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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 for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.


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

24 Jan 08 – Alcoholism – Where’s the Humanity?

24 January 2008

On this day in 1930, Charles R. Schuster was born.  Schuster conducted behavioral pharmacology studies, which changed the view of drug abuse from a disorder of the will to a behavior maintained and altered by basic mechanisms of operant and classical conditioning. 

As a result of the studies conducted by Schuster, it is not uncommon to read statements such as the following (made by Thomas H. Kelly in an article published in Experimental and Clinical Psychopharmacology):        

            “Drugs of abuse are unconditioned reinforces whose functional effects are

            mediated through neuropharmacological mechanisms.”

I’m actually quite amazed that scientists are willing to give such emphatic statements regarding the causes of psychological phenomena, such as drug abuse.  I’m amazed – and am likely to continually be amazed – because the majority of us have Doctorates of Philosophy but do not appear to understand the philosophical implications of such statements.   The foregoing statement is based on the assumption that research data has “proven” that drugs of abuse develop from operant and classical conditioning means and are demonstrated in their effects on the brain.  Unfortunately, the philosophy of science teaches us that we cannot, in principle, prove anything!  In fact, the closest we can come is falsifying something (showing that it is false).  This, even, is incredibly difficult as those with a particular perspective on something very often come up with arguments that allow them to maintain their perspective, even with disconfirming results.  In fact, what is required is a crucial test or, simply, a change in regime – new people entering the field that are willing to see things in different ways than those who came before them.

Still, individuals such as Victor Stenger, a very thoughtful, intelligent physicist who has made many efforts to combat “pseudoscience” and, especially, “post-modernism” concedes this point.  However, he says that we know the truth well enough from scientific research that we would bet our lives on the findings of research.  I certainly am willing to accept that we have the requisite knowledge for someone to conduct a surgery on me and get it right, for example (even though there are plenty of times, even with the requisite knowledge, that they get it wrong).  Or, to use an example that Stenger gives, the law of gravity has been tested by enough experiments to conclude that it is “real” and will help us predict, with confidence, that after jumping off a tall building we will fall to our precipitous death.

Still, even this example is marred with the “reality” of the philosophy of science.  This reality is that what our data tell us is not the truth.  Instead, they tell as an indicator.  As David Hume, the noted British empiricist, admitted, we must rule out all other possible explanations.  The problem is that we rarely do so.  Even Stenger’s wonderful example regarding the proven construct of gravity has counterarguments.  One of the counterarguments comes from physics, itself.  In fact, it comes from Einstein.  Einstein conceived not of gravity but the curvature of space as the reason why we fall to the precipitous grounding.  Gravity is a metaphysical construct (a theory regarding something that we cannot see) that Newton created even in his attempt to describe things in as physical terms as possible.  Einstein felt that this was unnecessary and developed an alternative. 

Whether the curvature of space (or any other alternative to gravity) is correct or not is not my current concern.  Instead, I use this example to indicate that it is not our data that tell us anything.  It is our interpretations, the theories and philosophies that we apply, that we use to explain and give meaning to the data.  Still, as the example of gravity demonstrates, there are many ways to interpret the same phenomenon. 

Like the perspective on gravity, the operant and classical conditioning with physiological mediation of drug abuse is just one possible interpretation.  From my perspective, while the entire behavioral (e.g., conditioning) perspective is designed to be parsimonious (simplify description and removing superfluous constructs), I don’t even think that it is the most simple explanation of drug abuse.  The reason I do not think that it is is that it does not explain all components of drug abuse.  For example, it does not explain spontaneous remission, people with identical environments not succumbing to drug abuse, the variant effects of drug abuse, etc.  In other words, I believe parsimony requires sufficiency of explanation and the conditioning approach does not give us this.

