Toward the First Revolution in Mind Sciences P2

Daniel Vinograd

 

 

In a similar fashion, Darwin spent about 25 years in very meticulous, rigorous, careful observation of biological phenomena. Of course, in the Galapagos, we all know about that, that no, it wasn’t just the Galapagos; he was doing years of study, observing, observing, observing. Then in 1859 he came up with his great monumental work, The Origins of the Species. That would not have happened had he not been meticulously observing the biological phenomena. It wasn’t just staying home at his estate and thinking really deeply about biology. It wasn’t by doing really good physics. It was by observing biological phenomena carefully, and then drawing from that and developing his spectacular theory of evolution.

 

Then we get to 1890. We get to the closing years of the 19th century, first decade of the 20th century. The person I believe is of equal stature: William James. I have to admit, he’s one of my heroes, so look out. I really love this guy. Because he was brilliant; he was an M.D., he was a biologist, he was a spectacular philosopher, he wrote the greatest American treatise on religious experience ever, The Varieties of Religious Experience. He was a psychologist. He started the first neuroscience lab, experimental psychology lab in the United States at Harvard. He was a brilliant philosopher, religious studies scholar, scientist, M.D., biologist, psychologist, and he was so dogma-free. That’s what I love about this guy. He wasn’t buying into any dogma, but he was an empiricist. In fact, he started a school of philosophy called radical empiricism.

 

William James came to the mind, and this is something that had been postponed for 300 years, from the time of Copernicus. Can you imagine 300 years of the development of science, of physics, chemistry, biology, astronomy, geology, etc., etc., 300 years before they actually started the scientific study of the mind?

 

That should throw you back for a moment, if you’ve not quite thought of it in those terms. This is bizarre. The mind is that with which you’re doing all the science. It would be like somebody giving you an instrument and saying, “Use this instrument, you’ll discover a lot of things,” and waiting 300 years before you actually look at the instrument itself. That is weird. But there were very good reasons for it, and today we have too short a time to really explore them in depth.

 

But of course, for those first 300 years, the natural sciences, established the reputation – a spectacular reputation, well-earned reputation, for studying objective, quantifiable, physical phenomena. Objective, quantifiable, physical phenomena. So you can bring in the full weight of mathematics, the technology which is there, starting from the telescope, moving right through all the extraordinary advances in technology.
But mental phenomena – emotions, thoughts, mental images, desires, memories, expectations, the whole array – visual perception, auditory, mental perception, dreams – these are not objective; they’re subjective. They’re not quantifiable; they’re qualitative. They’re not clearly physical. The last time you had a dream, look at the contents of the dream and ask, what physical attributes do the contents of your dream have? The answer is none.

 

Or your emotions. Your desires, your hopes and fears, your feelings. Your thoughts and mental images. They don’t have any physical attributes at all. You observe them. They’re not physical. At least, they certainly don’t appear physical. If they are physical, then they’re really concealing something.

 

William James was presenting perhaps the greatest challenge in the history of science, with its 300 years of spectacular success. Because he himself was a biologist, an M.D., we have gotten extremely good using scientific method to explore the objective, quantifiable, physical; and now, can we take this same expertise, this same methodological rigor, and apply it to that which is by nature subjective, qualitative, and perhaps non-physical?

 

He said, let’s do it in the old-fashioned way, and that is let psychology be above all the study of mental phenomena as we experience them immediately. And for that, like physics, like biology, let us catalyze a revolution in the mind sciences. Let us start and do it the old-fashioned way: carefully, meticulously, rigorously observe the phenomena themselves. He proposed this. They didn’t do it. They tried it, they namby-pambied around with it for about 20 or 30 years, and then they stopped.

 

William James wasn’t the only person. William James started the first experimental psychology lab at Harvard in 1879, and here was his mission statement, in terms of methodology: he said “Introspective observation is what we have to rely on first and foremost and always.” He continues, “The word ‘introspection’ need hardly be defined – it means, of course, the looking into our own minds and reporting what we there discover.” In other words, just as Galileo was an empiricist and Darwin was an empiricist, when we finally get around to the mind, let’s be equally empirical and study the phenomena themselves.

 

In presenting this, he did not at all disparage or try to marginalize studying the mind by way of behavior. The whole behavioral sciences, inferring states of consciousness, mental processes, and so forth, by way of behavior. Extremely valuable. He did not disparage that. So we’re looking at the fruits, the effects of mental processes, by studying behavioral output. Excellent.

