[From Bill Powers (940505.1150 MDT)]

In a private post, Clark McPhail said this (cited with permission):

   Most people find it very difficult to break out of S->R
   thinking. Of those who do, most either reject any form of
   systematic scientific thinking and research on human experience
   and action and resort to philosophical nonsense or post-modern
   interpretations and the like; the remainder who reject S->R
   thinking sometimes view cognitive models as a useful alternative
   to S->R models. That was my entre' to PCT and it took a while to
   understand that PCT was not about the control of action outputs.
   My perception is that this always comes as a shock when newcomers
   on the net realize this counter-intuitive "truth". It is a
   disturbing ephiphany. They have to reorganize, to start over
   again and re-think their way back through the entire PCT

And, in giving permission, Clark also added this, cited in
anticipation of permission:


It's somewhat frustrating knowing that there are 120+ long-time
subscribers to this list, and not knowing how many of them have
experienced these "epiphanies." Most people come to some sort of
understanding of PCT quite early in the game. I hope that Clark and
others will write about what it was like to "understand" PCT
_before_ these crucial insights penetrated, while control still
seemed to be controlling actions, and while perception was something
that one still considered as a theoretical aspect of _other_
people's functioning (or however it was conceived). I suspect that
many people here have not crossed the threshold yet, and perhaps
hearing how others see their pre-threshold understanding they will
realize that there is yet another step to take in reaching complete

Clark described the critical experience: "They have to
reorganize, to start over again and re-think their way back
through the entire PCT argument." This is the big AHA. When you
really understand that control systems do NOT control their own
actions, and when you understand that ALL they can control is their
own -- your own -- perceptions, the first thing that happens is that
all your previous understandings of PCT flash back through your mind
and _change_. It is absolutely amazing how one can make sense of
something and still not have it right, and then how one little
change of interpretation can cascade all the way back through
everything you thought you understood and totally revise it. That's
what "getting it" with respect to PCT means. That's why some people
make such a big deal of this experience, and even doubt the claims
of others to understand PCT when they show no signs of having gone
through this upheaval.

Of course it's possible that for some people nothing ever stood in
the way of getting the picture correctly on the first exposure to
PCT. But that doesn't seem very likely to me; I haven't yet
encountered any examples. It's hard to reach adulthood without
having formed some explanatory concept of human behavior,
particularly one's own behavior. Everybody comes into PCT with some
preformed system concept about human nature. What makes PCT
difficult to grasp is the very effort one naturally makes to "make
sense" of the theory, meaning to make it fit in with what one
already understands. We are, in fact, very good at doing this. All
we have to do is bend the meaning of one sentence one way, another
sentence a different way, and the new idea slips neatly into place
among the old ideas. When we succeed in doing this, as we usually
do, we say we "understand." We say the new idea "makes sense." We
even say it improves our understanding.

But this form of understanding is specifically designed to leave
intact what we understood before. This is a control process, by
which system concepts are protected against disturbance. The purpose
of this way of treating a new idea is exactly to counteract any
disturbance it might create among the system concepts one is already
maintaining. This is not an epiphany; the pleasure of making sense
of the new idea is not the dangerous thrill of discovery, but the
pleasure of finding reassurance that all is well with the world the
way it is -- or even better than before.

Again, is it possible that for some people the principles of PCT fit
right into their previous system concepts without any need to
distort or reinterpret them to make them fit. But again, I haven't
encountered any examples of this. It's really not to be expected.
There are no existing disciplines or lines of thought that were
based from the start on the idea of control of perception and non-
control of action. Yet each discipline or line of thought has
attempted to produce explanations of human behavior, the same human
behavior with which PCT is concerned. It must be realized that
control of perception and noncontrol of action are _fundamental
premises_ in any explanation of behavior. So other explanations that
have done without these concepts, and this is true of all
conventional approaches, must have substituted some _other_
fundamental premises.

There are only two basic kinds of fundamental premises that were
adopted (singly or in combination) prior to PCT. One was that events
in the environment cause the behaviors we see, and the other was
that internal processes, traits, properties, or cognitions cause the
behaviors we see. Whatever superstructure is built on these
premises, the fundamental premises are absolutely crucial at every

As a result, the main misinterpretations of PCT that occur are those
that leave one or the other of the conventional premises intact. The
simplest misinterpretation is quite straightforward; as an example,
I have seen the title of my first book cited (in an approving way)
as "Perception: the control of behavior." That leaves the
environment as the causative agent. Another straightforward
confusion is the identification with _Plans and the structure of
behavior_, citations in which my work is described as being inspired
by the TOTE unit: the TOTE unit is described as a way of producing
planned actions until the desired result is achieved.

So, getting back to the main thread, the most likely outcome of an
encounter between PCT and ANY conventional theory is that there will
be a clash that traces back to fundamental premises. But the clash
is not necessarily obvious. The basic statements of PCT, which we
try to make as clear and unequivocal as possible, can too easily be
taken as rather clumsy ways of saying that the environment causes
behavior, or that plans or traits and so forth cause behavior. To
add to the difficulties, people who work under either of the
conventional sets of premises are not often conscious of the crucial
ways in which their observations and arguments rest on those
fundamental premises. There is a tendency to pit the _conclusions_
of another theory against the _conclusions_ of PCT (or else to
emphasize the similarities), without any realization that the roots
of the problem (or the apparent agreement) rest in incompatible sets
of fundamental premises. So arguments tend to occur at the wrong
level of abstraction -- at the level of talking about goals or
purposes, properties of perception in psychophysical terms, specific
explanations of bizzarre behavior or behavior seen under unusual
circumstances, specific designs for control processes. All the
while, the real problem is a basic difference in conceptions of what
behavior is and how it works.

The epiphanies of which Clark speaks are not just statements that
one accepts as one accepts the premises of a logical argument. For
some reason, one catches oneself in the act of controlling some
perception, and realizes that the _actions_ by which this control is
brought about are _not_ under control, but vary with every
disturbance. One suddenly understands "control of perception" as
applying to one's _own_ perceptions, and realizes that -- of course
-- _there is nothing else to control_. One suddenly realizes that
the basic premises are in fact true. That, and not the acceptance of
the arguments as logical premises, is what leads to the sense of
revelation, the epiphany. The critical moment occurs when one makes
the connection between the abstract statements and direct
experience, discovering that the abstract statements are not
abstract at all: as Clark said, they are counterintuitive truths.
The intuitions to which they run counter are the fundamental
premises of most other theories of behavior.


Best to all,

Bill P.