A Periodic Table of Behavior for Psychology
Psychology needs a periodic table of behavior.
Posted June 2, 2017
Modern science took off during the Enlightenment and changed the world. Science differed from philosophy in that it did not presuppose how nature must be, as the early philosophers tended to do, but instead scientists “got up out of their armchairs” and asked questions and gathered data about how the universe actually behaved. Observation, measurement, and experimentation became the sine qua non of the scientific enterprise, and this has continued into the present day.
Science has been so successful that philosophy has drifted into the background, so much so that some scientists (e.g., E. O. Wilson) have wondered if philosophy is even necessary. This love of empiricism was soaked up by scientific psychologists. In his popular Psych 101 text, David Myers states that “the key word in psychology’s definition is science” and that psychology “is less a set of findings than a way of asking and answering questions”, meaning that psychologists approach their subject matter through the lens and methods of empirical science.
What is the problem with this? The problem that emerges is that there is no general framework for understanding the concepts and categories under investigation. Consider physics. Prior to Newton, physics was a “pre-paradigmatic mess”, meaning that the concepts and categories that physicists were using were highly inconsistent. One of the great achievements of Newtonian science was the emergence of a shared definitional system that could be examined empirically. Notice the first part of this sentence. A shared definitional system. That is a key aspect of cumulative science. And it is something physics, chemistry, and biology largely have achieved, at least at the core of the discipline. That is, scientists from these disciplines know generally what matter, energy, electrons, neutrons, genes, cells, evolution and so forth "mean". And this shared, clear definitional system is one of the decisive factors that makes them worthy of the name "science".
Psychology completely lacks a shared definitional system. There is NO agreement on terms like behavior, mind, cognition, self, consciousness, and the like. And, with its focus on empiricism, psychology will not achieve such an understanding because observation and experiment alone are not enough to define these terms. What is needed is a holistic map that allows investigators to consider the concepts and categories that are used for understanding.
The concepts and categories that one uses to map reality is one’s metaphysical system. The Periodic Table of the Elements is a metaphysical system. It offers a map of the elements, lining them up into different categories. It is a map that is supported by empirical work, but the map itself is metaphysical in nature.
Psychology needs a metaphysical system for understanding as much as it needs empirical research. Without advances in achieving a shared metaphysical system, psychology will continue to exist as a “collection of studies” that offer interesting glimpses into the human condition, but not deep understanding.
The Tree of Knowledge System offers the field of psychology (and science in general) a metaphysical system from which to operate. Specifically, it offers a clear: (a) cosmology; (b) ontological map of key categories in nature; and (c) epistemological framework for knowledge acquisition.
In terms of cosmology, the ToK System offers a “Big History” view of the Universe. Consistent with empirical work on the early universe, the ToK System posits that we can understand the universe as an “EnergyMatterSpaceTime” grid that emerged from a (pure energy) singularity at the Big Bang, approximately 13.8 billion years ago.
In terms of ontology, in the ToK System, Energy is the ultimate substance common denominator. The observable universe is "Energy" in all its different forms (Matter is chunked, frozen energy). The ToK further posits that universe evolves as an unfolding wave of Energy-Information, which, consistent with the Big History formulation, can be placed on the dimensions of time and complexity.
Furthermore, the ToK System posits a “general behavioral” metaphysics. That is, the ontological essence of the universe can be well-described as change in object-field relationships over time (also characterized as the flow of Energy-Information).
Because the ToK posits the essence of the universe exists as an unfolding wave of Energy-Information, the ToK gives rise to a novel view of the primary categories in nature. Specifically, it argues that there are four identifiable dimensions of complexity, which are depicted and labeled Matter, Life, Mind and Culture. These dimensions capture the behavior of 1) objects; 2) organisms; 3) animals and 4) humans. It proposes that these core categories are differentiated because each category behaves in a fundamentally novel way. That is, living objects behave qualitatively differently than inanimate objects. Animal objects behave qualitatively differently than other kinds of organisms. And human objects behave differently than other animals.
