An Allowable Psychologism?

This is the first in an intermittent series where I will use psychology to illuminate philosophy. (I do have a degree in psychology, but am merely a hobbyist philosopher.) Specifically, I intend to explore the possibility that understanding psychology can actually illuminate logic, mathematics, and reason.

Doing this is, in some people’s eyes, an unconscionable thing, and they call it psychologism.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines ‘psychologism’ thus:

“Many authors use the term ‘psychologism’ for what they perceive as the mistake of identifying non-psychological with psychological entities. For instance, philosophers who think that logical laws are not psychological laws would view it as psychologism to identify the two.”[1]

So psychologism is the idea that our understanding of something reflects our psychology, to a greater extent than it reflects the thing that we seek to understand. By analogy, consider growing up with an undiagnosed cataract, you can see, but there is a distortion in your vision. You were born with it, so as far as you’re aware what you see is normal. As you grow up your brain adapts to the distortion, in the same way that you quickly adapt to wearing glasses with stripes on the front of them that should block your vision, like those made famous by Kanye West. Studying the cataract is psychology, taking your view of the world through the cataract to be in some sense true is psychologism, removing the cataract from the equation is the answer, apparently.

Neon Shutter Shades

Neon Shutter Shades – significantly cooler than Kanye West, and their inclusion here neatly avoids having to have a picture of him on my blog.

Over the last few decades psychology has gone some way to separating our understanding of the world from our brains and the distortions that are inherent in its structure. Unlike cataracts, though, we all have these distortions to a greater or lesser extent. Indeed, the main way in which we can be less impacted by these distortions is to be aware of them (unlike the stripes on those shutter shades). In the case of the human mind, the single biggest cataract surgery has been the work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky on heuristics and biases. Indeed, I would suggest that Kahneman’s ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is one of the most important books of popular psychology ever written, certainly the most important this century.

Heuristics are simple rules that our brains use to resolve complex problems. These ruels are right most of the time… but not all of the time. For example, if we see a shadow in the corner of our eye, we will treat this as a potential source of danger. Biases, on the other hand, are the consistent and predictable results of relying on heuristics. These are by no means the only distortions that arise from the way our brains evolved. Evolution is pragmatic, balancing costs (needs for fuel/food) against benefits (survival advantage). So we have numerous talents that helped us survive, but that hamper our ability to get at the truth. According to evolution, knowing that the movement in the corner of your eye is a large, aggressive mammal is less important than already being on the run by the time you discover it is a large, aggressive carnivore; and the occasional life-preserving sprint occasioned by a harmless herbivore, is a small price to pay.

An example of where our psychology may have been what was being described rather than the reality “out there” is Plato’s Idealism. Platonic Idealism is the idea that transcendent ideal things exist in another sphere of existence above our mundane world. Is this a reflection of reality, or a reflection of the fact that the human mind (probably) is a connectionist neural network (relying on prototypes by which to define things)? Can you countenance the idea that a transcendent Platonic world exists, and contains, for example, and because this is the internet, an ideal cat from which all earthly cats derive their ‘cat-ness’? Or does it seem more likely that, having been exposed to a great many cats, we have stored in our memory a prototype that best encapsulates ‘cat-ness’, and from which we can decide whether some quadrupedal mammal in our environment is a cat or not?


Plato’s cats, from Midnight Media Musings

More particularly, psychologism has at its heart the question of whether logic is a sub-discipline of psychology or not, as mentioned above. The answering of this question hasn’t been helped by the fact that psychology was a branch of philosophy until about the same time as the psychologism argument arose in earnest with the work of Frege[2] and Husserl[3], in the late 19th Century. One solution is to suggest that psychology is the study of how we do think, and logic is the study of how we should think, but of course Ethics is both the study of how we do think about right and wrong behaviour, and how we should think about right and wrong behaviour, and there is no long-standing argument about whether that is psychology. That being said, whilst Ethics is an area of philosophical discussion, it is increasingly encroached upon by psychology (indeed Richard Carrier has called for a psychologically-based ‘ethicology’[4], and Sam Harris’ claims that science can be applied to all questions of ethics, so long as ethics is positioned as a discussion about the harm of conscious creatures)[5].

So, psychologism is the application of our understanding of human thought processes to the study of things that don’t seem to have anything to do with human thought processes. For myself, I think that we need an intentional psychologism as a tool with which to disentangle what is studied from the means by which it is studied, a means of bracketing out (as Husserl would have it) the vagaries of the human mind from the vagaries of the world it reports on. In other words, are you describing a thing in the world, or are you describing the way in which that thing (or those things) is represented in your mind? Are they phenomena, or is it phenomenology? From Plato’s idealism to almost everything that has arisen from rationalist philosophy (aka armchair science), this seems necessary. So I shall proceed as though psychologism is a tool, rather than a philosophical debate.

It seems I’m not the only one. The rest of the quote from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that I opened with reads like this:

“Other authors use the term in a neutral descriptive or even in a positive sense. ‘Psychologism’ then refers (approvingly) to positions that apply psychological techniques to traditional philosophical problems (e.g. Ellis 1979, 1990).”


Free-floating rationales

Dan Dennett (1984), in ‘Elbow Room: The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting’ introduced the idea of the free-floating rationale, and it strikes me as a useful tool for this intentional psychologism. A free-floating rationale is a reason why a particular response to a particular problem is inherent in the elements of the problem, all that is being waited upon is the tools by which the solution can be deployed. For example, the ability of the squid or chameleon to change colour to match their surroundings can be seen as a response to the need to hide quickly. A means by which that reason can be arrived at is not necessary for the animals that display it (neither the squid nor the chameleon, so far as we are aware, makes the decision to change colour, and the ability to do so was arrived at via evolution, not a congress of chameleons, nor a senate of squids). It so happens, though, that arriving at reasons for things is a skill that humans do have. That’s why humans have developed sonar similar to a bat’s echo-location, and many other things that echo solutions that have been arrived at in nature. The solutions exist, and we discover them. What we invent is the means by which to manifest that solution. This may also explain the pervasive belief that the universe is intelligently designed – we perceive the reason, and we perceive the reason to be out there, correctly, but assume that the reason is also articulated, out there, which it is not (a case of mistaking the thing for the label we have for it).

I see the concept of a free-floating rationale as yet another in a long line of claimed human inventions that are really human discoveries. Numbers don’t exist, but they describe relationships between things; centres of gravity don’t exist, but describe the relationships between the particles within, and the totality of, a thing; and free-floating rationales don’t exist, but nevertheless describe relationships between things, and states of affairs in the world; and logic is a distinct set of patterns of inter-relationship to which things regularly conform… inherent in the elements of the problem.

Is mathematics demonstrative of human rationality, or is it merely a free-floating rationale? Is reason phenomenology, or a phenomenon? Is logic an invention, or a discovery?

Can psychologism be used to distinguish between free-floating rationales and human-centric biases in the way we see the universe? I think so, and I’m going to explore that idea over the coming posts.


Next Instalment: ‘How is a Raven Like a Writing Desk?’








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