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The Joker Movie: A brief discussion

The new Joker film has polarized its audience. To some it is a classic, and Phoenix deserves an award for his performance. For others the movie is an empty shell with nothing interesting to say. From what I have seen on Twitter a lot the commentary on the film seems to be along ideological lines. The director of the film Todd Philips; has recently complained about the far left’s supposed PC agenda ruining contemporary comedy. Philips complaints about PC culture haven’t endeared him to some journalists on the left and true to form lefty papers from the Guardian to online publications like i09 have panned the film.

Obviously journalists who disliked the film aren’t necessarily doing so because they disliked a few comments made by its director. It is more likely that the film’s theme and structure triggered certain reactions in the writers. It isn’t my job here to critique various different interpretations of the movie that others have had. Rather, I will here offer a few scattered thoughts on different aspects of the film.

The Joker is an iconic character who first appeared in the DC world in a 1940 Batman comic. The Joker was inspired by a 1928 film ‘The Man who Laughs’, which was about a man with a weird deformation which makes him permanently smile in an uncanny manner. In the DC universe the Joker has been portrayed in a variety of different ways over the 80 years since his creation. On screen the Joker has gone from being a campy character in the 1960 tv show, to the gangster Joker of the 1989 Batman Movie. To many fans, the most accurate on screen depiction of the Joker was in the early 90’s animated series of Batman, when the joker was voiced by Mark Hamill.

But in the popular imagination the Joker is Heath Ledger. Ledger played the Joker in the 2008 film ‘The Dark Knight’. While the film was being edited and prepared for release Ledger died of a drug overdose. The Dark Knight was a brilliant film and Ledger’s performance was superb. Ledger’s Joker had an ambiguous back story (the Joker told many mutually inconsistent stories about how he was scarred), his behaviour was portrayed as without reason. He was just a crazed mad man who liked to destroy things. Ledger’s fantastic performance, the film being excellent, and the Joker being genuinely unnerving would have been enough to cement Ledger as THE joker in most people’s mind. But his dying before the film was released added even more to the legend of his Joker.

But Ledger’s performance and its popularity presented a problem for those who owned the Batman franchise; how to create a new Joker.  When the TV show Gotham (a show exploring Batman’s childhood) began in 2014 it slowly introduced famous criminals such as the Penguin and the Riddler. But the Joker was conspicuous by his absence.  Slowly they began introducing a series different characters any of which could be a childhood Joker. This was a nice move. It meant that like Ledger’s Joker they were keeping his back story ambiguous. However, eventually the settled on a Joker played by Camron Monaghan. Monaghan is an excellent actor and his Joker laugh was terrifying. But eventually they overworked the story and in the last season the Joker was like a crude caricature of Ledger’s Joker. The 2016 film ‘Suicide Squad’ had Jared Leto playing the Joker and the whole thing was unbearably cringy. Try as they did to make the Joker edgy his entire portrayal was a disaster.

While Ledger’s Joker worked because of the ambiguity of the Joker’s backstory the new movie embraces his back story, using it as a way of describing how he ultimately became who he is. The overall theme of the film is of a lonely isolated man who suffered childhood abuse, who suffers from mental health issues and eventually kills a bunch of people and becomes a cult like sensation to thousands of people.

Given that the film is a backstory to a popular bad guy in a super-hero franchise one wonders why it has elicited such a polarizing response. The response isn’t your typical one where most people pan a film and some like it or where a film is greeted with general indifference; journalists seem to care about this film and are debating whether it is a work of genius or banal rubbish.

I enjoyed the film and thought Phoenix’s performance was brilliant. I would love if they built the DC universe around the movie; instead of the dross it has pushed out in the last few years (yes Justice League I am talking to you). But I certainly don’t consider the film some kind of movie classic in the way a lot fanboys appear to.

So, if we assume I am right, (I usually am 😉) that it’s a very good but not great movie. We must wonder why all the fuss? There are plenty of criticisms that one could make about the movie. Firstly, it is a cliché to portray the Joker as a mentally ill loner. Furthermore this cliché pushes a popular mythology about mentally ill people as being dangerously violent people. The truth is that mentally ill people are more likely to be the victims of crimes than perpetuators. So a critic could argue that the film pushes a dangerous stereotype that could result of further stigmatising the mentally ill.

But this criticism couldn’t be why people feel so strongly about the film. The cliché about the mentally ill and violence is used in a lot of films and doesn’t usually result in such strong reactions.

Another criticism is that the films portrayal of the Joker is an attempt to humanise a monster, and these attempts are usually directed towards white male criminals. In her ‘Down Girl’ Kate Manne recounts in detail cases of where women have been raped or subject to domestic violence of various kinds. In her detailed analysis she demonstrates in case after case, white rapists are treated as victims by the press. People bemoan the ruined life of the poor white guy who was always a good student and had a bright future ahead of him only for it all to be ruined by one tragic mistake. In these narratives the rapist becomes the tragic victim and the person who is raped almost disappears from the story. Manne calls this misplaced sympathy ‘Himpathy’[1] .

So it is possible that some critics’ problems with The Joker movie revolve around its misplaced himpathy for a brutal murderer because of his whiteness and maleness. Indeed some of the criticisms I have seen on Twitter do have this tone. Personally I didn’t think the Joker was portrayed that sympathetically; it was possible to feel pity for him at times; e.g. for his general awkwardness and the childhood abuse he suffered. But I didn’t get a sense in the film that the Joker was anything other than a psychopath; and his past doesn’t justify his behaviour at all.

The real reason that the Joker freaked out a lot of journalists was that his cult following is something we see over and over today. The Joker as portrayed in the film stands for nothing and is killing all around him based on delusions and repressed anger. Yet despite him being an inane man with nothing coherent to offer he has inspired a mass following of idiots who have little problem with killing innocent people. The Joker is set in the seventies, cults surrounding mad man were  more contained in the seventies. But with the internet and social media such as Twitter, YouTube etc cults are difficult to contain. Today disenfranchised people are flocking in their millions to sociopaths like Tommy Robinson, Jordan Peterson and Stefan Molyneux and being deluded with various different conspiracy theories.

The Joker is an uncomfortable reminder as to how easy people are riled up by idiotic clowns with no message other than anger. In the Joker film we get to see Bruce Wayne’s father as a thoroughly unsympathetic character and part of a vast network of powerful people who don’t care about the disenfranchised masses. Rather than focusing on unhinged psychopaths like the Joker perhaps we should be focused on uncaring people in power. Perhaps we should try to create a more nurturing society and hence decrease the people who will be led by clowns into a homicidal rages.

There has been speculation that Todd Philip’s comments about PC culture was a cynical attempt to sell the film to Incels who may relate to the Joker. Some have argued that they want to market the Joker to incels in the same way the marketed female Ghost-Busters to SJW types. I wonder whether liberal critics of the film with this incel interpretation in mind may have unconsciously viewed the Joker film as a metaphor for the dangers of cults lead by dangerous clowns and whether this may have led to their overly emotional interpretation of a movie about a superhero badguy.

(disclaimer I am just spit balling here and most of what I have said is probably false 😀 )


[1] In a blog-post I wrote last year I discussed the case of Bridget Cleary a woman who was murdered by her husband in Ireland over a hundred years ago. A lot of scholary treatment of that case involves Himpathy for the murderer

Frege, his Dad and the Eternal

“By Heaven, can we be ready to believe that the absolutely real has no share in movement, life soul or wisdom? That it does not live or think, but in solemn holiness, unpossessed of mind, stands entirely at rest? That would be a dreadful thing to admit.” (Plato ‘Parmenides’ p.248e)

Philosopher and biographer Ray Monk has written some of the most interesting and informative biographies about a variety of philosophers such as Bertrand Russell and Ludwig Wittgenstein etc. Monk argues that some philosopher’s lives are so dull as to resist any interesting biographies being written about them. Monk singles out philosophers such as Frege and Kant as being people who are so boring as to make a biography of them pointless.

Frege’s life certainly seems to bear out Monk’s negative impressions.  By all accounts Frege was a dull man whose life (outside of his theoretical work), seemed to be very dreary. He was a hard working maths student, who turned out into a hard working associate professor, he had an unremarkable marriage, had one adopted child and eventually he grew old and died. My little summary of Frege’s life may seem harsh, but the biographies written about him reveal little else about the man. There is very little documentary evidence of any kind of personality; no funny anecdotes, no interesting quirks in his personality; just lots of hard work in mathematics.

However as the philosopher Richard Rorty noted, one of the lessons we should have taken from Freud was that there were no truly dull people. If you get anyone on the bench you will discover unconscious motivations, bizarre desires, idiosyncratic behaviours etc. Here is Rorty’s gloss on dull people:

“But there is a difference between Nietzsche and Freud which my description of Freud’s view of the moral man as decent but dull doesn’t capture. Freud shows us that if we look inside the bien-pensant conformist, if we get him on the couch, we find that he was only dull on the surface. For Freud, nobody is dull through and through, for there is no such thing as a dull unconscious. What makes Freud more useful and more plausible than Nietzsche is that he does not relegate the vast majority of humanity to the status of dying animals. For Freud’s account of unconscious fantasy shows us how to see every human life as a poem… (Rorty ‘Contingency, Irony and Solidarity’ p. 35)


One doesn’t have to entirely buy into Freud’s particular views on psychology to agree with the general claim. It is surely indisputable that all humans have day-dreams, fantasies, unconscious beliefs governing their behaviour which they don’t explicitly state. Presumably Frege had sexual fantasies, presumably he had fears about death, growing old, he had passionate hates and passionate loves. Unfortunately there is little documentary evidence indicating any of these subjective states of the great man. In his writing he practically never mentions his emotional world. His output is almost entirely dedicated to his views on the foundations of mathematics. The only time Frege the man is seen in his writing is in a diary written later in his life where he expresses some extreme right wing thoughts. Aside from that Frege the man never emerges in his output of writing.

Frege famously argued against the idea that our grasp of mathematics could be explained entirely interms of our own idiosyncratic psychology. For Frege, mathematics was about an objective Platonic realm, the abstract objects mathematics picks out exist independently of any psychological states. Frege even argued that meaning should not be explained interms of idiosyncratic subjective ideas but instead meanings should be cashed out interms of abstract entities.

