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Archive for September, 2011

Some Book Reviews

I noticed that there were two book reviews of the unified theory book

(http://www.unifiedtheoryofpsychology.com) and figured I would share them here…


Gregg Henriques is a young academic and clinical psychologist who has been working on this book for practically all of his (short) professional life. The result is terrifically challenging, to the point of perhaps being a new beginning for psychology as a research discipline.

The background fact is that all of the natural sciences have analytical cores that are taught in graduate schools around the world, and the various natural science disciplines are unified in the sense that where two disciplines overlap (e.g., quantum mechanics in physics and protein folding in biology) they agree on the basic analytical model. In the social sciences, only economics and behavioral biology have core theories, the former based on the Walrasian general equilibrium model, game theory, and the rational actor model, and the latter on evolutionary theory and population dynamics. Psychology is a particular mess, with lots of interesting contribution to a multifaceted body of research, but no underlying unity at all. Like sociology and anthropology, psychology is populated by a bunch of incompatible competing schools of thought.

Psychology, like sociology and anthropology, is not a mature science, because there is no sense in which each generation of researchers builds upon the core analytical insights of previous generations of researchers. In my book, The Bounds of Reason (Princeton, 2009) I offered a set of principles that might serve as the basis for the unification of all the behavioral sciences, with special emphasis on economic and sociology. Samuel Bowles and I published also published A Cooperative Species (Princeton, 2011), which effectively applied these principles to the integration of biology, anthropology, and economics. Gregg Henriques has now produced a credible core model for psychology that is synergistic with the principles I laid down in The Bounds of Reason and applied in A Cooperative Species.

This book is written for clinical and research psychologists, and hence avoids the sort of mathematical model building and axiomatization that is characteristic of mature sciences. In my review, I will suggest some ways his vision can be extended by focusing more intently on certain analytical issues. In this sense, I would have entitled the book “A Prolegomena to a Unified Theory of Psychology.”

Henriques notes that it is almost impossible to define contemporary psychology because many psychologists consider psychology to be a theory of the workings of the mind, while others deny the notion of “mind” altogether, and limit themselves to modeling observed behavior. For this reason, Henriques takes his first goal to be that of “locating” the field ontologically. He argues that there is a Tree of Knowledge with four segments. The first is “Matter,” which is studied by physics, chemistry, geology, and astronomy. The second is “Life,” studied by biology. The third is “Mind,” which is the subject matter of psychology, and the fourth, and highest, is “Culture,” studied by the social sciences. Henriques pays special attention to the three points of junction between segments of the Tree of Knowledge. He says the Matter-Life junction is modeled by biological evolutionary theory, the Life-Mind junction is modeled by what he calls Behavioral Investment Theory, and the Mind-Culture junction is modeled by what he calls Justification Theory. By Behavioral Investment Theory, Henriques means essentially the rational choice model of decision, biological and economic theory, although he adds a dimension of complexity to human behavior by saying that Justification Theory requires a “rational emotional actor” that is not properly modeled in standard rational choice theory (p., 46). I might add that Henriques also includes game theory as part of Behavioral Investment Theory, simply because decision-making when there are multiple agents involved requires game-theoretic reasoning. This point of view is basic to economic theory. In biology, the extension of decision theory (e.g., foraging theory) to game theory was pioneered by John Maynard Smith, Evolution and the Theory of Games (Cambridge University Press, 1982), and now is standard in all of animal behavior theory.

In Henriques’ innovative terminology, social interactions are governed by an “Influence Matrix,” which is part of the psychology of the individual that regulates how the individual relates to others. Henriques stresses the emotional side of such interaction and avoids all game theoretic reasoning as well as any analysis of the role of incentives and payoffs in the choice of behaviors governed by the Influence Matrix. This part of his model should be analytically strengthened by adding standard epistemic game theory, as I try to do in The Bounds of Reason.

I believe Henriques’ espousal of Behavioral Investment Theory is the most important integrating concept in this book. If this principle alone were incorporated uniformly throughout research psychology, it would provide much of the sought-for analytical core. I am not equipped to assess its contribution to clinical psychology.

