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ASKING QUESTIONS ABOUT BEHAVIOR* JAMES W. MC KEARNEY^ What follows lays no claim to originality, but the issues seem important enough to justify repetition. I would like briefly to call atention to the fact that human behavior, even in its apparently simpler forms, is vastly more complex than generally seems to be appreciated by either the lay public or the scientific community. This inherent complexity, which frequently goes unrecognized, makes it very unlikely indeed that there will ever be any simply and universally applied "cures" that will do for major social and personal behavior problems what the SaIk vaccine did for polio. Paradoxically, many attempts to understand behavior are fraught with obstacles to understanding. First, much of our thinking about behavior is based on conceptions of causality that tacitly assume a simple, one-toone relation between "causes" and "effects" that is inapplicable to even the simplest of behaviors. Second, there is often a failure to fully appreciate the important difference between the physical appearance of a behavior on the one hand and its functional significance or "meaning" on the other. Third, in our efforts to "explain" we often create conceptual explanatory structures that take on a character of concrete "thingness " that can be misleading; structural properties, or "thingness," may be attributed to what is instead an abstraction, a process, or a relation. What follows is a briefdiscussion ofthese and related issues in the study of behavior. The Limits of Cause-Effect Relations To varying decrees most of us are determinists, at least insofar as this implies a confidence that natural phenomena have causes that are at least potentially discoverable and therefore manipulable. As scientists, we look for reasonably reliable relationships among classes of these natural events. For the layperson, science is, more restrictedly, a search ?Preparation partially supported by grants MH-18421 and DA-01015 from the U.S. Public Health Service. tWorcester Foundation for Experimental Biology, 222 Maple Avenue, Shrewsbury, Massachusetts 01545. Perspectives in Biobgy and Medicine ¦ Autumn 1977 | 109 for the causes of various practical problems, diseases, and malfunctions, and success is generally measured by how many problems get solved. In the life sciences the set goal is to find the cause of a particular medical or social problem and to be in a position, therefore, to prescribe the cure or solution. Unfortunately, the nature of the subject matter in the behavioral sciences may impose severe restrictions that limit this type of "success." Unlike certain areas of the physical sciences, complex biological phenomena may not have simple and direct "causes" in the same sense that gravity causes objects to fall, or a swift kick causes a ball to move. Though on some level it is undoubtedly true that nature is governed by "laws" which in principle may be reducible to mathematical equations, the restricted conception of causality that would have factor ? always producing some predictable and invariant effect on factory generally is inapplicable to complex biological and behavioral phenomena. When dealing with behavior, there are no "causes" that invariably have particular effects,just as there are no "effects" that have unique causes. Instead, behavior is characterized by what general systems theory calls equifinality, which means simply that the same thing can be arrived at in many different ways [I]. Because of their constancy and dependability, scientific "laws" are attractive and seductive. You can count on them. Ohm's law, for example , describes a relationship that is, for practical purposes, immutable and invariant; knowing the resistance and the voltage one can always find the current. Unfortunate though it may be for scientific progress, our lives are no doubt richer for the fact that human behavior is not this simple and predictable. When we study behavior a complicating factor is introduced—the passage of time, and all that goes along with it [2]. Behavioral processes of necessity occur in real time, hence causation is inevitably cumulative or historical rather than static and unchanging. The effect of variable ? cannot be predicted by any simple equation that will always hold; rather, its effect will depend on the state of the organism or system at that time and this state is subject to constant flux with the passage oftime (experience). To a certain...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1529-8795
Print ISSN
0031-5982
Pages
pp. 109-119
Launched on MUSE
2015-01-07
Open Access
No
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