Essay Truth: The Individual and Society


Sacrifice might be demanded of the individual, but never compromise; for though only society can give security and stability, only the individual, the person, has the power of moral choice—the power of change, the essential function of life.____
Ursula Le Guin The Dispossessed, p. 333

In this psychologically brilliant science fiction novel, Ms. Le Guin raises fundamental questions about the relationship between the individual and the group (society, culture). I understand her to say that they are inextricably bound together and must be in a balanced relationship for a society or an individual to be healthy. The details of that balance are always in tension, complex, mysterious, not fully able to be conceptualized or spoken.

This view is different from the one so romantically expressed by Ayn Rand in her novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. Although both authors see the individual as the ultimate source of creativity (and change), Ms. Rand’s heroes, Howard Roark and John Galt, are presented as only hindered by their societies. As I understand her, Rand would just like the group to get out of the way and let the individuals create a perfect world. This is partly why Rand has been such a darling of some American political conservatives –because she also states that wealth can only created by the individual and that the collective, as represented by government, or the common man,  can only inhibit the creativity and productivity of the individual. (The development of this philosophical, psychological and political view seems to have been heavily influenced by the suffering Rand witnessed and experienced as “collectivism” {Communism} invaded the world of her childhood.)

Rand’s View is much simpler than LeGuin’s, and perhaps more satisfying upon initial encounter. It is also one-sided and out of balance. It is clear to me that wealth is always a social construct and cannot be created by an individual outside of a social context. A man can have in his possession a cubic yard of gold. The worth (or is it value?) of the gold is determined by what others are willing to pay for it and their having something to pay for it with (something that is wanted or valued by the person in possession of the gold). (Of course, the gold possessor may just like having a big gold cube in his cave--living rooms don’t exist without a group culture. In that case the gold might be valuable {or worth something} to him, but it is not wealth.)
Shevek, Le Guin’s “Hero”, is a physicist and, Le Guin makes clear that in her view his creative achievement in his field is both an individual one and a collective one. There is no physics without a community of physicists, without a language of physics, without a history of physics thinking and development. But only one man is the source of the creative “synthesis” (or fountainhead of creation) that moves that history to something new that innovates and changes things.

It is clear that Le Guin believes that groups seem to inevitably move toward restriction of freedom, conservative inhibition of change and innovation and that the individual has to take the responsibility and consequences for his or her creative innovations—for the truth that she or he discovers/creates. This view is similar to Rand’s.

We can’t create anything without the conceptual linguistic community but only the individual can really use those tools to articulate new truths. Shevek comes to realize that the rules of thinking (logic in the larger sense, mathematics) can lead him to truth within the system of reasoning and number, but the usefulness of the truth depends upon its acceptance by the community of physicists and people willing to test it empirically and practically.

Le Guin’s view is systemic and spiritual (because meaning is not merely rational or material in her view).  Rand’s view seems to be entirely rational/materialistic as evidenced by John Galt’s long speech endorsing what he understands as the Aristotelean view of reality: to whit, “A is A”. Le Guin’s view is also constructionist and existential because she indicates human beings create their world through thinking about it and talking about it with language. This view is also put forth in her novel, The Telling. Language is not an individual creation. Human languages are born out of communication between individuals within groups, and they grow and develop within human societies.

Most broadly conceived, science is the search for truth that can be consensually validated and mutually agreed upon. The particular rules about what constitutes scientific procedure or evidence is itself a subject of inquiry and discussion, a human construction. If truth in physics lives in this tension between individual and group thought, how much more so for the field of psychology?

Physics had to accept Heisenberg’s principle of indeterminacy, which seemed to imply that we can know about what the group of atoms is doing but not the individual atom; this was followed by even less rigidly “materialistic” physics (particles that go in and out of existence, anti-matter, the relativity of time and space (the tradition within which {the fictional, of course} Shevek creates and solves problems).

Most “scientific” psychological research has been based upon a statistical model, in a way mirroring the Heisenberg principle that we can know something about a group, but not an individual.   But individual people are not like individual particles (each is unique) and it is that uniqueness which leads some humans to create, to produce something new.  (This is not an argument in favor of biological determinism; human uniqueness is always a product of both heredity and environment).   

The issue of determinism itself is exactly what makes an individual human psychology both possible and necessary.    Human beings have experience, have consciousness, have past and future as well as present, and have intentions or will. Human beings also create and seem to require meaning (and therefore values).  This is what I think has led to the view in many philosophical and anthropological traditions which have said that there is a spiritual dimension to human existence as well as a body and mind aspect.  In people, individual experience, meaning, and intention greatly influence behavior (and actually turn behavior into action) and this cannot be studied only from the outside and only statistically. (this is also why it proper, both ethically and practically to talk about influencing human behavior rather than controlling it.  It is our freedom to choose that makes us human (and Ayn Rand forcefully argues for this just as Ursula LeGuin does).   It is possible to have a sociology of creativity, but it is not likely to be very useful or humane if it isn’t based upon a functional psychology which includes awareness and choice as distinguishing features of human life.

