charles judson herrick: psychology from a biologist’s point of view

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HERRICK, C. J. Psychology from a Biologist’s Point of View. Psychological Review, Washington, v. 62, n. 5, 1955.


  • Psychological ReviewVol. 62, No. 5, 1955


    C. JUDSON HERRICKGrand Rapids, Michigan

    THE BASIC PROBLEMA student of the philosophy of sci-

    ence might be tempted to say there areas many biologies as there are biolo-gists, if account is taken only of themen whose exceptional insight and pro-ductiveness have guided the growth ofthe science. The same may be true ofpsychology, and perhaps we can do nobetter than accept Cattell's character-istic definition"Psychology is whatthe psychologist is interested in quapsychologist." There are, however,some general principles about whichbiologists and psychologists are in sub-stantial agreement. One of these prin-ciples is that no factual findings havescientific significance until they arefitted into the appropriate niche in theintegrated system of knowledge.

    The neurologist finds this orientationespecially difficult because almost allexperiences and activities of men andother animals involve nervous functionsand his field has no boundaries. Thehuman brain is the most importantthing in the world, for, as Gibbs (1)expresses it, "Human history is a his-tory of the brain activity of the humanrace" (p. 1SOS). This relationship tiesneurology closely with psychology andalso with psychiatry, sociology, andevery other human interest. But whenthe neurologist tries to find out justwhere his findings tie in with psychol-ogy he is puzzled. There are so manypsychologies that one wonders what itis all about.

    The interested spectator who sits onthe fence watching the game sees twoopposing teams and, on the side lines,a goodly number of other psychologistswho do not join either faction. In one

    team the partisans of traditional dual-ism contend for a sharp separation ofthe conscious, or "spiritual," activitiesfrom the unconscious, or "physical,"thus splitting the world as we experi-ence it into two universes, one of whichhas been characterized as "spiritual re-ality" or "ideational reality" and theother as "physical reality." Opposedto these radical spiritists are the mecha-nists, who insist that, since the searchin both science and philosophy is forunifying principles, and since it has notbeen possible to explain how a non-physical agency can act upon a physi-cal structure so as to influence humanconduct, we must search for physical-istic principles of sufficiently wide im-port to embrace all the known phe-nomena.

    The more radical members of thesecond group, apparently accepting thetraditional doctrine that anything "spir-itual" is ipso facto nonphysical, takethe easy way out and deny that con-scious experience of any kind has sci-entific or operational significance. Thisdespite the fact that the very denial isa conscious act. This exclusion of ev-erything mentalistic from psychology isobviously a defense reaction against theprimitive animistic mythologies whichstill survive in every human culture.But even though mind is called an epi-phenomenon, it is nonetheless a phe-nomenon, a natural event, and a placein the system of nature must be foundfor every natural event.

    The spiritists' quest for a psychologyreleased from the limitations imposedby the laws of the physical world, andthe objective psychologists' insistencethat only observable physical processes



    are significant for psychology, seemto be irreconcilable. The controversypoints again to the fact that the basicproblem of psychology is, as it alwayshas been, the exact nature of the rela-tionship between our knowledge of theobjective world and the subjective ex-perience of knowing and all other con-scious acts.

    My purpose here is to examine, fromthe standpoint of mechanistic biology,some of the diverse fields of inquirywhich must be integrated before thisbasic problem can be formulated in ac-cordance with physical, physiological,and psychological principles now gen-erally accepted. The divisive tendenciesof current scientific movements are re-tarding progress.

    The key factor in the current con-troversy about the nonphysical natureof the human spirit really hinges on adefinition: Just what do we mean byphysical structure and what are itsproperties? We must define the physi-cal before we can talk rationally aboutthe nonphysical. A brief summary ofa few principles of current physical sci-ence is prerequisite to further consid-eration of the meaning of the word"physical" in biological and psycho-logical contexts.

    PHYSICAL SCIENCE OF TODAYThe history of ideas about the na-

    ture of the physical world records threerevolutionary periods. The Greek pe-riod, typified by Aristotle and Euclid,dominated formal thinking for twothousand years and is still influential.Beginning in the middle ages a secondrevolutionary period culminated withthe Newtonian system of mechanics.The third period began with the twen-tieth century, as exemplified in rela-tivity and quantum mechanics. It isstill in its infancy and its findings aremore revolutionary than any of thepreceding.

