State of science 2: The impossibility of an objective science of behaviour

February 28, 2016 – 12:38 pm

The behaviourist turn within psychology at the start of the 20th Century was an attempt to be rigorous, objective, empirical, and seriously scientific.  To graduates of more recent psychology programmes steeped in talk of information processing, cognitive systems, and computation, behaviourism is liable to occasion spittle-flecked revulsion, as if the scientific study of behaviour were a gateway drug, leading inevitably to the extinction of the light of the soul mind.

All science starts with observation. If the scientific study of behaviour does not take the observation of behaviour as absolutely foundational, then it has no ground under its feet, no chance of garnering consensus, no necessary connection to reality, and no authority.

But in the observation of behaviour, we as observers necessarily become entangled in the object of our attention.  From one second to the next, the universe is changing, flowing, becoming.  This flux is not partitioned into discrete behaviours.  Behaviours are not like rocks, lying around to be found, kicked, and counted.  Rather, to parse a specific kind of going on as one behaviour or another is to frame one’s observation as the goal-directed striving of one system or another.  And in so doing, our imposition of this teleological framing necessarily results in the entanglement of the observer and the observed.  Goals are not observable.  They are rather a projection of the observer, in order to make one’s observations intelligible.

So the study of behaviour cannot be done in an objective key.  I think Tim Ingold put this rather well, when he says:

Yet all science depends on observation, and all observation depends on participation — that is, on a close coupling, in perception and action, between the observer and those aspects of the world that are the focus of attention.  If science is to be a coherent knowledge practice, it must be rebuilt on the foundation of openness rather than closure, engagement rather than detachment. (Ingold, T., 2011, p. 75)


[1] Ingold, T. (2011). Being alive: Essays on movement, knowledge and description. Taylor & Francis.

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.