A site on the future of psychology

I Am, Therefore I Justify

One approach some philosophers have taken to philosophy has been to identify a central, undeniable truth and then use that truth as a foundation from which to construct a system of thought. Rene Descartes’ famous dictum of I think, therefore I am (cognito ergo sum) is a prototype example of this kind of approach. The value in such an approach is in the grounding the central precept affords. The problem is that even if the original statement is valid, inferences and implications that are needed to grow the system may still be wrong (e.g., Descartes’ substance dualism).

In this post, I want to use this tactic of philosophers, but do so from the language and lens of  The Justification Hypothesis. Descartes claimed that his thinking demonstrated his existence.  I, however, want to invert this. The central starting point that I want to offer here is the statement:

I am, therefore I justify.

Following Descartes, I agree that the belief that can withhold the most intense skepticism is the belief in the fundamental existence of my self-conscious mind. I exist. I am even more certain of this than the existence of the rest of the world. For example, although unbelievable, it nevertheless remains conceivable that my brain is in a vat—ala the movie The Matrix. Yet it is not conceivable that my first person experience does not exist. (Note this does not commit me to solipsism). But the statement, I am, therefore I justify, is different than my existence. The statement is about my existence. I must both exist and make the claim that I do so. And the claim is an act of justification.

It seems to me that justification is the fundamental first act of philosophy. Any philosophy. All philosophical systems begin with the enactment of a justification, and proceed to grow via the process of justification.  One cannot engage in the process of philosophy without engaging in justification. Any starting point will be a starting claim, and thus will be a justification. And, of course, any claims to the contrary regarding the limitations, inaccuracies, or problems with any starting justification will themselves be justifications.

From a philosophical perspective, we can then begin to build a system of thought from this starting point, asking all the strangely obvious/contorted questions that philosophers are inclined to do. Is the “I” making the claim, the same “I” that went to work yesterday?  Do you exist? How do I know you exist and you know I exist? What am I made up of? The networks of claims that we develop in answering these questions is our foundational philosophical justification system. Moreover, with the concept of justification firmly in hand, we can move freely into work done on epistemic justification and work on theory of knowledgeThe Tree of Knowledge is my conceptual framework for answering these questions.

This central justification also has profound implications for one of the major long standing problems in philosophy and psychology, namely the issue of free will versus determinism. This is the problem, essentially, of whether you freely choose your actions, or whether your ‘choices’ determined by past events, and the sense of choice is an illusion. People grappling with this question wonder, on the one hand, if you are free, how is that possible given the lawful nature of the universe? And, yet on the other hand, if you are not free, they why does it seem, at least in many circumstances, that one can choose what one does? That will be the subject of another post, but for now, I will leave you with this thought…The human self is the entity that justifies the actions of the individual. Your ‘self’ is the entity that justifies your actions.


In this post, I share, in narrative form, the glimpses that I have had that the ToK System provides an  important piece of the puzzle toward a unified theory of everything. Before I do so, I need to be clear that I am not a mathematical physicist, and I do not  speak advanced mathematics. As such, I do not make strong claims about the  strong version. Nevertheless, the connections have been such that I believe the strong version might be true. When I first developed the ToK System, I spent an enormous amount of time reading up on and digesting conceptual models in physics. I did so for two reasons. First, and most important, it was crucial to me that the vision I was developing was consistent with physics. Second, I came to believe that the ToK offered a crucial perspective that was missing in all mathematical physical theories…and that is a theory of the knower. Specifically, the ToK System locates the scientist and scientific theory in the context of the physical universe. (These slides capture some of what I am talkin about…Knowledge Vectors).

One of the first connections I made was seeing parallels in the structure of the joint points. Recall that the joint points are links between the dimensions, thus there are four foundational joint points, between Energy and Matter (Quantum Gravity); Matter and Life (Modern Synthesis); Life and Mind (BIT) and Mind and Culture (JH). I noticed that the Modern Synthesis, BIT, and the JH could each be conceptualized as a unit of information (genetic, neuronal, symbolic) that was operated on by a macro-process of selection, (natural, behavioral, justification). That parallel made me wonder about Quantum Gravity. Of course, the quantum can be conceptualized as the smallest unit of information, so that fits. But what about gravity? Could that be conceptualized as a macro-level selection process?

Thinking about the universe as a wave of energy-information gave me an idea, namely I started thinking about gravity as a form of regression to the mean. Regression to the mean is a statistical phenomena that pertains to random forces and extreme scores. My idea was to imagine all matter in a state of quantum variation or flux. Mass could be conceptualized as clusters of information (kind of like the N in a research sample), and the distance between masses could be thought of as their “co-relation” in spacetime. I sent this idea to John Wheeler (the famous physicist who coined the term black hole), and I was pleased (and somewhat surprised) when he wrote back, calling the idea of gravity as regression to the mean intriguing. He told me it was foundationally congruent with his argument that we need to move from “It to Bit” (i.e., from things to information) in how we think about the universe.

