Wednesday, July 05, 2006


From the moment I first read Freud in my youth, I was hooked on psychology, but as my life ground on with probably a lot more pain and suffering than was necessary, and as I argued with friends and enemies about "the human condition", I had to admit, as Steven Pinker discusses below, that psychology didn't give me the firmly founded answers that I craved about why humans are as they are and about why I am as I am. Questions like why are people cruel, why are we selfish, why do humans make war, were not answered with any satisfaction though I loved to adopt one viewpoint or another and argue its truth as if my very life depended on it. But all the while, in the depths of heated argument, I knew that I wasn't quite as certain about my points as I wanted to be.

Steven Pinker in his "Forward" to The Handbook Of Evolutionary Psychology doesn't mention arguing, but he does mention the absence of satisfying explanation that traditional psychology gave him but which evolutionary psychology does give him. Finally, we can say, science has made its way into psychology. Here’s Steven Pinker:

[OPEN QUOTE] For many years after I decided to become a psychologist I was frustrated by my chosen field, and fantasized about a day when it would satisfy the curiosity that first led me to devote my professional life to studying the mind. As with many psychology students, the frustration began with my very first class, in which the instructor performed the ritual that begins every introduction to psychology course: disabusing students of the expectation that they would learn about any of the topics that attracted them to the subject. Forget about love and hate, family dynamics, and jokes and their relation to the unconscious, they said. Psychology was a rigorous science which investigated quantifiable laboratory phenomena; it had nothing to do with self-absorption on an analyst's couch or the prurient topics of daytime talk shows. And in fact the course confined itself to "perception," which meant psychophysics, and "learning," which meant rats, and "the brain," which meant neurons, and "memory," which meant nonsense syllables, and "intelligence," which meant IQ tests, and "personality," which meant personality tests.

When I proceeded to more advanced courses, they only deepened the disappointment by revealing that the psychology canon was a laundry list of unrelated phenomena. The course on perception began with Weber's Law and Fechner's Law and proceeded to an assortment of illusions and aftereffects familiar to readers of cereal boxes. There was no there—no conception of what perception is or of what it is for. Cognitive psychology, too, consisted of laboratory curiosities analyzed in terms of dichotomies such as serial/parallel, discrete/analog, and top-down/bottom-up (inspiring Alan Newell's famous jeremiad, "You can't play twenty questions with nature and win"). To this day, social psychology is driven not by systematic questions about the nature of sociality in the human animal but by a collection of situations in which people behave in strange ways.

But the biggest frustration was that psychology seemed to lack any sense of explanation. Like the talk show guest on Monty Python's Flying Circus whose theory of the brontosaurus was that "the brontosaurus is skinny at one end; much, much thicker in the middle; and skinny at the other end," psychologists were content to "explain" a phenomenon by redescribing it. A student rarely enjoyed the flash of insight which tapped deeper principles to show why something had to be the way it is as opposed to some other way it could have been. [CLOSE QUOTE]

In the words of Leda Cosmides and John Tooby who were in at the beginning of this field of study: “Evolutionary psychology can therefore be seen as the inevitable intersection of the computationalism of the cognitive revolution with the adaptationism of William's evolutionary biology: Because mental phenomena are the expression of complex functional organization in biological systems, and complex organic functionality is the downstream consequence of natural selection, then it must be case that the sciences of the mind and brain are adaptationist science, and psychological mechanisms are computational adaptations. In this way, the marriage of computationalism with adaptationism marks a major turning point in the history of ideas, dissolving the intellectual tethers that had limited fundamental progress and opening the way forward. Like Dalton's wedding of atomic theory to chemistry, computationalism and adaptationism solve each other's deepest problems, and open up new continents of scientific possibility (Cosmides & Tooby, 1987; Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Tooby, Cosmides, & Barrett, 2003, 2005)." Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology (Page 10)

The photo is of the scablands in these here parts. I like to drive around in this country and gawk. The photo is as it is because the sky was full of sunshine but the earth was in shadow. It makes a contrast which some would say is unprofessional, but, hey, I'm not a professional, and I like what I see here.

No comments: