Psychological Science?


Is Psychology a Science?



The question is only as precise as the word “science”, which isn’t very precise. But I don’t propose to quibble about that word (I incline to a wide application of it); instead I will compare psychology to some established sciences and note various gaps in what psychology has accomplished compared to these sciences. We might express the upshot of these reflections as denying that psychology is a maturescience, or that it is a realscience, or that it is an explanatoryscience; what matters is the reality of the distinctions I identify. Psychology is not as other sciences are, dramatically so. It is signally lacking in the chief characteristics of the sciences, as they now exists. It is weak science, proto science, science in name but not in substance.

First consider the physical sciences—physics (pure and applied), cosmology, astronomy, and chemistry. What has physical science achieved? I would say that it has achieved success in three (interconnected) areas: origin, structure, and dynamics. To summarize: it explains the origin of the physical universe (big bang cosmology); it has uncovered the hidden composition of physical things (atoms, molecules, fields); and it has developed a dynamic theory of how the physical world evolves over time (specifying the basic forces and the laws that govern them). I shall say that it has achieved OSD success: it has established theories of how matter came to exist in its present form, how it is composed, and how it changes its properties with time. This is what we would expect of an adequate empirical scientific theory of some aspect of reality: an account of its origins, its underlying structure, and its behavior over time. Not to have answered these questions would make physics into a merely embryonic science, hardly worthy of the name (think physics in the age of Aristotle or earlier). Now turn to biology—anatomy, physiology, evolution, and genetics. It too can boast real achievements in the three areas identified: how life originated, the structure of living things, change of biological forms over time. We now know that life on earth began with bacteria some four billion years ago (though we don’t have a clear idea of how bacteria came to exist), and it has been evolving by means of mutation and natural selection ever since. We also know about the fine cellular structure of organisms, as well as the molecular structure of the genetic material. And we have a well-established theory of how organisms change over time (the aforementioned evolution by natural selection), as well as how individual organisms function biologically (blood flow, enzymes, digestion, photosynthesis, etc.) Granted, we don’t know everything about life–as we don’t know what preceded the big bang or how to integrate quantum physics and gravity—but we have made serious progress in understanding these three aspects of the biological world. Biology is well advanced in OSD studies. It is not that a student of the subject would have fundamental questions in these three areas about which biology has established nothing. What we expect of a reputable science is that it can tell us where its proprietary entities came from, how they are internally structured down to the microscopic level, and what explains change in them over time. Biology and physics satisfy these criteria.

But what about psychology–can itboast comparable achievements? The short answer is no. What theory in psychology plays the role of big bang cosmology in physics and Darwinian evolution in biology? None: psychology has no theory of how minds as they currently exist came to be. The best it can do is piggyback on biology, but there is no explanatory theory of how minds with their characteristic properties came to be—subjectivity, consciousness, intentionality, reason, introspection, and more. How did these develop from more primitive traits? How did the whole process begin? If a mind is like a galaxy, how did the mental galaxy form? Psychology just accepts minds as they are, animal and human, but it doesn’t explain how they came to be, what triggered them, what shaped them. There is no origin story in psychology. What about structure? We can say what the partsof the mind are—the analogues of bodily organs—but we have nothing to say about the ultimate constituents of the mind, especially its hidden structure. People mumble about “bits” of information, as if these were the atoms of mentation, but really this is hand waving, not solid science. There are no microscopes of the mind, no diffraction chambers, no spectral analyses, no supercolliders. Psychology makes do with commonsense divisions into belief and desire, memory and perception, emotions and sensations; but there is no elaborated theory of fundamental constituents analogous to atoms and molecules, cells and DNA. We don’t know how our mental life is built up. And what about dynamics? How does psychology explain the flow of conscious thoughts or the changing behavior of the organism? What laws are cited to predict how one thought will follow another, or how emotions influence overall mental state, or how a subject will act in a novel situation? Psychologists like to talk about various “effects” (e.g. the Zeigarnik effect), but where is the analogue to Newton’s three laws of motion? We just don’t have a theory of how a psychological system changes over time; at best we have rough hints about what might lead to what (as in “laws of association”). Where is the unified theory of psychological dynamics? Where are the equations of thought and action? A physicist or biologist encountering psychology for the first time might wonder how the subject accounts for origin, structure, and dynamic change—the basic facts she is familiar with in her own discipline—but her psychology professor will have little to say about these questions. He will report some experiments, maybe some established “effects”, but he won’t have comprehensive theories to offer in these three areas. He won’tsay, “I’m glad you asked that question because we have great theories of how minds originated, what composes them, and how they change with time”. If he is honest, he will mutter in a low voice, “Good question, we’re working in it”, perhaps followed by some boilerplate about psychology being a young science and all that (but is it really any younger than physics and biology?).

