Is Psychology really Scientific

Theories & Non-Theories of Mind


Immanuel Kant’s technique of transcendental reasoning has had considerable influence on the development of psychology as a science, most notably in the area of cognitive science. Although the implementation of this technique within psychology is by no means limited to this area, cognitive scientists have found it indispensable as a tool in the formation of theories that attempt to explain the mind, or more expressly, how the mind works. A sympathetic appraisal of transcendental reasoning as means by which non-observable mental processes can be studied might go so far as to propose that cognitive theorists are using a respectable method of reasoning to carefully and scientifically postulate their theories. A more critical position would be to describe this phenomenon as the perversion of a valid tool of reasoning into a means by which theorists can infer the existence of causal relationship, even in situations where there is no empirical evidence that such a relationship exists. In comparing the use of transcendental reasoning by Chomsky in developing his theory of nativist linguistics to the manner in which it is used by cognitive scientists, perhaps some conclusions can be drawn as to the scientific legitimacy of this technique, as pertaining to the study of the mind. By no means should this discussion be interpreted as an attack on transcendental reasoning as an investigative tool, nor should it be construed as a criticism of its use within the realms of psychology; rather, it should be read as cautionary review of the problems that arise from its misuse.

The Cognitive Non-Position

Flanagan (1999) asserts, and I believe rightfully so, that the recurring problem within psychology (referred to by Flanagan as the mind-brain problem), is either avoided entirely or skillfully skirted by much of cognitive science. This issue was the source of much criticism directed towards cognitive science, and more specifically, cognitive psychology, during the early stages of its development. B.F. Skinner was among the harshest of these critics, as he (and other proponents of observation-based psychology) found the tendency of cognitive psychologists to substitute speculation for observation unacceptable from a scientific point of view (Skinner, 1985). Skinner’s position is not without merit, as generally speaking, cognitive theorists tend to rely on non-observable explanatory links to connect the mind with behavior, if indeed they even feel it necessary to consider the mind-brain problem. As the field of cognitive science is considerably wide and contains numerous “factions,” it would seem inappropriate to discuss it as a single paradigm. However, for the purposes of this discussion, a division of the field into two parts (those who do not concern themselves with the mind-brain problem and those who do) seems suitable for discussing the characteristic manner(s) in which cognitive science utilizes transcendental reasoning. This division might also serve as a foundation on which to compare Chomsky’s use of transcendental reasoning in his theory of nativist linguistics, with its use in other areas of cognitive science.

Modern cognitive science is generally be viewed as having begun with the “human factors” studies that were conducted during World War II, which investigated the relationship between humans and machines. Since the time of these initial studies, computers have come to be viewed as an acceptable model via which the human brain might be understood. This is directly related to one of the main “excuses” cited by cognitive scientists to justify their dismissal of the mind-body problem; namely, the (predicted) ability of neuroscience to identify and replicate (using computers for both modeling and observational purposes) the function and structure of the human brain, as it relates to human behavior. While it is not inconceivable that concepts associated with the traditional notion of the mind, such as emotion, personality, and morality, might one day be paired to specific neurological phenomena, this does not solve the problem of cause. However, if the mind-body problem is transformed into the mind-brain problem, and the brain (through computers) is capable of providing precise information as to how a specific emotion, such as “love” is generated, then “love” can be explained by neurological phenomena. Hence, the mind (and traditional psychology along with it), can be explained into non-existence by the brain. This is precisely what proponents of reductionism and eliminativism propose. In order to assume these positions, transcendental reasoning is employed, but in a manner opposite the usual practice. Rather than infer the existence of a missing link in the causal chain due to the presence of observably related phenomena (in this case, “love” and the neurological processes associated with it), many cognitive scientists infer the that the mind is not an essential component of the process. The mind is simply subtracted from the causal equation based upon the presence of other factors. Another example of this would be to imagine oneself in a room where there is a computer, next to, which is a coat. Rather than inferring the existence of a person in order to explain the existence of these items, one might infer the non-existence of a person due to that person not being observably present in the room. One might then lock the door, and proceed to engage in careful observation of the items present, until at some point the items in question come to be viewed as being causally related based on what are, in actuality, circumstantial similarities generated by the confines of time and space. While this example might not appear plausible, it is in this manner that neuroscience will supplant the more traditional cognitive approaches; furthermore, it is in this manner that sociobiology might eventually supplant psychology.

It is important to note the nature of the examples given, which some might associate more with the British empiricists (most notably Hume) than with Kant. However, the strict empiricist is bound to conclude that no amount of observation regarding the room and its contents would yield any meaningful information as to cause, due to his assertion that causal meaning is not an inherent by-product of sensory perception. One must conclude that even the empiricists have been engaging in some type of inference all along, as is demonstrated by Locke’s postulation of the mind as tabula rosa (which briefly put, is arrived at through inference based on the evidence of human response to external stimuli). It is not so much that Kant invented the ideas involved in transcendental reasoning, rather that he provided an elegant and operationally valid defense of its use in matters concerned with causal explanation. In this light, reductionism and eliminativism can be seen as utilizing this Kant’s method of reasoning, as they are concerned to some degree with inferring causal explanations from available facts. On the other hand, they do not engage in transcendental reasoning in the manner that Kant intended, as they arrive at their respective positions by blurring the fine line between inference and assumption. These examples illustrate the necessity of careful judgment in approaching these problems, which underscores both the benefits and dangers of transcendental reasoning.

