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Psychology's Grand Unified Theory

A grand unified theory of psychology has been developed.

This post is in response to
Is Neuroscience the Future or the End of Psychology?

A recent essential read on Psychology Today reviewed the relationship between psychology and neuroscience and wondered if the advances in neuroscience will result in it becoming a “Grand Unified Theory” of psychology. The author, a professor of psychology, reflected on teaching his Psych 101 students about the well-known fact that there is currently no unified theory of psychology and offered some considerations about whether or not neuroscience might be the long sought solution.

I feel compelled to reply that there is indeed a grand unified theory of psychology, although admittedly it is not widely known nor employed. However, it is out there and has been out there for some time now and folks are being trained in the system. This GUT of Psychology clearly defines the field, defines how the field relates to other disciplines (like biology and sociology), resolves long standing disputes such as the debates between mentalists and behaviorists, and confusions about emergence and reductionism, and the clarifies relationship between the science and the profession. It also assimilates and integrates the major perspectives (behavioral, cognitive, psychodynamic, and humanistic) in clear ways, and leads to a system for training health service psychologists who are grounded in the science of human psychology and operate from a unified psychotherapeutic system of assessment and intervention.

The system is admittedly complicated and introduces new ideas that are foundational to how we think of reality—which means it takes a lot of work to understand and adjust to. In addition, it focuses largely on the conceptual and meta-theoretical issues the field faces, and most psychologists are either trained as empirical researchers or practitioners. And those who are interested in big picture theoretical and philosophical questions have tended to adopt the position of critical theory. For all these reasons, the new GUT’s impact has not been, shall we say, yuuuge—at least not yet.

Returning to the questions raised by blog about neuroscience, we can state clearly from the vantage point of the existing GUT of psychology that neuroscience will not be the solution, and the reason is clear. Neuroscience deals with a fundamentally different subject matter than psychology. Neuroscience is about neurons and brains. Psychology is a science about conscious experiences, the behaviors of animals and persons as whole entities, and the application of psychological assessment and interventions to foster human well-being. These subjects are simply not the same entities; they are fundamentally different categories in nature. Right now, I am engaged in human psychological behaviors as I write this blog. Clearly, my brain is required for writing this blog (as are the muscles in my fingers), but there is no possible way to fully reduce this blog to the causal processes of neurons and neuronal firing. There are a host of reasons as to why this is the case, but let me just say for now that I am not synonymous with my brain.

One of psychology’s great puzzles has been how to think about consciousness. Is consciousness just the activity of the brain? Is the activity of the brain just molecules in motion? Or is it something else? Something more? As I detail in this blog, this question is central to psychology’s problem. And the problem is more of a metaphysical problem than an empirical one. When psychology was birthed as a science during the Enlightenment, there were two different metaphysical systems for dealing with human consciousness. One was the Christian worldview, which runs in to problems because theological answers do not blend well with scientific mechanistic frameworks for cause and effect. The second framework was a Newtonian matter-in-motion view, which is the idea that the only thing that is really real is matter in motion. Because it was a science, many psychologists adopted a matter-in-motion physicalism. For example, behaviorism and psychoanalytic perspectives were, in many ways, reductive matter-in-motion theories. That we are asking whether neuroscience might replace psychology or be its new GUT is a dramatic testament to how strong the idea is that we can reduce phenomena to these basic processes.

The problem is that Newtonian matter-in-motion is not the right metaphysical framework for thinking about psychology. There have been many developments in science and philosophy since Newton to understand why. Very briefly, a short list of some of the more crucial developments include the following: 1) a shift from a matter view to an energy view of the universe, such that now energy is seen as being as fundamental to the essence of the universe as matter is; 2) a recognition that the universe had a beginning, emerging out of a singularity before there was space or time (these come from insights from general relativity and cosmology); 3) a recognition that many fundamental processes are “stochastic” (i.e., random) and are not pre-determined by lawful cause-effect relations (i.e., quantum theory tells us this); 4) humans are part of a long process of emergent evolution that started with the Big Bang (i.e., insights from cosmic evolutionary theory broadly defined); and 5) the rise of information science and information technology has demonstrated that information is transmutable via physical mediums and has causal properties.

Many scholars have recognized these developments and have offered big picture views that incorporate them, and have given us a more complete, holistic and emergent view of the universe and our place in it. For example, E. O Wilson’s Consilience offered one such picture. So does the picture of the universe afforded by Big History. These are important contributions, deserve to be studied and internalized. But they are not the final answer because they do not get the metaphysical picture of nature quite right. They offer a “levels of analysis” version of emergence. That is, they recognize that as one goes from parts to wholes to groups, there are more and more properties and more and more complexity. We can go from particles to atoms to molecules to cells to plants to animals to humans to societies, for example. This ‘levels of analysis’ view is what the whole biopsychosocial perspective is about. It claims human behavior consists of biological parts, individual wholes, and social groups, and to understand behavior in its totality, we need to understand these “levels in nature”.

