from The Psychology of Liberty
by Wes Bertrand © 2000, copylefted 2007

The Condition Of Modern Psychology

When we look to the profession of psychology for knowledge and answers about ourselves, finding clarity can sometimes be as challenging as in religion. Yet psychology is a scientific profession. It seeks to validate its assertions, hypotheses, and theories, as well as its practices. It does this primarily through empirical investigation and experimentation. However, as we shall see, the use of logic (and philosophy in general) as a tool for validation is not typical.

Modern psychology originates mostly in mainstream academics. While it concerns primarily the study of the human mind, it also includes study of the brain and behavior (including that of other animals). For instance, fields such as neuropsychology or physiological psychology focus on biochemical processes and physiological aspects of the brain and nervous system. Because the brain is the organ that directly gives rise to consciousness, many researchers believe that studying brain processes can provide answers about human psychology.

The study of the brain is definitely a fascinating and extremely important subject. However, we cannot reduce thought, language, and behavior to brain processes without missing many essentials of psychology. The only way a human being can understand or comprehend anything is to use his or her mind (i.e., conceptual faculty). Of course, without a healthy functioning brain one’s mental faculties may suffer. One might not be able to read or write any words, for example.

Indeed, our intricate anatomy and physiology necessarily allows us to function and thus, as humans, to conceptualize. But knowing the exact way the brain works in order to deal with concepts tells us nothing about the truth or falsehood of them. Nor does it inform us about the correctness of particular evaluations. Simply put, it does not help us to understand why we act and think and feel the way we do—especially our reasons for choosing certain values. These things are appropriately explained by mental psychology and philosophy. The epistemological essentials of reason, volition, and the Law of Non-Contradiction are needed to understand ourselves. They are also advantageous in understanding the physiological processes within the brain.

As noted, consciousness is an axiomatic concept; so long as we exist, it is an ever-present feature of reality. And the subconscious is a significant aspect of consciousness. So, for psychology to be scientific, it needs a firm comprehension of the subconscious—as well as how the conscious mind interacts with the subconscious. Presently, much of the psychology profession is deficient in these respects. Because most of philosophy throughout history failed to provide human beings with a fully logical and coherent system of principles for living, the psychology profession was—and still is—affected by this.

Historically, until about 100 years ago, psychology was virtually indistinguishable from philosophy; it had yet to differentiate itself as a separate discipline. As psychology became a discipline unto itself, some focus initially was on introspective methods. While psychologists sought to scientifically document the contents of mind, they made only modest progress. Exceptions were primarily in the realm of perceptual psychology and psychophysics, in which psychological qualities and intensities could be observed and recorded.

In general, however, psychology’s endeavors were restricted both by psychology’s split from philosophy and the very nature of the discipline. Given that only the individual can know what occurs in his or her own mind, each person is his or her own best subject. Yet the methodology of introspection was eventually called into question. It was thought to preclude scientific observation and measurement of the mind by those external to it. Apparently, the actual possessors of mind were thought to be biased; it was considered non-objective to be simultaneously a subject and an observer.

Psychologists and researchers saw the study of others’ behavior as the best way for psychology to progress as a genuine science. After all, the natural sciences demanded quantification of entities and events. Human behavior could be quantified, and so it came to be viewed as primary.

In concert with this shift in focus to behavior, particular learning theories became predominant, especially those of Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner. They provided specific explanations for animal behavior, including that of humans. Pavlov’s Classical and Skinner’s Instrumental (or Operant) conditioning theories became the mainstay of researchers.

Emphasis on cognitive processes and various functions of mind has since arisen to supplement strict Behaviorist interpretations. Yet mainstream academic psychology still lacks the necessary philosophical foundation that could make its goals (and therefore its accomplishments) fully comprehensible. Detached from explicit philosophy, modern psychology has trouble outlining logical essentials. Therefore, like its related disciplines (e.g., sociology and anthropology), it can unwittingly present false notions, give vague interpretations, and create copious amounts of jargon and nonintegrated particulars. In various ways, pop psychology can be just as informed and helpful as academic professional psychology (which, in various ways, can be just as misinformed and unhelpful as pop psychology).

