I started the Modern Psychologist blog in 2011. Readers may have wondered about that name. The definition of a psychologist may be relatively straightforward, but what does it mean to be modern? I admittedly chose the term because it was partly ambiguous, having at least two possible meanings. Each interpretation closely parallels my conflicted thoughts and feelings about psychology as a discipline. One construal is based on what modern psychology appears to be (at least in the mainstream), the other, on what psychology has the power to become.
So on the one hand, the term modern, entails what is contemporary, standard, or commonplace. It involves popular ideas, concepts, and methodologies within the field of psychology. I have always been fascinated, maybe even obsessed, with some of the big questions about what it means to be human. Yet, I also had an uncanny sense that mainstream psychology was missing something important; something that needed to be remembered or recovered. But in order to bring forth alternative hypotheses, theories, or explanations, one must show that there is something deficient in our status quo understandings – hence the critical style of the website. So in part, the title of the website reflects a tongue-in-cheek or critical stance toward some of the dominant megatrends within mainstream psychology.
This brings me to the second sense in which I use the term modern, which might be thought of as an aim toward relevancy, or “someone who advocates or practices a departure from traditional styles, values, or ways of thinking.” In this sense, a modern psychologist is one who is dynamic and advocating for necessary revision or change; they are perhaps moving away from what was, or in the process of becoming. In this meaning cynicism is balanced by optimism – change is both necessary and possible. The hope is that we can become more self-aware as a discipline, honest about our assumptions and limitations, critical of our concepts and methodologies, and develop theoretical frameworks of psychology that encompass nothing less than the whole person we seek to understand.
What is wrong with Mainstream Psychology; why does it Matter?
Psychology claims to answer important questions about human nature. If approached correctly, it could shed light on some of the most difficult problems imaginable: What makes us uniquely human? What is the relationship between mind and brain? How did mind or consciousness emerge from matter? How do we explain secondary properties or qualia, such as ‘what it is like’ to feel subjective pains, emotions, or even thoughts? How is agency and free will possible, if causal determinism is true? How can we understand the causes and symptoms of psychological distress? How do we promote mental health?
A properly grounded psychology may also help us appreciate the unique mode of human existence that makes being in itself, an issue for us. It can help us understand our general mental capacities, in ways that may better inform public policies and our collective societal goals. It can help us correctly conceptualize the nature and causes of psychological anguish, pain, and suffering, which may point to ways of alleviating these problems, in the service of individual mental health and promoting healthy communities. Psychology has much to offer – as long as we take the right approach.
Psychology: an Objective Science, or hybrid of Philosophy and Empiricism?
The problems start almost immediately, in how many of us regard psychology as something we can do empirically, without much care or regard for philosophical thinking or critical assessment of the theoretical concepts we rely on. It is notable, for example, that a psychologist may earn their degree without ever taking a course in critical thinking, basic logic, or theory construction. Those who assert that psychology is a science, much like physics, chemistry, or medicine, suppose that we can be empirical and objective in how we study the human mind. However, the mind eludes objective study. For example, one cannot physically see a thought or feeling; and though behavior can be observed, the underlying motives or causes are often inferred.
We want to study the mind, but must rely on constructs, assumptions, and rational arguments to hypothesize how it works. We thus begin with a conceptual definition of the mind. This may only start as an informal sketch: by accepting certain ideas, intuitive arguments, terminologies, and meanings. However, it can also begin as a more formalized theory, such as when psychologists borrow those developed by philosophers.
In either case, the conceptual definitions effectively provide a blueprint: implicit instructions that allow researchers to selectively identify particular objects, events, or processes, as meaningful. Anything that does not fit within the theoretical lens is deemed irrelevant or unimportant.
Theory constrains how we select data, offers a frame for its subsequent interpretation, and ultimately justifies what we call ‘evidence.’ Without some key conceptual commitments or theoretical assumptions, our experimental studies (not to be confused with an empirical study) could not even get off the ground.
