts to dispense and utilize this knowledge for us. This is an economical way of going about our business, and the business it engenders is accordingly, economics. Thus the privilege of knowledge, and the tokens or currencies that denote the exchange rates of knowledge enable us encourage those folks who do mysterious things, like calculating income taxes, fixing auto transmissions, and throwing footballs well.

Knowledge is power, but specialized knowledge is where the money is. So to keep the power, and more importantly, the money that goes along with it, the incentive is there to keep one’s wisdom to oneself, and ration it out to those who are willing to pay the price. So like medieval guild members (or kids in a clubhouse in a tree), we get certified, specialized, and form interest groups or ‘schools’ of thought that have their own special languages and buzz words, and are lacking only super secret decoder rings. Like a Rumpelstilskin spinning gold out of linguistic straw, one can talk about oblong rotating spheroids (i.e. a wheel) or four pronged mastication utensils (i.e. a fork), charge folks again and again for reinventing something they pretty much know about already. Luckily, the reason why knife and fork consultants do not exist is that we can easily explain and use knives and forks. More specifically, the technical details of knifes and forks yield to the simple instructions that describe their use, since simple uses are all that we require.

Ultimately, complexity of explanation depends upon the accuracy demanded by the questions one asks, and it is here where the experts creep back in. Simple questions and simple answers are the province of common sense, which is free to all. However, it is often complex notions that give birth to simple truisms, and when we want our answer to be precisely true, then we rely on a certified master of detail. Thus to know when an action is precisely legal, whether we are precisely healthy, or how to precisely land a man on the moon, then we consult properly certified and registered experts in law, medicine, or physics. Normally, we use only one type of law, engage in one type of medicine, and use one set of uniform mathematical principles to do physics because our knowledge of them is complete or near complete. A lawyer does not choose between English and Napoleonic law, a doctor between faith healing and biological models of disease, or a physicist between the physics of Aristotle and Galileo because experts have settled upon a common sense of principles that drive these disciplines. However, when knowledge is incomplete and unintegrated, then science becomes beholden to the particular school of thought with the greatest claim to precision.
The contentious squawking between rival schools of thought peppers our intellectual history, as knowledge, in its beckoning incompleteness, is championed by different schools of thought that aim to show us the way. Of course, in an incomplete world, the seemingly proper way to determine and use knowledge often crowds out other ways that are less productive, or just get in the way. Like little children in an exclusive clubhouse, there is little or no place for deductive/inductive, subjective/objective, value laden/value free, or other differing methods of knowing on the same intellectual page. Thus philosophy, and its step child psychology is populated be a raft of ‘isms, particular and parochial ways of looking at the world that have individual claims of completeness, rightness, and unerring precision.

These idiosyncratic ways of looking at the world can reflect the general ways we determine facts (deduction vs. induction), the perspectives (microscopic/macroscopic) that we employ to view facts, the ways we interpret facts (subjective vs. objective), the time frames that facts take place (past, present, future), the rules whereby one may use facts (moral, amoral), and the methods (between vs. within group experimental design) and methodological tools (microscopes, Skinner boxes, projective tests) that one chooses to use to ascertain facts. The permutations of these intellectual foci and the degree that one embraces each of them determine one’s school of thought, or the intellectual clubhouse where one and his or her likeminded peers may secret themselves and their semi-secret wisdom, content in the knowledge that they have the key to the ways of the world. In a fractious intellectual climate where knowledge about the mind is boundlessly (and redundantly) rendered by numberless data languages, methods, and points of view, the social sciences have seen a multiplication of the ‘isms that have fractured language into more incommensurate tongues since human language after the fall of Babel.

Hot buttered
Scatter brained
Cognitive science
Tiny little
2nd generation
Solipsism (or is it just me?)

