The Philosophy of Psychology: Debates in Psychological Explanation - Preface
MacDonald (Cynthia) & MacDonald (Graham)
Source: MacDonald & MacDonald - Philosophy of Psychology
Paper - Abstract

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Preface (Full Text)

  1. The philosophy of psychology has burgeoned in the past twenty1 years. The causes of the expanding interest in this area are varied, but among them must be counted the reaction to a positivist philosophy of science within both philosophy and psychology. Positivism had insisted on the unification of science, which in essence required that all science should conform to the model of physics. The effect of this requirement was to restrict science, including psychology, to the ontology, methodology and explanatory practice of physics. These restrictions made themselves felt in different ways within psychology, including a suspicion of theory and theoretical entities, an emphasis on laboratory-style experimentation and an insistence on the deductive-nomological conception of explanation.
  2. This last proved particularly troublesome for psychology, as its subject matter – the mental – is naturally described and explained using intentional terminology. Actions are usually explained by describing the mental states of the agent, citing relevant beliefs, desires and emotions in order to make the resultant action intelligible. The nomological aspect of the deductive-nomological conception of explanation stipulated that the laws used must be empirical laws, where this meant that the antecedent and consequent of the conditional must be independently identifiable. This condition on laws was required, so it was thought, in order to ensure that the laws were confirmable or falsifiable, and to conform to the Humean conception of causation2, where it is deemed essential to the existence of a cause-effect relation that its two terms be independently identifiable. The problem is that when intentional terminology is used in order to make an action intelligible, the mental state is described in ways which link it in a not merely empirical way to the action. An intention is an intention to do p, or a desire is a desire for p, where p is the action explained by the presence of the intention or desire. This conceptual link between antecedent and consequent was seen to cast doubt both on the empirical character of the explanations and on the status of the antecedent as describing a cause of the action it purported to explain. As a consequence of this non-conformity to the explanatory paradigm of physics, the positivist philosopher of science or psychologist was faced with a dilemma: either give up hope that psychology could be a bona fide science, or re-mould its explanations, getting rid of the intentionalist vocabulary.
  3. As positivism loosened its grip on the philosophy of science, different options emerged, one of the most important being that introduced by Donald Davidson, (1963) in his seminal paper3, ‘Actions, reasons, and causes'. Davidson insisted on the significance of the difference between descriptions and what is described. The mental state of the agent may be described using intentional terminology (and so in a manner linking it to the action), but what is described, the mental state, may well be independently identifiable using different terminology, and so could pass the test of being a genuine cause of the action. In subsequent papers Davidson elaborated on this option, further loosening positivist restrictions by allowing psychological explanations to be autonomous and so different from explanations in physics, while still requiring that the ontology — of events explained — be physicalist.
  4. Within psychology, a similar destination was being reached by a different route. The appeal of behaviourism declined, partly as a consequence of the influence of computer-based models of cognition. These revealed the significance of the distinction between software and hardware descriptions of computational processes, such a distinction reinforcing the claim that intentional (software) explanations were viable independently of detailed knowledge concerning the nature of the hardware implementing the software. The importance of distinguishing levels of description and explanation is seen in the work of David Marr (19824) on the visual system. These trends have led to a renewed interest in the development of a cognitive psychology which uses intentional explanations and which relates the intentional domain to sub-intentional processes. Such a development has produced both new philosophical problems and reproduced some of the older problems in a new guise.
  5. Each section of this two-volume5 collection presents a debate on a central issue relating to these problems. The debates consist of seminal articles, previously published elsewhere, which present differing solutions to some of the foundational problems generated by the developments, as well as entirely new contributions from some of the authors which further the debate. Substantial introductions to each section help set the debates in context. The introductions aim to provide assistance to the reader in focusing on the central points in dispute and also make the volumes valuable as the basis for upper level courses in the philosophy of mind/psychology, whether these be second or third year undergraduate classes or postgraduate level. Both philosophy and psychology students will stand to benefit from such a course.
  6. The present volume focuses on issues surrounding mental causation6 and intentional explanation. The two debates in Part I concern problems relating to the autonomy of the intentional domain. The first deals with the autonomy of intentional causation7, the second with the autonomy of intentional explanation. The Davidsonian solution to the problem of mental causation8, briefly outlined above, has appeared to some to be unsatisfactory. The complaint is that the solution makes the mental causally efficacious only in so far as mental events are identified with physical events; and this makes the causal powers of the mental reside only in the causal powers of the physical. The question addressed by the first debate is whether the mental can be causally efficacious while at the same time being dependent upon physical processes. The second debate deals with a similar problem at the level of explanation: given the dependence of the mental on the physical, can intentional explanations be anything more than instrumentally useful? Can they avoid being replaceable, in principle, by more basic physical explanations?