Those who claim that the social sciences involve an accumulation of ‘objective evidence,’ would also have to explain how two researchers, working from different sets of theoretical assumptions, can disagree not only about what they see, but even what should be considered evidence. This does not mean that evidence accumulated within the social sciences is entirely subjective; only to say that it is theory-dependent. This should be abundantly clear once one recalls that ‘the evidence’ is incapable of ‘speaking for itself.’ Theory is the necessary prosthetic that gives meaning to our experimental data and justification for what we call ‘evidence.’
From this, follows a sobering conclusion: our confidence in the evidence can only be as good as the soundness of our theories – which in turn comprise certain conceptual commitments (often imbedded in specialized terminologies) and rational arguments for justifying those commitments. Assumptions and reasons are not objective facts; they can be challenged by logic and rational argument. We need philosophy and critical thinking because good psychology is arguably a hybrid of rationalism and empirical science, and because we frequently take sides on philosophical matters. Also note that the primary object of psychology is human subjectivity (i.e. consciousness) – something that a stand-alone empiricism is helpless to explain.
The alternative position involves uncritical adherence to a theory and its underlying assumptions. Our theory, which could be tainted by logical errors or problematic assumptions, creates a distorted lens. This lens is reinforced by our conceptual community, its nested assumptions, web of interrelated ideas, specialized books and jargon, and a self-reinforcing literature that seldom points to papers or studies outside of its narrowly-defined reality focus. This is the path toward scientism.
“A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably” – Wittgenstein
All of these factors cause us to feel more certain of our position than we have any right to be. The theory is never questioned, which may unknowingly cause us to move further from the objective reality we were trying to approximate. Subsequent research and accumulation of ‘evidence’ is believed to offer further support for our theory and its underlying assumptions, while it may only serve to reinforce an inaccurate image of the world, and of ourselves.
Megatrends in Mainstream Psychology
Cognitive psychologists will talk of the human mind as if it were a kind of computer: processing information or environmental stimuli (inputs), according to various algorithms to create a given behavior (output). The task of the cognitive psychologist is to infer the representational nature of the computational algorithms that explain the causal relationship between inputs and outputs.
In certain contexts, the computer comparison is arguably appropriate, and perhaps even insightful. But it is generally a poor metaphor for the human mind. Human cognition often involves self-conscious activity; we are experientially present when engaged in the task of thinking (i.e. processing); thinking is furthermore intentional and is often utilized by the subjective agent for their own ends and purposes (Tallis, 1999).
The computer, in contrast, has no agentive self that is actively present, nor is it in possession of a subjective awareness that must be attentively directed to the task at hand; it does not author its actions; it does not choose what it ‘processes’ – it is held hostage to the will of the humans who programmed it. The computer is in this sense passive; events happen to it; it is not aware of the meaning of these events, and is incapable of holding beliefs that could be construed as being in any way personal… that is, in any way that it could really matter to the computer (Tallis, 1999). Computers do not process information like people. Information is created by people (subjective agents), who are in turn capable of being ‘knowingly informed.’ Computers arguably lack this capacity; or else it must be convincingly shown how the analogy might somehow hold.
Evolutionary psychologists share many of the beliefs held by the cognitive psychologists, with the additional assumption that our computational algorithms are a product of natural or sexual selection.
“Evolutionary psychologists suggest that the human mind is a complex integrated assembly of many functionally specialized psychological adaptations… Psychological adaptations are information-processing circuits that take in delimited units of information and transform that information into functional output designed to solve a particular adaptive problem (Confer et al., 2010).”
Evolutionary psychologists thus claim that a huge swath of human behavior can be causally explained by evolved adaptations – everything from specific fears, to artistic and literary preferences, to cultural trends.
I have spent a lot of time dissecting evolutionary psychology on this blog (see here and here). One issue involves the fact that evolutionary psychologists cannot see a theoretical alternative that is consistent with us being a product of evolution. Critics are thus framed as closet creationists, blank-slate theorists, or cultural relativists – they allow little room for theoretical nuance. However, the argument is not about whether genes and environment have important points of interaction, or explanatory value in certain contexts, but rather how they are hypothesized to interact, and what if any causal explanation we owe to them in a given context.