According to the ToK, these fundamental divisions exist because of the evolution of different systems of information processing. The storage and processing of information on the DNA molecule gives rise to fundamentally different kinds and levels of self-organization, such that the workings of a cell are qualitatively different from the behavior of organic molecules (and are represented as existing on a separate dimension of self-organization and require a different science, biology, to describe explain and predict).
The emergence of a nervous system in general and brain in particular gave rise to another information processing system that resulted in animal behavior and experiential consciousness, which are qualitatively different behavior patterns from what are seen at the level of the cell or molecule. The Mind, Brain, and Behavior sciences (behavioral neuroscience, computational/cognitive neuroscience, comparative psychology, ethology, etc) describe this specific dimension of behavior. The ToK System characterizes these class of sciences “basic psychology”, although it should be acknowledged that, given the field’s institutional history, this cluster should perhaps just be labeled the sciences of Mind, Brain, and Behavior.
Last, the emergence of language connected human minds together in novel way, giving rise to human culture and societal group organizations that are fundamentally different from what is seen in the rest of the animal kingdom.
The general behavioral metaphysics of ToK System gives rise to a “Period Table of Behavior”, depicted here. A novel feature of the ToK categorization system of these concepts is that it posits that nature must be divided into both levels (part, whole, group) AND dimensions of complexity (Matter/Objects, Life/Organisms, Mind/Animals, and Culture/Humans).
In terms of epistemology, the ToK System is both empirical and metaphysical, meaning that it emphasizes knowledge acquired through the senses and experiment and emphasizes the need to place such data into a coherent conceptual framework. It is the union of empirical data with coherent conceptual mapping that provides the most justified knowledge. This can be referred to as a “Metaphysical Empirical” epistemological position.
The ToK System is consistent with modern physics, chemistry, and biology. It is particularly useful at the level of psychology because it provides a new way to define behavior in general. Behavior is the unfolding wave of Energy-Information. Thus, objects and organisms as the dimensions of Matter and Life “behave”. Psychologists have been horribly confused about this point. The ToK makes the common sense point that psychologists are interested in a particular kind of behavior, specifically mental behaviors, which are represented by the third dimension of complexity on the ToK System. Mental behaviors are the behaviors of the animal as a whole, mediated by the nervous system.
In such a formulation, “the mind” refers to the functional information stored and processed by the nervous system. It is largely synonymous with the broad definition of cognition. Here is a map of the information processing architecture of the human mind. See here for a blog on defining the mind.
In the ToK System, experiential consciousness is conceptualized as an embodied whole brain activity that gives rise to experiential awareness. It is well-defined and studied empirically by frameworks such as global neuronal workspace theory.
Humans exhibit mental behavior like other animals, but there is an added dimension of complexity. Human language connected human minds, much like the internet connects individual computers (and much like the nervous system connected organ systems in a centralized control center). This has resulted in a qualitative jump in behavioral complexity. Language, along with other technological developments like agriculture, historically set the stage for massive societal/cultural evolutionary changes. As society became more and more complex, large-scale belief/justification systems emerged, such as religion, law, and science. Such systems are denoted as Culture with a capital C on the ToK.
Human self-consciousness is a second order form of consciousness in which the experiential conscious system is reflected upon and narrated, either to one’s self (private self-consciousness) or to others (public self-consciousness). The human self-consciousness system functions to build justification systems for one’s actions in society. There are three key domains to human consciousness. An experiential “theater” of first person awareness, an “I-Me” second order, private self-consciousness system, and an “I-Thou” public self-consciousness system. Here is a map of human consciousness.
Psychologists strongly aspire for their discipline to be a "real" science. However, to accomplish this dream, psychologists need to realize that empiricism per se is not sufficient. If each researcher continues to operationalize the mind, behavior, cognition, consciousness, or whatever phenomena of interest they are investigating via their own (metaphysical) system of understanding, then, despite the best experiments, all we will have is conceptual mush because there will be no way to relate the findings systematically. The ultimate goal of the field is not to just conduct experiments. It is to build a system of cumulative knowledge about human mental behavior. This is why we need something akin to a Periodic Table of the Elements. The ToK offers the field a Periodic Table of Behavior.