Psychology, Science, and the Absence of Certainty

“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.”


My mind has been a busy place this week. Ever since last week I have found myself questioning EVERYTHING, resulting in a growing sense of dissatisfaction.

The day after we discussed people paraphrasing people who paraphrased people who wrote about Freud, I came across a prime example of this in one of my textbooks. And it annoyed me.

Sitting on the bus I overheard a one-sided conversation in which a woman advised whoever was on the phone, that if they were going to add a course, they should make sure it would increase their GPA. And that annoyed me.

I thought of what happens whenever someone asks “How are you?” and I respond that I am good or fine. Even if I was actually tired, or stressed, or feeling something more descriptive than “good.” And that annoyed me.

In short – the status quo and all its imperfections had suddenly become clear to me. And it wasn’t like I could just close my eyes again. Despite my frustration with the state of the education system and the general functioning of society, I see its purpose. Yes, we largely only learn material and think about it to the level necessary to get an A. However, in the interest of competition and doling out limited resources, we need a system. And any time you create a system, someone will figure out how to exploit it; how to work with it in such a way that it increases our odds of being rewarded. And I really can’t criticize too much because I am part of it. I carefully selected my courses this semester in an attempt to improve my GPA so that I will stand a better chance of continuing on to the graduate level.

Now that I have opened my eyes though, started questioning everything, I find myself with potentially more questions than answers. Which I suppose is where psychology is in general. We seek out definitive answers to questions of life, but those answers depend on generalities, which I argue are too vulnerable to the individuality of humanity. That sounded really heavy, so I will do my best to clarify this. Explain where my head has been, perhaps in less academically oriented language.

All week I have thought of what psychology is, trying to figure out how to sort out the psychology equals biology plus philosophy debate. I cannot accept psychology as biologically derived because there is too much that science cannot explain in human nature. We talked a lot today about predictions and objectivity. Two concepts which I fail to see how they fit within psychology. For every study that shows we can predict some behaviour, cognition, or attitude from something else, there are the individuals who will prove to be the exception. People in my opinion are both wonderfully predictable and horribly unpredictable. But this all ends up seeming a little ad hoc to me – we love to label behaviours as expected, or making sense. When people don’t behave as we expected, we either say there is something psychologically off, or we offer up another psychological theory to explain why the first theory didn’t apply. Furthermore, while some areas of psychology are reasonably objective, most are not. Even in areas such as cognition. You are relying on someone’s report that they have seen versus perceived the light. In many other areas, we rely either directly on people’s reports of their thoughts and symptoms, or we rely on an “expert” making inferences based on their observations. Either way human error has been introduced.

And therein lies the problems with psychology as a science. If science is to be about objective measurements, psychology cannot fill that requirement. Yet, science sometimes does rely on instinct, at least in practice, such as a doctor examining someone’s heart and determining that it is enlarged. Without proper measurement of the individual’s heart before, the doctor cannot objectively state that the heart is enlarged. Instead they rely on experience. Which is where psychology and science get along.

This is about the only area of moderate certainty in life. But humanity cannot be boiled down to an essence in a test tube... yet.

This is about the only area of moderate certainty in life. But humanity cannot be boiled down to an essence in a test tube… yet.

The second problem is that, if science is to be about predicting things, generating universalities, and cataloging the exceptions as advancements, and humans are inherently unpredictable and incredibly unique, then psychology which deals primarily in the areas of human and animal functioning doesn’t stand a chance. I realized today that as soon as you introduce humans to an equation all Hell breaks loose. Science has predictive areas because their subject matter is very matter of fact (pun intended). When a chemist puts hydrochloric acid into a beaker of calcium chloride, they know exactly what will happen with almost absolute certainty. Medicine is where the predictive power starts to break down.

Consider when you get a prescription for a new medication. The doctor knows what the medication was prescribed for and what is EXPECTED to happen. But they don’t KNOW. Hence the 3 page bible of POSSIBLE side effects covering their asses against law suits. You introduced humans and BAM! Certainty has died on the table folks. So either we accept that science doesn’t HAVE to predict perfectly, and universals are not really necessary, then psychology fits the bill again.

So for those of you keeping track, it’s Hypothetical Situations and Debates -3, Certainty and Objectivity – 0. I guess I’ve got another 3.5 months to figure out if psychology is a science, and if science exists at all, and if objectivity really exists. And if I have time I’ll figure out how to make a cheesecake that doesn’t crack. See more questions than answers are developing here. It’s maddening.

As I mentioned previously, for me psychology is the child of philosophy and biology. There are qualifications and developments to that statement though. A huge distinction that emerged and helped develop the bond between the fields was the mind-brain distinction.

If psychology was pure biology we would explain everything in terms of neurotransmitters and electrical activity in the brain. Which is too reductionist for me – how can we honestly simplify the powerful feelings of love, loss, and jubilation into a cocktail of brain chemistry? How romantic would it be to say “Sweetheart, I feel a flood of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, and oxytocin when I think of you!” Aw shucks, how sweet.