In earlier writings, I argued that it is wrong for evolutionary psychologists to use instances of evolved structures within the lower-level nervous system (e.g. pain reflex), and apply it by analogy to suggest that the rest of the nervous system works the same way, such that evolved mechanisms might similarly explain artistic preferences, cultural trends, politics, and so on. The first kind of process involves objective causal mechanisms, whereas the latter entail higher-order symbolic meanings, which are only possible through human subjectivity, agency, and reason. Human consciousness and its effects are supported by objective mechanisms; however, they nonetheless transcend them, such that the mechanisms themselves provide little insight into explaining the actions of persons.
So a crucial question, at least for me, is how evolutionary psychologists construe the rational agent. They appear to focus almost exclusively on how objective biological mechanisms must causally explain so much of what we do. This has the effect of displacing or minimizing the causal-explanatory force of the subjective human agent, or the borrowed (pluralistic) intentionality or effects of other agents, as might exist, for example, in our collective cultures – at least for those who believe that people (as opposed to objective gene-environment interactions) create culture. In my estimation, evolutionary psychologists fail to grasp the concept of personhood: an argument that I made in my last publication.
Additional Megatrends in Mainstream Psychology
The issues involving computer metaphors and evolved biological mechanisms, if taken too seriously, are bound to lead us down a rabbit hole of dead-ends, tiny doors, and distorted mirrors. But our conceptual confusion also expands beyond experimental psychology and into clinical or applied settings. Nowhere is this more apparent, than in the history of ideas surrounding what constitutes a mental disorder. The most recent trend in erroneous thought is the notion, commonly held by psychologists and psychiatrists, that mental disorders are brain disorders.
“The symptoms of mental illness are a result of abnormal brain functioning. Mental illness is a brain disorder” – Dr. Stan Kutcher and Dr. Sonia Chehil
Many of us talk about Major Depressions and Generalized Anxieties as the mental equivalent of herpes and chickenpox, even though the former, unlike the latter, are based on symptoms that have no distinguishing physical causes, or even a unified theory of explanation, beyond the vague and mysterious notion of a ‘chemical imbalance’ promoted by Big Pharma to maximize consumer buy-in and corporate profits. Many laypersons may indeed be surprised to hear that the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), is only a consensus-based descriptive method for categorizing clusters of subjectively-experienced symptoms; it is atheoretical, and therefore makes no unifying claims regarding explanatory causation, though it wrongly implies that it is capable of identifying the presence of an actual disease.
Mental illnesses are quite unlike physical illnesses. Physical diseases are based on pathophysiology, irrespective of subjective experience. For example, my doctor may convince me that I may be terminally ill, by showing me a CT scan demonstrating a tumor impinging on my brain – and he would successfully persuade me – even though I report feeling absolutely fine. There are no similar tests for mental illnesses, because they are primarily defined by their subjective experience. To be clear, no blood test is going to convince me that I am depressed, while my subjective mood is that of contentment or even happiness.
There are important consequences of this way of thinking. Once you separate the conscious subject from their objective body, or effectively claim to reduce the person and their problems to it, you will lose sight of all the important ways that the causes of mental illnesses extend beyond the individual sufferer’s corporeal body.
For example, when a young girl enters my office due to restrictive eating (anorexia), the causes will involve more than what’s in her head, in terms of deficient neurochemistry – her issues may have arisen out of a desperate need for control in a family environment that is intrusive an overbearing; it may be about feeling unloved or needing to be perfect because her parents are not good at showing affection; it involve a host of things related to her larger peer and school environment. When we label the person or their brain as disordered, we treat the solitary person as pathological, and fail to have important conversations about the larger network of relationships within the person’s life.
When we construe an individual’s problems in terms of brain pathology, we effectively decontextualize the person, which has the consequence of limiting treatment to generalized or context-insensitive treatments. A perfect example of this is the Cognitive Behavioral Therapist who treats everyone presenting with anxiety in the same way. They may not be able to recognize that in many cases, the anxiety is a symptom of some unresolved issue in this particular person’s life; they misconstrue the causal structure of the person’s problems. An alternative approach is one that focuses not on DSM diagnosis, but rather clinical formulation within the context of the specific individual (Pilgrim, 2014). The question asked by the psychologist, changes from: “Based on their symptoms, what diagnosis do they have?” to “Why is this particular person, at this particular time in their life, struggling with these particular problems?”
