10 Key Words in UTOK Psychology

This blog explains how UTOK defines psychology, behavior, mind, cognition, consciousness, the self, ego/persona, person, culture, and psyche.

The Unified Theory of Knowledge (UTOK) provides a new way to frame the interrelationships between the natural sciences, psychology, the social sciences, and philosophy. As is playfully suggested by its name, UTOK (said like “you talk”) can be thought of as a new language system. At its center, it is structured to solve the many philosophical problems that emerged during the Enlightenment. In particular, it allows us to obtain the proper conceptual relationships between: (a) matter and mind, and (b) scientific/objective and social/subjective knowledge systems. UTOK characterizes this conjoined set of problems as the Enlightenment Gap (EG). Understanding the EG is central to understanding why our current knowledge systems are in a state of chaotic fragmented pluralism and why we are facing a meaning and mental health crisis. If you can solve the EG, we can move toward a coherent integrated pluralism. UTOK is structured as a knowledge-into-wisdom philosophical system that fills in, solves, and resolves the EG.

As those familiar with the system know, UTOK is a philosophy that initially grew out of my attempts to solve the problem of scientific psychology’s proper subject matter and generate a new unified theory of psychology, which I laid out in 2011. Of course, the system has grown substantially in the last 10+ years and is now as much about philosophy as it is about psychology. In this post, I share how UTOK defines ten keywords in psychology that are central to understanding the UTOK language system. The definitions are admittedly dense. This post is intended primarily for folks who are interested in learning the UTOK language. It functions to summarize how these key concepts are defined, and it provides links for where interested readers can go for more information and the arguments supporting them.

1. Psychology. Mainstream academic psychology is defined as the science of behavior and mental processes. According to UTOK, this definition is deeply problematic because it is based on the epistemology of science as opposed to a clear conception of the field’s subject matter in the world. In contrast, UTOK is oriented toward ontology and specifying what in the world the science of psychology is about. Via the new updated map of Big History given by the Tree of Knowledge (ToK) System, UTOK clearly defines psychology as being about Mind, which is the third dimension of complexification. Mind (with a capital M) can be framed as consisting of the set of mental behaviors. Mental behaviors can be defined as the patterns of functional awareness and responsivity demonstrated by animals with brains and complex active bodies.

This gives rise to a new way to approach scientific psychology. Specifically, instead of a “methodological behaviorism” that specifies psychology is a science because it applies the methods of science, UTOK gives a “mental behaviorism” that specifies the ontology of the mental. According to UTOK, psychological science is about describing and explaining animal and human mental behavioral patterns. It does this via the epistemological methods of science, but it is defined by its ontological referent rather than the fact that it simply uses the methods of science. Consider that all sciences, by definition, use the methods of science. Thus the defining aspect of the specific branches are the kind of entities and patterns the branch is tasked with describing and explaining. Thus, UTOK’s psychology is very different than methodological behaviorism. It comes with a clear descriptive metaphysical system, a clear ontological referent, and a metatheoretical architecture that can assimilate and integrative key insights from the major schools of thought into a coherent, scientifically grounded picture of the whole.

2. Behavior. As suggested in the definition above, UTOK makes a deep link between science and the concept of behavior. Behavior is broadly defined as the change in object-field relations. As this blog makes clear, UTOK posits that behavior is the central concept in modern empirical natural science. Specifically, objects (or entities), fields, and change provide the basic metaphysical concepts that scientists use to categorize the world. We can then move from descriptive metaphysics to ontology. According to UTOK, natural science is about the project of observing, describing, and explaining the unfolding wave of behaviors (i.e., object-field change) at various levels and dimensions of existence.

Of course, in UTOK, the ToK System divides the behavioral patterns in the world via the four dimensions of Matter, Life, Mind, and Culture. In addition, UTOK gives the Periodic Table of Behavior as a specific taxonomy for behavior patterns in nature analyzed by the various scientific disciplines. The PTB adds the crucial insight that nature is stratified by both levels of analysis (i.e., parts, wholes, groups across aggregate scales) and dimensions of complexification (i.e., first Matter and then Life, Mind, and Culture) that emerge as a function of information processing and communication networks.