The Mind-Culture junction is the most problematical in Henriques’ core theory. Henriques argues that human culture is basically language, and humans invented language so they could “justify” their actions to others—this is Justification Theory. “Justification systems,” says Henriques (p. 113), “are the interlocking networks of language-based beliefs and values that function to legitimize a particular version of reality or worldview.” The concept is sufficiently broad as to encompass Einstein’s contributions to physics and Henriques’ explanation to his wife as to why he is late for dinner.

Henriques’ model of culture is a non-starter. First, much culture is fundamentally technological and non-linguistic, consisting of recipes for making tools and provisioning food. Even language has highly important functions beyond “justification,” including giving information, coordinating behavior, giving orders, making promises, praying to gods, singing songs, gossiping, and giving orders. Second, Mind is as much the product of Culture in humans as is the reverse. Certainly Henriques is correct in saying that minds developed biologically in many species long before culture emerged, and that the distinct psychological capacity of humans is to interrelate through cultural networks. However, gene-culture coevolutionary theory (see my paper, “Gene-culture Coevolution and the Nature of Human Sociality”, Proceedings of the Royal Society B 366 (2011):878-888) and the paleontological evidence (Robin Dunbar, Clive Gamble, and John Gowlett, Social Brain, Distributed Mind (Proceedings of the British Academy 2010) indicate that the human mind is a social mind that evolved through the background environment of human culture.

The Justification Hypothesis (language evolved to permit humans to justify their actions) is also probably a non-starter. There is a certain bottom line to human cooperation. In the long run, either you carry out your obligations or you do not. The idea that humans evolved the immensely complex and costly physiology of language vocalization and the energy-consuming vocalization areas of the brain in order to be able to better justify their failings is simply not plausible.

I do think, however, that there is a related evolutionary argument from Mind to Language (not Culture more generally). Human culture gave rise to tool-making in the pursuit of hunting animals. However, human hunting tools can be used to kill any man in his sleep, from afar, or simply by stealthy ambush. This is decidedly not the case in our primate relatives, where the alpha male in a hierarchical troupe can maintain his dominant almost exclusively by physical intimidation.

Tool-making thus doubtless gave rise to a crisis of governance in hominid societies. To fill the breech and individual with both high intelligence and a relatively advanced capacity to communicate verbally and facially would be vaulted to a leadership position in hunter-gatherer societies, he capacity to convince (justify?) being rewarded with high quality mates and more fit offspring.

What, then, do we do to repair the Mind-Culture junction? I propose that we refer back to human evolutionary theory, in which genes and culture coevolved, and culture is subject to an evolutionary dynamic much like that of genes. Indeed, culture is simply “epigenetic transmission” of information. According to this theory, genes are simply informational systems (sequences of base pairs in DNA that regulate protein formation) that are passed from generation to generation, and cultural systems are additional lines of informational transmission across generations. In this view, the Mind-Culture junction is actually further divided into Mind-Niche Construction-Culture, where Niche Construction is widespread in social species and accounts for important epigenetic information transfer across generations (see Kevin N. Laland and Marcus W. Feldman, Niche Construction, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004). For instance, bee hives and termite mounds persist across generations, and supply new generations with the information they need to survive and to perpetuate these structures.

A little additional speculation suggests that information theory lies at the basis of all stages of Henriques’ Tree of Knowledge. An important interpretation of quantum mechanical weirdness, in particular the ubiquity of observer effects, is that not only is matter energy, but energy and its distribution are explained by information theory. Similarly, life is organized information. A fully information-theoretic elaboration of the Tree of Knowledge might thus be attainable.

All very exciting.