Transcendental Reasoning as the Connecting Thread Within Cognitive Science

Having dismissed (or resolved, depending on who one asks) the mind-body problem by the previously described assumptions regarding the materialist position as having been substantiated to an acceptable degree, cognitive science turns to a more traditional application of transcendental reasoning as a means of constructing theories. Unlike reductionism and eliminativsm, “mainstream” cognitive theorists (such as Piaget and Sternberg) are not concerned with eliminating their theoretical competition, but with providing plausible avenues by which human cognition might be better understood. This is in accordance with Kant’s intentions regarding transcendental reasoning, as individual contributions of plausible causal explanations will only serve to enrich the base of resources available for use in the study of the mind. Regarding the previous scenario involving the computer and coat, the proper application of transcendental reasoning (and the one utilized in the formation of theories such as those proposed by Piaget and Sternberg, as well as by Chomsky) might be represented by the following:

The computer and coat are in a room. The computer is not a coat, and a coat is not a computer, therefore we have two distinct entities, which are related by their position in time and space; how might this be explained? Proposition 1: The two items, in addition to being circumstantially linked, can be causally linked by the introduction of a person into the equation. It can be inferred that the coat is worn by the person who uses the computer. Proposition 2: More than one person is involved in the circumstantial relationship of these items, e.g. one person uses the computer, and another wears the coat. 3: Computers actual wear coats, but only when no one is around to observe them doing so.
In this manner, transcendental reasoning is the heart of cognitive science (as well as most other areas of modern psychology); as it is the means by which theorists construct their ideas. As such, the issue concerning transcendental reasoning within the field of cognitive psychology (assuming it has been properly employed) is no longer a matter of whether or not it is used, and how, but a question of what it is being used to support. This issue can be divided into two basic groups, the nativists (nature) and the empiricists (nurture), of which there are various sub-groups. One such sub-group is the Massachusetts Modularism program, which is founded upon Chomsky’s assertion that the mind consists of various domain-specific processors, an assertion which is facilitated by transcendental reasoning.

The position of Chomsky regarding the purpose of psychology is not very different from that Skinner; in fact, they are quite similar if one ignores that they represent complete opposite ends of the debate concerning what psychology should be concerned with as a science. Whereas Skinner asserted that observable behavior should be the focus of psychology, Chomsky asserts that psychology must concern itself with the study of the mind. In Chomsky’s opinion, behavior is merely the resulting evidence of mental operations at work, thus to elevate behavior to a position of supreme importance within psychology would be to confuse evidence with the subject matter. Put another way, it would be akin to confusing the sound resulting from a plucked string with the source of that sound, which is the string itself. Chomsky’s major contribution to cognitive psychology came via his research in linguistics, a field not closely associated with psychology before Chomsky’s revolutionary research. By means of transcendental reasoning, founded on available evidence and mathematical logic, Chomsky proposed that structuralist assumptions in the field of linguistics could not account for the ability displayed by even the least capable of children to acquire language; thus, he inferred the existence of a pre-existing (nativist) mental domain, specifically wired for language acquisition. While there are problems with Chomsky’s theory of nativist linguistics (for example the lack of emphasis on semantic meaning, as well as Chomsky’s reliance on circular explanation), this theory and the manner in which it was fashioned provide a good example of the intellectual progress that can be made using transcendental reasoning. While Chomsky’s theory may or may not prove true (though it is interesting, if not compelling, especially in that it seems to validate the theories of philosophers such as Descartes and Leibniz, who proposed the innateness of mind), it has succeeded in providing cognitive science with another question to consider in its struggle to attain a better understanding of the human mind.


As cognitive science continues to grow, both in general scope and in specific application, transcendental reasoning remains the best available method by which intellectual balance, as well as scientific integrity and might be sustained. The growth of sociobiology constitutes a very real threat to the survival of a psychology, as we know it, a threat that can only be defended against by a preservation of the diverse theories, both complimentary and contradictory, that psychology consists of. While the emphasis on scientifically valid methods of research should not be compromised, the application of transcendental reasoning in the formation and consideration of theories is an integral part of what has allowed western philosophy, and in turn, psychology, to remain a necessary science for as long as it has. Transcendental reasoning must be considered a valid and essential approach to the study of the mind, if human concepts such as dignity and freedom are to be preserved. The consequences of sociobiology becoming the only voice on matters such as these will be disastrous, and the use of psychology and philosophy as means by which individuals might improve the quality of their lives stands to be swallowed up the a wake of technological and scientific advancements. It is essential that psychology retain its “human” qualities, even if that means the co-existence of contradictory theories. Science has failed, in monumental fashion, to solve humanity’s problems; in many ways, it constitutes a much more dangerous threat to humanity than religion ever did, even in its most grotesque manifestations. As the original proposal of transcendental reasoning by Immanuel Kant marked and end to the intellectual standstill effected by the empiricists, so might it serve as a vehicle by which the “soft” sciences might remain “soft”, and thereby retain the dignity befitting a science concerned with attaining a better understanding of the human mind.



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