Observer Forum

The Source of Mental Life

In “Worse Than Creationism” [Observer, October 2005], Paul Bloom spoke out against dualism. It was a terrific column, it was brave, but it is also a worry. If, as Bloom states, creationism has a “better-adapted descendent, intelligent design,” so too may dualism. The descendent may be our version of vitalism: the psychological brain — not the literal brain, of course, but a putatively self-actional biological organ. Bloom says just so: “Science tells us that the brain is the source of mental life” and that “a physical thing [the brain] can give rise to conscious experience.” This may be common sense in psychology today, but to reduce psychology to biology is as arguable as it is fashionable. An alternative is that mental life, like biological life, is constructed through contingency — the transaction of biology, behavior, and environment over time — in this case, through the ontogenesis of human action. If so, then attributing the complexity of this developmental system to any one transactant — for instance, the brain — smacks of “intelligent design.” This is symptomatic of our latent dualism and not helpful in understanding human behavior in everyday life. It’s looking for love in the wrong places.

Edward K. Morris
University of Kansas

Paul Bloom Responds:

I appreciate Edward Morris’ very kind comments about my column, but I have to disagree with his analogies. He might be right that some aspects of mental life emerge through the interaction of biology, behavior, and environment, perhaps through a process similar to evolution by natural selection. But there is no reason to expect development and evolution to work in the same manner, and so there is nothing scientifically dubious about the alternative theory that a lot of complexity is there from the very start.

This is uncontroversial for other aspects of human nature — presumably Dr. Morris does not doubt that humans and other animals possess intricate innate immune systems, and he would not accuse immunologists of latent dualism, flirting with intelligent design, or looking for love in all the wrong places.

Why should psychology be any different?

Creationism, Consciousness, Faith, and Reason

I agree with Paul Bloom (2005) in “Worse than Creationism” (now called Intelligent Design in order to pretend it is not based on religion) regarding the invalidity of Cartesian dualism. But why do so many people hold to this view? I do not think it is the reason Richard Dawkins gives, paraphrased by Bloom, as “the human mind is designed to misunderstand evolution.” We are not born with actual ideas. I think there are three main reasons why people are drawn to Creationism (and its religious base).

The first is the belief that science necessitates materialism, the doctrine that only physical matter exists. This view is held by many scientists, but I believe it to be mistaken. Consciousness, the faculty of awareness, depends on the existence of a brain but is not reducible to it. As Dr. Bloom implies, consciousness is some sort of emergent property of a certain type advanced brain structure, and we don’t yet know how that works. But it is self-evident that consciousness and matter are different (Peikoff, 1982). Consciousness is not mystical or supernatural, but it is suigeneris.

The second reason is that materialism implies psychological determinism, which wipes out the possibility of ethics. However, the doctrine of determinism commits the fallacy of self-exclusion. If all our beliefs are forced on us, then so is the belief in determinism. Thus we could only say, “My heredity and environment forced me to emit these words sounds”—thus reducing man to a robot. This would destroy the possibility of all knowledge (Binswanger, 1991).

The alternative to determinism is not indeterminism (randomness) but volition. Volition (free will) is the choice to utilize one’s rational faculty—or not (Binswanger, 1991). Rationality is not uncaused but self-caused. It means choosing to focus one’s mind above the level the perceptually given, integrating one’s percepts into concepts and concepts into principles (Peikoff, 1991). Volition enables people to create their own moral character.

The third reason that religionists embrace Creationism is that they believe that faith (which reduces to feelings) and not reason is the key tool of knowledge. But it is only through reason (and the senses) that one gains knowledge. However, reason does not operate effortlessly like so-called revelation. It acquires knowledge gradually. It took thousands of years to make the momentous discovery of evolution (and millions of other scientific discoveries); evolution is no more self-evident than is the existence of bacteria.