As every first year philosophy student knows philosophers such as Locke, Hume, Descartes etc cashed out the meaning of our words interms of their reference to ideas in our mind. Thus the meaning of our word ‘Cat’ would be cashed out in terms of our subjective idea (roughly a mental image) of a Cat. On this representationalist picture when we see a cat in our environment we are seeing it via a mental representation of the cat, and when we think about a cat we conjure up less vivid images of the cat. The meaning of the word ‘cat’ is derived from a combination of our images we conjure up when we think of a cat and the mental representations we use when we interpreting cat like stimuli in our environment.

Frege rejected this view of meaning. Firstly he rejected the view that our words picked out mental representations; for Frege our words picked out mind independent objects[1]. Our words reference was a mind independent object {which he parsed as either the true or the flase}, and the reference was mediated by an abstract sense. In his infamous example two people could be referring to the same object (Venus), but they could pick out that object via different modes of presentations. One person could refer to Venus via a sense {the morning star}, while another person could refer to Venus via the sense {the evening star}, neither person might know that { the Morning Star and The Evening Star both refer to the same thing i.e. Venus}.

Thus far people may find the above unproblematic. Our words pick out mind independent entities via our senses (which can be cashed out interms of descriptions instead of mental images), the overall picture seems a sensible one. However, natural as the above picture is, it is important to not be misled, Frege was explicit on the point that the senses which picked out references shouldn’t be understood as psychological states. Senses are objective modes of presentations they aren’t to be equated with psychological states or ideas.

Tyler Burge correctly argued that Frege claimed that there were three different functions of senses; (1) Senses are modes of presentation, (2) Senses fix reference, (3) they serve as the denotation of expressions in oblique contexts ( Burge ‘Frege on Sense and Linguistic Meaning’ pp.242-243). Furthermore, it is important to note that for Frege Senses are not to be reduced to linguistic meaning. Frege argued that while mathematicians who had written in his time and prior to him used linguistic descriptions of various different mathematical concepts their linguistic descriptions only partially and incompletely captured the abstract senses of the various different mathematical concepts. On Frege’s views senses belonged to a third realm of abstractions that existed independently of any psychological states or of the physical world.

Frege’s views on the subject were brilliantly argued for and to this day stand out as one of the best explanations we have for mathematical knowledge. His reasons for dismissing psychological states and subjective ideas are nicely summarised by Jacqquette:

“Frege wanted to distance himself from including meaning factors in the third level of associated mental content. He did not deny their existence. That is important. He nevertheless found no place for transitory ideas in objective non-psychologistic semantics. He concluded that an associated mental image, connotation, and “poetic” but nonetheless real “colouring” may sometimes accompany a thought’s reference to an intended objected by means of a word’s or sentence’s sense, what the symbol is being used to express and the thinker trying to say. However, Frege did not believe that these accidental subjectively variable associations occur in any lawlike way.” ( Jacquette ‘Frege: A Philosophical Biography’ p. 335)

Frege’s views on the above topic have influenced the likes of Quine, Wittgenstein, and Skinner. Frege’s argument in the above piece is pretty convincing. Whatever, the subjective colour provided by our idiosyncratic experiences as we do math; if we want to engage in law like inferences we need to move beyond our psychology and into the normative level.

From a logical point of view Frege’s attack on a naive psychologism is a sensible attack; without the attack we are in a quandary in explaining our normative judgements in logic and our law-like explanations of natural phenomena. Nonetheless, there was at times something unbalanced in Frege’s reaction to psychological explanations.

In his philosophical biography of Frege, Dale Jaquette documented the almost universal bad reviews or indifferent uncomprehending reviews that Frege’s work received throughout his life. Up until Russell acknowledged Frege’s work in his 1903 ‘Principles of Mathematics’ few mathematicians were impressed with Frege’s Logicism. On philosopher who was impressed with Frege’s work was Edmund Husserl; Husserl contacted Frege and they communicated about their respective research into the foundations of mathematics. Husserl even presented Frege with his ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’. The evidence from their correspondence seemed to indicate that the younger Husserl hoped to initiate a collaboration with Frege.

However, Frege’s review of ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ put an end to any hope of collaboration between them (though they did communicate with each other after the review). Frege’s review of Husserl’s book was a sustained attack on Husserl for engaging in psychologism in mathematics. What is odd about the review is that Husserl wasn’t attempting to reduce mathematics entirely to psychological states. Nothing in ‘The Philosophy of Arithmetic’ argued that against giving a logical foundation for mathematics. Husserl was just interested in describing the phenomenology of arithmetical thinking (Jacquette p. 434). Husserl was quite clear in the philosophy of arithmetic that he was not trying to reduce arithmetic to psychological processing.

So one wonders why Frege could have misjudged Husserl’s intents so badly and in the process alienate one of his few allies? A plausible explanation is that Frege’s sensible arguments against psychological reductions of the timeless world of mathematics stemmed from an emotional source. And that any attempt to explain math in psychological terms was triggering for him; even if the psychological explanation wasn’t intended to be reductive.

One of Frege’s contemporaries was Bertrand Russell. Russell along with Frege helped to found the discipline of analytic philosophy. Russell often speculated that his early obsession with the world of abstract Platonic entities stemmed from a fear of the contingencies of reality. In the real world things are changeable and sometimes frightening. Russell knew about the contingencies of reality only too well. Both of his parents died when he was still a young child; parents are foundational for children. They are their child’s whole world. From the moment a child is born they are entirely dependent on their parents help to survive. Eventually, typically post adolescence, children become (partially) independent of their parents. But prior to that their parents are their whole world. In his book ‘The Philosophers their Lives and the Nature of their Thoughts’ Ben-Ami Scharfstein noted that a disproportionate amount of philosophers had lost a parent when they were young:

“The table shows what must appear to be a high frequency of early separations from parents, whether by death or by other causes…Of the twenty-two philosophers listed, two had lost both parents and eleven at least one by the age of six. In only six cases did both parents survive till the philosopher was fifteen…Painful separations are no doubt common in early life, but it seems nevertheless notable that at least twenty of the twenty two philosophers may of undergone them…a parent’s death might leave the philosopher in fear that he had inherited some vulnerability or even death from the parent.” (The Philosophers pp 347 -348)

Frege is one of the great philosophers who fits into the above category, he lost his father when he was just reaching adolescence, and he was a sickly child. It is not hard to imagine a weak child terrified with the contingencies of existence, who has lost his father, and who is sickly and acutely aware of his own mortality being fascinated by the universal rules of logic and mathematics. Frege being naturally brilliant at mathematics would have been constantly reinforced in its pursuit when he was developing as a young man. The eternal truths he was discovering would have seemed to have been an anchor that would remain true no matter what the contingencies of life would bring.

It is possible that Frege’s attack on Husserl was an unconscious defensive attack on someone who he unconsciously believed was attacking the only secure foundation he believed possible in the world he found himself in.

However, even if it is true that Frege had an unconscious emotional attachment to Logicism that led him to uncharitable attacks on people who attempted psychological explanations, this hardly makes his life a poem (in the Rortian sense). At best we have a dull professor who feared death and vulnerability and who as a result was overly attached to a particular philosophy.

Frege the human exemplar of a poem it seems is lost to biographers. To understand Frege in the Rortian sense we need artistic representations. Frege’s diary revealing extreme right wing comments and pushing for emotional expression in political gestures reveals a less sympathetic human. A man who flees from psychology and ideas as explanatory tools but who argues for emotional expression is a much more interesting man. But he is a man hidden in shadows. It will take an artist to render this Frege flesh and blood.

[1] Frege didn’t provide much by way of justification for his views on words referring to mind independent entities as opposed to referring to mental representations.

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

Corporate Groups and Natural Selection

In recent years there has been an unfolding attempt to understand group dynamics in terms of a combination of evolutionary science and behavioural science.  This attempt typically involves an appeal to the concept of group selection. In our ancient evolutionary past what groups were selected would have been simply a matter of what group practices would make it more likely that group x would have survived as opposed to group y or group z. Today we are in a position to design our group practices explicitly and to reflect on what type of groups we want to flourish and what types of group behaviour we would prefer to be culled from our environment.

But when thinking about these issues it is important to reflect on what constitutes a group. We all have intuitive understanding of things we group together. Thus we can group together people who were born and brought up in the same town, people who were born and brought up in the same country, people who share the same religion, people who share the same political views etc. Now if we think in terms of sets we will note that some of these groups will intersect. All people who are born in the same town will make up a subset of people who were born in a particular country. While only some people who are from the same country will be members of the group of people who are from the same town. Trying to pick out which groups will be salient enough to be selected-for, or selected against, by the environment is a tricky task.

It makes little sense to speak of people from a particular country being selected. Humans have populated most environments on the planet and hence have spread to all land masses on the planet. It makes more sense to speak of groups of cultural practices being selected. A group of people on a land mass may have a variety of cultural practices and be exposed to another group with different cultural practices. It is possible that one group of cultural practices will be more effective than the other group of practices, and it will be passed on to the next generation while the other group of practices dies out. Or as is more typical the group practices may merge with the best of both being preserved by the environment.

Above when I spoke about practices being selected I spoke about the best of both groups surviving and being passed on to the next generation. But the word ‘best’ in this sense is ambiguous. To argue that one cultural practice is better than another has normative connotations. But from a strictly evolutionary perspective all that is really implied is that one set of practices survives and another doesn’t. ‘Best’ means nothing more than the practice that is passed on to the next generation.

