The Unpredictability of Human Behavior

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When you think of mental illness, is this what...

When you think of mental illness, is this what you see? (Photo credit: JenXer)

Some of the comments on Internet discussion boards suggest that mental health professionals should have been able to tell that Adam Lanza was dangerous and that they should have had him detained at a mental health facility. Such statements reflect a fundamental ignorance about the nature of mental illness and the predictability of human behavior. There are a few–and only a few–cases in which mental health professionals can be reasonably certain that a person will break the law and/or harm another person. Pedophiles are notoriously difficult to treat–it is well known that their recidivism rate is high. Psychopaths, who lack empathy, often hurt people, although most do not become murderers. A person known to have a violent temper who has behaved violently all his life is likely to engage in violent behavior again. However, in most cases of mental illness, no one can predict with any degree of accuracy whether or not a person will engage in violent behavior. The vast majority of mentally ill individuals, even those with psychotic conditions such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, never engage in violent behavior. Even a paranoid schizophrenic who is aware of his condition and realizes that any hallucinations he has are not real may not be at serious risk for violent behavior. Sometimes “normal” people engage in terrible acts of violence, such as a North Carolina man a few years ago who, without warning, beheaded his eight-year-old son. To say that psychologists and psychiatrists and others around Mr. Lanza should have predicted that he would become violent is both unrealistic and ignorant. Mental health professionals cannot read people’s minds. There are many unusual or quiet individuals who do not fit into society’s pigeon holes of normality, and almost all of them will lead peaceful lives. On the other hand, someone who robs and murders multiple people over a period of time may do so without any sign of mental illness per se.

Eccentrics often are the most creative people in a society–Beethoven, Einstein, Thelonious Monk–all were eccentric people who made incredible contributions to science and to music. To say that people who are different or who have certain “mental disorders” should be locked up because of an alleged potential for violence is a view that is not based on facts. Americans want predictability, want order–they want reality to fit into a pigeonhole. Evil actions are often what philosophers call a “surd,” something that cannot be explained. How can someone, without getting into Mr. Lanza’s mind, have possibly known he was going to commit such an act. If his mother had heard him brag about specific violent acts, then there would a problem, but thus far, there is little evidence of that occurring. These murders point out the limits of human knowledge, limits that people do not want to acknowledge–and such a failure to acknowledge limits is used to justify stereotyping the mentally ill (including, as I noted in my previous post, people with Asperger’s Syndrome) as violent. People should do good research before expression opinions that are both wrong and potentially subversive to the rights of entire classes of people.

Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists

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English: John Watson, founder of American beha...

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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.