The Problem of Psychology and the ToK System

Diagnosing the problem of psychology with the Tree of Knowledge System.

Posted Oct 29, 2019

One of the most complicated features of the Tree of Knowledge System and “unified theory of psychology” is that it makes a number of arguments simultaneously. It is simultaneously: 1) a theory of human reality as four different dimensions of behavioral complexity; 2) a theory of scientific knowledge about that reality; 3) a theory of the “joint points” between the dimensions of reality that include novel theories of both (3a) the animal mind (Behavioral Investment Theory) and (3b) human cognition, consciousness, and culture (Justification Systems Theory); 4) a metatheory of psychological paradigms that leads to a unified approach to psychotherapy; and 5) a way to solve the problem of psychology; that is, the system offers up a new metaphysical map that can effectively define the field’s subject matter/domain in a coherent way.

Let's face it, that is a lot of different things to tackle at once! When a novel theory of human consciousness and culture is listed as “3b” in the system you are offering, you know you are making a number of big picture claims. As such, it is little wonder folks find it challenging and at times quite difficult to engage with in its totality. Part of the reason I have simultaneously been writing in a common sense way about depression and well-being is to show how the language system does work on the applied side of things. But that doesn’t necessarily make the other stuff easy to follow.  

I think one of the things that is simultaneously most intriguing and confounding about the ToK/unified paradigm is what it says about the field of psychology as an institution. It makes claims both in terms of the way the field is currently organized, and about the way the field ought to be organized. That is, I claim that the field currently is disorganized and is lacking a clearly defined domain or subject matter. This is not controversial in that psychology’s “crisis” with its subject matter is long documented, and there is consensus amongst theoretical and philosophical psychologists that there is no agreed upon conceptual center of the field. For more on the problem, see here. 

Enter the ToK System and its unified solution. By dividing the "real world" of human existence into four separable dimensions of complexity, it leads to a clear vision of four large domains of science that each correspond to their respective dimensions of behavioral complexity. That is, the dimensions of Matter, Life, Mind and Culture result in the obvious “gestalt correspondence” with the Physical, Biological, Psychological and Social Sciences. This is the solution that the institution of psychology “ought” to follow from a ToK vantage point.

I think this is a compelling argument. However, a compelling "vision logic" representation is not the end of things. Everyone knows that institutions are generated by convention rather than the essential dictates of some human independent reality. That is, physicists are concerned with theories of matter and energy and their interrelations on the spacetime grid. They are not concerned with a theory of the institute of physics and what humans decide, via arbitrary historical conventions, to label institutions. That is the domain of convention and maybe the domain of the sociology of knowledge and institutions, but it is not an “essentialist” question about the “objective nature of reality”. Whether or not we call Isaac Newton a "physicist" has nothing to do with how he mapped matter in motion in the real world.

The same is true for the field of psychology. That is, at the institutional level, psychology is simply what psychologists and other professionals say it is, and that has little meaning for how the mind works in the real world. For example, when the US government issued a call for psychologists to help with WWII vets adjusting back to their lives in the states, the field of psychology received a major influx of money to address this problem of adjustment. This resulted in a massive shift where American psychology devoted its attention. It used to be the case (pre 1940s) that most American psychologists experimentally studied animals, like rats in the lab. But following the emergence of clinical and then counseling psychology, the field came to mean very different things. Now the vast majority of psychologists are concerned with humans and, even further away from experimental analysis of animal behavior, they are professionals engaged in practice endeavors to foster human well-being. As such, maybe we should reconfigure the institutional meaning of psychology. Maybe psychologists should be professional practitioners. And we should call the “scientists” that research human behavior and cognition behavioral or cognitive scientists.

My point here is that the problem of the institution of psychology is a different kind of problem than “science proper” problems. Science proper deals with “theory of reality” issues that are separate from conventional definitions and identities of a particular institution like “American Psychology” or whatever.