Thus far I have been speaking breezily enough about group practices being selected. The idea of group practices being selected is of course a very controversial one. Evolutionary theorists such as Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne etc have argued strongly against the concept of group selection. While on the other side of the aisle theorists such as David Sloan Wilson, E O Wilson, and Bob Sapolsky, Boyd and Richerson, etc have argued that group selection is a real force in evolution that is as powerful as selection at the level of genes. Sloan-Wilson makes the point as follows:

“Multilevel selection theory tells us that something similar to team-level selection took place in our species for thousands of generations, resulting in adaptations for teamwork that are baked into the genetic architecture of our minds. Absorbing this fact leads to the conclusion small groups are a fundamental unit of human social organization. Individuals cannot be understood except in the context of small groups, and large-scale societies need to be seen as a kind of multicellular organism comprising small groups.” (David Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 114)

In his 2007 paper ‘The False Allure of Group’ selection Pinker was highly critical of the concept of Group Selection. He argued that the concept was of little use in trying to understand human behaviour, and if we want to understand such behaviour from the point of view of human evolution we are better off sticking to the level of genes being selected. However, Pinker’s arguments failed to convince a lot of his critics.

Linguist Dan Everett argued that a key example of group selection is language. He argues that the function of language is to build communities. If one group of homo-sapiens has language and the other doesn’t then the group with language will be the group selected. Everett also mentions the selection of genetic mutation by cultural pressures (dual inheritance theory) as a paradigm example of group selection (e.g. some group’s ability to digest milk beyond infancy, or dyslexia).

Archaeologist Peter Richerson argued that a pro-social psychology arouse as a result of group selection (groups containing mainly selfish members would be at a disadvantage to more co-operative groups). While evolutionary Biologist Sloan Wilson noted the question that the Darwinian needs to ask is how can traits that evolve which are good for the group, when they are disadvantageous for members within the group. Traditionally this question was answered in two ways firstly by noting (1) Selection among groups is weak compared to selection within groups, (2) Other mechanisms can explain pro-social behaviour in ways that do not invoke group selection. Sloan-Wilson argues that neither of these can be considered true anymore based on recent findings in evolutionary psychology. Traits can evolve as a result of between group selection even if they are disadvantageous at in group levels. And attempts to explain pro-social behaviour without invoking group selection typically (implicitly invoke the concept of group selection).

                             Some examples of Group Designs

Elinor Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for her work on the tragedy of the commons. She studied many different groups who had overcome the problem naturally and abstracted out 8 core design principles that are useful in overcoming the problem:

Elinor Ostrom’s Core Design Principles (CDP):

(1) CDP1: Strong Group Identity and Understanding of Purpose:

(2) CDP2: Proportional Equivalence between Benefits and Costs:

(3) CDP3: Fair and Inclusive Decision-Making:

(4) CDP4: Monitoring Agreed-Upon Behaviours:

(5) CDP5: Graduated Sanctions:

(6) CDP6: Fast and Fair Conflict Resolution:

(7) CDP7: Local Autonomy:

(8) CDP8: Polycentric Governance:

In his book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson discussed how he implemented these core design principles in an experimental setting in a school (using appropriate controls) and were the design principles were shown to be very effective. He recommends that people working in various different groups; such as, small businesses, schools, universities etc should try to implement these core design principles to increase their effectiveness.

Getting businesses to adopt these scientifically justified design principles will be extremely difficult. A lot of corporate groups like to invoke concepts such as corporate cultures they practice. However these slogans don’t typically represent the actual culture of the corporation, but are rather just ways of branding the organisations. In his ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ Dan Everett noted that if a company really wanted to decide what their culture is they would need to ask the following questions:

“What are the roles of employees? Who is hired? How are they hired? What tasks and roles are most rewarded (with salaries, bonuses, commissions, stock options, etc.)?What are the relative roles of shareholders vs. stakeholders? What are the company stories in the boardroom, the washroom, parties, and the lunchroom? We cannot understand culture through questionnaires and public pronouncements alone. We must engage in intense participant observation, as in Karen How (2009), or in careful analysis of intended results, as in LiPuma and Lee (2004).” ( Everett ‘Dark Matter of the Mind’ p. 171)

Everett warns us that close observation is needed to distinguish between the culture that is claimed and the culture that is evident from observing the behaviour of the corporation. He uses his rank value theory of culture to evaluate various different cultural practices. His advice to businesses on what questions to ask about what type of culture they are advocating, and on rank preferences within the overall culture, is a necessary first step in implementing Ostrom’s core design principles. First the business (or corporation) needs to establish what culture they are advocating, then, they need to use the core design principles to give the culture its best chance of flourishing.

Reflection on what the overall aims of a company are can help companies face difficult choices head on. It is doubtful that heads of Alcohol or Tobacco industries explicitly aim to kill people or make them sick. The death and illness are a consequence of a culture that values profit (and perhaps creating employment) above the health of their consumers. If our overall society favours this profit first perspective there is no reason for the company to change its behaviour.  It is here that the concept of group selection comes into play. If we create an environment that selects for groups which place profit above all else; the groups that will be selected are the ones that maintain profit better than their rivals. These groups could be a disaster for their consumers, for the environment of the planet etc. This is analogous to breeding a dog for a particular trait such as having a particular head shape. With constant selective breeding one ends up with a dog with a particular head shape selected for and a series of other free riders that came along with the selected for trait (reduced ability to smell, auto immune disorders etc). With the profit at all costs model you select for profitable groups, but as free riders you get a systematic lack of concern for the wellbeing of society and its members. Here it is up to society to decide what type of groups it wants to select for. If we don’t want to select for organisations that maximise profit at all costs we need to create as system of punishments and rewards that selects for the traits we want the groups to exhibit.

The psychologist Anthony Biglan’s work exhibits some of the strengths of this approach of selecting for certain group practices as opposed to other ones. He proposes that we treat organisms as entities whose behaviour we can modify in terms of selection by consequences. He argues that testing the impact of selection by consequences on corporate practices would give citizens and policy makers the tools to select the type of corporations we want (Biglan ‘The Nurture Effect’ p. 177). Although Biglan is aware of the power corporations have to resist such changes he cites his work with the Alcohol industry and the Tobacco industry to show that such change is possible. He suggests that positive reinforcement of good corporate practices may be a better tool than either negative reinforcement or punishment.

With the work of Biglan, Everett, Sloan-Wilson, and Ostrom we have tools for individual groups to make explicit what their actual culture is and why, we have tools to effectively design this group to succeed, we have an understanding of the dynamics of evolution to, as a society, create selective practices to select for groups with particular traits that will benefit society. This will create a feedback loop where corporations will have a Everett type worked out cultural self image, but will also have to compete in a world that is designed to select for practices based on an ethical world view based on more than just profit. If the checks and balances society is implementing on the particular corporation are impeding their growth they will have to modify their worked out self interest relative to the interests of the societies’ selective practices.

Obviously, a fear with the above is that what is being proposed is a form of top down governance in the mould of communism. However, that is not being argued for, rather what is needed what Biglan calls a more nurturing form of capitalism.

One criticism of my claims above is that corporations are too powerful for any governmental body to select for or against their behaviour. In my next blog-post I will evaluate how corporate power can be modified from within using the conceptual tools provided by Blanco’s set theoretic understanding of the mind and naturalizing his conception in terms of contextual behavioural science.

Popular Culture and Androids Part 1: Data

This is the first in a series of blog-posts exploring depictions of androids, robots and AI in popular culture. In these blog-posts I will discuss the philosophical difficulties with these depictions. In this blog-post I will discuss the fictional android Data and his ability to experience emotions and the implications of these experiences for how we interpret the nature of his consciousness.

In an episode of ‘Star Trek The Next Generation’, called the Descent part 1 (Season 6 Episode 26) the android Data experienced the emotion of anger. Data subsequently discussed his emotional experience with his friend Geordi La Forge. La Forge is originally sceptical of Data’s claim to have experienced emotions and asks him how he could know what an angry emotion is. Data asks Geordi to describe his own experiences so he can use them to see if they are similar to his. Geordi’s attempt to describe his emotional experiences turns out to be embarrassingly inept. The dialogue between Data and Geordi is worth expounding in full detail as it reveals a lot about difficulties in describing the nature of emotions:

“Data: I believe I have experienced my first emotion

Geordi: No offence Data, but how would you know a flash of anger from some kind of power surge?

Data: You are correct that I have no frame of reference to use to confirm my hypothesis. In fact I am unable to provide a verbal description of the experience. Perhaps you can describe how it feels to be angry? I could then use that as a reference.

Geordi: Ok…When I feel angry first I feel…hostile!

Data: Could you describe feeling hostile?

Geordi: Well yeah…it’s like feeling belligerent…combative.

Data: Could you describe feeling angry without referring to other feelings?

Geordi: Hmm…no I guess I can’t. I just… feel angry…

Data: That was my experience as well…I simply…felt angry…” (Star Trek: The Next Generation, ‘The Decent’ part 1, 33mins-35 mins.)

There is an element in the above dialogue that puts one in mind of the Socratic dialogues. In the Socratic dialogues Socrates comes across some dupe who claims to understand some abstract concept like ‘Justice’ or ‘Equality’ etc. After a few minutes of being questioned by Socrates we realise that our dupe doesn’t in fact understand these concepts because he cannot even answer simple questions about them. But in the case of the discussion between Data and Geordi we are led to a different conclusion. The brief dialogue is meant to give the impression that although Geordi cannot define the nature of emotions (without appealing to other; equally undefined, emotional terms), he understands the emotional terms based on his immediate experience.

Since it is Data who had just had his first emotion in the above scene it is important to try and understand a bit about him before we can interpret his experience of having an emotional experience. Throughout the series prior to experiencing his first emotion Data is presented an intelligent thoughtful agent who is respected by his colleagues and who is capable of interpreting the behaviour of his colleagues in a largely accurate manner and to use language that is both coherent and (largely) appropriate to the situation.

Given Data’s linguistic proficiency in engaging in communication with his peers, and his ability to interact with his environment, he is typically treated as a conscious member of his tribe. But the question of whether he is a conscious agent is never really dealt with in sufficient detail. Though there is an episode where he has dreams and this is indicative of his being conscious; I will discuss this in more detail later on.

First I want to briefly discuss an early episode of Star Trek The Next Generation where Data is put on trial to defend his status as a person as opposed to mere property. In the trial it is argued that a creature must meet three criteria in order to be considered a sentient agent. They must be intelligent, self aware and conscious. The first two criterion are met when Data indicates intelligence through his performance in various tasks, he is judged to be self aware because he can verbally describe the scenario he finds himself in, on the question of consciousness it isn’t proven he is conscious it is merely remarked that it is as hard to demonstrate that other humans are conscious as it is to demonstrate Data is.