 

Then of course, they knew back then that the brain is crucially important in generating mental states, processes, and so forth. So causally, look at the mind indirectly by looking at the neural causes giving rise to mental phenomena; look at the mind indirectly by looking at the behavioral output or effects of mental phenomena; but first and foremost and always, look at the mental phenomena, and let your science be based upon the actual careful observation of the phenomena themselves.

 

In the same year that William James started this first experimental psychology lab at Harvard, Wilhelm Wundt, the German psychologist in Germany – in the same year, he started his own experimental psychology lab. He echoed a very similar theme. He said, “The service which it [the experimental method, or what we call the scientific method] can yield consists essentially in perfecting our inner observation, or rather, as I believe, in making this really possible, in any exact sense.”

 

Anybody can introspect a little bit; are you happy right now or sad? Interested or bored? Agitated or calm? You don’t need to look at your behavior. You don’t have to go to an EEG or to an fMRI and ask, “How am I doing? Tell me what my brain scan tells me.” To some rudimentary level, right now, you can have some idea of what’s going on in your mind. Are there a lot of thoughts arising? Are you falling asleep? And so forth. Emotional states, cognitive states, the focus of your attention, the scatteredness of your attention.

 

But what both William James and Wilhelm Wundt, these two giants on the two sides of the Atlantic Ocean, were suggesting is take your folk psychology, your folk, untrained introspection and start refining it, honing it, intensifying it. Make this a sophisticated method of inquiry. This is the battle cry. This is the great challenge for the mind sciences.

 

Didn’t happen. Didn’t happen. 1913, especially in America, John Watson at Johns Hopkins University – William James was just cooling off in the grave, and another movement came in. It was almost like a palace coup. John Watson in 1913 said from now on, the scientific study of the mind is going to avoid all psychological subjective terms. We will not use the terms “belief” and “emotion,” “thought,” “perception.” We’re not going to use any of those subjective terms at all. They have no place in psychology.

 

This is bizarre. We’re going to have a science of the mind, but by the way, we won’t use any mental terminology at all. We’re going to treat the mind as if it’s a black box containing only dispositions, proclivities for behavior, and we’re going to confine ourselves to studying the non-mind by way of behavior. In other words, we’re going to flatten, like stamping on a tin can, we’re going to flatten the study of mental phenomena, treat them as if they don’t exist, and reduce psychology to the study of behavior. It’s back to the good old-fashioned way of objective, quantifiable, and physical, rather than picking up the gauntlet that William James had thrown out and said it’s time to start something afresh. Attend to the mental phenomena. John Watson said, “No thanks.”

 

These radical behaviorists – this is going on from 1913, building up momentum, the ’20s, the ’30s, the ’40s, ’50s – 1953, 40 years later, B.F. Skinner comes out and says mental phenomena do not exist. There’s no such thing as emotion, mental images, thoughts, desires, hopes and fears. They don’t exist at all. In fact, “consciousness” is a word that refers to nothing at all. It’s a superstition. Your jaw should be dropping down to your kneecaps at this point. What? He said, well after all, they can’t exist. They don’t have physical attributes. What?

 

This is the absolute trumping of dogma over experience. Because they’ve decided now – B.F. Skinner, writing in 1953, the only things that exist are physical. The only things that exist are physical, and the properties of the physical. Mental phenomena clearly don’t have any physical attributes; therefore, they don’t exist. Appearances to the contrary – well, tough luck on appearances. He kept on saying that, until 1974. He never learned. He wasn’t some yahoo at Podunk State University; he was a full professor at Harvard University, and saying these things, looked like he’s brain-dead. It really should astound us that such a highly intelligent person – I say with respect – can say such a ridiculous thing.

 

It compares to Descartes’ statement, also operating under the dogma – now it’s a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in the 17th century – when he equated consciousness with the human immortal soul: only human beings have immortal souls; animals don’t. If you equated consciousness with an immortal soul, you now in one-step logic, have to come to the conclusion that animals are not conscious. Because they don’t have an immortal soul, they don’t go to heaven or hell; therefore, your dog has no consciousness, which means no feelings. Try to swallow that one if you can. Even back then, they thought, “What, Descartes? We thought you were a pretty smart guy, but what?” But which is more – pardon me, but idiotic? To say your dog has no feelings or you have no feelings?
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