By Timothy A. Carey
Living things do not respond to stimuli. Nor do their brains command their muscles to behave in certain ways. Living things control their experiences. Controlling experiences seems a simple notion yet its implications are profound. My observation has been that when this idea is explained to most people heads nod in understanding and agreement. People seem to easily notice the phenomenon of control once they know what they are looking for. While control becomes apparent to most people who take the time to notice, what remain invisible are the implications of this phenomenon. Let me see if I can describe what some of these implications might be.
Behavioral scientists who understood that living things controlled their perceptual experiences would not be interested it trying to find connections between stimuli and responses. They would become disinterested because they would know that there is no connection between a stimulus and a response. In fact, not only would they understand that the link between stimulus and response is chimeric, they would also wise up to the fact that, as far as living things are concerned, there is no such thing as either a stimulus or a response. Calling something a “stimulus” is to assert that this something is able to stimulate another something. A stimulus is only a stimulus to the extent that it produces a response in the thing it is stimulating. In the same way, calling something a response is to suggest that this something was brought about by a stimulus.
Perhaps the terms stimulus and response would linger on in the vernacular. After all, we still talk about sunsets and sunrises rather than “planetary rotational illusions” or “visual orbital effects”. When working to learn about the nature of living things, however, the activity of stimulating a living thing and measuring its responses would vanish. Rather, people who wanted to know about living things would investigate both what and how perceptual experiences are controlled.
The seemingly innocuous idea of studying the process of control rather than the stimulus/response connection would irrevocably change the activity of perhaps every behavioral scientist who clocks in for work today. Rather than scrutinizing the eye-blink response and the way it varies in relation to different puffs of air, a control scientist would be interested in what conditions of the eye are being maintained in particular states. What is the moisture level on the surface of the eye? How much variation in moisture level is tolerated before this variation is eliminated? Is a particular amount of pressure on the surface of the eye also kept constant?
Answers to new questions about what and how an eye controls would begin to shed some light on the mystery of how an eye goes about the business of seeing. Some things about what we already know would probably still be useful. In attempting to answer new kinds of questions about what an eye does, however, we would have to become a lot less sure about what we think we already know. For a time we would be less certain about that small part of the world that we thought we had pinned down. The functioning of the eye is one thing we would be less certain about once we recognized the controlling nature of things that live. But for people who have difficulty dealing with uncertainty, the bad news is that our knowledge about the eye would not be the only thing that would be affected. Everything, in fact, that we currently believe about living things would need to be reconsidered from a control perspective and almost everything would either be revised or rejected.
Seeking to understand different aspects of the phenomenon of control would of course be a fatal blow for the IV-DV research approach that currently exists. IV-DV is just a sneaky way of writing stimulus-response. The idea here is that we vary IV’s and measure the effect on DV’s. Behavioral scientists who cared anything at all about doing a good job realized long ago that there actually is no reliable connection between IV’s and DV’s. So that they could continue to think they were doing a good job—they were, after all, controlling their experiences—they began to use statistics.
Statistics are to a behavioral scientist what a top hat is to a magician. Illusory relationships are made to look real when statistics are employed. Behavioral scientists discovered that if you gathered together a whole bunch of living things and engaged them in an activity, you could assign numbers to different aspects of the activity. Statistical procedures could then be used to combine the numbers that were produced from the results of all their individual activities. Methods were invented to turn all these individual numbers into just one number. The new number that was created was meant to represent something. That special single number could then be tested to see if it was special enough.
If the number wasn’t special enough or if behavioral scientists wanted to make it seem even more important they created a bigger bunch of living things. The more living things the more important the number. Unfortunately, as the bunch of living things grows and as the impressiveness of the combined number soars, the less we know about any particular individual in the bunch. This is no way to unearth the scientific laws of living.
Other things can also be done to make numbers seem more important. Ultra-tricky statistical procedures have been created which add new bits to the numbers that are already there or even take bits away from the numbers that exist. This sometimes has the effect of making the number that represents the bunch become more important. These kinds of procedures will tell you a lot about numbers but they won’t tell you much at all about living things. Numbers don’t care what you do to them—living things do.
