Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Choosing Certainty Over Accuracy


Behavioural vs. Cognitive Approaches


More Trends in Modern Foolishness

I was thinking the other day about this, so let's give it a rant.

In my Religious Studies class this past school year I had cause to consider something I learned in my first year Psych 100 course, which in turn caused me to reflect upon general trends in the thinking of popular scientism. (If you've read my blog, I am sure you can already guess that I will be disagreeing with the trends in the thinking of popular scientism.) That's the background.

We read a book by Pascal Boyer (you'll have maybe read his name before in these posts) for my Interpretation of Religion course. In his book, Pascal Boyer claims that people worship statues of saints and pictures of religious people. To the argument that people are not worshiping but revering the statues, he says that there is no difference between worship and reverence (when the word is used in this sense). He says something along the lines of, "Imagine that you replaced the statue with a sign that says 'Pray.' People would be outraged/not think it's the same thing at all." Now, I'm not going to argue that no one worships statues of saints. That would be patently wrong. Some people expressly do. My point is this: Boyer is using a behaviouralist approach. He does not take into account the internal conditions of a person. Religious phenomenon (that is, religious belief and practice, not miracles) is measurable, he says, and what parts of it are not are irrelevant. Thus the internal emotional and intellectual state of the practitioner is irrelevant, except perhaps as it manifests in questionnaires. What is far more important to him is if people respond negatively to replacing a statue with a sign that says, "Pray," then Boyer assumes that they take the statue to be more than just a reminder to pray (which is what most people say it is, according to him).

The crux of the problem is the divide between behavioural psychology and cognitive psychology. Behavioural psychology essentially follows the idea that we cannot know what other people are thinking; we can only know what they are doing. So we learn about human 'psychology' through behaviour alone. We discuss behaviour alone. When we make models predicting behaviour, we do not even do so much as hypothesize or refer to thought processes. Rather, we say, "When this person experiences this stimulus, they produce this response." It is somewhat more complicated, of course, but they only care about behaviour. We cannot discuss thoughts.

Cognitive psychology disagrees. They say that thought processes are quite relevant and, while ultimately unknowably, are at least within range of an educated guess.

Behavioural psychologists are unwilling to make this guess, however. They are unwilling to sacrifice their certainty. They cannot be certain at all about thoughts, but they can measure behaviour and stimuli. They'll stick to their certainty, thanks, and look down on the cognitive psychologists for not doing so. The problem is that cognitive psychologists have proven that, in many cases, their models (thoughts and all) actually produce more accurate results. Behavioural psychology cannot predict certain behaviours that cognitive psychology can.

It's like there's a machine in a box. You stick an object on the conveyer belt, which takes the object to the machine. Then another conveyer belt brings out the object, which has been altered by the machine. Behaviouralists put objects on and try to find patterns with how they come out. Cognitive psychologists do the same thing, but also try to take stabs at how the machine inside operates. Their theories are obviously not certain at all, but often those theories are nonetheless better able to predict how a given object will look when it comes out of the box. Behavioural psychologists are unwilling to deal with the uncertainty, and so get poorer results.

The bottom line, then, is that behaviouralists choose certainty over accuracy. They cannot be certain about thoughts, so reject them from their models. In so doing, they lose accuracy. But it seems to be that their certainty hardly improves. Since we know that their theories are less able to predict phenomenon, I think we can safely say that they have even less certainty in the end. They may not takes guesses at things they cannot know; instead, they make firm theories that they can be certain are inadequate.

Boyer's statue problem is similar. He looks at the behaviour of someone worshipping a statue and someone revering a statue, and concludes that worshipping and revering are the same thing. This does not take into consideration the practitioner's subjective experience, and this could have drastic results for the rest of his theory (turns out it doesn't, but it could have).

Incidentally, I am have an interesting counter-example for Boyer. Say we remove the Mona Lisa and replace it with a sing that says, "Contemplate Renaissance ideals of beauty and gender." If people respond angerly and claim that it's not the same, does that mean they were worshipping the Mona Lisa? No. It means that the Mona Lisa is more than something that gives them instructions to perform a cognitive task, but gave them particular means to do so. Similarly, statues or icons do not only give us the instructions to perform a cognitive task (pray), but also remind us of assorted details concerning the saint or scenario presented, giving us aids to perform these tasks. We are experiential people, and sometimes we need images to help jog our emotions (to sympathy, to joy, to protectiveness, to thankfulness, to joviality). This is what icons do for some people; they rever the icons, which means in the Orthodox Church that the patrons respect the icons and use them as objects through which they can worship the Godhead.

Final note: I have noticed through conversations with the scientistically-minded that permeating the scientific culture is this idea that certainty is somehow an requirement or even ultimate end in knowledge. A lack of certainty gives some mathematical or scientific-type people anxiety crises or makes them uncomfortable with a particular field of thought. Sciences are "ranked" according to certainty (pure mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, sociology OR ...biology, geology, environmental sciences). Oddly, this places mathematics, which isn't actually a science at all, but rather pure rationalism (as opposed to empiricism, under which domain exists science), at the head of the list. There seems to be an idea that, if you are studying something for its own sake and not for its benefits, there is more value in studying something certain than uncertain. To me this seems ridiculous and actually awful. Consider first that much of physics--quantum and, especially, M-theory--is actually theoretically unverifiable, let alone practically unverifiable. Despite it's absolute "certainty," it can neither be proven nor disproven. Consider second that there is actually no reason whatsoever to prefer certainty (or, at least, none that I have heard). Why is uncertainty and ambiguity not something equally worth picking at? Why is knowledge that is certainty inherently more valuable than that which is uncertain? I cannot think of a reason. Perhaps it is more trustworthy, but that doesn't make it more relevant or interesting.

Anyway, that is my rant about behaviouralism vs. cognitivism, and they related topic of certainty.

Now, to bed.

1 comment:

Cait said...

I agree with you. I do not understand why something that is uncertain or ambiguous not given such...prestige, trust or legitimacy let's say as something that is certain.

Blog Widget by LinkWithin