I occupy a peculiar perch in psychology. I study striving from life’s cradle to our current grave situation and do so with an unprecedentedly scientific explanation for what striving actually is.
Striving is at the heart of psychology, the study of the behavioral consequences of such properties as motivation, will, appetite, agency and selfhood – most fundamentally the struggle for existence common to all living beings, what sets the living apart from lifeless things and phenomena.
Psychologists know lots about the behavioral consequences but still don’t know what those properties are. There’s no striving organ or chemical. There’s nothing added, supernatural or otherwise that makes chemistry come alive.
The struggle for existence is something different from nothing but chemistry and yet scientists, including psychologists still operate without an explanation for what it is. We debate such things as free will without any scientific explanation for will. It’s weird.
There’s a huge overlooked chasm running right down the middle of the sciences. Few scientists discuss it. The struggle for existence is inadmissible in the physical sciences and indispensable in the life/social sciences. A physicist can’t say that matter is trying to achieve anything. A life/social scientists can’t help but say that organisms are trying to achieve things, chiefly trying to keep living.
The lower sciences should explain what the higher sciences assume. Chemistry does not explain the struggle for existence. Darwin doesn’t either. He admitted that he assumed it and didn’t explain it. No one has explained it in the years since. Indeed few scientists even broach the question.
Scientists have names for striving’s various manifestations, but the names are just place holders – names for what has yet to be explained. Their names – motivation, selfhood, appetite, etc. are no more explanatory than terms like soul, spirit or vital force.
For 22 years, I’ve collaborated closely with a Harvard/Berkeley biologist Terrence Deacon who tackles the question head on. After completing a 20 year project to explain the origin and nature of language, he set out to explain the origin and nature of the living struggle for existence.
Together we now have an explanation of the struggle for existence, the something different from nothing but chemistry. Deacon wrote a scientific treatise and many academic articles on our solution that I distilled into an accessible book, “Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves (Columbia University Press, 2017).
Here at Psychology Today, everything I write, no matter how informal and practical the topic. is grounded in our foundational approach to explaining the nature of striving.
Our approach could be wrong, of course. You can’t engage in science without the possibility that your life’s entire work had you barking up the wrong tree. Still, our approach deals with the something-different-from-nothing-but question directly and answers it on solid scientific footing.
Indeed, it employs the same core insight that led to three of the most important insights in the life and social sciences: What’s presented is a product of what’s prevented. That’s the idea behind natural selection, information theory and self-organization theory. Those three theories do not explain the struggle for existence, but they’re all hints in the right direction and the core insight is at the heart of our approach.
Life is death prevention. It starts when a chemical system chances to prevent itself from petering out. We the living are not something added to chemistry (no ghost) nor just any old chemistry (machine or mechanism). The living are self-regenerative constraints, constraints that channel energy into work that regenerates the constraint. We are preventions that prevent themselves from ending.
To operate as psychologists do today without a scientific explanation for striving is a little like doing chemical engineering without any idea what chemicals are. Chemists did for a long time and got a lot figured out but the field really took off when they finally could explain what was going on at the ground level.
I operate on the assumption that an explanation for what striving is will help psychologists refine our understanding of psychological behavior.
I write about everything, often alternating between articles explaining our ground approach and articles on practical everyday life. I love that everything is fair game in psychology, no topic too touchy.
I've had the luxury of circumstance to spend the second half of my life wondering carefully without a lot of social constraints. I write, teach and research full time. My income doesn't depend upon it so I don't have to curb what I think to keep myself fed.
I take good insights where I find them. I'm a very fussy shopper among interpretations, not that it ensures that I find good ones. Still, I try by means more rigorous than the usual self-confidence by which we declare ourselves discerning. A lot of my articles explore how best to shop among interpretations.
Though the blog is called Ambigamy, sexloveromance is not my primary topic. Ambigamy was an early term I coined for what could also be called romanticynicism, or romantiskepticism – to really want to intimacy but to recognize one's wariness. An early motto for my work was "no matter how hard I chase the truth, it will never catch me." I'm interested in the tension between wanting intimacy with reality and with people, chief among them ourselves. Ambigamy then can be thought of as the tension between the pursuit of the likely and the liked story.
I think dilemmas are much more fundamental than principles. Universal principles are basically our strained unsuccessful attempts to escape dilemmas. I study the fundamental universal dilemmas that we deal with over and over all life long. To give a sense of it, try this:
Hard left, hard right, hard center, hard choices
Hard left: Love is the answer.
Hard right: Ouch. Toughness is the answer.
Hard center: Ouch. Tough love is the answer.
Hard choices: Ouch. Tough love is the question, when to be loving; when to be tough.
I also call myself a psycho-proctologist. I spend a lot of time on the question: What is a butthead since it can't just be anyone you butt heads with? In other words, what is an objective definition of out-of-bounds behavior? In a free society we don't want to dictate what people should do, but you still have to put a leash on buttheads or it won't remain a free society.
Seeking an objective definition of butthead is part of my general campaign against exceptionalism. I think our biggest human weakness is a tendency to forget our fallibility when challenged, indeed our motivated fallibility–our inner weasels, our bias and hypocrisy. My aim is to know the follies of humankind by introspection. I am my own lab, and when I find myself being inconsistent, it's usually the inspiration for a new blog article. I aim to be "intellectually bi-curious." I don't think I really understand something well enough to voice an opinion about it until I can make a compelling case for the argument against my opinion.
I read a lot, mostly by speedlistening to books. I have a masters in Public Policy from Berkeley and a Ph.D. in decision theory and evolutionary theory from Union Institute and University.
I've raised three children. I was married once for 17 years. I now consider myself either retired or on sabbatical from sexloveromance. I love my wide circle of friends, and connect mostly over ideas, though I also play jazz, funk, soul music. I'm a singer and bassist, electric and upright. Occasionally I write songs, another medium for conveying the ideas that interest me.
Feel free to contact me with questions, critique or suggestions.