YouTube channel Crash Course is starting a new series on what is perhaps the most social of social sciences: Sociology.
The social sciences, such as sociology, but also psychology, economics, anthropology, and other similar fields get a lot of grief from people about not being “real” science. This criticism is typically justified by noting that scientific theories are about making predictions, and the ability of the social sciences to make predictions seems far weaker than, say, particle physics. Economists couldn’t predict when the Great Recession was coming, the argument goes, so it’s not a science.
But this ignores the fact that predictions are not always possible in the natural sciences either. Physics is the hardest of hard sciences, but it’s married to astronomy, an observational science. Astronomers can’t predict when the star Betelguese will go supernova. But they still know a great deal about star life cycles, and can tell that Betelguese is in a stage where it could go any time in the next few million years.
Likewise biologists can’t predict when and how a virus will mutate. They understand evolution well enough to know that they will mutate, but predicting what direction it will take is impossible. Meteorologists can’t predict the precise path of a hurricane, even though they understand how hurricanes develop and what factors lead to the path they take.
The problem is that these are matters not directly testable in controlled experiments. Which is exactly the problem with predicting what will happen in economies. In all of these cases, controlled experiments, where the variables are isolated until the causal link is found, are impossible. So scientists have little choice but to do careful observation and recording, and look for patterns in the data.
Just as an astronomer knows Betelguese will eventually go supernova, an economist knows that tightening the money supply will send contractionary pressures through the economy. They can’t predict that the economy will definitely shrink if the money supply is tightened because other conflating variables might affect the outcome, but they know from decades of observation that economic growth will be slower than it otherwise would have been. This is an important insight to have.
In the same manner, many of the patterns studied in the other social sciences don’t provide precise predictive power, but they still give valuable insights into what is happening. And again, there are many cases in the natural sciences where this same situation exists.
Why then all the criticism of the social sciences? I think the real reason is that the results of social science studies often have socially controversial conclusions. Many people dislike these conclusions. Often these people are social conservatives upset that studies don’t validate their cherished notions, such as traditionally held values. But many liberals deny science just as vigorously when it violates their ideologies.
Not that everything is ideal in these fields. I think anthropology ethnographers often get too close to their subject matter, living among the culture they’re studying for years at a time. While this provides deep insights not available through other methods, it taints any conclusions with the researcher’s subjective viewpoint. Often follow up studies don’t have the same findings. This seems to make ethnographies, a valuable source of cultural information, more journalism than science.
And psychology has been experiencing a notorious replication crisis for the last several years, where previously accepted psychological effects are not being reproduced in follow up studies. But the replication crisis was first recognized by people in the field, and the field as a whole appears to be gradually working out the issues.
When considering the replication crisis, it pays to remember the controversy over the last several years in theoretical physics. Unable to test their theories, some theorists have called for those theories not to be held to the classic testing standard. Many in the field are pushing back, and theoretical physics is also working through the issues.
In the end, science is always a difficult endeavor, even when controlled experiments are possible. Looking at the world to see patterns, developing theories about those patterns, and then putting them to the test, facing possible failure, is always a hard enterprise.
It’s made more difficult when your subject matter have minds of their own with their own agendas, and can alter their behaviors when observed. This puts the social sciences into what philosopher Alex Rosenberg calls an arms race, where science uncovers a particular pattern, people learn about it, alter their behavior based on their knowledge of it, and effectively change the pattern out from under the science.
But like all sciences, it still produces information we wouldn’t have otherwise had. And as long as it’s based on careful rigorous observation, with theories subject to revision or refutation on those observations, I think it deserves the label “science”.
43 thoughts on “Are the social sciences “real” science?”
The question whether social sciences are real sciences might be one created by the conceptual system of the English language.
If I translate the term “social sciences” into German (my native language), I get “Sozalwissenschaften”. The term “Wissenschaft” however, has a much wider meaning than the English term “science”. It comprises the hard sciences (“Naturwissenschaften”), but also things like, for example, the study of literature (which is “Literaturwissenschaft”). Actually, there is no term in German that covers the meaning of the English term “science” exactly, and there seems to be no English word that corresponds exactly to “Wissenschaft” (I would have to say something like “academic subject” or “academic discipline” or something like that). So while it is debatable if sociology is really a science, it is definitely a Wissenschaft. Nobody in Germany would care much about the question if it is a science or not. The question is a result of the categories of the English language. Probably nobody would expect sociology to use the same methods as physics, even if certain schools within it are trying to.
Personally, I think there are no fixed laws to human societies and cultures and to a large extent, there are no fixed, unchangeable laws of human cognition. That psychologists have problems to make their results reproducible might simply be a result of that: if cognition and society are programmable systems whose “laws” can change to some extent, non-reproducibility is to be expected and a methodology taken over from physics that requires we are dealing with things that are always of the same kind would simply be misleading here. We are dealing with historically evolving entities, and criteria taken from physics-oriented epistemology (like Popper-style falsifiability, for example) would not work here. Methods taken from other Wissenschaften (e.g. from history, which is a Wissenschaft (“Geschichtswissenschaft”) although it is not a science) might be more appropriate here.
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In truth, when I wrote the line about ethnographies being more journalism than science, I squirmed somewhat. I still squirm thinking about it. Because it seems to imply that responsible journalism doesn’t produce knowledge. I’m tempted to say that it itself is a type of science. But it doesn’t fit the English conception of “science” well. It seems like English speakers have two options. Broaden our conception of “science”, or come up with a new term equivalent to the German “Wissenschaft”.
I think you’re right about these being evolving systems. That’s what Rosenberg meant by his “arms race.” My thinking is that we should just accept that most social patterns won’t have the permanency of physical, chemical, or other natural ones. That doesn’t mean they won’t have a usable shelf life.
I took a qualitative research class in grad school, where I got some exposure to the foundational philosophy of sociology. From the beginning, there was a recognition that the methods of natural science had to be modified (in truth they’re different in every natural science field anyway), but with a strong commitment to positivism, where empirical data reigns supreme (not to be confused with the later more absolute and untenable logical positivism). Occasionally someone in the field expresses a desire to weaken that commitment, but it never seems to get much traction. I think there’s a feeling that sociology’s status as a science depends on sticking with it.
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Perhaps my most recent post is relevant here: https://asifoscope.org/2017/03/19/proteons/
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We used to use the phrase “the sciences” to cover anything with a systematic pursuit of knowledge. I still see that phrase used in translation of older texts. I don’t know why that phrase has left us, but I tend to want to use it, and then I have this little debate with myself over whether or not people will understand what I mean, or whether they’ll assume I mean something too narrow. (And, conversely, there’s the phrase “the natural sciences” which has fallen out of use.)
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I used to use the word “science” pretty broadly. I still tend to think of what a careful historian does as a type of science. But using it that broadly tended to invite charges of scientism.
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Yeah, I tend to think of it broadly too, but I had to learn to think of it that way. In school, there was science—physics, biology, chemistry, etc.—and then there was other stuff. I never thought of what the word ‘science’ meant, outside of its current usage. In college, I remember asking about what “the sciences” means, in the plural. I saw it everywhere in classic philosophical texts. I’m in favor of bringing the phrase back.
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It would be interesting to find out when this change in the use of the word happened. I guess it has something to do with the rise of analytic philosophy and their limited (I am tempted to say: truncated) view of science and reality. To use a term I have just coined, reality as a whole, and many of its parts, are proteons (see my latest post), i.e. entities for which every exact description is incomplete. By limiting science the way it has been done, a lot of things drop out of its scope. At the same time, philosophy (which should mainly be concerned with proteons, not with systems), is loosing its role and seems to become obsolete. The tendency to get overspecialized that you can see in analytic philosophy is, I think, a result of the attempt to make philosophy a science (in the restricted sense). For the description of a proteon, the goals of exactnes and of generality of descriptions are mutually exclusive. You can’t get both at the same time. By trying to make philosophy exact, generality is lost and it splinters into many small pieces most of which are rather uninteresting and irrelevant (of course, you can also go too far into the other direction).
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I don’t know when the change happened. I sense fairly recently, but it’s hard to say.
