Considerations Regarding a Model for Experimental Psychology
by Paul D. Ackerman, Ph.D.
The present paper will discuss some basic considerations in formulating a Biblical creation model for experimental psychology. As a first step, it will be useful to examine in a somewhat oversimplified way the current state of experimental psychology as it operates under the general evolution model. At the heart of the evolutionary viewpoint is the assumption that the universe, including its psychological life forms, is the result of a strictly materialistic process involving vast amounts of time and random changes. If one assumes the validity of this "time plus chance" explanation, it becomes very difficult to believe that present natural phenomena are as complex as they might superficially appear. To put it another way, the evolutionist is logically inclined to assume that underlying the apparent complexity of the universe there must be a very basic simplicity. Thus from the evolutionists' perspective, if scientists are going to explain the thoughts and actions of psychological organisms, they must search for simple, economical explanations of the apparently complex behaviors in which they engage. This leads them to adopt an approach to scientific investigation and explanation which is called "reductionism."1 The psychologist attempts to explain the very complex things people do -- such as speaking, problem solving, remembering, and so forth ¾ in terms of relatively simple mechanisms.
In contemporary experimental psychology, dominated almost exclusively by the evolutionary model, one can identify two broad reductionist camps. In one camp may be called biological reductionists, those who attempt to explain the activity of intelligent creatures in terms of genetic make-up, hormone balances, brain cell activity, and more complex instincts and brain functioning patterns. These psychologists believe that the seemingly infinite complexity and variety of intelligent activity observed in nature can be reductionistically explained in terms of relatively more simple and yet still highly complex biological mechanisms.
Opposed to the biological reductionist camp are those in the environmental reductionist camp. Environmental reductionists are also evolutionary in orientation, but they feel uncomfortable with the level of biological complexity posited by the biological reductionists. They prefer a still simpler biological component with more weight given to environmental factors in explaining the complex activities of people and animals. Emphasis is given to such factors as stimulus/stimulus, stimulus/response, and response/reward histories, along with more abstract environmental dimensions such as education, cultural background, and so forth.
A simple analogy will illustrate the difference between these two views. Suppose that a group of scientists was called in to examine some mysterious and advanced model of airplane that had landed in their country for unknown reasons. As the scientists comb over the aircraft, they develop two opposing concepts as to how it is flown. Some scientists focus on the cockpit with its complex instruments and control stick and come to the conclusion that it is flown manually. But other scientists become intrigued with a complicated computer located in the interior of the craft, and as a result become convinced that the plane is flown by means of an "automatic pilot." The ensuing argument between the "manual control" and "automatic pilot" proponents is somewhat analogous to the nature vs. nurture argument in psychology. The "manual control" view illustrates the environmental camp, and the "automatic pilot" view illustrates the biological camp. In this analogy the manual controls represent the relatively simple biological component posited by the environmental reductionist. Thus, the plane must be directed by outside environmental forces (i.e., the pilot) if it is to fly successfully. The "automatic pilot" on the other hand represents the more complex biological component posited by the biological reductionist. To a much greater degree the plane with an automatic pilot is guided on the basis of internal forces and relatively independent of outside environmental ones.
A Creationist Model
In contrast to the above views it is possible to formulate a creation or design model for experimental psychology. An event which took place in connection with the recent Mars landing program provides an excellent illustration for such a model. First of all, no one supposes that the two Viking spacecrafts evolved. We all know that a great deal of energy and intelligence went into their design and construction. When they reached Mars, an interesting thing happened to one of them. A switch malfunctioned, and an important mechanical arm could not be moved. The project scientists, however, did not throw up their hands in despair as one might expect. Rather, they began studying the problem and eventually succeeded in bypassing the faulty switch, thus allowing the arm to work properly. Now one might say to himself, "How can this be possible? If a house light switch is faulty it must be replaced. One could not bypass it from the next room, let alone from millions of miles away in space." The answer is simple. The Houston scientists were able to bypass the faulty switch because highly intelligent designers had planned for these and many other contingencies in advance. In other words, the spacecraft was not simply designed to operate on the surface of Mars. It was designed to include a wide range of alternative modes of operation in the event of mechanical failure. It was, in effect, overdesigned. The concept of "overdesign" or "contingency design" could be useful in formulating a viable scientific creation model for experimental psychology. If the "mechanical" body a person lives in were designed by an infinitely intelligent creator, scientists might expect to find evidence of overlapping and redundant systems similar to those in the Mars vehicle. This would allow alternate modes of operation in the event of the failure of one or more key psychological or biological systems.
