For many years (as it seems now) I had a belief that the sky was held up by rather tall pillars at a great distance from where I was standing outside Rudkins, the greengrocer shop. This was a belief instigated by my father (a great tease) when I asked him why the sky didn’t fall in. I must have been just 3 or 4 then because he went off to India to participate in some periodic bout of reciprocal destruction in 1941.
How do we change our beliefs? How did I lose the belief that the sky was held up by rather tall pillars somewhere or other? I suppose it was the realisation that, though it remains even now a rather pleasant fantasy, it was just a physical impossibility one way or the other.
It’s obvious that much of what we believe comes to us out of the mouths of parents and teachers—people who, for a short time at least, we revere or look up to; authority figures whose word is their bond. We are entranced by what they say, by what they write—what we read in books & newspapers and so on is another source of belief.
Should one wish to develop a kind of certainty in one’s belief system, Gurdjieff’s advice is to seek to verify everything for oneself, to take nothing on trust.
Believing and Knowing
A distinction is drawn between belief and knowledge—the apparent certainty of the one set against the dodginess of the other; the certain knowledge (or fact) that a kettle’s contents will boil when you leave it on the gas long enough is to be contrasted with the relative uncertainty of a belief in fairies or God. Some people have a belief that if you make a comprehensive set of assertions about the existence of fairies or God and go on proclaiming them at length, with due ceremonial and in a loud enough voice, amongst paintings of grottoes and lit candles on altars, what is to outsiders a mere belief becomes a fact or a piece of certain knowledge. Other people have a belief that if they exercise their so-called scepticism ardently enough they can demolish anything under the sun—belief or knowledge…
What Are We to Believe In?
At Teacher Training College in the mid-1960’s we were presented with two what could be called ‘belief-systems’; what seemed to make them ‘belief-systems’ was that their proponents appeared then to be at war with one another—this is perhaps an indicator that you are in the presence of a belief-system: what you can’t solve by rational discussion you pick up cudgels over. At any rate that’s how it was presented to us when we had a lecture or two on Behaviourism followed closely by one or two on Field or Gestalt theories. As a result of this we were presumably supposed to be thinking about how people learn on the presupposition that this would assist us in coming to some conclusion about how we would set about the teaching task. Quite how this would happen was never really made clear.
It’s Very Clear to Me Now!
On the one hand there was a dog whose daily scoff was accompanied by the ringing of a bell. After some repeats of this procedure the innocent dog began to salivate at the sound of a bell: he had learned that bell = food; his response to the stimulus of the bell had been reinforced by prior learning, process unspecified. This procedure could be monkeyed about with but the principle was that you didn’t have to know anything about the workings of the dog’s brain to make sense of the behaviour; in fact it was a mistake to imagine that dogs or humans had any kind of interior being. Observable behaviour is all you could possibly know about. The present day lurch towards Gradgrindism (in the UK at least) is based on this principle: present lots of so-called facts, drill their acquisition, test the result and tell the kids that when they get high marks they’ll get a good job—dog, bell & a can of Doggo. No thinking required.
On the other hand there were rather astute apes who figured out how to reach bananas inside a cage by using a stick: the hypothesis was that they had made an internal pattern or plan on which to operate by trial & error; stick + desirable banana + reaching activity would result in achievement of purpose. Things like purpose, intention, cognitive patterning, mental set, good gestalt—ruled out of order by Behaviourism because of their airy-fairiness—could be brought into what one might choose to consider in relation to learning.
The War Between Belief Systems
We were at the thin end of a war between belief-systems. There was the behaviourist belief that it was simply not necessary to take mind or soul or internal being into account in a description of learning episodes; what one acquired in the way of learning was just a matter of successful stimulus-response-reinforcement.
Offer an essay subject, get a scrawled bit of homework, mark it—one unacknowledged problem being that research demonstrated that in order for reinforcement of behaviour to have any real effect it had to be offered within 45 seconds of a behavioural performance! I did not learn this till much later… So much wasted effort…
Really extreme Behaviourism was said to deny the existence of mind which ironically caused a degree of cognitive turmoil for me at the time as I recall—which ‘I’ and where stored? I might now ask.
The Gestaltist belief was that we aimed to make as decent as possible a pattern out of whatever came into our sensing apparatus, that we can develop insights out of patterns—insight is learning.
I was on the side of the Gestalt believers.