My husband’s weighing in here…he says “the sciences” is still used…in fact, he has no idea what I’m talking about when I say it’s no longer being used. I asked him if he’s ever read the phrase in a newspaper or non-academic publication, and he doesn’t know. I suspect it’s still being used in academia, but I really doubt it’s something we can take for granted for a general American audience. Maybe in the Frege article, we could’ve translated using ‘the sciences’…or maybe we did? I don’t remember. 🙂
Here’s an example that runs through my head as the classic use of the phrase. It’s from Descartes: “…I’ve known for quite some time now that I’ve received many false opinions as true, such that it was necessary for me to seriously undertake, once in my life, to rid myself of all the opinions I’ve received since my birth, if I wanted to establish something firm and constant in the sciences.” (Not an exact quote, I’m doing this from memory.) It’s not something that’s terribly clear even here. I think it’s meant to be inclusive of many areas of study, but also vague about what can properly be called ‘science’ (something systematic, I suppose.)
I’m not all that familiar with analytic philosophy, but I see what you mean about it trying to become a science. I tend to think of mathematization as the main criterion for ‘science’ in the limited sense, and I can see logic taking the place of math in philosophy, since the two are so closely related. Maybe this came about from holding deductive certainty on a pedestal? I don’t know. It’s been going on for a very very long time.
I’ll check out your post on proteons! (Autocorrect wants to turn that word into ‘proteins.’) 🙂
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On the one hand, I think turning to the social sciences for answers is better than just making wild guesses about human behavior or going with gut feelings about the way things ought to be.
On the other hand, I know some of the social sciences have a history of reinforcing social biases. In particular, I’ve read about some “studies” from the 1950’s and 60’s concerning the psychology of women.
It’s difficult to study a system when you are part of that system. It sounds like Crash Course will talk a lot about how sociologists try to mitigate their own biases, so maybe I’ll gain a better appreciation for the subject. But at least for now, I take the social sciences with a grain of salt.
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I think it’s wise to take all scientific results with a grain of salt until they’re widely replicated and verified from alternate approaches. In the 1950s, physicists still hadn’t settled on the big bang vs steady state theory. Science at all levels is constantly reviewing and revising its models.
On biases, one thing that social psychology appears to be trying to address, is ensuring that their sample sizes are large, and include people who aren’t WEIRD (western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic). It’s made studies far more expensive (undergrads were cheap and easy subjects), but the results are at least more cross-cultural, and may be closer to revealing innate nature.
I’d also note that not every study that shows differences between men and women are simply reflecting cultural biases. The knee jerk reaction of many liberals is to reject any study that shows such differences as an attack on equal rights. I totally understand the concern, but I think rejecting rigorous scientific results is the wrong answer. Of course, results from studies with shoddy methods are a different story.
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As a real scientist (a chemist ;o) what I find offensive is when people claiming to use the methods of science either distort those methods or claim they know more than they really do. In the “hard” sciences (pun intended) nature supplies feedback that is more definitive, so in the soft sciences one needs to be more circumspect.
Having said that, my biggest outrage recently has been directed at the nutrition establishment in this country. Major claims about the roles of macronutrients in our diets has distorted eating habits making them less healthy as well as obscuring higher quality advice. This form of scientific pollution undermines science and science literacy in the public at large.
Having said that, I recently read a book on “non-obvious sociology” and which I did learn a few things, most of it I found … obvious. In the sciences it is necessary to verify “common knowledge” and “collective wisdom” but it isn’t until we get beyond those studies do people get really interested.
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One of the problems with nutrition science is so many people have a vested interest in distorting the results, which means that what most people see and hear about it is a distorted version of what the science actually shows. But nutritionists have been fairly consistent over the last several decades: eat a diet from a variety of food groups, being sure not to neglect fruits and vegetables.
The problem is that people either are just eating whatever they want (potato chips, cookies, etc) or looking for magic solutions. And there are plenty of businesses wiling to tell them what they want to hear to get their money.
The line between science and art is not clear given the case that you presented. In both the hard and soft sciences those who make predictions are in many cases.
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Art? Not sure if I see it. I might could see a blurring with some of the humanities though, such as history or linguistics.
I’d rather that people did not question the legitimacy of these sciences as “sciences.” There are obviously quite important realities to explore in them, and therefore we can either approach them scientifically or go back to standard anecdotal notions.
The real criticism seems to concern something that most people actually accept, or that these sciences happen to be “soft” rather than “hard.” But then if you work in one of these fields, for reasons of personal respect you’ll naturally want to portray a narrative more like, “Yes our understandings do happen to be ‘soft,’ though this is not our fault. This is instead because the subject of our exploration does not actually harbor clear answers.” So that’s the question that I think needs to be assessed. Would it be possible for these fields to develop theory that’s more like “force equals mass times acceleration,” or are there no “hard” observations to be made in them anyway?
I believe that there are such observations to be made in them, though there are also dynamics which have hindered us from formally acknowledging them. The theory is that these sciences will need to become founded upon a purely “descriptive,” or “non-normative” form of ethics. Without formally acknowledging the realities of what’s good and bad for any given conscious subject, the thought is that we haven’t yet been able to develop solid enough theory regarding our nature. And why would we find it difficult to formally acknowledge realities associated with good and bad existence? Apparently because these realities can conflict with standard normative ethics, or what we think people “ought” to do. Thus I’d like for us to acknowledge the sometimes repugnant realities of what’s good and bad for us, so that these kinds of sciences might finally gain themselves a solid foundation from which to build, and thus harden up.
Any questions or comments about my project so far?
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You and I have already had extensive conversations on this, and you’ve already fielded a bunch of questions from me. I’ll just add one here.
What examples of work do you see in these fields, that are currently well regarded by people in the relevant field, that are not being descriptive, that are letting normative values cloud their methods?
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Yes we’ve discussed this quite a bit. I’ve enjoyed it immensely, though I don’t seem to have quite gotten my point across for your assessment yet. That’s what I’d like. I’d like for you to be able to state my position, perhaps from various perspectives to demonstrate a reasonable understanding of it, and then give me your opinion about any faults or merits that you see with it. For example it’s not my position that normative influences are the great problem that these fields face. A bit of normativity was illustrated in the video, but I don’t even consider that to have been a problem. My ideas would actually validate the presented view for the most part (and here’s where it gets tricky) but not from a normative position of “ought.” Rather I believe it would do so from a descriptive theory of “is.” I know that sounds like some kind of trick, or can only be definitionally inconsistent. But once you’re able to state what my theory implies in various situations, I think you’ll see that there’s an “is” of welfare that exists beyond socially constructed “oughts” of it.
I’ll continue on with my quest to give you my theory if you’re ready.
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I think my difficulty remains in understanding what you want to change. I just rewatched the video, and while I detected some things with implied normative ought connotations, none of that came across as the main thrust. It seemed overwhelmingly descriptive, about what is. What described by the presenter needs to be changed?
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(Screwed up the order again. If this one posts right, maybe delete the other one.).
I agree with you Mike that her focus was quite descriptive, and I think that she did a wonderful job promoting her field. She even excited me! But what I’m trying to do is give these sciences in general a basic new tool from which to work. Notice that she briefly got into the welfare of a society, though her science does not yet have an accepted descriptive definition of “social welfare” from which to work. Thus I don’t mean to stop her from going there, but rather would help her do so in a descriptive rather than normative sense.
(In truth the science of economics already has this tool at its disposal, though I don’t consider economics to be soft the way that the others happen to be. At the micro level it’s extremely effective, while in the macro there are just too many unknown variables as you’ve mentioned. The basics of economic theory itself seems quite solid to me.)
To jump right in, the essentials of my theory is quite simple. It’s that there’s a product of the conscious mind called “affect,” “happiness,” or whatever you like, that’s all that’s valuable to anything. If you want to know the value of existing as a specific bird at a given moment, it will be represented by how positive or negative it feels at that moment. Then the value of being this bird over time will be constituted by each momentary figure aggregated together over that period, and so feeling good adds while feeling bad subtracts. Furthermore the welfare of any defined society will be the same, though from an aggregated total throughout that society. This is a descriptive theory of reality in the sense that I’m referring to an independent dynamic like “mass” or “velocity” — there is no social construct to this measure of welfare. It seems to exist as the mechanism which drives the function of the conscious mind.
Stating this theory is the simple part. From this point I can field all sorts of practical questions, such as what I mean by “happiness,” how it might be measured, what happens when there are repugnant implications, and so on. My answers should help clarify my position in various specific ways, though they aren’t always popular. For example philosophers jealously guard their normative form of ethics as the only variety possible, ever watchful to squelch an expansion of science in this regard. Also our mental and behavioral scientists seem quite defensive in general to criticism that there are better ways of doing things, and apparently for good reason. Though unpopular, I think you’ll find my explanations to be extremely consistent.
