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What is Descriptive Psychology?


PSY 350 Syllabus 






Illinois State UniversityDepartment of Psychology

[This section contains two brief essays: "What is Descriptive Psychology?",  and "All the world's a stage: A person-centered   view of science."  A fuller explication of DP may be found at: http://www.descriptivepsychologypress.com/What_is_DP.pdf]

What is Descriptive Psychology?

     Psychology prides itself on being a science. That is well and good. However, in many quarters, it seems not to have a good grasp on just what science is. We still hear statements like “Well, science is all about prediction and control.” On that account, both Mr. Darwin and Mr. Hubble might have responded, “Well, I guess that leaves me out.” Neither the theories of evolution nor of the big bang is about predicting events or about controlling them. They are, one might say in contrast, about the postdiction of events that have controlled us.

     One of psychology’s major misunderstandings is about empiricism. Science is empirical, right? Right. At the end of the day, it is about how things are in the world--about how we evolved, about why the moon prescribes a slightly elliptical orbit around the earth, about how DNA is composed of four elements in various sequences arrayed in a double helix configuration--and on and on and on. So far so good. But psychology’s downfall as a science, I submit, has much to do with a second, often implicit belief: “Science is 100% empirical.” To a very large degree, we value only journals that publish empirical findings (one has only to call to mind the most prestigious journals to see that this is true). We look dismissively on any report, written or spoken, that deals in the empirically undemonstrated, the philosophical, or the otherwise non-empirical. We assign all such reports to the benighted realms of the “anecdotal,” “speculative,” “undemonstrated,” or “philosophical” (pejoratively understood). Whatever the adjective, they are considered “unscientific” and therefore inadmissable as true knowledge.

But science is not 100% empirical, and it takes only the most casual observation of the broad scientific scene to see that this is so. The following is an excerpt from a 1991 article of mine entitled “Proposal for an Eclectic Framework,” that speaks to this matter: 

     “The present framework is a nonempirical, conceptual framework comprising two systematically related concepts and the logical linkages these concepts bear to each other and to existing forms of explanation in psychopathology. Such conceptual and logical (vs. empirical) elements are very familiar and very central in other established sciences (Chalmers, 1982; Lakatos, 1974; Toulmin, 1956; Wittgenstein, 1922), but have received scant attention within psychology. A brief digression into such nonempirical elements in other sciences will serve both to remind the reader of their familiarity and centrality, and to help clarify the unorthodox (within psychology) nature of the present effort.

“Science includes concepts, and concepts are not truth eligible. The concept "vertebrate" is not true (or "verifiable") or false (or "falsifiable"). It is a distinction that a certain kind of scientist makes, which distinction has proven historically an apt and useful one. The same can be said of concepts such as "force", "mass", "gene", "quark", "mammal", "learning", and so on ad infinitum.

“Concepts, far from being incidental or unimportant, are indispensable in science. The scientist who lacks command of a concept (e.g., does not know that a vertebrate is a creature that possesses a backbone or spinal column) cannot study real world instances of that concept (except perhaps accidentally). Lyons, in discussing research on the topic of emotion, puts the point very well. Criticizing another emotion researcher who claimed that ‘any attempt to define emotion is obviously misplaced and doomed to failure,’ Lyons responded that, ‘One is tempted to say that the resulting situation must be like that of sallying forth to study rabbits while having no idea of what is to count as a rabbit’ (1980, p. xi).

     “Science includes conceptual relationships, and conceptual relationships are nonempirical. For example, in the classical Newtonian system, there are conceptual relationships between "force", "mass", "acceleration", "inertia", and other concepts. A ‘force’ is ‘any influence that can cause a body to be accelerated’ (Hewitt, 1977, p.47); ‘mass’ is "the proportionality constant between force and acceleration in Newton's second law" (Hewitt, 1977, p. 29). In the Newtonian ‘net’ (Wittgenstein, 1922, p. 68), these are nonempirical, conceptual connections. One would no more do an experiment to empirically determine if forces accelerate bodies than one would to empirically determine whether bachelors have wives.