It seems to me that some psychologists and psychiatrists cling to the ‘brain-disease’ model of mental illness due to the misguided belief that it reduces stigma. Their argument seems to go like this: mental disorders are just like physical diseases, which entail brain abnormalities or imbalances, and since a person cannot help what physical diseases they suffer from, they should not be a target of critical judgment or discrimination. Their call to action seems to say, based on the anti-stigma literature focusing on brain disorders, that stigma would be reduced if only more people were aware of the fact that mental disorders are physical brain disorders. Most will go on to stress the prevalence (1 in 5), and importance of diagnostic screening to catch these diseases before they worsen.
However, even if anti-stigma campaigns were shown to benefit by promoting a medical model of mental illness, as already discussed, there is simply no logical or empirical basis to it. Moreover, recent research suggests that anti-stigma campaigns emphasizing the biological nature of mental illnesses have not been effective, and actually make matters worse (Cheek, 2012).
Most of the research continues to support a bio-psycho-social model; recent trends to promote a bio-bio-bio model, are at best misguided, and at worst, potentially harmful. It is a dead-end to think that the mind is reducible to the brain – something I have written about in previous posts (see here and here).
Future Directions for Psychology to Remain Relevant
So what can psychologists do to help steer our profession in a direction that remains relevant? I think we need to recognize that psychology, if it is to remain credible, and insofar as it wants to account for the subjective mental life of human beings, cannot restrict itself to a hard-line empiricist approach or reductive strategy.
Good psychology might entail a hybrid scientist who is well trained in points of philosophical intersection and respect boundaries between the first person subject and the third person world of objects. A person involves both. I think we need to retrace our steps back to Descartes and recover the first person conscious agent and being (ontology) as something that comes before, and serves as the ground for, objective knowledge (epistemology). Other psychologists appear to be similarly advocating for a partial turn – back to our philosophical roots (Pilgrim, 2014).
Humans cannot be fully understood by investigating underlying physiology or cause-effect explanatory mechanisms. We defy reductive accounts because of the unique perspective that arises with sustained self-awareness and agency that allows us to actively remember and learn from the past, imagine the future, entertain possibilities, and deliberately act in the service of our subjective goals. Personhood entails possession of an ontological, first-person consciousness, which cannot be explained by a third-person (or person-less) empiricist methodology.
The kind of consciousness we possess has moved beyond mere sentience and awareness/perception, to a capacity for sustained self-awareness, higher-order intentionality, metacognition, and levels of symbolic representation, abstract thought, explicit understanding, and jointly accumulated knowledge. The mental life of human beings is physically embodied, embedded in the world around us, and extended into a community of other subjective minds. We jointly create symbolic meanings that give our lives purpose, and they transcend the underlying mechanisms that make them possible.
Through these online essays I have tried to recover a uniquely existential, subjective, or first-person mode of being – for example, the role of subjective consciousness in the creation of art, in contrast to the third-person world of causal objects elucidated by science (see here). I have also written extensively about how our sustained capacity for self-awareness creates opportunities for us to contemplate the nature of our own existence. It is an uncomfortable path to take. Lucid reason, if followed, leads us into a blind alley, and a nauseating confrontation with the absurd (see here, here, and here).
We are meaning-hungry creatures thrown into a world that has none to offer us. Throughout history we have projected our existential needs into reified symbols and myths that have become embedded into our cultures. Our collective values give us prescriptions to live by, though they are illusionary models that offer a false sense of absolute meaning, stability, and unity; we happily sacrifice our rationality for peace of mind. These are inauthentic forms of rebellion, false hero projects, or defunct meaning systems. Most can identify religion as the quintessential example. But it goes much further. For example, I have argued that one can even find them, somewhat ironically, among militant atheists, and within certain streams of evolutionary thought (e.g. Universal Darwinism).