At some point I would hope to get past such details however. If it’s true that I’ve developed a useful model of descriptive value regarding existence, and that the absense of such theory in our mental and behavioral sciences holds them back (except for economics), then what can I do with it? What have I been able to figure out that traditional psychologists, sociologists, and so on have not been able to? Once the basics to my position are understood, I’d like to demonstrate what I’m thus able to do with it.
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“how it might be measured”
I think this is the question that comes to mind whenever you explain this concept. I take it we’re agreed that for it to be science, it must be testable in some way. It must be falsifiable. How would you go about testing and measuring “happiness”, positive affect, or hedons?
Particularly, how would you do it in a more objective way than it’s currently done with things like the Gross National Happiness, Social Progress Index, Satisfaction Life Index, or other similar indexes, all of which, while quantitative, seem to ultimately depend on self assessments for their data?
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As I recall you’ve “Carl Poppered” me a while back as well. Perhaps a more in depth answer than what I’ve said before will sufficiently get my thoughts across.
I don’t believe that objective happiness measurements will specifically be required in order for what I’m talking about to usefully exist in science. Furthermore the science of economics happens to already be founded upon this premise, so it not only can exist in science, but does. I’d like an expansion however.
Notice that subjective measurements could potentially provide reasonable evidence. Let’s say for example that we pay volunteers to be shocked with various intensities, first showing them the difference between “one” and a maximum of “ten.” I suspect that their subjective assessments of disutility would reasonably approximate how bad these shocks actually feel to them. Of course they’d probably do less well when memory must play more of a role, as well as in situations where there are various competing feelings to assess. An honest attempt might still be effective however. Science can be challenging.
In the end I don’t think that it’s disputed by most that happiness and unhappiness exist, and thus could potentially be measured somehow and somewhat. What’s disputed seems to be whether this stuff is useful to consider as what’s ultimately valuable to a given subject. If so then we could use this concept to develop a descriptive form of ethics, and even without measuring it. When a person or society is deciding between two options, it might suspect that one of them would probably it bring more happiness over various time frames than the other. If that suspicion is true then this theory suggests what’s best for it to do over those periods. Notice that here simulations about the future are run rather than after the fact measurements of how much happiness resulted from a given option. Conversely today people don’t seem to understand what’s best for a given subject, even in a theoretical sense. Providing humanity with such an understanding could thus be big.
Also notice that even without objective measurements of happiness, this premise could potentially still be used to help us build better models of what we are. For example “consciousness” still needs to become figured out, and if it were formally understood that “affect” is what drives the function of this kind of computer, then this might be a useful understanding from which to do so. From this premise I believe that I’ve developed quite a few useful models regarding our nature, and without any objective measurements of happiness. Nevertheless each of these models do have implications to other things, and so can be tested in a variety of ways.
Regarding objective measurements however, I do have some thoughts. I consider happiness to be a physical product of the conscious mind, meaning that we might some day find chemical and/or electrical factors to measure that correlate with it to some degree. Such evidence surely does exist somehow, though I can’t say when or how it will be found. If the theory that I present were to become prominent, many would surely look for such evidence, though I bet it’s on the radar even today. For example, when I go to a doctor for some kind of pain, I seem to always be asked to assess how bad this pain is from one to ten. I find it quite annoying. I’m sure they realize how much better it would be if they could objectively measure my supposed pain for themselves.
Though good electro/chemical evidence would probably be best, I do have one source from which to objectively measure happiness with existing technology. Notice that many of the facial expressions that we display are not consciously choosen, but rather non-consciously reflect how we feel. We naturally tend to smile when we’re happy, frown when we’re unhappy, and so on. Thus recorded video (perhaps with audio as well) should be possible to assess algorithmically for objective evidence of how a given person feels from moment to moment, simply based upon facial evidence. I doubt this would reflect the extremities of significant pain for example, but might do pretty well in some regards.
(As a side note, I theorize that our amazing set of facial muscles evolved as a result of the evolution of language. Language should have given us far greater capacity to lie about how we feel, but evolution seems to have found it useful to provide some truth through non-conscious facial expressions.)
Does my explanation make sense? Furthermore, do you have any other questions regarding the premise behind my ideas in general?
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(Looking over this reply, it seems to read a bit harshly. I hope you’ll take it in the constructive spirit it’s offered.)
I probably have challenged you before on falsifiablity grounds (“Karl Poppered”). I don’t recall your previous answer so I’m grateful for the walk through. You noted a few times that economics uses the principle you’re discussing. Maybe a few examples from that field would help?
I don’t personally have a problem with subjective assessment being a part of data gathering. I took a course in graduate school on qualitative research, and I know it can be made rigorous. However, the subjective component inevitably adds a variability, a noise to the data that inherently makes it “soft”, or softer than what can typically be gathered using strictly objective measurement. You seem to recognize this in your remarks, but it’s not clear to me how you plan to improve on the situation.
“What’s disputed seems to be whether this stuff is useful to consider as what’s ultimately valuable to a given subject.”
I actually don’t see that it’s disputed that much, but I may be missing the exact point you’re referencing here. I suspect any sociologist, psychologist, or practitioner in any related science would agree that happiness is good and unhappiness bad. You say that it could be measured “somehow and somewhat,” but a working scientists needs specific “hows” and “whats”. A sociologist or psychologist, it seems to me, would agree that measuring those things is difficult, that we currently have little choice but to accept some degree of subjectivity and the noise it creates, and the resulting “softness” it produces in the results. I think they would want to know how you proposed to improve on it.
On measuring electrochemical signalling, again, I think everyone would agree that it would be ideal, if it were possible with current technology. But as far as I know, it’s only possible with very invasive surgery that is only acceptable with animals, and even then there remain daunting obstacles and the measurements are still often very imprecise.
If we ever reach the point where we could measure nervous system signalling precisely and non-invasively, it seems like the human mind would be opened to us and we’d have a chance of objectively determining anything we wanted about it, including the levels of pain, depression, happiness, unhappiness, or probably anything we cared to measure.
But that doesn’t exist yet. At the risk of sounding Rumsfeldian, science has to be done with the technology (and budget) available, not the technology (or budget) we wish was available. Modern brain scans help a lot. It’s allowed neuroscience to be much more precise than in the days when they had to correlate medical diagnoses with brain lesions revealed years later in post-mortem autopsies. But while a vast improvement, the resolution of those scans still leaves a lot to be desired, with scan voxels still including thousands or millions of neurons.
On facial expression, I might could see where facial recognition software could correlate facial expressions with reported mental states, then use those correlations to try to read the facial expressions of other subjects. But the results of the latter would only be as good as the data gathering of the former. And I wonder how accurate it would be with someone with a good “poker face”. Given enough budget, technology, and data, it could be possible, but this again feels like technology we don’t quite have yet.
So addressing your final question, I guess I’m not seeing where your breakthrough is, what it adds to existing paradigms and processes. I apologize if I’m just being dense, but that appears to be where I am right now.
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I appreciate your sentiments, but the above response didn’t seem very harsh to me. You should see some of the replies I get at other sites! I hope that you’ll always enjoy our conversations, though if either of us ever decides otherwise, I also hope for there to be no worries or hard feelings. I realize that you aren’t quite sure what I’m saying yet, and therefore that you must wonder if there’s anything to figure out all? If/when you do get it, you’ll also be able to give me an assessment. If you could somehow think of my ideas as “architecture” rather than the practical “engineering,” then they should make more sense to you. Perhaps the following will help.
It was mentioned above that you aren’t sure it’s disputed that happiness is considered good for us, as well as that you may have missed my point regarding this dispute that I consider to exist, while you aren’t sure. Perhaps I haven’t been explicit enough in this regard, and so I’ll try to be.
Beyond the casual agreement which people seem to have that happiness is better than unhappiness, I’m talking about an ideology from which to accurately state what’s best for anything regarding anything. Abortion? Suicide? Immigration? Trade? The environment? How to parent your child? There is no question of welfare that it does not cover. In the end it’s an ideology from which to lead our lives and structure our societies.
Though most of us have anecdotal notions that happiness is better than unhappiness, I’m not aware of anyone who holds this belief to the perfect extremity that I do. But am I wrong about this? Do you or anyone beyond me believe that aggregate happiness over a given period, effectively represents a given subject’s welfare? I hope so! I mean for this theory to become a formal scientific understanding, and therefore scientists would use it to state opinion regarding all matters of personal and social welfare. Or conversely, can you explain why this model of reality is not an effective one? How might it be inaccurate?
