Understanding the Mind

Why don’t we understand psychology? We have highly developed knowledge of almost everything we can observe, other than people. The light of science has been shone into every corner of the observable world, but for some reason it has not penetrated the realm of the mind to any significant extent. Why not?

A lack of curiosity is not the reason. There is little we are more curious about than ourselves.

Maybe the reason is that introspection is hard. We have high-fidelity sense organs to tell us about the outside world. Though we can see our own thoughts, we cannot see them with the kind of clarity that we can see the outside world. Our thoughts are shadowy and fleeting unto us.

And yet, we have very solid knowledge of the subatomic world, despite the most paltry means of observing it. Our introspective powers, even if they are dim, should be enough for a determined investigator to make progress.

Recognizing that introspection hasn’t gotten us to a general theory of psychology, psychology has now turned towards behavioral and neuroscientific methods. But these don’t seem to be working either. We still don’t have anything even remotely resembling a general theory of psychology. The question remains, why?

I think the reason is that people are complicated. The chains of causality which go into a “simple” human behavior are infathomably massive. They resist analysis.

With the most paltry means of observation, physicists were able to figure out the rules governing subatomic particles, because the rules governing subatomic particles are fundamentally simple. We haven’t been able to do the same with people, because the rules governing people are fundamentally complicated. Maybe an approximately correct theory of psychology would involve terabytes of equations.

How does one approach such a problem? My final answer is, I don’t know. I don’t have much experience with solving impossibly difficult problems.

I do think that I know some things about how to study psychology. In particular, I think I know that experimental psychology is not the best way to make progress on this problem.

Psychology, like many other fields, suffers from “science envy.” It wants to be like the physical sciences. But it shoots itself in the foot by trying to do this. What works for studying atoms, molecules, etc., doesn’t work for studying the mind.

In the physical sciences, the problem is one of studying fairly simple phenomena to the point of exhausting everything there is to know about them, and formulating fully precise and general theories of how they work. The methods of physical science work well for doing this.

In psychology, the problem is one of trying to learn more about an almost intractably complicated phenomenon. The nature of the task is that fully precise and general theories are basically out of the question. Our knowledge will always be vague and tentative, and full of exceptions. And, because we are studying people, our knowledge will always be influenced by our own biases.

In academia there are strong norms against saying things that are vague, things that are tentative, things that have exceptions, and things that are biased. I think that these norms are not helpful for psychology. In psychology, when we refuse to say things that aren’t perfect, we end up saying nothing interesting.

How does one treat an intractably difficult problem? Not by waiting until one’s thoughts are perfect before sharing them. Not by holding others’ thoughts to high standards of correctness. Not by trying prematurely to fit the data into a generalized and rigid framework. Rather, one floats all kinds of hypotheses, without taking any hypothesis too seriously, and remaining radically open-minded.

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