The Biggest Psychological Mystery We Ignore

“The moon pulls on the tides because it’s trying to make the oceans swell.”

“Protons try to keep electrons nearby because they would miss them if they left.”

“A glass beaker is trying to keep liquids from spilling out. It doesn’t want them to leak away.”

If you had a physics professor who talked like this, you’d likely tiptoe out of the classroom and report the teacher to the dean.

Why then is it OK that, down the hall, in a social science classroom there’s a teacher saying things like?:

“People try to find love.”

“Babies try to get nourishment because they want to survive.”

Or elsewhere down the hall, biologists saying that bacteria try to stay alive.

Chemicals don’t try, but organisms do. If organisms are made of chemicals where’s the trying?

Life and social scientists tolerate talk of trying, though reluctantly, hoping that someday they’ll be able to translate all means-to-ends trying into the kind of cause-and-effect explanations employed in the physical sciences. They seek the chemicals of trying – DNA trying to get copied, hormones that cause us try to get food, neurochemicals that cause us to decide what we should try to achieve. Or they map trying’s means-to-ends behavior into cause-and-effect diagrams: Appetite causes hunger, insecurity causes ego, upbringing causes prejudice.

Many life and social scientists are working toward the day when their sciences become just like a physical science, a day when, hearing a psychologist talk about aims, purposes, intentions and trying as real, will cause students to tiptoe out of the classroom too.

That’s just not going to happen. No matter how we wiggle, squirm and dance around it, there’s no escaping this fundamental scientific question: What is trying and how does it start in a universe where nothing is trying to do anything?

About 20 years ago, Terrence Deacon, then a Harvard neuroscientist and biological anthropologist who had done important work on the origins of language, faced squarely into this mystery of trying. He has since moved to Berkeley where I’ve worked with him for the past 20 years. My new short book distills his solution to the mystery. It’s called Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The emergence and nature of selves (Columbia University Press, Fall 2017). Distilling even further here’s my 20-minute video.

 

Author: Jeremy E. Sherman

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