I think the reason that this is so is that it is restricted to one (or two) aspect(s) of the issue of drug abuse.  That is, it is focused on the environmental (and the biological) aspects of drug abuse.  But, it does not take into consideration the personal choice that is involved.  Even if we are pushed/determined by environmental contingencies and biological mechanisms to drink alcohol, for example, there is always the opportunity to choose not to do this (see Libet’s physiological experiments on free will – even if we do not possess a true choice in doing something, it appears that we do have a choice to not do things…I won’t get into the potential problems of Libet’s experiments negating the original choice right now, however).  In other words, what is missing is the exploration of choice.  The reason it is missing is because behaviorists deny that choice exists; it is a human fabrication (or anthropomorphizing…falsely attributing human characteristics to humans!).

Following this lack of belief in choice, “meaning” is not explored in this research.  That is, what it means for people to engage in drug abuse is not explored.  The reason for this is that meaning requires an individual agent acting; there is no meaning to actions if they are determined.  For example, when a rock rolls down a hill, we don’t say, “Why did you do that Mr. Rock?”  There is no significance to the action: it just happens.  Likewise, when we conceive of humans as having no choice, there is also no meaning (no significance) – and no responsibility – in the action.

Still, choice and meaning would explain some of the findings that clearly speak against the conditioning models and disease models, for example, of alcohol.  The most prevalent contemporary theories of alcohol abuse clearly rely on conditioning and disease model formulations.  An outgrowth of such a conceptualization is that people with alcohol problems should abstain completely form alcohol use because any use of alcohol will re-engage the disease process, which lays dormant until the individual starts to drink again.  However, the findings can certainly be interpreted as not conforming to this model.  For example, a number of studies indicate that the drinking of chronic “alcoholics” is not characterized by loss of control.  Instead, it is frequently goal directed – they do it because they want something out of it (e.g., it is a choice).  Furthermore, alcohol-related problems are quite diverse and, themselves, fluctuate over time, even within the same individual.  This means that different contexts have different meanings at different times.  There also appears to be a social element, with a tendency toward binge drinking in conservative Protestant sects (especially those from dry regions – not desert but those places that prohibit alcohol consumption) and in Irish Americans in comparison to those from Mediterranean backgrounds.  This would indicate not only a drinking culture (perhaps in Irish Americans) but also a somewhat retaliatory drinking culture (in responses to proscriptions – the cultural requirement to abstain).  The latter indication is quite remarkable given the mandate for “alcoholics” to abstain.  It is even more remarkable given the finding that those who are in abstinence programs are even more likely than those in “controlled-drinking” programs to “relapse.”  That is, abstinence does not work (especially force abstinence as the prohibition movement in the United States demonstrated).  Finally, socialization toward moderation in alcohol use appears to be more productive as a treatment.  Changing the meaning and the choices that people make regarding use appears to be more helpful in preventing alcohol problems than requiring them to abstain.

A human with choice and meaning and…responsibility?  This must be fantastical!  It certainly is easier to give that all away to environmental and biological determination.  Still, it would lack sufficient explanatory power…and it is utterly ruinous for society (see my blog on emotional disorders and expulsion a couple days ago).

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

January 24, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

15 Jan 08 – Breuer, Freud – Deterministic?

15 January 2008

On this day in 1842, Josef Breuer was born.  Breuer was a protege of Freud’s and, together, the two of them wrote up the case study of Anna O.  In this case study, Breuer was the treating physician, using hypnosis to “cure” Anna O. of her neurotic condition.  From this case study, the two (Breuer and Freud) developed the techniques of abreaction (mental reliving of a situation from the past) and catharsis (the physical expression of emotion).  However, the two did have some fundamental differences in their theoretical conceptualization of Anna O. (and all mental health “patients”).

