Friday 2 April 2010

Reading Group - Heft (2001) Intro + Prologue

This is the first post on the readings I'm doing at the moment. I'm going to be focusing on Heft (2001) while Sabrina is going to work on Gibson (1979).

Heft is a psychologist, and the goal of this book is to 'examine the historical and theoretical foundations' of Gibson. This is an excellent idea: as Heft points out, a lot of modern psychologists reject Gibson as being 'out there' and 'from out of the blue' when in actual fact his basic approach is firmly rooted in the work of William James and Edwin B Holt, Gibson's graduate advisor.

Heft sets up the book along the following lines:

1. Psychology is in crisis, not in normal science
Psychology, unlike any other major science, has spent it's entire existence in the throes of an argument about it's core concepts. In Kuhnian terms, this type of argument precedes a paradigm shift, but once the shift has been made you really only make anything that can be called progress via an extended period of 'normal science'. Psychology, Heft notes, spends most of it's time in this pre-shift mentality; he thinks this is a sign of immaturity that it's time psychology left behind, and he wants ecological psychology (primarily Gibson, although he also intends to incorporate Roger Barker and I don't yet know anything about him) to be the core theory required to move on.

This caught my attention immediately. One of the things that motivated this blog was a growing realisation that psychology lacks a coherent, central theory; instead of developing an empirical basis to support it's core ideas, it's made a few wild claims and then spent much of it's time chasing individual phenomena. Sabrina has already begun talking about the fact that cognitive psychology still doesn't really have a definitive definition of representation - this is an astonishing state of affairs for a science to be in. The net result is a discipline with little history, no 'standing on the shoulder of giants'; instead we bicker and nit-pick about the results of individual studies and spend our time chasing neat little effects. We are, in short, not a normal science.

The 'cognitive revolution' of the 60s, then, wasn't a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense - behaviourism (which, for all it's flaws, was a fairly complete theoretical structure and had an extended, productive period of normal science) was simply dropped with only the assumption of mental representation adopted in it's place. We shifted from one paradigm into a permanent state of pre-paradigm arguing. Gibson, for me, is the only person to ever propose anything resembling a coherent, naturalised theory that could serve as a principled place from which to engage in some normal science in psychology, so I am (of course) all for Heft's basic analysis here.

2. The crisis comes from our physics envy
Heft blames this on-going theoretical 'crisis' on the fact that psychology is attempting to create a science of the animate using concepts and tools designed to study the inanimate (i.e. physics). Specifically, the problem is the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanical framework adopted by psychology.

Heft goes into more detail on this point in the Prologue, and in general I think this analysis is spot on. A Cartesian framework (referencing the basic intellectual tradition personified by Descartes) is one that entails a) abstract, universal laws and b) a dualism; in psychology, this is mostly a dualism between the world and the mind. This is the essential ontological commitment.

Abstract, universal laws: modern cognitive psychology is consumed with finding 'the' general purpose solution to the various problems it thinks we are faced with. But laws have scope. The scope of physics is often universal (although things like black holes, where 'the laws of physics break down' highlights the essential truth that scope is a serious issue). The scope of ecological laws is much, much smaller: they are still laws within their scope but the scope is more akin to an ecological niche than to the entire universe. We have evolved under very specific, very local selection pressures, and this matters. More on Darwin shortly.

The fundamental dualism: The world is made of objects comprised of physical properties (rigidity, volatility, etc). We can come to know about these objects (epistemology) via energy related to these properties: touch responds to the forces of contacting an object of a given rigidity; smell is a response to a physical interaction with a volatile chemical, etc. There is the world, therefore, and there is the mind, and the mind comes to know about the world via the physical effects of the world on the body (this is, you may recall, an issue Gibson raises and vehemently disagrees with, namely that perception begins in the physiology of the receptors for various kinds of energy).

This may seem like a straw man, but Heft provides an example that may clarify the point. He notes that an obvious instantiation of this problem is the standard, intro Psych textbook description of visual perception that begins with the retina. There is never a discussion of how this proximal stimulation relates to the environment, and it raises a question: "If contact with the world consists of physical stimulation of these receptor interfaces located on the body, how is it that individuals experience a world of features "out there" that extends away from them and among which they negotiate?" (pp 8). If the stimulus is merely the physical stimulation, "perception of environmental features becomes, if not magical, then pure guesswork" (pp 8).