5.0 out of 5 stars This book rocks!,September 14, 2011
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This review is from: A New Unified Theory of Psychology (Hardcover)

You might not expect to find such detailed and practical information that applies to everyday life in a textbook, a psychology textbook no less, but it is in there. While this book is written for psyc grad students you don’t have to be one to appreciate and understand it (I am not), although you do need to be reasonably intelligent to follow the logic. The book presents a clear and coherent way of organizing essentially all knowledge, not just for the field of psychology. The Tree of Knowledge presented is both simplistic and super deep, you’ll be wondering why you didn’t think of it when you see it. Once the justification hypothesis is explained you will see how that affects essentially all human interactions and you will be the better for it. I loved learning about how people strive for power, love, and freedom and how each facet is a part of the overall equation. If you ponder the question of “are humans animals and if so where do they fit into the world” you will be pleased with the analysis presented here. If you go through life sort of “trying out” different philosophies and ideologies you will be hard pressed to find a more clear, logical, and defensible system of organization than you will find presented here. Bottom line, if you want to learn about life, the mind, humans and their culture and how it all relates, purchase this book and spend some time studying it, you won’t be disappointed. Plus you will be able to beat your friends in almost any debate you have after reading this treatise 🙂

Understanding Behavioral Investment Theory

Behavioral (BIT) is the joint point between Life and Mind on the ToK System. It provides a comprehensive framework for understanding animal behavior. In a future post, I will explain why we should think about animal behavior as mental behavior and why the concept of mental behavior resolves some long standing issues in the mind-brain-body-behavior problem. But for now, I want to point out how BIT provides a useful heuristic to understand animal behavior.

First, consider the central claim of BIT, which is that the nervous system is a computational control system that coordinates the expenditure of animal action on investment value, cost benefit ratios. BIT consists of six key principles: 1) energy economics (animals must acquire more workable energy than they expend); 2) evolution (inherited tendencies toward action are a function of natural selection operating on genetic systems; 3) heredity (genetic variation produces variation in investment tendencies); 4) computational control (the nervous system is an information processing control system); 5)  learning (association and consequence shape future investments) and 6) development (different investment value tendencies emerge at different life stages). These are all well-known principles in the animal behavioral science literature, but BIT pulls them together in a more coherent way.

Examples of this emerge when reading up on animal behavioral science. For example, check out the following recent article from the NY Times on the sexual behavior of some deep sea squid.


The reason this research caught the attention of the media was because of the same sex-sex behavior. But for our purposes, what is notable is how the framing of the squid’s behavior is consistent with BIT. For example, same-sex behavior gets attention from animal behavioral scientists not because of the human sexual orientation issue, but because of they assume animal behavior will follow along BIT principles. But because same-sex behavior has no initial obvious payoff in terms of survival and reproduction, researchers question why. In the article, the tentative answer is that the cost of releasing the sperm outweights the complexity of determining the sex of the other squid, so there have not been selection pressures resulting in sex-discriminating behaviors. My basic claim is the following…read any research on animal behavioral science and the implicit (or explicit) frame of understanding will be consistent with BIT.


Henry George’s “Law of Human Progress”

Hello! This is my first post on “The Unified Theory of Psychology” blog. I look forward to seeing where this blog goes. It is my hope that many good ideas and fruitful discourse come from it…as I suspect will be the case!

In Gregg’s most recent post, he made mention on how the academy’s “focus on ‘what is’” has brought about a disconnect from ‘what ought to be’. He then offered a basic summary of “scientific knowledge in narrative form” which concluded as follows:

  • And yet there remains much uncertainty. With technology has come an unprecedented capacity to destroy the planet. Resources are being used up, populations are exploding, and planetary wide changes are occurring in ecologies around the world. And although technology continues to evolve at an astounding pace, it is not clear that humanity’s wisdom has likewise increased. Instead, the divisions between nations, religions, ideologies, and ethnicities seem as rigid and fragmented as ever, and it is not hard to envision how serious disruptions in available resources might lead to wide-scale devastation, perhaps even the elimination of the human species.

Upon reading this, I am reminded of words penned over 130 years ago by 19th century political economist and social philosopher, Henry George. In his book, Progress & Poverty, George articulated what he called The Law of Human Progress.