Breuer and Freud were both student of Brucke.  Brucke put great faith in what was referred to as the “constancy principle,” which was first introduced by the physician Robert Mayer in 1842 and furthered by Hermann von Helmholtz as a style of explanation in physics.  The principle, as espoused by Helmholtz (and Mayer before him), held that there is a tendency for energies in a closed system to redistribute themselves (conservation of energy).  The force of this redistribution could account in a linearly deterministic fashion (with one thing causing another thing, like a billiard ball hitting another billiard ball, making it move) for the observed behavior of natural objects.  Breuer’s version of this principle showed up in some of his own published lectures and demonstrated how he applied this concept to humans:

Organisms…are all phenomena of the physical world: systems of atoms,
moved by forces, according to the principle of the conservation of
energy discovered by Robert Mayer in 1842…and then popularized
by Helmholtz…The sum of forces remains constant in every isolated
system.  The real causes are symbolized in science by the word “force.”
The less we know about them, the more kinds of forces do we have to
distinguish: mechanical, electrical, magnetic forces, light, heat. 
Progress in knowledge reduces them to two – attraction and repulsion. 
All this applies as well to the organism man.

Here, then, we have Brucke’s perspective that humans are, like any other natural object, the result of forces of attraction and repulsion; they are determined by forces outside their control.  As a good student of Brucke, Breuer likewise favored the constancy principle.  In fact, this principle was to be the basis of Breuer’s contribution toward explaining the hysterical neurosis: strangulated affect (affect and emotion are often used interchangably in psychology).  According to Breuer, this was a kind of bound energy that required working though in order for it to dissipate.  For Breuer, the way to work through and unbound this energy was to regress (take back in time) the patient to reconstruct the unhealthy circumstance that led to the emtion being strangulated in the first place. 

Freud seemed to accept the formulation of the strangulated affect, in general, but not in specifics.  That is, Freud disagreed with Breuer regarding the cause of such strangulations of affect.  While Breuer felt that the strangulated affect was an inherited condition, Freud felt that it was an act of will on the part of the patient.  In most, if not all cases, all that was needed was some exploration to discover this.  In fact, he met no such hysterical neurotics, “who did not exhibit an effort of while whose motive [could] be specified.”  Breuer’s etiology (belief about what caused the strangulated affect) was phrased “hypnoid hysteria” and Freud’s was phrased “defense hysteria.”

This struggle between deterministic and free will conceptualizations was to follow Freud for some time.  In fact, his close relationship with Wilhelm Fleiss was punctuated with failed attempts for Freud to establish a biologically deterministic perspective not unlike that of Breuer’s on neurosis.  In fact, Freud attempted to write a materialistic document describing neurosis but ultimately gave up on it because it did not fit what he saw in his practice or in his self-examination.  The one consolation Freud gave to the deterministic perspective offered by the constancy principle was his libido theory that certainly appears to be a mere “add-on” to appease his more deterministic minded associates (and to gain the respectability he so desired from the medical community).

Freud, then, was largely a “free will” theorist even though he is frequently painted as deterministic.  In fact, the one overtly deterministic portion of his theory was one he, himself, said depended on more of an analogy to biology than any direct evidence from psychoanalysis itself.  It was, in fact, superfluous to the theory that Freud formulated and did not appear to fit comfortably with Freud’s obviously final causal elements (e.g., wish fulfillment, that “for the sake of which” we act). 

SIDE NOTE: Free will (or, as it is more properly called today, “agency”) should not be confused with “non-deterministic” or “indeterministic.”  The latter terms imply a form of chaos, where anyhing goes and there is no direction to behavior.  The former implies an agent acting for the sake of final causes, who possesses possibilities (choices), which he or she can choose to act on.  This agent is constrained by context and ability but otherwise “free” to act on the choices available to him or her.  Some also add that freedom is associated with the actor making a choose that is “authentic.”  That is, the choice is one that is one is true to the proclivities of that individual, not accepted by someone else’s mandate or acted upon based on a belief that he or she must forfeit his or her choice in the matter (as Rush, the rock band said, “If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice”).

In the end, Freud was not deterministic; yet, due to his add-on of the Libido, he was not entirely a free will theorist, either. 

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

January 15, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment