Chapter 3: Operationism and Essentialism

The subtitle of this chapter is “But Doctor, what does it really mean?”

What does gravity really mean? Not just measurements of how fast things fall, but what is gravity, really?

Stanovich points out that often the lay public wants science to answer these kinds of questions, which he calls ultimate questions, or essentialist questions, but scientists are mostly uninterested.
Scientists find a good enough way to define concepts as best they can, but then they go about measuring what they can measure, and relating it to observable properties. In science, the concept is the set of operations (or set of actions ones take to measure). Surely, there is more to hunger than a measurement of blood sugar, and more to anxiety than an answer on a survey. But the scientists who study these things find the best set of measurements available, and see if they can predict other measurements that matter, and don’t worry whether they are measuring the one “true” nature of hunger, anxiety, intelligence, or whatever.

This results in some weird disconnects between the supposed experts and the questions that we ask of them. I had a few experiences with this myself just recently.

The first was hearing a guest lecture from a biologist who studies plants. He began his talk with a slide that said “What is a plant?” He paused, and let people think about it. He then put up a few serviceable definitions. most of which included photosynthesis (which of course made me think of the TMBG song) and the ability to create one’s own sugar. But then, he proceeded to say, hey, look at these things we call plants that don’t do photosynthesis. There are parasitic plants that eat other plants. And there are plants that eat fungi, and don’t use photosynthesis at all. The subjects of this scientist’s research are these kinds of plants, called mycoheterotropes. The bulk of the mycohetereotropes we know of as orchids.

Lovely picture of a dirty, lowdown, fungi-eatin' orchid by the amazing Katie Harbath


I had no idea that many orchids “ate” fungi. By the end of the talk, I was thinking again about how do we define a plant, what is a plant really? But this guy is not actually interested in that, he is interested in how orchids work.

Similarly, I was chatting with my fantastic physicist/cosmologist/science writer friend Matthew Francis, and he was saying how his blog can draw people who are incensed that Pluto lost its planetary status. What is a planet? Really? This may have been an earth-shattering event for everyone who memorized the nine planets. “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas” is no longer. Educated mothers everywhere now can only serve an unspecific number of nachos, or noodles, or nectarines. But for astronomers and cosmologists, this is a blip. Yeah, we’ve known about Kuiper Belt Objects for a while, and we’ve known about other bigger objects than Pluto, it doesn’t really make sense to keep calling it a planet. But it is not a huge deal, because Pluto is still interesting, but it is interesting in the context of a whole lot of other stuff that is interesting, whether or not you call it a planet.

The economic downturn has led even the solar system to lay off planets... photo courtesy of the Lunar and Planetary Institute


Stanovich mentions that essentialists like to argue about language, which words are most appropriate. The debate over planet is a perfect example of this. My advisor always used to speak disparagingly of the “word police” in our field. Essentialism is not always as restricted to the layman as Stanovich would like. Some scientists do engage in debate over labels, and in essentialism.

Stanovich ends the chapter with a discussion about whether a computer can think.
I regularly have this conversation with students earlier in the semester, and I try, at this point, to bring that up again and call our attention to our own essentialist instincts. I show them scary robots and we talk about chess, and Deep Blue, and we walk through the typical arguments that computers can only do what they are programmed to do, and that people thinking requires creativity, adapting to novel circumstances and situations.
I try to pull them towards operational definitions (how do we measure creativity in humans? what if a computer could do that? Would you say it could think?) but if framing an operational definition for thinking allows a computer to think (and a proper operational definition would allow for that possibility) then it seems abhorrent to many students (and philosophers too!).

But ultimately, science moves on, despite the obvious discomfort that they provoke with their apathy towards essential questions. We don’t know what happiness really is, but we know that whatever way we currently have of measuring it has a large genetic component. We don’t know what the essence of anxiety really is, but that doesn’t stop us from realizing which therapies are more effective than others.

Next up: Testimonials and Case studies

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About Cedar Riener

College psychology professor, husband, father.
This entry was posted in bookreview, psychology, science and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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