The William James Lectures: Bertrand Russell and B.F. Skinner

In 1940 Bertrand Russell gave the William James Lectures which became his book ‘An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth,’ in 1947 B.F. Skinner gave the William James Lectures which eventually became book ‘Verbal Behaviour’. In 1940 Russell worked with a quasi behaviourist conception of meaning to the extent that he argued that meaning could be partly cashed out interms of association and conditioned reflexes. Russell’s behaviourism was influenced by thinkers such as Watson and Pavlov and was quite different from the selectionist behaviourism that Skinner would later develop. Furthermore, while Russell was respectful of behaviourism, and he used some aspects of behaviourism, he was never a fully fledged behaviourist. Russell, for example, strongly disagreed with J. B. Watson’s views on consciousness, and always argued trenchantly against Watson’s take on mental images. Skinner was introduced into his behaviourism through a reading of Russell’s introduction to Ogden’s ‘The Meaning of Meaning’ . Furthermore Skinner considered his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ a reply to Skinner’s ‘Inquiry into Meaning and Truth . In this blog-post I will discuss some areas of agreement and disagreement between Russell and Skinner on behavioural science.
In his IMT Russell discussed behavioural science in relation to the theory of knowledge. Russell argued that there are two different types of theory of knowledge:
(1) Roughly for Russell, the first type of epistemology was similar to what Quine (1969) would later dub Naturalized Epistemology. This type of epistemology involves us accepting our scientific theory of the world as the best one we have at present. Our scientific picture tells us that a phenomena called ‘knowing’ exists and it is the naturalized epistemologists job to try and discover the nature of this ‘knowing’. A good way to study this type of ‘knowing’ is through behavioural tests. Russell notes that in this type of theory of knowledge: “both knowledge and error, at this stage, are observable relations between the organism and the facts of the environment” ( An Inquiry into Meaning and Truth p. 12)
(2) Cartesian Epistemology : This type of epistemology notes that naturalized epistemology assumes the truth of naive realism when trying to understand the nature of knowing naturalistically. However, basic physics undermines naive realism and hence undermines the understanding of knowing based on behavioural science. Cartesian Epistemology aims to understand knowing at this deeper level and to disentangle its nature so it doesn’t end up undermining itself like naturalized epistemology does.

This discussion of the two different kinds of theory of knowledge led Russell to argue that there was a major weakness in behaviourism when used as a theory of knowledge:
“When the behaviourist observes the doings of animals, and decides whether these show knowledge or error, he is not thinking of himself as an animal, but as an at least hypothetically inerrant recorder of what actually happens. He ‘knows’ that animals are deceived by mirrors, and believes himself to ‘know’ that he is not being similarly deceived. By omitting the fact that he- an organism like any other- is observing, he gives a false air of objectivity to the results of his observation. As soon as we remember the possible fallibility of the observer, we have introduced the serpent into the behaviourist’s paradise. The serpent whispers doubts, and has no difficulty quoting scientific scripture for the purpose.” (Russell ‘An Inquiry Concerning Meaning and Truth’ p. 13)
Russell goes on to develop his point further by discussing the physiology of perception. The standard story told by science is that when we perceive an object we do not directly perceive the object but rather light reflects off the objects and our retina’s are triggered by this light which transmitted through neurons to the occipital lobe which somehow creates a mental image of the object. Russell notes that our most basic sensory experiences are according to physics not actually direct experiences but mental constructions built by the brain. He goes on to note that our basic physics undermines our naive realism about our experiences. In the above quote Russell is arguing that, the behaviourist when observing the rats they are studying are treating their own perceptions from the point of view of naive realism, and they assume that their own perceptions are generally reliable. On the other hand the behaviourist treats the rats he is studying as fallible creatures capable of being deceived by mirrors etc. For Russell, the behaviourist is guilty of a serious inconsistency in the way he treats the animals he is studying and the human animal that is doing the scientific study.
In his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ Skinner tried to answer Russell’s epistemological criticism of behavioural science. Skinner began by noting a serious difficulty with his own behaviourist approach. From the mechanistic deterministic point of view that Skinner accepted, the scientist’s behaviour is as determined as the other people and animals he studies. Skinner then noted that given that the scientist’s behaviour is determined by antecedent causes we must draw the conclusion that his explication of verbal behaviour cannot be ‘true’ or ‘certain’. Skinner puts the point as follows:
“In many ways, then, this seems to me to be a better way of talking about Verbal Behaviour, and that is why I have tried to get the reader to talk in this way too. But have I told him the truth? Who can say? A science of verbal behaviour probably makes no provision for truth or certainty (though we cannot even be certain of the truth of that).” (Verbal Behaviour p. 456)
However, Skinner doesn’t explicate precisely why he thinks that behaviour being determined means that the behaviour cannot be ‘certain’ or ‘true’ in the above passage.
