If a Realist tree falls in an Idealist forest…

This age old question has indeed puzzled me since I first heard it when I was around 10 years old. I found it fascinating to be stumped by such a simple question because it seemed to intuitively contain both a yes and no answer. 15 years later I understood why.

I have been mentoring Master students in Psychology over the past month in Philosophy of Science and Psychology. We have covered the basics of Idealism, Realism, Pragmatism, Positivism, Social Constructivism and all there is and more to these and other concepts. The most important question they’ve asked of me so far is probably ‘Why do we have to know this?’. I give my explanation to this in a quite simple manner, we get better at research and in life in general. Then I realised something else.

Most people I have ever met, has heard the question ‘If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to witness it, does it still make a sound? And how?’. I have never heard a satisfying answer, until I stumbled upon one myself (and I sure do hope I haven’t read it somewhere, forgot, and now commit to the attribution error).

Just like Qualia, the answer depends on how you believe things exist.

If you believe that there does exist a world independent of your mind (roughly, Realism), you can define ‘sound’ as air compressing and decompressing, and, that this is the only necessary characteristic of ‘sound’ to allow its existence. Then yes. It does make a sound. We can ‘know’ this because the conclusion logically and necessarily follows both from the premise of our definition of sound as well as with the laws of physics.

If you however believe that there does not exist a world independent of your mind (roughly, Idealism), you can define ‘sound’ as sense data, and, that this is a necessary characteristic of ‘sound’ to allow its existence. Then no. It does not make a sound. We can ‘know’ this because the necessary condition following from our premise of our definition of sound is not met.

Or so I, amongst other examples, exemplify how philosophy can solve conundrums -let alone find and define logical and practical issues and weaknesses in our cognitive efforts in research and real life. Then I go on to say, but if the esteemed lecturers or the book says any different, then you should trust them (and not only for obvious reasons, but) -if philosophy teaches me anything, then it teaches me how little I can know (so if you are holding non-truths about the world -don’t blame me!).

Between science(s) and (a) hard place(s)

Was reading a post on Psychology Today by Jonathan Wai and was displeased to note the stereotypic view coming from a physics major, alias ‘Order’. While I shared my opinion on his comment, I decided I would like to share a simplistic view on this. Anyone more interested in the dividing of the sciences should take a course/read up on philosophy of science -very interesting indeed!

Why does the hierarchy exist at all? Well, the first reason would be chronological order of fields introduced in Western universities (an arbitrary reason). The second, comes from the philosophical viewpoint of Positivism -something that has been central to research within (mainly) Physics, Chemistry and Biology. When psychology started establishing itself as a solitary field, (around the 1880s/90s with Wundt/James/Hall establishing psychology laboratories) the view of a “researcher” as a general concept, was one of high dignification, as well as the rigor and high regard for positivistic science. Already here psychology decided to borrow from existing sciences to increase its credibility. Psychology copied its philosophical underpinnings (positivism), physical look (for example, introducing white lab coats for psychologists/experimenters to mimic MDs), calling participants subjects (because they were being ‘subject’ed to a process, as well as, creating a power-relation between researchER and researchEE) and other (what would seem like) details in procedure and analysis. This, I believe was a misstep like no other, because, in my opinion psychology does not strictly live up to all the positivist ideals. I can go into this in excruciating detail, but will refrain unless asked [Or see my post ‘Nonsense.’ for a short intro].

I do not believe you can force a numerical structure on something that we can barely define yet. How is ’emotion’ defined? Differently in nearly every research report about it (yes, yes, there are two general ideas about the concept, but I’m keeping this simple). The point is that it does not have a generally agreed upon experimental definition. Then how are we supposed to measure quantitatively its properties? Here, hard sciences usually lobby the; “ha! Told you they weren’t a real science, they don’t even know what they are studying!”. And this is where I claim psychology is misunderstood. What is science? Exploring the physical world, gaining an understanding of how it works. So just because psychology hasn’t yet defined all the properties within its field, it isn’t a science? Isn’t the argument the opposite? _Because_ we are, probably more so than most fields, trying to get to definitions, experimenting on flawed existing ones to make them better, and so on, should Psychology not be seen as a frontier for science?

Method. We have a hard time controlling for extraneous variables, indeed we do. Randomisation is a good help but it doesn’t cover every single bias in every single experiment published. This is in my opinion, one of the most important flaws to be aware of in psychological science. Not too seldomly, the most pressing biases for the given experiment isn’t controlled for, isn’t discussed or in any other way documented. This gives rise to the retrospective, I-got-a-significant-result-with-a-decent-effect-but-was-it-really-the-intervention-that-caused-it, question.. (..yes that was a terribly worded and awkward sentence). It is right of everyone, from any field, to critici{s/z}e psychological experiments on the grounds of bias or uncontrolled for variables -because it leads to better experiments, better defined concepts, more rigorous methods and more reliable results. But. It is wrong to dismiss psychological experimenting like a naughty child _because we can’t do better_! Yes we can! (Bob the Builder, retrieved 10:57, 18th of June 2012)

An example, by the way, of why I call these opinions simplistic. Just within psychology, we have a broad range of subfields, for example neuropsychology, and it is able to and does follow positivistic philosophy more closely than for example social psychology. It more closely resembles biology and chemistry, and often rely on those fields for answering parts of the questions posed. In either case, there are more arguments, more detailed arguments and the issue is far more complex than what the above may make it seem like.