In my BLT (Bowlby Less Traveled) post of June 29th, 2010, I mentioned the following quote by Bowlby from page 41 of vol. I of his trilogy on attachment:
At one time to attribute purposiveness to animals or to build a psychology of human behavior on the concept of purposefulness was to declare oneself a vitalist and to be banned from the company of respectable scientists.
This quote actually continues thus (with my addition in brackets):
The development of control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile, has changed that. Today [the mid-1960s] it is recognized that a machine incorporating feedback can be truly goal-directed. Thus it comes about that nowadays to attribute purposiveness to behaviour and to think, if not teleologically, at least teleonomically is not only common sense, as it always was, but also good science.
Wow! That is a highly dense quote, especially to a modern ear. In this post I’d like to spend a bit of time trying to unpack or decompress the above quote because, in my opinion, it really is the Rosetta Stone as far as understanding the philosophical, economic, and political environs that surrounded much of Bowlby’s work.
The topic of purposiveness would take (and has taken) volumes to describe. Suffice it to say that puposiveness is at the heart of all the controversy that surrounds a movement like Intelligent Design (ID). On a very simple level the ID movement is about convincing people (once again) that God provides all purpose. And a statement like “God provides all purpose” is a teleological statement. Here’s how the Wikipedia entry for teleological argument puts it:
A teleological argument is an argument for the existence of God or a creator based on perceived evidence of order, purpose, design, or direction—or some combination of these—in nature. The word “teleological” is derived from the Greek word telos, meaning “end” or “purpose.” Teleology is the supposition that there is purpose or directive principle in the works and processes of nature.
Hopefully the reader is starting to make the connection that Bowlby’s fear of being “banned from the company of respectable scientists” (quoting Bowlby) centers on his (rather risky) decision to bring such topics as teleology and purposiveness into discussions concerning attachment behavior. As the various authors of the 2005 edited volume (meaning a book that contains a number of articles by different authors) Critically Thinking About Psychology—Hidden Assumptions and Plausible Alternatives point out, Nietzche’s late 19th century proclamation “God is dead” corresponded closely to the rise of scientism. (Use the CONTACT US button above to request a copy of a summary I wrote of key chapters from Thinking Critically.) According to the Thinking Critically authors, this point in time marks the beginning of two import historical trends:
- objective scientific facts would increasingly come to replace religious dogma
- an uneasy tension would come to increasingly characterize the relationship between science and religion
In essence, the rise of scientism was chiefly about discovering how the natural world “really” works, that is to say, what really animates the natural world, a position that rejects the teleological notion that God (or some form of creator) animates the natural world. So, again, by talking about “purposiveness” and “teleology” Bowlby is in large part rejecting science’s heretofore rejection of all things religious. In essence, Bowlby wished to take up a middle ground between reductionistic science (which I talk about in my June 29th, 2010 post) on one hand and religious vitalism (e.g., everything unfolds according to God’s plan) on the other. But what does this middle ground look like.
Well, Bowlby gives us a look at this middle ground when he talks about “the development of control systems of increasing sophistication, such as those that control a homing missile” (quoting Bowlby). In essence, Bowlby is saying that man can put “purpose” into a “machine incorporating feedback” such that it becomes “truly goal-directed” (quotes from Bowlby). The purpose of a mechanical homing device is to stay on course and home in on a target. To a large degree attachment behavior proceeds along a similar track: stay on course and home in on a target, that is to say, a primary attachment figure.
So, is Bowlby saying that man puts purpose into attachment behavior? The answer is no. What Bowlby is saying is that if scientists can talk about mechanical purpose (i.e., those found in guided missile systems) and still call such discussions science, then it follows that they must accept the position that there are non-mechanical versions of purpose, discussions of which similarly remain scientific. In my opinion, Bowlby’s use of the advent of mechanical purpose (often referred to as cybernetics) to promote the systems theory idea that there is purpose in non-mechanical systems (such as biology) is shear political genius. I’d be remiss if I did not point out that mechanical purpose (as evidenced by guided missile or torpedo systems) was key as far as the US and her allies winning WWII is concerned. Mechanical purpose or cybernetics poured the foundation for such areas as systems engineering, operations research, and, yes, even behaviorism (i.e., the widespread use of cognitive-behavioral modalities in psychotherapy). For more on how the rise of mechanical purpose during WWII gave birth to so many different fields, see Debora Hammond’s 2003 book entitled The Science of Synthesis—Exploring the Social Implications of General System Theory.
Sadly, Bowlby’s fight for the middle ground between reductionism and vitalism is often given short shrift if mentioned at all in modern discussions of attachment. It really is a road less traveled. As a historical footnote, since the time of vol. I (the 1960s), mechanical or cybernetic forms of purpose have exploded exponentially. You may find it a bit hard to believe but all of the following incorporate mechanical or cybernetic forms of purpose (a purpose that is often intentionally hidden):
- Many digital video recording (DVR) services like TiVo
- Search engines like Google
- Cell phones
- National ID programs
In contrast, not many people talk about purpose in non-mechanical systems that are not centered on some form of religious fundamentalism. The middle ground that Bowlby (and others) fought for has been all but given up. I hate to say it but many discussions concerning attachment have become either very reduced (i.e., the neurobiology of attachment) or rather vitalistic (i.e., attachment parenting). In my opinion, it would be truly hard to understand what Bowlby was trying to do without first spending some time trying to understand the middle ground between reductionism and vitalism.