Psychology as a Natural Science. Part II: Theory

Psychology begins by identifying, observing and taking measures of natural phenomena that can be investigated experimentally and then modelling the findings using theories. Identification of natural phenomena requires terminology and definitions to refer to the same set of psychological processes. Unfortunately, as noted by others, scholars often use such terms in diverse and idiosyncratic ways which has led to a state of “conceptual and definitional chaos” (Buck, 1990, p. 330). Different phenomena and different schools working from different foundations share little or no common theoretical concepts, experimental techniques, or phenomenal entities to work on. This lack of consensus has led to a multitude of empirical papers reporting data as ‘facts’ and near-random fact-gathering has becomes a mainstream activity in Psychology.

Theories, such as Reference Point Theory (Marks, 1972, described in the previous article) provide models for understanding basic processes in thinking, emotion, and behaviour. No theory exists in a vacuum. Theories are like plants grown from seed in a well-designed, ornamental garden. The garden has a structure, a harmonious pattern of colours, textures and patterns, replicated over years of planning and pruning, pleasing to the eye and lasting through all seasons and weather. Illuminated by theory, information is beautiful. Examples of such ‘scientific gardens’ abound in other natural sciences: Evolutionary theory and Mendelian genetics in Biology; Uniformitarianism in Geology; bonding, reaction, valence, molecular orbitals, orbital interactions and molecule activation in Chemistry; Newtonian mechanics, conservation of energy, dynamics, electromagnetism, general relativity and quantum theory in physics. These theories are evidenced by millions of corroborating observations by scientists in these disciplines. To date, Psychology has produced many disparate findings, but few generally accepted theories or laws, and there is consequently hardly any accretion of knowledge.

Psychology has been considered a natural science since the eighteenth century (Hatfield, 1995). Yet in the twentieth century, there was a ‘fall from grace’, for reasons that remain obscure. Perhaps it was the rapid progress of all of the other sciences leaving Psychology to pale in comparison. Philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn, did not consider that his concept of a scientific ‘paradigm’ as a standard, perspective, or set of ideas, could be applied to any existing social science including Psychology.

A necessary condition for Psychology to be considered a natural science is the existence of an explanatory principle for psychological phenomena across the board that is capable of unifying the discipline.

Paradigms

The construct of ‘scientific paradigms’ was introduced by Thomas Kuhn (1968). The General Theory of Behaviour (Marks, 2018) is based on the classical ideas of balance and equilibrium. Galen (CE 129–200), the early Roman physician, followed the Hippocratic tradition with hygieia (health) or euexia (soundness) as a balance between the four bodily humours of black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. Galen believed that the body’s ‘constitution’, ‘temperament’ or ‘state’ could be put out of equilibrium by excessive heat, cold, dryness or wetness. Such imbalances might be caused by fatigue, insomnia, distress, anxiety, or by food residues resulting from eating the wrong quantity or quality of food. Human moods are viewed as a consequence of imbalances in one of the four bodily fluids. Imbalances of humour corresponded to particular temperaments (blood—sanguine, black bile—melancholic, yellow bile—choleric, and phlegm—phlegmatic). The Theory of Humours was related to the four elements: earth, fire, water and air. It is remarkable that some common beliefs and expressions today are linked to Greek and Roman thought of 2,000-plus years ago.

The idea that there are universal processes of body and mind to restore balance remains as much a principle in contemporary thought as in Classical times. We talk of a person ‘losing equilibrium’, being ‘well balanced’, ‘stable’, or ‘unbalanced’ or ‘unstable’ and so forth, all of which hark back to the idea of keeping oneself in balance. When applied to behaviour, the terms ‘equilibrium’ and ‘balance’ are analogous to the same terms used in mechanics. An object is said to be in a state of mechanical equilibrium when it is stable with equal forces on top and underneath, and when two objects are weighed against each other are said to be ‘in balance’ when the weights on the two sides of the balance are equal.

The related concepts of balance, equilibrium and homeostasis are occasionally used in personality theory (e.g. Stagner, 1951) and in work psychology (e.g. the family/work balance; Aryee, Srinivas & Tan, 2005) but only rarely found in other areas of Psychology. Maslow’s (1943) ‘hierarchy of needs’ assumed a foundation of basic biological needs for air, food, water, sex, sleep, homeostasis and excretion. As need satisfaction moves upwards towards the top of the pyramid, a person becomes more ‘satisfied’, eventually reaching a pinnacle of ‘self-actualization’, which Maslow defined as the epitome of need satisfaction. In asserting that homeostasis is a need, Maslow makes an insightful discovery. We can assume that the need for equilibrium, balance and stability is as fundamental a human need as any other. Internal or external conditions that change the state of an individual, group or population away from equilibrium or balance are normally described as ‘stress’. The concepts of equilibrium, homeostasis and stress are important for the Reset Equilibrium Function proposed in the General Theory.

In Physiology homeostasis is a regulating property wherein the stability of the internal environment is actively maintained. The term was coined by Walter B. Cannon in 1932 in his classic text, The Wisdom of the Body:

“The constant conditions which are maintained in the body might be termed equilibria. That word, however, has come to have fairly exact meaning as applied to relatively simple physico-chemical states, in closed systems, where known forces are balanced. The coordinated physiological processes which maintain most of the steady states in the organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings – involving, as they may, the brain and nerves, the heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, all working cooperatively – that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis. The word does not imply something set and immobile, a stagnation. It means a condition – a condition which may vary, but which is relatively constant.” (Cannon, 1932/1963, p. 24).

“The constant conditions which are maintained in the body might be termed equilibria. That word, however, has come to have fairly exact meaning as applied to relatively simple physico-chemical states, in closed systems, where known forces are balanced. The coordinated physiological processes which maintain most of the steady states in the organism are so complex and so peculiar to living beings – involving, as they may, the brain and nerves, the heart, lungs, kidneys and spleen, all working cooperatively – that I have suggested a special designation for these states, homeostasis. The word does not imply something set and immobile, a stagnation. It means a condition – a condition which may vary, but which is relatively constant.” (Cannon, 1932/1963, p. 24).

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Homeostasis regulates the function of cells, tissues and organs using organised negative feedback systems. Examples at an organismic level include regulation of core body temperature and the levels of pH, sodium, potassium and calcium, glucose, water, carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body. This core principle of Physiology is of equal importance, I wish to argue, for Psychology. Moreover, if a path towards unity across sciences is to be found, then homeostasis provides one valuable stepping stone.

It is argued that a healthy and happy person is a person who is functioning in equilibrium across internal and external domains. To use a colloquial expression, they are a person who ‘has their act together’. A condition of near-perfect well-being, balance and equilibrium is only rarely and momentarily achieved. Many sources of chronic stress including poor work-life balance, social jet lag caused by chronobiological asynchronies, relative poverty, and perceived or real imbalances in wealth, justice and equality, or what has been termed “The Spirit Level’ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009)all continuously conspire to make dyshomeostasis a new norm.

When dyshomeostasis occurs, people suffer negative affect, unmet needs such as hunger, thirst, insomnia, and possibly cardiovascular disease, metabolic syndrome or diabetes (Marks, 2015, 2016). Homeostasis, or its lack, is an organizing principle of broad generality throughout the psychological universe of thought, feeling and action. Improved understanding of ‘Psychological homeostasis’ will contribute towards the prevention and treatments of ill-health and dis-ease.

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