It is worth briefly explicating why action being determined would have such dramatic epistemological consequences. If our behaviour is determined by causes stretching back to the big bang, most of which we are unaware of, then any reasons we give for believing x or y will themselves be determined. Therefore these reasons may be entirely unjustified, but we are just causally determined to hold them. For this reason Skinner surely has a point that a belief in determined action undermines a belief in objective truth. Of course, it is worth noting that in order to believe that determinism is “true”, in this instance we seem to need to hold a sense of truth which supports our belief in determinism. This fact seems to undermine Skinner’s claim that determinism shows that truth is undermined by determinism. Because if determinism did in fact undermine belief in objective truth then a determinist would seem to have no reason to believe that determinism is in fact a true position. So it would seem at face value that determinism, as Skinner conceives it, is self undermining.
However, Skinner would circumvent this criticism by noting that he doesn’t argue that he has a scientific proof that determinism is true. Rather he argues that the assumption that determinism is true is the best way to make sense of the success of behavioural science. So, in this sense, Skinner’s argument for determinism is an inference to the best explanation argument. Skinner doesn’t need to inconsistently assert (1) That determinism is true, and (2) That determinism undermines belief in the concept of truth. Rather, Skinner can just show that behaviourism has led to pragmatic success and that a belief in determinism is an important tool in making sense of this pragmatic success. In his ‘Walden Two’ Skinner put the point as follows:
“I deny that freedom exists at all. I must deny it- or my program would be absurd. You can’t have a science about a subject matter which hops capriciously about. Perhaps we can never prove that man isn’t free; it’s an assumption. But the increasing success of a science of behaviour makes it more and more plausible.” (Walden Two p. 257)
Skinner’s argument against ‘certainty’ again relies on his pragmatically justified assumption of determinism . Humans, including scientists, are animals who are born with certain genetic constraints which we have no control over, as we grow in the environment which we happened to be born into, our behaviour is shaped by the social and material environment we grow in (subject to genetic constraints on how our behaviour can be shaped). As contingent fallible animals operating in a world like we do, Skinner’s point is that certainty is an inappropriate way of treating our beliefs. A more appropriate way of conceiving things would be by judging the probability that a certain form of behaviour is likely to succeed at a certain kind of action.
In the case of ‘certainty’, like in the case of ‘truth’, Skinner’s argument relies on the assumption of determinism. Obviously since Skinner isn’t arguing that our behaviour being determined is a certainty there can be no argument that his belief that ‘certainty’ is undermined by determinism is self refuting.
A critic could argue that this discussion of the relation between behavioural science and determinism is beside the point. Russell’s primary argument was that physics undermined belief in naive realism and that this fact cast doubt on the objectivity of behavioural science. This issue doesn’t seem to be intrinsically connected to the issue of determinism and its relation to truth and certainty. However, the reason that Skinner argued in the manner in which he did was that he disagreed with Russell’s original formulation of the problem. And Skinner was attempting to construct what he believed was the spirit of Russell’s argument without relying on terms which the behaviourist rejected such as the ‘idea’. Skinner made the point as follows:
“Russell pictures the behaviourist deciding whether the doings of animals show knowledge or error instead of, as is more likely, measuring predispositions to act with respect to a given set of circumstances, and he describes the behaviourist as “reporting his observations about the outer world, although observation is suspiciously like “idea,” or at least “image,” and would probably avoided in favour of an expression like “reaction to the outer world.”But the crux of the problem survives in translation. The present study offers a case in point. If what I have said is reasonably correct, considering the present state of knowledge in the science of human behaviour, what interpretation is to be placed on my behaviour in writing this book? I have been behaving verbally, and unless my analysis is deficient at some point, my behaviour must have followed the processes already set forth and no others.” (‘Verbal Behaviour’ pp. 453-454)
Obviously, Russell would require more than a side stepping of his position and translating it into behavioural terms; he would justly require that Skinner present evidence that the way Russell framed the issue was wrong.
The idea that Russell was presenting about the relation of the mind to the world is still the standard view that most contemporary scientists hold (let’s call it the representational theory of mind). The view is that the world we see is an imperfect representation of the objective world we are trying to understand.
Skinner’s difficulty with this representational picture wasn’t because of its reliance on private events, he cheerfully admitted that private events occurred, and he used them in his theorising (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 439, ‘Science and Human Behaviour p. 282). On Skinner’s conception “private events” were not co-extensive with “ideas” “minds” etc.
Skinner argued that we respond to our bodies with three nervous systems. Two of the nervous systems are concerned with internal features of our bodies (1) The Interoceptive system is concerned with the internal economy of the organism, and involve the respiratory, digestive and circulatory systems. (2) The Proprioceptive System which sends information from muscles, tendons and other organs involved in maintaining balance, posture, and movement. On Skinner’s picture we use the word ‘feel’ to describe contact with these two internal systems (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 25). The third aspect of the nervous system concerned with the external environment are the sensory organs, eyes, ears, nose, sense of touch etc. Skinner notes that the third aspect of our nervous system is also concerned with our understanding of our body (and the world beyond our body).