Figure 1. A Universal Subject Matter Generator

So, what is the cure for this plague of 'ism's that is drowning psychology in a sea of redundant and often useless jargon? Whether our ailment is logorrhea or diarrhea, the best remedy to useless thinking is to simply follow the model that our doctor uses. This medical model comes to quick and sound conclusions by its simple recognition that the human condition is best understood through a respect for all ideas, and a recognition that ideas, when viewed in concert, have a way of sorting each other out. This leaves us with the refreshing clarity of bare facts, simple theories, and effective procedures. But as we will also note, the medical model in its early development was also infected with a predilection for 'isms.

The Medical Model

Nowadays, when we talk of awfully complex human bodies, there are precious few 'isms that dictate how we think of them. For biology, and its practical applications in medicine, all perspectives on body and soul are in harmony. And so we universally admit that people hurt, and that they have physiologies and genetic codes, and that health and infirmity, suffering and wellness reflect on matters both mechanical and spiritual. And so we can move from subjective to objective, molar to molecular, depending upon the questions we ask. Thus we know all the mechanics of our bodies and all of its rules, and still have room to believe in consciousness, good and evil, supreme beings, and life after death.

Unfortunately, as we have noted, prevailing interpretations of the workaday behavior that keeps our kidneys humming, our legs moving, and our brain thinking aren't so married to such catholic and egalitarian principles. It owes not to human stubbornness and stupidity, although that's a large ingredient, but rather to the fact that up to now we didn't have the tools available to ascertain the true facts of how our brains actually worked. It owes to the mystery, which opens doors to new knowledge, and unfortunately, the endless production of a rich ore of inferred knowledge that is more often than not mere fools gold. To see the path psychology must take to easily assay the validity of what it thinks it knows, it is instructive to note how medical science, and the science of biology, performed a similar task that was just as daunting.

Before the 17th century, 'doctors' were uneducated or self-educated priests, barber surgeons, or quacks. Medical science at the time 'knew' how our bodies worked, since without a venue to microscopic causes, macroscopic events were the only reality available or even conceivable. So the nature and workings of the human body, the causes of health and the remedies for its misfortunes and malfunctions were a matter of ascertaining which large scale cause, from spirit forces to bodily fluids to atmospheric vapors that was responsible. But, in the meanwhile people got sick and died, ate and drank the wrong things, and dropped like flies.

Before the advent of microscopic models that provided the genetic and biochemical codes for the molecular processes underlying our biological existence, the mediational events that lay between different actions (drinking too much beer) and reactions (getting sick), were macroscopic and metaphorical. That is, they used common concepts (wind, vapors, fluids) as proxies for the actual events. The human body was not so much a black box as a Pandora’s box, that was filled (we were assured) with numberless creatures, phantasms and forces. The metaphorical representations of human health and infirmity could easily account for every aspect the human condition, and their predictive power was a matter of adjusting them post hoc to meet every eventuality. Thus, if you died of the plague, it’s just that you didn’t sacrifice enough chickens to placate the Gods, or perhaps didn’t drink enough chicken soup. However, when medical science finally developed the tools that enabled the determination of the actual biological sources of disease, and as importantly the development of easy metaphors that could describe those sources, then the notion of evil spirits, noxious humours, and mysterious forces died a quick death. Because they could not translate down to the most elemental level of human reality, mediational forces that translated input (causes of disease) into output (disease symptoms) were finally reduced to those metaphorical descriptions (I hurt) that could reliably map downwards to simply describe realistic elemental causes (I have an ear infection).

A psychology without ‘isms

A psychology without ‘ism’s is inevitable, since at present simple and workable models of the brain are being rapidly developed that are grounded in actual observations of the brain ‘in action’, hence eliminating the need to have some privileged psychological viewpoint. Since psychologists as a whole (and this includes humanist, social, and behavioristic psychologists in particular) are coming rather tardily to the rather common sense notion that to understand the workings of a mind, one must first understand how biologically minds work, it will be interesting to see how the fur will fly as logic (and an informed public who will be less inclined to put up with nonsense) compels psychologists to finally make sense.

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