Quine and Skinner and Unconscious Reasoning

“There is a startling irony in these discoveries about how the brain makes choices. It entirely vindicates a research program in experimental psychology that pretty much everyone thought was consigned to oblivion fifty years ago: behaviourism…But the behaviourists may yet have the last laugh because it turns out that the “whole-animal” conditioning they discovered and thought was enough to explain human and nonhuman animal behaviour really does explain it. But it does so only when it operates on the neural circuits of the brain. All of which appear to be built by classical or operant conditioning. Behaviourism is vindicated in the brain by a process roughly the same as the one Eric Kandel discovered builds synapses in the hippocampus” ( Alex Rosenberg ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ p.  155)


 In this blog-post I will discuss Quine and Skinner’s attempt to understand reasoning and rule-following in terms of humans explicitly following the rules and being able to state them. Their explanation of reasons which flirts with eliminativism but doesn’t cross that line will be contrasted with Alex Rosenberg’s mad dog eliminativism. I will argue for the practical indispensability of folk psychology even though it probably doesn’t pick out a real feature that can be discovered in science. 

In cognitive science it is common to explain cognitive competencies in-terms of a plethora of rules that are represented in the brain. Thus in the early days of generative grammar it was argued that there were certain innate rules that governed how people constructed the sentences they spoke. It was argued that while we didn’t have conscious access to the grammatical structure underlying our sentences our brain was unconsciously following rules when we constructed them. Similar arguments were made about how the brain judged distance in perceptual acts. Now there is an ample literature in the philosophy of cognitive science explicating what is meant by the notion of ‘unconscious rules’; I won’t discuss this literature here as I have done so elsewhere (  (https://www.academia.edu/35758450/QUINE_AND_CHOMSKY_RULES_AND_DISPOSITIONS ). Here I will discuss a criticism of the cognitive concept of rules made by two famous behaviourists; Quine and Skinner.

                                 Skinner on Rule Following

 B.F. Skinner distinguished between rules which we consciously understand and behaviour which is shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. For Skinner we are following a rule if we can verbalize what the rule is and act accordingly. To illustrate this point he makes the odd comparison of a person who speaks correctly by  consciously applying the rules of grammar and the one who has learned to speak correctly by his verbal behaviour being shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement ( Contingencies of Reinforcement p. 125). In his 1974 book ‘About Behaviourism’ Skinner made a similar point. He noted that a normal human who is speaking grammatically is no more following an explicit model of the grammar he speaks than a dog catching a ball is explicitly following the relevant part of the science of mechanics before he catches the ball.  Skinner is not dogmatically demarcating all behaviour into two distinct camps; explicit rule governed behaviour and unconscious causal sequences shaped by the contingencies of reinforcement. He does acknowledge that there may be intermediate cases not neatly described by either scheme (About Behaviourism pp. 126-128). But Skinner does seem to think that the most natural way to speak about rule following is to speak about explicitly following the rule and being able to state the rule one is following.

                                               Quine on Rule-following

Quine discussed rules in the context of his critique of Chomsky’s views that our brain was restricted to following certain rules when constructing and interpreting our sentences. Chomsky had argued that there were underlying syntactic rules which governed all of the world’s languages.  In his 1972 paper ‘Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ Quine criticized Chomsky’s conception of a rule arguing that it was unnecessary. Quine argued that there was a simpler way of conceiving rules than the one Chomsky used:


“My distinction between fitting and guiding is, you see, the obvious and flat-footed one. Fitting is a matter of true description; guiding is a matter of cause and effect. Behaviour fits a rule whenever it conforms to it; whenever the rule truly describes the behaviour. But the behaviour is not guided by the rule unless the behaver knows the rule and can state it. This behaver observes the rule” (Quine: Methodological Reflections on Current Linguistic Theory’ p. 386).


I will not discuss the debate between Chomsky and Quine on this topic; as I have done so elsewhere (https://www.academia.edu/35758450/QUINE_AND_CHOMSKY_RULES_AND_DISPOSITIONS ). Rather here I will just consider Quine’s conception of rules and explore its relation to Skinner’s views and the relevance of this conception for understanding the reason based explanations in general. 