And further – if we are to catalog emotions and thoughts according to brain activity and neurotransmitters, then it follows that every person who is feeling sorrow is feeling the EXACT same. But that is not that case. Even two people who have lost the same person, or who have lost a person who was the same relation to them, in the same manner (e.g. two mothers who each lost her son to suicide by hanging, or a mother and father who lost their son), will experience the loss differently. But is that not the same loss? If biology had its way that may the case, but in my experience, that is in no way true.

Is this how psychology becomes objective?

Is this how psychology becomes objective?

If everyone has their own unique thoughts then what has biology explained? Nothing. It can predict nothing, and if everyone has unique experiences, interpretations of events, and feelings, then how can you even begin to catalog these emotions? And yet science has started towards exactly this. The question still remains if this is realistically possible, how accurate it is, and what are the limits of this science?

So if I don’t think that biology can really explain everything, does this mean that I agree that psychology is more appropriate as an art, in the philosophy department? No. Instead I return to the brain-mind distinction, where the mind is the abstract sense of self, the place where we experience emotions, thoughts. It is however, influenced by the activities of the brain. The physical organ that houses our abstract self. I hesitate to label this as a spiritual self though because I feel that this introduces religion too much, a concept which perhaps explains the origins of the idea of the mind a freewill, but on its own is a human construction and varies too much to explain such a universal concept of human thought and experience. It is merely a tool with which we attempt to understand our experiences and guide our behaviour.

To be fair I never really understood philosophy, nor did I particularly enjoy it. It always seemed to be a field routed entirely in doubt, often completely useless doubt. For example – what if we don’t actually exist? What if we have a mind but not a body and this is all a reality we have constructed. To which I respond, so what? Who cares if this is a reality we have created, I would rather understand the reality I have created than introduce further complications by assuming that this reality is not real. I’m having enough trouble figuring out this life, without trying to figure out some other reality.

So it seems at this point I’ve figured it all out right? Wrong. Really I’ve only figured out that I have nothing figured out. Things are just so messy still. I don’t think biology can explain all of our human experiences, it can’t even definitively say that my cat doesn’t have feelings in the sense that we experience feelings. I mean yeah she lacks an amygdala, but she also gets runs downstairs when I get home and purrs to indicate pleasure. Or in Kira’s case, that she would like to be pet. However, I cannot accept the philosophical explanations in their entirety either. If we are to say that the brain is simply an organ, much like the heart,  and personality, logic, and emotions are rooted in the mind, which apparently is a separate entity – then why in the case of mental health problems such as depression, or better yet schiziphrenia, do psychopharmacological treatments have such an impact? It seems to be that these two entities are hopelessly entwined.

Which I think I just came to the conclusion, is what makes psychology unique. Biology focuses only on the explanations it can offer based on tangible substances. Philosophy aims to live only in the world of possibilities and doubt. Psychology sees that these two aspects of the human experience cannot and should not be separated, and takes the best of both in a moderated view to explain the experience of humanity and the individual. It is a highly diverse field that lends itself more to one end of the biology-philosophy continuum, taking the pieces that best fit the puzzle. It is far from perfect, for each symptom or behaviour it introduces several equally inconclusive options for it’s cause. And maybe that’s the unique contribution of psychology – the possibilities and admitting that sometimes we cannot answer questions because an answer does not exist.

Wait. Psychology admit it doesn’t know the answer? Pah! Now I’m amusing myself – no psychology offers up a plethora of explanations, some more complex than really necessary, sometimes to things that never even needed an explanation. Each new theory argues that it is the best explanation, that is it better supported than the last. With competing views and potential flaws in methodology it really seems like pigs will fly before psychologists unanimously agree on anything related to psychology. So I guess I should clarify that statement by stating that psychology’s contribution isn’t admitting that the answer doesn’t exist, but that it can give you a whole lot of possible explanations. Depending on the day of the week, and the purpose you aim to fulfill, you can take your pick as to which theory makes the most sense. If you look at history you can see this playing out on the big screen.

Psychology has changed massively throughout its development largely depending on the prevailing political climate and whether biology or philosophy has been the more popular viewpoint. I am sure that it will continue to change and evolve which leads me to the final thought of the day. Towards the end of the discussion, Dr Lamontagne stated, “We are always on the move – there’s never a finish line.” Which struck me, for two reasons. The first, that it is true, even in the so called pure sciences, things are always changing, nothing is static. The second, reason just made me laugh at the choice of words – I am doing the Army Run this weekend, and I think I would cry if there is no finish line.

This is how I feel crossing the finishing line... I will probably look significantly more tired though.

This is how I feel crossing the finishing line… I will probably look significantly more tired though.

“Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.”

Thích Nhât Hanh


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