Re: What Is Psychology?

From: S.Harnad (
Date: Wed Nov 26 1997 - 18:51:06 GMT

> From: danielle still <>
> Psychology and Science are separate disaplines that are intrigued by
> the mind.

It's really Philosophy and Psychology that both studied the mind; what
you might have meant was that there was prescientific Psychology and
then Scientific Psychology. The difference would be that Scientific
Psychology studies the mind with experiments and theories rather than

[By the way, please always use a spell-checker before posting. (It's
"disciplines" rather than "disaplines".)]

> Wundt
> used a theory called introspection to study the mind, however as the
> disapline advanced this theory was considered subjective and its
> validity was called in to question.

Kid-sib says you should tell him what introspection is: It's not a
theory; it's a "method": You sit in an armchair and pay attention to
what is going on in your mind, and you try to figure out how it works.

Introspection was not just "considered" subjective, it IS subjective:
What can be more subjective than sitting and studying what's going on in
your own head? "Subjective" means anything that is based purely on your
own feelings and opinion. Taste is often a subjective matter: I may like
music you don't like and vice versa. There's no right or wrong in
subjectivity, and (because of the "other minds" problem) there is also
no way to know what someone else feels (or even THAT someone else

"Objective" means anything that is independent of subjective feelings
and opinion; anything (e.g., the temperature now) that can be checked
or tested or measured by anyone at all, to make sure it's true (or show
it's false). Taste is subjective, but facts are not. "That painting is
beautiful" is a subjective statement. "That is an oak tree" is an
objective statement. So are all the other statements of science and
mathematics. (They may not all be TRUE, but their truth should be
testable objectively: if you don't believe that's an oak tree, take a
leaf of it and compare it to the leaf in a botanical text that is
labelled "oak leaf.")

There are at least two broad sets of objective statement: The everyday
ones, such as "It's raining today; I need an umbrella" or "lunch is
served only till 2 pm and it's 1:55; I'd better hurry."

The other class of objective statements is science and mathematics:
"This is sulphuric acid," "F = ma" or "2 + 2 = 4" are all objective
statements; the scientific ones can be tested by experiments; the
mathematical ones can be proved -- which means that it can be shown that
if they were not true, it would lead to a contradiction; in a system
that allows contradictions, there is no True or False, because anything
-- and the opposite of anything -- goes.

There really is no dividing line between everyday objectivity and
scientific objectivity, so there really is no difference between
science and everyday life; it is just that science is usually more
systematic than everyday thinking and reasoning.

There IS a real dividing line, though, between everyday and scientific
objectivity on the one hand, and mathematical objectivity on the
other: The truths of everyday life and science (including the guilt or
innocence of people who are on trial) cannot be "proved": they can only
be shown to be very probable on the basis of the available (objective)
evidence: Matching the leaf in your hand to the leaf in the botanical
text does not "prove" the leaf is oak, but it certainly makes it very
likely. "2 + 2 = 4" on the other hand, can be proved to be true, indeed
necessarily true; that's what's special about maths.

Introspection, being subjective, can only produce impressions and
opinions; the impressions and opinions might happen to be correct
(I don't THINK it feels like my head aches, I KNOW it), but unlike
the truths of maths, which are provable and necessarily true, or the
truths of science and everyday life, which are testable and highly
probable on the basis of the evidence, subjective truths are neither
provable nor probable. Hence they are not a very useful source of
information about how the mind works.

> Behaviourism over took
> introspectionism and was thought to emulate the natural sciences by
> adopting its own objective methodology which spurred on the studying.
> This was thought to be over simplified and that it neglected certain
> complex behaviours.

Kid sib would not know what all of this means...

> In the 1970's psychologists attentions were turned to cognitive science
> as the mind embodies both mental and intellectual qualities. Its
> functions include remembering, problem solving, directing thoughts and
> desires, thinking and feeling.

Yes, those can all be studied now, but there is still a problem with
understanding subjective states like believing or feeling. These are
just philosophical problems though (the mind/body problem, actually) and
need not deter us from studying what we CAN study, which is what the
mind can do, and how.

