Modern Psychology

Nick Williams
7 min readMay 21, 2024

Modern psychology is like an experiment gone wrong. There’s no such thing as ‘an experiment gone wrong’ really, of course; when we don’t have a hidden agenda to prove that our hypothesis is correct (which wouldn’t be very scientific) there is no such thing as a ‘negative result’ as far as experimentation goes. From a more mundane (which is to say, human) perspective however, things can certainly go badly amiss. If we were to inadvertently engineer a virus that wipes out the entire human race then some might say that this would be a good example of ‘an experiment gone wrong’! If we were to look at the discipline of psychology as ‘an experiment’ then we could say that our hypothesis is that it is possible to understand the workings of the psyche in a strictly rational way. This is a perfectly good hypothesis to test out, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that it won’t show itself to be utter nonsense (in the fullness of time).

Rationality is without question ‘the right man for the job’ when it’s machines that we’re talking about; it is however no good at all when it comes to anything that isn’t a machine. It’s not just that the rational mode ‘isn’t useful’ in this case (which it isn’t) but that it will deceive us because the assumption that what is being investigated ‘is a machine’ will get through the front door, so to speak, without us ever noticing it do so. This ‘big fat assumption’ will slip by the conscious mind without us knowing it and once that happens nothing we say will be worth anything. There’s no ‘being scientific’ when we take no interest in any assumptions that might have been made along the way. What we see may seem to make perfectly good sense by everyone who has made the same assumption, but that — of course — doesn’t actually mean a thing! All this means is that we are now participating in a collusion — we’re now members of a club and the club that we are members of doesn’t confer any advantages other than the undoubted comfort (and security) that there is in ‘being in a club’. When we’re in a club then ‘everyone agrees with everyone else’ and that feels good!

This is one of the key characteristics of a machine — that very big assumptions have been made without any mention ever being made of the fact. This probably wouldn’t be the first definition of a machine that would come to us but it’s a useful one all the same. Unless the designer of a machine makes a whopping great assumption (and then works away in complete ignorance of what has been so blithely assumed) then there can be no machine. When we talk about ‘making a whopping great assumption and then continuing on the basis that we haven’t done so’ then what we’re talking about is specificity of function — in the case of a can-opener (for example) the assumption that is being made is that opening cans is the supremely important task and that nothing else matters. The instrument or device in question functions perfectly with regard to the task that has been specified, but not at all in relation to anything else. Were we to try to keep all options open with regard to function (and not put all our money on a particular function) then what we would end up with wouldn’t be a can-opener. It wouldn’t be any kind of machine (or ‘tool’) in this case — a machine has to have a specific function in order to be a machine, obviously enough!

In one way this may seem ‘all very obvious and not worth making a big deal about ‘— of course there can’t be any such thing as a machine that can perform all possible functions (and yet which is not specialised in any of them). This goes without saying, we might argue — naturally a machine has to be specialised in order to be a machine. What we are getting at here however is the all-important distinction between ‘directed’ and ‘spontaneous’ action. As distinctions go, there simply isn’t a bigger one than this — it’s not just ‘a’ fundamental distinction to make, it is THE fundamental distinction. All things either move towards an energetic resting place or away from it. A good way to get to grips with what we’re talking about here is to think in terms of <adaptiveness> versus <non-adaptedness>, <equilibrium-seeking behaviour> versus <non-equilibrium-seeking behaviour> (or — we might also say - ‘fitting in’ versus ‘not fitting in’).

To adapt to a specific environment is to lose information — in adaptation we are moving towards an equilibrium state and anything unrelated to the task of fitting in (the task of ‘approximating the equilibrium value’) is dispensed with immediately as being worthless, as being unimportant. Anything irrelevant is automatically gotten rid of as being error. Optimization of function is quintessentially ‘machine-type stuff’ — optimization of function is what makes the machine be a machine (and not something else). A more colloquial way of putting this is to say that being a machine is all about being absolutely and irredeemably narrow, absolutely and irredeemably rigid — take a machine away from the environment which it is adapted to and it becomes 100% useless, 100% pointless. To (loosely) paraphrase William Gibson — ‘Too much specificity breeds redundancy.’ Machines are only good for doing what they are designed to do, in other words; a machine’s task is it’s raison d’etre. Robert Wyatt puts it rather more lyrically when he asks, “What is a soldier without a foe?”

A machine is a type of thing that only makes sense within a very particular context, therefore; it only makes sense or has value because of the function which it serves. It’s not worth anything ‘in itself’, in other words. No one would buy (or give any space to) a machine that doesn’t do anything - a machine has extrinsic rather than intrinsic value, we might say. We hardly need spend too much time pointing out that it’s not a particularly great thing to adopt a system of thinking that relegates humankind to the position of being mere machines therefore, but this is nevertheless what the unwise application of rationality inevitably does, however. Rationality does not recognise the notion of ‘intrinsic value’. It can’t recognize intrinsic value because of the way in which it works — the ‘way in which it works’ being to understand (or measure) one thing in terms of another.

Everything is seen in terms of the ‘overarching framework’, which means therefore that ‘everything is a ratio of everything else’. This is the definition of a logical continuum and — therefore — of what David Bohm refers to us the System of Thought. Anything that doesn’t make sense within the terms of this (overvalent) frame of reference gets to be ignored and what this basically means is that our way of understanding that world is ‘predicated upon bias’ (or, ‘predicated upon ignorance the existence of which we stubbornly refuse to admit’). A less fancy way of putting this would be to say that the rational mind is always prejudiced! Rationality is inescapably prejudiced against admitting that there might be some aspect of reality that is radically different (or ‘discontinuous’) to what it assumes it already knows about.

Admitting this is something thought just can’t doit can’t give any credence at all to anything that doesn’t follow on logically from the assumptions that it has had to make in order to be able to function at all. It doesn’t just ‘not give any credence to the radically unknown’ — it is unashamedly hostile to such a notion. Anything that doesn’t fit in with its frame of reference is automatically labelled as an error (which is to say, ‘a threat to the system’). This leads to the well-known tendency of the rational mind to always try to ‘explain everything away’, which isn’t — when it comes down to it — at all healthy! Being biassed to approve of our own brand of order (and rubbish anything that challenges it) is very far indeed from ‘being healthy’. It is — we might say — downright pathological. Unbridled rationality is always pathological, loathe as we are to see this. It’s ‘pathological’ because it throws away what it can’t understand. We can quote psychologist and philosopher William James — referred to by Wikipedia as ‘The Father of American Psychology’ — in this connection –

Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox’s discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle’s organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental over-tensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover.

William James may be considered the father of American psychology, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that he would approve of how his ‘offspring’ have conducted themselves! This would seem highly unlikely, given that modern psychology — in its attempt to validate itself as ‘a science’ — has unconditionally opted to go down the ‘exclusively rational route’. The ‘gaze’ of contemporary psychology (so to speak) has become essentially dehumanising, just as anything exclusively rational is bound to. Because of our unacknowledged need for ‘security’, however, we simply cannot bring ourselves to see this…

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