Control scientists wouldn’t spend time combining large bunches of living things together to find out how they behave. Control scientists wouldn’t look for IV-DV relationships. Control scientists would want to know what living things control. To find that out they would study individual living things. They would identify the controlling characteristics of the individual and then they would look for similar characteristics in other individuals. Control scientists would be hunting for whatever it is that all living things of a particular kind control. After a successful hunt, control scientists would understand a little bit more about what it means to be that kind of living thing.
Control scientists wouldn’t need to spend time learning to do tricky things with numbers. Instead they would spend their time learning to build models that work. When control scientists thought they had tripped over a good idea in their laboratory, their next job would be to build a model of the idea. If the model they built was able to control in the same way as whatever it was they were trying to understand then they would think their idea was pretty good. If the model didn’t control in the same way then they would need to do some rethinking. That’s how control science would work—playing with models, not numbers.
Some behavioral scientists are so good at statistical procedures that they call what they do modelling. This modelling is very different from the modelling that a control scientist would do. Statistical modelling uses large bunches of numbers to create important connections between different sets of numbers. In other words, it is still trying to explain the IV-DV link. Sometimes in a sophisticated kind of way the IV is called a predictor variable and the DV is called a criterion variable. No matter. They are still describing the same kind of relationship. The toys in their playpen are still stimuli and responses.
In many ways it would be unfair to leave the discussion of statistics at this point. The purpose of this foray into the world of statistical methods was not to malign the legitimacy of these procedures. It is not the techniques that are at fault but their application that is awry. When statistics are used to determine the relative importance of a particular number no reliable conclusions can be made about the behavior of any particular individual in the group from which the number came. Statistical methods will provide information about general characteristics of a group but they will yield absolutely zilch in terms of elucidating the principles and laws that govern the nature of living things. Statistics are not the problem. The stories created from their results are.
Stimuli and responses can be disguised in other ways as well. One sly move that occurred a few years ago was to extract the stimulus from the environment and to pop it into the head of a living creature. Some optimistic people called this tricky maneuver a revolution—a cognitive revolution. When a stimulus is inside a living thing rather than outside it is called a cognition—or a belief, a thought, a brain command, an attitude—the labels are many but a stimulus by any other name …
Because control scientists would use models to check their ideas they wouldn’t be very concerned with the name they attached to any particular bit. For a control scientist what would be important would be how the bit functioned in the model not the particular word sound that was used to name it. Control scientists then wouldn’t consider that they had improved their theory when they produced better sounding words. Nor would they think their model was better when the diagram looked nicer or when double headed arrows connected more boxes in a greater variety of ways. They would consider they had improved their theory when their model controlled like the creature they were modelling. We don’t need new word sounds; we need to figure out what’s going on.
Obviously some things are going on and some things aren’t going on. If you’re trying to solve the puzzle of how something actually works, some answers will be correct and some will be incorrect. Behavioral scientists, however, are very reluctant to say that any idea is wrong. With a wave of the hand and a puff of smoke, statistics can be used to show that almost any idea is interesting and useful. Behavioral scientists came up with the convenient tool of “operationalising”. Operationalising just means saying that something you don’t understand very clearly can be what you say it is. Depression can be operationalized by counting up someone’s scores to answers on a test. The number they get on the test then represents how much depression there is. At least that’s the way the story goes.
Another very handy strategy to use with operationalising is “forgetting”. Behavioral scientists tend to forget that the number they have obtained is, at best, a representation of depression. They say they are measuring depression, not scores on a test. They say that depression has decreased when the numbers get smaller and worsened if the numbers get bigger. They use statistics to do things to the numbers and then tell us what happened to the depression. They don’t seem to know that people are controlling even when they are putting circles around numbers on an official looking piece of paper.
Control scientists would not be interested in operationalising. They would not be interested in what something was called. They would be interested in how something functioned. By being interested in the way something functioned they would have to accept that some ideas would be right and some would be wrong. Calling an idea “wrong” is not a nice thing to do when you’re mixing with behavioral scientists. With crafty methods like operationalising and statisticalising any idea can be made to seem even a little bit right. Behavioral scientists need long sleeves. The wizardry of statistics requires much sleight of hand.