     “Science contains even theoretical law statements that are nonempirical. Newtonian mechanics again provides us with a familiar example. Newton's first law states that unresisted bodies will travel indefinitely in uniform motion in Euclidean straight lines (Hewitt, 1977, pp. 25-28; Toulmin, 1956, pp. 55-59). Inasmuch as there are no actual unresisted bodies in nature, this could scarcely be considered an empirical proposition subject to falsification through empirical observation. Newton's first law, as Toulmin (1956) has pointed out out, is not an empirical proposition at all, but an ‘ideal of natural order’--a statement about an ideal (as opposed to real) state of affairs, which statement the physicist can use to considerable effect in the real world (basically, by accounting for deviations from this ideal motion).

     “Finally, of course, and most familiarly, science contains propositions that are empirically falsifiable. ‘Light will bend in the presence of a gravitational field.’ ‘Individuals possessing characteristics advantageous for survival in a given environment will constitute an increasing proportion of their species in succeeding generations.’ ‘The universe originated billions of years ago with the explosion of a hyperconcentrated matter-energy point.’ All of these are propositions that could be falsified by appropriate empirical findings (Bergner, 1991, p. 3)”

So, where does Descriptive Psychology enter the picture? Isaac Newton, like all scientists, required a pre-empirical conceptual system (a set of systematically related concepts such as “force,” “mass,” and “acceleration”) before and in order to make the discriminations necessary to lodge any empirical claim (how could one claim that a “force” was inversely proportional to distance if one did not first have the concept of “force”--one in this case that Newton himself invented). Indeed, leaving science aside for the moment, the same is true of any empirical claim. The bookkeeper, for example, requires the concepts “debit”, “credit,” “balance,” and so forth, in order to determine what actually happened to the company during the past fiscal year. 

     Psychology, having failed for over 120 years to provide such a conceptual system, stands radically in need of one. Descriptive Psychology is precisely such a system. It is a pre-empirical set of systematically related concepts designed to provide formal access to any fact or possible fact about human behavior. (Compare: “hue,” “saturation,” and “brilliance” provide such access to any color or possible color). The reader interested in pursuing this matter further is urged look into the accessible introductions found in Wikipedia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Descriptive_psychology), on the web page for the Society for Descriptive Psychology (http://www.sdp.org/sdp/WHAT%20IS%20DP-Bergner.pdf), or in the following book by Peter Ossorio.

Ossorio, P. G. (2006).  The behavior of persons.  Ann Arbor, MI: Descriptive Psychology Press. 


All the World's a Stage:

A Person-centered View of Science

“…the real world is essentially the world of people 

  and their behavior.  All the world’s a stage and the 

  non-person portions of it are props which are called 

  for by the drama.”

--P.G. Ossorio, 1998, p. 76.

Some 14 billion or so years ago, a familiar story goes, there was a “big bang.”  An unimaginably hot, dense and energetic singularity exploded, expanded outward, and became the universe.  In time, matter clustered into many billions of galaxies, each with many billions of suns, and many of these in turn with their own planetary systems.  In one otherwise ordinary galaxy, one ordinary sun formed and on one of its planets, the one we now call "earth," conditions came about in time such that life forms emerged.  Over  the course of some 3.7 billion years (Ricardo & Szostak, 2009), these life forms evolved and exhibited ever increasing complexity, until in the extremely recent cosmological past an especially complex organism emerged, homo sapiens.  This organism, then, is a very recent, accidentally evolved one that has existed for one microsecond of cosmic time on one ordinary planet in the vastness of the cosmos.  

Without in any way questioning the factual matters in the preceding paragraph, they seem to have lent themselves historically to what on the present view is a certain unfortunate line of thinking.  First of all, center stage in this story is the physical universe and its evolution both on the broadest possible scale and more locally.  This evolution began with a singularity that contained all of the material constituents then and now present in the universe--everything from quarks to biological organisms to galaxies and beyond.  Thus, it has seemed natural to equate the real world with the world of matter--with the physical world--and to conclude that the scientific understanding of everything must ultimately lie in the understanding of material reality (Churchland & Churchland, 1994; Melnyk, 2003Smart, 1978; Stoljar, 2009).  Any claim to the contrary, i.e., any claim having to do with alleged non-material realities, must conjure up the likes of such scientifically suspect entities as souls, spirits, or ghosts. 