    The fundamental conceptions of phys-ics are in flux. New methods have re-vealed new facts which require newprinciples, and some principles formerlyregarded as axiomatic are now suspect.The absolutes of earlier times are nowtreated relativistically, with radical re-organization of the science of mechan-ics.

    To put it briefly, natural science to-day regards our cosmos as a stupendousmechanism (physicalism) composed ofinnumerable subsidiary mechanisms, allbound together in accordance with law-fully ordered principles. We do notadequately understand any thing or anyevent until we know the mechanismthat produces it and the principles inaccordance with which it operates. Amechanism is defined by D'Arcy Thomp-son (7) as ". . . whatsoever checks orcontrols, and guides into determinatepaths, the workings of energy" (p.291). Accepting this definition, thescience of mechanics deals with energyand the "whatsoever" that controls itsworkings.

    The mechanism makes some specifickind of product and the nature of theproduct is the crucial issue in its or-ganization. This product may be ma-terial arranged in a different way orplace, or energy in a different patternof manifestation. Or it may be mattertransformed into energy or energy intomatter, for these are known to be in-terconvertible in quantitatively meas-urable relations (Einstein's conversionequation, E = Mc2). In view of thislast point the distinction between mat-ter and energy becomes rather fuzzy,and any manifestation of an energychange is a physical event.

    The belief now current among physi-cists is that the various kinds of atomsare relatively stable and different pat-terns of energy. There are no differentkinds of energy. The so-called thermal,electrical, and other energies are differ-


    ent patterns of manifestation of onecommon measurable quantity which inour ignorance we call energy. Natureas a whole is process. There is noth-ing static about it anywhere.

    In a natural mechanism the mate-rials and energies used may come froma wide field and the product made is inturn delivered to the surroundings. Itfollows that the active structure, themachine itself, must be so denned as toinclude the entire field with which ithas transactional relations. The mis-taken popular notion that a machine isa passive inert structure operated byan outside agent is derived from theartificial machine with a human op-erator. It is true that a lathe in amachine shop has no value as mecha-nism without the operator who startsit, stops it, and controls its action.This means that, from the operationalstandpoint, the operator must be re-garded as an integral part of the mecha-nism. In natural mechanisms it is moreevident that the operator is inside theapparatus. The apparatus itself is theoperator; that is to say, the machineoperates itself. No natural mechanismneeds a djinn or any external operatorto run it or tell it what to do. This,we believe, is as true of a man as of asolar system or a volcano.

    Classical physics as formulated inNewtonian mechanics deals with inertsolid particles of matter which differ inmass and are pushed about by forcesacting upon them. These forces areconsidered to be manifestations of en-ergy, and the movements are measur-able in arbitrary units of space andtime. Twentieth century science, onthe contrary, finds that matter and en-ergy are different manifestations of thesame unknown something and that insome domains of physics space andtime in the objective world must betreated relativistically with reference toeach other. In subatomic physics they

    cannot be measured in arbitrary units,with the observer as a fixed point ofreference.

    A physical mechanism is defined dy-namically. It may make some particu-lar product, repetitively, because it isso organized as to do this by virtue ofthis organization. But if the organiza-tion changes its pattern so as to de-liver a different kind of product, a fac-tor is introduced which may properlybe called creative. Even a repetitiveperformance like that of some particu-lar chemical reaction exhibits the prop-erty of transforming a pattern of ma-terial or energy into a different pattern,and this capacity is the source fromwhich creativity, as here defined, is de-rived. Creation does not imply thatsomething is made out of nothing. Thescientific problem is to discover thelaws in accordance with which thesechanges take place. Since the operat-ing forces are manifestations of energy,it is evident that energy as such hascreative efficiency. In other words, itsactivities are not stereotyped in rigidlypredetermined patterns. These patternsare constantly changing by conversionas they interact with one another, andthis capacity for change is responsiblefor cosmic and organic evolution andfor the orderly processes of growth ofliving indi