This set of insights about behavior has key implications for how psychology is defined. First, it posits that if we are defining psychology in alignment with the natural sciences, it must, by virtue of playing a natural science language game, adopt a behavioral view. Second, it suggests that psychologists are not interested in behavior in general, but are interested in a specific kind of behavior. Third, as this blog on the 12 floors of science makes clear (see also this academic paper), the levels and dimensions of analysis show how basic psychology aligns with animal mental behavior and human psychology aligns with human mental behavior and why these must be considered two separate branches of scientific analysis.

3. Mind. UTOK argues that the Enlightenment failed to generate a coherent vocabulary for the mental, and UTOK provides us a much richer vocabulary for the mental than is currently used by most systems of language. This is necessary because the language systems that emerged from the modern Enlightenment were deeply confused, inadequate, and convoluted when it comes to properly framing the domain of the mental.

We can start with a current debate in cognitive science, specifically the debate between traditional cognitive neuroscientists and more recent 4e cognitive science view. For example, we can consider Shaun Gallagher’s book, Enactivist Interventions: Rethinking the Mind. In it, he spells out a 4e cognitive science view that the mind is an extended, embodied, embedded and enacted process of perception and action. This is in contrast to the traditional cognitive neuroscience view that the mind is an informational-representational system inside the nervous system. Gallagher does make a number of important points. However, UTOK critiques aspects of his argument because there is confusion about the referent of the term mind. Consider that UTOK makes a clear and obvious distinction between Mind with a capital M and “the mind.” As noted above, Mind refers to the complex adaptive behavioral patterns of animals with active bodies. It can be represented in the following way.

In contrast, as this blog explains, “the mind” in UTOK refers to the information instantiated within and processed by the nervous system. This means that much of the debate is due to the equivocation regarding what mind refers to the in the world. For 4e cognitive science people, “mind” = Mind in UTOK. In contrast, for traditional cognitive neuroscientists, mind = “the mind.” To clarify these issues further, the UTOK gives the Map of Mind1,2,3 the clarify the different domains of the mental.

The Map of Mind enables consideration of both the epistemological perspective (outside-in behavior versus inside-out qualitative) and the appropriate ontological reference. Specifically, grounded in UTOK’s big picture, the Map of Mind differentiates overt mental behavior (Mind1b) from neurocognitive processes (Mind1a) from subjective conscious experiences (Mind2) from private verbalizations (Mind3a) from public (Mind3b) verbalizations via their appropriate ontological and epistemological referents.

Finally, UTOK gives Behavioral Investment Theory as a metatheory for framing animal-mental behavioral processes that combine evolutionary theory, neuroscience, behavioral science, cognitive science, and developmental systems theory into a coherent picture. The summary point here, which is the focus of my in progress book, The Problem of Psychology and a New Vision for Its Solution, UTOK gives a clear descriptive metaphysical system that specifies the ontology of the mental and affords a general metatheory of its emergence and dynamics. (For a detailed analysis of how UTOK addresses the mind-body problem, see here).

4. Cognition. Cognitive is another complicated term with many potential referents. UTOK emphasizes the technical meaning in terms of “neurocognitive functionalism.” In the context of neurocognitive functionalism, cognitive (or cognition as cognitive processes) refers to the information processing that takes place within the nervous system. As such, it is closely related to “the mind.” In addition, there are three different potential referents for what is meant by “information processing.” First, there is the input-recursive computation-output structure of the nervous system. Second, there is the information-theoretic meaning of reduction of uncertainty, which connects to predictive processing or active inference models of cognition. Third, it refers to the semiotic, semantic, and schematic architectures that enable an agent to make sense of the environment and its experience.