 When I went to graduate school a lot of scientific psychology consisted of research carried out with animals as subjects. This was partly based on the notion that the study of behavior can be used to build up a full psychology of people.  I have never accepted this premise as true. It is not that the biological/body foundations of human existence cannot be explored and understood in the context of our relationship to other animals, but human existence is something else entirely and requires its own psychology which has to be radically different than studies of other animals. This is true because what is unique about humans is not our behavior, but rather the psyche, the inner world that influences that behavior. This creates the difference between behavior and action (which has to do with the meaning that is associated with the behavior). We are not likely to learn much about human existence (and its potentials) by building up from smaller units that exclude what is basic to that existence—namely an inner world of ideas, feelings, images, goals, intentions, time, etc. We can’t study that inner world without data, but the most important data is often linguistic data—what people say (or write) about existence. This is what differentiates human action from animal behavior. (One aspect of animal research that did seem important to me, is that the most radical behaviorists were not content to use statistics to verify the principles they were attempting to validate.  These behaviorally oriented psychologists, whether studying learning in rats, or how to decondition fear in children, insisted that if the external variables (conditions or stimuli) could not predict the outcome for a single subject, then the phenomenon was not really understood.)

As Le Guin writes, there is no human action without a past and a future—and these are conceptual/linguistic realities which human beings create and which become the necessary framework for our existence. Other animals do not have a past and future other than as human beings conceptualize time in relation to them. They do not conceptualize it for themselves. (Jean Piaget, the developmental epistemologist/psychologist saw the cognitive aspects of what he calls sensory/ motor intelligence in the behavior of pre-verbal children; but he is very clear about the limitations of this system and what enormous impact the development of language has upon thinking—and therefore of the world the child inhabits).

To be valid our science of the psyche must include the psyche (the inner world of people) and it must give us an understanding and ability to influence individual human beings in human ways. By necessity this includes issues of meaning, value, ideals (truth beauty and goodness) as well as our behavior, our social life.

I am not envisioning at the moment what a “science” of human psychology would be like other than that it must include the basic dimensions alluded to above. The search for consensually validated or agreed upon methods of arriving at truth and agreement is still what I think we ought to mean by the term science—and nothing more. Psychological science will have some very different dimensions than other science, because human beings are radically different than other phenomenon (we aren’t just phenomenon).


This throws us back into the dilemma that Shevek faces—because his truth is in some sense created individually by him in relation to standards he understands (logic, mathematics, consistency, etc.). However, to be useful, to be “knowledge”, these “truths” have to be understood and accepted by others. But this cannot mean that their truth is limited to the dumbest and least educated person, or, in his case, every non-physicist, or every not- understanding physicist.

Shevek has to be open to being disproved or even superseded, but he has to have the courage and take the responsibility for the consequences, the personal consequences for him, of standing up for the truth that he has arrived at—and relinquishing that truth only when he is satisfied that it has been found wanting according the criteria he understands. Even if he is wrong, his task is to stand up for the truth as he sees it.

Gallileo collected evidence that supported the Copernican theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around. Since this view was not accepted by others, and since the church convicted him of supporting heresy, and had him placed under house arrest, Gallileo publicly renounced his conclusion. He was not willing, publicly, to endure the consequences of standing up for his truth. It appears that he didn’t renounce his truth privately, within himself, and eventually, the group accepted his evidence and conclusions.

I relate all of this to current debates about best practice and evidence based practice in psychology. Individual psychologists are under pressure from the collective (immediately our own professional organizations, more remotely and perhaps causally, insurance companies that seek to influence the services they pay for) to use evidence based practices. Some of us question whether the science that leads to these collective opinions about what research shows to be best practice really enhance or optimize psychological services such as psychotherapy.

It is clear that the same forces that operate in the realm of psychology, have distorted medical research and practice, which in some sense is more tightly bound to the physical reality of body. A wholisitic (holistic) view of health, which even medicine is beginning to consider, is certainly essential for psychology (foundationed in all of the arguments I have put forth above as well as many other lines of reasoning and evidence).

The” truth” statements which “evidence based practices” represent come out of various institutions—research labs, universities, journals, which are collective efforts of individuals. But these are individuals who are highly integrated into a cultural setting and often are not very self-aware in relation to the limitations in their own ways of seeking truth. Nor are they usually sensitive to how much the institutions to which they are loyal are embedded in a culture whose truths are biased toward the materialistic, toward the statistical (group rather than individual), toward the simplistic rather than the simple (Ochams Razor), toward profit, toward narrowly defined self- interests.

As I consider these matters, and as I write the above, I am aware that many of my earlier experiences and biases and predilections have led me to be a minimal reader and consumer of primary source psychological “scientific” (academically sanctioned) research. I am committed to changing this so that if I am able to present at least some outline of what I think psychological science and research might look like when it includes full dimensions of human existence, it will not be done in ignorance of more specific details of how at least some sample of current psychological research is being carried out. I hope that I will find more reliable and useful guidance from it than I have in the past.

I do find that these biases lead me to a question as I make an effort to renewed objectivity about the usefulness of current psychological research. Is there good, scientific evidence that “scientific” psychological research has clearly contributed to the improvement of human welfare? I can offer some rational argument that it is has been harmful in certain ways, but this grows in part, out of my above alluded to biases and predilections. Which doesn’t mean I am “wrong” in my conclusions, of course. Hopefully, more about this later.