This is the position that I came to even before college, and then in the decades since I’ve used it to develop all sorts of models regarding our nature. I’m quite proud of them! But maybe it would be best to explore the ideology side first and then work over to the rest. So who beyond me has this ideology, and/or how do you consider it to be an inaccurate portrayal of reality?
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I do enjoy our conversations, particularly when we’re just talking about intellectual matters just to explore our positions and sharpen understanding. I hope those continue if I end up not buying into your ideas.
“If you could somehow think of my ideas as “architecture” rather than the practical “engineering,” then they should make more sense to you.”
I think this gets into whether you are talking about science or philosophy. Science, including philosophy of science, can’t get by without addressing at some point the practicalities of the main thing that separates science from philosophy, how we look at the world and gather data for conclusions. If we just want to hypothesize without doing that, that’s fine, but we’re no longer talk science, but philosophy.
My understanding is that the main reason for the “softness” in the social sciences comes from the limitations of the observational methods available to those sciences. If you’re going to “harden” them, then I can’t see how you can do so without addressing these issues.
Or maybe I should ask, what makes the points you made about maximizing happiness more than moral philosophy, a variant of classical utilitarianism?
From Jeremy Bentham:
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I don’t consider this to be about you either buying into my ideas or not. Like you, I’m a curious person. Therefore if there are problems associated with any of my ideas, I’d like you to help me understand what they are. Our ideas seems to correspond quite well in cases where we understand each other, though epistemic uncertainties where we don’t will need to be worked if you are to help me in this regard as well. I consider the whole “agree to disagree” meme to be a load of shit. I will not so lightly condone failure from earnest explorers, or at least when their beliefs happen to be as close as ours.
While blogging I’ve come across a number of ways to differentiate between science and philosophy, and wherever I am I try to use the local definition (given my EP1). I quite like the one that you’ve just provided, since it suggest that science and philosophy are two parts of the same thing. For example, back when Einstein was a Swiss patent clerk theorizing how various apparently inconsistent observations might work together, he would thus have been “a philosopher.” As he displayed, science does require good architecture. (Of course modern philosophers derisively call sentiments such as this “scientism.”)
One prominent definition that I’ve come across defines philosophy in a purely “critical” capacity, and so can somewhat be considered an outside stuard of science. I suppose this gives us our “philosopher of (physics and so on).” Furthermore we shouldn’t forget that the field does formally consider epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, mind, metaphysics, and I suppose more.
One less prominent account characterizes philosophy as “art.” I consider this historically quite an effective definition given that ancient questions are still pondered today without professional agreement. A subject without professional consensus is actually where I like to distinguish philosopher from scientist.
You may be right that the softness of our mental/behavioral sciences is mainly the result of natural observation limitations. Regardless, my ideas do not concern fixing those limitations. There are plenty of people working in these fields in this capacity today, though my role is different. I propose theory (whether as philosopher or scientist), and it does have implications that are testable both subjectively and objectively. If my ideas happen to be both valid and basic, then they should help improve associated sciences even without bringing them new sources of objective evidence. It’s true that good evidence should incite good theory, but furthermore good theory should demonstrate the kinds of evidence that we’re most in need of.
The premise behind my ideas most certainly is a variant of classical utilitarianism, and more specifically the “total” rather than “average” form of it. But my impression is that both old and new utilitarians assess “the rightness and wrongness of behavior” rather than what I do, or “the goodness and badness of existence.” It’s a theory regarding the nature of conscious function, not a tool from which to judge our behavior. It’s about what “is” rather than what “ought,” and so it’s descriptive rather than prescriptive.
I title my position Amoral Subjective Total Utilitarianism, or ASTU, and don’t mind it being classified under philosophy’s branch of ethics — though with the stipulation that it isn’t considered “normative.” In truth however I don’t see a fundamental distinction between science and philosophy, rather like the architecture/engineering association that you’ve just made. It’s funny how people interested in these fields are all generally monists these days, and yet philosophers nevertheless try to maintain a position of epistemic dualism — as if that what they study isn’t inherently connected to everything else. This seems quite unproductive to me.
Perhaps an education in philosophy tends to religiously indoctrinate a person into it as something unique, and even though everyone acknowledges that science emerged from philosophy at around the time of Newton. We all have our clubs and associations, but I think that the exploration of reality needs coherence, or at least from a naturalistic perspective.
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I appreciate the clarifications. It gives me a better idea of where you’re coming from.
When it comes to whether theoretical science is itself science or philosophy, I think it’s more of a spectrum than a sharp distinction. Einstein’s theories were formulated largely to explore the results of late 19th century experiments, and it’s often forgotten that Einstein himself actively recruited astronomers to look for observations that would confirm or refute general relativity. So Einstein never strayed too far from testable realms.
But a lot of other theoretical physicists do. String theory is the example everyone’s familiar with. But getting too far from testable notions is frowned upon in the physics community. Many physicists, including theoretical ones, regard string theory and related notions more metaphysics than physics.
The argument that science came out of philosophy is one I hear a lot, and it’s one I used to accept without too much skepticism. But after reading some history of science, I think it’s a bit too simple. The earliest proto-scientists in the 16th century seemed to take elements from both natural philosophy and engineering for their methods, creating what was initially thought of a new type of natural philosophy, but which we recognize today as a distinct field. But the reason for this breakthrough seemed to have more to do with the printing press than any philosophical realization. By the time Bacon wrote his treatise on methods, the earliest experimentalists had already been following them for years.
Anyway, would a good summation of your ideas be that you are concerned with the determination of what produces positive and negative emotional feelings in conscious subjects? And would the distinction from moral philosophy be that you’re not concerned with whether those feelings are right or wrong?
If so, I can see the distinction from philosophy, but I’m not sure if I necessarily see the distinction from psychology. Or are you saying that you don’t think psychology is sufficiently concerned with this area?
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I’ve never looked very hard at string theory, but I must admit that I’m quite intrigued by the metaphysical prospect that reality harbors more dimensions than just the four that we humans perceive. It seems arrogant for us to presume that if we don’t perceive it, then it doesn’t exist. Furthermore with so much of that kind of speculation in the physics community over the past decade or two, I find it quite bazaar how smitten they’ve continued to be with the notion that Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle is explained, not by human ignorance as Einstein proposed, but rather by a fundamental void in nothing short of causality. It is this bit of metaphysical speculation that perplexes me…
I enjoy being able to pump people up who are feeling defensive, since this might lower their defenses with me enough for earnest discussions to occur. Therefore I’m not at all happy about you challenging the position that philosophers invented science. Yes it does make sense that people who needed to solve real world problems would have played quite a role in the development of science, rather than just aristocratic intellectuals like Sir Isaac Newton. Given that your observation doesn’t serve my own purposes however, I won’t be repeating it to others. No if anything those commoners who toiled with their own hands to build things, were philosophers as well. Thus I’m able to remain aligned with my philosopher friends and assert that their field created science!…
I’m extremely pleased that you’ve stated my position! Given how anally retentive I am about this stuff however, I’ll also adjust it slightly. Yes my ideas concern the determination of what produces positive and negative emotional feelings (in anything). And yes the distinction from moral philosophy is that these ideas do not concern the rightness and wrongness of actions (but instead what is emotionally felt itself). And yes I consider this stuff to be entirely appropriate for psychology. And finally, yes I do not consider psychologists to delve into this sufficiently today.
In order for psychologists to do what I would have of them, they would need to formally theorize a component to the existence of something, that causes that existence to be non inconsequential for it. They would need an explicitly stated positive and negative feature, let’s call it “affect,” that perfectly defines the welfare of anything that possesses any. With this formal theory at their disposal, they would then have the ability to comment upon all matters of welfare. Is a fetus harmed when it’s killed before it experiences any affect? Not according to this theory, that is unless a longer time frame is referenced. Then in those cases such a death would either be bad or good for it, defined by the summation of its forgone positive/negative affect over the period. And then would a given society be better off if abortion were legal, or rather illegal? I’d have psychologists explicitly tell us that this depends upon the difference in aggregate affect of the society over a specified period. I’m not aware that any science today explicitly expresses such theory.
