In Response: Psychology Is a Behavioral Science, Not a Biological Science, by Gary Greenberg and Charles Lambdin-Correct Conclusion, Unsound Arguments

By Whelan, Robert | The Psychological Record, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

In Response: Psychology Is a Behavioral Science, Not a Biological Science, by Gary Greenberg and Charles Lambdin-Correct Conclusion, Unsound Arguments


Whelan, Robert, The Psychological Record


Greenberg and Lambdin's review (in the summer 2007 issue) does an excellent job of summarizing the contents of Uttal's book Neural Theories of Mind: Why the Mind-Brain Problem May Never Be Solved (hereafter NTM). Furthermore, these authors make several insightful comments about the issues raised in NTM. I disagree, however, with two aspects of Greenberg and Lambdin's review: one a matter of opinion, the other of fact. First, I am surprised at the authors' generally positive assessment of NTM, because they (and I) disagree with Uttal's fundamental notion that minds exist and that the brain is the source of behavior. Second, I take issue with some of Greenberg and Lambdin's interpretations of neuroscience research, which they use, rightly, to argue that psychology is not a biological science.

Greenberg and Lambdin offer three reasons why they think NTM is worthwhile reading for behaviorists: it is a thorough treatment of the concept of theory in science, it contains an analysis of the historical and contemporary treatments of the mind-brain connection, and finally, Uttal's orientation is not reductionistic. The first two points refer to the pedagogical value of NTM. I do not agree completely that NTM is a good teaching aid--for example, the chapter on theory does not cite Skinner (1950)--but the literature review is the strongest aspect of NTM. The third reason is most important because it relates to the core thesis of NTM. According to Greenberg and Lambdin, NTM is "especially appealing to behaviorists" (p. 461) because Uttal concludes that reductionistic attempts to explain the mind must inevitably fail. Some of this appeal is probably lost, however, when Greenberg and Lambdin correctly recognize that Uttal calls himself a behaviorist although he retains the notion of minds that exist in brains. Indeed, the authors are to be commended for highlighting Uttal's eclectic approach to behavioral psychology; I wish all reviews of Uttal's work would make this point. In essence, Greenberg and Lambdin argue that Uttal's fundamental assumptions are wrong but that NTM has some pedagogical value. Thus, to describe NTM as an "otherwise fine book" (p. 473) is akin to a surgeon describing an operation as a success even though the patient died. It is precisely because Greenberg and Lambdin have correctly identified Uttal's muddled approach that I find it hard to understand their praise for NTM.

My second point of departure with Greenberg and Lambdin's review concerns the interpretation of neuroscience research. The New Phrenology, by Uttal (2001), contained basic factual errors in discussions of brain structure and electrophysiological measures (Hubbard, 2003), and therefore reviewers of NTM should be particularly vigilant for such inaccuracies. For example, Uttal (2005) questions the utility and reliability of electroencephalograms (EEGs) on page 150 of NTM. Greenberg and Lambdin quote Uttal's comment that EEG and event-related potential (ERP) recordings "are neither accurate nor consistent from trial to trial, from subject to subject, or from experiment to experiment" (Uttal, 2005, p. 250). This is simply not the case. Although it is true that an ERP may not be obvious on every trial, due to noise, ERPs are generally similar across subjects and experiments. Figure 1 displays the averaged auditory evoked potential (AEP) of the current author: it is certainly consistent with the typical AEP. Rather than reprimanding Uttal for his inaccuracy, Greenberg and Lambdin augment the unwarranted skepticism by selectively quoting Uttal: "'[t]he details of how ... EEGs, ERPs ... arise from the action of individual cells has not been definitively established' ([Uttal, 2005] p. 114)" (Greenberg & Lambdin, p. 464). Even Uttal qualified this statement in his next sentence (which the authors do not quote): "However, it is thought that they are most likely the accumulation of ... potentials from ordered pyramidal cells" (p. 114). It should be acknowledged that the origin of the EEG is quite well understood and that several thousand published studies on ERPs and EEGs show reliable and replicated effects. …

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