Even the concept of reason had to be discovered philosophically. It is thanks to the ancient Greeks (especially Aristotle) that the western Enlightenment, which reached its peak in the 18th century, took place. Peikoff (1982, p. 109) quotes Elihu Palmer, an ardent advocate of the American enlightenment, “ ‘[I]t has hitherto been deemed a crime to think…’ he says but at last men have escaped from ‘the long and doleful night’ of Christian rule….’ At last men have grasped ‘the unlimited power of human reason’…. ‘Reason, which is the glory of our nature….’ Now, ‘a full scope must be given to the operation of intellectual powers, and man must feel an unqualified confidence in his own energies.’”

When confronted with scientific evidence, people have a volitional choice. They can look at the facts of reality and the logic of the conclusions drawn from them and adjust their beliefs accordingly or they can refuse to think and evade the evidence. This is what the religionists do—and advocate Intelligent Design based on no evidence at all.

Why didn’t the Enlightenment win a permanent victory? Because at the point of triumph philosophers began to attack reason. Ever since Hume and Kant, philosophy has been dominated by skepticism, reaching its own dead end in postmodernism (which amounts to nihilism). Everyone needs a philosophy to guide their choices and actions. When confronted with a choice between nothing and religion (which at least claims to offer a philosophy), we should not be surprised when the man in the street chooses religion.

Creationism represents a regression from enlightenment thought to medievalism–the result of centuries of assault on the rational faculty. Those of us who are committed to reason and science must fight for it with all our power. In philosophy, there is only one absolute defender of reason today: Ayn Rand (Peikoff, 1991).

Edwin A. Locke
Emeritus, University of Maryland


  • Binswanger, H. (1991). Volition as cognitive self-regulation. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 50, 154-178.
  • Bloom, P. (2005, October) Worse than Creationism. APS Observer, 18(10), 5ff.
  • Peikoff, L. (1982). The ominous parallels: The end of freedom in America. New York: Stein & day.
  • Peikoff, L. (1991). Objectivism: The philosophy of Ayn Rand. New York: Dutton.

Science and Religion: Direct Opposites

In response to some articles on religion and science in the October 2005 issue of the Observer: it is a major error of reasoning to claim that the human science of psychology and religion with its faith-based tenets and mythological constructs are compatible. To do so is to be guilty of maintaining an untenable scientific position and a harmful human position. Supporting both as truth undermines both science and truth.

The tenets of science and those of religion are in direct opposition in both ideology and purpose. Individuals in the field of psychology must choose between science and mythology — between the pursuit of objective and reasoned truth and the irrational insistence on the veracity of a structure built upon irrational thinking, contradictory content, self-centered application, and socially destructive subjective beliefs.

Man chooses and applies beliefs and values as he would select food from a buffet to suit his changing appetite. It is the province of the profession of psychology to lead mankind to a healthful and beneficial set of values/principles — the further advancement and even the survival of mankind depends upon it.

From a psychological perspective, it is true that humans, as conscious conceptual beings, are believing entities. Psychological health is predicated on belief in one’s self and in one’s capacity to use one’s mind to know truth, to reason, to make accurate and beneficial judgments, etc. It is also true that man, as a social being, wants and needs to believe in something larger than himself. These beliefs and abilities are the basis of survival, mental health, community, human advancement of all kinds, and personal happiness and fulfillment. The object of man’s belief/faith in something larger than himself does not however have to be based on myth. It should also not be based on the fear caused through learned ignorance. It should rather be based on a set of universal ethical principles that are beneficial to all.

C. Franklin Truan
Troy State University

Articles on Religion ‘Scientifically Objectionable’

As a Charter Member of APS, I found the latest issue of the Observer [October 2005] scientifically objectionable. Scientifically, of course, there is no problem with studying religion; there is a problem with advocacy or proselytizing, -which I find these articles either do, are dangerously close to doing, or — worse yet — do by subtle implication. The two possible exceptions are the piece by Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman and the one by Paul Bloom.

