A site on the future of psychology

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

Comments on: "Justification Systems, Material Culture, and an Energy-Information Approach to Knowledge: A Reply to Gintis" (3)

  1. jasonbessey said:

    It’s worth noting that Gintis got the evolutionary sequence backwards in regards to the evolution of language and justification in Gregg’s system. Gintis wrote:

    “Henriques argues that human culture is basically language, and humans invented language so they could “justify” their actions to others—this is Justification Theory.”

    Actually, Gregg wrote that language came first, then came “justification” as a conseqence of language.

    Also, Gregg is arguing that culture is basically “justification systems”, not “language”, (though in fairness to Gintis, I see the JH more specifically as a theory of nonmaterial culture — but as Gregg seems to note in his post above, a lot of this seems semantic in nature.)

    Lastly, it’s the “Justification Hypothesis”, not “Justification Theory”.

    • Gregg Henriques said:

      Excellent point, Jason. One I planned to make in my response but neglected to do so. It is a common misinterpretation, so I thank you for pointing it out.


  2. […]  Indeed, such a conceptual foundation is commensurate with Gregg’s view of society having four components: […]

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