If we take Data at his word that he is has experienced the emotion of anger then we will be forced to admit that he is conscious. However there were moments earlier in the series that would cause one to doubt that diagnosis. Firstly Data doesn’t appear to feel any pain, thus he has at times had his head removed, his arm removed, and doesn’t indicate any pain or discomfort whatsoever. Along with not feeling pain, he doesn’t seem to experience pleasure; thus while he has had sex he doesn’t associate it with any pleasant sensations. Though it should be noted that while there is no evidence he experienced any sensations when having sex; he did afterwords describe the experience as a meaningful one for him.

The question is can a creature who is incapable of experiencing pain or pleasure have conscious experiences? If no aspect of our environment gave us pleasure or pain; in what sense would it make sense to argue that a creature was conscious? In one sense one could argue that consciousness is simply awareness of something. For a person to be aware of x it doesn’t intuitively seem necessary for one to experience pain or pleasure. It would appear to be possible to view a red object as a red object without this experience involving experiences of pleasure or pain.

To intuition relies on the representational theory of the mind; which was made famous from Descartes argument from error. Descartes argument relies on demonstrating that the world as it is revealed by science isn’t the world of experience. Thus, for example, a stick in water can appear to be bent, but in reality the stick is actually straight. With a disjunction between how the world appears to us, and how it really is; the stage was set for a representational theory of the mind. Descartes theorised that the world as it appears to our mind is a representation which we use to make sense of the world but it is not a direct experience of the real world. Not many people followed Descartes in his dualistic way of conceiving of this issue but the majority of scientists and philosophers follow him in accepting that the argument from illusion leads to a representational theory of the mind.

Again consider Data and his experience of the world. A person walks by him wearing a red top; light reflects off the red top and hits Data’s eyes the light is registered by the eye and information is transmitted from his eyes to his positronic brain, and his brain (somehow) creates a representation of the red object. It is this representation that Data experiences. So if we accept this story[1]; we can argue that Data had conscious experiences in the form of representations. There is some support for this interpretation in the Star Trek episode:

In the above scene we are presented with Data’s dream from a first person perspective. Now a dream is an example of Descartes argument from error. In a dream we purportedly experience a world around us; however since we are really asleep in our beds, the world we see isn’t real but is rather a representation of reality that is fooling us. Now given that in the above episode Data is portrayed as being capable of dreaming it seems inescapable but to conclude that he has conscious experiences[2]. But it is a strange disembodied kind of consciousness.

Data is portrayed as having conscious representations of the world which contain rich qualitative experiences of colour, sound, shape etc. But other aspects of his behaviour seem unconscious or reflexive. As we saw above Data seems to have absolutely no pain receptors. His body can obviously register aspects of his environment and respond appropriately to it. But as portrayed in the show he doesn’t seem to experience any conscious proprioception as he moves about his world. In a sense Data’s body is similar to the body of the robots currently being built by Boston Dynamics:

The above robot, like Data, is adroit at moving around its environment and like Data his skilled movement is unaccompanied by any subjective experience. Of course to a degree we are all like Data or a Boston Dynamics robot as we move around our environments. People who have a severe stroke who are trying to re learn how to walk quickly discover how much of our movements around our world rely on non-conscious mechanics that have to be re-learned post stroke. But there is a difference and it is one nicely captured by Heidegger’s distinction between the ‘ready-to-hand’ and the ‘present-at-hand’. Heidegger notes that when engaging in our everyday activities our movements are pre-thematic, they are in the background and we don’t notice them. When working in this state we find things in our environment ‘ready-to-hand’. However, when things go wrong with our relation to our environment we become aware of ourselves and the objects we are interacting with in a more explicit and theoretical way called ‘present-at-hand’.

In a lot of cases our movement from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’ involves things like a feeling of pain or a feeling of frustration. So, for example, a guy working in a warehouse who is moving things in a particular way on a daily basis will not be aware of the movements till he starts suffering from back pain; once he starts experiencing this pain his interactions with the objects he is moving will switch from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’. The objects he is interacting with will suddenly acquire a particular salience and he will need to be more conscious in his movements when interacting with the objects.

Likewise, if a worker has a well worn set of behaviours when engaging with some aspect of his environment and these behaviours cease to work this will inspire some emotions. The worker may feel frustrated or curious and will have to step back from his behaviour and form a new way of interacting with the objects in his environment.

The situation with Data though precludes such switches from ‘ready-to-hand’ to ‘present-at-hand’, Data is incapable of experiencing pain, and he is incapable of experiencing frustration. So if Data was a worker in the above situations he would have little reason to switch to conscious deliberation when things go wrong. Data is constantly portrayed as experiencing curiosity and wonder. But the show never offers an explanation of why a creature who is supposedly devoid of emotions is capable of experiencing curiosity.

Another strange aspect of Data as a concept is his development. He is portrayed as an android who was built with an adult body and who was programmed to move around his environment, speak respond etc. All of this behaviour was built in; he just used these built in competencies to learn the nature of the world he lived in through interaction with humans over a number of years. So Data never experienced life in a womb; or as a child entirely dependent of his care givers; nor did he feel the human innate emotional bond with parents and peers. He never felt embarrassed, or angry, or exhilarated when interacting with childhood friends, parents, neighbours etc. He never went through puberty and the emotional changes it brought about.

So with Data we have a weird combination. He is supposedly capable of conscious representations of things such as shape, colour, size etc. But he doesn’t experience pain, while he can touch things and interact with them; such interaction appears to be on the level of a Boston Dynamics robot (with the added ability to theoretically interpret his own movements). Whatever consciousness Data supposedly has it seems to be entirely disembodied and like a magical add on to his mechanical behaviour.

This leads us back full circle to Data’s conversation with Geordi. Geordi cannot explain his emotional experiences in a satisfactory manner. But he has a lifetime of experience of learning emotional words and keying them with bodily movements and various experiences. He has a life time of shaping his emotion words to his embodied experience and using them in a way that his similarly constituted peers can understand. Data on the other hand has always been able to use emotion words, but because he had no emotions there was no fit between his words and his experiences. Given Data’s weirdly disembodied Cartesian Nature it is unlikely that even if he suddenly did have new experiences (which he would categorise as emotions), they would line up with human emotions. Data if he were suddenly given emotions would be like a person who was blind for his entire life suddenly being given his sight. Even with the ability to see the ability to interpret distance, size etc would take years of learning to be perfected. And there is a strong possibility that it would never be entirely perfected.

[1] And there are plenty of difficulties with the story; firstly while we have good story of the neural correlates we have no idea how those correlates produce our experiences in the way they do; secondly any representational theory of mind runs the risk of an infinite regress.

[2] Dennett’s 1976 paper ‘Are Dreams Experiences’ argues that dreams are not something we directly experience but rather stories we rationally reconstruct after waking. But in the fictional world of Star Trek we are shown Data directly experiencing his dreams; so within this fictional world Dennett’s concerns are mute. Though a philosopher living in the fictional trek world could argue a la Dennett when Data reported his having dreams.

David Sloan Wilson: On Evolution and Behavioural Science


In his recent excellent book ‘This View of Life’ David Sloan Wilson offers a compelling case for the utility of evolutionary thinking in all areas of life; in particular he makes a masterful case for how evolutionary thinking can improve our over-all standard of living and make our world a better place. In future blog-posts I will discuss Sloan-Wilson’s recommendations for using evolutionary thinking for public policy. In this blog-post my focus will be narrower. I will examine Sloan-Wilson’s very brief discussion of B.F. Skinner. Like every evolutionary psychologist who criticises Skinner, Sloan-Wilson uses the trope of Skinner being a blank slate theorist.

Sloan-Wilson on Skinner and Behavioural Science

A lot of evolutionary thinkers who criticize Skinner (and behavioural science in general), don’t demonstrate any understanding of the subject; but Sloan-Wilson is different. His work with behaviourists such as Tony Biglan and Steven Hayes has given him an understanding of the subject far beyond the likes of Pinker or Fodor. Sloan-Wilson acknowledges the important work in applied science that has been done by behaviourists; e.g. work by ABA practitioners with Autistic children, or the good behaviour game which he tries to link with his own evolutionary understanding of science. Nonetheless Sloan-Wilson is critical of behavioural science in general (in particular he is critical of Skinner’s radical behaviourism).

Sloan-Wilson is complementary towards Watson and Skinner’s criticism of the introspective psychology that preceded the behavioural revolution. However, he is critical of Skinner for only focusing on half of Timbergen’s famous four questions. Timbergen noted that when trying to understand the behaviour of an organism we should do so by asking four different types of question (1) history, (2) function, (3)  mechanism, (3) development.  On Sloan-Wilson’s picture Skinner ignored question (3) and (4). As a result of this Sloan-Wilson uses the tired old label of blank slate theorist to categorise Skinner’s position.

Sloan-Wilson’s criticisms of Skinner have some validity. Skinner did argue against explaining human behaviour in terms of inner mechanisms or cognitive models. Firstly it is important to note that being a sceptic about the value of cognitive maps wasn’t a behaviourist dogma. Behaviourists, such as Skinner’s contemporary, Edward Tolman used cognitive maps in their explanations of human behaviour. Nonetheless, Skinner is the name contemporary thinker’s associate with behavioural science; so Wilson is correct to point out Skinner’s scepticism re- the importance of cognitive maps. Furthermore, throughout his entire career Skinner showed little interest in developmental issues.

The question we have to ask here is whether Skinner erroneously ignoring questions 3 and 4 make him a blank slate theorist? In order to evaluate this question it is worth considering a comparison that Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini[1]made in their infamous book ‘What Darwin Got Wrong’.



Fodor on the analogy between Skinner and Darwin

F and P argued that the logic used by behaviourists re- operant conditioning and the logic used by Evolutionary theorists was identical. They noted that there was an inconsistency in the way that Skinner and Darwin were treated; people argued that the Skinner’s logic lead to an easy refutation; while Darwin despite using the same logic didn’t receive the same treatment.