There are convincing data from experimental psychology as well as everyday experience pointing directly and powerfully to just such a conclusion. Psychological organisms, including man, demonstrate a remarkable combination of extremely efficient and economical organization on the one hand, and incredible potential for functional flexibility on the other. Biological reductionists have tended to appreciate only the first of these characteristics while environmental reductionists have tended to recognize only the latter.
Current Situation in Psychology
Returning to the description of the current state of psychology, the reader may recall the analogy of the scientists examining the aircraft. One group believes the plane is flown manually (environmental control) and the other that it is flown by automatic pilot (biological control). Of course the fact is that the plane has both capabilities, so in a sense both groups are right in their positive claims and wrong in their opposition to the opponent's position. Now what happens as these two groups battle with each other? Each side makes dramatic claims which the opponent denies. The "automatic pilot" group provides evidence that the plane can be safely and accurately flown even with the pilot blindfolded. The "manual operation" group, on the other hand, puts on an impressive demonstration of acrobatic flying using the manual controls. Both sides are embarrassed and puzzled at accomplishments by the opponents. In a sense, this is the state of affairs in psychology today.
Two of the most prominent examples are the following. Contrary to the expectations of environmentalists, the biological reductionists point to accumulating evidence that human beings grow almost automatically into their language ability. With minimal training and apparently haphazard learning conditions, they are able to master the language with remarkable ease and regularity. On the other hand, contrary to the expectations of biological reductionists, the environmentalists continue to demonstrate and uncover evidence for the incredible capacity and flexibility organisms have for learning. They are fond of demonstrating that supposedly fixed biological sequences of behavior acquisition can be altered or reversed by certain training procedures. The teaching of reading to preschool age children is one dramatic example.
But the flaw in modern psychology goes deeper than simply two opposing sides having part of the truth and not realizing the opponent's share of it. The fact is that both sides, being wedded to the evolutionary model, fail to do justice to even those areas where they happen to be -- in a sense -- correct. The level of complexity and richness of design (i.e., overdesign) goes far beyond current evolutionary/reductionist theories. The result is, as a colleague recently put it, that practice is constantly outstripping theory. Nonpsychologists are constantly doing things that the experts say are impossible. The only reason they even try to do them is either because they are unaware of expert opinion or for some reason choose to ignore it.
Examples from the Environmentalist Camp
Perhaps the most dramatic recent environmental example concerns a young student at De Paul University. This illustration was recently reported in the National Press by Ronald Kotulak of the Chicago Tribune.2 In 1953, in order to save a youngster's life from the effects of a severe brain malfunction, surgeons removed the entire left half (or hemisphere) of his brain. Biologically oriented experts, viewing this case in the light of a considerable body of sound scientific evidence that the crucial brain centers for speech and language functions are located in the left hemisphere, predicted that young man would never be able to speak or use language in a normal manner. But as Kotulak reports, "Ever since the operation (the young man) has been dumbfounding the medical profession. Doctors who examine him shake their heads in disbelief." By the age of nine his intellectual capacity was measured in the dull-normal range. By the age of 21, his verbal IQ scores had risen to the bright-normal range. Finally, tests at age 26 showed him to be scoring in the superior range for verbal intelligence. Again to quote Kotulak, "Everything science knows about the brain says it's impossible for (this young man) to be doing as well as he is. Pages of medical textbooks will have to be ripped out and rewritten."