The methodology of Behaviorism focuses on quantification and measurement of behavior. On account of this, the scientific experiment is generally used to derive psychological knowledge about human beings. Experiments seek to foster explanations—and therefore predictions—of behavior. Quantifiable evidence is gathered for countless hypotheses—in clinical, experimental, social, industrial and organizational, school, counseling, and developmental psychology.

But without logical ideas about human nature (i.e., about consciousness and its method of correctly dealing with reality), psychological hypotheses cannot be properly validated; one can only give piles upon piles of evidence for (or against) them. Rather than understanding individuals through philosophy and their own specific personality dynamics, emphasis is often placed on the overall behavior of groups of people. Such an approach results in a variety of interpretations. For instance, persons may be considered “more likely” to do such and such, or “at higher risk” of developing a particular problem, based on relative averages (and on what is considered normal). On the neuropsychological side, we often hear statements about a person or group of people being “biochemically influenced,” “genetically predisposed,” or having a “genetic propensity” to be a certain way or do certain things.

Multitudinous controlled and uncontrolled studies use complex statistical designs with mostly probabilities as guides. After a lot of analysis, the causes of human behavior are typically attributed to biological-genetic and/or environmental-response processes (hence, the “nature versus nurture” controversy). The direct implication is that one is a product of one’s surroundings and/or one’s brain chemistry. Seldom are persons thought to be conscious valuers and decision-makers.

Clearly, the acquisition of empirical evidence is needed in science. To isolate phenomena—to control for extraneous factors or intervening variables—is in fact a scientific imperative. But to apply the strict experimental method of science to a rational, volitional being is to utilize an inadequate model. It is somewhat like trying to make a square peg fit properly into a round hole. For all practical purposes, such a model removes the mind from humans. It oddly tries to transform conceptual Homo sapiens into a solely perceptual creature. To treat individuals akin to pigeons, rats, dogs, or even monkeys may be simpler, but it certainly detracts from psychological understanding.

The failure to observe and identify all the causal factors of human behavior—for example, thought, principles, value-judgments, and volition—calls into question the scientific nature of much of the work in modern psychology. A medical doctor does not cure her patient by focusing solely on the symptoms, each individually without connections or causes. An astronomer does not study stars and planets without acknowledging their identity and basic attributes. Neither profession proceeds to accumulate information without taking into account the nature of the things under investigation.

Psychology is a discipline—like philosophy—that should be accessible to laypersons. It should not be so complex and technical that only psychologists can understand it and devise remedies to personal and social problems. Psychology is a tool for understanding self and others. Unfortunately, those who seek degrees in psychology are presented theories that do not provide the necessary knowledge. Seldom discussed are the achievement of philosophical understanding and the cultivation of happiness and dignity. At best, one finds sparse islands of clarity and bits of rational insight in a context that pays little attention to essentials.

Following from this context, we find that authentic self-esteem has been relegated to a simplistic afterthought. Yet, self-esteem is the core aspect of human psychology. It is properly defined as the conviction that one’s mind is competent to think, judge, and deal with the facts of reality, and the feeling that one’s person is worthy of happiness.10 The first component of self-esteem presupposes knowing the nature of one’s mind and the nature of reality, while the second component presupposes the remedying of subconscious conflicts that restrict healthy thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Ironically, many who study and teach psychology are unaware of these ideas, and so they cannot convey them. Most of their time is spent in other areas. Professors and students focus explicitly on many topics—for instance, theories, statistics, experimental methods, results of studies, and so forth. But rarely do they explicitly focus on their own psychologies, and rarely on their own emotions. Needless to say, this situation does not bode well. If modern psychology (and much of the psychotherapy profession) were to focus on self-esteem as a central value, conscious contradictions and conflicts of the subconscious could not be so easily overlooked.

Despite this overall situation, though, the fields of clinical and counseling psychology offer many theories of psychotherapy that can be beneficial. They apply techniques conducive to self-understanding and self-awareness. Many emphasize the workings of the subconscious and the nature of thoughts and emotions.