An alternative path is one of tension – finding the balance between unrealistic hope (absolute meaning) and nihilistic despair (absolute negation); our existential revolt must remain consistent with what reason has uncovered.
To live with the absurd is to rebel, but in a way that does not deny its terms. We reject its complacencies while staying true to its exigencies. This may be done through acts of artistic creation, or in ways that defend some jointly created value. I argued, for example, that human altruism is unique among the animals, involving a rebellious effort to defend some universal value; and as long as it is consistent with the terms of the absurd, it is perhaps an exemplar expression of authentic revolt against our existential predicament, and a turn away from nihilism.
Of course, with self-awareness comes agency – they are a twin birth. Free will is not an illusion, but something possessed by persons. However, as is the case with awareness itself, freedom is also a burden. This involves the burden to create, determine, and choose – individually and collectively – the values and meanings that give justification and purpose to the act of living. If a discipline such as psychology is to fully grasp its subject matter – the subjective nature of personhood – it will have to deal with these various issues.
So that’s it. So Long for Now
This website was a way for me to test my writing skills as well as some ideas. I enjoyed it very much, but it will be some time before I return. The reasons are entirely practical: I have a young family and a clinical practice to run. Time is short, as they say.
For those who are interested in some of the things I’ve been drawing attention to on this blog, I would recommend exploring almost anything by Raymond Tallis. A good point of entry would be The Explicit Animal: A Defense of Human Consciousness (1999). I don’t think there is a more powerful case against the computer metaphor for consciousness, or in drawing uncritical comparisons between humans and non-human animals. If you make it through this book, read his amazing trilogy: The Hand (2003), I Am (2004), and The Knowing Animal (2005). These books have yet to receive the attention they deserve. Tallis has deepened my thinking on everything from determinism and causation, to consciousness and first-person being. I cannot say enough good things about the quality of his work.
If Tallis is not your cup of Tea, I strongly recommend checking out Corey Anton. He seems to have a phenomenal grasp of both the empirical and philosophical issues involved in exploring human consciousness and agency – something too important for psychology to ignore. In my view he is one of the most brilliant academics on YouTube; Corey’s channel is certainly worth watching. Some of his papers are also readily available online.
I’d also recommend checking out Kenan Malik – his book Man, Beast, and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot tell us About Human Nature (2002), is perhaps most relevant to the content of this website, but I also provided a strong review of his book Strange Fruit: Why Both Sides are Wrong in the Race Debate (2009). Malik’s most recent book, The Quest for a Moral Compass (2014) has also received strong reviews and is worth checking out. Here is a link to his blog, Pandaemonium.
For those who are interested in following some of my other writing, especially as they relate to clinical psychology, you may want to visit my practice website: Cornerstone Psychological Services, and especially our mental health blog. Here are some recent articles I’ve written:
You may also want to visit our YouTube channel, where I will post some short video introductions on a series of mental health related topics.
For now, the plan is to keep this site alive and revisit it at some point in the future. I want to sincerely thank my subscribers for following my little blog. I am also appreciative of those who took the time to comment on my essays, or engage in some friendly debate about the range of topics that I am passionate about. All the best!
Cheek, J. (2012). Myth: reframing mental illness as a ‘brain disease’ reduces stigma. Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement, June 4, 2012.
Confer, J., Easton, J., Fleischman, C., Lewis, D., Perilloux, C., & Buss, D. (2010). Evolutionary psychology: Controversies, questions, prospects, and limitations. American Psychologist, 65(2), 110-126.
Deacon, T. (1997). The symbolic species: the co-evolution of language and the brain. New York, NY: WW. Norton.
Malik, K. (2002). Man, beast, and zombie: What science can and cannot tell us about human nature. London, UK: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Peters, B. (2014). Evolutionary Psychology, design reification, and the denial of personhood – a reply to Klasios. Theory and Psychology, 24(1), 135-144.
Pilgrim, D. (2014). Influencing mental health policy and planning: DSM-5 as a disciplinary challenge for psychology. Review of General Psychology, 18(4), 293-301.
Tallis, R. (1999). The explicit animal: A defense of human consciousness (original 1991). Basignstoke: Macmillan.