Did Psychology Change Human Thinking?

The Most Important Problem in Science and Philosophy

We’ve spoken before about the Enlightenment Gap. We’re going to speak about it again from a new perspective — as I believe it’s the single most important problem in Western Civilization.

Until the advent of science there was no separation of “Ought” and “Is.” If something occurred then it must have been morally correct because authorities like the Church, the King, or God made it so.

“Modern science took off during the Enlightenment and changed the world. Science differed from philosophy in that it did not presuppose how nature must be, as the early philosophers tended to do, but instead scientists “got up out of their armchairs” and asked questions and gathered data about how the universe actually behaved. Observation, measurement, and experimentation became the sine qua non of the scientific enterprise, and this has continued into the present day.” — Gregg Henriques, Psychology Today

With this split we gained a tremendous amount. We are now able to observe the world as it is.

On certain levels this enables us to more effectively shift between our “ought” and “is” hats. For example, before we were able to discover germ theory (is) we were unable to properly treat certain diseases (ought). Learning about germ theory does not presuppose one will cure diseases with that knowledge, but doctors and medical scientists decided they ought to do so.

On other levels science and philosophy have led to a deep split in our epistemology. We call this the Enlightenment Gap. The reason for this gap is because Science is a fundamentally epistemological field. It almost exclusively has to do with understanding what we can know (using one particular method of sensemaking).

Philosophy is a much larger field than this. Philosophy encompasses Metaphysics (what is real, religion goes here), Epistemology (what is true, science goes here), Aesthetics (what is beautiful and valuable, art goes here) and Ethics (what is good, politics goes here).

When we allow science (epistemology) to inform our ethics we are making several errors:

1. Assuming the same laws that govern lower sciences like physics and chemistry will apply to inter-personal affairs

2. We are skipping metaphysics and aesthetics. Aesthetics in particular is a nasty step to skip — without determining what it is we value we can not act in ethical accordance with that highest value.

3. We are supposing the scientific method of sensemaking has a 1:1 correlation to ethics. In reality, this puts us back in the “law of the jungle” where it’s “might makes right.” If we do not go through the entire intellectual process to determine what is right then we will simply have a feedback loop of curiosities/desires and scientific experiments. We will be curious about something because we desire it — we will experiment until we find some facts about it, and then follow our curiosities from there. It’s an amoral mode of operating that allows people with the most force and resources behind their curiosities to dictate what truths we discover and how we utilize those truths.

To move forward I believe we will need to accomplish 2 tasks:

  1. We must understand how emergent complexities of culture, economies of scale and interpersonal behavior relate to other fields of scientific inquiry like physics.
  2. We must come to terms with the unique difficulty of using the scientific method to make truth claims about these emergent complexities due to what Gregg Henriques calls the “double hermeneutic”

We shall tackle task #2 first, then work back to #1. To put it simply, we will have much difficulty trying to study the social sciences because we can not be objective about ourselves and our cultures. We also have to acknowledge that the social sciences — particularly psychology — alter humanity itself.

How Psychology Has Changed Human Consciousness

Within societies exposed to it, the field of psychology has fundamentally altered the psychology of human beings. We’ll use

Sigmund Freud’s work to demonstrate this point.

We’ve figured where Freud was wrong and tend to laugh at him now as some fool. But when Freud was right — he was so right that it might have altered the trajectory of human evolution, and he rarely gets the credit he deserves anymore. Here’s an example

When you first heard the concept of the ego, or the Jungian shadow, you might have begun looking at yourself differently. in fact, most forms of therapy focus on “self-knowledge,” which is often a bon-a-fide mix of self-knowledge and learning of a new psychoanalytic system. By going through these processes, it is not only our behaviors that change, but our self-concept, styles of thinking and sensemaking, our overall moods etc. This applies socially as well.

When Freud invented (or discovered) the idea of the subconscious, it worked it’s way into the way nearly all therapists, artists, scientists, writers, etc view the world. These people then went on to build the next generation of culture where the concept of something occurring “subconsciously” is normal.

There was a point in time where humans had zero awareness of anything occurring “subconsciously,” now phrases like “you’re projecting!” or “I bet he subconsciously desires this!” or “You’re lashing out because I’m reminding you of your mother” are used in everyday conversation. In this way, Freud did not merely discover a facet of human psychology — he invented a tool that we can use on ourselves to change our psychology.

To contrast this with the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment — we discovered that if you put shock collars on dogs that they might be more obedient, but this did not fundamentally alter the nature of dogs. Dogs are not training themselves with Pavlovian technique.

In this way, interacting with animal psychology is like changing preferences on your computer, but interacting with human psychology is like editing code.

We must acknowledge that once animal life becomes self-aware, or intelligent (and begins to operate within cultures and economies of scale) that we are on a very different plane of science from simple Animal Psychology.