One thing that’s come up in our discussions, is that the modern science of economics does happen to be founded upon the premise of affect motivation. Still there are a few points here that seems to soften this up. Firstly, while psychology stands in the middle as a fundamental behavior science, economics lies at the periphery. Secondly, while academic economists may use the consept of utility somewhat intimately (as in “the law of diminishing marginal utility”) economists in practice seem to find it most useful to use a very blunt but quantified substitute — money. Thirdly, even if you do corner an academic economist for a discussion about their premise of utility as what ultimately matters, they can still wiggle their way out. It can honestly be stated that their field is only a behavior science, and that people do seem to behave as if utility/affect/happiness motivates their behavior. Therefore they are able to fall short of claiming that this stuff actually constitutes the welfare of a given subject. They merely assess a subject’s behavior, and so it could be that there’s something more valuable to a given subject than its happiness.
If you have reason to believe that modern psychologists already accept my premise, and thus are quite able to tell us what constitutes the welfare of any given subject concerning various uncertainties, I look forward to your observations. Otherwise we might get into why it is that science does not yet explicitly theorize what constitutes good/bad existence. I do have a theory here as well.
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From what I understand, one of the problems economics struggles with is that not all behavior is directly related to happiness. Often people are confused about what will or won’t make them happy, or their happiness is tangled up with societal expectations, or affected by any of a number of other factors. I remember reading something to the effect that classical economists often insist that it all works out in the long run, but that Keynesians and related factions often reply with Keynes’ famous retort: “In the long run, we’re all dead.”
Anyway, from what I can see, psychology is definitely concerned with emotions, along with their causes and effects. But you drove me to do a little research on it. Thank you!
There is apparently an interdisciplinary field called Affective science ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affective_science ) which you may want to read about. Its chief concern seems pretty close to your central one. It sounds like it’s still in early stages however, with issues about defining “emotion”, “affect”, “feeling”, etc, still to be resolved.
(Which if you’ll recall, is a frustration I’ve had with reading different neurological theories about this area. Too many of them seem to be talking past each other with different definitions. Damasio uses the word “emotion” to refer to the primal reaction and “feeling” to the high order processing of that emotion, Panksepp seems to either not understand or not agree with that distinction, and the word “affect” gets used for either or both inconsistently by many different people.)
But once all that is nailed down, another issue I can foresee is, again, the measurement problem, which the Wikipedia article discusses, including Affect display, which seems in the realm of the facial expression stuff you discussed.
I suspect that until weaknesses in measurement can be worked out, it will be difficult to take any results from this area and use them in the broad policy manner you’re advocating. Although I’m sure sociologists, political scientists, even economists, would be happy to use the data if it gets more reliable.
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Thanks for your affective science pointer, since it does seem quite relevant to my project in general. I’ve been running through associated links, as well as reviewing some of our past discussions in order to figure out effective ways to proceed.
I’ll begin by saying that I didn’t mean to imply that psychologists do not consider the cause and effect of emotions, and modern affective science certainly demonstrates that they do. Still modern scientists don’t seem to be considering emotions from the same context that I do. Their focus seems to mainly be about identifying which of about 109 emotions are displayed. My focus is more about how positive or negative existence feels to a subject regardless, or technically its “valence.” Furthermore my ideas concern more than just emotions, which is to say anything that causes a given subject to feel positive or negative. Beyond emotions like jealousy and boredom, there is also pain, itchiness, thirst, hunger, feeling hot/cold, and so on. I theorize all such sensations to add and subtract value from a given subject’s existence over time. My theory of value not only presents a non normative ideology from which to lead our lives and structure our societies, but also a platform from which to potentially comprehend the behavior of individuals and societies. As you know, I’ve used it to develop a full model of the conscious mind.
If it’s true that the value of existence holds an important key from which to interpret our nature, and that modern scientists have not truly begun contemplating the value of existence yet, then why? Why have they refrained from developing a descriptive from of ethics? I appreciate your thought that our lack of objective measurement restricts science too much in this regard today. But the thing is that even without objective measurement, we could still theorize our nature on the basis of this premise itself. So why has science refrained? I do have some thoughts here if you like.
One interesting thing I noticed from my weekend reading is that the Facial Action Coding System can distinguish between genuine and fake smiles. That sort of thing would help improve facial computer analysis of how good/bad someone feels.
I also enjoyed the analogy of emotions as a continuous spectrum, like the colors we see, rather than distinct individual varieties such as “fear.” That’s surely more the case.
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One of the problems here is the definition of the word “emotion.” When I use it, I usually mean instincts or impulses. So in that regard, hunger is an emotion. Of course, many people will object, so perhaps “impulse” is a better word. I don’t know.
I can see a non-normative aspect to what you’re talking about. But I think the idea that we should take those results and apply them in the way you suggest is a normative position. That’s not necessarily a problem. Arguing that we should study the brain to help those with brain injuries or pathologies is normative, but it doesn’t change the underlying science.
Why has science refrained? Psychology, with its Freudian past, has a reputation problem with putting out theories and not being rigorous about testing them. (The replication crisis has only exacerbated this.) I think it’s made the best practitioners more cautious, a bit leery of diving into areas where measurement isn’t yet possible or practical.
That makes theorizing in the area you’re talking about pretty much philosophy, for now. Of course, as Karl Popper pointed out, atomism was once hopelessly speculative metaphysics until science worked out a way to empirically test for the existence and properties of atoms. You may be Democritus, focusing on things that are currently beyond science, but may be in decades or centuries to come.
On the theory of constructed emotions, again, I think it comes down to how we define the word “emotion.” Constructed emotions imply they live in the neocortex. Certainly the highest level manifestations of them do. But there doesn’t seem any doubt that they are built with interactions between the neocortex and sub-cortical structures.
What name do we give the signalling that originates with these structures? Some people use “affect”, but that word appears to have just as much inconsistency in its usage as “emotion.” We could use “proto-emotion” or perhaps “lower level emotion,” but of course some will object to the word “emotion” being applied at all to that lower level circuitry.
But given that a newborn baby’s neocortex isn’t fully functional yet, with most behavior originating from those lower level structures, that implies that an upset newborn isn’t experiencing some type of emotion. Well, perhaps. We can’t know what a newborn is actually experiencing. But screaming and crying certainly seem emotive in a pretty instinctual way.
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One issue with using the term “impulse” is that it might be interpreted more broadly than conscious function. When I turn my truck’s key for example, I’d say that it has an impulse to start. For a term that’s more broad than “emotion” but remains conscious exclusively, you might try the word “sensation.” To me this covers both “itchiness” and “wonder” for example, though I wouldn’t say that my truck has any sensations.
I certainly agree with you that once we start “should-ing” about what science finds, we also get normative. My theory seeks to describe what constitutes good/bad for any given subject, though once considerations are made about implementing such ideas, things then get prescriptive.
Thanks for speculating why it is that science does not yet propose theory of good/bad. But if it’s true that psychology has had a bad reputation for putting up theories that aren’t well tested (which I agree with), and a descriptive form of ethics can’t be tested (which I dispute), then this explanation shouldn’t quite be enough. It may be that modern psychologists have some extra apprehension right now, but that still wouldn’t explain why past theorists have stayed away from purely descriptive good/bad theory. So then why have they refrained?
I’m happy that you’ve brought up Karl Popper’s sensible remark about atomism. Notice that our chemists explored a quite primitive field of science before they knew anything about atomic structure, even though it was still “hard” in the sense that reasonably precise and objective measurements could be taken. Once they found the proton, neutron, and electron however, their primitive science became quite advanced. Apparently the field needed this basic model from which to build.
I propose that our mental and behavioral sciences today are not just “soft” (given the measurement difficulties that you’ve noted), but also “primitive” (not unlike chemistry before there were effective understandings of the atom). No analogy is perfect, but the stench from Freud forward in these fields, suggests that the fundamentals have not yet surfaced.
Is comparing the human with an atom, too simple? Well chemistry once seemed quite incomprehensible to us as well, that is until some basics were worked out. I’m concerned about certain basics regarding our function that modern science does not address. If existence can be good/bad to the conscious subject, though science refuses to provide speculation about this aspect of reality, then we should not be surprised that modern associated sciences remain in disarray.
So now then, why would scientists understand that existence can be good and bad for conscious subjects, but not propose a purely descriptive form of ethics from which to explicitly describe our nature in this regard? I suspect that standard moral ethics, which addresses the social construct of what “ought” to be done, has functioned somewhat as a social tool from which to encourage us to not act selfishly. So it may be that a purely descriptive form of ethics has not been pursued, given that it would challenge a potentially strong social tool. Regardless of the reason however, I mean to help found these primitive sciences so they might become more like modern chemistry.
(I can excuse the great René Descartes for thinking that animals were unfeeling machines, since that was a very long time ago. If any modern researchers today theorize that their crying babies must have no emotions, and simply given their own theories about the underdeveloped brain, then I consider this further reason to believe that these fields remain quite similar to chemistry before detailed atomic theory emerged.)
