The Ministry of the Mundane

From The Life You’ve Always Wanted:

Let me issue one note of caution: It is generally easier to hear about serving than to actually serve. I know of a woman who, when she was facing an important operation, asked her husband to look after the children over the weekend. He said no, he was going to attend a huge rally for men that would teach them how to live as Christian husbands and fathers. He refused to serve his wife on the grounds that he had to attend a conference where he would be taught and inspired to serve his wife!

Now when I read this I laughed, but it wasn’t until nighttime when I reflected upon my day that I realized how I was committing the very same mistake in my life. Sometimes we come up with resolutions to better serve those around us; yet too often we choose to pass up the little opportunities, waiting for a real opportunity to serve them (perhaps because our efforts are more likely to be recognized). But often, the little things in life are also the ones that matter the most.

Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.

1 John 3:18

Amazing Grace

Amazing grace
How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost, but now I’m found
Was blind, but now I see

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fears relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed

My chains are gone
I’ve been set free
My God, my Savior has ransomed me
And like a flood His mercy reigns
Unending love, Amazing grace

The Lord has promised good to me
His word my hope secures
He will my shield and portion be
As long as life endures

The earth shall soon dissolve like snow
The sun forbear to shine
But God, Who called me here below
Will be forever mine
Will be forever mine
You are forever mine

Evolutionary Psychology

Another approach to psychology which promises much is Evolutionary Psychology. Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior and cognition using such theories of evolution as natural selection and adaptation.

Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection may simply be thought of as the “survival of the fittest”. The idea behind natural selection is that organisms with better genes are more likely to survive and reproduce than those with weak genes; over successive generations, these genes are passed down in the form of heritable traits. Hence why we behave the way we do, at least according to this approach, is because the behavior is adaptive and gives us a better chance of passing down our genes to future generations. For example, some evolutionary psychologists believe that we are capable of language because being able to communicate provided our ancestors an adaptive advantage over the other animals, hence our language ability has persisted till today.

As with the behavioral approach, the evolutionary approach is somewhat counterintuitive. When I first came across Darwin’s theory of evolution, I found it hard to accept why our behavior would be governed by such deep-seated, innate drives. I didn’t deny the existence of an unconscious mind, but the fact that we are very much conscious of what we do was enough to convince myself about the limitations of natural selection. This is where proximal causation and ultimate causation comes in.

It is important to distinguish between the two: proximate causation explains that we do what we do not because of the ultimate goal of reproducing. Rather, we focus on our immediate drives, such as hunger and thirst. Ultimate causation, on the other hand, explains that our behavior, in the long run, is as such because it is adaptive and geared towards the ultimate goal of reproduction. An excerpt from Paul Bloom’s lecture should illustrate this better:

This is a point nicely made by William James. So, William James is asked, “Why do we eat?” And he writes,

Not one man in a billion when taking his dinner ever thinks of utility. He eats because the food tastes good and makes him want more. If you asked him why you should want to eat more of what tastes like that, instead of revering you as a philosopher, he will probably laugh at you for a fool.

And it’s really the common sense answer. “Why are you eating?” Nobody’s going to answer, “Because I must sustain my body so as to spread my genes in the future.” Rather, you eat because you’re hungry.

Behaviorism

What comes to your mind when you come across the term “psychology”? For most of us, we tend to think of mental illnesses such as depression and schizophrenia. As well, we think of abstract concepts such as personality, emotions, and consciousness. But probably the very first thing that we think of when we see the word psychology is the concept of mind.

While applied psychology is most commonly seen in clinical contexts, it is not all that the field has to offer because psychological disorders only form the subfield of abnormal psychology. Similarly, it is difficult to grapple with the idea that psychology is more than just about the mental processes that take place in our heads – it extends to observable behavior, which forms much of the basis behind the study of psychology. One of the earliest approaches to psychology was behaviorism, the dominant school of thought in the first half of the 20th century.

Behaviorism first flourished under the intellectual leadership of psychologists John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, emphasizing the scientific study of observable behavioral responses and their environmental determinants. Behaviorism provides that our behavior is influenced entirely by environmental factors; in the process, it discounts the importance of cognitive processes. For example, a child who always throws tantrums in public could be doing so because his parents give in to him every time he makes a scene, so he now knows how to get his way. Meanwhile, a teen who studies consistently for her exams might be willing to do so only because she gets rewarded whenever she does well. A famous quote from Watson captures the essence of behaviorism best:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.

I suspect that this might be a preposterous idea to most of us now. How can it be right to suggest that we are influenced to the extent that we cannot exercise free will? Don’t we get a say?

The main reason that behaviorists chose to approach psychology from this perspective is that it allowed the world to look upon psychology as a real science: only by moving away from “nonscientific” methods such as introspection in favor of empirically observable results would people start taking psychology seriously. While contemporary behaviorists still adopt the same approach in research, most do not deny the role of cognition and biology in behavior.