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Archive for October, 2011

Why a Unified Theory of Psychology is Essentially Impossible

            In 1963, Arthur Staats published his first treatise on what would be a lifelong mission to develop a unified theory of psychology. His approach was to first argue that the various factions of behaviorism (i.e., Watson, Skinner, Hull, Tolman) shared a core set of assumptions that could be united by recognizing the relationship between emotions and reinforcers. Specifically, Staats argued that all the behavioral positions either implicitly or explicitly connected reinforcement and punishment to pleasure and pain. Moreover, each perspective implicitly or explicitly acknowledged that pleasure and pain were evolutionary mechanisms designed to foster approach and avoidance behaviors. With this lens, Staats claimed we could understand fundamentally how experience builds basic behavioral repertoires, and these repertoires form the building blocks of all complex behavior. Staats further argued that by including the construct of emotion, behavioral theories could connect to more traditional (human) psychological approaches that attempted to explain intrapsychic processes. As such, Staats thought his framework could mend another great divide in the field, the one between behavioral approaches and traditional psychology. This is why Staats (1996) ultimately came to call his approach to unification psychological behaviorism.

          Despite an impressive and broad network of connections, and a research methodology that yielded fascinating results across a wide variety of phenomena, as Staats himself acknowledged, his approach to unification failed. The behaviorists continued to compete about conceptual issues, and complained that Staats did not fundamentally resolve their disputes. And traditional (intrapsychic-mentalistic) psychologists basically dismissed psychological behaviorism as a fundamentally behavioral perspective that could not effectively incorporate either cognition or consciousness. Thus, he ended up pleasing virtually no one (at least relative to the scope of his vision), and, consequently, the only people who are likely to be familiar with Arthur Staats
are historians of psychological theory.

Although Staats made a noble effort, from a natural science perspective (and Staats saw psychology as a natural science), his approach was doomed from the start. This is because a unified theory of psychology is essentially impossible. Scientists,  specially real scientistslike physicists, are a skeptical bunch. If one is going to make an incredible claim like discovering a unified theory that upends current understanding and can serve as the foundation for further growth, one had better generate some incredible and precise predictions, and demonstrate the accuracy of those predictions with experiment. Consider, for example, Einstein’s work on general relativity, and the predictions it made regarding the perihelion motion of Mercury (explained by how the sun bends light because its gravity bends the spacetime field around it). These were incredibly precise predictions that could not be explained by standard (Newtonian) models of gravity. This is the way that real sciences (i.e., physics) advance. By generating theories that derive precise predictions with are then measured, and followed by experiments designed to rule out alternative explanations. It is this process that beats back the intense skepticism of scientists. Without it, one can never hope to coral the field at a large scale level.

If this is the frame for what real science is about, we can see immediately that psychology cannot be unified. Psychology does not really even have the first building blocks of a coherent science, which is a workable conceptual-semantic system that the practitioners of that  science can agree on. Staats’ argument was really at a conceptual-semantic level, not at a precise, experimental predictive level. Of course, “a working broad conceptual framework” does not sound nearly as sexy as a unified theory.

There are additional reasons why no one should be venturing forth with a unified theory of psychology. Again, the only possible way a unified theory could be achieved would be via its connection to the hard sciences. Social scientists, humanists, and postmodernists are all generally grounded in a relativistic frame that would make them scoff at the idea of a unified theory. Concerned about the power implications associated with orthodoxy, hierarchy, and foundationalism, these thinkers will raise serious moral concerns about achieving a centralized conceptual coherence of psychology, embracing its pluralism as a testament to the human freedom to believe in what defines them. Thus, one will never win a political argument for conceptual unification. So, one’s only hope to unification lies in the precise, mathematical prediction of animal/human behavior, grounded in the biological and physical sciences.

And yet we know that such foundational scientific grounding is impossible because the bedrock of such a construction, grounded as it must be in physics, is itself not unified. There is NO unified theory of physics. Physicists thought that Newton had shown the light on all the physical world, and prior to the turn of the 20th Century, there was a sense that the material world had been effectively mapped. But cracks appeared and by 1920, Newton’s ideas had been frayed at the edges of the very small by quantum mechanics and the very large by general relativity. The great Einstein spent the rest of his career, literally until his death in 1955, searching for a unified field theory that would connect general relativity and quantum mechanics. He failed in that quest, and it remains unsolved. Physics is not unified. And indeed, with mysteries surrounding the Higgs Boson, multiverses, wormholes, and now perhaps even violations of one of the universe’s foundational constants, the speed of light, any claims that it will be unified seem far off.

In short, conceptual unification will never be achieved as there are too many political forces that pull it apart. Foundational unification could only come via precise experimental prediction grounded in physics. Yet, since physics itself is fragmented, such a dream seems misguided. Perhaps that is why since Staats there really has only been one individual who has devoted his career to tilting at such windmills.