The new GUT of psychology agrees with elements of this analysis, but it argues that there is still a very important piece missing with regards to the problem of emergence of complex behaviors. Not only do properties emerge as a function of increasingly complex entities (going from parts to wholes to groups), but there are fundamentally new causal processes that emerge as a function of novel systems of information processing.

Newton himself was very clear that his matter-in-motion metaphysical system could not explain everything. That is why he was so deeply Christian, and spent more time studying the Bible than he did on physics. He was a dualist and he understood that there was no way that his laws of motion per se would be able to explain his thought processes. And he was right.

What he could not have envisioned is the idea that information processing (broadly defined) could provide a framework for understanding how people talked and thought (and indeed, experienced the world). The new GUT introduces a new way of seeing emergent evolution with a framework called the ToK System which posits that information processing is crucial to understanding emergence in nature.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Specifically, it argues that novel systems of information have given rise to new dimensions of complexity that are self-organized by virtue of these systems. So, we have Life as an emergent dimension of complexity that arises out of genetic information processing. The DNA molecular structure was crucial to understanding how chemical building blocks could function in this way, but one cannot reduce Life to the behavior of chemicals.

The new GUT argues the same logic holds for Mind. Mind is an emergent dimension of behavior that evolves out of organisms (Life). Just as RNA/DNA provided the computational control center for cellular organization, the nervous system and brain provides the computational control center of the behavior of animals. But, because it emerges via information processing, the organization cannot be reduced to the hardware parts. This is what makes experiential conscious “strongly emergent”, a point that David Chalmers explores in this article.

This analysis solves one key (and largely unresolved) problem of psychology. It spells out how psychology relates to biology from below. Biology is concerned with Organic/Living dimension of behavior, whereas (basic) psychology is concerned with the Mental/Animal dimension of behavior. Mental behavior is a nested hierarchy within the Organic dimension, just like Life is a nested hierarchy within the Material dimension of complexity.

Gregg Henriques
Mental Dimension
Source: Gregg Henriques

This helps us begin to understand the subject matter of psychology, but we still have some work to do. This formulation allows us to see that we need a different framework for understanding conscious beings like dogs than we do living entities like bacteria. But it does not get us all the way to human beings. Human beings are more than just conscious. They are self-conscious. They talk and self-reflect and they write stuff down and they generate cultures and science and on and on.

Thankfully, the levels and dimensions of complexity argument repeats itself and we can apply the same basic logic as we move into human behavior. Just as RNA/DNA pulled molecules together via information processing system to give rise to cellular self-organizing properties, and the Nervous System/Brain pulled cells together to give rise to animals behaving as singular entities, human language pulls subjective minds together to give rise to self-organizing cultures and societies.

This blog exists at the fourth dimension of complexity, which means its functional organization is found not in the physical arrangement of the molecules in my brain, but in the linguistic rules, information process elements, and cultural systems of justification that are emergent causal forces that Newton had no way of understanding.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

This point about persons existing in a different dimension of complexity highlights another key aspect regarding the problem of psychology. For generations, psychology has not resolved a simple question: Is psychology about animals in general or humans in particular? The new GUT provides a framework for understanding why this is a key question and it says that there should be a basic psychology that corresponds to the mental dimension of complexity (and the behavior of animals in general) and there should be a separate sub-discipline of human psychology. Why? Because human psychology concerns itself with “objects” that exist “in between” the Mental and Cultural dimensions of complexity. That is, humans have both mental behavioral properties like other animals, and exist in language saturated systems that play a huge role in what they do and why. A coherent psychology must understand the dividing line between the human and the animal. Here is a map of psychology that is derived from the GUT.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

This analysis opens up many threads that cannot be resolved in a single blog. I will close where we began by noting that, in the formulation of science offered by the ToK System, the field of neuroscience is very much like the field of human psychology in that they both “hybrid” disciplines that reside “in-between” two dimensions of complexity. Neuroscience resides “in between” the biological/Life and psychological/Mind dimensions of complexity. Human psychology resides “in between” the psychological/Mind and social/Cultural dimensions. Clearly, it would be fallacious to argue that we could reduce all sociological processes to the sum of human personalities. The same logic applies as to why neuroscience will not be psychology’s GUT. Psychology does not need a neuronal reduction. Rather, it needs the right metaphysical map and the clear realization that there are both levels and dimensions of complexity in nature.

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