The second element in this line of thinking is that, in the history of the cosmos, human beings have a very secondary and derivative status.  We are, after all, but one among millions of biological organisms, evolved accidentally via the random vagaries of genetic mutation, and extremely recent in origin.  In the end, on all of these accounts, we human beings are often seen to be rather cosmologically insignificant (Gould, 1992; Smolin, 2006). 

Third and finally, the place that is assigned to scientists in this view is that essentially of spectators of inexorable physical processes that are not of our making, that preceded our appearance on the scene, and that will doubtless continue when we are gone.  This notion is nicely captured in the following quote from the noted physicist Richard Feynman who, despite his awareness of certain quantum level observer effects, nonetheless asserted the following broad picture: 

“We can imagine that this complicated array of moving 

things which constitutes ‘the world’ is something like a 

great chess game being played by the gods, and we are 

observers of the game. We do not know what the rules 

of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch

the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we 

may eventually catch on to a few of the rules…” (1966, p. 24).

The purpose of this paper is to present an alternative view of science.  It is a view in which persons play a far more central role, one quite different than that of insignificant spectators of inexorable physical processes that have nothing to do with us, and one in which the very concept of the "real world" assumes a rather different form than Feynman's "complicated array of moving things." The position advanced here was developed employing ideas and conceptual resources from the discipline of Descriptive Psychology (Ossorio, 1981, 1990, 1998, 2006; Roberts, 2010).

Science as an Account of How Things Are For Us

Lee Smolin, an influential theoretical physicist, has written: 

“Physicists have traditionally expected that science should 

give an account of reality as it would be in our absence. 

Physics should be more than a set of formulas that predict 

what we will observe in an experiment; it should give a 

picture of what reality is.  We are accidental descendants 

of an ancient primate, who appeared very recently in the 

history of the world. It cannot be that reality depends on 

our existence...Philosophers call this view realism. It can 

be summarized by saying that the real world out there... 

must exist independently of us. It follows that the terms 

by which science describes reality cannot involve in any 

essential way what we choose to measure or not measure 

(2006, pp. 6-7; emphases mine). 

The traditional views of a prominent physicist notwithstanding, Kant (1781/1996) pointed out long ago that we have no access to what he termed "noumenal" reality.  That is, we have no access to reality conceived as how things are independent of us, our perceptions, and our conceptual distinctions.  There is clearly nothing to be said about such a world (Grier, 2009).  Were one to implore Dr. Smolin, "Tell us about this reality -- give us a single scientific account -- that is expressed in 'terms' that do not 'involve in any essential way what we choose to measure...'," there is nothing he could say.  Science so conceived would be mute--not a science at all.  Scientific accounts, necessarily couched in our concepts and based on our (aided or unaided) observations, must therefore of necessity always be our accounts--accounts of what we make of things--as well as accounts of how things are for us.

What is this "Real World" Anyway?"

We say that science is concerned with describing and explaining how things are and have been in "the real world."  But just what is this real world?  What do we mean when we talk about "the real world?"

The formulation that will be argued here is the following: The real world is the state of affairs that includes all other states of affairs (Ossorio, 2006).  Alternatively phrased, it is the set that contains everything that is the case--the set that contains every object, process, event, and state of affairs that is real, actual, factual, or existent, as opposed to false, fictional, imaginary, nonexistent, or illusory.  This formulation, though not identical in how it will be cashed out, has commonalities with Wittgenstein's famous assertion that "The world is everything that is the case.  The world divides into facts, not things" (1922, #1.0, 1.1).

What justifies such a formulation of this concept?  And why, especially, should it be preferred to the widely advanced, and arguably most favored, physicalist contention that the real world just is the totality of all physical objects, processes, events, and states of affairs (Churchland & Churchland, 1994; Melnyk, 2003; Smart, 1978; Stoljar, 2009).  On this physicalist view, any claim that there are non-physical realities--that the physical does not exhaust the real--can only be considered metaphysical and scientific nonsense since it would seem to conjure up the likes of such scientifically suspect entities as souls, spirits, and ghosts. 