(This is the first in a series of posts on the unified theory. The next I differentiate the weak from the strong version of the theory, and then defend the strong version).

Nominated for the William James Book Award

Hi Bloggers,

I am pleased to report my friend and colleague Harriet Cobb nominated A New Unified Theory of Psychology for the Division 1, Society of General Psychology William James Book Award. I wanted to share the nomination letter here…

“It is with great pleasure that I write to nominate Gregg Henriques’ just-released book, A New Unified Theory of Psychology (Springer, 2011; see http://www.unifiedtheoryofpsychology.com), for the William James Book Award given by the Society for General Psychology. In direct accordance with the award criteria, the book offers a comprehensive vision of the field that cuts across the many disparate domains, while also examining and clarifying psychology’s relationship to the three great branches of learning, the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. The book is filled with incisive analyses of the philosophical problems that have plagued the field since its inception, including the divide between the mentalists and the behaviorists, the tensions between modern and postmodern epistemologies, and the relationship between the science and the profession, and offers up a bold new vision for how to move forward.

“The book is well-crafted and artfully written, taking the reader along with Henriques in his intellectual journey from psychotherapy integration to the unification of psychology. Divided into four parts, Part I skillfully uses Saxes’ parable of the blind men and the elephant to get readers aware of the problem of fragmentation and excited about the possibility of “seeing the Elephant”. In the subsequent chapter called “The Problem of Psychology”, Henriques highlights the philosophical conundrums that have prevented the Elephant from being seen up to this point and articulates why the field has resisted effective definition and theoretical unification, but also connects to each of the three great branches of learning more than any other discipline.

“In Part II, Henriques rolls out his approach in four chapters, each of which describes—in an elegant and accessible manner—a piece of the unified theory. Chapter three describes Behavioral Investment Theory, a formulation that links Skinner’s conception of behavioral selection to cognitive neuroscience built on an evolutionary foundation. Chapter four provides the most extensive treatment to date of The Influence Matrix, a model of human social motivation and emotion built on Behavioral Investment Theory that assimilates and integrates many disparate lines of research, including attachment and psychodynamic theory, and research on personality traits, parenting styles, agency and communion, and self-esteem. Chapter five describes in detail the Justification Hypothesis, which Henriques describes as the original insight that ultimately led to the unified theory. The Justification Hypothesis connects human language, self-consciousness and culture together by arguing that the evolution of language created the problem of social justification, and this problem in turn resulted in the emergence of justification systems, which functionally organize human culture and self-conscious thought. Finally, chapter six provides an overview of the Tree of Knowledge System and offers a poignant contrast between his vision of the unity of knowledge with E. O. Wilson’s Consilience.

“Part III of the book returns to the original questions that sparked Henriques’ initial inquiry and in chapter seven he spells out his answer to the question “What is psychology?” offering a compelling argument that although psychology can be conceptually unified, it nonetheless needs to be conceptualized as three separate branches, which he labels basic psychology, human psychology, and professional psychology. Coming full circle, chapter eight lays of a novel and helpful unified approach to conceptualizing people in psychotherapy, which Henriques effectively demonstrates how it connects to the key insights of the major approaches taken (i.e., behavioral, cognitive, humanistic, and psychodynamic). Finally, Part IV takes an even broader view, offering an inspirational hope and vision for why the unified theory can provide the academy at large with a scientific humanistic philosophy.

            “A New Unified Theory of Psychology is a truly outstanding intellectual achievement that offers a creative synthesis of theory and fact from disparate areas and lays out a unifying framework that has the potential to fundamentally change the field in the decades to come. As such, I believe it deserves your strongest consideration for the 2012 William James Award. Thank you very much for your time.”


Harriet Clare Cobb, EdD

Professor of Psychology

Politics, Wrongology, and the Influence Matrix

Developing a unified theory is a humbling process, even to  those of us with fairly fortified egos. The problem, of course, is that there  is simply too much information that can be brought to bear, and thus one inevitably will remain in a state of ignorance, relative to what one would want  to know. For me, economics and political theory are two areas in which I am woefully ignorant relative to what would be ideal. Like many in the helping professions, I have, at an intuitive level, social democratic leanings. Yet, I
am not able to argue deeply why such a position is a viable theory of governance.

Indeed, recently a commentator on a post blasted me and my  support for Obama as being like a fundamentalist creationist who wraps themselves in ideology, blindly worships an authority, and cannot accept the error of my ways. My first reaction, of course, was to dismiss such criticism as completely off base. Yet, one of the things the Justification Hypothesis has taught me is that such a knee jerk dismissal is exactly how the human mind is designed to function. We are invested and entrenched in our justification
narratives. Claims that our system of justification is wrong activates a state of dissonance, and the natural response to restore equilibrium is to discredit the source. This basic design feature of the justification system explains much of what passes for debate on the internet (and elsewhere).

