Anatol Rapoport (1995) Human Reflexion and the Anthropic Principle. Psycoloquy: 6(37) Human Choice (3)

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Psycoloquy 6(37): Human Reflexion and the Anthropic Principle

Commentary on Lefebvre on Human-Choice

Anatol Rapoport
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario
Canada M5S 1A1


An important event in the development of logic was the discovery of paradoxes inherent in self-reference. Yet in any serious approach to the study of the human psyche, self-reference is unavoidable since it is involved in any account we give about our internal states, about which we have the most direct, hence the most incontrovertible knowledge. Lefebvre (1995) approaches the anthropic principle through a mathematical formalism he has developed over some decades, in which self-reference plays a central role. In this treatment, the anthropic principle is stated as an unfalsifiable (hence empirically untestable) assumption and yet leads to propositions that are testable, hence falsifiable and loaded with empirical content.


choice; computation; decision theory; ethical cognition; mathematical psychology; model building; parameter estimation; probability; rationality.
1. Some thirty odd years ago T. Kuhn used the term "paradigm" to bring into focus so called "scientific revolutions." A "paradigm" is a framework of concepts into which science fitted at a particular stage of its development. Scientific revolutions were accompanied by changes of paradigms.

2. The best known changes of paradigm occurred when categories first thought to be distinct turned out to be simply different aspects of the same category. For instance, heat turned out to be a particular form of energy (along with potential, kinetic, etc.); magnetism and electricity, different aspects of the same category (a "field"); time as one of four dimensions of the "space-time continuum"; and information as "negative entropy." The latter identification is particularly remarkable because it unites a category thought to be entirely "physical" with one thought to be entirely "mental."

3. V.A. Lefebvre's conception of the anthropic principle (1995) can also be conceived as an instance of showing apparently distinct conceptual categories to be intimately connected. Indeed a principle theme in a great deal of Lefebvre's work appears to be the creation of a link between the external manifestation of the human psyche and the internal processes underlying it.

4. The approach derives from the age-old mind-body problem, which Descartes once formulated in dualist terms. Attempts at integration were made first from the materialist point of view, according to which there was no such thing as a "disembodied" mind. The "real thing" was the material brain. What we conceive as the "mind" was said to be simply a result of the brain's activity. The approach was attractive in an age when what was accepted as "science" reflected turning away from questions of central interest in philosophy and religion, typically unconcerned with properties and behaviour of matter according to its own laws. The first "materialistically" oriented psychology was actually an extension of physiology. A link was established between (presumed) events in the nervous system and modification of behaviour via the discovery of the conditioned response by I. Pavlov.

5. The behaviourist paradigm stimulated by Pavlov's approach soon dispensed with neural events altogether. It seemed that all psychological theory could be reduced to describing and accounting for correlations between overtly observable stimuli and overtly observable behaviour. The "psyche," supposedly the central concept of psychology disappeared from the psychologist's concerns. The gestaltists, emphasizing the limited range of the behaviourist paradigm by calling attention to "holistic" aspects behaviour, for example, recognition or insight, to some extent reintroduced the "mind" into human psychology. Still the most important function of the "mind," once central in psychology, was missing, namely, introspection.

6. There is no reason why introspection cannot be included along with observation of overt behaviour as a method of studying the "mind." After all, it is through introspection and introspection alone that we are aware of the mind's existence. And what more reliable evidence do we have about our mind's (that is our own) existence than what we "observe" through introspection? Descartes expressed this insight in his famous declaration.

7. Lefebvre's contribution to a theory of the mind was the development of a formalism to serve as a framework in which to cast a mathematically rigorous theory of introspection. The theory rests on assumptions which are in principle unfalsifiable and therefore from the point of view of conventional philosophy of science have no empirical content. Yet, they lead to derived propositions that are testable (hence falsifiable) and therefore loaded with empirical content.

8. I have also been engaged in a somewhat similar exercise. I demonstrate the possibility of communication about matters that are in principle unobservable and yet not devoid of "meaning." I ask students to imagine some sensation, say the smell of ammonia or roses or garlic. After some seconds of silence I ask whether they can almost experience the smell. Almost every one says yes. Then I ask them to describe the experience. General adjectives like "acrid," "fragrant," etc. won't do. They must describe the suggested smell in such a way that I will accurately name the substance described. It can't be done. And yet almost every one is convinced that the imaginary sensation evoked by my naming the substance is the same as what I imagine I smell. The same is true of taste and touch. Phantom feelings of touching velvet or of glue or phantom experience of a pin prick or of an orgasm can be evoked in every one who had experienced the same, and we are convinced that they are "experiencing" what we are "experiencing." Yet this conviction can be neither corroborated nor refuted. These exercises support the notion that introspection is a rich source of genuine knowledge about what goes on "in the mind," and there is no need to exclude this mode of knowing from investigations that meet strict standards of scientific rigour.

9. It is in this spirit that Lefebvre approaches the anthropic principle. To be sure the statement of the principle: "... that we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers" sounds like a tautology, but it is formulated as a prediction and hence must be in principle falsifiable. But it cannot be falsifiable, since we cannot observe anything if we don't exist. There is a suggestion of self reference in this principle. Self reference plays a conspicuous part in Lefebvre's reflexive (introspective) models of the mind.

10. In a way, Lefebvre's models of the mind may open the way to a distinct change of paradigm in psychological theory. This is suggested by the title of Section 8 of his paper: Awareness, Thermodynamics, and Brain Neural Networks. "Awareness", like consciousness is clearly an introspective term. "Brain neural networks" refers to brain structure, supposedly the link between "mental" and "physical" categories. "Thermodynamics" refers to a sector of pure physics. The change of paradigm is manifested in the switch from micro-neural events (the first attempted link between brain and mind) to macroneural events -- states of the entire neural network. Note the connection between this shift and the reflexive (or self-referential) problem of having "feelings about one's feelings," discussed in Section 7. Finally note the translation of the mind problem into the language of thermodynamics. Isomorphisms of this sort constitute the foundations of general system theory, to which the present paper is a distinct contribution.


Lefebvre, V.A. (1995). The Anthropic Principle in Psychology and Human Choice. PSYCOLOQUY 6(29) human-choice.1.lefebvre.

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