To say that something is "physical," however, is to make a certain kind of claim.  I am free to say anything.  I can say, for example, that "the second amendment to the Constitution is located at latitude X and longitude Y," or that "the square root of minus one has a mass of one gram."  But clearly, I would be talking nonsense in either case. Concepts have assertability conditions (Kripke, 1982). If I say, "X is a triangle," then, if pressed, it is incumbent upon me to show that X meets the conceptual criteria for "triangle;" i.e., that it is indeed an enclosed, two dimensional  geometric figure with three straight sides.  Correspondingly, to say that something is "physical" is to say that it has certain characteristics or properties such as, depending on the particular something, mass, spatial extension, location, energy, charge, wave characteristics, and so forth.

With respect to many objects, processes, events, and states of affairs that we collectively take to be real and act upon, however, it makes no sense to predicate any such properties of them.  It is nonsensical, and a category error (Ryle, 1949, Thomasson, 2010), to say of  these things, for example, that they can be found at some location, that they weigh so many grams, that they have a certain electrical charge, or that they are accelerating at a rate of such and such.  If we wish to confine the category (or set) of the real to the physical, it would follow that all of the items in the following list would have to be declared unreal--as fictitious or imaginary or illusory or somehow not the case--since physical predicates cannot be applied to any of them without incurring nonsense and category error:   

Beliefs (e.g., that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, that God exists, or

that the scientific method yields valuable results) 

Laws (e.g., those contained in the U.S. Constitution)

Theories (e.g., of relativity, evolution, or quantum information)

Rules (e.g., of chess, baseball, or parliamentary procedure)

Mathematical entities (e.g., numbers, operations, and the 


Scientific methodological elements (e.g., hypotheses, experimental 

designs, deductions, probabilities, and statistical  tests)

Human relationships (e.g., of mistrust between Arabs and 

Israelis; of rivalry between the two chess grandmasters)

Human disciplines (e.g., mathematics, history, biology, and law) Language (e.g., words and grammar)

Human agreements (e.g., contracts, vows, and promises)

Unless we wish to declare every state of affairs of which physical properties cannot be sensibly predicated unreal, and perhaps to render the logically entailed claim that they therefore could not have had any influence on events in the real world such as wars, nuclear holocausts and Supreme Court decisions, we cannot confine our concept of the real world to physical realities only.  All of the above are clearly realities whose actualization and/or utilization (a) involve embodied human beings, and (b) depend on any given occasion, perhaps superveniently, on relevant physical states of affairs obtaining.  An embodied person (so far as we know) is required to make a promise, formulate a hypothesis, interpret a law, or employ the calculus to solve a problem. But can it sensibly be said, for example, that the calculus qua calculus--qua mathematical system--designates a reality of which physical attributes can be sensibly predicated?  Or, lacking such attributes, must we conclude that "the calculus does not exist" or that it seems "ghostly" in nature? 

There are other reasons to question the claim that physicalism is true, and a large literature exists regarding this issue (see Stoljar, 2009, for an excellent summary).  I shall present only two further arguments, and very briefly.  First, at the present historical juncture, the physicalist claim represents a massive I.O.U.--a massive promise to deliver in the future--and not cash on the barrelhead.  For example, consider the following explanation, given upon observation of an individual making the winning move in a chess match: "If he recognizes the opportunity, he will move his queen to square X in order to bring about checkmate--ah, there, that's just what he's done."  At present (and perhaps in principle and thus for perpetuity [see Bergner, 2004]), there is no conceivable reduction or explanation of this move in biological terms.  There is no alternative "story" in terms of neural or other biologic events that (a) remotely approximates this one for predictive power, or that (b) does the explanatory work done by such (multiply physically realizable) states of affairs as a person "having a goal," "acting to achieve a goal,"  "seeking specifically to achieve the goal of checkmate," or "recognizing that achieving checkmate is equivalent to winning the game."  There remains by virtually universal consensus an "explanatory gap" (Levine, 1983) between the physical and the mental/psychological states of affairs here (Chalmers, 1996; McGinn, 2004), and thus no current strong, evidentially based reason to conclude that physicalism is true.     