The first point of comparison they make is in terms of what they call population thinking. They claim that a way to think of the theory of natural selection[2] is as a theory of how phenotypic properties of populations change overtime in response to ecological variables (‘What Darwin Got Wrong p.3). They define Operant Theory[3] in a similar way ‘OT is also plausibly viewed as a black box that maps a distribution of traits in a population at a time (a creatures behavioural repertoire at that time), together with a specification of relevant environmental variables, the creature’s history of reinforcement; onto a succeeding distribution of traits.

They argue that the TNS and OT have 6 basic untenable feature in common: (1) Iterativity: ET provides no bounds on the type of phenotype possible OT provides no bounds on the variety of behavioural profiles which can be created through conditioning.(2) Environmentalism: ET and OT abstract from endogenous variables, claiming that the phenomenon of evolution on the one hand and psychology on the other are largely the effects of environmental causes (3) Gradualism: ET argues that new phenotypes emerge gradually, OT argues that learning is a gradual process of stimulus response conditioning (4) Monotonicity: ET and OT are one factor theories. For ET selection does all the work. For OT conditioning does all the work. (5) Locality: Both ET and OT are local processes and are insensitive to mere hypothetical contingencies (6) Mindlessness: ET doesn’t postulate God to do the work and OT doesn’t postulate Mind to do the work.

Fodor and Piattelli argue that the evidence they provide in their book shows that evolutionary theory as defined according to the above six principles cannot do what it purports to do. And in this sense they argue both OT and ET are hopeless theories the only difference is that people understand that OT is hopeless; yet inconsistently they remain wedded to ET.

Internal constraints: The authors begin this section with a claim that standard Neo-Darwianists are environmentalists by definition. By this they mean that standard Darwianian theory thinks that changes to a phenotype are largely driven by environmental contingencies. Their primary aim in this section is to show that contemporary wet biology is telling a story of innate constraints which are at odds with the neo-Darwinian story. It is worth noting that the authors they cite in this section do not agree with the use F and P make of their work. Furthermore, most neo-Darwinians would deny that they are environmentalists in Fodor and Piattelli’s sense. So they would argue that Fodor and Piattelli are attacking a straw-man.

Bearing all of this in mind lets now review the evidence they cite. The first thing they cite is the concept of Unidimentionality. Unidimentionality is supposedly standard story in the neo-Darwinnian theory. On this picture NS plays the primary role in the theory of evolution, the role of internal sources of variance, and internal constraints is said to play only a marginal role. To prove this point they cite Earnest Mayr’s book ‘Animal Species and Evolution’ as an example of such ultra-selectionist attitudes. F and P claim that discussion of the evolution of the eye nicely illustrates the neo-Darwinian emphasis on NS as the primary source of design in species. It was claimed by most neo-Darwinian theorists that the evolution of the eye emerged several times independently and convergently across species. In his Darwins Dangerous Idea Dan Dennett referred to the evolution of the eye as a nice trick, something that was bound to be selected in any form it occurred in. Dawkins has made similar claims. F and P pointed out that the discovery of master genes for eye development (Pax 3, Pax 2, Pax 6, and Dach) across vastly different classes and species has shown the neo-Darwinain view to be incorrect. The next topic they consider is beanbag genetics. Here they basically argue that selection for a particular gene rarely, if ever occurs, and this is because of the convoluted packing of genes in chromosomes. Their critique of beanbag genetics is a pointless because nobody believes it anyway.

One of the key factors they believe counts against the neo Darwinian view is the existence of Internal Constraints and Filters. The discussion of internal constraints and filters involves an appeal to results in the evo-devo revolution. Again it is worth noting that most people working in evo-devo consider themselves a part of neo-darwinanism and would not accept the conclusions drawn from their work by Fodor and Piattelli. According to Fodor and Piattelli, the standard neo-Darwinian picture abstracts away from the all effects of development on visible traits (p.27). They stress that the evo-devo revolution shows that this development not only cannot be abstracted away from, it is key to the process of evolution. The argue that it has been shown in the lab (1) phenotypic convergence is, more often than not the result of developmental constraints, (2) Also they cite the fact that experimental evidence (Ronshaugen 2001), has shown that terminal forms can differ in massive ways as a result of slight variations in the regulation of the same gene complexes/or the timing activation of such complexes (pg 30). This shows that contrary to neo-Darwinian claims evolution is not primarily driven by exogenous factors but by internal developmental constraints. They spend the rest of the chapter outlining a series of facts which they claim further develop their point. Throughout section 1 they are merely attacking a straw-man, because most evolutionary theorists do not deny what they are claiming. Though it is true that a lot of pop science is guilty of making claims of the type they critique.

In chapter two and three F and P argued that there are internal constraints which limit the importance of selection, and they considered how if at all selection could operate given these limits. They claimed that in response to the evidence reviewed in chapters two and three neo-Darwinists have expanded its scope and invoked other kinds of natural selection. This chapter is an attempt to provide more problems for neo-Darwinism. The first problem they consider is the phenomenon of adaptation without selection, Fodor and Piattelli summarise the point as follows:

“The point to keep your eye on is this: it is possible to imagine serious of alternatives to the traditional Darwinian consensus that evolution is primarily a gradualistic process in which small phenotypic changes generated at random are then filtered by environmental constraints. This view is seriously defective if, as we suppose, the putative random variations are in fact highly constrained by the internal structures of evolving organisms. Perhaps it goes without saying that if this internalist story is true, then less work is left for appeals to natural selection to do.” (What Darwin got Wrong p. 54).

They provide eight pieces of evidence which they think support their conclusion:

(1)   Gene Regulatory Networks: Building from the work of E. H. Davidson (2006), they argue that gene regulatory networks are at work in the development of the organism. These gene regulatory networks are modular in nature (in other words they form compact units of interaction which are separate from other similar units). The important point about these regulatory networks is that they are supposedly responsible for the development of the bodily structures of animals. This happens because large effect mutations acting on conserved core pathways of development. They claim that this process makes it virtually impossible to argue that particular isolated traits are selected for.

(2)   Entrenchment: They claim that this acts as an engine of development and evolutionary change, and as a constraint (ibid p.43). Some evolutionary factors may be highly conserved and protected against change. They offer very little evidence of their views at this point merely a promisary note to develop the point in the next chapter.

(3)   Robustness: This is the persistence of a trait of an organism despite developmental noise, environmental change or genetic change. This robustness is important for the stability of phenotypic change despite genetic and non-genetic variation. They cite the work of Wagner (2008) which claims that it is only the additive component of genetic variation which responds to selection.  Fodor and Piattelli argue this fact should make people wary of accepting the neo-Darwinian view that selection is the primary vehicle of phenotypic variation.

(4)   Master genes are our ‘Masters’: They make the now well established point that many genes are indissociably controlled the same ‘master gene’. Therefore if a mutation affects a master gene (and is viable) it will affect all of the genes the master gene controls as well. They link this to Gould’s famous paper on spandrels. They briefly discuss how the evolution of language may not be explicable by a simple adaptative story in terms of selection for communication. Using facts about master genes they argue that language may have been a free-rider, which was selected because some mutation in the master gene Otx. They claim that this story is not even considered because of allegiance to an ultra adaptationist model. I do not agree with this claim there has been ample debates on this topic. See Hauser, Fitch and Chomsy 2005 and reply by Jackendoff and Pinker 2006. However evaluating this debate would take a long discussion of linguistics which is beyond the scope of this discussion.

They go on to further discuss things like developmental modules, coordination, morphogenetic explosions, plasticity and the (non-transitivity) of fitness. All of these facts are well known in the literature and it is unclear to me at least why they believe these facts pose a major problem for evolutionary theory. They do pose a problem for the caricature of evolutionary theory they present at the beginning of their book but not for evolutionary theory as it is actually practiced.

They also consider ‘Laws of Form’ as an argument against the standard Neo-Darwinian Story. They discuss the work of thinkers like Stewart Kauffman, Stuart Newman, and Lewis Wolpert who have all discussed the important topic of laws of form and self-organisation. Fodor emphasises how this research shows that we need to discover what forms are possible for an organism to take before we attack the question of how selection can act on these possible forms. These constraints on possible forms are shown in things like non-genomic Nativism discussed by people like Cherniak. Cherniak details computational constraints on brain anatomy which he claims are derived from physics for free; hence we do not need natural selection to explain some of the structure of the brain. F and P also discuss the work of James Marden who has detailed physical constraints on possible animal locomotion. Their discussion of laws of form is extremely interesting but again it is hard to see that it really poses any problem for the standard neo-Darwinian picture. There really is nobody, and I mean nobody, who denies that there are physical constraints at work in evolutionary theory. They are correct to note that pop evolutionary writers sometimes ignore these physical constraints and focus entirely on selection. So, if F and P were merely warning against this type of mistake, then their point would be well made, but it should be obvious that their arguments do not have any bearing on neo-Darwinian theory when construed correctly.

The Relevance of Fodor’s analogy for Sloan’s treatment of Skinner

F and P’s argument against Darwinism was largely ridiculed as ignorant nonsense by evolutionary scientists. The correctly noted that their book[4] was an accurate description of work that was ongoing in the discipline; but that it was pure fiction that this work refuted Neo-Darwinian theory. On the contrary, the work was a part of the modern Darwinian Synthesis.

The relevance of this digression to the present discussion F and P’s treatment of OT and ET was almost identical. F and P treated ET as an environmentalist theory that focused entirely on selection and ignored constraints that limit the power of selection. Likewise F and P treated OT as a theory who overrated the power of operant conditioning and ignored the limits innate factors would place on such conditioning. F and P were right about one thing though there is an inconsistency between the way OT and ET were treated. F and P were laughed out of court for their caricature of ET. But most theorists seem to accept their caricature of OT as factual. Even a thinker as sophisticated as Sloan Wilson seems to accept the caricature:

“Eventually, the limitations of behaviourism became apparent. Organisms were not entirely blank slates in their learning abilities, and techniques were becoming available for studying how the mind works…” (Sloan Wilson ‘This View of Life’ p. 100)

Skinner of course never claimed that organisms were blank-slates. Throughout his career Skinner argued that two primary sources influenced shape human behaviour (1) The contingencies which shaped the species (resulting in genetic constraints), (2) The contingencies of reinforcement that shape the organism throughout it’s life. (See About Behaviourism p. 168, Beyond Freedom and Dignity p. 14, Verbal Behaviour p. 162, Science and Human Behaviour p. 26 etc.)

