The "Ghost" Concepts of Psychology

By Szentagotai, Aurora; Rusu, Alina et al. | Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies, September 2008 | Go to article overview

The "Ghost" Concepts of Psychology


Szentagotai, Aurora, Rusu, Alina, Gavita, Oana, David, Daniel, Journal of Evidence-Based Psychotherapies


Abstract

Questions regarding the correspondence between models/constructs of reality and reality itself have been much debated in science because confusions of the two can lead to serious scientific problems. For example, a mistake occurs when a mathematical model - a convenient calculation device - is ascribed physical reality, being perforce thrust into the realm of physics. However, it is often accepted that a mathematical model may be ascribed physical reality when it allows testable predictions. This distinction is a fundamental one for psychology as well. In this paper we explore the implications of this distinction for psychology and take the argument one step further by showing that the simple fact that a model helps us correctly describe and predict various phenomena does not grant it reality at all.

Keywords: psychological model, psychological reality, multilevel analysis.

The problem and objectives

Questions regarding the correspondence between models/constructs of reality and reality itself have been much debated in science because confusions of the two can lead to serious scientific problems. This is an extended analysis based on our previous work (Gavita, 2007; Rusu & Gavita, 2007). In modern physics, reality is defined as (see Aerts, 1996): (1) present reality, which consists of all happenings that are available at present (this is similar to the definition of classical physics where reality at a certain instant of time "t", is all that exists at that instant of time t); (2) past reality, which consists of all happenings that were available in the past; and (3) future reality, which consists of all happenings that shall be available in the future. A happening (e.g., a book) is that aspect of an experience lending itself to creation, control and action; a creation (e.g., the act of reading) is that aspect of an experience created, controlled, and acted upon by us (Aerts, 1996).

Recently, in a paper published in the influential journal "Science", Backman (2006) has brought attention to the dangers of confusing reality with mathematical models/constructs of it; the mistake occurs when a mathematical model - as a convenient calculation device - is ascribed physical reality, being perforce thrust into the realm of physics. Backman (2006) further suggested that a mathematical model may be ascribed physical reality when it allows clear testable predictions.

We believe that this discussion is fundamental for psychology as well. Therefore, this paper: (1) explores the implications of this distinction in psychology and (2) takes the argument one step further by showing that the simple fact that a model/construct helps us correctly describe and predict various phenomena does not grant it reality at all.

Framework and arguments

A mathematical model/construct (i.e. function) consists of three things bundled together: a set of inputs (domain), a set of outputs (codomain), and a rule for associating the output with the input. For example (analysis based on David, Miclea, & Opre, 2004), the following mathematical function, F: N (domain) - N (codomain), is defined by a formula: F(x)=2x, where the domain N refers to all natural numbers, the codomain N also refers to all natural numbers, and F(x) refers to the formula connecting domain and codomain. This mathematical function helps us: (1) explain why a specific codomain value (e.g., 4) is given a specific domain value (e.g., 2); (2) predict a specific codomain value (e.g., 6) given a specific domain value (e.g., 3); (3) describe the entire range of domaincodomain relations (e.g., 0-0; 1-2; etc.); (4) summarize by a mathematical model all the possible domain-codomain relations (e.g., 0-0; 1-2; etc.). If the input and the output refer to physical quantities, this mathematical model allows testable predictions regarding physical reality, although few would argue that the model itself [F(x)=2x] is part of physical reality.

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