Awareness of the design features of our minds allows us to alter habits. So now when I find myself “activated”, rather than
immediately moving toward a more closed state, I remember research on wrongology (what happens when we are accused of being wrong or discover that we are wrong) and my little essay on verbals, which together allow me some perspective. Here is a TED talk on wrongology. And here is my little essay on verbals…

“Without a doubt, the most interesting animal on earth is the verbal. In a span of less than a hundred thousand years, verbals have
gone from an inconsequential little species to a world dominator. They exhibit more control over the environment than any other creature. Verbals are named as such because perhaps their most unique feature is that they have complicated systems of symbolic communication. One of the most interesting and amusing thing about verbals is the enormous variety of ideas they generate in order to explain things. Indeed, it seems verbals can come to believe just about anything and everything. And they passionately pronounce these beliefs, often trying to persuade others. The problem with verbals really is their success–they are causing all sorts of extinctions and changes to the planet they live on. The other problem is that because verbals really believe the stories they tell themselves and because the stories are different, verbals have all sorts of conflicts. The combination of their ability to successfully control the environment in the short-term and the rampant conflict they have between various groups of them makes the future of the species of verbals uncertain.”

With these perspectives in mind, I have spent the last 24 hours surfing the web, exploring the essences of various political ideologies, most notably Liberal-Democrat, Conservative-Republican and Libertarian viewpoints in America.  As I did so, a
striking parallel with these three parties and the Influence Matrix began to emerge. Before I note what I saw, a caveat is that I recognize that there are two dominant domains (the economic and the social) that notions of liberal and conservative apply, and just because these are the three major parties in America today, does not mean that such perspectives are always present. Also, I recognize that by drawing such parallels I am glossing over enormous complexity.

Given those caveats, what did I see? Namely, that the foundational concerns of the three major political parties in America parallel the three relational process dimensions in the Influence Matrix. For those not as familiar with the Influence Matrix (I have written the least about it, although use it clinically all the time), it is the subject of chapter four in A New Unified Theory of Psychology, and here is a powerpoint presentation on it…MatSymp11b

In a nutshell, the essence of the Matrix is the notion that social influence, which is the capacity to influence important others in accordance with one’s interest, was a crucial resource related to survival and reproduction. As such, humans monitor their social influence in their social spheres, and are motivated to approach high influence situations and avoid the loss of influence. A second key feature of the Matrix–and this is what is relevant here–is that it argues that there are three primary relational process dimensions that relate to social influence. A relational process is the process by which we engage in social exchange with others. Those three processes are cooperative influence (called the dimension of Love), competitive influence (called the dimension of Power) and freedom from influence (called the dimension of Freedom).

In this context then, my guess is that no one would have trouble lining up the foundational concerns of our three primary political parties and these three relational process dimensions. The core concern of the Liberal-Democratic party is equality and egalitarianism, and it advocates that the central role of governance is to ensure these values. This, of course, is the Love dimension. The core concern of the Republican-Conservative is order, tradition, and respect for a (Christian) authority. This aligns with the Power dimension, in that it emphasizes hierarchy.(The alignment with Power is perhaps clearest if we go to the extreme right, Fascism). Finally, the core value of Libertarianism is freedom from governmental influence, which is the core concern of the Freedom dimension. Although I was aware of these core concerns before, it was in reading them side by side that made me conscious that their relative positions paralleled the dimensions of the Matrix. And, as I thought about how each side operates and defines themselves in relationship to one another, the parallels resonated with me.

It must be noted that the Influence Matrix was developed with a focus on how individuals navigate the social environment, and much additional consideration must be paid to how well such a formulation would translate into large-scale social systems. That said, the parallels were striking enough for me to want to share them.


A Counter Wedge?

            Although I am ardent supporter of Barrack Obama and will gladly vote for him in the next election, it is nonetheless the case that he has (so far) failed to be the great uniter that so many of us hoped he would be. In my estimation, perhaps his greatest failing has been that he has not been able to lead the United States toward a compelling vision of the future. Indeed, so troubling has been the absence of such a vision that many moderate, democratic leaning individuals, like Tom Friedman, have started making explicit calls for the emergence of an independent party with a vision to move us beyond the polarized entangled mass of dysfunction that is our current government toward a long term plan that ensures that America will thrive in the future.