While the three nervous systems obviously ensure the survival of the organism they become powerful sources for inner awareness when the community trains him to use language to describe the various states of his body. Once organisms can engage in this type of self-description others can use it to predict their behaviour. Furthermore on Skinner’s picture the verbal community can help the organism to become self conscious:
“A person becomes conscious in a different sense when a verbal community arranges contingencies under which he not only sees an object but sees that he is seeing it. In this special sense, consciousness or awareness is a social project” (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 242)
Skinner argues that we don’t engage with reality via representations rather we directly experience it. On this picture we are embodied agents who are in constant interaction with our environment as we move about the world. Our sensory organs; eyes, ears, etc. put us in touch with our lived experience but they don’t represent that experience. However it is pretty clear that Skinner’s direct realist picture of conscious awareness offers no real account of how we as embodied agents become conscious of our environment.
While Skinner’s direct realism is a reasonable (if incomplete) way of avoiding explaining consciousness in terms of internal representations there are some difficulties with Skinner’s understanding of private events. Things like Dreams, Mental Images, and Hallucinations cannot be as easily explained away as something we directly experience in our environment as by their very nature they are not properties of the external world. So Mental Images etc. are a real problem for Skinner. Skinner deals with the problem in the following manner:
“After hearing a piece of music several times, a person may hear it when it is not being played, though probably not as richly or as clearly. So far as we know, he is simply doing in the absence of the music some of the things he did in its presence. Similarly when he sees a person or place in his imagination, he may simply be doing what he does in the presence of the person or place. Both “reminiscing” and “remembering” once meant “being mindful of again” or “bringing again to mind” – in other words, seeing again as one once saw. Explicit techniques of “calling to mind” are techniques of strengthening perceptual behaviour” (‘About Behaviourism p. 91)
Skinner’s way of dealing with the problem of consciousness is twofold. Firstly he denies that we create a conscious representation of reality in the brain and therefore avoids having to explain how the brain creates this representation. But his position is left with a problem as to how we directly experience reality in the way we do. Secondly, he explains away things like mental imagery as behaviour that is similar to the behaviour we make when perceiving an object in the external world. However Skinner’s description of us hearing music in our minds as behaving in a similar manner to the way we would behave when hearing music in the external world is not much of an explanation. If I form a mental image of a ‘Red Cat’, or imagine a song like ‘Fairy Tale of New York’ my experiences have a particular content. Skinner by explaining the experience interms of behaviour is ignoring a key datum; the actual content of the experience. In effect Skinner is denying that mental imagery existed.
Skinner’s attempts to do away with representational explanations of our experiences are at best incomplete. He has no explanation of how we directly experience reality. Furthermore he doesn’t have a credible explanation of things like mental imagery or dreams. Things aren’t much better with Russell’s position, in the eighty years since he wrote his IMT no progress has been made on how the occipital lobe creates a conscious representation of reality . Without complete explanation of how we consciously experience the world in the offing at the moment I think it is best to continue with Skinner’s translation of the problem and discuss whether the behavioural scientist is guilty of inconsistency in the way he treats the animal they are studying and the way they treat themselves.
Skinner’s reply to (his translation of) Russell relied on an appeal to the pragmatic justification of behavioural science and its success in action. As we saw above; when quoting Russell’s criticism of behaviourism Skinner claimed that:
“In one sense, this is a fair shot. The hardiest determinist will recognise a tendency to believe that what he is saying is, for the moment at least, reserved from the field of determined action.” (Verbal Behaviour p. 453)
Yet thirty years later when Skinner wrote his ‘About Behaviourism’ he changed views. Skinner quoted the same passage from Russell but he no longer believed that Russell had a point:
“He was speaking of an early version of behaviourism, and even so he was not right. It would be absurd for the behaviourist to contend that he is in anyway exempt from his analysis. He cannot step out of the causal stream and observe behaviour from some special point of vantage, “perched on the epicycle of Mercury.” (Skinner: ‘About Behaviourism’ p. 258)
What brought about this change of mind in how Skinner interpreted Russell? One possible suggestion is a psychological speculation that Skinner was no longer favourably disposed towards Russell. In the second of his three part Auto-Biography Skinner noted that he had sent Russell a copy of his ‘Verbal Behaviour’ and that Russell didn’t even send an acknowledgement card. It is possible that Skinner was simply less disposed to read Russell in a charitable light after this slight.
However, I think there is a simpler explanation for Skinner’s reply. In the years since he gave his William James lectures Skinner’s views made a more practical turn. Skinner’s invention of teaching machines, baby cribs etc were practical attempts to modify and control human behaviour, more and more Skinner began to realise how his behavioural science could be applied to humans as well as animals. So Skinner’s views began to change. He always viewed humans as subject to contingencies of reinforcement but the more he worked on the topic the less he felt impressed by Russell’s claim that the behaviourist left himself out of the account.
In this blog-post we have seen that Skinner’s reply to Russell relied heavily on a pragmatist conception of truth. The reader will of course have been put in mind of Russell’s claim that pragmatism had “all the benefits of theft over honest toil”. In my next blog-post I will consider Russell and Skinner’s different ways of understanding the nature of truth.

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