Re: The scientific status of PCP

Brian Gaines (
Thu, 13 Jun 1996 22:04:15 -0700

>Instead, you speak as if you live on Mt. Olympus, and what you say is
>self-evident, in my assessment. And what it leads to, in my opinion, is
>a lot of inconclusive bullshit and an unresolved question: Can Prof.
>Kelly's claims be empirically proved or not?

I attempted to make my answers not inconclusive bullshit by carefully
exlaining the argument and giving links to the relevant literature which
discusses them in greater depth.

If you change the question from a forced choice of the poles of a
non-dichotomous 'science--religion' construct to the one in your last
sentence above then what you are asking has a more precise answer.

First we have to ask what "empirically proved" means. Current philosophies
of science do not see empiricism as being able to prove anything. A careful
empirical test of a clearly formulated theory may be able to falsify the
theory if the test is failed, but does not prove it is the test is passed.

One proposed test of a scientific assertion is that it is potentially

Second we have to ask what Kelly's claims are.

One major claim is to a very precise definitional framework for a
descriptive psychological terminology.

To ask if this is empirically provable or falsifiable is like asking
whether the metre unit of measurement is -- a meaningless question because
the unit is what it is defined to be. For a definitional framework it is
appropriate to ask if the application of the definition is well-defined
in inter-subjective terms, does the framework allow situations to be
described in terms relevant to application domains, e.g. psychotherapy,
education, and so on. These are empirical matters. They do not relate
to proving the definitions correct, but rather to proving them usable and

Another major claim is to say that it is a useful perspective on human mental
activity to view it as directed to the anticipation of the future. This is
carefully stated as a postulate because Kelly wanted to treat it as such,
to work out the consequences of taking such a stance, and then, as a
separate exercise, to show that such a stance was useful in psychotherapy
and education.

This is consistent with Euclid's approach to geometry which revolutionized
geometry by treating it as a non-empirical axiomatic system. This insight
of Euclid was the foundation on which Descartes based the development of
modern science, and it was Kelly's intention to develop a similar system
for psychology.

Modern philosophies of psychology see this as the best known approach
to developing a scientific psychology -- to adopt a well-defined stance,
such as imputing intentionality to human agents, and to work out the
consequences of adopting such a stance, including the consequences of
this stance being adopted within the community of those being studied.

If we seek out the empirical core of Kelly's theory then it resides in
his explanation of the fundamental postulate, Vol.1 p.49:

"man seeks prediction"

The way we do this is primarily through action. We put a book on a particular
shelf so that we can anticipate where it will be when we want it next. We
build a house with a level floor so we can anticipate where to put our
foot next. We pay someone to answer our telephone so that we can predict
it will be answered even when we are not there.

How can we falsify this? -- by finding a substantial number of people who
are highly aversive to predictable environments such that they invalidate
our predictions about them based on the notion that they seek prediction.

In general we don't find this. We find people building personal worlds
that are highly predictable. Humanity as a whole may be characterized by
the way it has reduced uncertainty about the future.

But a science fiction writer can invent a world of beings that seek out chaos.
We will problems in understanding their notions of identity -- if they
maintain an identifiable core they are not fully seeking chaos. However,
we can envision living beings who could falsify Kelly's postulate, and
we can seek them out as physicists seek quarks.

Even if a major proportion of the population sought a high degree of chaos
Kelly's emphasis on anticipation would be less useful. However, a "society"
of chaos seekers would be very different from our notion of society -- this
is Luhmann's point that much of our social behavior can be seen as a way
of making the world predictable for others.

Gary, if you don't like reasoned arguments then you are wasting your time
trying to understand Kelly. He was a scholar who was dissatisfied with
loose thinking in psychology and tried to redress the situation by
carefully defining his terms very pedantically and very clearly. This
makes it possible to compare and analyze other psychologies and see
how terms such as learning, motivation, etc, are being used. His
basic ideas are also explicable to others so that they can be used
practically as a reflective psychology -- that is not unique to PCP
but it is important to those looking for a humanistic psychology. So PCP
attracts both the pedants and the humanists, which is rare attribute in
scientific psychologies.