In this way it is similar to some parts of quantum physics. I’m sure you’ve heard of how observation of quantum experiments can alter the results of those experiments — it appears the same is true of the most complex social sciences — just over a longer time scale and in a way that’s difficult to observe objectively.

To close the enlightenment gap we will need a theory that bridges the fundamental principles of natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, animal psychology) to the emergent complexities of the chaotic social sciences.

When we’re working in the social sciences, our stance of objectivity can not be as strong as when we’re working in the natural sciences. We may never develop such rigorous knowledge about the chaotic social sciences as we will the natural world. — Gregg Henriques on the Best Medicine Podcast with Dr Bradley Werrell

How the Unified Theory of Knowledge Can Close The Enlightenment Gap

Gregg Henriques thinks he has developed a theory which can allow us to pursue the function of sensemaking without allowing the increasing complexity of higher layers of reality to confuse the core principles of the lower ones.

He calls it the Unified Theory of Knowledge. He has written a book and several resources on this theory — I don’t hope to explain the entire thing today. But I do want to highlight one basic part of it which might be useful to resolving the problems. Taken from Gregg Henriques’ Psychology Today Article: “A Periodic Table of Human Behavior”

There is no general framework for understanding the concepts and categories under investigation. Consider physics. Prior to Newton, physics was a “pre-paradigmatic mess”, meaning that the concepts and categories that physicists were using were highly inconsistent. One of the great achievements of Newtonian science was the emergence of a shared definitional system that could be examined empirically. Notice the first part of this sentence. A shared definitional system. That is a key aspect of cumulative science. And it is something physics, chemistry, and biology largely have achieved, at least at the core of the discipline. That is, scientists from these disciplines know generally what matter, energy, electrons, neutrons, genes, cells, evolution and so forth “mean”. And this shared, clear definitional system is one of the decisive factors that makes them worthy of the name “science”. Psychology completely lacks a shared definitional system. There is NO agreement on terms like behavior, mind, cognition, self, consciousness, and the like.

A lack of a general framework for psychology is a problem. There will also need to be meta-frameworks to account for the changes that arise in the mass-awareness of psychological frameworks (see Freud example above).

The most useful first resource within the Unified Theory of Knowledge is the Tree of Knowledge, pictured here

The Tree of Knowledge shows a timeline of the universe and the general progression of complexity through time.

There is a field of study called “Big History” which also attempts to chronicle the development of layers of complexity through time.

First there was the big bang, then a development of several layers of physics and chemistry. In fact, the first new layer of complexity was the creation of new chemicals — we didn’t start out with a full periodic table.

We take it for granted that there exists a periodic table with numerous elements (at last count, 118) from which we can construct the world around us. But when the universe began with a big bang, it started out with no elements at all. […] In fact, only light elements, like hydrogen and helium, were created at the start of the universe.

Other layers of complexity include the formation of stars, the development of carbon-based life forms, and the development of “mind” (in the sense a dog or cat has consciousness).

Though it may be a tad pretentious of us, we would describe the human race as another layer of complexity due to our self-awareness and the creation of technologies like the internet.

The Unified Theory of Knowledge posits that we are building a “layer cake” of science.

The “simplest” level of science is physics. It’s certainly a difficult and complex field — but at the core there are a set number of laws which govern physics. These laws remain true when applied to chemistry, the next layer. But chemistry adds it’s own laws and properties. Chemistry’s laws do not retro-actively change Physics — but they do apply forward to Biology. Biology does not change the laws of Physics or Chemistry, but it sure informs Psychology.

Each layer adds more laws which apply to itself and subsequent layers — thus making each layer more complex to understand.

Psychology has several laws which apply to the animal kingdom and to human beings — but there is yet another field of science, the social sciences, which have even more complex laws. It appears that this final layer is een more complex because it has the additional property of self-change.

Human’s fundamental biology and psychology is likely not changing for another few hundreds of thousands of years, or more. But our social configurations are changing at an increasingly breakneck speed. The agricultural revolution lasted ten thousand years, but the industrial age gave way to the information age in only a few hundred. Entire political ideologies, artistic movements, and lifestyles are born and die online in a few years time.

Gregg Henriques is doing exceptionally important work to identify a meta-framework which might apply to this process — similar to how Newton created a framework for Physics to fit into.

It’s a lofty challenge because this layer ALSO adds another layer of complexity — ethics. Humans will be unsatisfied with living in a framework they regard as unethical. If science has any hope of co-operating with philosophy to discover “objective ethics” (something I’m skeptical of, but could be possible) and closing the Enlightenment Gap, it will be because of a meta-framework developed to contextualize the social sciences.

I will have more discussions with Gregg Henriques to see if we might continue working on understanding such an interesting function!



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