Monday, August 29, 2011

Look at Your Premises. Look. Look. Look!

The fundamental method of science is observation, so nineteenth century naturalist Louis Agassiz (pp. 40-48) stressed its importance in teaching and learning. As he told one student, “Take this fish and look at it.” Hours later, when the student wanted to know what to do next, Agassiz replied, “Look at your fish.” And still later, “Look, look, look.” For three days the student looked at the fish, then on the fourth, Agassiz presented him with a new specimen.  Observation means using our senses to perceive the world. Figuratively, it means opening our eyes and looking at it. The more one looks, Agassiz was encouraging his student, the more one sees.

In the human sciences, psychology in particular, observation is also the fundamental method of acquiring knowledge. It means not just looking at human behavior, but more importantly at the mental content of human beings. Introspection, as I have argued before, is a legitimate method of science, actually a form of observation. Looking at the premises people hold in their minds, that is, their beliefs, values, and emotions, is key to understanding why they act the way they do.

The word “premise” refers to a thought or proposition assumed to be true that supports a later conclusion. In the face of an apparent contradiction—such as, on the one hand, the attacks made on McDonald’s and Walmart as less than virtuous companies and, on the other, the amazing job creation of the former and wonderful, inexpensive products of the latter made available to the masses—Ayn Rand’s line to “check your premises” comes to mind. Look deep, as Rand would urge, at all conclusions that lead to other conclusions and go all the way down to the starting points of one’s beliefs, values, and emotions.

Thus, when critics of McDonald’s and Walmart are pressed for their reasoning, their response might be something like this. “McDonald’s and Walmart are just seeking profits; the profit motive and customer satisfaction, after all, are opposed to each other.” Why are profits bad? “Because profit seeking is selfish.” But eating and drinking are selfish; why is the pursuit of self-interest when it doesn’t hurt others bad? “People can’t be left free to pursue their own interests; the poor especially don’t know what’s good for them. They aren’t able to distinguish good food and good products from the bad. The government has to regulate business and guide the poor in their choices.” Don’t the poor have free will and the ability to reason out their own choices? “We’re all controlled by our environment and reason can only go so far; it’s limited.” How do you know? “We can’t really know anything with certainty.  In fact, people who claim certain knowledge are dangerous, potential dictators. We have to talk things over and let the majority vote for the best alternatives.”

Although many additional lines of questioning of these critics could be pursued, this example demonstrates the many premises (in this case, false ones) underlying a simple concrete conclusion. The more one looks at the premises people hold, the more one sees and comes to understand.

The same process can be performed on personal psychology. Although nothing in psychology is simple, consider the relatively uncomplicated phenomenon of stage fright, such as the anxiety an actor feels before going on stage or a speaker before delivering a lecture. Premises behind the fear might range from the thought “I can’t do it, I don’t want to do it, I’m going to be a failure and be humiliated, I have to get out of it” to “I hope I don’t make too many mistakes, I know I can do a good job, I’ll just keep working on my craft to polish it, I know that once I’m out there I will begin to relax.” Or something in between. Deeper exploration might find connections to similar premises that operated in similar situations in one’s early, formative years and might also reveal how choices made then produced feelings of anxiety that still operate. Looking at these earlier premises provides fuller understanding of how personal psychology develops, the role of choice in that development, and the role of choice in making corrections in the present—in this case, taking a deep breath, walking on stage, and delivering one’s lines or lecture.

Looking at a mind or looking at a fish, the process is the same. Observation is the method of science and the more one looks, the more one sees. Indeed, a modern-day Agassiz working in the human sciences might say to his or her students, “Look at your psychology. Look. Look. Look.”

And, of course, this directive applies not just to students, but to all of us. If we unfailingly “look, look, look” into our souls, we might be surprised by what we see.

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