Re: What Is Psychology?

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Fri Oct 31 1997 - 18:38:43 GMT

> From: Elizabeth Hocking <>
> The Readers' Digest Oxford Complete Wordfinder (1993)
> states that psychology is "the scientific study of the human
> mind and its functions esp. those affecting behaviour in a
> given context."

Actually, dictionaries are the wrong place to look for this sort of
thing. Besides, what does the above definition mean? Would a bright
kid-sib understand what psychology was from that definition?
(Would he not ask what "functions" are, and what "context" is?
Nor would he really know what you meant by "mind".)

How about: People are able to DO many things: They can see, hear and
move; they can recognise objects and other people. They can speak and
understand speech, and can use speech to describe the things they are
seeing and doing. They can also understand other people's speech.

In addition to being able to DO all these things, they can also FEEL.
It is because we can feel things that we say we have minds; if we
didn't feel things, we wouldn't be there; there would be nobody
home: To be is to be able to feel.

Psychology is the branch of science that tries to understand and
explain the things that people can do and feel. It tries to understand
these capacities by modeling them. Computers provide ways of testing
these models, to see whether they really work, whether they can really
do what we can do.

> Beatty
> states that "there is no one scientific method. Rather,
> science is more like a state of mind. It is adapted to a
> wide variety of specific questions in the various fields of
> inquiry."

Boy, would kid-sib have a problem with that one!

How about: Science is an attempt to explain how things work -- anything
from gravitational attraction and chemical bonding to man-made toasters
and cars. To explain how things work, you model them -- sometimes very
simply, with an equation such as "F = ma" and sometimes in a more
complicated way, by simulating them on a computer.

An explanation is tested by seeing whether it can predict the outcomes
of tests. We test F = ma by measuring, say, "F" and "m" in a particular
moving object, and seeing whether "a" comes out right. (Actually,
this example is incorrect, but you needn't worry about that: In
reality, F = ma is a definition rather than a theory, but let's
pretend it isn't.)

If "a" comes out correctly, as predicted, then the theory (F = ma)
has been confirmed; if not, then it is wrong. (This too is an
oversimplification, because a theory that has already been confirmed
many times in the past is not immediately discarded if one of its
predictions fails: We first look for reasons why it may have failed;
perhaps because of experimental error.)

This process of observing things, trying to explain them, and
then testing whether the explanations work is what is usually called
the "scientific method." The reason it is not really a "method" is
that no one has a way of coming up with theories! That depends on
the mind. If anyone can explain where theories come from, that will
have to be the psychologist. And unless/until psychologists come up
with a method for getting that theory (of how the mind comes up with
theories), the scientific "method" will only be a vague sketch of what
scientists are trying to do.

> This implies that psychology contains a paradox: it is a
> science which seeks to study the human mind, but science is
> like a state of mind. This suggestion, therefore, reflects
> the complexity of the mind: science, like the mind, has many
> subdivisions and definitions.

It's true that psychologists study the mind -- the same mind that is
used in other sciences to do science. So doing science is, I suppose,
a "state of mind," but only in the sense that you are trying to
predict and explain things. There is no paradox in that. Remembering
the name of your Fifth Form teacher is a "state of mind" too. And
psychology has to explain how you do it. We can leave explaining the
mind of the scientist doing science for later; first, let's explain
how you remember the name of your fifth form teacher -- plus all the
other things that ordinary people can do.

> "at the core of the scientific state of mind are a
> number of common elements." These comprise "objectivity,
> observation, experimentation, proper controls, statistical
> evaluation, independent verification of results, and
> evolution. The majority of these are included on our
> psychology course, which backs up the claim that psychology
> is a science.

Yes, yes, but perhaps a more complicated way of putting it than would
suit kid-sib... It's easier to do things that LOOK like doing science
than it is to really do science. And it is an art, not a science, to
come up with theories, predictions, and ways of testing them. No one
can tell you the "method" for doing THAT.

> monisms, dualisms and
> pluralisms. Are they one unit, two, or more? If they are
> two or more, how do they interact?

What's at issue here is called the "mind/body" or "mind/brain" or
"mental/physical" problem.

We all have trouble understanding how feelings could be physical: Could
the feeling of pain be the same thing as the jangling of a bunch of
nerves or the secretion of a bunch of brain chemicals?

If you think it could, you are a monist.

If you think it couldn't, you are dualist: You think that the mental
and the physical are not the same kind of stuff; that there are two
kinds of stuff, rather than one. (Forget about "pluralisms"; Beatty got
that wrong.)

Itiel Dror will be talking to you about the mind/brain problem in
PY104; read the skywriting from past years of PY104 and PY106 to get
an idea of what the issues underlying the m/b problem are.

> One of the most searching questions raised by A. R. Luria's
> "The Man with a Shattered World" is "Is the mind really me?"

That's the m/b problem, all right, though it is raised no more nor
less by Luria's book than by just about any other book on how the
mind/brain works.

> To explore the answer to this is is necessary to study the
> mind. But how is this accomplished? How different people
> react to something may give an observer an inclination of
> what goes on in their mind.

I'm afraid that studying psychology won't solve the mind/brain problem.
But it will tell you more about how the mind/brain works.

But studying "how different people react to something" is a very vague
recipe for doing psychology, even if we agree that there is no
scientific method. A better recipe would be: Psychologists study what
people can do with their minds, and try to model those capacities in
ways that predict and explain them.

> For example, this weekend, I went home for a family
> christening. Of course, all the inevitable questions came
> up. It was very interesting to see the differing reactions
> when I said I am studying psychology. One man said, "I'm
> going, I can't say anything to you can I?" Others exclaimed
> but yet others reacted on a congratulatory note. What makes
> people's reactions so varied? Is it how they perceive things
> differently? And why is this? There are so many influences
> - the views of people close to them, the media and suchlike.

Most people assume that "psychology" = "clinical psychology," the kind
that specialises in people's psychological problems. But that is not
what most psychologists do. And even clinical psychologists must first
learn the basic science of psychology. Have a look at:

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