Adlerian therapy focuses on self-responsibility of thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Carl Rogers’ Person-Centered therapy deals with experiencing ourselves in a holistic way and developing a respectful awareness of our internal states. Aaron Beck’s and others’ (such as David Burns) Cognitive Therapy deals with cognitions and automatic thoughts (or “silent assumptions”) of the subconscious; “inference chaining” is one of its effective methods of subconscious discovery.

Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) also solidly attempts to grasp subconscious processes. REBT was the precursor to Cognitive Therapy and, in addition to being one of the most well-recognized and multifaceted therapies, it emphasizes philosophical thinking (though it holds a mistaken assumption that humans, by nature, think irrationally). Also, Arnold Lazarus’ Multimodal Therapy, William Glasser’s Reality Therapy, and Existential Psychotherapy all emphasize that problems and conflicts reside in particular choices and values. Therefore, they grant that humans have the capacity to change thoughts, emotions, and behavior, which is inherently self-empowering. Even Behavior Therapy, in its own straightforward way, attempts to motivate persons to challenge their problematic behaviors and feelings. Certain exercises get individuals to venture into new possibilities for living and being. This helps bring one’s subconscious habits into conscious light (and therefore under more conscious control).

Additionally, various “systems” theories and therapies attempt to break dysfunctional patterns of interactions, particularly among family members. Many approaches of Family Therapy, for instance, help persons become more aware of and better able to deal with the emotional and skills problems that foster dysfunctional relationships.

Finally, Gestalt therapy, attempts to foster self-awareness through paying attention to one’s own actions and interactions with others. Greater awareness of various defenses, and of how the body “armors” itself, are all part of the psychological discovery process.

Most of the abovementioned therapies utilize strategies that are particularly effective. Role-playing, psychodrama, guided imagery, and so on, are designed to break through inner emotional blocks and problematic behaviors. Another, perhaps more effective psychotherapeutic type and technique—that of Nathaniel Branden—will be covered in a later chapter, on account of the following explanation.

Many of the above-mentioned therapies touch on aspects of the subconscious, and many are useful in a variety of contexts. However, they do not always recognize reason, volition, and logic as absolutes. These absolutes allow the creation of an objective value system—a system that promotes the life and happiness of the individual. After inspection of the psychology profession in general, we realize once more that no one can do our logical thinking for us. People in groups, be they members of a religion or members of the American Psychological Association, can rely heavily on the doctrines and status of their particular organizations. Depending on the type of psychological dynamics in operation, this can discourage self-responsibility and independent thinking. While we can look to groups for enlightenment, a group of people is simply a collection of individuals; it is as logical as the individual minds in the group that happen to value the utilization of logic.

By discarding certain doctrines that violate the Law of Non-Contradiction, and therefore reality, we can prevent becoming prisoners to faulty reasoning. We can then acknowledge what is real and what is not—instead of having to defend the arbitrary assertions of a particular doctrine for enlightenment.

The human organism has survived hundreds of thousands of years because it was able to observe reality in a relatively undistorted fashion. To the degree that it was distorted by different psychological operations, it was kept from advancing to a higher level of survival and functioning. Correspondingly, to the degree that a human being thought or acted based primarily on unrecognized feelings, he or she might fail to make the correct identifications and appropriate choices. This of course leads to all the forms and facets of maladaptive behavior so damaging to the life and well-being of a rational organism and, thus, entire societies.

Again, emotions represent evaluations that a mind has made of aspects of reality that appear for or against it. Correct evaluations need to be accompanied by rational cognition; before we can say for sure if something is good or bad for us, we have to identify exactly what we are evaluating. It turns out that feelings based on inaccurate evaluations have just as much power to influence thoughts and behavior as feelings that are warranted and based on facts.

Even though enlightenment is sought by many different people in cultures throughout the world, this does not mean that it will be achieved, or even realistically understood. After all, enlightenment is not some fanciful notion of effortless knowledge or eternal bliss. With psychology, as in all sciences, we must start with (noncontradictory) facts and build from there. Our base must be philosophically solid and real, not vague and illusory. So, we now proceed to the final section of this chapter—before we move on to the idea of political enlightenment.

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