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On “impulse”, “sensation”, “emotion”, and all the rest, now that you mention it, perhaps the best way to make this distinction is to precede each word with either “conscious” or “pre-conscious”. So, pre-conscious emotional processing takes place sub-cortically, but conscious emotional processing requires the neocortex (and thalamus and basal ganglia). I like this. Thanks for discussing that through with me!
Of course, if we talk in terms of constructed emotions, then the question is whether or not they are consciously constructed. Given that none of us are conscious of it, otherwise this idea wouldn’t be as controversial as it is, it seems like the answer is obvious. The construction is pre-conscious.
On normative versus descriptive, I think your ideas straddle over that border. It might be clearer if you explicitly labeled which parts are normative and which parts are descriptive. It seems like you’re currently saying it’s descriptive but using normative language, which I suspect is making people think you may not understand the difference.
The descriptive part seems like it’s about studying what causes positive or negative affects. We disagree about how measurable that is in terms of broad social policy, but at base that seems to be what you’re proposing. I see a lot of overlap between this and the developing affective science. (Admittedly affective science seem less ambitious than your ideas, but maybe it’s an important intermediate step?)
But the broader proposition of judging social policies in this light is what I see as the normative part. I think you might get more traction if you admit that up front. (Or explicitly and specifically describe why it’s not normative.)
On chemistry and subatomic particles, I think chemistry was sophisticated before then. There’s a documentary somewhere that describes the process chemists went through historically to isolate the elements. It’s pretty fascinating.
But to me, the relationship between chemistry and sub-atomic particles is the relationship between chemistry and particle physics. The equivalent for psychology, I think, is its relationship with neuroscience. Which is why I think you might have been a bit hasty in dismissing neuropsychology. Understanding what’s wrong in a brain with OCD, ADHD, or schizophrenia, seems like extremely important work to me.
On the crying newborn, it seems like the question is not whether its being emotive, but where it’s doing so consciously or pre-consciously. I’m not confident that newborns are conscious, at least not in the way they’ll be a few weeks/months later. Of course, this is a spectrum, not a sharp distinction, so maybe the better way to put that is that they’re not as conscious as they will eventually be.
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I regret using the “stench” term last time. I try to be diplomatic, but sometimes my passions get the better of me. I’ll call this a true Freudian slip — you mentioned the man’s name, and I can’t stand what he did.
Regarding neuropsychology, yes it’s only a term, and there could be plenty of great scientists who use it, but I don’t like what it suggests. My son has a strong cases of both dyslexia and ADHD, and so of course it’s important to me that progress be made, though I personally don’t see much that’s done beyond a lame pill. Still at least I’ve noticed that his doctors call themselves psychologists and neuroscientists rather than imply that they do psychology by means of viewing the brain. In that regard I’m no scientismist! (By the way, at 13 my son is doing great today, but it was one hell of a fight in the early years.)
I think I see what you’re doing with the “conscious” and “pre-conscious” distinctions — there are various lower and higher order areas of the brain, some of which are considered more associated with conscious function. Thus a newborn without the higher order development would not be considered conscious, or at least not as much. Here there is “pre-conscious” emotional processing in the sub cortex, but not “conscious” emotional processing as might occur through the neo cortex. This definition of consciousness is different from the one that I’ve developed, but I can see how it might be useful to help distinguish higher areas of the brain from the more basic.
From my own separate definition of consciousness (which should thus have no bearing upon your model), it doesn’t really matter which part of the brain happens to be functioning. What matters is that the non-conscious mind/computer takes in inputs, processes them, and produces output to the conscious mind/computer. Whether through the sub or the neo cortex, there will be consciousness as I define it, if there is any pain, sound, hunger, or whatever, to consciously interpret. From this definition the newborn is conscious to the extent that the non-conscious signals are hitting their mark, and crying seems like a sure sign that they are. Conversely if the newborn is anesthetized, those continued non-conscious outputs should not make it through, and so there should be no consciousness, as well as no signs of it such as crying.
On normative versus descriptive, I consider my theory an attempt to describe reality, no different in principle than the sorts of things that physicists theorize. But notice that once people have useful physical models, they also tend to use them for their own purposes. Lately we’ve been calling this sort of thing “normative,” as in how brain study might be used to help people with brain injuries.
I theorize the welfare of anything over a specified period of time, to exist as nothing beyond it’s aggregate hedons over that period. I have no working units for hedons to offer, but they are theorized as one of three varieties of input to the conscious processor. And even though I can’t measure them, it’s not possible to me that they don’t exist, since I’m experiencing them at this very moment. (I always enjoy our correspondence!)
So now then, from my theory a figure will exist which represents the “welfare” of the American people over the past fifty years, for example. Furthermore we may presume that this figure would be somewhat different if abortion had not been legal. These are two theorized descriptions of reality, and notice that they contain no implementation elements to them whatsoever. Therefore I don’t consider them, or my theory itself, any more normative than physics.
If science were to begin theorizing the nature of descriptive welfare however, then like the rest of the theories in science, people would surely use this in practical ways. That’s the normativity that we were talking about. But the problem with science going this direction, as I mentioned last time, is that it would likely subvert the social tool of morality. We don’t want people to do what’s best for them (as described by my theory), but rather what’s best for us. Thus I believe that it would be extremely unpopular if science were to develop a purely descriptive form of ethics, and consider this the principle reason that it has not so far.
If the advance of chemistry is to be the analogy, the workings of the atom could be associated with my descriptive form of ethics. Then the periodic table could be associated with my functional model of the mind. Fortunately the masses do not control science in the end however. Instead science moves forward by means of its most passionate adherents.
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I’m a bit less harsh in my opinion of Freud. Yes, he was wrong about a lot of stuff, but I think his efforts to understand the mind were genuine, he broke ground that others were able to come behind and make more rigorous, and his insight that much of our cognition was below the level of consciousness was important. But I’ll agree that his legacy is mixed. The reason I’m less harsh is I think he lacked the philosophical and scientific tools we have today that make obvious the problems with his theories.
Goldberg in his book discusses ADD, ADHD, and OCD at pretty good length, at least in terms of the frontal lobes, basal ganglia, and other structures. (It never occurred to me that ADD and OCD are pretty much opposite conditions.) It sounds like there are numerous drugs out there. Whether they work depends on exactly which part of the person’s brain is not signaling correctly. But his discussion may be more speculative than you’d care for.
One criteria I’ve been considering for assessing definitions of consciousness is whether it describes something available to introspection. Of course, that requires that an introspection mechanism of some kind be present. It doesn’t seem like brainstem processing meets that criteria. For example, the superior colliculus controls the micro-movements that our eyes are always doing, which doesn’t seem to be something we have any conscious access to.
But I have no idea whether the thalamus or basal ganglia have any incipient version of introspection, or if it’s something that requires the neocortex. Unfortunately, only people with a pretty well functioning neocortex can articulate to us what they can introspect. If someone can ever figure out an experiment to test for introspection in animals or mute humans, they might have a Nobel waiting for them.
“But the problem with science going this direction, as I mentioned last time, is that it would likely subvert the social tool of morality.”
Perhaps traditional morality, but there are various moral philosophies which might not have too many problems with it. Many utilitarian outlooks might be okay with it, at least in principle. And Randian objectivists might embrace it. All of which is to say, moral ideas are all over the place. Almost any position will be compatible with at least some of them.
“Instead science moves forward by means of its most passionate adherents.”
When I used to debate creationists and the like, I always noted that science is going to do what science does, learn as much as possible about reality. If there is a way to study an aspect of reality, someone will eventually figure out that way and do it. Whether what science finds constitutes an attack on a philosophy, religion, or culture, really depends on how the adherents of those outlooks choose to interpret it.
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Good points about Freud. He’s just another in a long line of past theorists who’ve gotten a great deal wrong. Why do I consider him more harshly than others? I’ll try to be honest and begin with “jealousy.” He had the right presentation, salesmanship, or whatever, to pull pet notions out of his ass, and sell them to the world as if they were experimentally verified. He was talented enough to make crap ideas seem believable, whereas I’d say that I’m his opposite in each respect (not that I yet have objective verification, but these are the early days). So yes, I am jealous of Freud.