Those familiar with Gregg’s Tree of Knowledge System may see much in common with George’s analysis below:

  • WHAT, THEN, IS THE LAW OF HUMAN PROGRESS? This law not only describes how civilization advances — it must also account for arrested, decayed, and destroyed civilizations. Since mankind presumably started with the same capacities at the same time, it must explain the great disparity in social development that now exists. It must account for regression, as well as progression; for different rates of progress; and for the bursts and starts and halts. In short, it must tell us what the essential conditions of progress are — and which social arrangements advance it and which retard it.It is not difficult to discover such a law. If we simply look, we can see it. I do not pretend to give it scientific precision, but merely to point it out.

    Desires inherent in human nature are the incentives to progress: to satisfy our physical, intellectual, and emotional wants. Short of infinity, they can never be satisfied — for they grow as they are fed.

    Mind is the instrument by which humanity advances. Through it, each advance is retained and made higher ground for further advances. The narrow span of human life allows each individual to go only a short distance. Each generation does little by itself. Yet succeeding generations add to the gains of their ancestors, and gradually elevate humanity.

    Mental power is, therefore, the motor of progress. Civilizations advance in proportion to the mental power expended in progression — that is, mental power devoted to the extension of knowledge, the improvement of methods, and the betterment of social conditions. There is a limit to the amount of work that can be done with the mind, just as there a limit to the work that can be done with the body. Therefore, the mental power that can be devoted to progress is only what is left over after what is required for other, non-progressive purposes.

    These non-progressive purposes, which consume mental power, can be classified in two categories: maintenance and conflict. Maintenance includes not only supporting existence, but also keeping up social conditions and holding advances already gained. Conflict includes not only war or preparation for war; it encompasses all mental power expended seeking gratification at the expense of others, and resisting such aggression.

    If we compare society to a boat, we see its progress is not based on the total exertion of the crew. Rather, it depends only on exertion devoted to propelling it. The total is reduced by any force expended on bailing, or fighting among themselves, or pulling in different directions.

    A person living alone would need all of his or her powers just to maintain existence. Mental power is set free for higher uses only when human beings associate in communities. Improvement becomes possible when people come together in peaceful association. This permits the division of labor — and all the economies that come from cooperation. The wider and the closer the association, the greater the possibilities of improvement. Therefore, association is the first essential of progress.

    Mental power is wasted in conflict to the extent moral law is ignored — for moral law gives each person equality of rights. The terms equality or justice signify the same thing here: the recognition of moral law. So equality, or justice, is the second essential of progress.

    Association frees mental power for improvement. Equality keeps this power from dissipating in fruitless struggles. We thus arrive at our law:

    Association in equality is the law of human progress.

In a world of “divisions between nations, religions, ideologies, and ethnicities [that] seem as rigid and fragmented as ever”, then perhaps it is worth considering George’s “Law of Human Progress” as an important step to reconnect “what is” to “what ought to be”.




The Unified Theory in Narrative Form

According to Barry Schwartz (1986), one of the most notable effects of the scientific revolution was that it brought about, in the academy, a focus on ‘what is’ in a way that became disconnected from ‘what ought to be’. Indeed, the latter was considered inherently relative. From Schwartz’s perspective, this resulted in something of a loss regarding issues like moral character and a moral compass. Interestingly, with the rise of postmodernism, we have seen many in the academy claim that one can never completely achieve an objective, foundational view of reality, but all such perspectives are locally and historically situated.

The unified theory (see http://www.unifiedtheoryofpsychology.com) posits that in order to have a comprehensive vision that can incorporate the objective, the subjective and the social, because human knowledge systems are justification systems, we must place our scientific knowledge in narrative form in something along the lines fo the following…

In the beginning there was no space or time or matter, only an Energy Singularity that some call God. Then, 13.7 billion years ago, there was the first cause; a chain reaction in the Energy Singularity that resulted in the primordial flaring forth called the Big Bang. During the very first phases of this chain reaction pure energy quanta froze into elementary particles, giving birth to Matter, the first dimension of complexity. Fermions are the fundamental building blocks of matter, and they ultimately interact to form all the matter in the universe. Space and time also emerged from the primordial event. After several hundred thousand years, the incredibly dense, hot universe expanded to the point at which energy and matter decoupled. The electromagnetic behavior that escaped is called cosmic microwave background radiation, and it now provides us a window to view our earliest beginnings.

