Theme and Variations

Our inner lives are not at all normative; they are unique, ultimately personal. Since subjective experience is our essence, is what makes us fundamentally different from rocks and robots, how can something that claims to be the science of the human mind and behavior concern itself only with the objective, the observable equated to the measurable and that reduced, in turn, to what can be submitted to a statistical analysis?

The empirical method, as it has been applied in practice in both academic and applied psychology focuses on the normative, the standard, the average, the average difference, to the exclusion of the personal, the individual, the ideographic. It focuses on the theme at the cost of ignoring of the variations, the yin without the yang, the yang without the yin. How can we ignore our inner lives and think we understand ourselves? Humanistic and existential thinkers have always said this. Their ideas have been largely forgotten, ignored, even disparaged; but never conclusively refuted, never proven to be irrelevant.
This pursuit of a consciousness-less norm as a way of understanding human nature could be said to border on psychosis, turning the human being into a soul-less, empty being whose conscious existence is but a phantom, an epiphenomena, an after-effect. Could we imagine a more dissociated, more cut off from ourselves, way of understanding our nature?
This mechanistic model of the human being has dominated psychology most of my lifetime. Colorless, nearly lifeless repetition, theme without variation. My favorite piece of classical music is the slow movement of Beethoven’s 7th – a simple theme and variations. Jazz is nearly entirely theme and variations, each solo repeating the chord changes of the melody while adding a unique variation. Human life is forever both repeating patterns, but subtly or dramatically altering them. When we return to the theme, it has changed, been altered by what has preceded it. We need repeated patterns to bring order to the chaos of life, but only the variations give life its multi-dimensional reality.

Human life exists at the confluence of the unique — the ideographic — and the normative, the nomothetic. It exists in the space between the uniqueness of the individual human being and the general nature of our species.
Psychology only briefly struggled with this problem before ceding almost entirely to the statistical empiricism as its tool of choice, very nearly its faith, its hope and a prayer of how to understand ourselves. We’ve found out a few things about ourselves, but, with all due respect to the researchers who’ve devoted their lives to empirical studies, the overall endeavor of psychological research may very likely to end up on a scrap heap of missteps along the path of human cultural evolution.
Being a person is both particular and general. But psychology has gone so far in its narrow, self-defined version of empiricism, its devotion to a particular definition of logical positivism, there’s no hope of grasping the link between experience and behavior, leaving a gaping hole in our understanding. Cognitive psychology aims to fill this gap with the addition of mental strategies and algorithms, but its commitment to the model of statistical analyses of quantifiable variables does little to shift the balance toward understanding the qualitative nature of human experience.

We are simultaneously one of a species and unique beings subject to our own individual nature. Human DNA itself is both our common heritage and, at the same time, unique in each of us. Even identical twins are two different people with different experiences of life from the moment one emerges from the womb before the other.

I see the direction academic psychology is largely an empty, eviscerated shell of a human that is the object of study and so the conclusions, the results drawn from statistical analysis of psychological variables do not open many mental doors for me. We have to bring the active, sensing, caring, fearing, lusting, dreaming person back into the picture.

Our science, as it’s filtered down to the populace by various media, misinterprets the concepts of evolution incorrectly because of this over-emphasis on the theme at the expense of the variations. We miss the most obvious thing about DNA: Not only is an incredible mechanism for copying from human to human, but it is also the carrier of the infinite variation that makes each of us unique. From the point view of survival, human DNA works because it always varies. Even minor over-copying, as happened various times in human history, such as in royal families, has disastrous results. While think of the survival advantage that this or that aspect of homo sapiens might have had, it was the survival of communities of humans that was really the key, particularly to the cultural evolution of the human race. It is true that human communities worked because their people shared fundamental capacities, from eyesight to the intricate capacity to hear, remember and re-iterate sounds that became the base for that most fundamental of all shared human capacities: language. But they also worked because of the variations in people. The nearly infinite variability of DNA is at least as important as its commonalities. Consider what communities need to survive. Some individuals must be strong, decisive, convincing leaders, but many must have far less fiery tempers if a clan is survive. Communities are not made up of cloned copies of each other, but also need the strangest, most divergent members as the source of creativity, of difference, of variation.

The second related mistake is to suppose, that evolution in the physical form of our genes explains human nature to the point that life events and free will are irrelevant. Our genes ensure that key components for survival are passed on one generation to the next. The natural processes of life will then ensure that variation persists. From “nature’s” perspective, all it has to do is build a roulette wheel with many possible outcomes; it doesn’t need to control the ball once the wheel’s in spin. From the roulette wheel’s perspective, the “outcome” is irrelevant, all it needs to do is to make sure the possibilities are there. To the wheel, human consciousness, human choice, and all the bumps in the road of life are just random variation. Variety is more than the spice of life, it’s intimately tied to what defines us as living beings and not robotic reproducing machines.

One thought on “Theme and Variations”

Comments are closed.

Essays on creativity, community, social change, and the search for meaning