Did he break ground in areas that others were able to make rigorous? I’m still looking for good stuff there. I’ve mentioned before that I decided long ago to get generally educated without getting an overt education in these fields that most interest me. My plan was to develop ideas from the ground up so that I might avoid whatever was holding these fields back. When I became reasonably satisfied just over three years ago, I began blogging heavily and thus learning about all sorts of ideas and issues in these fields. But I keep asking myself, where’s the good stuff?
As a physical and medical science there will certainly be some good stuff in neurology. Furthermore I love that the field of economics is already founded upon the premise that supports my own ideas. But in psychology my search continues. The provided sociology video suggest that they’ve got some good stuff for me, but I’d find it surprising. Observe that psychiatrists have essentially conceded defeat on that front. Recently they stopped exhaustive oral examination of their patients where they try to figure out what’s wrong with them, and so provide helpful advice. Apparently this was so ineffective that today they simply try to understand which pills might help their patients the most. I do support this move, but suspect that therapy will become far more effective once that basics of our behavior become understood.
You’d think I’d be happy with Freud’s popularization of “the unconscious mind,” since I consider over 99% of it to not be conscious. I’m not however, since this extremely popular term seems to have fuzzed up some important things. It suggests that there’s some kind of quasi conscious mind that competes with the conscious mind. Fortunately some specialists have finally adopted the “non-conscious” term instead. I believe that the “unconscious mind” idea will need to be discarded altogether, and when we want to reference non-conscious influences upon conscious function, we will then use terms like “subconscious” or “subliminal.”
Regarding introspection, it seems to me that this is just the thought processor itself, though some animals will think about themselves more proficiently than others. This should not only be due to neurological hardware, but also due to environmental conditioning. I’m sure that my culture and language plays a great part of my own detailed introspection. But according to my models, the dog will need to ponder how they feel and theorize why, so that it might be able to come up with useful responses.
In the past I’ve given a bit of thought to which ideologies would naturally support my ideas, but for the most part there seem to be problems. For example people who are highly concerned about animal welfare could be natural supporters, since I theorize personal and social value to all conscious life to the extent that they feel positive/negative. But this faction should also get angry with my ideas, since they suggests that we could simply shield ourselves from the suffering that we cause.
There’s only one group of people that could ever truly be pleased with my project, I think, and this is the faction that is curious about reality itself. I see so many interest groups fighting for their own causes, both inside and outside of academia, that it seems difficult to actually work on the good stuff itself. But then again that’s what most of us believe, and we can’t all be right. Do I have a distorting agenda? Do you? I suspect, at least, that each of us have the agenda of wanting to understand. Regardless, these are the sorts of people who should eventually straighten things out.
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Years ago, someone told me that to think outside of the box, you must first know where the box is and why it is. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that piece of advice increasingly relevant. Which is to say, I fear you may be making a mistake by not becoming familiar with the fields you want to improve.
Ultimately though, we each have to learn things in our own way. Mine is to learn to at least an overview of the general consensus on a subject I’m interested in before entertaining radical theories. Part of that is a reaction to my fascination as a boy with things like Erich von Däniken’s nutty theories, which only made sense until I learned a little bit about how the fields he often derided actually worked.
BTW, on psychology in particular, in case you’re interested, Crash Course has a series on it. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL8dPuuaLjXtOPRKzVLY0jJY-uHOH9KVU6
I’ve only watched an episode here or there, but hope to go through the whole thing someday.
I think you’re right that introspection is a complicated beast. Affect consciousness seems like itself a kind of introspection, and if F&M are right, that goes all the way back to the Cambrian. Biologists can test for things like operant learning, behavioral tradeoffs, or self administration of pain relievers. But do any of these require introspection in the sense of perceiving ones’s own thoughts? I don’t know. In science, the trick is finding a way to test that proposition.
On agendas, I think we can never be sure that our explorations aren’t free of them. I think that’s why science is special. Unless we resort to fraud, scientific evidence is what it is, and it will typically puncture agendas, including ones we may not realize we have. But when we don’t have scientific data to break logjams, as we don’t with most philosophical issues, all we can do is describe our ideas and see if others can find flaws in them.
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Well I don’t mean to imply that I haven’t been educated enough to know about “the box,” since I do believe that I’ve been exposed to various issues in these fields for quite some time. For example you may recall that 2006 “Survey of the Brain” from The Economist that I once sent you? That one was particularly profound for me, though I’ve had this sort of popular exposure for most of my life.
The thing is, what’s one more traditionally educated psychologist going to fix? The odds say probably not much. Instead I decided to take my exploration in the opposite direction, and so potentially find some things in these troubled fields that the normal path will tend to hide. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that you aren’t now disputing my outside the box position that a purely descriptive, non normative form of ethics, is possible to develop? (I.e.: Theory of social welfare differences, given separate social policies.)
Thanks for the psychology crash courses — I blew through 16 out of the 40 already. They’re great for driving and other mundane tasks. You’ll be happy to know that apparently I’m no “Erich von Däniken,” given that my ideas do seem to conform with much of what those videos present. Of course I’ve generally come to my suspicions in a way my own, and go further in ways that they haven’t yet sorted out, such as for consciousness.
“Introspection” is only as complicated as you define it to be. I generally define it as the stuff that permits me to explore psychology within myself, given that I’m a legitimate subject of psychology. Conversely I can’t use introspection to study physics, given that I’m not a legitimate subject of physics. This definition sets the bar for introspection pretty high however, or to a reasonably educated human. But then if we define it as an ability to consider and react to affect, to me that includes all conscious function.
By definition I’d say that to have a thought it must be perceived, and so that sets the bar pretty low as well. Of course you could have meant the perception of ones own past thoughts, such as “Why did that make me angry?” I consider some form of memory to be pretty necessary for useful consciousness in general, though I’m not sure if even a dog tends to so methodically assess past thoughts in this manner.
On agendas, I wasn’t simply referring to a specific person’s, but also to people in similar positions who thus tend to reinforce their mutual biases. This is another reason not to so heartily endorse establishment positions, or at least in more speculative fields. For example, how do you think philosophers would generally feel, if science were to develop a purely descriptive form of ethics? I suspect that they’d tend to feel threatened and so dispute the legitimacy of this new science, as it might thus overshadow their own form of ethics. As they often do I suspect they’d yell “Scientism!” In fact, that’s the exact what I’ve noticed from philosophers, and even when I suggest that as a new form of ethics, they would have the option of taking it for themselves.
To me psychologists seem similarly defensive. Of course these are the people who actually study “confirmation bias,” and so should be asking for outsiders to provide criticism and take a crack at what they study as well. But are they thus more open to such observations? No, they seem like normal humans with personal interests to protect. Thus an important role may exist to help improve science for outsiders such as you and I.
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“Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that you aren’t now disputing my outside the box position that a purely descriptive, non normative form of ethics, is possible to develop?”
Sorry, can’t say I’m there yet. It seems to me the very proposition you’re making is normative. Now, if you want to talk about studying the causes of positive and negative affects, I can accept that as descriptive. (Finding a reliable measuring methodology is a different matter.) If you want to aggregate the affects in some quantitative manner, I might accept that it in itself is descriptive.
But as soon as you use the word “ethics”, I think you imply that you’re talking about how people should behave, and you’ve switched over into normative mode. You might say your particular definition of “ethics” is still descriptive, but then I’d say that unless you are constantly reminding the reader about your alternate definition for that common word, you risk being misleading.
Wow, you’ve gone through 16 of those videos already? I’m impressed. I’m pretty sure I’ll need a lot more time to do that.
On introspection, I think I read somewhere that the neural circuitry for introspecting current perceptions is different from the circuitry that lights up when remembering past feelings, which seems strange since those two mechanisms feel like the same mechanism. But of course, I’m depending on introspection for that feeling about introspection, so I won’t be aware of any gap between them.
I’d agree that philosophers don’t always do a good job of ceding ground or adapting when science starts to take over an area. Too much of the philosophy of mind simply sticks its collective head in a hole and ignores neuroscientific evidence. But it’s not universal. There are plenty of Chalmers type philosophers, but also a fair amount of Dennett ones.
I’d say the same thing about psychology. While there are too many Robert Epsteins, who simply refuse to accept the implications of neuroscience, there are also plenty of Steven Pinkers, who do, and take grief from some of their colleagues for it.
Of course, we can never eliminate the possibility that group-think isn’t biasing results. But at least in a field with lots of debate, it perhaps reduces the probability of it. The problem is that biases can be broader than just a sub-field, field, academia, or even in a particular culture. They can span our entire species, and perhaps all of life.
Which always brings me back to the crucial importance of evidence, measurement, and testing. We can discuss theories all day. But science requires that we eventually test our conjectures. Most won’t survive unscathed, if they survive at all.