> Cognitive psychology was widely accepted as it was examined by
> experimenting,for example,problem solving and using memory
> tasks,enabling people to show their thoughts and behaviours
> externally,giving psychologists evidence from which they could back
> their theory.

The key word is theory: A theory is something that explains data
CAUSALLY: what causes lead to what effects, and how.

In physics, the "inverse square law" (that the gravitational attraction
exerted by one object on another is 1 divided by the square of the
distance between them) is a causal explanation, but in psychology, our
explanations are not in the form of these basic laws of nature. They
are, as I've suggested, much more like engineering explanations: the
explanations of how cars or airplanes or furnaces work. We should be
thought of as very versatile biological "robots" -- but of course robots
with feelings. All "robot" means is a system that works according to
cause/effect just like everything else in the universe. It does not mean
that we are mindless "Zombies," with no feelings at all.

So what psychologists do is try to make theories that explain our
remarkable capacities. Of course they can't do all of it at once, so
they work on bits, such as our ability to pay chess, to solve certain
problems, to describe scenes, etc. The idea is that these explanations of
bits of our overall capacity will eventually scale up to all of it, once
we have completely reverse-engineered the mind.

> "Some psychologists say that cognitive science is the
> study of the mind,while others argue that there is no mind"

Well you need go no further if someone says there's no mind: That's like
saying that there is no one feeling pain when you have a headache. Of
course there is. So forget about that argument right away.

But there is something close to it that might be nearer to the truth:
Even though psychology is trying to construct a causal theory of the
MIND (by reverse-engineering it), our DATA are just behavioural or
physiological. We cannot observe the mind. (That's why introspection and
phenomenology fail.) We can only observe behaviour (and some brain
function). This means that as our theory scales up to explain more and
more of the things our minds can DO, we can only hope that somehow that
will capture what we FEEL too, because no one has any idea how to
reverse-engineer feelings, as opposed to doings.

And in my opinion, no one ever will. Not because feelings are
mysterious, spooky stuff; it is more for methodological reasons:
Feelings exist, that's undeniable. But the only way to obesrve them is
by FEELING them; in other words, they can only be "tested" by
introspection. There is no way I can test YOUR feelings; only your
behaviour (including what you TELL me about your feelings). This makes
psychology very different from any other science, because there is
nothing about chemicals or atoms or galaxies or even plants that you
cannot study objectively: There is nothing about them that you can only
know by BEING them. But there are some things about us that can only be
known by being us! Those things cannot be "captured" by
reverse-engineering or any other objective approach to explaining the

They are of course "captured" by introspection and phenomenology. I
know what it feels like to be typing right now, but you have to take my
word for it, because you aren't me, so you can't feel my feelings. You
have a pretty good idea of what it feels like, because you have had
similar feelings too. But there is no way to make a science out of
those feelings. They cannot be explained objectively, because they are
not objective! That's the mind/body problem, which not even cognitive
science can solve. It's no big deal though, because once we have
completely reverse-engineered all the objective powers of the mind, we
will probably have "captured" the subjective powers of it to: In other
words, if we could use that complete theory to construct a robot that
could do everything we can do, then when it told us it had a head-ache,
it would probably be safe to believe it.

Don't think about the mind/body problem for too long or you'll get a
headache too!

> Psychologists like Watson who rejected the theory of the mind declined
> because surely if this was true then people would not be capable of
> their own specific and individual thoughts,feelings and behaviours.

Kid sib did not understand this! I think what you meant was that Watson
rejected theorising about the mind because the mind is not objectively
observable, whereas behaviour is. Psychologists finally realised that
there's nothing wrong with theorising about unobservables, as long as
the theory is testable against observable data. Three ways to test a
theory of mind are (1) through experiments or other observations of
people's behaviour, including remembering, problem-solving, and
language; (2) through computer simulation of the theory to see whether
it can produce our behaviour in a simulated world, and (3) through
study of the brain (but so far this has not helped us very much in
trying to reverse-engineer the mind; perhaps now that we have brain
imaging and sophisticated computer models, the brain will give us more
clues about how the mind works).