Another dramatic case is that of a young mongoloid child named Nigel Hunt. When Nigel was only two-weeks-old his parents were told by experts that no matter how much love and care they gave him he would always be an idiot. Nothing they could do would alter that fact. Fortunately for Nigel, his parents refused to believe the experts. With great patience, the boy's mother worked with her growing child. Making a game out of it, she spelled out words phonetically as soon as he could talk. Her devotion was rewarded, for by the time Nigel started to school his parents were told that, "no child in his primary school could read better." As Nigel grew older his astounding accomplishments continued. He taught himself to type using his father's typewriter, and then at age 17, became the first mongoloid to write a book, an autobiography entitled, The World of Nigel Hunt.3 Cases such as these highlight an exciting potential for a creation oriented science of psychology.
Examples from the Biological Camp
While the above cases speak to what can be accomplished through experience and training, the following examples show the capacity of animals and humans to attain mature functioning with minimal learning requirements. Examples illustrating this biological preparedness are not difficult to find. Bird migration is one dramatic and well-known instance. A more recently documented illustration can be found in the work of psychologist, Gene Sackett.4 He experimented with infant monkeys and found evidence that they have an innate ability to recognize (in terms of visual preference) their own species as well as react appropriately to certain social cues. For instance, two- to four-month-old monkeys that had never seen another monkey nevertheless showed signs of fear when exposed to pictures of an angry and threatening adult monkey. Similar evidence for human babies has been shown by Frantz5 and Ball.6
One famous researcher in this area, T.G.R. Bower, has reported the results of some fascinating and excellent laboratory research on the development of visual perception in six-to eight-week-old babies.7 Many of Bower's results are startling to any reductionist view of man. To quote Bower regarding the results from one of his experiments, "This finding seems very important, since it is a blow not only against the idea (common to nativists and empiricists) that perception of simple variables is in some way developmentally earlier than perception of complex variables."7
What Bower has stated is a specialized version of the basic preconception underlying virtually all of modern science, including psychology. It is the evolutionary, reductionistic assumption that simple things precede and are more basic than complex things. Against this idea is the Biblical assertion, "in the beginning God…" A creationist psychology need not abandon the search for underlying mechanisms as method, but only the belief that reductionism is the route to basic truth. The discovery of efficient and economical underlying mechanisms can greatly enhance man's understanding and control over nature, and the search for such mechanisms would continue to be an integral part of science. But additionally, a creationist science could infuse a new optimism that the creation contains numerous built-in but as yet undiscovered potentialities for dealing with man's most troublesome problems. Psychologists might come to realize a whole new range of possibilities in terms of service to their fellow man and reduction of human suffering. The possibilities in the area of mental retardation and brain damage are particularly exciting. How many more children like Nigel Hunt or the boy with severe brain damage might be blessed? What possibilities might be uncovered if experimental psychologists were taught to suspect the presence of and search for designed, backup capability. What excitement and adventure to begin to discover and appreciate the Creator's marvelous "overdesign."
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1 Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines reductionism as "a procedure or theory that reduces complex data or phenomena to simple terms." (Emphasis added) No criticism of reductionism as a procedure is intended.
2 The Wichita Eagle, November 8, 1976.
3 Hunt, N., The World of Nigel Hunt, New York: Garrett, 1967.
4 Sackett, Gene P., "Monkeys Reared in Isolation with Pictures as Visual Input: Evidence for an Innate Releasing Mechanism," Science, 1966, Vol. 154, pp. 1468-1473.
5 Frantz, R.L., "The Origin of Form Perception," Scientific American, 1961, Vol. 204, pp. 66-72.
6 Ball, W., and Tronick, E., "Infant Responses to Impending Collision: Optical and Real." Science, 1971, Vol. 171, pp. 818-820.
7 Bower, T.G.R., "The Visual World of Infants." Scientific American, 1965, Vol. 215, pp. 80-92.
* Doctor Ackerman received his Ph.D. in Social Psychology from Kansas State University in 1968. He is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Wichita State University.
Cite this article: Paul D. Ackerman, Ph.D. 1977. Considerations Regarding a Model for Experimental Psychology. Acts & Facts. 6 (8).