Second, as many have noted, human mental phenomena (consciousness, thoughts, beliefs, etc.), aside from the fact that physical properties cannot be sensibly predicated of them, have certain distinctive properties unlike any physical phenomenon (McGinn, 2004).  These include intentionality (they are always about something), subjectivity or qualia (there is something that it is like, something experiential, about the having of them), and transparency (the haver of them cannot be wrong, for example, in knowing that he or she is experiencing pain or thinking about the Eiffel tower). Since such phenomena, as Descartes famously argued, exist indubitably, they further call into question any claim that the physical exhausts the real. 

If the concept of the real is to comprehend all real states of affairs, then, it would seem best characterized, not as confined to physical realities only, but as the state of affairs that includes all other states of affairs--as the set that includes all other sets, or the world that includes all other worlds.  (I am assuming that certain other historical claims, such as that the real world is all number, all water, or all spirit, need not be entertained here.)  One upshot of this formulation of the real world, as the listing of realities above attests, is that it designates a world that contains, at least as a subset, the human world, the world of persons and their behavior: their sub-worlds (of science, law, music, finance,  etc.), their institutions (family, church, judicial system, etc.), inventions (the calculus, the computer, etc.), their ideas (of gravity, natural selection, etc.), their languages (English, Spanish), and their social practices/forms of behavior (dancing, writing programs, doing sums, etc.).  That alone being the case, we are far more than spectators.  We are creators of and participants in countless aspects of the real world, many of these the subject historically of very significant scientific attention. 

The Real World as the Human Behavioral World

Above, one of the paraphrases of the real world as the state of affairs that   includes all other states of affairs was that it was "the world that includes all other worlds."  Is there any logical candidate for the designation, "the world that includes all other worlds."  I will argue here that such a world would be the human behavioral world--the world of persons and their behavior (Ossorio, 1998, 2006; Roberts, 2010). 

It is easily observed that many objects, processes, events, and states of affairs in the real world are what they are entirely by virtue of the place we have given them in our human behavioral practices and ways of life.  Objects such as dollar bills and chess pawns, events such as  getting a "thumbs up" signal or a traffic light turning green, processes such as singing a requiem mass or dribbling a basketball, and states of affairs such as an experimental finding having p. < .05 or any word in a language having the meanings that it does--all of these are what they are by virtue of the places we have created for and given to them in human behavioral practices.  Thus, for an enormous array of real world phenomena--essentially those portions of the real world we might call the "humanly created world" with its cultures, institutions, social practices, inventions, artistic works, intellectual creations, and more--things are what they are in this world by virtue of their place in human behavioral practices.  A chess piece is a chess piece, a dollar is a dollar, a signal is a signal, a word is a word, not by virtue of its physical characteristics, but by virtue of its place in human behavioral practices. 

Perhaps we can all agree that elements of the real world such as chess pawns, dollar bills, and the words of a language are what they are by virtue of their place in human behavioral practices.  However, it may be objected, what about objects such as atoms and genes, processes such as the genetic transmission of characteristics and volcanic eruptions, events such as the big bang and solar eclipses, and states of affairs such as the earth revolving around the sun and humans having evolved from infrahuman species?  All of these and more, it would seem, just are what they are quite independently of us.  Atoms, for example, were here before we were and will survive our likely passing. We may have discovered them, but they are elements of the real world that in no way depend on us.  We did not and do not create them and we do not dictate either their structure or the manner of their functioning.

In considering this objection, let us focus on this iconic object that is the atom, and let it stand proxy in our argument for all the elements of the natural world.  Like "pawn" and "queen of spades," "atom" is a concept that certain people, playing certain "games" such as chemistry and atomic physics, act upon.  And, certainly, these people neither created atoms nor determined their inner workings.  What they did do, however, was to make atoms what they are.  What does this mean?  