Importantly, UTOK syncs up with John Vervaeke’s 4P/3R metatheory of cognition. His work makes clear how to understand cognition functionally in terms of recursive relevance realization (i.e., the 3 Rs). This takes the concept of information processing into predictive processing and elaborates it to make it highly consistent with a functional understanding of cognition, consciousness and phenomenology. In addition, John’s work helps differentiate cognition as information processing from cognition as knowing. His “4Ps” of knowing are procedural, participatory, perspectival, and propositional. This diagram captures how the 4P/3R metatheory of cognition networks very well with the unified theory of psychology’s four key ideas (i.e., the ToK System, BIT, Matrix, and JUST).

5. Consciousness. In everyday language, consciousness can refer to either awareness or the subjective experience of being or some combination. As this blog makes clear, UTOK acknowledges both referents, and it specifies the difference and relationship between the two. The broadest definition of consciousness refers to functional awareness and responsivity. This can be “seen from the outside” in behavioral terms, and it essentially refers to the way that organisms exhibit intelligent behavioral patterns across time. Defined this way, bacteria can exhibit consciousness in that they demonstrate functional awareness and responsivity to the environment and work to survive and reproduce in complex adaptive ways. We can also see this referent for consciousness when we say that someone who is in a coma is “unconscious.” What we mean is that the person fails to exhibit functional awareness and responsivity.

Although it has some value, this definition of consciousness can be misleading because it can be confused with consciousness as referring to the subject’s experience of being in the world. This second meaning is often called sentience or phenomenological consciousness, and it is the preferred primary referent in UTOK, and it corresponds to the domain of Mind2 (and, as we will see, the psyche). This blog traces the evolution of consciousness, which allows us to see the phylogenetic trail and how that relates to the layers of our psyche (defined later).

Finally, consciousness also can be used to mean the recursive blending of both experience and awareness. That is, consciousness is when one has an experience and becomes aware of that. This meaning is most obviously seen in self-conscious reflection humans. For example, when a person introspects and report on their experience of being, they are reporting on their awareness of experience. It is this meaning that people have in mind when they say that only people are conscious. As the series Untangling the World Knot of Consciousness makes clear, UTOK syncs up well with John Vervaeke’s 4P/3R metatheory of cognition to effectively frame the evolutionary, functional, and phenomenological aspects of both subjective experience and self-conscious reflection and to see how both concepts relate to functional awareness and responsivity.

6. Self. In the cognitive science show series, The Elusive “I”: The Nature and Function of the Self, John Vervaeke, Christopher Mastropietro, and I show how the concept of the self emerges as animals model themselves in future relationships (see here for links and description). Specifically, we showed first that every agent must model both itself and the environment. However, as the agent can proceed to extend itself across time and context, it creates an inner working model of the self, defined by self-relevant events and outcomes. In addition, we showed how the Influence Matrix maps the human relationship system, such that people are constantly tracking relevant self-other exchange dynamics to assess social influence and relational value.

The diagram below shows how the human system of mental models both the general agent arena relationship on the right side and carries a model of self-relevant information on the left. In addition, this self-model is different from both the witnessing function of consciousness (represented by the mind’s eye in the diagram) and it is different than the narrating ego, which is defined below.

UTOK identifies four domains of human consciousness, and spells them out via the ESP-A model. In the model, the “A” refers to the witness function of consciousness that generates pre-conceptual awareness of the situation. That is, you open your eyes and the world presents itself. The “S” refers to the “experiential self” that models self-referential information over time and especially in relationship to others and the social world. This is part of our “primate” mental lives, and the Influence Matrix, which blends Bowlby’s attachment theory and Leary’s Interpersonal Circumplex, is key in understanding how the Self is tracking the experience of being seen, known, and valued in the relational world.

7. Ego and Persona. The “E” and “P” in the ESP-A model refer to the ego and persona. In UTOK, the ego refers to the private narrating self-consciousness system, whereas the persona refers to the public image humans try to project to manage impressions and regulate their reputations and social influence. The central idea that ultimately gave rise to UTOK is called Justification Systems Theory. Developed in 1996, it is the idea that the emergence of propositional language in human evolution created the adaptive problem of justification. In short, propositions set the stage for questions, which in turn meant that people had to develop justifiable answers. This created a new adaptive pressure for a new kind of mental process, which was the process of self-reflecting and generating a verbal set of interpretations and explanations for what was happening in the world.

