Monthly Archives: March 2015

Meditation and The Philosophy of the Self

Can meditation reveal to us real knowledge about the nature of the self? In his recent book ‘Waking Up’ Sam Harris argued that indeed it could.  When reading Harris’s well written little book, I was in the position of a person being told about a land he had never visited and who had to take the word of his guide. So when Harris claimed that experience x or y was possible when meditating, I had to take his word for it about the experiences, as I have only done limited meditation. Harris’s book was very informative and I learned a lot from it. Nonetheless I had some problems with aspects of it from philosophical perspective.
One problem I had with the book was that he wrongly claimed that Dan Dennett and Paul Churchland are eliminativists about consciousness. Dennett has long argued that he is not claiming that consciousness does not exist rather he arguing that consciousness exists but it is just not what you think it is. Paul Churchland never ever claimed that consciousness does not exist. Harris knows both thinkers deny being eliminativists about consciousness so if he is going to claim that they are he should have at least provided some textual evidence to support his claim.  His bald assertion that they are eliminativists is not supported by any evidence.
The reason Harris accused Churchland and Dennett of being eliminativists was because he wanted to create a kind of forced choice. Either you deny consciousness exists or you admit that it exists and cannot be explained by current and (possibly any future science). But I don’t think we need this forced choice. Dennett has worked hard to give us an alternative to this view and I think that if Harris wanted to demonstrate that this view is insufficient he would need to engage with it seriously and not simply caricature it. I personally am coming around to the view that there is a hard problem of consciousness and that Dennett has not explained this issue away. However, Harris didn’t engage with his opponents on this issue at all.

A particularly weak aspect of ‘Waking Up’ was Sam Harris’s claim that we could prove the non existence of the self through meditation. I have long thought of the self as a theoretical fiction;  like Dennett I just think of the self as a centre of descriptive gravity. Harris cites the work of Hume and Parfit as presenting good reasons to be sceptical about the existence of the self. However he goes on to argue that if a person meditates they will have direct experience of the non-existence of the self. He even argues that this direct experience is better evidence than the theoretical arguments of Hume and Parfit. I am sceptical about drawing large scale philosophical conclusions from direct experiences in meditation. Harris seems to agree with me on the point that we shouldn’t draw large scale metaphysical conclusions from meditation but on the issue of the self, but he ignores his own advice and uses his direct experience in meditation to make a controversial philosophical claim.
Philosophers like Locke and Berkeley used to engage in disputes about mental faculties based their direct introspective experiences. Introspective psychology discovered that some people have different mental capacities than others. Some are eidetic images, some can only form vague mental images, while some people are non-imagers (See Galton and William James for statistical introspective evidence, for neuroscientific and behavioural evidence see Kosslyn et al (2006)). Now when Harris argues that he has direct experience of the non-existence of the self he has no evidence other than his own subjective impressions. To support his conclusions he needs to show that most people meditating have the same experiences of the non-existence of the self as him and show that those who don’t have these experiences are meditating incorrectly. Furthermore when people like Descartes, and Berkeley argue that they have a strong experience of the self through direct introspection Harris needs to provide evidence that his experiences in meditation are more valid than their experiences when directly introspecting. If a person doing phenomenological analysis (or introspective psychology) draws a different conclusion from their analysis about the nature of the self how can Harris show that they are mistaken through his direct experiences in meditation? It seems to me he cannot. His claims about the nature of experience of people who meditate are subject to the same objections about claims raised about introspection.

If a person claims that upon close introspection they experience the self (Descartes, Berkeley), and another person claims on close introspection they do not experience the self (Hume) you are at an impasse. It takes philosophical analysis and third person science to decide the issue. Likewise if Harris claims that the self doesn’t exist and he knows this from direct observation in meditating and another spiritualist claims they directly experience the self when in deep meditation we have no way of deciding the issue.  Unless he can overcome these problems Harris must accept that he wrong to draw metaphysical conclusions from his experiences meditating.

Consider Descartes and James differing conceptions of the mind:
“When I consider the mind—i.e. consider myself purely as a thinking thing—I can’t detect any parts within myself; I understand myself to be something single and complete. The whole mind seems to be united to the whole body, ·but not by a uniting of parts to parts, because if a foot or arm or any other part of the body is cut off, nothing is thereby taken away from the mind. As for the faculties of willing, understanding, of sensory perception and so on, these are not parts of the mind, since it is one and the same mind that wills, understands and perceives, They are (I repeat) not parts of the mind, because they are properties or powers of it. (Descartes: Meditations on First Philosophy p. 11)”
Let the case be what it may be for others, I am as confident as I am of anything that, in myself, the stream of thinking (which I emphatically recognize as a phenomenon) is only a careless name for what, when scrutinized reveals itself to consist of the stream of my breathing. (James 1904)
There is I mean no aboriginal stuff or quality of being, contrasted with that of which material objects are made, out of which our thoughts of them are made, but there is a function in experience which thoughts perform…(namely)…knowing. Consciousness is supposed necessary to explain the fact that things not only are, but get reported, are known. (James: 1904 p.101)
Everyone assumes that we have direct introspective acquaintance with our thinking activity as such, with our consciousness as something inward contrasted with the outer objects which it knows. Yet I must confess that for my part I cannot feel sure of that conclusion. Whenever I try to become sensible of my thinking activity as such, what I catch is some bodily fact an impression coming from my brow, or head, or throat or nose. It seems as if consciousness as an inner activity were rather a postulate than a sensibly given fact. (James: 1892: Text Book of Psychology p. 467)