Increasingly, since early in the 19th century, we have seen fit to give atoms a prominent place in certain kinds of accounts of the real world (Pullman, 1998).  Why atoms?  We have cared about atoms, and have given them a central place in our real world ontologies, because it was found that, in certain human behavioral practices, there were enormous payoffs for doing so.  There was a point--indeed there were and are many vital points--to drawing this particular distinction in the real world and acting on it.  Employing it, we were able to systematize the elements in the periodic table, explain the properties of these different elements and their compounds, explore its applications to energy production, and much more, all of which jobs we had not accomplished by thinking in terms of other (real or hypothetical) objects (processes, etc.) such as the molecule, the alchemical philosopher's stone, or the classical Greek elements air, earth, fire, and water (Pullman, 1998).  Thus, "atom" became a central element in our ontology of what there is in the real world.  

In the future, it may turn out that there will come a time when there is a far lesser point, or perhaps even no point, in discriminating and acting on the concept of "atom."  It is not of course that atoms as we conceive them will cease to exist.  Rather, some physics of the future may find a better way to talk (e.g., in terms of now hypothetical "superstrings"), which may do all the descriptive and explanatory work now done by "atom," and more.  In this scenario, we may demote, or even abandon, the concept of atom in our bookkeeping systems of the real world.  Like Newtonian mechanics, in which we once had such vast confidence as the ultimate truth about the workings of the physical universe, it will have been superceded by a new and more advantageous way of talking.  In such a scenario, historians of science may one day say of atoms, "Oh yes, that was once a very useful level at which to break down the constituents of matter, and it had its day; but now we have better and more useful ways to talk about matter, and rarely think or operate in terms of atoms in our scientific work."

So, we do not create atoms ex nihilo and we do not dictate their structures or functioning.  However, like certain cinematic and political figures, we "made it a star." We gave it a central place in the scheme of things, which place, unlike other candidates for the job, it was extraordinarily well suited to fill by virtue of its properties.  We made atoms what they are in this sense; i.e., by assigning them a status--by giving them a place--in certain human practices, and did so because there were and are enormous advantages to doing so. And, if past is prologue, we may one day, as we often do with those politicians, demote it from its star status in favor of something that conveys greater advantage in our human projects. (Compare: I notice a small rock in my garden.  I might assign it no status in the real world beyond "the little stone by the mulberry bush." Alternatively, detecting some advantage to doing so, I might  pick it up, wash it off, assign it the status of "my favorite paperweight," find that it is admirably suited to fill that role in the world, and decide to retain it unless and until I find a better paper weight.  The rock never leaps out, never comes forward and demands that I give it any status at all.  If it is ever to be more than "just an obscure little rock in my garden," it is up to me or some other person to give it that status.)

In the end, we did not create this subset of realities we call "the natural world," and we do not dictate its structure or its functioning. However, in filling in the contents of the real world, this state of affairs that includes all other states of affairs, we make things what they are on the basis of their value in our human projects--on the basis of whether they forward our understanding, enable us to do things better, or enable us to do things that we couldn't do before.  We give them a status for better or for worse.  If discriminating and thinking in terms of X buys us something, we assign X an important status in our real world ontologies and schemes.  If it does not, we do not.  If X continues to have behavioral value while Y does not, a certain "survival of the fittest", of the most "adaptive", prevails.  Thus, when considering both the humanly created world and the natural world, there are grounds for equating "the real world" with "the human behavioral world."

An Ex Post Facto World 

In the scientific realm, some advances change the contents of the real world in important ways.  The inventions of the radio, the calculus, the computer, and human language all become new elements in a world that is never static, but ever expanding (Roberts, 2010).  However, other advances, such as those involving the discoveries of evolution, atoms, relativity, bacteria, and indeterminacy at the quantum level, cause us not only to expand our construction of the real world, but to reconstruct how the real world has been all along.  In other words, they cause us to reconstruct the real world ex post facto (Ossorio, 1981, 2006; Roberts, 2010).  With these discoveries, not only are there now in our ontologies such objects as atoms and such processes as natural selection (etc.), but it becomes the case, once we have accepted them, that the real world has become, ex post facto, one that has been this way all along.  Further, we realize that with scientific advances our current real world, like that of those confidently settled Newtonians of a previous era, will almost certainly itself be replaced by some future ex post facto world.   

