Theory of Knowledge

A unified approach to psychology and philosophy

Introduction to Theory of Knowledge

Is there an ultimate Theory of Knowledge?

Welcome! This is a new blog grounded in the ideas put forth in the just-released book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology.

Theory of Knowledge might sound like an unusual name for a blog, especially a blog in psychology. What does the term mean? Before I answer that, take a minute and consider your reactions to the following claims:

George W. Bush was an outstanding president. Matter is made up of atoms. Abortion should be illegal. Science is more reliable than faith. Joseph Smith was a prophet.

Although you might not have labeled it as such, your reaction to these statements is reflective of your theory of knowledge. So what exactly is meant by theory of knowledge? When philosophers are discussing theory of knowledge (TOK), they are usually talking about epistemology and epistemic justification, which refers to the intersection between belief (one's mental representation of the world), truth (the actual state of the world), and justification (the relationship between the two). Most people do not explicitly think in terms of their own TOK, but there is a movement to change that, as there now is an explicit international course of study on TOK.

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When discussed here, a person's TOK refers to the explicit justification systems he or she has for making sense out of the world. Justification systems are the interlocking network of language-based beliefs and values people use to determine what is legitimate and why. It is crucial that we become more reflective about our justification systems, and one of the goals of this blog is to increase that reflective activity. Perhaps one of the best ways to do that is to spend time with people who have very different worldviews. (Note: A person's TOK, worldview, and justification system are essentially synonymous). For example, I recently listened to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on tape, and it is striking to consider how different the character's worldviews are to my own.

If people have different TOKs, how do you know if your TOK is a good one? Although there is much debate about this, philosophers have offered four basic angles to analyze one's TOK.

1) Coherence refers to the extent to which the knowledge system offers semantically clear constructs that relate to one another in a logically coherent way. In other words, is the system internally consistent?

2) Correspondence refers to the extent to which the system lines up with independent evidence. In other words, does the system make predictions about facts to be discovered? (For me, the difference between coherence and correspondence is seen comparing people with disorganized schizophrenia from delusional schizophrenia. Disorganized schizophrenics lack coherence--at the extreme, there simply is no way to make sense of their semantic network. In contrast, it is often easy to understand what individuals with delusions are saying, but it simply does not correspond with external evidence.)

3) Comprehensiveness refers to scope (breadth and depth) of the TOK. In other words, to what extent does it incorporate the various domains of knowledge or at least provide a potential explanatory framework for various possible domains?

4) Conduciveness refers to the extent to which the TOK pragmatically fosters achieving one's goals. Here the criterion for goodness is simply whether "it works." Consider, for example, the contrast between myself and Huck Finn. While my TOK may well be more coherent, empirical, and comprehensive, if I were to be transported back into his time and attempted to live in his world, the conduciveness of my TOK relative to his may well be far lower. That is, I may well have floundered and died if I were confronted with the environmental (social and physical) stressors and affordances he was able to navigate.

So take a minute to reflect on your own TOK. What are the foundational points that ground your justification system? Do you think you have a comprehensive and coherent justification system that corresponds to external data and is conducive to realizing your goals? (Although meant rhetorically, I welcome readers' reactions).

But what do questions about TOK have to do with psychology?

Approximately 15 years ago, I was in an advanced psychotherapy class, learning about the various models and methods of psychotherapy, including psychodynamic, cognitive, behavioral, humanistic, and so forth. I was fortunate in that I had an instructor who was able to communicate the insights of each with effectiveness. As a graduate student in that class, I came to believe that the future of psychotherapy was through the effective unification of the specific schools of thought into a coherent, holistic system.

But what system would that be? Ideally, it would be a coherent body of psychological knowledge. Yet the science of psychology is as fragmented as the practice of psychotherapy. Although I did not know it at the time, awareness of psychology's fragmentation led me to ask a deceptively simple question that ultimately would result in a fundamentally new TOK. That question was:

What, exactly, is psychology?

This question has never been satisfactorily answered. Deep tensions exist as to whether psychology is the science of mind or of behavior, whether it is concerned with humans or animals in general, whether it is a natural science or social science or not a science at all, and whether it is predominantly a science or a profession or both. These questions ultimately resulted in my developing a system that I believe can provide the field with foundational answers to these perennial questions. And in the process, it gave rise to a new system of thought that might just be the most effective TOK built to date.

This blog will introduce this TOK, known as the Unified Theory. It will explore: 1) the four pieces that make up the Unified Theory and how they set the stage for an ultimate TOK; 2) how the Unified Theory defines the field of psychology; and 3) the implications the Unified Theory has for emerging trends in psychology, psychotherapy, and everyday living. I hope you will join me on this journey and find that reflecting on your TOK is an enriching and life-deepening activity.

Gregg

Gregg Henriques, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at James Madison University.

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