Regulation versus Construction
Western science has been associated with the "mechanistic picture of the world" ( Dijksterhuis, 1961) since the days of the scientific revolution. In addition, much of the prestige that has accrued to science has its origin not in scientific thinking but in technological mastery. It is, therefore, unsurprising that almost every serious attempt to create a scientific psychology has started from the assumption that scientific psychology should be mechanistic. Yet this is a false assumption, and one that misleads in a most pernicious way, because this mechanistic bias is one of the leading reasons why scientific psychology has had so little success at helping us to understand the psychological aspects of reality. In this chapter I review the serious intellectual problems bequeathed to psychology by the mechanistic worldview and begin to suggest an ecological alternative based on the biological concept of the regulation of activity.
For four long centuries, scientific psychology has relied almost exclusively on mechanical models for inspiration. In the 17th century, Descartes was seduced by a group of hydraulic robots in the grotto at the Palace of St. Germain into developing his mechanistic picture of animal life ( Descartes, 1637/ 1985). During the Enlightenment, Vaucanson and others delighted in constructing mechanical automata that could simulate physiological functions, such as a performing flute player or a duck that could swim, eat, and excrete ( Fryer & Marshall, 1979). In the 19th century, the development of telegraphy had a major impact on students of the nervous system who initiated the tradition of studying that biological system as if it were something wired for communication between different places. This tendency gained in our present century, with increasingly fancy mechanical metaphors: telephone exchanges, steering servomechanisms, and, of course, digital computers.
These mechanical systems all have one thing in common: they do not act unless put into action by an external agency. A tool is something that extends or substitutes for the motions of workers ( Marx 1867/ 1977: chap. 14). But tools can do this only because they are put into motion by workers and other sources of power. The central problem of psychology is to understand how people put themselves into motion--a problem that cannot even be described properly in purely mechanistic language. Even today, complex tools such as computers do not really do anything until they are made to do it. No one as yet has succeeded in constructing automata that act as autonomously in the environment as even a simple living creature: without external support, nourish-