Quine’s conception of a behaviour conforming to a rule even though the agent engaging in the behaviour isn’t explicitly following the rule, is similar to Skinner’s conception. Think of Skinner’s example of a dog catching a ball. We can explain the behaviour of the dog in a variety of different ways.  Thus an evolutionary scientist can explain the dog’s disposition to chase moving small things in terms of an instinct that had survival value in the dogs ancestors’ past. A behavioural scientist can explain the reinforcing contingencies which have shaped the dog’s instinctual behaviour. A biophysicist can explain physical constraints on the way the dog can move. And there are many other different scientific ways of explaining the dog’s catching the ball. On the Quinean picture; one can say that the dog’s behaviour fits with behavioural laws, laws of physics etc. but isn’t guided by these rules.

A reasonable way of cashing out Quine and Skinner’s views is in terms of free-floating rationales and competencies without comprehension[1]. A famous example of competence without comprehension is Deer Stotting. When Deer are being chased by Lions they engage in a behaviour called Stotting. Stotting involves jumping high while they are being chased. Detailed observations of Lions hunting Deer indicates that Lions are statistically more unlikely to hunt Deer who are proficient at stotting. Now the reason for this is pretty obvious; the deer who engage in dramatic stotting are signalling fitness and strength because of ability to jump high while being chased. It would make more sense for the Lion to chase the Deer who is bad at stotting as they are obviously easier to catch. However, there is no reason to think that Lions are capable of explicitly thinking such thoughts about the fitness of their prey. The Lions have a competence to distinguish between fit and unfit prey; but they lack the comprehension of why they behave as they do. There are reasons for what the Lion does; but the reasons aren’t represented to the Lion. Dennett call’s these reasons which aren’t represented ‘Free-Floating-Rationales’.

In a way the cases we have reviewed are a bit too easy. Few people think that Dogs represent reasons for catching a ball, or Lions represent reasons for attacking poor Stotters. But when it comes to linguistic creatures; things are a bit different. Both Skinner and Quine argue that we should only say that a person is following a rule if they are consciously following and can state what the rule is. But even in this case things can get messy. People can state reasons for what they are doing and the reasons may not be accurate; likewise people can state the rules of the language they are speaking but scientific investigation will reveal that the rules they state do not correspond with the structure of the language the scientist discovers. Skinner gave a clichéd example to illustrate his point using a psychoanalytic explanation:

  “Freud would indicate different reasons for doing something than the reasons you gave. But the reasons he would have given…If they are unconscious reasons, then they must be what I have been calling causes and not reasons because they are not verbalWhen you were young you were reinforced in many ways in the presence of your mother’s face. Then you grow up and you fall in love with a woman who looks like your mother looked at that time. That’s all a matter of cause in the sense that it’s just a behavioural process. But you give reasons why you find her beautiful. Then Freud turns up and says aha you overlooked the fact that she looked like your mother when you were a child. So that the contingencies, the unanalysed, un-rationalized contingencies, were simply the fact that that person is attracted to her and that is where motivation comes in, whether the mother was feeding you caressing you and so on, and you go for that kind of person, and you go for this woman. But then you give a lot of other reasons, she is very intellectual, you enjoy talking to her, and so on. You give all sorts of reasons, which as Freud would point out are not the real reason you married her. You married for unconscious reasons, and the fact that it is unconscious means that you haven’t talked about it, and couldn’t talk about it, without converting it into reason governed behaviour. The real reason you married her was because she looked like your mother and as soon as you say that it is now a description of the contingencies.” (Skinner ‘Quine- Skinner Conversation’)


Skinner’s example is interesting. When Freud explains our behaviour in-terms of unconscious motivations he was typically using quasi agents like the ID, the Ego etc and deep repressed feelings. Skinner’s explanations on the other-hand are brute causal. The person is caused to be attracted to a woman who resembles his mother, and the person gives various different reasons to explain why he is attracted to the woman. The reasons he gives are false reasons; the real reason is a causal Freudian story. And the reason the person finds the woman attractive isn’t even a reason in the sense of something that the person represents to himself. On the above story the person’s attraction to that particular woman can be explained in a similar way to the way we explain the Lion’s bias against  attacking stotting deer. There are reasons we can derive to explain the person’s attraction but the reasons are not reasons that the person represents to himself. 