             Why has Obama failed to develop a unified vision that can lead us toward the future? In my opinion, he has failed to recognize the simple fact that it is impossible to unify fundamentally incompatible visions of reality. Obama has an incredible ability to grasp complicated issues and arrive at reasonable conclusions, and if all parties he was leading shared the same foundational knowledge-value structure, he would be the right man for the job. But he is so dispositionally inclined toward integration and compromise that he has been slow to draw the line in the sand and marginalize positions known to be incorrect. This is a central issue because there exists in the United States of America a large portion of the population that has embraced a justification system that is simply incompatible with mainstream, scientific knowledge. I am, of course, talking about the social conservative wing of the Republican Party that embraces religious fundamentalism and a young earth creationist version of reality.  

             I argue in the final chapter of my book that “there exists a great and problematic divide” (p. 265) between the domains of modern academic knowledge and anti-intellectual religious fundamentalism, and that this divide must be remedied if we are to disentangle the current political morass and build a pathway of America’s future on a shared foundation. An excellent article in today’s New York Times, The Evangelical Rejection of Reason, makes precisely the point I do in the book. Deep Christian faith and spirituality need not be disconnected from modern scientific knowledge. However, literal religious fundamentalism, which is “defined by a simplistic theology, cultural isolationism and stubborn anti-intellectualism that most of the Republican candidates have embraced”, is in fact diametrically opposed to scientific understanding writ large.

             In the mid 1990s, Philip Johnson spearheaded “the Wedge”, which attempted to position the construct of Intelligent Design in between Young Earth Creationism and secular scientific knowledge, in a way that aligned the religious against the secular. The wedge was a very successful strategy. The Times op-ed piece by Giberson and Stevens points the way to a counter wedge. Secular individuals like myself can be broadly aligned with the Evangelicalism laid out by the authors (and shared by many of my friends). Together, we must join forces and cure America of the “intellectual disaster” that is religious fundamentalism.


What is the mind?

            As I sit here pondering what to write, what is it exactly that is doing the pondering? Where do the thoughts come from? How does the 3 lb mass of grey matter that is my brain give rise to the felt experience of sensations and thoughts? It sometimes seems essentially inconceivable that the water of material processes could give rise to the wine of consciousness. Indeed, it is so famous a conundrum that it has a name…the (in)famous mind-brain (or mind-body) problem. Failure to have consensual resolution to the mind-brain-body (MBB) problem remains at the heart of psychology and its difficulties as a fragmented discipline. My goal here is to briefly explain how the unified theory (TUT) resolves the MBB problem.

            TUT resolves the MBB problem by doing the following: First, it provides a clear taxonomy for the various phenomena that relate to the term mind. Prior to TUT, there has been massive definitional confusions. Second, via the ToK System, we get clear on the nature of the universe as the flow of Energy-Information (E-I), which in turn can be divided into four ontologically distinct categories. Third, the ToK System points to the human mind as consisting of two fundamentally different flows of E-I (or two fundamentally different kinds of behavioral processes). Behavioral Investment Theory (BIT) and the Justification Hypothesis (JH) frame the FUNCTIONAL nature of these two systems. Finally, I said that TUT resolves the MBB problem…that is different than solving it. At the end of this post, I note that an important part of the problem, what I call the engineering problem, remains.

            We need to first get clear about what most folks mean when they use the term the mind. What, exactly, are they referring to? In common parlance, ‘the mind’ most often refers to the seat of human consciousness, the thinking-feeling ‘I’ that seems to be an agentic causal force that is somehow related but is also seemingly separable from the body. The idea of life after death is so intuitively plausible to so many because our mental life seems so different from our bodies that we could imagine our souls existing long after our bodies decompose. This leads to a common sense dualism that is part and parcel to many religious worldviews.

            TUT suggests there are some semantic problems referring to the human self-consciousness system as ‘the mind’. One reason why has to do with what Freud ‘discovered’ over a century ago and is now well-known by modern day psychologists (see, e.g., Tim Wilson’s Strangers to Ourselves)–consciousness is only a small portion of mental processes. Consciousness and mind are thus not synonymous. So, we need to realize then that the MBB problem needs to either be the Consciousness-Brain-Body problem or the Consciousness-Mind-Brain-Body problem.

            Recognizing the need to separate the mind from consciousness is one of the keys to resolving the CMBB problem. What, then, is the relationship between mind and consciousness? TUT tells us we can turn to the cognitive revolution in psychology to ground our answer. The cognitive revolution was birthed as a mixture of work on information theory, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics. It gave rise to the computational theory of the mind (Pinker, 1997), which does indeed offer a solution to a big piece of the puzzle. The computational theory of mind posits that the nervous system is an information processing system. It works by translating changes in the body and the environment into a language of neural impulses that represent the animal-environment relationship. The computational theory of the mind was a huge breakthrough because it allows us, for the first time, to conceptually separate the mind from the brain-body. How? Because we can now conceive of ‘the mind’ as the flow of information through the nervous system and this flow of information can be conceptually separated from the biophysical matter that makes up the nervous system. To see how can we consider the separation of the information from the actual nervous system itself, think of a book. The book’s mass, its temperature, and other physical dimensions can now be considered as roughly akin to the brain. Then think about the information content (i.e., the story the book tells or claims it makes). In the computational theory, that is akin to the mind. The mind, then is the information instantiated in and processed by the nervous system.