> Science is a disapline that as R. Gross states:
> "attempts to discover general laws or principles that govern human
> behaviour and mental processes,that are intended to be universal".

That's probably an over-inflated definition, and it is not clear whether
it is speaking about science in general (but then why does it mention
behaviour and mental processes?) or about scientific psychology (because
psychology is just reverse-engineering a few middle-sized biomachines
on one planet; there are no scientific "laws" in reverse engineering,
just biological tricks of the trade that help people and animals to
survive and reproduce their genes).

> For science to be scientific,scientists have to be able to study a
> definate subject matter which has enabled them to construct a theory.
> This theory must test the hypothesis using empirical methods ,for
> example,observation and data collection.

In other words (for kid-sib) scientists think up an idea of how
something may work, and then they test it to see whether or not they
were right. (Kid sib would appreciate that language a lot more than
all the technical terms you just used.)

> Psychology and science became interrelated in the reductionist approach
> which states that:
> "the idea that psychological explanations can be replaced by
> explanations in terms of brain functioning or even in terms of physics
> and chemistry. "

This is philosophy again. Never mind whether one kind of explanation
("why did the chicken cross the road? because it felt like going to the
other side, and it believed that crossing the road would do the trick")
can be "reduced to" or "replaced by" another kind of explanation ("why
did the chicken cross the road? because its blood-sugar level fell
below X and its hypothalamus detected food signals on the other side of
the road, so it activated its locomotor system to carry it closer to
the food...etc.").

Don't ask "why." Ask "how." That's what will get the reverse-engineering
to scale up eventually to the chicken's and our own behavioural and
cognitive capacities. Don't worry about "reduction" or "elimination."
Let's get there first.

> However this does not seem acceptable as certain behaviours have social
> meanings which can only be explained by psychological insight in to
> thoughts and behaviours.

Certain behaviours are interactions with other behaving creatures,
including those of our own very social species. So even "social
meanings" require kinds of behavioural know-how that no one has yet
successfully reverse-engineered. Once we capture the know-how, we
can wonder about whether it's missed anything.

> In the mind and body debate,Descartes thought that the mind drove the
> body,this was called dualism. He also claimed that animals were not in
> possesion of a mind unlike humans. If this is the case why has so much
> research been done on animals concerning the brain.

First, Descartes was of course wrong that animals don't have feelings;
I'm as sure they feel pain as I am that our own species does; but as I
said, there's no "proof" in science, so all we can say, based on the
similarities between ourselves and other animals, both behavioural and
physiological similarities, is that it is highly probable that animals do
feel. (For me, this is enough to make me stop eating them.)

I suppose that if someone believed that animals do not resemble us in
having feelings, but do resemble us physiologically, then perhaps he
could believe that physiological research on them would still benefit
us; but he would be on shakier ground if the physiological system that
was being researched was the pain system...

There are many different kinds of dualism, some sillier than others:
I won't give them in any particular order, because I don't want to say
what I find less or more silly, I'll just list them randomly:

The mind controls the body; the mind interacts with the brain; the mind
can exist outside the body; the mind can bend spoons; the mind can
migrate from one body to another; the mind piggy-backs on the body but
does not control it...

These are all symptoms of the mind/body problem, which is not Descartes'
fault; he did not invent or create the problem; he just noted it and
suggested one possible "solution."

> Leibniz,however,claimed that the mind and body worked simultaneously
> together,this was called monism.

There are many different kinds of monism, some sillier than others:
I won't give them in any particular order, because I don't want to say
what I find less or more silly, I'll just list them randomly:

There is no mind; the mind is the same as the brain; when we understand
the brain we will no longer talk or think about the mind; many systems
(and not necessarily only biological ones) have minds, because minds are
just the functional capacities of certain complex systems...

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