UTOK posits the human ego as nature’s solution. Specifically, the human ego can be framed as the mental organ of justification. According to UTOK, the ego works to develop verbal-semantic justifications that make sense of both external events and inner experience and frame it in a manner that can be justified on the social stage. This analysis further means that the logic of JUST frames the persona as closely tied to the ego. The persona then is the public image individuals attempt to portray to manage the impressions others. The relationship between the experiential/primate self, the ego, and the persona are mapped by the Updated Tripartite Model of Human Consciousness, which revises Freud’s tripartite and places it in the context of modern knowledge. As shown in this diagram, the model not only specifies three major domains of human consciousness, but also specifies three filters that regulate the flow of information between those domains.

8. Person. Consistent with the work of Peter Ossorio and Christian Smith and others, UTOK defines a person as an entity that can self-consciously reflect and provide accounts and take responsibility for one’s actions on the social stage. This means that the concept of a person is not tied directly explicit to being human, but rather is one that is defined by a capacity. This fact is seen clearly when we consider the work of science fiction (e.g., Jabba the Hut from Star Wars is a person in this sense). Of course, currently humans are the only known creatures in the universe that have shown this full capacity. Indeed, UTOK emphasizes the need to shift the traditional dichotomy of “nature versus nurture” to understanding that human mental behavior can be framed by humans as primates and persons. Humans are primates that can be socialized to become persons.

9. Culture. In UTOK, Culture with a capital “C” refers to the fourth dimension of complexification. Consistent with Justification Systems Theory, it is constituted by the large-scale systems of justification that consist of the propositional networks that coordinate human action and legitimize what is and ought to be. It should not be confused with how many people use the term culture, which refers to traditions of learned behavioral repertoires and practices that are developed communities of individuals over time. Other animals like chimpanzees clearly have culture with a little “c”; however, only humans have Culture. On the ToK System, the fourth dimension of complexification is often called the “Person-Culture” plane of existence. As a metatheory, JUST works to frame both the structure and function regarding the social construction of reality and the ways human persons navigate those systems of justification.

10. Psyche. In UTOK, the psyche refers to the specific, idiographic, unique, subjective first person experience of being in the world. It is the individual’s epistemological portal that functions to generate the awareness and experience of being in the world. It can only be experienced from an inside-out epistemic vector. That is, one can never directly observe another’s psyche. Importantly, the onto-epistemological structure of the psyche is largely antithetical to the onto-epistemology of modern empirical natural science in the sense that the latter is a conceptual-theoretical system framed by mapping behaviors based on generalizable, nomothetic, natural processes that can be observed via a systematic third person empirical data gathering and experimental methods. In contrast, the psyche consists of instances of ontic-epistemic realization that are unique, particular, idiographic, non-conceptual, and real (as opposed to theoretic-explanatory).

In UTOK, the iQuad Coin is given as the conceptual placeholder for the human psyche, and it bridges with the ToK System to provide the proper conceptual relations between the unique particular subjective psyche in the real with a generalizable scientific theoretical account of behavior in nature.


In the 19th and early 20th Century, scientists tried to develop a coherent, holistic scientific approach to studying “the mind” (or behavior or consciousness or the self or the psyche). Unfortunately, what emerged was a cacophony of different schools of thought that lacked the capacity to “frame the edges.” The reason mothers tell their children to frame the edges when starting to put together a puzzle is that it structures the way the pieces must fall together. UTOK allows us to frame the edges. And in so doing, it gives us a vocabulary and a way to define psychology, behavior, mind, cognition, consciousness, self, ego/persona, person, culture and the psyche in a way that is up to the task of filling in the Enlightenment Gap and generating a coherent naturalistic ontology that can revitalize the human soul and spirit in the 21st Century.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Gregg Henriques

Professor Henriques is a scholar, clinician and theorist at James Madison University.