Both thinkers describe their experience of consciousness and thinking differently. From a first person point of view they can say it as they are entitled to do this. The problem comes when they try to generalise their own experiences and claim that all people must experience the world in the same way.  Both thinkers could accuse the other of not introspecting properly. But there seems little we can to resolve the issue. Perhaps both have different types of consciousness or one of them is in the grip of a theory which warps what he experiences. To decide the issue we need to move beyond first person science and use third person science and thought experiments. The exact same situation arises for Sam Harris and his claims about directly experiencing the non-existence of the self. At best he can say is that this is how things seemed to him and he is pretty certain that he is correct. But his subjective reports give him no licence to pontificate about the non-existence of the self for others. Real analysis of whether the self exists or not; relies on philosophical analysis, and third person science, not on the subjective intuitions of people meditating.

Fodor and Pylyshyn: Three Minor Quibbles

Some brief notes on Fodor and Pylyshyn (2015) Some assumptions and where I agree or disagree with them:

(1)They assume the truth of belief/desire psychology and think that all branches of behaviourism are false. (I do not agree with this assumption and think that eliminative materialism may turn out to be true about the P/A. I think the proper course of action is to wait and see the truth is we don’t know the answer on this one yet.)

(2) They assume the truth of Naturalism. (I agree with this assumption)

(3) They assume the truth of the type/token distinction. (I agree with this assumption)

(4) They assume that grammatical discoveries have psychological reality. (I think that the grammatical discoveries in linguistics have psychological reality and are implemented by the brain so I accept their assumption)

(5) They assume that propositions have compositional structure. (I accept this assumption)

(6) They assume that mental representations have compositional structure. (I accept this assumption in so far as I agree with the RTM. But I have my doubts about the RTM)

(7) They assume that the Representational Theory of the Mind is true. (I am not sold on the RTM. I haven’t made up my mind yet but I am working towards a theory of embodied pragmatism which is anti RTM but I don’t think we can say for sure whether the RTM will remain true in a completed science of the mind/brain. My guess at this early stage is that the RTM is false.)

(8) They assume that the Computational Theory of the Mind is true. (I agree with this if the CTM includes connectionist models, and Bayesian models. I agree with Fodor that the CTM as traditionally conceived (Fodor’s isolated modules) cannot (and probably never will) handle things like global abduction. That is why I am don’t understand why Fodor and Pylyshyn don’t use connectionist models (they are wrong that connectionist models cannot handle compositionality see Chalmers [insert ref].

On another note while I accept the CTM (suitably modified) I think these models have to stop idealizing away from an organisms need to supply its own energy to fight off entropy (See Deacon ‘Incomplete Nature’). I think the idealisation inherent in some CTM models results in wildly inaccurate models. So while I accept the CTM I probably don’t do so in any sense that Fodor and Pylyshyn would agree with.

(9) They assume that Thought has priority to Language. (This is a complex one. I don’t accept the view that people always think in an internal Language of Thought. But strictly speaking this isn’t what Fodor and Pylyshyn asked. They are asking whether children develop thought prior to acquiring language? This is a massive area. I agree that thought is prior to language and not necessary for language. But I am not nearly as confident about the issue as Fodor and Pylyshyn are. )

So 1 the assumption that Propositional Attitude psychology must be maintained is the only one of their assumptions I disagree with. I don’t even say for certain that this assumption is false. I merely think that we don’t know whether it is true; and more research is needed until we can decide on the issue. Until such research in concluded I prefer to adopt Dennett’s intentional stance approach as opposed to making a-priori assumptions as Fodor and Pylyshyn do. I agree with them on assumptions 2, 3, 4, and 5. I agree with them on 8 and 9 though I am not as confident of my belief on the topic as they are. And in the way I interpret 8 they would probably have serious difficulties with me. I agree with 6 to the extent that I accept the RTM and I am not sure to what extent I accept the RTM. I think 7 is probably false but I am withholding judgement till I learn more.

I will examine how my differing assumptions relates to my difficulties with their central argument later on for now I want to note some quibbles I have with some claims they make in the preliminary part of their book.