            Although the cognitive revolution was a great move forward, problems emerged. This was in part due to the fact that now that mind could be separated from brain with relative ease, researchers became fascinated with models of disembodied or artificial algorithmic processors that had little connection with the other elements of mental phenomena, such as conscious experience, culture, overt behavior, or the brain. The problem was that these models were very far removed from the human mindbrain system. With its macro-level view and its capacity to assimilate and integrate key perspectives, TUT allows us to build off of the central insight of the cognitive revolution and simultaneously connect it back to the brain, evolution, human action, and culture.

              The depiction of four different dimensions of informational complexity offered by the ToK System (i.e., Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture) should immediately give us pause when we consider the problem of human cognition. Is human cognition a level three (Mind/neuronal) or level four (Cultural/linguistic) phenomena? The answer of course is that human cognition is a function of dual modes of information processing. It is both neuronal and linguistic. Or, more technically, linguistic information processing develops/emerges out of and loops back upon neuronal information processing. After many years of research, this view of human cognition has finally ascended to a dominant position in mainstream human cognitive science. It is useful to note that the ToK points us immediately in that direction.

            But what is the relationship between neuro or linguistic information processing (the human mind) and consciousness? Consciousness is ‘experienced’ information flow. I will return to why experienced is in quotes. But for now, let me note how congruent the dual processing models of cognition (one fast automatic, associative, reflexive and the other slower, verbal, analytic) are with our conscious experience. For although our conscious experience feels unitary, there nonetheless is an easy dichotomy to make. One aspect of our consciousness is our experience of first order awareness. Seeing red, being hungry, feeling scared. These nonverbal perceptual, motivational, emotionally experienced gestalts are the sentient elements of consciousness that some call qualia. They are different in kind than the other seat of conscious awareness found only in humans, which is the second order level of conscious awareness. This is the position of a reflective narrator, the human self that explains one’s actions and decides what is and is not legitimate.

            It is, of course, Behavioral Investment Theory, that, from a unified theory perspective, provides the conceptual frame for neuro-information processing and the sentient level of consciousness. BIT tells us the nervous system is a computational control system that guides actions on an investment value, cost-benefit ratio. Pleasure and pain are nature’s functional solution to network perceptions, motives, and action procedures together to foster behavioral guidance toward or away from benefits and costs.

            The Justification Hypothesis tells us that linguistic information processing is functionally organized into systems of justification. Moreover, TUT tells us that there will be dynamic tensions and filtering between the domains of experience, private narration and public action–a dynamic tension clinicians are (or should be) well aware of.

            Mind (with a capital M) on the ToK System is the set of mental behavior, which is the behavior of animals mediated by the nervous system. The mind is the information instantiated and processed by the nervous system. Consciousness is an emergent phenomena, a first person experience that arises out of neuro-information processing. In humans, a language based, second order consciousness emerges out of and feeds back onto sentience.

            Finally, the famous physicist Richard Feynman once said if you really want to show you understand how something works, build it. And it is here that we can clearly identify the limits of our knowledge regarding consciousness. I put experienced in quotes earlier because no one knows how to engineer the flow of information into emergent states of consciousness. The engineering problem of consciousness remains a great mystery.


The Justification Hypothesis as a Theory for Nonmaterial Culture, but not Material Culture: A Georgist Solution

The Justification Hypothesis (JH) is a proposal in Gregg’s Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System that conceptualizes the process of “justification” as a link between the Mind and Culture levels of complexity and as a foundation for a scientific theory of culture. The JH is described on the ToK website as follows:

The evolution of language gave rise to the problem of justification, and this evolutionary pressure ultimately resulted in the human self-consciousness system and human culture. The JH carries with it three fundamental postulates. The first is that the evolution of language must have created the problem of justification, which is the problem of explaining one’s self to others in a justifiable manner. The second postulate is that the human self-consciousness system can be understood as a “justification filter”. This second claim links the evolutionary analysis with key insights from psychodynamic theory. Specifically, psychodynamic theory posits that socially unjustifiable impulses are inhibited and socially justifiable reasons are given for actions taken. The third postulate is that culture can be understood as large scale justification systems that coordinate the behavior of human populations. (Emphasis mine)

The focus of this post will be on the third postulate of the JH. Put simply, the beliefs, values, and behavioral norms of a society, along with the social institutions that emerge from those beliefs, values, and behavioral norms, can be conceptualized as “justification systems”.