Below are some quotes from Skinner where he explicitly denies being a blank slate theorist:

“As a result it is part of the genetic endowment called “human nature” to be reinforced in particular ways by particular things.” (Beyond Freedom and Dignity p. 104)

“Just as we point out the contingencies of survival to explain an unconditioned reflex, so we point out to ‘contingencies of reinforcement to explain a conditioned reflex” ( Skinner About Behaviourism p. 43)

“The task of a scientific analysis is to explain how the behaviour of the person is a physical system is related to the conditions under which the human species evolved, and the conditions under which the individual lives” (Skinner ‘About Behaviourism’ p. 14)

The above quotes and references indicate Skinner was far from a theorist who believed in a blank-slate. In fact he emphasised that the conditions under which a species evolved would heavily influence what they would find reinforcing. It is true that he was more interested in environmental factors than the innate constraints but it is unfair to characterise his work as blank-slate. Attempts to reduce Skinner to a blank-slate theorist are as unfounded as attempts to claim evolutionary scientists think natural selection is the only factor that plays any role in evolution.

[1] Hence forth Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini will be referred to as F and P.

[2] Henceforth the Theory of Natural Selection will be referred to as TNS

[3] Henceforth Operant Theory will be referred to as OT.

[4] I am here only discussing the first part of F and P’s book. The second half was a conceptual argument which while interesting has little bearing on the present discussion so can be ignored here.

The Sublime and The Uncanny: Jurassic World and the Walking Dead


In his famous paper on the Uncanny Freud complained that philosophers studying aesthetics had contented themselves with studying positive aesthetic experiences such as the beautiful, the pleasant etc. Freud even used the sublime as an example of a positive emotion that philosophers had studied. To redress this perceived imbalance Freud wanted to study a largely negative human aesthetic experience; the experience of the uncanny.

Freud’s treatment of the uncanny was excellent; but anyone who has read philosophers like Kant will be taken aback by Freud’s claims about the sublime. The concept of the sublime; far from being a purely positive emotional experience actually involves many negative emotions.

In his ‘A Critique of the Power of Judgement’ Kant constructed a theory of the sublime which influenced a generation of artists and philosophers. In next section I will briefly describe Kant’s conception of the sublime and exemplify a key example of it using a clip from the film Jurassic World.  In the following section I will then outline Freud’s concept of the Uncanny and illustrate its nature in reference to the popular television programme The Walking Dead.  Finally I will demonstrate that these concepts have more in common than Freud realised.

The Sublime

According to Kant the sublime is an aesthetic experience where people have an emotional reaction to a terrifying representation of an aspect of nature. Kant differentiates the sublime from other concepts such as the beautiful, the good, and the pleasant. He argues that the sublime differs from the pleasant because the experience of something as pleasant relies on a sensation whereas an experience of the sublime doesn’t. He further argues that the sublime differs from the good because judging something as good requires it being interpreted through definite concepts, whereas, while judging something as sublime also requires interpreting them through concepts; the concepts we use when we judge something as sublime are indeterminate concepts (‘A Critique of Judgement p. 61). Furthermore Kant argues that when we judge something as beautiful we do so because of the particular form of the object we are judging; whereas when we judge something as sublime this is because we view the object/scene to be formless, boundless etc (ibid p. 61)

Kant doesn’t just describe the sublime by differentiating it from other concepts (the beautiful/the good/the pleasant). He also presents positive characteristics of the nature of the sublime. Kant argues that there is a particular psychological state associated with it. When we judge something as sublime we are both repelled by it and attracted to it at the same time. Our relationship to objects we judge to be sublime is one of respect and awe.

Another key feature of the sublime involves judging the objects of experience as purposeless and dangerous. Thus despite something being viewed as chaotic, dangerous and purposeless this only increases our sense of it as being sublime. Kant makes an important point re the sublime; we shouldn’t say that the object itself is sublime; rather particular forms of judgement excite in us feelings which lead us to judge the object as sublime. There is a sense in which the self is irreducibly involved in judging something to be sublime. When describing the sublime he makes the following point:

“Nature excites the ideas of the sublime in its chaos or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided size and might are perceived.” (ibid p. 63)

Despite spending a lot of time distinguishing between the idea of beauty and the idea of the sublime Kant notes that they can be studied using similar methodologies. When judging something as sublime we must attempt to view it from a disinterested perspective, and we must hold our judgements as universally valid judgments about the sublime feeling they inspire (ibid p. 63). Kant makes an important distinction between two types of sublimity:  (1) the mathematical sublime, and (2) the dynamical sublime.

The Mathematical Sublime

The mathematical sublime involves judging objects quantitatively according to their size. Some objects appear to be big, powerful and dangerous. But any judgement of something as large will be done relative to a perspective; when judged from another perspective an object that once seemed large can come to seem small. Thus, though Kant when he discusses the sublime restricts himself to objects of nature and doesn’t deal with animals; an example from the animal kingdom is nicely illustrative. The lion has a reputation as a powerful predator. Next to a pig or a domestic cat it looks like a giant monster. But in the film Jurassic World there is a scene where the lion comes face to face with a T Rex and the Lion suddenly loses a bit of its grandeur: . And of course the T Rex is tiny in comparison to a Megalodon or a Whale, and these creatures pale in significance to the ocean, the ocean is insignificant in comparison to the Sun and so on. Kant notes that as great as these objects are, there are other objects which dwarf them; and this infinite hierarchy of objects we are capable of conceiving are dwarfed by the mind which is doing the conceiving. We have two main modes representing these sublime objects (1) via number using algebra or (2) using intuition (measurement by the eye) aesthetical judgments (ibid p. 65). Now when it comes to using numbers we can keep increasing magnitude to infinity; but when it comes to aesthetical judgments our perceptual capacities will limit what we can experience. Furthermore while an increase in magnitude through number is experienced in a neutral manner; our aesthetical appreciation of magnitude is experienced in an emotional manner.

When discussing the nature of our perceptual grasp of objects and how this influences the aesthetical judgments we make about these objects Kant gives an example of viewing a Pyramid. In order to get a peak experience of viewing the Pyramids we must keep from going too near to them, thereby negating our judgement of their size in relation to their environment, and keep from going too far away from the Pyramids and diminishing our appreciation of their size and the details of its construction.

Kant uses some clear examples of what he considers paradigms that will lead to one experiencing the sublime:

“Who would call sublime, e.g. shapeless mountain masses piled in wild disorder upon each other with their pyramids of ice, or the gloomy raging sea?…A tree, (the height of) which we estimate with reference to the height of a man, at all events gives a standard for a mountain; and if this were a mile high, it would serve as a unit for the number expressive of the earth’s diameter (would supply a unit) for the known planetary system; this again for the Milky Way; and the immeasurable number of Milky Way systems called nebulae- which presumably constitute a system of the same kind among themselves-lets expect no bounds here. Now the sublime in the aesthetical judging of the immeasurable whole like this lies not so much in the greatness of the number (of units), as in the fact that in our progress we ever arrive at greater units. To this the systematic division of the universe contributes, which represents every magnitude in nature as small in its turn; and represents our imagination with its entire freedom from bounds, and with its nature, as a mere noting in comparison with the ideas of reason, if it is sought to furnish a presentation which shall be adequate to them.” (Kant ‘A Critique of Judgement’ p. 71)

His examples, illustrate the entire Kantian gambit of ideas about the sublime. You get objects being big relative to humans; being dwarfed by larger objects, being further dwarfed by larger objects etc and finally you get the encompassing reason which is able to appreciate and dwarf all of these objects of nature.

The dynamically sublime

In Kant’s view nature when it is judged aesthetically as dwarfing us and potentially overwhelming us but as having no dominion over us is an example of the dynamically sublime. In order for us to experience nature as sublime we need to recognise its awesome power and size while controlling our emotions. If we were to be overwhelmed by fear in the sight of say something like crashing waves nearby us we would not be able to experience it as sublime. We need to be able to dispassionately judge the object of our experience as something with incredible power, but as something which has no dominion over us in order to be able to judge it as sublime. Kant gives some dramatic examples of the sublime:

 “Bold, overhanging, as it were threatening, rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; volcanoes in all their violence of destruction; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river and such like; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind, which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.” (ibid p. 75)

Again when considering these examples of the sublime in nature Kant notes that incredible as these objects of nature are our minds ability to encompass them and represent them is greater still (ibid p. 75).

