Monday, October 17, 2022


The biological approach to psychology assumes the discipline of psychology to be a biological science. Thus, the biological approach to psychology is the scientific study of the biology of behavior. Accordingly, all psychological processes are examined from a biological perspective.

The roots of the biological approach to psychology can be found in a number of philosophical perspectives. In modern times, the earliest philosophical perspective associated with the biological approach to psychology is mind-body dualism, proposed by the French philosopher Rene Descartes. In his book Meditations on First Philosophy, published in 1641, and considered to be one of the most influential texts in philosophy, Descartes suggested that, along with the physical body, human beings have an intangible soul. Further, Descartes believed that the body is controlled by the soul. The idea of human beings having an intangible soul later became interpreted as the mind.

Rene Descartes

According to Descartes, the mind interacts with the physical body, suggesting that the mind and body are two separate entities, thus the name dualism. He believed that the mind and body influence each other. Descartes further suggested that this mind-body interaction takes place in the brain in the pineal gland.

Descartes gave emphasis on the brain being an important mediator of behavior. He was the first to suggest that the human mind is linked to the brain. Therefore, mind-body dualism is viewed as the earliest philosophical perspective associated with the biological approach to psychology in modern times.

Mind-body dualism was dominant for a long time but was later disproved by biologists. It faced strong opposition from the philosophical perspective of materialism. Materialism is the philosophical perspective that suggests that all events can be explained in physical terms. It is the belief that all events are causally dependent on physical processes. It suggests that all mental events are aspects of physical events. Materialism is therefore opposing dualism, indicating that mind and body are not separate entities.

One of the main proponents of materialism in modern times is the British empiricist Thomas Hobbes. Hobbes believed that all human behavior and thought processes could be explained in terms of the physical. He suggested that sensations are corporeal motions that are created in the brain. He was a pioneer in trying to work out a physiological psychology.

Thomas Hobbes

Along with Hobbes, his contemporary, the French philosopher Pierre Gassendi represented materialism and opposed Descartes. Gassendi gave no relevance to the existence of non-material substances. According to him, all phenomena, including social, mental, and ethical have a materialistic explanation.

Pierre Gassendi

The biological approach to psychology is also associated with reductionism. Reductionism is the philosophy that believes in the idea of explaining complex phenomena in simpler or more fundamental forms. Regarding behavior, reductionism would explain behavior in its simplest form.

Psychologists suggest that explanations used by the biological approach to psychology are reductionist in their approach. The biological approach to psychology tries to explain complex behaviors in terms of physiological processes. Explaining behavior in terms of genes, neuronal interactions, neurochemicals, neural pathways, and brain structure is often suggested to be following the philosophy of reductionism.

In modern times, the beginning of the reductionist approach can be traced back to Rene Descartes. In part V of his Discourses, published in 1637, Descartes suggested that the world can be understood in terms of a machine that can be broken down into smaller individual components.

The biological approach to psychology is also associated with mechanism. Mechanism is the philosophy that suggests that the behavior of all organisms, including human beings, can be explained in the same way as the functioning of machines. It suggests that human beings are like complex machines. Just like to understand a machine it needs to be broken down into smaller parts, similarly to understand human behavior, according to mechanism, it needs to be broken down into smaller components. Mechanism further suggests that human behavior can be explained in terms of mechanical laws.

Rene Descartes had a mechanistic conception of the world. He believed that nature works according to mechanical laws. His strong emphasis on living organisms being mechanical systems led to a framework for future research in biology.

The mechanistic philosophy is more famously associated with the British empiricist, Thomas Hobbes. In his book Leviathian, published in 1651, he mentioned that the universe functions according to mechanistic laws, and since human beings are a part of the universe, human behavior also functions in a mechanistic way. According to Hobbes, human beings are like machines that are part of a larger machine known as the universe.

Even though Hobbes is more popularly associated with mechanism, the roots of the mechanistic view in biology are traced back to the writings of Descartes. He attempted a complete mechanistic explanation of bodily functions and behavior. Descartes also actually investigated animal bodies to understand their functioning and by that tried to understand the functioning of human bodies as well. In doing so, Descartes is often considered to be a major precursor to modern physiological psychology and comparative psychology, which are two of the major divisions of the biological approach to psychology.

The biological approach to psychology asserts that genetics, the brain, and other aspects of physiology play a role in psychological processes. This associates the biological approach to psychology with determinism. Determinism is the philosophy that states that for everything that happens there are certain conditions such that given them nothing else can happen. The philosophy of determinism is the assumption that for every event there are certain causes and knowing these causes helps in making predictions about that event. The biological approach to psychology can be specifically associated with biological determinism, which emphasizes physiological conditions or genetic predispositions in the explanation of behavior.

The philosopher who is often considered to be the first modern thinker to use a deterministic standpoint in explaining human behavior is Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza argued that nature is lawful, and because human beings are also part of nature, psychological processes can also be understood in a lawful manner, and are thus deterministic.

Baruch Spinoza

A very significant and widely accepted theory within the biological approach to psychology is the localization theory. The localization theory suggests that each brain area is associated with specific functions and that damage to that brain area would lead to deficits in that function. The emergence of the localization theory took place in the early 1800s and is credited to the German anatomist Franz Joseph Gall.

Franz Joseph Gall

In coming up with his idea of brain localization, Gall was highly influenced by faculty psychology. Faculty psychology is the approach that argues that the mind can be divided into separate abilities or capacities (faculties). Faculty psychology can be viewed as an aspect of rationalism that emphasizes on logic and intellect in explaining human behavior. Rationalism also emphasizes on the innate functions of the mind.

In order to elaborate on the innate powers of the mind, the Scottish philosopher and rationalist Thomas Reid formulated faculty psychology, in the 18th century. Reid believed that faculties are aspects of the mind that influence human thought and behavior. He further stated that all faculties are innate and function in cooperation with other faculties. Reid suggested 43 faculties of the mind, which include abstraction, attention, generalization, imitation, judgment, morality, perception, compassion, and reason.

Thomas Reid

The biological approach to psychology uses the scientific method for investigation. Like any other science, it emphasizes on making scientific inferences. It enables in making the discipline of psychology to be highly scientific. However, it is important to understand the philosophical roots of the biological approach to psychology, which mainly are mind-body dualism, materialism, reductionism, mechanism, and faculty psychology.

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