Control scientists would roll their sleeves up and spend time investigating the phenomenon of control. Control scientists would discard an idea if it was wrong. It would be OK to call an idea wrong with a control scientist. Control scientists wouldn’t spend time making wrong ideas seem a little bit right. They would want to know what it was that was wrong and how the model needed to be changed so that it would be right. “Right” to a control scientist would mean accurate. If the model accurately simulated what was being observed then it would be regarded as the closest thing to “right” at the moment. If the model wasn’t accurate then something about it would be regarded as being wrong and it would need to be changed.
Wrongness and rightness seem to be uncomfortable notions for many psychologists and behavioral scientists. In the world of psychology anything goes. “Do what you wanna do, be what you wanna be, yeah …” is the tune that is hummed. The arena of psychotherapy is a startling demonstration. Someone who could be bothered to count them once estimated that there were over 400 different types of psychotherapy. This is inclusivity and acceptance gone berserk. As one method fails to help all people all the time it is tinkered with and adapted. Finally it is given a new name and an inspiring practitioner runs new workshops to teach new techniques that hold greater promise than previous methods. Some people think they understand what is happening and remain loyal dispensers of one method or another. Other people acknowledge that they don’t know what’s going on and call themselves “eclectic”.
It is mind-numbingly obvious that not all of the different methods can be accurate in their explanations of the problem. If 20 different people were all treated for something called depression with 20 different types of psychotherapy and they all got better, then the 20 different methods used can undoubtedly not be the reason the people got better. Much of what is happening in psychotherapy cannot account for why people get better. A great number of the methods in psychotherapy are at best unnecessary and at worse detrimental.
Control scientists would only want to do what was necessary. Control scientists who wanted to help people get better would not accept any explanatory story that came along. Control scientists would base their helping methods on the most accurate explanation of control that they could find. This of course would limit the kinds of things that control scientists could do. When methods are based on theoretical principles then some methods will be consistent with the principles and some won’t. The benefit of this limitation however is an accurate understanding of people’s problems. From this understanding comes an ability to assist people efficiently and meaningfully where assistance is required and also to determine when assistance is not necessary.
If control was the only show in town much of the same type of activity would still occur. People would still have problems that they would need help with. Problems would need to be assessed, diagnosed, and treated. Where problems existed, however, they would be seen as problems with control. A something that is designed to control will only experience problems when its ability to control is interfered with in some way. When people with problems put themselves in front of a control scientist what would be assessed would be the people’s abilities to control different things. Perhaps the range and limits of their control abilities would be explored. Diagnoses would be statements about their abilities to control. Where treatment was required treatment would focus on helping people improve their abilities to control.
Control scientists would understand that what people control are their perceptions. That is, what they see and hear and feel and taste and smell and touch—what they experience. People don’t control their behavior. If people are going to control their experiences they have to let their behavior change in whatever way is necessary so that their experiences continue to be the way they want. They have to constantly let the muscle tensions in their legs change so that they can remain upright on the deck of a rolling boat. They have to let their racquet go to the right place so that the ball will land in the middle and sail back over the net. They have to be prepared to turn the taps any which way until the temperature of the bath feels right. They need to squeeze the bottle differently so that the right amount of detergent oozes into the sink.
So control scientists wouldn’t have to operationalize imaginary ideas like intelligence and personality. They wouldn’t assess people by asking them to produce numbers that supposedly represent different bits of intelligence or different types of personality. Nor would they use space-age machinery to make different bits of the brain light up in response to different stimuli. They would know that different colors on images of a brain would tell them nothing about difficulties in controlling.
Control scientists wouldn’t diagnose people based on reports of behaviors that occur too much or too little and they wouldn’t treat people by trying to change their behavior. Social skills programs, assertiveness programs, and anger management programs are some of the programs that wouldn’t be necessary. The use of drugs to increase or decrease behavior would also not be necessary.
We’re not sure just yet exactly what would be necessary. Many people seem to find a way to solve their problems when they are told to do different things with their behavior. But since people don’t control their behavior it can’t be anything about the particular behavioral program that helped them solve their problem. Nor could it be anything about a drug changing their behavior that helped them solve their problem. Somehow, when people are given ways of changing their behavior, some people manage to figure out how to control their experiences more effectively. Control scientists would prefer to use science rather than serendipity to help people solve their problems. Using serendipity is an approach that anyone is entitled to take. It is perhaps not unreasonable to expect, however, that when people practice serendipitously that they would say that’s what they are doing rather than pretending they are practicing scientifically. Serendipity and science are not the same and one should not be called the other.