To elaborate this point, consider the following thought experiment.  Suppose two people, Ed and Fred, are watching a game of chess.  Ed picks up one of the pieces, a carved piece of onyx, and says to Fred, "If you had encountered this object three thousand years ago, before the invention of chess, would it have been a pawn?"  Fred replies, "Of course not.  Nothing could have been a pawn until such time as the game of chess was created."  Ed inquires further: "Would it have been a piece of onyx?"  Fred (hesitating) replies, "Well, it would have been something, but I guess at that point, just as there could not have been a pawn until someone invented the practice of chess, so there could not have been onyx until someone began the human practice of distinguishing one kind of stone from another, and distinguished onyx from other stones." Ed: "Not quite. I agree that it would have been something, but I would say that, before the discovery of onyx, there was no one for whom onyx had always been there.  However, once we began the human practice we now call mineralogy, and distinguished onyx from other stones, it became true, ex post facto, that onyx had been there all along" (adapted from Ossorio, 2006). 

To get a better sense of the ex post facto perspective, a second thought experiment may be helpful, this one involving the question, "What do you get when you take away people?"  Consider three worlds, the world before people (WBP), the world with people (WWP), and the world after people are gone (WAP).  Now, in your imagination, do an inventory of every object, process, event, and state of affairs in WBP.  Note first that there is no such state of affairs in this world as "the world before people."  It is only when there are people (i.e., in WWP) that it becomes the case, ex post facto, that (a) there was a world before people, and (b) that there is anyone for whom there was a WBP.  Further, it is only when there are people--people who observe, who form concepts, and who take things to be the case--that there is anyone for whom there is anything at all.  There is no one in WBP for whom there is, not only WBP itself, but volcanoes, ice ages, meteoric collisions, and even a "before" and an "after."  Much the same can be said for WAP: no people, no observers, no concepts, no knowledge equates to no one for whom there is anything at all, including this being WAP.  It is only for us, the residents of WWP--us people--that WBGP and WAP can be possible states of affairs.  WBP and WAP can only be our gig. 

Over time, we humans create new "games," new human practices. And it is only when we have created these behavioral practices that places or statuses within them such as "pawn," "home run," "dollar,"  "b flat," "getting divorced," and "impressionism" come to be categories of what exists or what actually happens in the real world.  But the same is true, though less obviously, of "onyx," bacterium," "genetic transmission," "electromagnetic field," and "atom." Before we invented the relevant behavioral practices, there was something.  But it was only once we had created our practices and given different objects (processes, etc.) places within them did it become the case that (a) these somethings appeared in our ontologies at all, (b) there was anyone at all for whom these somethings were the case, and (c) ex post facto, they had always or long since been elements in the real world.    

The critical upshot of this point is to recognize that the real world, the state of affairs that includes all other states of affairs, is a humanly constructed world.  It is we who created these behavioral practices, decided that certain phenomena merited statuses within them and that others did not, tried out various candidates (e.g., the ether and the atom) for places in our ontologies, and constructed ex post facto accounts of how the real world has been all along (which accounts may or may not survive the test of time).  Finally, this world is not humanly constructed in some idealistic, "to be is to be perceived," Berkeleyan sense (though physicists will note at least partial exceptions in the case of certain quantum level phenomena).  Rather, it is constructed in the far more realist sense that this world--the one you see when you look around you, the one that includes, not only human creations (languages, currencies, poems, chess games, etc.), but also the elements of the natural world (atoms, trees, planets, genes, evolutionary processes, etc.)--is one that we construct in the context of our creation of human behavioral practices.  Now that we have created the human practices of chess and mineralogy, distinguished certain phenomena and agreed to call them "pawn" and "onyx," there is indeed an onyx pawn over there on the chessboard. 