Above I used an example from the film Jurassic World to illustrate a point about comparative might (a Lion vs a T Rex), when I used that example I noted that Kant would not have approved. As we can see from the many Kantian examples I quoted ad-nauseum he was concerned with nature; mountain tops, the Ocean etc and not with members of the animal kingdom. He gives his reason as follows:

“Our examples are not to be taken from the beautiful or sublime objects of nature as presuppose the concept of a purpose” (ibid p. 82)

When Kant speaks about purpose; he is talking about living creatures, in particular, animals. There is a perfectly sensible way of understanding Kant’s distinction. Thus from a commonsense point of view uncontaminated by philosophy, we can speak of the purposes of animals. Thus the Lions purpose when stalking his prey is trying to catch it, kill it, and eat it, with as little danger (to the Lion as possible). But the ocean wild tossed and turned by the wind isn’t intuitively viewed as an agent with a purpose; and vast mountain ranges filled with snow which could fall upon us at any minute isn’t easily viewed as an agent. We will abstract the degree to which these animals are merely manifesting competence without comprehension, and the question of whether animistic societies which existed thousands of years ago would agree with Kant that the ocean wasn’t an agent. What is more interesting is that Kant is aware of how these concepts mix up and thinks that experience of the sublime is only possible when we keep them separate. The following example perfectly illustrates Kant’s perspective on this issue:

“If then we call the sight of the starry heaven sublime, we must not place at the basis of our judgement a concept of worlds inhabited by rational beings, and regard the bright points, with which we see the space above us filled, as their suns moving in circles purposively fixed with reference to them; but we must regard it, just as we see it, as a distant, all embracing vault. Only under such a representation can we range that sublimity which a pure aesthetical judgement ascribes to this object. And in the same way, if we are to call the sight of the ocean sublime, we must not think of it as we (ordinarily) do, endowed as we are with all kinds of knowledge (not, contained however, in the immediate intuition). For example, we sometimes think of the ocean as a vast kingdom of aquatic creatures; or as the source as those vapours that fill the air with clouds for the benefit of the land; or again as an element which, though dividing continents from each other, yet promotes the greatest communication between them; but these furnish merely teleological judgements. To call the ocean sublime we must regard it as the poets do, merely by what strikes the eye; if it is at rest, a clear river of water only bounded by the heaven; if it is restless, as an abyss threatening to overwhelm everything.” (ibid p.82)

I find the above quote fascinating and worth thinking through in detail. Kant offers two examples; a nebula being viewed as something of awesome size that dwarfs us; and a nebula being viewed more homely as a series of stars each of which may have planets and creatures like us. The former is supposed to be sublime while the latter isn’t. His second example is the wild ocean when we consider it as something immense which could engulf us Kant says that leads to us viewing it as sublime; but when we think of it as a home for sea creatures Kant argues that it doesn’t elicit an emotional experience of the sublime.

When it comes to Kant’s contrast between the two ways of viewing the ocean I think he means to point out something that later romantics would emphasise. If we view the ocean purely naturalistically as just swirling atoms it loses some of its grandeur; but if you view it as a human powerless before its immensity it becomes sublime. Nonetheless I think Kant under-thought what a naturalistic understanding of the ocean meant.

I cannot dispute Kant on factual grounds; but since his discussion of the sublime relies on his subjective feelings re-objects of nature, I can report how things seem to me. Thinking of the ocean as a home of creatures puts me in mind of particular ecological niches and this doesn’t feel sublime. But when I reflect on creatures who have lived in the sea such as the Blue Whale, the Megalodon, or the Mosasour, I feel similar feelings that are elicited by mountain tops, or a wild ocean. With the massive sea creatures I feel dwarfed and insignificant; a mountain elicits similar feelings in me. The giant sea creatures and the mountain instil a fear in me. Furthermore, being overcome by fear would take away from the sublime feeling. But Kant would say that the sea creatures differ from the ocean because they have purpose whereas the ocean doesn’t. While Kant was correct that sea creatures are purposeful, and things like the ocean and mountains are not; there is little reason to think that this disqualifies sea creatures from eliciting sublime emotions in us. I think Kant’s imagination was stunted in a way that ours isn’t in the digital age. Today we may or may not have seen a Blue Whale in the flesh; but even if we haven’t, we have seen videos of Whales interacting with humans. Kant would have had encyclopaedic knowledge about large sea creatures; and may have seen paintings of them; but such paintings would have had no emotional punch. In contrast, the life-like videos we can produce have a different emotional feel. When we see a creature as big as a Mosaur beside a human this is different from seeing a Lion or a Tiger, the experience elicits the experience of the sublime. Again resort to a clip from Jurassic World is instructive:

In the above clip we see the Mosaur in various different guises. We see it as an attraction in a game park. The characters in the show who are watching it perform (eat the shark), view it as something to be mildly amused by. But a person in that audience could also view it as a magnificent object that dwarfs us, and other predators we fear, and let this fact elicit feelings of the sublime in them. Similarly later in the above clips we see a Mosaur swimming near a surfer. This appearance could elicit feelings of the sublime in us; though not in the case of the unfortunate person surfing near the giant creature.

Now obviously the above examples are from pop culture. But they do show that our capability to represent sea creatures who have died out 60million years before any humans ever existed, outstrips anything Kant could have dreamed of. I would argue that this fact would have serious influences on Kant’s views on the creatures who roamed the oceans. Even for more humdrum cases of creatures; such as, the Blue Whale, Great White Shark, who live in the here and now with human beings; our capacity to represent their majesty would have outstripped anything Kant could of conceived of.

The Uncanny

When discussing the uncanny Freud does so in terms of his own pretty controversial psychoanalytic views. For the present purposes we will separate ourselves from Freud’s psychoanalytic speculations and focus on the phenomena that he was trying to explain by appeal to his own peculiar brand of psychoanalytic speculation. Freud made a useful distinction of types of uncanny experiences; (1) experiences brought on by interaction with the real world, and (2) experiences brought about by confrontation with art (films, novels etc).

As an example of an Uncanny experience brought about by interaction with the real world Freud details the following experience of his:

“Strolling one hot summer afternoon through the empty and to me unfamiliar streets of a small Italian town, I found myself in a district about whose character I could not long remain in doubt. Only heavily made up-women were to be seen at the windows of the little houses, and I hastily left the narrow street at the next turning. However, after wandering about for sometime without asking the way, I suddenly found myself back in the same street, where my presence began to attract attention. Once more I hurried away, only to return there again by a different route. I was now seized by a feeling that I can only describe as uncanny, and I was glad to find my way back to the Piazza that I had recently left and refrain from any further voyages of discovery.” (The Uncanny p. 144)

Freud’s example of where he experienced an uncanny feeling is an odd one. When out for a stroll he happened into a part of town frequented by hookers; embarrassed Freud left this part of town immediately. When he tried to leave this area he kept accidently returning to the very place that he wanted to avoid. This repetition from a subjective point seemed a bit odd and gave Freud an Uncanny feeling. He goes on to list repetition as a key characteristic of the uncanny. He discusses how if a particular number keeps appearing to a person over a short series of time this may elicit an uncanny feeling.

Freud’s examples of his personal experience with the uncanny don’t immediately resonate from a contemporary point of view. It’s been a hundred years since Freud wrote his essay on the uncanny; today we associate the word ‘uncanny’ with the uncanny valley a theory which argues that the closer robots get to appearing life like the more uncanny they will appear to us. Another contemporary way of understanding the concept of the uncanny is as simply as weird situations. Thus between 1952 and 1957 a magazine ran with the title ‘Uncanny Tales’ which told stories in comic book form about bizarre science fiction scenarios; some of the stories had endings which produced an uncanny feeling.

Freud was prescient in noting that fairy tales have elements which in another context would produce uncanny feelings but when reading the stories one never gets an uncanny experience. The reason being that within a given world the author is working within certain implicit rules. Thus in some stories magic exists, tea pots can talk etc. Hence when we read fairy tales and something magical happens we are not shocked[1]. In order to illicit an uncanny feeling in a novel/comic/film etc there needs to be implicit rules we expect to obtain which are suddenly violated during the story. Philip K Dick stories sometimes have an uncanny feel where we begin in a realistic universe and suddenly things slip and familiar rules no longer obtain; the familiar world is suddenly made to feel unfamiliar and strange. Kafka’s novels sometimes use this method but push things in an even further direction. His short stories sometimes begin in a hyper-realistic mode and then descend to virtually incoherent writing that illicit strong uncanny feelings at first, but as the chaos and difficulty interpreting becomes greater the uncanny feeling disappears.

Uncanny tales sometimes worked within this Freudian template. Thus while the stories were sometimes of a science fiction nature they often began with implicit rules and morals which were then violated at the end, and this produced an uncanny feeling. The popular television programme ‘The Twilight Zone’ which ran from 1959 to 1965 was a brilliant exemplar of the technique of eliciting uncanny feelings. Again the show used a similar technique to ‘Uncanny Tales’ involving realistic protagonists in day to day activities confronted by weird scenarios which elicit uncanny feelings in people watching the show.

Above I noted that the concept of the uncanny as Freud describes in terms of repetition isn’t the concept that would immediately come to mind for a contemporary reader. Today the ‘Uncanny’ is either associated with the Uncanny Valley or with weird experiences brought on by programmes like the Twilight Zone. But there are examples of the uncanny which touch on all of the above conceptions of it. A key exemplar of the uncanny (shared by Freud, Uncanny Valley and Twilight Zone episodes) is the emotional experience of viewing an object which is almost human but which isn’t quiet human. A stock illustration of the uncanny is a wax sculpture of people, or life-like dolls.

I contend that one of the core features of something being uncanny is that similar to a core feature of the sublime. While with the sublime we are appreciating a work of art that is awesome and at the fringes of our consciousness we fear it may become real; with the uncanny something similar occurs. But the uncanny is a bit different. The uncanny relies on us pre-theoretically viewing something as an object and then suddenly thinking of the object as an intentional agent. In the case of the sublime we think of the art as just art but at the fringes of our consciousness we suspect it may not just be art; but may be real and be a danger to us. With the uncanny we think of something of an inert object which resembles an intentional agent; but at the fringe of our consciousness we worry it may be a real agent observing us. With both the uncanny and the sublime we have inert matter that is intended to be a representation (simulation) of something in real; but we have another part of our mind which thinks it is a real aspect of nature or an intentional agent which could threaten us.

Representations are not that threatening and neither are inert objects. But with ambiguous objects we have a fear that what we are viewing may not be inert; but they may be real features of nature which could hurt us. The whisperers in the Walking Dead are a perfect illustration of one of the first key features of the Uncanny:

For those of you living under a rock; ‘The Walking Dead’ is a television show about a post apocalyptic world where human civilisation has been almost entirely wiped out by infectious zombies. As the show developed the zombies have played less and less of a role and the central premise has been on wars between various different groups of human survivors. The zombies stumble around and are a potential danger they can still kill and infect humans if they attack them. But they are primarily viewed as non-agents who are potentially dangerous objects. With the introduction of the whisperers this changes. The whisperers are a group of people who survived the zombie apocalypse by living amongst the zombies and dressing like them and moving like them to ensure they won’t be attacked. When our human heroes discover the existence of the whisperers amongst the zombies then the zombies become ambiguous. Any shuffling zombie has the potential to be a conscious agent. So looking at a gang of zombies can elicit a sense of the uncanny.