My own further researches took me to Clark Hull (1884-1952) who developed a mechanistic theory (or belief) about the way the human organism worked. Still studiously avoiding any reference to the abstract notion of ‘consciousness’, he developed a model that suggested a something or other inserted between stimulus and response. What is going on inside us, so he said, is a complex of ‘intervening variables’ that you could call habits, drives, intentions, needs, goals, trail & error, motivations, neural impulses—hypothetical constructs that run the risk, as the behaviourist might say, of pinning functions down as things—the Reification Slough.
I’m still impressed at the way Hull pursued his concept of a systematic psychological scheme: his conjectures and experiments occupy 25 bound notebooks dating from 1915 to 1951, full of qualifications and verifications—a true picture of the verification process.
The idea of ‘intervening variables’ seems to me to be as generous to reality as Gurdjieff’s ‘something-or-other’. It surely has to be true that something or other goes on between stimulus and response!
After reading about Clark Hull, I began to resolve the cognitive dissonance produced by the piecemeal presentation of rival theories produced and defended tooth & nail by warring factions.
A Third Way
I do not remember where or how I came across it—it must have been one of those happy accidents that change the way we see the world—but a synthesis (or Third Way) came to me when I read up Herbert Mowrer’s cybernetic theory of learning, a great attempt to reconcile Behaviourism & Field Theories. So simple really!
Mowrer used the analogy of a self-correcting servo-mechanism which operates on feedback principles.
Before the Age of Terrorism we were invited to visit the cockpit of a big aeroplane flying back from Zimbabwe to London. At the very moment we arrived in the cockpit the plane was right over Kipling’s Great Grey-green Greasy Limpopo river. I was very surprised to find the pilot sitting far from what I took to be the controls reading a book.
“The plane flies itself, you see! We set a course and a something-or-other inside the system just keeps checking that it’s going in the right direction, making appropriate adjustments all the time…” the pilot explained.
That’s how servo-mechanisms work—they thrive on feedback.
Same, said Mowrer, with the human machine: you do something—the result of your action is not quite what you wanted—you modify your behaviour accordingly. The pattern of the result of observing what happens makes some kind of mental image which tells you whether you are on course or not—you keep on adjusting till things are as you would have them be.
In their brilliant Plans and the Structure of Behaviour (1963), Miller, Galanter & Pribram present a very simple model that amply illustrates this process.
The TOTE Model
You have a plan or pattern of ideas for a project inside you somewhere (in your ‘mind’ maybe); you don’t know if it will work so you test it out and seek to make the outcome of your action congruent with the hitherto vague image you had in your so-called ‘mind’.
You Test your plan by Operating in some way; you Test the result and if all’s well you Exit the process. Test-Operate-Test-Exit gives us what’s known as the TOTE model.
To begin with there is an incongruity between your plan, vision, project, theory or idea and the world as it is out there. You hypothesise that your proposal for action (which we be able to observe when it happens) will produce some degree of congruity between your plan (etc) and ‘external reality’ (which remains after all merely a personal invention on the best of days). It will probably be the case that you’ll have to go several times round what is essentially a system before ‘congruency’ happens and sub-TOTES will probably emerge along the way.
To illustrate the system, Miller, Galanter & Pribram use the beautifully simple analogy of hammering a nail into a piece of wood.
You have a plan or project to hammer a nail into, say, a fence post; you test the nail, its appropriateness for the job, the angle relative to the post, its direction of aim; to start with it’s loose & ready for action; you check the suitability of the hammer, swing it a bit and give a thump, taking care to avoid hitting your thumb. Test the nail and keep going the circuit till the nail-head is flush with the surface of the post—EXIT!
Hitting the Nail on the Head
With any plan, intention, project or theory you hope to hit the nail on the head in this way eventually.
Even here we can see that there are at least two closely connected TOTE’s at work:-
These combine with other sub-TOTE’s in the following way:-
This appears to me to be an accurate statement about how internal patterns of ‘thinking’ relate to what we perceive as the effect of our relating them to the world out there. It is not a matter of belief—it represents the way things are.
Applications of the TOTE Model
The TOTE model can be applied in all kinds of ways. For instance, there’s an interesting question (variously attributed) that goes—how do I know what I think till I see what I write? The question strikes me frequently when I’m writing something, poem or prose, and serves usefully to keep my nose to the grinding paper—if in doubt, write something down and see how it works out; change it if necessary.
It’s a systemic process:-
Anyway, that’s how I heaved myself out of the cognitive dissonance of 1966… My new beliefs make total sense to me and they work out in mundane ‘reality’.