First quibble:

Fodor and Pylyshyn engage in the grand old Chomskian tradition of dismissing scientific theories while presenting little justification. Thus we get the following:

“To begin with, we take it that behaviourism is false root and branch; in the paradigm cases, behaviour is the effect of mental causes… Wittgenstein and Skinner both held that the first-language acquisition is somehow the effect of “training” (“socially mediated reinforcement”, or the like) But that cannot be right either, since it turns out that children generally neither need nor get much language training in the course of learning a first language. Still more to the point, there is (as far as we know) no serious suggestion anywhere in either psychology or philosophy as to how training might work its putative effects…The thesis that (accepting, perhaps, occasional reflexes) new-borns are cognitively inert has become increasingly unattractive since the collapse of the Piagetian program in developmental psychology…” (Fodor and Pylyshyn: ‘Minds Without Meanings’ pp. 2-15)

This sort of hubris has become standard in cognitive science. Chomsky is the master of dismissing all psychologists, philosophers or linguists who disagree with him. Fodor and Pylyshyn show that they are more than a match for Chomsky when it comes to the rhetoric of dismissing the work of rivals. On the issue of behaviourism; it is now standard for cognitive scientists to act as though behaviourism is dead. This is simply not true. Behaviourism (in the guise of Applied Behavioural Analysis) is a flourishing field which is used in psychiatric and intellectual disabilities institutes regularly. The evidence for the success of using Applied Behavioural Analysis is overwhelming. Furthermore, the standard mode of attack against behaviourists have been refuted. I won’t go over the material here but refer my readers to my blog-posts (1) Poverty of Stimulus Arguments and Behaviourism, (2) PECS and Verbal Behaviour, (3) Some Behavioural Techniques and The Idea of a Blank Slate.  In these blog-posts I demonstrate that standard arguments that behavioural techniques cannot work; poverty of stimulus arguments; the idea that children do not get corrected by their peers for incorrect grammatical assertions and even if they did they would not make use of these corrections are all false (See Pullum and Schulz 2002, Hart and Risely 1995, and Choinard and Clark (2002). I think my data clearly shows that Fodor and Pylyshyn’s confident assertions aside behaviourism is alive and well.

On the issue of the Piagetian paradigm being dead and buried again Fodor and Pylyshyn are massively exaggerating. It is true that many contemporary developmental psychologists disagree with some central claims of Piaget. This though is standard in science. Darwin didn’t have a mechanism with which to explain heredity; though we do now. Nobody thinks that this fact refutes the theory of evolution. Piaget was wrong in his views of pre-linguistic child development; children have sophisticated concepts of objects which go beyond anything that Piaget imagined. Piaget didn’t really make use of the preferential looking tasks developed by Fantz. For this reason his research underestimated the children’s cognitive abilities. But it is worth noting that the researchers who have refuted aspects of Piaget’s developmental theory don’t consider themselves as smashing a paradigm. Writers like Markman, Carey, Spelke et al typically start their books by stating their admiration for the pioneering work of Piaget before stating where they disagree with him. I have written about some of this research in my blog post ‘Indeterminacy of Translation and Innate Concepts’, here I argued that Spelke et al have shown that aspects of Piaget’s theory was wrong (though I don’t think that any of this evidence demonstrates that children have innate concepts). But neither I nor any of the authors working in developmental psychology argued that Piaget’s developmental psychology was destroyed. I think Fodor and Pylyshyn really should think before using such wildly exaggerated assessments of various psychological schools. Somehow I doubt that this will happen though; because pretending that rival schools of thought have been smashed in to nothing helps them with their I am the only president you’ve got style arguments:

“But not liking a hypothesis is not, in and of itself, grounds for rejecting it; one has the obligations of refuting it and offering serious alternatives. To our knowledge, neither of these burdens has been met by the (many) cognitive scientists who disapprove of BCS; and we doubt that either is likely to be in any future that we are now able to foresee. And any old theory is better than none: out of nothing comes nothing” (ibid p.17)

Their claim that there are no serious opponents to their views is dubious at best. It is a political manoeuvre where you throw mud at your rivals and declare to the voters look I am not great but at least I am not as bad as that guy. If Fodor and Pylyshyn want to declare all opponents of their view dead they owe it to their readers to seriously engage with their rivals. This is science not politics. What is important is evidence not rhetoric.

Second Quibble:

From page 20-32 they present a series of arguments as to why concepts cannot be images. I think there are some serious arguments in this section. And I find myself largely in agreement with their arguments. They have four arguments against concepts being images (1) Concepts can’t be images: Some concepts apply to things that cannot be pictured. (2)Black Swan Argument: We cannot form images that show that all swans are white. (3) Concepts have Constituent Structure but Images only have parts. (4) Leibniz Law: concepts cannot be images because there are no images in the brain. I think that in this section they do a good job of arguing that concepts are not images. However I have one or two quibbles that I want to briefly discuss here.

They begin their critique of the idea that concepts are not images by discussing George Berkeley’s famous critique of John Locke who claimed he could form an image of the abstract idea of a triangle. Berkeley argued that it is impossible to form an abstract idea of a triangle:

“If any man has the faculty of framing in his mind such an idea of a triangle as is here described, it is in vain to pretend to dispute him out of it, nor would I go about it. All I would desire is that the reader would fully and certainly inform himself of whether he has such an idea or no. And this me thinks can be no hard task for anyone to perform. What is more easy than to look into his own thoughts, and there to try, whether he has, or can attain to have, an idea that would correspond with the description that is here given of the general idea of a triangle, which is neither, Oblique, nor Rectangle, EquilateraL, Equicrual, nor Scalene but all and none of these at once.” (Berkeley: Principles of Human Knowledge Sec 10)

Pylyshyn and Fodor use this argument of Berkeley’s as a demonstration that there are some concepts we have that we have no image of. However they extend Berkeley’s argument further and claim that it shows that concepts cannot be images. They argue for this by noting that our concept of a particular person John is too abstract to be captured by a particular image of John as we know him through all of his changes. I think this is largely right. Even though people with Synaesthesia do typically associate various ideas with particular images there is no evidence that I am aware of that the particular concepts they have are exhausted by the images they associate with the concepts.

Nonetheless there are particular aspects of their argument which I have concerns with. Firstly the argument cites Berkeley who claims that he cannot form a particular type of mental image; a vague image of an abstract idea of a triangle. David Berman (2009) has argued convincingly that George Berkeley was an eidetic imager and part of his critique of Locke was derived from the fact that he was relying on his own introspection of how HE thought. As an eidetic imager Berkeley used vivid images in thinking about abstract ideas hence the idea of forming a vague image of an abstract triangle seemed impossible to him. Locke who wasn’t an eidetic imager would not need to a form a vivid image an abstract idea of a triangle to think about it. Hence the dispute between him and Berkeley was partly to do with their different abilities to form mental imagery. The interested reader should read Berman’s ‘Berkeley and Irish Philosophy’, and his ‘Philosophical Counselling for Philosophers’ for evidence that Berkeley was an eidetic imager and that this fact had serious implications for his type of philosophy. I won’t try to prove the point about Berkeley here I bring it up merely to point out that we shouldn’t just assume that all people have or use mental imagery in the same way. We know since Galton, and James that people have different abilities to form mental imagery, Kosslyn has added some interesting neuroscientific data to support the idea that people’s ability to form mental imagery varies. Ultimately I don’t think that people’s ability to form mental imagery substantially affects the point that Fodor and Pylyshyn are making. I am not aware of any eidetic imagers whose images exhaust the concepts that they have. As Wittgenstein in the ‘Philosophical Investigations’ showed convincingly any mental images have to be interpreted and these interpretations are conceptual in nature. So the images themselves are not the concepts but are interpreted in light of concepts.

Nonetheless I think that Pylyshyn who more than Fodor has worked on mental imagery over the last 30 years should at least deal with variations in people’s abilities to use and form mental imagery before claiming definitively what images are or are not. The connection between say a weak imagers concepts and images, and an eidetic imager’s concepts and images may be very different. A person who has no mental imagery may have different types of concepts to a person who is a mental imager. When Fodor and Pylyshyn argue that concepts are not images they need to deal with the empirical fact that people have different abilities to form mental images.

Third Quibble:

Fodor and Pylyshyn operate with a classical view of concepts and seem happy to ignore the mountains of empirical evidence that shows that the classical concept of ‘concept’ is false. In their discussion of why concepts cannot be mental images they make the following claim:

“Likewise, you can picture a chair, but not the property of being a chair, which is what all chairs have in common as such, and so on. The problem, in all such cases, is that the property shared by all and only things in the extension of the concept (i.e. Things the concept applies to) can’t be pictured” (‘Minds without Meanings p. 24)

Now whatever one may think of their views on the nature of imagery their view that concepts of x apply to all and only things that have the property of x seems like a classical view of concepts. Here is George Lakoff’s gloss on the classical theory of concepts:

“…The common idea of what it means to be in the same category: Things are categorised together on the basis of what they have in common. The idea that categories are defined by common properties is not only our everyday folk theory of what a category is, it is also a principal technical theory-one that has been with us for more than two thousand years” (Lakoff: Women, Fire and Dangerous Things p. 5)

Lakoff notes that this view of concepts is folk assumption of the nature of concepts one that we have had with us since at-least the time of Plato (more than likely this view predates Plato). However, while this folk view of concepts has a long history and tradition behind it; there is little empirical evidence to support it. There are key aspects to categorising things in the world; three important aspects are metaphor, metonymy and chaining.

In his ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things’ Lakoff noted that there eleven key features of the non-classical theory of concepts. (1) Concepts are Family Resemblances, (2) Concepts have Centrality, (3) There is polysemy as categorization (4) Generativity as a prototype phenomenon (5) Membership gradience (6) Centrality gradience (7) Conceptual Embodiment (8) Functional Embodiment (9) Basic-level categorisation, (10) Basic level Primacy (11) Reference-point or Metonymic Reasoning. (ibid p.13).

Now obviously I cannot go into the evidence for all of these features of concepts that Lakoff argues exists, that would take an entire book as opposed to a blog. But I do think that some salient points are raised by Lakoff that are directly relevant to Fodor and Pylyshyn’s position on the nature of categorisation. Firstly Lakoff appeals to the fact that Wittgenstein showed that concepts were family resemblances, members of a category are related to each other but they don’t all share common properties with each other. Wittgenstein supported his conclusion by an exhaustive examination of ordinary language concepts, and by the fact that philosophers since Plato have been searching for the essence of various concepts and the search has been in vain. Psychologist Eleanor Rosch empirically confirmed Wittgenstein’s view that concepts are family resemblances.

Now Fodor doesn’t deny Wittgenstein’s point that we cannot find necessary and sufficient conditions for the nature of particular concepts. But he argues that this merely shows that concepts are not definitions. He does however reject the second strand of Rosch’s argument that concepts are individuated by prototypes. Rosch noted that if the classic theory of concepts was actually correct; then since a concept is supposed to have the same essential property as all other members of the category, then any member would be as good an exemplar of the concept as any other. So, for example, with the category ‘Pet’ a spider would be as good an example of a pet as a dog. However when Rosch empirically tested subjects she discovered that people do in fact sort their categories interms of exemplars. People judge that some categories are more central members than others. Thus dogs are a better exemplar of Pet than are spiders.  This finding showed that despite the fact that the classical theory of concepts is entrenched in our tradition the empirical evidence favours a non-classical theory of concepts.

Given this experimental evidence why do Fodor and Pylyshyn seem to accept the classical view of concepts? Strictly speaking they don’t. They think that the evidence shows that since concepts are neither definitions nor prototypes we have to stop thinking of them as intensions that determine extensions. Fodor uses the lack of definitions discovered by philosophers to argue against the view of concepts as definitions. When it comes to concepts conceived as prototypes Fodor argues that concepts are compositional and prototypes don’t compose so they cannot be concepts.

Fodor gives two reasons why concepts cannot be prototypes: (1) The Uncat Problem: Fodor argues that the concepts cannot be prototypes because there are countless concepts which do not have proto-types. So he asks us to think of the complex concepts ‘The Uncat’ this appears to have no prototype. Fodor notes that if we were to say that, for example, a stapler was a prototypical example of the ‘uncat’ concept we would be led to absurdities. So we would be forced to assume that the more something is like a stapler the less it is like a cat and the less something is like a stapler the more it is like a cat. Fodor argues that since this conclusion is absurd we are forced to conclude that for a substantial amount of concepts they have no prototypes. Hence the theory that concepts are prototypes is false (Fodor: Concepts p. 101). (2) The Pet Fish Problem: According to Fodor prototype theorists explicate notions like falling under a concept interms of being similar to its exemplar. He further argues that a prototype theory can only respect the compositional nature of a theory if they accept that a thing’s similarity to the exemplars of a complex concept is determined by its similarity to the exemplars of its constituents (ibid p.102). But Fodor notes that this does not work for many many concepts. Thus he notes that with ‘PetFish’, a guppy maybe a prototype of a pet fish, it is not a prototype of either ‘a pet’ or of ‘a fish’. So Fodor argues that ‘PetFish’ shows either that the complex concept is not constructed compositionally or that concepts are not prototypes.

Fodor’s arguments rely on a fundamental misunderstanding of prototype theory. When setting out both arguments made he made the false assumption that prototype theory requires that for something to fall under a concept it must be similar to the exemplar in the concept. This is not necessarily the case. In his ‘Women Fire and Dangerous Things’ Lakoff examined the work of R. M. W. Dixon (1982) who analysed the categorisation systems used by the Dyirbal an aboriginal tribe in Australia. Dixon noted that though at first glance the categories made little sense when one analyses them closely one finds that they conform to the pattern described by prototype theorists.

I will give one example of how the Dyirbal categorise:

“Balan: women, bandicoots, dogs, platypus, echidna, some snakes, some fish, most birds, fireflies, scorpions, crickets, the hairy mary grub, anything connected with water or fire, sun and stars, shields, some spears, some trees, etc” (Dixon 1982 taken from Lakoff ‘Women, Fire and Dangerous Things’ p. 93)

Dixon analysis of the concepts of the Dyirbal found that they followed the following rules (1) Centrality: Basic members of the category are central, so things like ‘gar fish’ and ‘hairy mary’s’ are less central than ‘women’ in the balan category. (2) Chaining: Complex categories are structured by chaining; central members are linked to other members, which are linked to other members and so on, for example women are linked to the sun, which is linked to sunburn, which is linked to the hairy mary grub. (ibid p. 94) Note number 2 contradicts what Fodor’s claim that prototype theorists argue that concepts must be similar to the exemplar of the concept. This claim is simply false. What prototype theory actually says is that the members of a category can be traced back to the main exemplar via a chaining member not that all members of a category have to be similar to the exemplar in a relevant way. Fodor’s objections to prototype theory are really just objections to his incorrect version of what proto-type theory is. (3) Experiential Domains: There are basic domains of experience, which may be culture-specific. These can characterize links in category chains.  (4) No common properties: Members of a category do not need to share a common property with each other. I won’t list all of the rules Dixon uncovered but the ones I have listed show that Fodor fundamentally misunderstands the nature of proto-type theory.