When discussing this issue with Skinner; Quine noted that in this sense the real reasons are actually causes while the reasons the person gives are only pseudo-reasons:


 “So reasons would be separated, the way that the notion of cause separates reasons from false rationalisations. False rationalisations and reasons have in common that they are verbalised, but reasons are distinguished from the false rationalisations in that they are really causes as well…so all reasons are causes...A reason is a verbalised cause (the verbalisation may be through someone else) such that the subject accepts the verbalisation and is aware that it is the cause…” (Quine ‘Quine-Skinner Conversation’)


Quine’s clarification is to the point. Something is a real reason if it tracks a causal sequence. However, the real reason for a behaviour doesn’t have to be represented to the person engaging in the behaviour.  The reason can be discovered and represented to a scientist studying the behaviour (think of stotting deer). Quine adds a twist that I see no reason to accept. Quine notes that in order to be a real reason it must be accepted by the subject as the correct reason and the subject must be aware that the reason given is the cause of his behaviour. Here Quine was thinking of Skinner’s Freudian example and of the accepted Freudian practice where the subject in analysis would come to realise the truth of the Freudian explanation. However there is no reason for us to adopt Quine’s conception of the nature of reasons. If a scientist can discover the reason a deer stotts independently of whether the deer can represent that reason then why can’t the same be true of humans? A psychologist discovers the real reason a person does x but the person may be incapable of understanding the truth of that explanation; nonetheless the scientific explanation will still be the correct one. 

A dissenter could argue that I am too quick in assuming that a scientist can discover the real reason a person behaves as they do; even if the person the scientist  is studying does not accept that the purported explanation is correct. If we think of our discussion of a dog catching a ball from earlier in the essay. In the case of the Dog we discovered many possible explanations of the dogs behaviour in terms of biophysics, operant conditioning, instinctual behaviour etc. The dog’s behaviour can be explained through a multi faceted series of scientific laws and tendencies. But as Quine and Skinner noted above; when discussing rules, there is little reason to think that the dog represented any of these laws when behaving. If we can explain the dog’s behaviour causally in terms of a battery of laws; why do we need to use the language of reasons at all. All we would have would be a causal story about why the dog behaves as he behaves. There seems to be nothing added by saying we are explaining the reason the dog behaves as he does. 

When Dennett speaks of Free Floating Rationales he is speaking of a reason the Lion hunts the way he does. These are reasons the Lion doesn’t represent, and they are reasons that nobody represented a few hundred years ago prior to scientists studying the behaviour. Nonetheless Dennett would argue that the reasons the scientists discovered are the real reasons that explain the Lions behaviour. These reasons were the real reasons prior to anyone representing these reasons. 

One wonders what work the word ‘reason’ (in the sense of a free floating rationale that nobody has represented) is doing, that couldn’t be done by simply using the word ‘cause’. It seems to me that the word is doing no extra work that couldn’t be done by the word ‘cause’. A better verbal choice would be to restrict reasons to speak about explanations that have been represented verbally by the person who engaged in the behaviour. And to use the word cause to explain behaviours such as Dogs catching balls, and Deer Stotting. A scientist can discover the causal sequences that lead to a behaviour occurring and this explanation can contradict the reasons that the person gives to explain their behaviour. In this case the simplest way of parsing it would be to say that the person’s reasons for why they did x was a false reason, and that the scientist has discovered the true causal explanation of the behaviour. There is no point in arguing that the scientist has discovered the real reason the person has behaved in way x; the simpler solution would simply be to say that the scientist has hit on the right causal explanation of behaviour x. We should leave reason based explanations to be folk psychological explanations people use to explain their behaviour; and add the proviso that such explanations will more than likely turn out to be false and be replaced by causal explanations.  Though in practical day to day interactions reason based explanations will probably always be necessary and useful. 



                         Rosenberg’s Radical Eliminativism 


In his book ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’,  Rosenberg goes even further than Quine and Skinner and attempts to explain away all reason based explanations into explanations in terms of causes. When discussing narrative explanations used by some historians; Rosenberg is dismissive. He argues that such explanations rely on outdated theory of mind explanations which have been refuted by modern neuroscience.  The famous french diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand has inspired thousands of biographies trying to explain the various different reasons for his behaviour leading up the French Revolution, and beyond it. However, Rosenberg dismisses these detailed biographies as being nothing more than fairy stories:

“But now it can be revealed that all of their purported explanations of Talleyarand’s decisions to backstab are fundamentally and profoundly wrong; they are not even close to the truth of what was going on inside his mind. That is because their explanations all relied on the theory of mind, and, alas, that theories claims are completely irrelevant to Talleyrand’s actual thought processes.” (ibid p. 142)


Rosenberg argues that because narrative history relies on theory of mind explanations and there is no evidence of a theory of mind module in the brain we can dismiss such explanations as meaningless. He also appeals to the fact that biographies about famous figures are constantly churned out and they seem to reveal no fact of the matter about what the subjects of the biographies reasons for their behaviour are. There are multiple different explanations of why Hitler hated Jewish people that are compatible with the known facts of his behaviour and no way to discover which explanation is the correct one. Rosenberg argues that the only way to actually discover why people like Hitler and Talleyarand thought as they did would be to look at their brains. However, when neuroscientists do study the structure of brains they find nothing resembling belief/desire explanations. 


To justify his claim that the brain doesn’t contain anything like the kind of explanations that one finds in folk psychological explanation Rosenberg gives us a whirlwind tour into findings in the neuroscience of memory and decision making:

“What they had discovered in the sea slug was nothing less than Pavlov’s classical conditioning mechanism…When we acquire new beliefs and store them in memory, the neurons in our brains do exactly the same thing that the neurons in the sea slug’s brain do when it acquires and stores new behaviours-only with a lot more LTP and lots of neurons growing new synapses…Kandel and his colleagues were able to show that the same molecular mechanisms and the same somatic genes that build new synaptic connections responsible for acquiring and storing implicit long-term memories in the sea slug, roundworm, and fruit fly are also responsible for acquiring and storing explicit long-term memories in vertebrates, mammals, primates, and us.” (ibid p. 128) 


Rosenberg goes on to discuss the Nobel Prize winning work of O Keefe et al on place cells and uses it to demonstrate that rats behaviour when understood at the neural level involves nothing that looks like a theory of mind module. He then goes on to argue that all the evidence we have so far indicates that humans are just more complicated versions of a rat’s brain doing more of the same thing (ibid p.139) 


Rosenberg’s eliminativism about belief-desire explanations is stunningly radical. While famous eliminativists like the Churchlands describe their eliminativism about folk psychology as an empirical hypothesis about what discoveries future research into neuroscience would bring. Rosenberg acts as if all of the relevant science has been done and eliminativism has been vindicated; but this is utter nonsense. At this state of play we don’t have a fully sketched out theory of consciousness. At the moment illusionists, emergentists, and pan-psychists are debating the nature of consciousness. Heavy rhetoric aside as things stand we don’t know which explanation of consciousness is the correct one. Furthermore the question of the degree to which our belief-desire psychology is dependent on the type of consciousness we have, or the relation of language to folk psychology is a complex one that Rosenberg casually glosses over. 

As we saw above when discussing Quine and Skinner I have no difficulty accepting that a lot of our explanations of our behaviour in terms of reasons may turn out to be false and be eliminated in terms of causal explanations. But such eliminations have to be done on a case by case basis. From a pragmatic point of view there seems to be no alternative but to use our folk psychology to predict and explain behaviour in most cases. Narrative explanations may not be perfect but it is doubtful they will ever be entirely replaced by findings in neuroscience. 




[1] For details see Dennett 1995, 2018.

1 thought on “Quine and Skinner and Unconscious Reasoning

  1. Benjamin David Steele

    What if the mind is not limited to and identical with the brain? There is the view that the mind is enacted, embodied, embedded, and extended. Also, there is the idea of affordances discussed by Patrick Grim in his lecture “Thinking Body and Extended Mind”, as part of The Great Courses’ Mind-Body Series:

    “The core of [J.J.] Gibson’s theory of perception is that we don’t perceive objects and don’t operate cognitively in terms of representations. What we perceive, what any animal perceives, are what Gibson terms affordances.

    “Squirrels don’t see trees, represent them internally, and calculate how to climb them. What they see is something more immediate and more action-oriented than that. They see a way up. That way up, the thing Gibson says they really see, isn’t an object, but an affordance.

    “We don’t see a door hinge to the right, a knob, and calculate that we can get out of the room by turning the knob. We see something much more immediate and much more action-oriented than that. We see a way out. That way out isn’t an object, but an affordance. For Gibson, a mind in the world operates in terms of those performances…”



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