Compare linguistics. Chomsky has long pointed out areas of ignorance in that field, mainly relating to the evolutionary origins of language and in the free use of language in speech (“performance”). The evolution of language is largely a mystery, especially the origins of the lexicon, and the stimulus-freedom of speech makes language use hard to subsume under predictive laws. Some progress has been made with linguistic structure, but even here it is reasonable to wonder whether we have reached linguistic bedrock. So linguistics has not achieved what the established sciences have. Linguistics is really a branch of psychology, and it looks as if psychology in general has the limitations Chomsky finds in this branch of it. There is some grasp of structure, basically extrapolated from commonsense psychology (including commonsense linguistics), though it has nothing like the depth we find in physics and biology. But the origins of the language faculty in evolutionary history, and how that faculty is manifested in action, are shrouded in mystery. Whether the mystery is temporary or permanent, contingent or necessary, is another question; what is clear is that psychology and linguistics do not have the kinds of explanatory success found in the established sciences. And what holds for linguistics and psychology also holds for sociology and anthropology (and maybe economics): how social structures and cultures came about is unexplained except in the most rudimentary terms, and there is no generally accepted dynamic theory of how they change over time (Hegel and Marx anyone?). Human history is not like the history of the physical universe or of the biological world. Freud made some heroic efforts to do for psychology and human history what physics and biology have achieved in their domains, but his efforts are not generally lauded. The simple fact is that the psychological “sciences” are nowhere near as advanced as the physical and biological sciences. They suffer from OSD deficiency. This is not, of course, the fault of psychologists, who are just too lazy or incompetent to bring the subject to maturity; it is inherent in the subject itself. It is very difficultto explain how minds originated, what their compositional structure is, and how they change over time.[1]I intend no aspersions on the field or its practitioners; I merely point out certain significant asymmetries. Presumably the mind hassome sort of intelligible origin (it didn’t just spring into existence from nothing), and some sort of internal structure (the “cells of thought”), and some dynamic principles (not just stochastic chaos): but we are far from understanding what any of these might be. Nor do I see any relief on the horizon. It is pretty amazing that we have achieved the kind of insight in physics and biology that we have, and it didn’t happen overnight; there is really no guarantee that psychology will ever repeat these successes. Psychology might always remain a semi-science.[2]


[1]Note the contrast with the brain as an organ of the body. There is no more difficulty explaining its origin than other organs of the body; it is composed of cells that are composed of molecules; and its dynamic mode of operation is the nerve impulse that changes the brain’s state over time. We havea science of the brain, much as we have a science of matter and life, though of course it still has a long way to go. But that doesn’t provide us with the right level of explanation to account for the mind. Perhaps this is (partly) why people tend to favor neural reductionism: it enables psychology to mirror the theoretical successes of the other sciences.

[2]That is not to say that it can’t be useful or illuminating, just that it may never mimic the OSD successes of physics and biology.


10 responses to “Psychological Science?”

  1. Giulio Katis says:

    Very well summed up. My immediate response is to ask what would tools would a Galileo for psychology use? What would be a telescope for psychology? Presumably, it would require more than tools to study the brain. It would also require an ability to repeatedly, independently and in a non-culturally specific way verify conjectures via introspection.

    It might seem at first glance this is not possible. But I suggest something like this has been done in a spectacular way, with a history longer than the sciences you mention. Namely, in mathematics.

    The body of mathematics has grown enormously over the last two and half thousand years. The verification of conjectures and discoveries of mathematical truths comes down to the ability to repeatedly and independently verify conjectures in an introspective manner. Mathematical truths can also be communicated and independently rediscovered. Mathematics doesn’t come for free, and it isn’t natural – it requires years of a specific form of mental yoga. Note that we trust the claims of mathematicians when a new discovery or proof is found, even though only a relatively small number of people can perform the mental yoga required to validate the purported truth.

