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6 Feb 08 – Lloyd Morgan’s Canon, Anthropomorphism, and Mechanomorphism

6 February 2008

On this day in 1852, Conwy Lloyd Morgan was born. Morgan developed a fundamental precept of comparative (animal) psychology often known as “Lloyd Morgan’s Canon”:

“In no case may we interpret an action as the outcome of the exercise of a higher psychical faculty, if it can be interpreted as the outcome of the exercise of one which stands lower in the psychological scale.”


This precept relates to a concept known as “anthropomorphism,” the attributing of human characteristics (motivation or behaviors) to animals.  Essentially, Morgan was saying that we should not apply human characteristics to animals – we should keep descriptions of animals as simple and non “humanistic” as possible.  Lloyd Morgan’s Canon is considered a special instance of Occam’s Razor (or the Law of Parsimony), which is named after a Friar (William of Ockham).  This principle states that the explanation of any phenomenon should involve as few assumptions as possible.  Unfortunately, Lloyd Morgan’s Canon has been applied not only to non-human animals but also to human “animals” in the sense that there was a strong push in psychology, especially in the 1940s, to not attribute human characteristics to…well, humans. 

In the 1940s, R. H. Waters wrote about this interesting tendency in psychology, noting that this rise culminated in the development of behavioristic psychologies, which were focused on constructing mechanical analogies of human behavior.  Essentially, Waters concluded by stating that this was a limiting conceptualization:

“To think of the organism as a machine is to adopt a premise and a method that leads the investigator into a blind alley – a blind alley that precludes the observation of certain types of evidence clearly indicating the presence of activities or capacities which are included in our concept of a conscious human being.”

This was likely an outgrowth of the fact that we chose our method of investigation in psychology before we considered our subject matter.  With our “physics envy” (as Leahy put it), we borrowed the mechanical methods of physics and applied them to psychological studies.  Given this, it was short step to begin to withdraw human characteristics from humans and, instead, apply mechanical conceptions to them.  In the 1950s, Robert Oppenheimer, the respected physicist, warned us about this tendency to “mechanomorphize” (as Waters put it) in our efforts to emulate classical (which in physics means “outdated”) physics:

“…the worst of all possible misunderstandings would be that psychology be influenced to model itself after a physics which is not there any more, which has been quite outdated.”

Unfortunately, this is exactly what occurred.  In fact, quite prophetically, 20 years earlier than Oppenheimer’s warning, the psychologist Robert Yerkes stated that, “Almost unconsciously…psychologists are becoming physiologists.  The probably outcome of this movement is the disappearance of psychology as a science of experience and its assimilation first by psychobiology and ultimately by physiology.”  By the 1970s, psychologists such as Donald Hebb flatly stated that, “Psychology is a biological science.” 

Fundamentally, the point I am trying to make is that the Morgan’s Canon and Ockham’s Razor have come to symbolize that explanations of psychological phenomena, even human mentation, motivation, etc., should rely on biological explanation.  In essence, in the “simplest form,” everything psychological is biological and should be understood (and treated) as such.  For this reason, there is currently a noticeable rise in biological understandings of psychological phenomena (what some, including me, refer to as “the biologization of psychology”).  It is also related to the increasing trend in psychology toward pursuit of prescription privileges – a traditionally biological treatment conducted by biologically – medically – trained practitioners (psychiatrists).Still, such understanding, as Waters was ready to admit in the 1940s, limits perspectives and ignores such issues as agency.  In essence, by conceptualizing humans as machines, the humanity of humans and the creative process and agentic action that they engage in is lost.  Worse still, it is ignored and unaccounted for. 

My belief is that the problem is not with the idea of using the simplest description, it is with not recognizing that the simplest description must still account for all the variations that exist.  Biological explanations certainly are a component of understanding and treating psychological phenomena but they are a necessary and not sufficient component. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

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February 6, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , | 1 Comment

5 Feb 08 – Watson/McDougall – The False Dichotomy of Nature/Nurture.

5 February 2008

On this day in 1924, a debate entitled, “Battle of Behaviorism,” sponsored by the Psychological Club of Washington, D.C., was held in the D.A.R. Memorial Constituion Hall.  The debate was between John Watson and William McDougall.  McDougall was declared victorious, with his hereditary perspective holding sway over Watson’s environmental perspective on behaviorism.

This debate was one of many representations of the “nature versus nurture controversy.”  Essentially, the arguments are pitted as conceptualizations of whether it is biological factors that determines behavior (e.g., genetics, neuroanatomy, neurochemicals) or environmental factors (e.g., family constitution, peer groups, nutrition, socioeconomic status, educational resources).  Today, it is commonly accepted that an interaction of factors – biological and environmental – are involved in the presentation of behaviors (though, there is an increasing trend toward considering neuroscientific explanations as sufficient for understanding such presentations). 