However, this seems to be only half of the “cultural picture”, for a basic sociological distinction can be made between material culture on the one hand, and nonmaterial culture on the other. As the name suggests, “material culture” basically refers to all those things that people make and use, such as technology and agricultural products. Clearly, conceptualizing culture as “justification systems” is more precisely referring only to nonmaterial culture. For a complete foundation for a theory of culture, not only would something fundamental about material culture need to be incorporated  into that foundation, but “that something” would need to be effectively synthesized with the Justification Hypothesis.

The solution to this problem, I suggest, lies in the thought of 19th century political economist and social philosopher, Henry George.

Who was Henry George?

Henry George (1839 – 1897) was a self-taught economist and social philosopher of the late nineteenth century. As a young man, George was a printer in San Francisco. Future grandaughter, Agnes de Mille, wrote:

George was endowed for his job. He was curious and he was alertly attentive to all that went on around him. He had that rarest of all attributes in the scholar and historian that gift without which all education is useless. He had mother wit. He read what he needed to read, and he understood what he read. And he was fortunate; he lived and worked in a rapidly developing society. George had the unique opportunity of studying the formation of a civilization — the change of an encampment into a thriving metropolis. He saw a city of tents and mud change into a fine town of paved streets and decent housing, with tramways and buses. And as he saw the beginning of wealth, he noted the first appearance of pauperism. He saw degradation forming as he saw the advent of leisure and affluence, and he felt compelled to discover why they arose concurrently.

In 1879, George wrote Progress and Poverty where he explored this vexing issue as to why greater poverty emerged simultaneously with greater progress.

Land and Natural Resources, Material Culture, & the ToK

Near the very beginning of Progress and Poverty, (chapter 2), George found it prudent to “…define our terms so that each meaning remains consistent. Otherwise, our reasoning will be vague and ambiguous.” Three important terms that he defined were the three classical factors of production: land, labor, and capital. Basically, they can be summed up as follows:

  1. Labor – all human exertion in the production of wealth
  2. Land – all material factors of production that are not a product of human labor, (this would include all natural resources)
  3. Capital – all material factors of production that are a product of human labor, (e.g., tools, machines, buildings, agricultural products, etc.)

Here, we can already begin to see excellent consistency in these definitions with the four levels of complexity in the ToK. With only a slight rewording of these definitions, such consistency comes into sharp focus:

  1. Labor – all human behavioral investments in the production of wealth, (consistent with Level 3 of the ToK)
  2. Land (including natural resources)- all the physical, (e.g., raw land, minerals, the electromagnetic spectrum) and biological (e.g., natural growth forests, wild animals, etc.), factors of production that are not a product of human labor, (consistent with Levels 1 and 2 of the ToK, respectively, moving from the “bottom-up”)
  3. Capital – all the physical, (e.g., technology), and biological, (e.g., domesticated plants and animals), factors of production that are a product of human labor, (consistent with Levels 1 and 2 of the ToK, respectively, moving from the “top-down”)

Thus, a “crisp” distinction can be made between “land and natural resources” and “material culture” consistent with the ToK, that is contingent upon a functional relationship with the human behavioral investment of “labor” on the one hand, and the physical and biological levels of complexity on the other. “Land and natural resources” refers to the physical and biological levels of complexity that are not a product of human labor, while “material culture” refers to the physical and biological levels of complexity that are a product of human labor.

In other words, we can now say in a manner consistent with the ToK  that we have both a conceptualization of nonmaterial culture grounded in the human behavioral investment of “justification” AND a conceptualization of material culture grounded in the human behavioral investment of “labor” as it relates to the physical and biological levels of complexity. 

The challenge now is to tie these two separate conceptual foundations for material culture and nonmaterial culture into a coherent whole for a complete conceptual foundation of culture. For the answer, we need to turn again to Henry George — specifically, the answer is found in the fundamental reason as to why poverty exists in the midst of progress.

It All Boils Down to Land

To say that no human being made land and natural resources is pure tautology. Furthermore, it is an obvious truism that all human beings need land in order to live and make a living. It also equally true and obvious that, ultimately, land and natural resources are a necessary prerequisite for there to even be any material culture, for one clearly cannot make something from nothing. Even a hunter-gatherer needs raw material such as flint in order to make a stone tool.

Also, land is in “fixed-supply”. That is, there’s only “so much of it”. Indeed, as population rises, then the demand for land will rise, and thus so will its value.