You Can't Construct Just Any Old World”  

Lest I seem here to be advocating a postmodernist position wherein "There is no truth, only a plethora of interpretations...There is no objective reality, only a plurality of perspectives" (Flew & Priest, 2002, p. 323), it must be noted that there are limitations on our world constructions.  I might, for example, believe and claim that “I can fly unaided,” that “glass is an excellent conductor of electricity,” or that “this rock can be used as a calculator.”  However, I will prove unable to act on these claims successfully.  I cannot fly unaided, get an electrical current to flow through glass, or perform arithmetic operations on a rock.  Thus, in the words of Ossorio, “you can't construct just any old world and get away with it” (1998, p. 73). While the real world is open to numerous apt or correct descriptions, and while there is no uniquely correct description of any of its elements, there are incorrect descriptions.  The real world possesses a certain recalcitrance in the face of some of our descriptions of it; there are reality constraints.  These are brought home to us when we find ourselves, in science and in everyday life, unable to act successfully on these descriptions. 

Significance a Product of Human Appraisal

This final point may be considered, not an argument, but simply a reminder.  In the traditional scientific outlook characterized at the outset, it was stated that, due to their accidental evolution and extremely recent arrival on the cosmic scene, persons are unimportant and insignificant in the grand scheme of things.  They are merely, as quoted previously, "accidental descendants of an ancient primate, who appeared very recently in the history of the world" (Smolin, 2006, pp. 6-7).  From a person-centered perspective, however, it may be noted that, without persons, there is quite literally and obviously no such thing as significance.  Significance is inescapably the product of human appraisal.  Nothing is significant to planets and suns and atoms and dark energy.  Without us (and other persons who may exist in the universe), it’s a cosmos devoid of any importance or significance whatsoever.   We are, by virtue of our higher level consciousness, the sole locus of meaning and significance in the universe.  We are, paraphrasing Heidegger (1967), the only being who is there for being. 

Conclusion: On Being "Center Stage"

On the present, more person-centered scientific view, then, the human behavioral world is fundamental.  On this view, the currently prevalent view that "the real world is just the totality of physical states of affairs; it is independent of us and our human distinctions; and we persons are mere spectators whose job it is to understand it," encounters serious difficulties. First, the real world contains countless elements (human behavioral practices, languages, mathematical systems, currencies etc.) of extreme interest to science that are clearly the creation of persons, that include many nonphysical aspects, and in which the place humanly assigned to elements (e.g., "it's a means of exchange," a "conveyor of meaning from one person to another," etc.) is fundamental to what that something is.  Second, where the realities of the natural world are concerned, it comes back to what persons, playing important "games" such as chemistry and biology and cosmology, and having the aims and concerns that go with those endeavors, have found a point to discriminating and acting upon--always inescapably in human terms.   Third, the goal that science must comprehend "the real world as it is without us" in "terms" that do "not involve in any essential way what we choose to measure..."(Smolin, 2006) leaves us with absolutely nothing to say.  It is a placeholder concept whose content cannot be filled in--a hopeless candidate for what we mean by the real world.  As soon as Newton or Darwin or Einstein fill in some content of the real world, as soon as they utter a single proposition about how the world is and works, they have left forever such a Kantian noumenal world.  

In this more person-centered conception of science, if we may be permitted a borrowed dramaturgical metaphor, “all the world’s a stage,” and we persons are the dramatis personae.  We are center stage.  We are Hamlet and Lear and Juliet, and all the rest our props and stories.   Science is one human activity.  Its theories, while extremely important to many of us, are but one of many human stories, and are important because we persons have given them importance, something we did not always do.  They are conceived by human minds, based on human perceptions, and articulated in humanly constructed languages and theoretical frameworks.  In the end, these theories are successful when we find that there is a point to talking the way that the theory does--when it provides distinctions and ideas we can act upon successfully, and thus forwards our projects.  On the person-centered view, the science of psychology assumes, albeit potentially, a certain unique importance: as the study of persons and their behavior (which necessarily involves their “props and stories”), it encompasses all else.  As Santayana once observed, “Human life is a peculiar reality in that every other reality, effective or presumptive, must in one way or another find a place within it" (quoted in Ossorio, 2006, p. 7).