What we can see in the light of flames

[From Bill Powers (961027.0500 MDT)]

Bill Benzon --

I am stunned that you really seem to think that PCT has an answer for
everything, or at least an answer that beats all commers past present and
future. That's ridiculous. Human behaviour is far too subtle and complex to
yield to one person or one group's set of ideas, whether it's Bill Powers &
Co. & HPCT, or me & whatever it is that I've got going.

In an earlier post, you said

Just call metaphysics the upper levels stuff, that'll make it kosher in
this crowd. Though you might have to use the secret handshake next time
you sign-on.

And even earlier, you noted that you and Hays had abandoned the higher
levels of the HCPT hierarchy early on, deciding that you could do without them.

The basic model of PCT doesn't provide an answer for everything, but it does
change all the questions. Instead of asking why people produce the actions,
the behaviors, that we see them producing, it focuses on the more
fundamental question of what they are controlling by producing those
actions. Once you understand what they're controlling, the actions become
self-explanatory, given knowledge of the physical environment. The actions
are necessary to produce the results that are being controlled. This doesn't
mean that we have understood all of what people are controlling -- far from
it, it means that we face an enormous task. We must go back over all
observations of behavior and try to see what was being controlled. This
question was not asked prior to PCT; instead, scientists have generally
taken the problem to be that of explaining what causes behaviors, which we
can now see is the wrong question.

The second model is the one we call HPCT. The basic question behind this
hierarchical model has always been, in my mind, "How can I be doing what I
find myself doing right now?" The fundamental difficulty with answering this
question is that you can see clearly only what you are attending to, and you
can't see clearly -- or most times, even notice -- the point of view from
which you're attending. So you can apply a mathematical analysis to a
difficult problem without ever realizing that you're doing something that
needs to be in a model of human behavior: analyzing something
mathematically. If you ask, "How can I be doing this mathematical analysis?"
the particular analysis becomes irrelevant; what now matters are the
processes you have to be carrying out in order to do it at all. If you find
any answers, they will apply to any mathematical analyses you might carry
out, or any similar processes like verbal or logical reasoning, or handling
symbols in any way governed by rules. And when that becomes the subject of
study, what you were studying before by USING these facilities of your brain
is no longer the subject under study.

The models of behavior you come up with reflect the levels of perception at
which you are most comfortable as points of view toward everything else. If,
for example, you find it easiest to examine relationships among things, you
will simply use whatever categories you know, and whatever sequences and
programs and principles and system concepts you have learned, in the course
of building this model. It will seem to you that once you have found a
plausible set of relationships (perhaps by finding correlations among
events, transitions, configurations, sensations, or intensities), your model
will be complete, because it has accounted for everything at the highest
level that matters. In building this model, you will have used your own
ability to experience and manipulate perceptions at higher levels which you
have omitted from your model. But since you're not conscious of those levels
while you're using them, it doesn't seem to you that you've left anything
out. In fact, you may dismiss any considerations higher than relationships
(or whatever your favorite working level may be) as "metaphysics."

These two basic aspects of the subject-matter we call PCT certainly don't
answer all questions about human nature. But they call into question most of
the answers that have been offered without taking them into account, and
that's pretty much all of them.

I imagine that a lot of people put up some stiff resistance when Newton
offered his three little laws of motion. People had been trying since
Aristotle to find laws that would explain the motions of objects, and some
of them were undoubtably much smarter than Newton. I can just imagine the
objections: "How can you, a spiritualist, have the nerve to tell us that 60
generations of dedicated people managed to get the whole picture of movement
wrong, while you, one presumptuous pipsqueak, have found the magical
formulas that explain everything?" People could have pointed to birds, and
geysers, and clouds, and sailing ships, and dozens of other phenomena, and
asked "How do you explain _that?_" I doubt that Newton could have supplied a
satisfactory answer; he would have been wisest not to try. His best
rejoinder would have been that any explanation that had been offered without
taking the three laws of motion into account ought to be reexamined, to see
whether leaving out those laws had made a difference in the conclusions. And
of course, in most cases leaving them out would have made all the difference.

Few people who learn about PCT in mid-life and after a long career of
developing a coherent view of nature are capable of re-examining the entire
route by which they got to where they are. I was fortunate, in that at the
age of 27 I had no long history of developing ideas about human nature, and
indeed had just abandoned what I had thought was a promising one, when I
learned about the basic concepts relating control theory to human
organization. Everything I learned was new to me and I had no opposing views
to overcome, except what I had accumulated through informal life
experiences. This is not true of most of the people who learn about PCT now.
Learning PCT, for most adults and especially most people involved
professionally in studies of human nature, entails resolving an almost
endless series of conflicts. It requires going back to the first things one
learned about the scientific approach to behavior, and re-evaluating them in
the light of the simple propositions of PCT and HPCT. It is extremely hard
to think back on a friendly and admired person who acted as a guide, a
mentor, and a role-model, and realize that he or she was pumping seductive
nonsense into your eager brain. For most scientists I have met, giving
serious consideration to PCT amounts to committing an act of disloyalty and

I greatly admire those who have managed to get through those problems and
acquire a deep understanding of PCT. And those who have not deserve sympathy
-- although not to the extent of diverting us from our course.


Bill P.

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