This is one way in which the value of land is a socially created value, but not the only way. For as a community emerges and develops, the value of any parcel of land in that community will rise, as well, simply by virtue of its location

But then there is the issue of land ownership and its distribution. If land is owned by some to the exclusion of others, then the owners have a clear, (and indeed, tremendous) fundamental advantage in terms of powerGeorge puts it succinctly:

Land is required for the exertion of labor in the production of wealth. Therefore, to control the land is to command all the fruits of labor, except only enough to enable labor to continue to exist.

And to this, George adds in the same chapter of Progress and Poverty:

The great cause of inequality in the distribution of wealth is inequality in the ownership of land.

Ownership of land is the great fundamental fact that ultimately determines the social, the political, and consequently the intellectual and moral condition of a people. And it must be so.

For land is the home of humans, the storehouse we must draw upon for all our needs. Land is the material to which we must apply our labor to supply all our desires. Even the products of the sea cannot be taken, or the light of the sun enjoyed, or any of the forces of nature utilized, without the use of land or its products.

On land we are born, from it we live, to it we return again. We are children of the soil as truly as a blade of grass or the flower of the field. Take away from people all that belongs to land, and they are but disembodied spirits. Material progress cannot rid us of our dependence on land; it can only add to our power to produce wealth from land.

Hence, when land is monopolized, progress might go on to infinity without increasing wages or improving the condition of those who have only their labor. It can only add to the value of land and the power its possession gives.

Everywhere, in all times, among all peoples, possession of land is the base of aristocracy, the foundation of great fortunes, the source of power.

By directing our focus to the fundamental issue of land and natural resource ownership, so many sociological and anthropological issues surely, and intuitively, come into sharp focus — issues such as inequality, power, social stratification, social class, and so forth.

Take hunter-gather bands, for example. It is common knowledge that hunter-gatherer societies are relatively egalitarian, and that such societies hold the land in common. Is not the relationship between these two social facts obvious?

Or let’s say we take the specific example of gender inequality. What if we lived in a world where only men were allowed to own land, but women were not? In such a world, any woman would have to stay in “good standing” with some man in order to even have a place to live, would she not? Certainly, such a state of affairs would hardly be conducive to any chance of gender equality.

(Here, it is particularly worth noting something about Carrie Chapman Catt, who was a major leader in the movement for establishing the Nineteenth Amendment that gave women the legal right to vote. Catt was also the 1920 Presidential candidate for the Commonwealth Land Party — a U.S. political party established on Georgist principles.)

Or we could look at racial inequality in the same manner as we look at gender inequality above. If all the land in the world were, for example, owned by caucasians to the exclusion of non-caucasians, would not a world of tremendous racial inequality be difficult to imagine?

And if ownership of land is the fundamental source of power in any society, then would not the particular system of land ownership co-vary with the “large-scale justification systems” of such a society? If women were excluded from land, would we not expect to see justification systems of “women’s inferiority” that ultimately function to reinforce that particular justification system of land ownership? Could we not expect the same thing in a society in which people of a particular race or ethnicity were excluded from land? Would not that society’s religion function to “divinely” justify such a state of affairs?

Perhaps, one might wonder the possibility, would even our academic justification systems function to justify such a state of affairs of power and privilege, even if implicitly and unwittingly? If this is even a possibility, then the need — indeed the moral obligation— for the academy to direct a critical eye back towards itself cannot be understated.

Synthesizing Material Culture and Nonmaterial Culture 

At this point, it is probably becoming clear as to an appropriate conceptual foundation for culture that fundamentally accomodates both material and nonmaterial culture in a coherent way. Furthermore, such a synthesis provides a logical starting point for investigation of any society and its culture, regardless of time or place:

Justification systems of land and natural resource ownership

 Indeed, such a conceptual foundation is commensurate with Gregg’s view of society having four components:

  1. Culture (the language based beliefs and values networked together into systems of justification
  2. Behavioral investment patterns (activities that humans are engaging in)
  3. Technology (materials humans develop to coordinate the flow of resources)
  4. The biophysical ecology in which the human population lives

Furthermore, a link between facts and values can be made here, as well. It is  factual, for example, that no human beings made the earth, though all human beings need the earth to live and make a living. It is also a fact that land and natural resources are ultimately a neccessary prerequiste for there to even be any material culture, (or even “culture” in general!)

It is also a question of fact, in regards to a particular socio-historical context, as to what kind of justification system of land and natural resource ownership any particular society has, past or present. But it is a moral question as to what kind of system of land and natural resource a scoiety ought to have. George’s position was quite clear.

Henry George’s Position and His “Remedy”

George was explicit in what he saw as the “true” remedy for poverty in the midst of progress, along with the unequal distribution of power that came with this:

Deduction and induction have brought us to the same truth: Unequal ownership of land causes unequal distribution of wealth. And because unequal ownership of land is inseperable from the recognition of individual property in land, it necessarily follows that there is only one remedy for the unjust distribution of wealth:

We must make land common property.