From a critic of the ToK/unified paradigm, the point is pretty simple to make and raises some thorny issues regarding my arguments. Not only does the ToK System argue for a pretty radical new view of foundational ideas in science proper, including a theory of reality, of scientific knowledge about reality, of animal/mental behavior, and of human consciousness/Culture, it also comes with an argument about how psychologists should institutionally define their field. And it makes that argument in the face of the fact that the professional activities of most psychologists don’t line up with how the ToK lines them up. My argument that "when you see the Gestalt this way, everything falls into place" is not too convincing for the skeptic of the system.

In what follows I use the ToK get clear on psychology’s institutional problem. That is, I use the ToK frame to ask: What should psychologists decide their subject matter and institutional identity to be?  Here is the ToK Classic position.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

In the classic ToK vision, psychology is the science of mental behavior. Its base is “behavioral investment theory” and includes all the neuro-cognitive-behavioral sciences, and animal behavioral sciences, like ethology and sociobiology. Human psychology is a subset of the field, one that functions as the base of the social sciences. In addition, there is the profession of “Health Service Psychology”, which refers to the domain of “psychological doctors” that include those licensed providers that have traditionally fallen in the clinical, counseling and school practice areas. Here is a more detailed map of the field via a ToK/unified paradigm lens:

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

There are, however, other visions of the institution and related science. For example, maybe “psychology” should give up its basic science aspirations all together and embrace the fact that the vast majority of psychologists are connected to practice. Here we just remove psychology from the basic considerations of science, replacing them instead with a conglomerate of "mind, brain and behavioral sciences". In this depiction, psychology is a not a basic science at all, but a health service discipline. As such, it does not have a place in the classic ToK, but is more like social work, nursing or engineering, which are applied/professional disciplines who function primarily to effect change rather than describe it. 

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Another way to go would be to be less focused on the “joint points” defining psychology. The joint points are a novel and powerful feature of the ToK. But that also means that is not how most people have been thinking about the world for most of history. So maybe we should embrace the “fuzzy boundaries” view of psychology as existing between the “lower” neuro-behavioral sciences and the “upper” social sciences. The ToK would still emphasize a basic versus human split, but it would be more in line with where psychological scientists are generally spending their time studying (i.e. with “higher” animals).

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Finally, there is the problem of "objective behavior" versus "subjective conscious experience". The difference between these two different conceptions represents one of psychology's earliest and most significant debate about its subject matter. Wilhelm Wundt defined psychology in terms of private perceptual experience (in addition to a separate domain of human “folk” psychology that was more social and cultural). In direct contrast, John Watson arguing that “behavior” was the key concept, and it was epistemologically required in that to be a science it needed to be based on public observation and natural science concepts of cause and effect.

The ToK embraces the idea that science is a language system that is tied to a third person, exterior perspective. Moreover, it embraces the idea that the fundamental concept in science is "behavior" writ large. Although human perceptual consciousness can be studied, it can’t be studied directly. Rather, we must contend with "the epistemological gap" between first and third person, and to study consciousness scientifically is to study is as behavior. However, that is different than the first-person experience of being. The point here is that, with its theory of science, the ToK specifies the science of psychology as having to be anchored to behavior. This, however, is yet another debatable point. Here is a depiction of how we might think about psychology as referring to the first-person experience.

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

Although I do think there can be a "behavioral" science of consciousness, I also think that the first person, unique, “real” idiographic experience of being a particular individual is in many ways “extra scientific.” That is, it is a domain of reality that does not play easily with the language game of traditional science. Rather it, along with ethics, represents part of the humanistic equation. Indeed, I just gave a talk at Hillsdale College, called Behavior, Spirit, and Morality: Toward a Theory of Knowledge and Wisdom in the 21st Century that makes this argument. 

Gregg Henriques
Source: Gregg Henriques

The bottom line is that there are lots of issues flying around when one enters the land of the ToK System. I hope this essay helps makes clear how the ToK can be used to understand the various ways that psychologists have thought about their subject matter and the various ways we might think about it going forward. My hope is that this will help bring some clarity to the ill-formed, chaotic “collection of studies” that characterizes the current state of the field.