Still, this acceptance warrants some attention because it amounts to acceptance by philosophical fiat.  That is, it appears to be completely understandable that such acceptance should be arrived at, considering that both biological interpretations and environmental interpretations possess an identical philosophical grounding: naturalism.  According to the philosophy of naturalism, all behaviors are the result of past determinants – either biological or environmental.  With recognition that naturalism is the grounding framework for both arguments, this debate can be seen to be a false dichotomy – they do not represent two competing perspectives but instead represent the same perspective developed from slightly different vantages.

Essentially, the argument on both sides is for linear, efficient and material causation for behavior.  When combined, it merely increases the number of efficient and material causal variables.  Still, they remain determinants; neither perspective escapes the fundamental perspective that individual behavior is the result of forces that are outside of the individual’s control.

What, then, would be a genuine alternative?  Agency!  That is, the perspective that individuals have possibility, an “otherwise,” that they can act on.  They can choose their behavior, with constraints of context and ability taken into consideration.  In other words, by agency I do not mean indeterminism or chaos.  There is a limit to one’s ability to act for the sake of goals, motivations, and purposes.  Yet, the acting for the sake of and the variable possibility inherent to choices made allow that neither biological nor environmental determinants are sufficient for explaining all behavior. 

This, then, would frame a truly meaningful debate: Determinism versus Agency. 

Unfortunately, very often agency is merely subjugated to the position of “unscientific,” again, by philosophical fiat.  That is, the philosophy of naturalism, which underlies modern conceptions of science, especially in psychology, rules out before investigation and discussion (in a very UNscientific manner) the legitimacy of agency.  Hence, such a debate devolves before it is engaged in, with the position of agency dismissed as non-sensical. 

Furthermore, as implied above, all too often agency is dismissed in a false polemical manner, with those believing in determinism painting anything other than determinism as “indeterminism” and therefore, unscientific, because there is no ability to predict from chaos (which results from indeterminism).  In essence, a straw man is set up, which is easily set to flames.

However, agency does provide for a tremendous amount of predictability.  In fact, the few studies that have endeavored to investigate it have indicated that an understanding of one’s goals, purposes, and motivations are highly predictive of future behaviors.  Consider someone who, as a high school junior, has an established goal (that they have affectively affirmed) to be a cardiovascular surgeon – we can predict pretty readily that this individual will not skip school, will study hard, and will be involved in endeavors that increase his or her likelihood of achieving that goal. 

The point of all of this, however, is even more simple: we have created a false dichotomy in psychology that was easily solvable and the solution to which provided us with a false sense of satisfaction in our ability to reconcile differences in perspective.  What remains, however, is a significant countermovement in psychology that understands the false dichotomy and is now involved in presenting agentic perspectives as legitimate and in need of recognition by the mainstream. 

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 5, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

4 Feb 08 – American Psychological Society and Fragmentation in Psychology.

4 February 2008

On this day in 1987, the American Psychological Association (APA) Board of Directors rejected a proposal to reorganize the APA into 2 to 5 autonomous assemblies.  As a result of the failed proposal, the Assembly for Scientific and Applied Psychology formed.  This group formed the basis of the American Psychological Society, which later became the Association for Psychological Science. 

This proposal was the brain trust of a group of “scientific psychologists,” who wanted to maintain the scientific basis of psychology.  The result was, at the time, conceived as the ultimate indication of the fragmentation of American psychology, with practitioners staying the course with the APA and science-minded psychologists breaking ranks and joining the American Psychological Society.

Still, the idea of fragmentation would require that there was unity to begin with.  That is, the word “fragmentation” implies unity as without unity there is nothing from which to break off or detach from.  In other words, fragmentation implies that there was a paradigm in psychology. 

Unfortunately, there is no clear indication that there was at in 1987, is now, or ever was a paradigm in psychology.  Certainly, we have heard that there has been a “cognitive revolution” in psychology that involved an overthrow of the old behaviorism regime.  Furthermore, there is clear evidence that neuroscientific explanations of psychology are gaining favor.  Hence, we would assume that before cognitivism, behaviorism was the paradigm.  Before behaviorism, many believe that psychoanalysis held sway.  Now, many believe that there is a paradigm shift toward biological explanations.  While I tend to agree that there is an increasing “biologization” of psychology, at no time has there been a single accepted paradigm in psychology.  Instead, we have had a number of different perspectives on how to understand psychological phenomena. 

There have also been great arguments regarding other grounding frameworks or paradigms that are philosophically based.  For example, Brent Slife conceives of the field of psychology being held to linear time conceptualization, naturalistic conceptualizations, and abstractionistic conceptualizations.  While certainly a great majority of the field accepts, probably implicitly, such philosophical conceptualizations, as Thomas Leahy pointed out, these are probably prepardigmatic.  Slife, for example, is quite well aware of evidence that does not support such linear time, naturalistic, and abstractionistic conceptualizations.  These might be conceived of as “anomalies” to the paradigm.  However, these anomalies are truly genuine theoretical concerns that amount to foundational philosophical questions that require acceptable answers in order for there to even be a paradigm.  Hence, they cannot be anomalous because there is no paradigm to be anomalous to. 