So let’s see if I can bring together all of what I am trying to say. The implications of control are profound. They reverberate through every area of investigation of living things. At a cellular level control scientists would be interested in how cells keep certain chemical concentrates at particular levels. Even before cells get off the ground we could benefit by thinking about genetic instructions as part of the process of control. In this way genes wouldn’t be seen to be commanding anything to occur other than particular states of the DNA strand. Everything else would be seen as a side effect of this control.
But back to cells … By studying how cells control we might come to understand the normal functioning of a cell. Once we understand how a cell functions and what it actually is that a cell does when it’s doing normal celly things—we might also begin to comprehend what it is that goes wrong when problems occur. Perhaps for the first time we would begin to understand really scary diseases like cancer. Considering something like cancer from the perspective of cellular control would enable us to finally figure what’s going on when cancer occurs. Once we get to know cancer for what it is we’ll be in a mighty position to beat the rascal at it’s own game. Until that time we’ll continue to use treatments as battering rams and rely on the strategy of hope.
At the level of cellular systems we’d strike it rich by considering problems from a control perspective. We might understand what happens to a pancreas when it isn’t able to control effectively anymore and someone develops diabetes. It’s also likely that we’d begin to understand what it is about control processes that were collapsing when someone develops a degenerative disorder like multiple sclerosis or Huntington’s disease. Once we understood what was going on here in terms of disruptions to control processes we’d be in a position to begin to design interventions that might arrest the degeneration and support the functioning of organs on strike.
Moving up to individual creatures, I’ve already spent some time talking about how we might be able to understand the functioning of a creature better by considering their activity from the control angle. Problems would be understood as problems with control. Recovery from these problems would be recognized as the regaining of control in important areas. Tests and examinations would only assess a person’s control capabilities. Behavioral programs would vanish and people would be assisted to control more effectively not to increase or decrease certain behaviors—which they couldn’t do without controlling, even if they wanted to.
Once we get away from individual creatures and start thinking about what happens when creatures gather together, the control perspective is still vital. If psychologists were control scientists they might be able to make themselves indispensable to governments and social planners by really understanding what is going on. As control scientists they would understand that individuals control their perceptions and they would know that it would be counterproductive to try to control an individual’s actions. They would know that, in the long run, it is useless to try to make people behave as we want them to without considering control as it seems from where they’re standing. Not bombs nor armies nor trade sanctions nor threats nor snubs at dinner parties will change another’s behavior unless, serendipitously, these particular strategies happen to affect what the other is controlling. If control was understood then methods of making others behave as we want would be seen as problematic and perhaps even dangerous. Important people might finally be able to behave like grown ups rather than children in a playground squabbling over a favorite toy. By considering the controlling nature of each other and themselves they could reach amazing decisions with glorious consequences for the humanity of now and later on.
Control is important all over the place. In every possible way the earnest study of control will provide clarity regarding our most troublesome diseases, sicknesses, conflicts, and battles. That’s some “so what?”. But wait! There’s more … By assigning the phenomenon of control to it’s rightful place in the natural scheme of things, the life sciences will become a legitimate science for the first time. Currently division in the sciences of life is the order of the day. Division is commonplace as different strands of the one area battle for supremacy. In psychology it is important to know whether you are a clinical psychologist or a neuropsychologist or an educational psychologist or a research psychologist, and still there are more. The division is all the more quizzical considering that there is still no consensual body of knowledge to be divisive about. People in the field of psychology say that psychology is the study of behavior and yet they are unable to define what behavior actually is. This squabbling over positions on the club ladder is more reminiscent of rival craftspeople in a cottage industry than it is of a scientific endeavor.
The study of control would provide a unifying thread from which a genuine scientific discipline could grow. The bar has just been raised. A standard now exists by which people can begin to authentically understand the functioning of living things. Once we understand how living things actually go about the business of living we will be well placed to eliminate forever some of the most pervasive problems that currently exist. In fact, some problems might not be problems at all once we learn to ask the kinds of questions that would be relevant from a control paradigm. That’s not bad for one little phenomenon and the theory that explains it.
Thank you Mr. Powers.