It was during this time that I was thinking about behavior as the flow of energy information, and that the fundamental task was to determine the foundational behavioral frequencies underlying all change processes. That is when I started getting involved in string theory, which is the notion that strings coiled in hidden dimensions represent this foundational bedrock.I spent a lot of time exploring the standard model of particle physics, and developed some diagrams on the Standard Model that I was proud of because they conveyed a lot of information in an accessible way. If you look at those diagrams, the spiral shapes inside the particles represent the connection to string theory.

(note in the equations that follow, ‘p’ is pi, i is the square root of negative one and e is the natural log constant…I could not place the symbol in the text)

In 2001, I developed what I called a PseudoProof. This emerged from three lines of thought: 1) using the ToK to link measurement to observation with its theory of the knower; 2) seeing the fundamental questions in quantum mechanics as connecting to my basic definition of behavior; and 3) my conviction that the foundational unifying concept is behavioral frequencies ala string theory. I considered the formulation 2 p i f = 1 to be a metaphorical representation for connecting these domains.

But then, in 2003, I made a connection that made me wonder if it was possible that it had meaning above and beyond my own intuition. Specifically, I realized that 2 p i f = 1 could be connected to the Euler Identity. The Euler Identity (e^pi + 1 = 0) is one of the most fundamental in all of mathematics because it joins e, pi, i, 0, and 1 into one symbolic representation.  (Here is the way they connect: Euler Dear Dr).

The ToK System depicts the relation between the physical, biological, psychology, and social sciences. And it argues that it aligns, in one system, the central insights of Einstein, Darwin, Skinner and Freud. By seeing a connection between 2p i f = 1 and the Euler Identity, I had connected physics to mathematics in a novel way.

For me,  e^pi + 2p i f = 0, is my “equation” for radical mathematical humanism. It connects me to mathematics via the Euler Identity, connects me to science via the f, which represents the behavioral frequencies mapped by the ToK System, and it connects me to humanism, insofar as the connections I have made here are more intuitive and subjective and part of my story than they are mathematical physical truths. But it nevertheless is my story and thus my truth at the level of human narrative.


In the previous post—part I of a three part series—I took the perspective of a skeptic  and argued that a unified theory of psychology is essentially impossible. An important distinction was made in Part I about the meaning of the expression “unified theory” , namely whether the expression is meant to coin a complete, mathematically specifiable description of human and animal behavior akin to the way physicists explain the behavior of particles, or whether it referred more to a workable, conceptual system that frames the subject matter in a coherent way. The skeptical position was that neither a natural science/mathematical framework, nor a consensually agreed upon conceptual system was possible.

Here I want to use the distinction between the conceptual and the mathematical science argument to make the point that there are two versions of the unified theory, one strong and one weak. The weak version is the version that I offered and defended in A New Unified Theory of Psychology. This is the argument that emphasizes the need for semantic and conceptual clarity in psychology, set against the backdrop that there is enormous conceptual chaos about foundational issues in the field. The weak version is the claim that the unified theory solves many of these issues, giving psychology a much more coherent general framework from which to understand animal and human dimensions of existence that is currently taught in the field. Of course, the unified theory achieves this perhaps most notably via the ToK System, and its novel ontological claim that the universe can be conceptualized as the flow of Energy-Information (i.e., behavior), and that because of the evolutionary emergence of three information processing systems (genetic, neuronal, symbolic), we can identify four separable dimensions of informational complexity (Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture). This macro-level view ultimately allows us to crisply define psychology as the science of mental behavior, and show that it has three great branches: 1) basic psychology, which is a natrual science concerned with the general laws of animal behavior; 2) human psychology, which is a social science concerned with the human mind and human behavior at the level of the individual; and 3) professional psychology, which is the application of psychological knowledge toward the greater good. Behavioral Investment Theory, the Influence Matrix, and the Justification Hypothesis fill in the space and provide the conceptual structure to hold the multitude of psychological paradigms together in a coherent way. In this regard, what is meant by “unified theory of psychology” is what Staats meant when he used the term, and refers a coherent conceptual framework that defines the field and unites the competing factions.

So if the weak version is that the unified theory provides a semantically and conceptually sound framework for psychology that can integrate various perspectives into a coherent whole, what is the strong version? The strong version is that it points the way toward the Truth (and the Good and Beautiful). The ‘critic’ in Part I mentioned that such a strong version would eventually run adrift because it must be grounded in physics and physics itself is not unified. The strong version of the unified theory posits that the ToK System actually does much to solve the fundamental problems inherent in quantum mechanics and gravity. Specifically, it argues that these problems are in part philosophical, and that to solve them one needs simultaneously a theory of the observer and the observed. The macro-level view provided by the ToK System provides the necessary perspective. In part III of this post, I will share how it does this and articulate a radical mathematical humanistic equation that, for me, represents the pathway to the strong version!


            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).

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

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.


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