This is effectively what I mean when I say cognitive psychology has no theory of information. There is no discussion of how the proximal stimulation stands in relation to the environment, and thus no mechanism to bridge the gap between the world and the mind.

That said, modern cognitive psychology does attempt to constrain the problem via statistical inference - the computational process that enriches the impoverished stimulus is constrained and informed by the fact that the impoverished stimulus is effectively a degraded image, and even degraded images contain statistical structure (correlations between neighbouring locations in the image, discontinuities in those correlations indicating edges, etc). The really groovy mathematical psychologists are all into Bayesian statistics, which is, admittedly, the kind of mathematics you need to be looking to in order to solve the problem as posed. But the problem-as-posed is the real trouble; this kind of psychology is attempting to solve a problem that it created by not initially considered what kind of proximal stimulation the world might lead to. Essentially, these are sophisticated methods that solve a problem that no natural system actually faces.

The fundamental problem is simply this: there is no way to resolve a dualism of kinds. If there is mind and there is the world, and these are two kinds, there can never be a way for either to know of the other - the gap is, in principle, unbridgeable. Heft is proposing, and I agree, that modern psychology has a flawed ontology, and the only solution is to take the hint (provided by the fact that the assumptions have lead to a dualism) and jettison the entire thing.

Evolutionary biology, not physics, is the model we want
But replace it with what? Heft points out that what we want in psychology is actually a science of the animate. Animate creatures are
  1. ceaselessly active,
  2. engaging with the world in a selective manner
  3. The world is in constant flux, so this engagement entails constant monitoring by the animate creature: they must stand in relation to a flow of events and their behaviour can only be understood in this context (ADW note: this relates, I think, to my worry about fMRI and how you cannot understand what you just saw happen in the brain if you cannot correctly characterise your context)
  4. Animate creatures modify their environments (and these modifications in turn must be monitored);
  5. these modifications are selective, i.e. the animate creatures are adaptive agents
If we want a real science of the animate, we need to learn the lessons Darwin taught biology with his theory of evolution, lessons Heft does not believe we have yet learned. Points 1-5 are exactly the kind of framework biology works from when considering the evolutionary origins of animal behaviour, and it is clearly the appropriate framework to adopt when discussing humans because we are a part of the biological domain. Note also the fundamental role for perception here: perception is the means by which we maintain epistemological contact with the world so as to be able to relate to it successfully. Perception must therefore be central to any theory of psychology, and it was therefore no accident that Gibson's theory is a theory of perception.

This point expands nicely on a comment I made in the fMRI post thread: the cognitive assumptions lead inevitably to a dualism - this poses an entirely insurmountable problem for an organism in which it is impossible for it to have any knowledge of the world in which it lives. Psychology has therefore managed to propose a mechanism for perception, action and cognition that creates problems no organism could ever solve. Natural selection is a vicious task-master: any organism that attempts to operate on such flawed grounds will get eaten, a lot, by any organism that doesn't. Heft is therefore entirely correct: psychology must come fully to grips with the implications of evolutionary biology or it will never succeed as a science. Psychology, in other words, must become naturalised, and while Gibson may not end up being entirely correct, his theory is at least an attempt to do just that.

This is where I am up to: Heft will now discuss how the later work of William James attempted to bridge this gap by abolishing it with a new ontology (his radical empiricism). This is,at least, a savvy political move; nothing impresses a psychologist more than being able to connect your work to something William James said :)  More anon!


  1. Thanks so much for doing this. I loved Heft's book but have not time to go through the notes/reflections process. Have you read Reed's Encountering the World? A great book. Pathbreaking in my view. I am also taken with Behavior Settings and am amazed more has not been done with them in the past 30 years! My goal is to do some work in this area under the rubric of leadership studies. Anyway... I will continue to read you blog and contribute as I can.

  2. I only even skimmed Reed. It's funny, he was, to my knowledge, the first philosopher to really try and tackle Gibson and he was all for it - pathbreaking indeed. But a lot of the philosophically minded ecological types I know are a bit down on his analyses these days and I've never quite known why.

  3. I would love to know who is down on his analysis. Any references would be great. He wrote three books shortly before he died. Encountering the World, The Necessity of Experience, and From Soul to Mind. All three are, in my view, terrific. All three are different but quite amazing.

  4. Not everyone agrees with his conception of affordances, as I recall - Tom Stoffregan in particular, and Turvey approach differs somewhat.