The Other I

July 21, 2010

Reductionism and psychology’s embrace

Filed under: Intriguing Science — theotheri @ 8:48 pm

Although some of the first reservations from scientists came from the field of psychology, several theories which are still alive and well embraced reductionism.

The most well-known are the theories collectively known as Behaviorism.  Classical behaviorism, based primarily on Pavlov’s dogs which he trained to salivate to the sound of a bell, endorsed reductionism without qualification.

Reductionism in its strongest form says that all reality can be reduced to subatomic particles and that these particles constitute  the only true reality.  Nothing else is real in its own right.

Human consciousness, then, the mind, feelings, intention, thought, have no independent existence.  Scientifically they do not constitute real things and therefore cannot be used to explain or predict behavior.  Classical behaviorism argued originally that what we thought of as thought was really only the subtle, almost imperceptible, movements of the larynx and nerves involved in producing speech.

No serious Behaviorist today thinks thought is really sub-vocal speech.  But the essence of reductionist thinking remains.

First, Behaviorists argue that what we do is determined not by what we think but by the environment.  They accept that genes limit what effects the environment can have, but genes are hard to change, and in any case, whatever our genetic make-up, we will always be controlled by the rewards and punishments the environment produces following anything we do.

For instance, if we are rewarded for our temper tantrums, if they ultimately produce what we want, then our temper tantrums will increase.  On the other hand, if we find that saying “please” is more apt to get us our way, that is the behavior that will increase.  And so forth through absolutely everything we do.

For the Behaviorists, then, the way to change behavior is not to change our mind, not to analyze our motives, but to change the punishments and rewards in the environment.

Like the reductionists in general, Behaviorists are essentially deterministic.  They do not believe in human choice or free will, and so of course, logically do not believe in either sin or virtue as deliberate acts.

There is a great body of evidence supporting the Behaviorists’ claims.  The response to environmental contingencies, to reward and punishment, has been demonstrated in probably every known living organism, from one-celled bacteria to university professors.

Behaviorism was in part given an impetus from Freud’s psychoanalytic theory which claimed to study the unconscious.  Although Freud himself believed that one day we would identify the physical realities reflected in the pleasure principle he called the id, the conscious self called the ego, and the moral principle termed the superego, nobody has found it.  Freudian psychoanalysts to this day study the human psyche through verbal reports of the patient about their thoughts and dreams.  In other words, they study descriptions by a patient of their private experience which is not directly accessible to anyone but the patient him/herself.

Since the essence of the scientific method requires that results reported by one scientist can be replicated by other scientists, the Freudian method in its present form fails utterly as a scientifically verifiable theory.  It cannot repeat the conditions of private experience nor even test whether the original descriptions provided by a patient were truthful.

The Behaviorists threw out the psyche as a scientific concept altogether.

But both modern Behaviorists and Freudians, ironically, agree on one important principle.  That is  that “thought” is essentially a physical reality and can therefore be studied by observations of the brain and the nervous system.  “Thought,” therefore, can be reduced to brain waves and synapses, and ultimately to the sub-atomic particles of which our brains are made.

Not every school of psychology agrees.  Which will be the topic of my next post on the topic of reductionism in science.


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