Saturday, June 2, 2012

No scientific model for some problems

SciAm writer John Horgan writes Why B. F. Skinner, Like Freud, Still Isn’t Dead:
Note what Chomsky is saying: that neither behaviorism nor any other scientific model can explain — or is even close to explaining — how humans learn language, which is arguably our defining trait. (In spite of his own emphasis on the genetic underpinnings of language, Chomsky has been cruelly dismissive of evolutionary psychology, which he once called a “philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in.”)

In a recent column on philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn, I pointed out that some fields, especially “hard” ones like physics and chemistry, converge on a paradigm and rapidly progress, while others “remain in a state of constant flux.” Fields that address human thought and behavior—anthropology, economics, sociology, political science, psychology – are prime example of research endeavors that lurch faddishly from one paradigm to another.

Will psychologists ever find a paradigm powerful enough to unify the field and help it achieve the rigor of, say, nuclear physics or molecular biology? William James had his doubts. More than a century ago he fretted that psychology might never transcend its “confused and imperfect state.” Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner has argued that James’s concerns “have proved all too justified. Psychology has not added up to an integrated science, and it is unlikely ever to achieve that status.” Gardner once told me that questions about free will, the self, consciousness and other topics with which psychologists (and, tellingly, philosophers) wrestle might not be amenable to conventional scientific reductionism, in spite of all the advances of modern genetics, neuroscience and brain imaging.

So Skinner and Freud continue to be idolized, long after they have been discredited, because of low standards in the field of psychology.

I am told that Chomsky's views are in the minority, even tho everyone agrees that they were brilliant.

I believe that even the hard sciences have problems that are not solved by any scientific model, and they will never be. Free will is one. Physicists have lots of opinions about what is deterministic or probabilistic, but those opinions have no scientific basis.


  1. What is remarkable is the enormous size of some university Psychology departments as measured against any definite contribution which the subject has made to the advancement of human knowledge.

    Freud's ideas have been incorporated also into the Frankfurt school's programme of subversion as well as Eng Lit departments:

    One of the secrets of keeping the ideas of Freud alive (as with Marx) is by constantly rebadging his contribution to world 'progress', e.g. from brilliant scientist to political and moral philosopher and exemplary literary stylist. The fact is that Freud's vapourings used to be mandatory for those studying Psychiatry in the UK, so if they can be dropped from one area of 'science', why retained in another?

    1. Wrong address, sorry:

  2. I detest the current state of the field of Psychology. It's been said that "There are as many schools of psychology as there are psychologists" -- i.e., a fractured stste of affairs. But ...

    On the other hand, as Roger points out, there is a fair amount of fracture in Physics these days. Also, even w.r.t. the "established advances" of hard science, in the early days of those respective fields the situation may well have been as anfractuous as that which we have today in Psychology. Perhaps some advances in the substrate sciences, like neurochemistry, will prove guideposts; until then, the shrinks will always say things like "We deal with more uncontrollable variables than 'hard' scientists do" -- see e.g. some of R. Scott Shumate's and Randy Borum's articles on the use of psychology in counterterrorism efforts -- and also that they "deal with reality, not controlled lab conditions". While these notions tend to conflate pure and applied science, still there's some kernel of truth in there. I consider psychology and sociology to be sciences, it's just that they're nascent ones.

    And then, there's a conventionalism/labeling problem. When I arrived at college for my Freshman year, the advisor I was assigned was chairmen of the Sociology department. I told him flat-out that I was going to be a Philosophy major, that Philosophy is a broader discipline, subsuming fields like Sociology. He said thst the content and style of my writings indicated great promise in Soc, and that on the basis of these writings I would be considered by others more a sociologist than a Philosopher. This happens sometimes in science and academia -- someone might, e.g., read the transcript of the Royaumont ('75, I think) debate between Chomsky and Jean Piaget, like Chomsky's positions, and then bump into him at some conference only to horrify him by exclaiming "Noam, you're a brilliant psychologist."

    The Soc Chairman's comments only raised my hackles. I got an 'A' in Freshman Ethics (one of there-was-only-rumored-to-have-been four of them that year), majored in Philosophy (eventually getting my B.A. under Paul Tate at Idaho State). I have never doubted that Philosophy was the best preparation for law school, much better than majoring in any social science. Philosophy is also the best training I got before studying Patent Law -- even though technical expertise is required with most patents, when you get down to matters of axioms/assumptions selection, wordsmithing, and general argumentation, the nitty gritty, Philosophy is what it's all about.