Instead, there needs to be a paradigm – given the both linear time and non-linear time, naturalistic and non-naturalistic, and abstractionistic and relational evidence that exists – that is holistic.  Only with a holistic paradigm can we adequately comprehend and synthesize the knowledge that we have.  Only with such a paradigm can both the “science-minded” and “application-minded” individuals work together to advance the science and practice of psychology and prevent the science-practice schism that so many see as ultimately inevitable.

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 3, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

3 Feb 08 – Mental Illness: A Social Construction?

3 February 2008

On this day in 1845, Dorothea Dix presented a document to the Pennsylvania state legislature describing her 2-year survey of the state’s treatment of people with mental illness.  She found people with mental illnesses in jails, alms-houses, and cellars of public buildings.  As a result of her presentation, the Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital was created.

This story brings up the question of what is mental illness.  How did Dix determine that the mentally ill were to be found in these different locations?  How do we define mental illness? 

We can read a lot about the typical definitions, to be found in our diagnostic manual, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) now in its 4th edition (with a text revision).  Essentially, disorders are defined based on expert consensus and research conduct on these professionally accepted constructs. 

An alternative view, however, was presented by Thomas Szasz in his book entitled, Myth of Mental Illness (which was originally published as an article in the American Psychologist).  Szasz traced the history back to the Middle Ages and a pair of monks named Sprenger and Kramer, which always makes me think of a bad daytime talk show.   

[SIDE NOTE: In fact, Sprenger and Kramer did have a bit of a scam going on where they claimed to be clairvoyant.  They would set up a tent.  One of the two would gather information from the people outside the tent.  The people would be ushered in and the one who gathered information would go around the back of the tent and feed information to the one in the tent doing the “clairvoyancy,” thus making the people believe that they knew things they couldn’t know.]

Though the history of people being conceived of as mentally odd probably goes back further than Sprenger and Kramer, these two codified a specific category of mental deviance in a book entitled Malleus Maleficarum (which means “Hammer of Witches”).  In this book, Sprenger and Kramer developed means of determining who witches were.  They defined them based on certain features, which are relatively unimportant to the present discussion.  What is important is that this book was used to determine who were witches.  Then, individuals used it to go out and find witches.  Unfortunately, those finding the witches were paid on a sort of commission, wherein they received the lands of those found guilty of witchery.  So, it is probably not surprising that a number of single women were found to be witches.

 

At any rate, in the 1960s, Zilboorg discovered the Malleus Maleficarum and made the following statement, “the Malleus Maleficarum might with a little editing serve as an excellent modern textbook of descriptive clinical psychiatry of the fifteenth century, if the word witch were substituted by the word patient, and the devil eliminated.” Essentially, Zilboorg felt that Sprenger and Kramer, who happened to be a couple of con artists, had created a document, which happened to be used selectively to fabricate witchery and claim riches, was an excellent frame of reference for defining mental illness – if only we were to change the word witch to patient and take the devil out of it.

Szasz came along and interpreted both the Malleus Maleficarum and our current diagnostic system as social fabrications.  The point of both were to control people that did not fit neatly into the current social system.  In essence, Szasz said that “mental illness” was a social construction.  Szasz also felt like the “treatment” of this social construction was borderline abusive.  For example, he described the treatment of the “father of modern psychiatry” whose face appears on the DSM, Benjamin Rush.  Benjamin Rush was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, the personal physician of George Washington (and probably bled him – a common treatment at the time – to death), and a psychiatrist.  Rush’s treatments sometimes involved spinning people excessively until they said they no longer were experiencing the aberrant thoughts/behaviors.  He also devised specific treatments for specific individuals.  One person thought he had snakes in his intestines and Rush gathered some snakes from his garden, put them in a bucket, and had the person defacate in the bucket – now the snakes were out!  Another thought he was a plant and Rush urinated on him to kill the plant (or some such).  This, for Szasz, was evidence enough of the origin of poor treatment of those deemed “mentally ill.”

I guess, given this, it is not a far stretch that Dix would find the mentally ill in such destitute locations.  Still, we might benefit from some better understandings of what mental illness truly is.  Instead of accepting particular framings, we might benefit more from understanding the humanity and inhumanity that is involved in such designations and the treatment that stems from it.  What, for example, does it mean for those individuals, without words such as “crazy,” “depressed,” “anxious,” etc., to feel what they feel?  What does it mean for them to be told they are depressed, anxious, crazy, etc.?  What does it mean for them to be treated the way they are?  What are their relationships like?  How do they feel they fit into the world?  How do they conceive of the world?  What do the hallucinations and delusions of schizophrenics mean to them?  If there are some meanings to them, should we dismiss them as the result of a biochemical imbalance and treat them, as a result, with some psychotropic medication and ignore the meaning that these individuals do have?

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

February 3, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments