Wednesday, June 25, 2008

I will try to write a paper on yoga psychology and the future of scientific psychology

INTEGRAL PSYCHOLOGY BEYOND WILBER-V Inviting Open-Minded Skepticismof the Materialist View Don Salmon

[4] Geoffrey also made a few brief comments about psychology as a science. The more I've thought about his comments, the more it seems I would need to write a paper instead of an endnote to respond to them. At some point (hopefully in the not-too-distant future), I will try to write a paper on yoga psychology and the future of scientific psychology. Meanwhile, here's a pretty good site for getting an overview of the history of scientific psychology:

Two points in response to Geoffrey — he asks the question, when did psychology become a science, and refers to the "hyper-imaginative babblings" of Freud and Jung. Actually, Freud and Jung were psychiatrists, not psychologists (and Freud was trained as a neurologist). Second, Geoffrey takes issue with Ronald Melzack's critique of scientific psychology (see below) and puts forth "evolutionary psychology" [EP] as an obvious and ideal framework for an all-inclusive psychology. He then takes me to task for quoting Steven Pinker without mentioning EP.

Scientific psychology is generally thought to have begun in Europe with the founding of Wilhelm Wundt's laboratory in Leipzig, Germany in 1879. The 1890 publication of William James' "The Principles of Psychology" is thought by some to mark the birth of American scientific psychology. James' theory of functionalism — which has evolutionary thinking at its core — was one of the more predominant psychological theories of the time (actually, Darwinian thinking was at the core of much of Freud's thought as well). Throughout most of the last 125 or so years of scientific psychology, evolution has always been taken into account. "Evolutionary psychology," however, is another matter. Its parent, E.O. Wilson's sociobiology, was so ridiculed that it eventually died, only to be reborn as "evolutionary psychology." It presents an extremely reductionist view of human psychology, and is thought by many leading scientific psychologists to be crude at best, hardly more worthwhile than its parent, sociobiology (I'm speaking here of ontological reductionism, which a significant number of philosophers of science consider suspect, rather than methodological reductionism, which is almost universally accepted).. This is true despite the fact that Pinker and Dawkins think so highly of it. To my knowledge, all of scientific psychology takes into account the facts of evolution. But doing that doesn't make all psychologists proponents of evolutionary psychology! (I realize that EP has been an immensely popular fad in the last several years, and you can find dozens of positive evaluations in a quick web search; but even hundreds of comments on the web don't equal scientific respectability).

Regarding the beginnings of scientific psychology: there is a surprising amount of basic scientific work done as far back as the late 1800s which is still considered relevant. If you've ever spoken of having a "learning curve" with regard to learning something new, you've been influenced by Ebbinghaus' theories which were developed around the time of the birth of scientific psychology. The introspectionists like Thorndike, whose research methodology is generally thought to have been discredited, were not the only psychologists doing research at the time. The psychophysicists, developmental psychologists, students of motivation, learning, perception, memory, etc. all contributed to the scientific knowledge of the time. John Watson, the behaviorist, may have set back the study of the mind with his call for a purely behaviorist science, but at least some of the learning principles of Watson, and even Skinner, still hold up. George Miller heralded the cognitive "revolution" with his "The Magic Number Seven Plus or Minus Two" article in 1959 (an article on the number of things most people can generally hold in working memory). Meanwhile in the past 40 years, a great deal of neuroscience has been incorporated into the work of scientific psychology, and computer modeling has made possible many advances as well.

Having given this very brief historical overview, I still don't find anything lacking in Ronald Melzack's critique of psychology (Melzack developed a pain rating scale which is widely used both in pain clinics and pain research; there's a nice short wikipedia entry on him). He wrote in 1989, "The field of psychology is in a state of crisis. We are no closer now to understanding the most fundamental problems of psychology than we were when psychology became a science a hundred years ago... some neuroscience and computer technology have been stirred in with the old psychological ingredients, but there have been no important conceptual advances... We are adrift... in a sea of facts and practically drowning in them. We desperately need new concepts, new approaches." Nine years earlier, psychologist Seymour Epstein wrote about the problems of psychology in The American Psychologist, saying: "Psychological research is rapidly approaching a crisis as the result of extremely inefficient procedures for establishing replicable generalizations. The traditional solution of attempting to obtain a high degree of control in the laboratory is often ineffective because much human behavior is so sensitive to incidental sources of stimulation that adequate control cannot be achieved.... Not only are experimental findings often difficult to replicate when there are the slightest alterations in conditions, but even attempts at exact replications frequently fail."

This seemed to me to still have been pretty much the state of affairs when I was conducting psychological research as a graduate student in the late 1990s. In 1999, developmental psychologist Jerome Kagan (I think he was still a professor at Harvard at the time, though I'm not sure) reiterated Melzack's point, saying that not only does psychology lack an overarching paradigm, but it is so full of conflicting views that there is hardly anything more than a few trivial facts about learning and perception about which more than a handful of psychologists would agree. Charles Honorton, in his 1993 essay "The Impoverished State of Skepticism", notes that Ray Hyman and James Alcock frequently refer to parapsychology as being a failure after more than 100 years of research. He goes on to say, "Is psychology a 'failed' science? If we were to apply the 'century of failure' arguments of Hyman and Alcock to academic psychology, we might well conclude that psychology has failed in its mission: after a hundred years of relatively well-funded research, vigorous controversies continue over such basic phenomena as memory, learning, and perception. The simple act of human facial recognition, for example, remains a mystery and is currently a hot research topic in cognitive psychology." Regarding contemporary cognitive science, philosopher Jerry Fodor comments, "Our best cognitive science is the psychology of perception, and (see just below) it may well be that perceptual processes are largely modular, hence computationally local. Whereas, plausibly, the globality of cognition shows up clearest in the psychology of common sense. Uncoincidentally, as things now stand, we don't have a theory of the psychology of common sense that would survive serious scrutiny by an intelligent five-year-old." (see

As Douglas Hofstader has recently pointed out, among the "basic phenomena" which cognitive science has yet to get a hold of, "the question what is a concept could be said to lie at the crux of cognitive science and yet concepts still lack a firm scientific basis". Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga admitted that in a textbook on cognitive science of over 1,000 pages, nothing was mentioned on the topic of thinking (that is, actual critical and creative thinking as opposed to simple problem solving, concept formation, etc, which often show up in cognitive science texts). And according to Edward Kelly, in his book, Irreducible Mind (2006), "even former leaders of the 'cognitive revolution' such as Jerome Bruner, Noam Chomsky, George Miller, and Ulric Neisser have publicly voiced disappointment in its results." I think these critiques are worth noting because, if one day the "paranormal" becomes "normal", and "mind" and "matter" are both understood — as they are in yoga psychology — to be different forms of one conscious-energy ("chit-shakti"), then a new expanded psychology will be born which will far transcend the discoveries of the last 125+ years. Jan and I tried to give an overview of what this psychology might look like in our Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness.

However, we did not make much of an attempt to tie the vision of yoga psychology with specific developments in cognitive science, though I think we succeeded in showing that yoga psychology does not conflict with the findings (as opposed to physicalist interpretations) of cognitive science. Kelly has done an admirable job of linking scientific psychology with a truly post-metaphysical (that is, non-speculative) vision in his Irreducible Mind and I highly recommend it. As Kelly puts it in the introduction to his book,

"[Noam] Chomsky for example, pointed out that empirical regularities known to 19th century chemistry could not be explained by the physics of the day, but did not simply disappear on that account; rather, physics eventually had to expand in order to accommodate the facts of chemistry. Similarly, he argued, we should not settle for specious 'reduction' of an inadequate psychology to present-day neurophysiology, but should instead seek 'unification' of an independently justified level of psychological description and theory with an adequately complete and clear conception of the relevant physical properties of the body and brain — but only if and when we get such a conception. For in Chomsky's view, shared by many modern physicists, advances in physics from Newton's discovery of universal gravitation to 20th century developments in quantum mechanics and relativity theory have undermined the classical and commonsense conceptions of matter to such an extent that reducibility of mind to matter is anything but straightforward, and hardly a foregone conclusion."

The philosopher Jerry Fodor has some wonderful observations regarding evolutionary psychology (and his observations, to my knowledge, are in line with what a majority of psychologists think about EP):
"Thus we now have titles such as Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality, and The Dangerous Passion: Why Jealousy Is as Necessary as Love and Sex. In the wake of neo-Darwinism, science appears to be descending to the level of soap opera. Another book in this category, The Natural History of Rape, describes rape as "a natural, biological phenomenon that is a product of the human evolutionary heritage", akin to "the leopard's spots and the giraffe's elongated neck". Not long ago a Princeton University professor published an article defending bestiality, insisting that "sex across the species barrier... ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."

And in the wake of Columbia disaster, in an article in the Science Times reflecting on the fact that we are moved more by the deaths of individuals than by statistics, we were assured that "emotions, developed to enhance the species' survival, keeping early humans one step in front of hungry lions, sometimes mislead in the modern world." Welcome to brave new world of evolutionary psychology! Regarding Steven Pinker's book, How the Mind Works, Fodor comments: "A lot of the fun of Pinker's book is his attempt to deduce human psychology from the assumption that our minds are adaptations for transmitting our genes. His last chapters are devoted to this and they range very broadly; including, so help me, one on the meaning of life. Pinker would like to convince us that the predictions that the selfish-gene theory makes about how our minds must be organised are independently plausible. But this project doesn't fare well. Prima facie, the picture of the mind, indeed of human nature in general, that psychological Darwinism suggest is preposterous; a sort of jumped up, down-market version of original sin."

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