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Does the Concept of Behavior Unify All of Science?

Behavior bridges modern empirical natural science.

Key points

  • Behavior frames natural science epistemologically, such that scientists obtain knowledge by observing behavior.
  • Behavior frames natural science ontologically, as science describes how nature behaves at different complexification levels and dimensions.
  • The principle of least behavioral action might be an underlying principle that ties science together theoretically.

Is there a central concept that pervades and frames modern empirical natural science? Could a single idea weave throughout natural scientific inquiry and frame the essential fabric of our objective knowledge of the world? I am guessing most would say no. For those bold souls who would say yes, I suspect some physicists might answer this by saying energy. After all, as suggested by Einstein’s famous E = mc2 and ideas like the Big Bang, an argument can be made that science has revealed that energy is the ultimate common denominator that underlies all of reality. In contrast, there might be some theorists who work in the domain of quantum computation and information science who claim we need to move from “it to bit,” and would say that information is fundamental. Others might take a different angle and claim that science is about critical thought, measurement, and logic (see here). Thus, they might argue that the central feature of modern empirical science is systematic analysis via observation, quantification, and experimentation.

According to the Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK), there is an answer, and it is behavior. I would suspect that many would initially balk at this answer. After all, the concept of behavior gets introduced to the scientific world via psychological science — specifically, Watson’s behavioral psychology. And, to this day, some people define psychology as the science of behavior. In addition, the “behavioral sciences” are a well-established domain of inquiry. If behavior was really the core concept in science, these assertions would make little sense. And, yet, if you know how to look at the landscape of our scientific knowledge, you will see there is a strong argument to be made that behavior is the key concept that ties together modern natural science.

We can start with basic definitions. Consider that the Lexico-Oxford dictionary defines science as “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.” If we agree that behavior can be defined as changes in entities and their relations across time, then, by implication, the concept of behavior can be considered to include the structure of those entities. However, the reverse is not true, as structure is static and does not include the dynamic aspects of behavior. We can also fold physical into the broader concept of natural, with the same logic. Natural includes physical, but physical does not include all that is natural. This gives us a definition of natural science as the systematic observation, description, and explanation of behavioral patterns in the natural world.

Hidden in this definition are two key features of behavior that bring us back to the opening paragraph. When we consider how to define the essence of modern empirical natural science (see here for how this is defined), we must differentiate between two fundamental aspects. One element is the epistemological aspect of science. This has to do with observation, measurement, quantification, and experimentation to develop valid models of complexity and change in nature. The second aspect is ontology. This refers to the claims about reality that science makes. So, as a behavioral scientist, I learned all about the epistemology of science by understanding things like measurement theory, reliability, validity, analyses of variance, and randomized controlled clinical trials. These are all tools for knowing about how the world behaves. In contrast, think of the Periodic Table of the Elements. This represents the idea that matter is made up of atoms that have core properties relating to things like weight and charge that have to do with the number of protons, neutrons, and electrons that make them up. As such, the Periodic Table is about ontology — it depicts knowledge that science has generated about the world.

This set of claims means that if there really were a central concept in all of science, it would have to blend or bridge scientific epistemology with scientific ontology. The UTOK argues that the concept of behavior does precisely this. That is, it frames both the epistemology of science and the way scientific ontologies map the ontic reality. As I argued back in 2003, the concept of behavior can be defined as the change in object–field relationships. This basic definition can bridge us to the epistemology of science in that modern empirical natural science is defined by the systematic observation, description, quantification, and experimentation on behavioral patterns. Many philosophers, from Ken Wilber to Bernardo Kastrup, have pointed out that science adopts an exterior, third-person, behavioral view of the world. As such, behavior and the systematic observation, measurement, and analysis of it can be said to frame the epistemology of science.

Via the Tree of Knowledge System and the Periodic Table of Behavior, the UTOK shows how we can frame scientific ontology as mapping the different dimensions and levels of behavior patterns in nature. Specifically, the Tree of Knowledge System frames the universe as an unfolding wave of behavioral complexification. It starts with the hot, dense “Singular Energy–Information Superforce Field” at the Big Bang. Consistent with scientific epistemology, this can be framed as the beginning of our observable universe. Then, there is a cosmic evolutionary expansion, such that the Energy–Information Singularity differentiates and evolves into what is called the Matter plane of existence on the Tree of Knowledge. This is made up of the space–time continuum in its familiar four dimensions, as well as the four fundamental forces of nature and their associated particles, and the subsequent larger assemblages of atoms, which then group into things like stars and molecules.

Following this "Big History" evolutionary trail, we then get to the dimension of Life, which can be defined as the set of living behaviors. Then, at around the Cambrian Explosion some 530,000,000 years ago, there is the documented emergence of the Mind dimension of existence, the set of which are animal–mental behaviors via sensory-motor looping. Then, by 50,000 years ago, we see that the Culture dimension has clearly emerged, which is the plane of existence on which the behavior of persons takes place. (Note: Some might wonder if this applies to human technology and its evolution. UTOK does not include human technology in the domain of "natural" history mapped by science; however, one could argue that the claims made here about behavior and science hold.)

The Periodic Table of Behavior shows in greater detail how these four planes of Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture can each be framed by what are called "primary whole objects." They are (1) atoms at the Matter plane, (2) cells at the Life plane, (3) animals at the Mind plane, and (4) persons at the Culture plane. With this important point made, we can then move "down" a level, from wholes into parts, and then "up" a level into groups of wholes. Specifically, moving down, we obtain (1) particles, (2) genes, (3) neuronal networks, and (4) justifications. Moving up into groups of primary wholes, we obtain (1) molecules, (2) multicelled organisms/groups, (3) animal groups, and (4) human cultures. The Periodic Table of Behavior thus shows how scientific domains can be effectively divided into four dimensions of existence by three levels of analysis, giving us the 12 Fundamental Floors of scientific inquiry and the ontological patterns they map in nature.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

A final question emerges regarding the ultimate cause of behavior. Is there a single cause of behavior patterns across these nested levels and dimensions? The short answer from a UTOK perspective is no, as there are many kinds of patterns and information exchanges that regulate and constrain behavior patterns across the stratification of nature. However, there is a deep continuity across the levels and dimensions that allows for what Daniel Dennett calls a “good reductionist” frame, both ontologically and maybe even theoretically.

Theoretically, the ultimate idea can be framed as the “principle of least action.” As this video released this week by the PBS Space Time series titled “Is ACTION the Most Fundamental Property in Physics?” argues, the principle of least action is a deep principle that bridges classical mechanics, general relativity, and quantum mechanics. And, as Karl Friston’s work on predictive processing and active inference suggests, we can loosely follow these concepts up into living systems. This idea shows up in Behavioral Investment Theory’s first principle, which is the principle of energy economics. And, as George Zipf argued with his principle of least effort, we can frame many different phenomena via a least energy/action principle.

The bottom line is that modern empirical natural science is one of the most powerful systems of justification humans have ever constructed. And it turns out that it can be framed by a central concept. Behavior frames modern science, both epistemologically and ontologically. And, if the PBS video is right — and we can follow that principle up into the behavior of living, mental, and cultural beings — then maybe the principle of least behavioral action represents a foundationally important idea that ties the whole of science together theoretically as well.

Gregg Henriques
Behavior ties together the ontic reality with scientific ontology and epistemology.
Source: Gregg Henriques
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