I have briefly discussed Fodor and Pylyshyn’s major assumptions their ‘Minds Without Meanings’ and have shown which assumptions I agreed with and disagreed with. I have also outlined three minor quibbles I have with their negative critique of contemporary theories of concepts. (1) They caricature rival theories. (2) They ignore variation in people’s ability to form mental imagery. (3) They misunderstand the nature of the proto-type theory of concepts and hence are attacking a target they don’t understand. In my next blog I will evaluate their positive theory of the nature of reference.

Behaviourism: A Mental Health Risk?

“Can anyone live as a committed behaviourist without separating their philosophy from lived experience? I doubt it. B.F. Skinner’s life embodied a fenced-off polarity between a scientific life of disciplined objectivity and an inner life of lush and conflictful subjectivity.” (Baars ‘The Double life of B.F. Skinner p. 15)

Radical behaviourism is typically attacked in cognitive science in two different ways. (1) It is argued that Behaviourists don’t postulate enough innate apparatus to account for various different aspects of cognition. Chomsky is largely responsible for this type of criticism of Skinner; his ‘Review Skinner’s of Verbal Behaviour’ is accepted by everyone in cog-science as a refutation of behaviourism. People who have never read ‘Verbal Behaviour’ or even Kenneth Macquordale excellent reply to Chomsky’s review are certain that Chomsky refuted Skinner. People also bizarrely accept Pinker’s claim that Behaviourists are committed to a blank slate ideology despite the fact that all of the evidence goes against this in belief of Pinker’s. (2) The issue of whether behaviourism can account for conscious experience. Philosophers and scientists have criticised Skinner on this issue for years. In his 2003 paper neuroscientist Bernard Baars attacked B.F. Skinner on the issue of consciousness he argued that Skinner’s life was at odds with his behaviourist philosophy. He told a psychoanalytic story where Skinner who failed at becoming a writer ended up swinging in the opposite direction and publically attacking subjective experience and literature. Baars tells a story of emotional turmoil which is revealed in three key moments. (1) Skinner as a child wanted to be an artist but had that dream crushed. (2) Skinner wrote a short story where the main character Elsa gave up her freedom to accept an unwanted fate. (3) Skinner’s ‘Walden Two’ has two protagonists who he admits represented him (though he didn’t realise this when writing the book) which shows an unconscious struggle between two different sides of him the artist craving freedom and the objective conformist behaviourist. He thinks this shows an unconscious unresolved conflict was bubbling under the surface of Skinner.

His essay is extremely speculative, but is both interesting and entertaining. Nonetheless I disagreed with a lot of it. I have some issues with his characterisation of the philosophical reaction to Skinner’s project. Baars notes that Russell, Ryle, and Wittgenstein endorsed Skinner’s behaviourism. While Ryle and Wittgenstein did admire the work of Skinner they were not radical behaviourists Ryle’s logical behaviourism was an entirely distinct research programme from Skinners. Likewise, Russell greatly admired Skinner but he was critical of aspects of Skinner’s behaviourism (See, for example, his Analysis of Mind and Inquiries into Meaning and Truth). Baars fails to mention Quine whose account of language acquisition is very similar to Skinners. More than any philosopher Quine tried to develop Skinner’s behaviourist account so it is a strange oversight that Baars doesn’t mention Quine and instead focuses on philosophers whose views are much less congenial to Skinner’s research programme.

Baars claimed that even today many philosophers are crypto-behaviourists, though he gives little evidence to support this claim aside from briefly citing the work of philosopher George Rey and Wilkes. But Baars merely says he disagrees with their views on consciousness and doesn’t specify why the views are wrong or why they indicate a crypto behaviourism. There are obviously actual behaviourists working in Applied Behavioural Analysis but there is nothing crypto about them, and since Baars doesn’t engage with any of this scientific research he is in no position to criticise it.

As part of his psychoanalytic interpretation of Skinner Baars notes that Skinner would regularly walk home reading Beaudelaire; and argues that this is somehow inconsistent with Skinner’s experimental behaviourism. I really see no inconsistency here. Saying that x is not an appropriate subject for scientific analysis does not mean that one must ignore it in daily life. There is always a gap between our daily pragmatic interactions with the world and our best scientific theory. Is an engineer who understands the theory of relativity and who uses Newtonian calculations for convenience guilty of some radical incoherency? In our practical engagement with the world we don’t act like perfect logicians we do things for amusement, for convenience etc but when doing our science we obviously try to be more rigorous. The fact that Skinner like all scientists didn’t apply his theory to every aspect of his life is not a valid criticism of him; it merely shows that he is a human. I have discussed this fact in more detail in an earlier blog ‘Theoretical Research and Practical Behaviour’.

Baars repeatedly argues that Skinner believed that consciousness did not exist. While it is true that Skinner was somewhat inconsistent about this issue (See Dennett: Skinner Skinned for an analysis), the central thrust of Skinner’s views was that consciousness was not a proper subject of scientific study. He was pretty much agnostic about the actual existence of consciousness. Its notable that Baars doesn’t cite actual quotes from Skinner to prove his case instead he goes into a discussion of Watson. This is a strange move considering that Watson and Skinner advocated different kinds of behaviourism. Watson did actually deny the reality of things like mental images despite claiming to have been a vivid mental imager earlier in his career (see Berman and Lyons ‘The First Modern Battle for Consciousness: J.B Watson’s rejection of Mental Images’ (2007)).  But since Watson’s views on mental imagery have no bearing on Skinner’s views it is difficult to understand why Baars brings them up; perhaps it is because he can find no evidence from Skinner’s writings on the issue.

When he does quote Skinner he notes that he tried to translate some mentalistic terms into behaviouristic terms. He cites Orwell’s essay about ‘Politics and The English Language’ where Orwell warns about the use of cosy euphemisms which serve to block us from direct access to what is actually going on in the world:

“People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements, such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up things without calling up mental images of them.” (Orwell: 1946)

Baars speculates that when behaviourists translate the idioms of folk psychology into behavioural language one may end up divorcing oneself from his own lived experience.  Personally I have no problem with the operational definitions typically used by Applied Behavioural Analysts. The definitions give a measure of objectivity and making prediction and control of behaviour easier. Baars speculation that these operational definitions may well be true (or false); however he presents absolutely no evidence to support the speculation.

If Baars really believes his hypothesis I think he should try to test it empirically. Perhaps through questionnaires, along with MRI scans, on behaviourist and non-behaviourist psychologists to see whether behaviourists are emotionally different. Or through studies of psychologists who have mental breakdowns to see whether behaviourists are more likely than cognitive scientists, or psychoanalysts to have breakdowns. The fact that Baars doesn’t even suggest any tests like this indicates to me that he is not very serious.  That he is using the Orwell claim as an ad-hominem attack on behavioural analysts. Whatever his motives for making his claim there is no reason to take it seriously until Baars provides some evidence to support his wildly speculative (and insulting) claims about behavioural analysts.

While I don’t agree with Baars speculative claims about behaviourists being cut off from their own experiences, I am in full agreement with him that Skinner did hold back our scientific understanding of consciousness. Skinner was not a blank slate theorist, he did not deny that consciousness existed; but he like a lot of behaviourists  was too timid a theoriser. Behaviourists emphasised that they allowed any innate apparatus which could be determined experimentally. In practice their theories made much less use of innate apparatus than other psychologists. This is because they thought that postulates were a sign of bad science; we are only justified in saying something exists if we can prove this experimentally. But that is just batty science; a science that uses this methodology will proceed at a snail’s pace. Popper was surely correct that bold postulates that go beyond observation and have not yet been justified experimentally are the life blood of science. There is nothing wrong with these postulates as-long as we treat them critically and try to find ways to verify and falsify the postulates.

This timid methodology didn’t just apply to innate apparatus but to consciousness studies as-well. Behaviourists worried about the subjectivity of consciousness, about the fact that it could not be measured by objective scientific instruments. Watson in his (1913) ‘Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It’ pointed out seemingly interminable debate between the followers of Wundt and the followers Titchner. He correctly noted the various methodological flaws in introspectionist psychology. But he simply gave up too soon. It seemed at the time that we simply lacked the tools to study consciousness objectively. Theorists like Crick, Koch and Baars have shown otherwise. Their success[1] came through bold hypothesis, and not viewing methodological concerns as impossible to overcome. Behaviourists were wrong on the issue of consciousness because of the timid nature of the methodology not because they were blank slate theorists or mentally ill zombies.

[1] I am not suggesting that we are anywhere near being able to solve the hard problem of consciousness or the relation between personal and subpersonal explanations. I am merely saying that the study of consciousness has made progress that most behaviourists doubted would be possible.

Weinberg: The Discovery of Modern Science

Stephen Weinberg’s (2015) book ‘To Explain the Modern World’ is an interesting attempt to explain how modern science has developed. He begins with pre-Socratic philosopher/scientists like Thales, and Parmenides and works his way through Plato and Aristotle to the Hellenistic age with such figures as Ptolemy and moves on to consider the work of Descartes, Galileo culminating in the work of Newton. At the end of the book he considers post-Newtonian physics briefly but the central aim of the book is to explain how science developed up until the magnificent work of Newton.

There are a lot of good points in the book. One really welcome aspect of the book is semi-technical appendixes which help understand in a bit more detail some of the logic and mathematics behind the various theories he is explaining. These appendixes are easy to follow and help give some much need content that is often sorely missing in other pop-science books. Furthermore he doesn’t present the entire world pre-Copernicus as filled full of raving idiots. Some scientists who don’t bother actually study pre-scientific attempts to understand the world often pretend that all theorists prior to the scientific revolution were pretty much making things up as they went along. Weinberg avoids this trap and manages to illustrate the sometimes sound reasoning that went in to the various pre-scientific cosmologies. That said Weinberg has no difficulties criticising theorists for getting things wrong either on their own terms or according to our present day lights. He explicitly sets himself up against the view attributed to Kuhn (in his more radical phase) where we are not really in a position to judge different scientific paradigms because some paradigms are incommensurate and cannot judged by the same standards.[1] Weinberg is defending the idea of scientific progress and has no problem criticising earlier theorists for either getting things wrong by our lights or on their own terms. Here he is on Aristotle:

“But if Aristotle really did present the scheme presented in ‘The Metaphysics’ , then this cannot be explained as a matter of thinking in terms differently from ours, or being interested in different problems from ours. We would have to conclude that on his own terms, in working on a problem that interested him, he was either careless or stupid” (‘To Explain the World’ p.84)

Weinberg’s irreverence is refreshing he criticises any idea or theory which he finds lacking in evidence.