  7. Arguments about causality9 and explanation recur in a different form in the first debate of Part II. Here the main question is how intentional mental states ought to be taxonomized or categorized for the purposes of causal explanation in psychology. The issue concerns the relation between two aspects of intentional content. The content of, say, a belief state is used in causal-explanatory contexts, but it is also semantically evaluable, capable of being true or false. Given that the truth or falsity of an intentional state appears to depend on some fact or facts that exist beyond the body of a person, the obtaining of which is independent of the belief itself, the question arises as to what role the semantic aspect of content plays in causal explanations in psychology. How can the obtaining (or not) of a state of the world extrinsic to a person's body play a part in the causal explanation of that person's action? Individualists say that, so far as the science of psychology is concerned, it cannot; all that is relevant are those occurrences that take place within the confines of the person's body. As a consequence they maintain that a scientific psychology should use a type of content, ‘narrow content’, in its explanations, whose possession by persons does not depend on factors beyond their bodies. Anti-individualists argue against this recommendation.
  8. In all three debates — intentional causation10, intentional explanation, and individualist versus anti-individualist explanation — the example of biology is often used to support points on the nature of psychological causation11 and explanation. This is unsurprising; its status as a science is not disputed, so if it can be shown that biological explanations have certain of the ‘suspect' characteristics of intentional explanation, then this will lend support to those defending the scientific legitimacy of such explanation. Biopsychologists go one step further. They claim that psychology is a branch of biology, and as such psychological explanation should be seen as a species of biological explanation. Support for this comes from the consideration that what distinguishes both psychology and biology from physics and chemistry is the goal-oriented nature of the processes they seek to explain. This suggests that both biology and psychology should use functional explanation, where the explanation of the behaviour of a trait is in terms of what it has been selected to do. The second debate in Part II concerns whether psychological purposes can be so assimilated to biological purposes; whether concentrating on the biological-functional can provide the appropriate content for psychological states.
  9. Part III departs from the terrain of intentional explanation to inspect the sub-terrain of tacit knowledge and the unconscious. Most of the psychological states referred to in everyday accounts of our actions are either conscious or easily accessible to consciousness. There is, however, a significant class of actions that give rise to the postulation of psychological states or processes which are not so easily accessed. When we speak grammatically, or correct the ungrammatical utterances of a child, we display a mastery of a grammar whose rules, if we were asked, we could not describe. The knowledge we have of the rules of our grammar is clearly not explicit or fully conscious, so it is said that we have implicit or tacit knowledge of these rules. The challenge is to defend the existence of such knowledge in the absence of what many see as the defining characteristic of the mental, its capturing of the distinctive point of view of the conscious agent. The first debate in Part III addresses this challenge.
  10. The situation with respect to the unconscious states postulated by psychoanalytic theory, the subject matter of the second debate in Part III, is somewhat different. Here the point of view of the agent can be respected by attributing contents to the states which were, once upon a time, available to the aware subject. It is this awareness which produces repression, the subject recoiling from the knowledge and pushing it into the unconscious. Again, however, the controversy concerns how we are to understand the processes as intentional. If we see the repression as a deliberate act we seem to be saying that the subject does know, qua repressor, the contents of the states which at the same time they are deemed not to know, given that they have been expunged from consciousness. Both debates end on a fitting note, as what is at stake in these exchanges is the rationalistic model of the mental which has been our starting point, that proposed by Davidson.
  11. One large and important area of the ‘sub-terrain' of psychological explanation remains to be explored, and this is done in Volume Two. Here the debates centre on the controversies introduced into psychology by the connectionist architectures of some computers. Two crucial areas are explored. The first revolves around the question of whether classical architectures are better suited to modelling the intentional mental processes, given that these processes are related to one another in a systematic manner. The question is whether a connectionist architecture can represent the relevant notion of systematicity. The second area centres on the question of whether the processes exploited in connectionist models of mental processes are inconsistent with the intentional processes exploited in intentional explanations. Here the debate concerns whether connectionist explanations can recapture, at some level, certain features of intentional processes thought to be essential to the explanation of action by intentional psychology.
  12. By focusing on the question of how explanations in terms of classical and connectionist architectures relate to intentional explanations, the connectionist debates in Volume Two integrate with the debates in Volume One to form a cohesive whole. Together the two volumes cover a wide area of types of psychological explanation and large number of issues that arise concerning their nature and relation to one another.
  13. We would like to thank … […snip…]



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Ie. Since 1975 – this Preface was written in 1995.

Footnote 3: Ie. "Davidson (Donald) - Actions, Reasons, and Causes".

Footnote 4: See "Marr (David) - A Theory of Vision".

Footnote 5: See later in the preface for a brief summary of the second volume ("MacDonald (Cynthia) & MacDonald (Graham), Eds. - Connectionism: Debates in Psychological Explanation - Vol. 2"), which deals with debates between classical and connectionist computer models of psychology.


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