As the universe continued to expand and cool, matter formed into atomic systems and large collections of gases condensed and formed into stars and galaxies. This variation in energy dispersal created many different types of energy-matter environments, which in turn allowed for the formation of a variety of different types of atoms now represented and categorized by the Periodic Table. The atoms that now make up our bodies were formed in the bellies of stars and then dispersed throughout the universe in magnificent explosions. We are, thus, made from stardust.

Atoms link up through the process of covalent bonding and create increasingly complex chemical systems. One particular environment, found on a planet orbiting an average size star in the Milky Way Galaxy, has been especially conducive to the formation of complex chemical systems. The chemical systems on the surface of planet Earth four billion years ago exhibited a wide variety of complex behaviors. One behavior of a particular class of these complex chemical systems was the behavior of self-replication. Through the process of replication, variation, and selection, these self-replicating chemical systems became increasingly complex and sophisticated and eventually formed into huge strands of ribonucleic acid. Over the next several hundred million years these self-replicating chemical machines transformed into primitive cells, then cells with a nucleus, and finally into large scale, multi-cellular organisms, similar in complexity to modern day plants. The span of time ranging from 4 billion years ago to 700 million years ago saw the emergence of the second dimension of complexity, Life, which evolved via natural selection operating on genetic combinations across the generations.

Between approximately 640 and 550 million years ago, a new type of multi-cellular creature emerged that moved around in its environment. The capacity for movement resulted in the evolution of a computational control center that measures the animal’s relationship to its environment and moves it toward beneficial and away from harmful environments. The nervous system represented a fundamental shift in complexity because behavior of animals is not fully restricted to information processed epigenetically. Instead, mental behavior is mediated by the information instantiated in and processed by the nervous system, and animals learn to generate new behavioral outputs in response to novel environmental stimuli. The period from 640 million years ago to five million years ago saw the evolution of the third dimension of complexity, Mind.

The period from five million years ago through today saw the emergence of the fourth dimension of complexity, Culture, which occurred for one particular animal, the human animal. Bipedalism freed the hands and created more opportunities for behaviors like tool making, which in turn created selection pressures for increased neuro-cognitive capacities and more complicated social interactions. The evolution of human language is generally thought to have occurred between 500,000 and 50,000 years ago. This period is associated with substantial growth of the cortical structures, as well as changes in throat structures associated with language and is also associated with the emergence of our modern ancestors, Homo sapiens.

Between 50,000 and 30,000 years ago, there was an explosion of cultural artifacts, such as carved statues, artwork in caves, and burials with ornamentation. Modern humans began to appear in landscapes all over the world. And the pace of change only accelerated. Agriculture appeared approximately 12,000 years ago, setting the stage for large-scale civilizations. Large-scale systems of belief emerged that coordinated the behaviors of huge populations of people. In more recent times, these justification systems have branched into different domains such as religion, law, mathematics, and philosophy.

Several hundred years ago a new method for constructing justification systems emerged, called science. Built on the value of objective evidence, the scientific method allowed humans to develop increasingly accurate models of complexity and change, and this has given birth to new, previously unimaginable technologies and allowed humans more self-knowledge and more freedom to determine their destiny than any other creature on Earth.

And yet there remains much uncertainty. With technology has come an unprecedented capacity to destroy the planet. Resources are being used up, populations are exploding, and planetary wide changes are occurring in ecologies around the world. And although technology continues to evolve at an astounding pace, it is not clear that humanity’s wisdom has likewise increased. Instead, the divisions between nations, religions, ideologies, and ethnicities seem as rigid and fragmented as ever, and it is not hard to envision how serious disruptions in available resources might lead to wide-scale devastation, perhaps even the elimination of the human species.

From this perspective, a global view of humanity is possible that lends itself to the generation of the next phase of complexity.


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