And as a practical application of such an end in a modern society, George’s solution was both simple and elegant:

If rent were taken by the state in taxes, then land would really be common property — no matter in whose name or in what parcels it was held. Every member of the community would participate in the advantages of its ownership.

Land values increase as population grows and progress advances. In any civilized country, this is enough to bear all government expenses. In better developed countries, it is much more than enough. In fact, when rent exceeds current government revenues, it will be necessary to actually increase the land tax to absorb excess rent. Taxation of rent would increase as we abolish other taxes. So, we may put our proposition into practical form by proposing:

To abolish all taxes — except on land values.

George’s “remedy” sparked an international movement that lasted for over a generation. Progress and Poverty sold 3 million copies in the U.S. when the population was under 50 million. Perhaps, one might even call such a movement a “useful” mass movement. It had notable advocates, including Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy, John Dewey, and Albert Einstein. Indeed, this movement could even make for an interesting sociological case-study in social movements, considering its phenomenal rise and then steady decline a generation or so after George’s death.


In Henry George’s thought, I have attempted to find a way to synthesize nonmaterial culture, (expressed as “justification systems”), and material culture in a manner consistent with the ToK System. Furthermore, such a synthesis could perhaps help accomodate greater synthesis amongst the various social sciences, such as economics, sociology, political science, and anthropology within the context of the ToK.

But perhaps even more importantly, Henry George’s thought and Gregg’s ToK capture the same spirit in which “…we might actually be able to make a systematic difference in society that gives individuals…a chance to reach their full potential as human beings.”

Perhaps that could be Henry George’s most important ccontribution of all to the Tree of Knowledge System and indeed, to the academy as a whole.

Justification Systems, Material Culture, and an Energy-Information Approach to Knowledge: A Reply to Gintis

Herb Gintis offered a rich, enlightened and reflective review of A New Unified Theory (posted below), and I wanted to take the chance to respond briefly to some of the points that he made. First, as an economist with a strong grounding in evolutionary and game theory, his background is quite congruent with the central thrust of BIT and it was encouraging to hear Gintis’ assessment of the integrative potential of BIT and its congruence with his work integrating biology, anthropology and economics.

Gintis also makes a very important point at the end of his review, which is that the ToK may provide a broad information theoretic approach for to knowledge in general. This is indeed a line of investigation that I am working on. I am reviewing much work on Energy and Information and their inter-relation. Central to the ToK is the proposition that  in order to develop an effective representational map of ourselves and our place in the world, we need to separate out the various lines or dimensions of complexity (matter, organic-genetic, mental-neuronal, cultural-linguistic…see pages 155-159 of the book).

This point about the ToK as a map of the evolution of informational complexity brings us to a key point regarding Gintis’ central criticisms of the unified theory, namely that the Justification Hypothesis is a ‘nonstarter’. It is a nonstarter in Gintis’ view because “much culture is fundamentally technological and non-linguistic, consisting of recipes for making tools and provisioning food.” Gintis goes on to talk about technological and economic inventions that have obviously played momentous roles in the evolution of human behavior.

As I read Gintis’ critique, a familiar feeling washed over me, and it is a dilemma I have had ever since I have been working on the unified theory (TUT), and that pertains to semantics. You see, TUT comes with its own definitional system, one that overlaps some with colloquial definitions, but also has its own connotation within the system. This problem is perhaps most clearly seen with the term mind, which means many different things to people, but in TUT Mind means the set of mental behavior, which is akin to animal behavior and is the third dimension of complexity. Note here, as I do in the book, Mind is capitalized.

What does this have to do with Gintis and is critique of the JH? Within the ToK System, the JH is a theory of Culture, which is the fourth dimension of informational complexity. This means it refers specifically to behaviors mediated via symbolic-syntactical information processing systems.  Gintis, however, interprets the JH to be a theory of culture, with a small ‘c’. In this light, culture is interpreted as the whole of human society, and in that regard, Gintis has a point. The JH is not a theory of human society. Indeed, as noted on page 159 in the book, society is seen as consisting of four broad domains…1) Culture (the language based beliefs and values networked together into systems of justification; 2) Behavioral investment patterns (activities that humans are engaging in); 3) technology (materials humans develop to coordinate the flow of resources) and 4) the biophysical ecology in which the human population lives.

Gintis seeks a theory of society. The JH provides a framework for one of the four components of such a theory. In that regard, I believe it is very much a viable starting point. Additional work will need to be done by researchers and theorists connecting the JH to economics and the evolution of technology.  

Gregg Henriques

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