The articles by Leshner, Myers, and Sokol, are scientifically “guilty” of the sin of commission, while the two by Jerome Kagan and Nancy Snidman and Paul Bloom commit sins of omission. The latter two scientifically cop out by skirting the issue and not taking a strong scientific stance. By giving religion such platforms — at the very least without including the “extremist atheists’” view — contributes not only to bootlegging religion into the science of psychology but also to the ushering in of a possible new dark age mentioned in a Science article that, ironically, Leshner cites. APS should not be giving its scientific imprimatur to fairy tales.

Robert E. Haskell
Emeritus, University of New England

Correlations Are Not Poor Relations

Scott O. Lilienfeld’s article [Observer, September 2005] had some useful advice on helping students to distinguish science from pseudoscience. More’s the pity then that he promulgates an unfortunately widespread pseudoscientific claim when he states that critical thinking skills instructors can impart include “distinguishing correlation from causation.”

“Correlations do not demonstrate causation” is a mantra instructors drum into the heads of students from introductory courses through graduate methods courses, and which is consequently perpetuated across generations. Unfortunately the mantra is at best a half truth — and that means it’s also a half lie. What is perhaps worse, is the misplaced confidence it gives those who chant it that they know something important. In fact, if you think about what causation means, the mantra should include both a qualification (which I’ll get to in a moment) and the corollary, “and nor do experiments in which plausible confounds have not been ruled out.”

The better introductory texts do tell students why the mantra needs chanting (the qualification I referred to, namely “if you have not ruled out reverse causation or the possibility of a third variable affecting both the correlated variables, you cannot be sure about what is causing what”) but I have yet to find one that informs students that if you can do that, and often that is feasible, you can be about as sure of causal relationships as you are with most experiments.

A time dimension often rules out the possibility that B caused A rather than A caused B – e.g., a correlation I remember from years ago between babies’ birth weights and their maternal grandfathers’ income. And this can serve also as a reasonable example of our ability to rule out, with some plausibility, a third variable (such as a common genetic basis for grandfathers’ income and grandchildren’s’ birth weight). True, there is a causal chain here, rather than a proximal cause, a chain that probably involves factors like income, maternal nutrition, and consequent reproductive competence, but is a causal chain. Isn’t this the way we discuss the “effect” of an independent variable (A) on some outcome (B) in an experiment, and reason that it is unlikely that a third variable (a confound) accounts for the changes in B? Why do we stop using our brains in this way when we have a correlation coefficient to think about, and resort to chanting instead?

I think closing our minds is due to our failure to consider what is meant by causation, and that we carry around a somewhat inexplicit notion that to say “A causes B” indicates that A is both a necessary and sufficient condition for B to occur. I doubt we can aspire to that kind of causation in psychology, since it can seldom be found even in physics and chemistry, and if we have learned anything about behavior it is that the same variable can cause a variety of outcomes and the same outcome can be due to a variety of causes.

In most cases we cannot claim that what we regard as a causal variable is either necessary or sufficient. In fact, we appear to recognize a causal relationship when we see that in the presence of a particular variable the probability of a certain outcome is increased and we have no reason to believe that both are dependent on a third variable. In other words, what we and even physicists mean we talk about causation is that in the presence of a certain variable a change in another variable is more likely – and we are confident that is the case in experimental data if we can exclude confounds and in correlational data if we can exclude reversal of direction or the effect of a third variable (a confound?) on the two correlated variables.

Correlations can indeed indicate causation, but we need more than a reflex response to them to show it.

Justin M. Joffe
University of Vermont

Patients Versus Clients

While I agree with the use of the term “patient” in the context of research, it makes sense to employ both terms (“patient” and “client”) in the context of treatment [‘Patients’ and ‘Clients,’ Observer, September 2005]. As is common in contemporary practice, the term “patient” is reserved for a person participating in interventions which are biological/somatic, while the term “client” is reserved for a person participating in interventions which are psychosocial and/or behavioral.

These terms, of course, are not mutually exclusive. This terminology serves the dual role of efficiently differentiating modes of treatment, while simultaneously preserving the distinction in professional roles occupied by psychiatrists and psychologists.

Andy Martinez
Community Support Network
Santa Rosa, California

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