The Psychology of Communication


7.6 Subjective Map of Objective World

There is considerable controversy within psychology as to whether behavior should be explained in terms of the past (historical explanation), the future (teleological explanation), or the present (contemporaneous explanation). Behaviorists and Freudians prefer historical explanation, humanists prefer teleological explanation, and phenomenologists prefer contemporaneous explanation. Let us look at each in turn.

Watson's little Albert was afraid of rats because he had been conditioned in the past to fear rats. Freud's little Hans was afraid of horses because he had had a traumatic experience in the past involving a horse. We are as we are today, say the behaviorists, because of our conditioning in all our yesterdays. We are as we are today, say the psychoanalysts, because of our traumas in all our yesterdays. Behaviorists and psychoanalysts make strange bedfellows, but the bed of historical explanation they must share. It is a crowded bed, for the vast majority of psychologists have couched their explanations of present behavior and their predictions of future behavior in terms of the past.

Our behavior today, however, is influenced by tomorrow as well as by yesterday. We are pulled by the future as well as pushed by the past. This fact is obvious to the psychologist in his living room and his bedroom but is apparently preposterous to him in his office and his laboratory. His theories and experiments overwhelmingly emphasize the past over the future, and he scolds the few brave theorists who dare to talk in terms of the future with names like "teleologist", "mystic", and other dirty words.

Reasons for the preference for historical over teleological explanation are not hard to find. At first glance, the conception of the future influencing the present would seem to imply that a future event is the cause of a present event as effect. Psychologists, self-conscious in their shiny new lab coats, recoil from what would appear to violate a basic prescription in the dogma of science: thou shalt not put effect before cause. The use of the rat as the prototypic organism is perhaps a second contributory factor. Many a Pied Piper has tried to clear out the rat-infested laboratory by condemning the rat as an inadequate model for human perception and human learning. Such a criticism is even more valid when directed at the rat as a model for human planning. The rat may be short in sight and low in insight, but it is particularly limited in foresight.

Philosophers talked unapologetically about behavior in terms of purposes and goals. Such futuristic terms were some of the proverbial babies behaviorists threw out with the bath water. However, a group of scientists working on the border of psychology and engineering are now beginning to make teleology respectable again. They advocate that we turn for our inspiration from the rat to the thermostat, from the study of the rat in the Skinner box to the study of the Skinner box, from the comparative psychology of man and beast to the comparative psychology of man and machine. They point out that the goal-directed behavior of the thermostat (its goal being to maintain a constant temperature) can be explained in purely mechanical terms. The teleologist can look the mechanist straight in the eye and say "Consider ye the thermostat, how it works. It intends not; neither does it have purpose. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not so directed as one of these." He can build a machine that is concrete embodiment of his teleological model and make it work. Many scientists have claimed this as the true mark of understanding. It certainly make one confident of understanding and is a powerful means of silencing critics. Such subjective satisfactions contribute not only to the well-being of the psychologist but to the progress of psychology. No longer timid about investigating the obvious effects of the future on the present, the teleologist has built a more powerful model of the person.

The fear of teleology may partly account for the peculiar neglect by psychologists of the phenomenon of death.8 This is puzzling, because, whether you believe that "the aim of life is death" or "death is what makes life worth living," you recognize that death has a profound effect on life. Writers have demonstrated this point by chronicling the dramatic changes that take place in the behavior of a person who discovers that his death is imminent. The fact that we are aware of our mortality may be one of the important distinctions between us and the other animals.

Could it be that one of the reasons for neglecting death is that the event of death comes after all the events of life and thus death as a causal factor in life would smack of teleology? This consideration of death illuminates the irrationality behind teleophobia - It is not the fact that we die later that influences our lives now but the fact that we know now that we are going to die later. It is not an event in the future that is the cause of our present behavior but some representation of that event within the nervous system at present. Thus teleological explanations are no more mystical than historical explanations, since they both refer simply to present representations within the nervous system of future and past events, respectively. Kurt Lewin makes this brilliantly obvious statement in his contemporaneity principle: only present facts can influence present behavior.

When you focus on the objective world (the-world-as-it-is), you see it as stretched out over time, with past, present, and future influences on behavior. However, when you focus on the subjective map of the objective world (the-world-as-you-see-it), as recommended by phenomenologists, you realize that past, present, and future are all embodied in the present. You are not restricted in your subjective map, as you are in your objective world, to be in a particular place at a particular time. You can roam around the world and explore the planets while sitting in your armchair. This morning you can walk along the shore of the Sea of Galilee with Jesus Christ in the year 30, and this afternoon you can talk to HAL in the year 2001. The infinity of space and the eternity of time are potentially here and now. Your behavior can be determined by things not here and not now if they have become part of your subjective map. The present is saturated with the past and pregnant with the future.

8   Except for Ernest Becker, who earned a Pulitzer Prize with his book, The Denial of Death, in which he argued that much of human nature can be attributed to avoiding the inevitable [BECKER].