    Of course, psychology would require more – it would require doing this where the object of study is the mind itself. So this also requires an introspective telescope (or microscope) that enables observations of the mind that aren’t normally visible to us; and the ability to configure what we might loosely call local initial and boundary conditions (to run and rerun experiments). This may sound very far fetched, but not impossible. In fact, certain eastern traditions claim to have over thousands of years developed such mental yogas.

    Could we then imagine a future where western science and eastern mental yogic traditions come together to develop the science of psychology? Not with the primary purpose to perform observations of the brain, as is done today when long term meditators are hooked up to MRI machines; but instead to get to a point where psychological introspection can be held to discover truths, in ways that can be communicated and replicated, as is done in mathematics.

    This sounds very much like something out of Frank Herbert’s Dune series, but not impossible.

    Putting aside what one might think about eastern traditions and whether they have discovered anything about the mind, the biggest challenge I see with this happening is the lack of trust. I suspect society trusts mathematicians not because of the scholastic tradition, or the ability to test for mathematical knowledge and aptitude, but because mathematics has proven itself indespensible in nearly all types of engineering.

    So fundamental insights into mental engineering for the masses (natural or artificial) may be required. And I thought I was going to get through this reply without mentioning AI…

    • Mathematics is a formal science of course, not an empirical one. I don’t think its method is introspection, which would make it a branch of psychology. What it would take to fill the gaps I mentioned is extremely hard to envisage.

  2. says:

    Fodor reviewed Pinker’s, “How the Mind Works”, in, “The London Review of Books”. Pinker responded to Fodor’s review in the journal,”Mind and Language”. Fodor, sensibly stung, responded to Pinker in the same venue, all bluff and bluster. Pinker, reluctantly, finished him off. I’ve come across no more convincing defense of the prerogatives and achievements of the science of psychology. Pinker honors your own, philosophical, approach to these matters, over and above Fodor’s, not least for the clarity and eloquence with which you address them, again, over and above Fodor’s. This latter is an achievement remarkable in itself. Fodor was a great stylist and rhetorician.

    • I think there are lots of good things in psychology, as there are in linguistics, but that doesn’t mean the lacunas I mentioned don’t exist. I also reviewed that book of Pinker’s, which I thought very good. Fodor was my colleague and friend, and obviously a brilliant man, though opinionated.

  3. says:

    Empirical inquiry informs theory; theory, in turn, informs subsequent empirical inquiry…and so on. I still see no principled limitation on the reach of this methodology. The claim of cognitive closure with respect to ANY target domain of explanation is always and everywhere pre-mature. Progress HAS been made in understanding, “sentience, the self, free-will, meaning, knowledge and morality”. Progress in physics is the triumph of the counter-intuitive over allegations of cognitive closure. One might expect the triumph of psychological explanation to be even more counter-intuitive. Just re-read your review of, “How the Mind Works”. Better than Fodor’s.

    • What about Godel? What about how many dinosaurs there were? What about what it’s like to be a bat? The methodology you mention depends on a stock of concepts–do we have all possible concepts? Do you think memory is unlimited? Is the human brain capable of knowing everything (but no other brain)?

  4. says:

    “Do we have all possible concepts?”. I would claim only that our evolved conceptual competence is indefinitely, not infinitely, plastic. What is the scope of plausible application of any given concept? What determines the plausibility of any conjectured application? Could our knowledge of the elasticity of any given concept ever be “complete”? These are matters for psychology and philosophy, both, ofcourse. Our species, at least at its best, exhibits a mother-load of flexibility and creativity in the exercise of its intelligence. Doubtless, there are evolved as well as conceptual limits on the “depth” of our understanding. The best we can do is endeavor to bump up against them. I’m feeling rather optimistic at present. I believe I shall have wine every morning before breakfast.

    • The important point is never to rule out cognitive closure dogmatically in favor of transparently inadequate theories, which is what a lot of philosophy has done. Of course, actually proving cognitive closure is difficult.

  5. says:

    Just noticed an upcoming event at, The New School’s, Center for Public Scholarship. “Unknowability: How do we know what we can’t know?” Featured speakers include, Rebecca Goldstein, Gregory Chaitin, Nick Humphery, Alan Fiske.. I suspect it will be much more interesting than the latest from, “The Logos Dance Collective”, and that its attendees will require far fewer analgesics. Had the organizers of this conference either brains or courage, I doubt not that one, Colin Mcginn, would be lecturing there.

    • I have to agree: strange that I’m not invited, but entirely predictable. I wonder whether they consider me and then decide against it because I’m “controversial”, or have I just dropped off the map?

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