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Okay Mike, you’ve convinced me. The “ethics” term is simply too associated with normativity to represent what I need it to represent. I won’t be disappointed if this popular conception ever changes, though I will try to find reasonable substitutes given the circumstances. I don’t want to be misrepresented by those who would cheer my failure, and I certainly don’t want to mislead others in general.
I keep finding great little nuggest in these crash course videos. They give me hope that progress is nevertheless being made. For example if you look through the wiki “unconscious mind” article, you’ll be accosted by a wide range of Freudian ideas. How can the term of a discredited theorist, remain so widespread in these fields to this day? But in episode 21 they disclosed something that supports what I’ve recently mentioned here. They clarified that even though Freud’s unconscious idea was “titillating,” non-conscious information processing is an empirically validated real thing that’s actually being studied today. So did they dedicate this episode to Freud as a demonstration of what a joke his ideas happen to be, or even to protest how widespread the “unconscious” term remains? Probably not, but I love this admission itself.
Far greater for me was the “Motivation” episode #17. https://m.youtube.com/#/playlist?list=PL8dPuuaLjXtOPRKzVLY0jJY-uHOH9KVU6 Their first of four provided theories of motivation got into “instinct,” and this one is certainly incorporated in my own models. It addresses fingernail growth as well as a dog shaking its coat to expel water. The second states that physiological needs compel us to reduce them given positive and negative stimuli. (Hey, that could reasonably be interpreted as my big one!) Apparently the field hasn’t been satisfied with this explanation however, since people are known to starve themselves for various causes and so on. So they continue with an “optimal arousal” explanation which suggests that stimuli needs balancing. When diverse behavior is considered however, I find this explanation unpersuasive. Then they provide a fourth option that categorizes various needs from more to less basic. As they implied, all sorts of contradictions can be found under any given scheme.
I’ve mentioned this to you before, though perhaps never in such an appropriate context. I believe that I can explain all behavior on the basis of instinct and stimuli, though the temporal nature of an instantaneous self must be appreciated. By “temporal” I mean that present stimuli are all that matter to a subject, though memory provides present stimuli such that you feel good/bad remembering circumstances of the past. This seems to help teach us. By “temporal” I also mean that we do things regarding the future based upon the positive stimuli of hope, and the negative stimuli of worry. A man might starve himself in social protest because this negative hunger stimuli is countered by his hope that he’ll make a difference (not to mention feeling respected by his people), as well as reduce his worry about this perceived social problem itself.
I’d hope for others to use introspection to see if my model holds up to their own experiences. Why do we do what we do? Does “hope” and “worry” seem like sufficient conscious motivation?
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Glad you’re enjoying the Crash Course videos. You’ve inspired me to start watching them, although I’m going through them slower than you are. It turns out I had already watched a bunch of them, but I had just never gotten around to going through them linearly.
One of the videos did discuss an alternate label for what Goldberg called neuropsychology: cognitive neuroscience. Based on Hank Green’s description, they seem like the same field. Of course, “cognitive science” is often getting used as a stand in for “psychology”, and I imagine you might have the same objections for cognitive neuroscience that you did for neuropsychology.
I might be missing some significance here, but isn’t saying that all behavior is the result of instinct, stimuli, and memory already more or less well established? A substance dualist or quantum consciousness believer might object, but I can’t see that most cognitive scientists would, although they’d likely point out that “instinct”, “stimuli”, and “memory” cover vast subjects, with much left to study and understand.
Didn’t we discuss hope and worry as motivation a while back? I think the additional one that most immediately comes to my mind is anger. I could see subsuming that within worry, but it feels like a stretch. Panksepp would probably talk about his seven primal emotions (seeking, rage, fear, lust, care, panic/grief, and play), although not sure how much agreement there is for this among his colleagues.
In any case, the problem with using introspection to learn about the mind is that it’s limited and unreliable. We can’t be conscious of the limitations of our consciousness, we can’t introspect past what our introspection mechanism can collect, and probably can’t be aware that we’ve hit a limitation.
It’s interesting that lots of people accept the idea that our senses can be fooled, that what we perceive may not necessarily be reality. But the idea that our inner sense, or inner eye, can also be wrong seems inconceivable to many of them.
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Don’t worry too much about my problem with the term “neuropsycology.” It’s just a name and so not something that concerns me all that much. Surely you don’t mind me bitching a bit from time to time about inconsequential things like that on your blog? I will not challenge the right of established intellectuals to call themselves whatever they like. Furthermore I’ll tell you up front that if I were in such a position, I’d take more than a few such liberties of my own (and perhaps even with a term that begins with the letter “e”).
I do remember the time that you added “anger” to my “hope” and “worry” list, and quite appropriately so. I believe that I asked my question in a mistaken way for that one however. It was something like, “When you think about the future, can you feel anything other than hope and worry regarding what might happen?” And yes it’s true that you might feel angry, jealous, confident, afraid, and so on regarding what you foresee. Let me now try to ask my question properly however.
Though you have all sorts of emotions about what you foresee for the future, I’m saying that beyond the effects of instinct, you will be motivated to do what you do because this makes you feel good (hopeful) and/or because not doing these things makes you feel bad (worrying). Before the election you might have been angry with some of America for the potential that Donald Trump will be our president, but your associated blogging would have been incited through hope that you might help, and worry about doing nothing at all. What motivates you to get out of bed each morning? You might foresee a wonderful day ahead, and therefore this hope may incite you to energetically get to it. Or you might foresee a horrible day ahead, though the worry of not getting to it will probably be worse than doing nothing at all, so you get to it here as well. Some quite sane people become so angry with what they perceive, that they do horrible things to themselves in general protest. It is hope and worry that motivate such behavior however, I think. (Of course a person might later decide that it wasn’t a good idea to light a match while doused in gasoline, for example, but that’s entirely possible here as well.)
In the #17 crash course video, their position is that “physiological needs” does not provide a sufficient explanation for our motivation, and given that a person might choose to go hungry and so on. But if we more effectively classify this motivation under “affect in general,” and get the basics of a subject down, I see no reason to go on to those flawed 3 and 4 motivation options.
If it were already established that “instinct” and “stimuli” are what motivate us in the end (no need for “memory” here), or that “affect” represents all that’s valuable to anything, then those crash course videos would have been able to state this. This is not the case (as video #17 demonstrates). Yes my theory seems implicitly understood to be true, and comes up again and again in these videos. But an explicit statement that affect constitutes the value of existence for anything, would have massive implications. In that case things would also get normative. Just as people normatively use physics, people would normatively use this explicit understanding of personal and social value.
As far as I can tell, the problem here is that we don’t want others to feel justified doing what promotes their own happiness in a general sense. In that case, under the right conditions a person might feel justified lying, stealing, and so on, in order to become more happy. But what I’m saying is that without explicitly stating that affect constitutes the value of anything (which is to say that by ignoring this aspect of reality…) our mental and behavioral sciences will essentially remain about the way chemistry was before the basic elements of the atom were discovered. In this analogy my functional model of conscious and non-conscious mind, may be associated with the periodic table.
Regarding introspection, I’m very well aware that I might have made mistakes here. This is exactly why I’d like you to learn how my models work, and so use your own introspection to see if you can find any holes that need fixing. Right now you’re doing a great job of devil’s advocate for me. No one has ever given me anywhere near the helpful feedback and advice that you have. But at some point I’d hope for you to not need to ask questions about my theory, since you already know the answers. That’s when you’ll be able to truly put the rubber to the road and exhaustively test my models for yourself. This would be by means of introspection, or anything else.
If that all happens, and so you’re able to have a substantial imprint upon my ideas (not to imply that you haven’t already altered my presentation quite a bit), then there won’t be much more reason for me to comment at your blog. In that case you might find ways to challenge my position that I’m unable to counter, and so I’d have nothing to say but, “Yes, I was wrong about that.” Or conversely it could be that we end up working out all of the bugs that we can find, and so look for wider publication, as well as wider critical assessments. If we end up doing a good job of this then perhaps we’d have a reasonable impact upon these troubled fields. From what I can tell, these fields are in desperate need of help.
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But in episode 21 they disclosed something that supports what I’ve recently mentioned here. Given that none of us are conscious of it, otherwise this idea wouldn’t be as controversial as it is, it seems like the answer is obvious.
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Thanks for weighing in. I’m not quite following your comment, and I have to admit I’m pretty far behind on the episodes. Would you mind clarifying?
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