His discussion of the Hellenistic era is particularly interesting. He argues that despite the typical historical narrative of the world of Plato and Aristotle being the pinnacle of pre-scientific thought in fact the Hellenistic era gave us superior results in science (by which he means pretty much means physics) than anything Plato or Aristotle gave us. The emphasis in the Hellenistic era on practical inventions as opposed to grand speculative narratives Weinberg conjectures lead to them making more progress in physics than their predecessors.

Despite the fact that I enjoyed the book and learned a lot from it there was aspects of it that I was less armoured with. One constant irritation was Weinberg’s focus on nothing but physics (and to a much smaller degree chemistry). This choice was obviously justified by the fact that Weinberg as a Nobel Prize winning Physicist knows the history of physics much better than he knows the history of the development of the other sciences. However when a book has a subtitle ‘The Discovery of Modern Science’ I think the author owes us something more than a history of one branch (albeit the most successful one) of science.

His focus on one area science makes him give some dreadfully one sided caricatures of various philosophers. A case in point is Plato. Anybody who has studied Plato to any degree at all will admit that he wasn’t a physicist in any sense of the word. While some pre-Socratic Philosophers could be considered in a very crude sense proto-physicists, and likewise Aristotle could be considered a crude proto-physicist. Plato on the other hand had no interest in cosmology and when he discusses it he merely offered crude creation myths (For example see the end of The Phaedo). Because of this fact Weinberg dismisses Plato as a poetic thinker who was not really concerned with accurately representing the world but rather was concerned with aesthetic matters.

This is a stunningly unfair characterisation of Plato. Plato discussed many different topics from human nature, to the best form of human society, the nature of mathematics, ethics, etc. Plato’s work on innate ideas was one of the first examples of what later became to be known as a poverty of stimulus argument. Chomskian linguistics used the same logic to argue for an innate grammar over the last fifty years. Chomsky explicitly acknowledges his dept to Plato by naming his poverty of stimulus arguments in linguistics; Plato’s problem. Furthermore Plato’s tripartite theory of the mind prefigured both Hume and Freud. His views on human nature were formed by both empirical observation and logical analysis typically achieved through systematic dialogue. His views should be considered early attempts to do psychology not as some crude poetry unconcerned with discovering the truth.

Plato’s theory of what a just society should be also took account of things like human nature and tried to accommodate what he thought about human nature into how we should build our society. He was spectacularly wrong at times. But his views were very important steps on the way to understanding subjects like sociology, psychology and political science as well. So I think Weinberg was entirely wrong to dismiss Plato as a spinner of myths, and I believe he was only lead to this because of his excessive focus on physics as the only real science.

When he appeared at the recent ‘Moving Naturalism Forward’ conference Weinberg offered his theory of ethics. His crude position amounted to a claim that he doesn’t care what a utilitarian ethics teaches us he and most people are simply going to look after their own and not make the sacrifices that people like Singer recommend. Weinberg didn’t really offer much justification for his views and wasn’t really pressed by the other panellists. Presumably he had some idea that our human nature will prevent us from being strict utilitarians. Perhaps he is right but his claim reminded me of the confident assertions Socrates foils often made in Plato’s dialogues. Socrates often managed to convince his opponents they were incorrect by drawing them into a series of contradictions implicit in their confident claims. I think Plato’s dialogues remind us that our express views on ethics are not always as internally consistent as we think. And that testing our intuitions using various thought experiments gives us a way of weeding out our contradictory beliefs. Plato here helped us on the road to understanding our ethical beliefs better. And this is now a flourishing area of science and philosophy.

I mentioned earlier Plato’s views on innate ideas and how he integrated his views on human nature to his theory of the ideal society. This approach was maintained throughout the history of political philosophy; thus Hobbes and Rousseau’s differing views on human nature influenced their views on the way we need to build a just society. The debate between Descartes and Locke on innate ideas was a follow on from Plato’s arguments. Locke and Descartes appealed to anthropological evidence, historical evidence, psychological evidence and logical arguments in their debate. This debate has been replaying itself throughout history with different protoganists like Skinner and Chomsky arguing for different amounts of innate apparatus. Some of this was detrimental to psychology as it polarised people too much in one direction or another but it is undoubtable that Plato, Locke and Descartes played a huge role in the development of psychology, political science, linguistics etc.

I think that by ignoring the role these philosophers played in developing sciences other than Physics Weinberg did the philosophers a huge disservice. He also did science a huge disservice by again overplaying the importance of physics and chemistry in relation to all of the other sciences like psychology, biology etc.

[1] I won’t get into the intricacies of Kuhn’s philosophy of science. I will merely mention that it is much more nuanced than Weinberg seems to think.