Both the uncanny and the sublime involve an aesthetic judgement about an aspect of nature that is hard to subsume under determinate concepts. Both involve experiences of something that is both potentially threatening and also an object arouses not entirely negative emotional interest. However, the concepts are not identical by any stretch of the imagination. The uncanny; unlike the sublime, is much more difficult to view in a disinterested manner, as it elicits stronger negative emotional experiences. But I think it is fair to say that Freud massively overestimated the differences between the two concepts.

[1] Work in Cognitive frames help explain why fairy tales don’t elicit uncanny feelings. For a good discussion of cognitive frames see Dennett, Adnams, and Hurley ‘Inside Jokes’. The theory of cognitive frames can be made largely consistent with Freudian concepts.

Nick Chater on Bertrand Russell’s Failed Marriage

In his 2018 book ‘The Mind is Flat’ Nick Chater discussed the nature of the emotions and used an example from Russell’s life to illustrate, what he believed, to be the precisely wrong way to think about our emotional experiences. In his autobiography Russell made the following point about his falling out of love with his wife:

“I went out bicycling one afternoon, and suddenly, as I was riding along a country road, I realised that I no longer loved Alys. I had no idea until this moment that my love for her was even lessening. The problem presented by this discovery was very grave.” (Bertrand Russell ‘The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell’ p. 222)

Chater argues that Russell’s view that he suddenly grasped some emotional truth about his love for his wife that he must act on; is based on a false theory of how the emotions work, and if others followed Russell’s specious reasoning it would be a pragmatic disaster for them. Chater’s views on the nature of the emotions are that they are ad-hoc inventions that we create to explain bodily perturbations in various different contexts. While to Russell his Bicycle ride contained a revelation he must act on; to Chater Russell’s revelation may have been caused by nothing more than a consequence of “a frustrating mornings work, or a bad argument.” Chater thinks given the ad-hoc invented nature of our feelings it would be a disaster to make decisions based on them and them alone.   However, before evaluating Chater’s take on Russell, I will first outline Chater’s positive views on the nature of the emotions.

To justify his views on the emotions Chater discussed a famous psychological result called the Kuleshov effect which illustrates that we interpret some emotional expressions of people’s faces depending on the context the face is presented in. Thus a person with an ambiguous expression will be judged to be hungry when placed beside food, or sad when placed beside a coffin etc. Chater notes that there is a general principle underlying this effect:

“There is a general principle at work here-the brain interprets each piece of the perceptual input (each face, object symbol, or whatever it may be) to make as much sense as possible in the light of the wider context.” (‘The Mind is Not Flat’ p. 92)


Based on this single experimental result Hacker generalizes further and argues that understanding of our emotional experiences may be subject to the Kuleshov effect. He notes that our own physiological states such as our heart racing, our breath shortening, and the tingle of adrenaline racing through our arteries (ibid p. 94), are ambiguous stimuli, and that in an attempt to interpret these stimuli we will invent emotional states to explain the stimuli.

To support this interpretation Chater discussed a 1962 experiment by Singer and Schacter which involved injecting volunteer subjects with either adrenaline or a placebo and bringing them to the waiting room. Unknown to the subjects, the waiting room was an experimental setting where a paid actor pretended to be a fellow subject but acted in a bizarre way (either manically or angrily). The subjects who were injected with adrenaline had stronger emotional reactions than those who received a placebo (ibid p. 95). Chater notes the following:

Crucially, and remarkably, their emotional reactions were stronger in opposite directions. Confronted with the ‘manic’ stooge, participants interpreted their raised heart-rate, shortness of breath and flushed face as indicating their euphoria; but with the ‘angry’ stooge, those very same symptoms were interpreted as signalling irritation.” (ibid p. 95)

The above experiment is an example of Kuleshov effect where bodily perturbations (brought on by adrenaline) are interpreted differently depending on contextual factors (the stooges behaviour).

Chater cites other experimental data to support his claim that emotions are ad-hoc creations to explain bodily perturbations and changing contexts. Thus he cites Aron and Dutton’s 1970 experiment placed an attractive scientist at the end of a rickety, wobbly bridge and an attractive scientist at the end of sturdy bridge. When the subjects crossed the bridge the scientist asked them a few questions and then handed them her phone number. Interestingly the experiment showed that the men who crossed the rickety bridge were more likely to ring the scientist. Chater interprets the experiment as revealing that the subjects were interpreting the bodily perturbations resulting from crossing the dangerous bridge as a feeling of attraction when they met the scientist.

Given Chater’s views of emotions as ad-hoc inventions used to explain bodily perturbations in various contexts, one can see why Chater was appalled by Russell’s admission that he fell out of love with his wife as a result of a momentary revelation. On Chater’s views Russell was operating under a confusion and mistakenly confusing momentary bodily perturbations and contextual factors with a universal revelation about his love for his wife. In point of fact it is Chater who is confused, and his confusion stems from a poor understanding of the nature of love (and emotions in general). Chater is incorrectly equating having an emotion with experiencing a particular feeling. Now while some emotional states do sometimes have a particular feel; not all of them do. Thus a mother can love her child without her love being identified with a particular experience. When a mother goes to sleep she doesn’t cease to love her child. Likewise when a mother goes to lunch with her daughter she may at times feel a strong sensation of love for her daughter; but at other times she is simply engaged in the conversation without experiencing any particular feeling of love. Nonetheless, it would be absurd to argue that the mother ceases to love her child when she ceases to have a particular warm fuzzy feeling. Love involves more than just idiosyncratic bodily sensations. To love someone; one will feel a certain way about the object of one’s love, one will behave in a certain way towards the object of one’s affection, speak about them in a certain manner etc.

Chater was right to note that explaining the emotions will involve dealing with contextual matters and bodily states. But his understanding of the emotions focuses too much on the feelings we create to explain bodily states and context; and too little on long term behavioural patterns; and cognitive understanding of what these patterns mean etc.

In Russell’s case his behaviour towards his wife in the years preceding his ‘revelation’ that he didn’t love her was revealing. In his biography on Russell ‘The Spirit of Solitude’ Ray Monk noted that in 1901 while working on his philosophical projects, Russell treated his wife like an afterthought who was simply there to serve him (The Spirit of Solitude p. 118).

Furthermore, while Russell was showing little interest in his own wife, he spent a considerable amount of time flirting with his wife’s sister Mary. Mary for her part noted that his constant flirtation made her very uncomfortable (ibid p. 120). While noting his flirtation with her, Mary also noted Russell’s disinterest towards his wife and homelife:

 “Mary recorded…”Bertie says he has resigned himself to being always bored after he is thirty. ‘At home even?’ Alys asked. ‘Especially at home, ‘Bertie answered remorselessly.” (ibid p. 121)

His entire marriage seemed to involve disinterest in his wife Alys and a constant chasing after other women; such as the above mentioned Mary, Sally Fairchild, Evelyn Whitehead etc. In the case of Evelyn Whitehead, Russell actually fell in love with her and spent the majority of his time worrying about her health while seemingly having little concern for his wife’s health.

Such was Russell’s intense love for Evelyn Whitehead that Ray Monk suspects that Alys was aware of it:

 “Alys had no doubt ‘perceived that something was amiss’ a good deal before this famous bicycle ride, as her depressions during the spring and summer of 1901 surely indicate. And, as Russell’s diary entry reveals, he too had been struggling for some time against the realisation that his love for Alys was dead (he had, after all, ‘longed, with infinite tenderness, to revivify my dying ‘love’ a month before the bicycle ride).  Nevertheless, though Russell clearly massively exaggerates-as is his wont-the extent to which it was a sudden and unexpected revelation, there seems no reason to doubt that there was a bicycle ride and that there was a moment when he ceased to struggle against the facts and to admit to himself that he no longer loved Alys.” (ibid p.145)

Given these facts about Russell’s relationship with his wife in the years before his ‘revelation’; Chater’s suggestion that Russell’s ‘revelation’ may have been the result of frustrating mornings work or a bad argument’ strain credulity. The fact is that Russell’s behaviour; neglecting his wife, having infatuations with, and falling in love with other women, commenting on not enjoying home life, writing in his diary about trying to rekindle dying love; indicate a man who had fallen out of love with his wife over a long period of time (though he clearly had difficulty admitting this fact to himself).

Furthermore this falling out of love didn’t involve a particular bodily feel rather it was a complex cognitive, emotional and behavioural experience. Chater though could argue against what I have just said by noting that it was Russell himself who said that he only realised he stopped loving his wife when he was out for that fatal bike ride. Chater could argue that if we go by Russell’s words his falling out of love was a sudden event that Russell accorded too much significance.

However, it is unclear how much significance we should accord to Russell’s sudden ‘revelation’. As Monk noted:

“Russell was fond-perhaps over-fond-of presenting his life as a series of epiphanies, many of which, one suspects were over played by him in later life for the sake of lending drama to the facts of his life” (ibid p. 137)

Russell may have had the ‘revelation’ while out cycling his bike. However, his behavioural patterns indicate a man who was no longer in love with his wife in the years before his revelation. The fact is that it took years after his ‘revelation’ before he finally divorced his wife, and in the years before it, he behaved like a man falling out of love with his wife. There is little reason to give the supposed revelation such a place of importance in Russell’s relations with his wife as Chater (and Russell) seem to want to give it.

Brokering peace between Discovery and The Orville.

“…this whole business of “canon” really originated with Gene’s errand boy. Gene liked giving people titles instead of raises, so the errand boy got named “archivist” and apparently it went to his head. Gene handed him the responsibility of answering all fan questions, silly or otherwise, and he apparently let that go to his head.” (David Gerrold ‘Interview about Star Trek The Animated Series’)

Online articles discussing ‘Star Trek Discovery’ comment sections are filled with assertions like the following: “Discovery isn’t Star Trek”, or “If you want to watch Star Trek then watch the Orville”. Now in a sense this debate is absurd. Obviously there is no Star Trek out there in the universe and hence no fact of the matter as to whether the Orville or Discovery is a member of the Star Trek Universe. The debate is usually framed interms of the spirit (what philosophers would call the essence) of the fictional Star Trek world.

A lot of Trek fans would trace the essence of Star Trek to the intentions of its creator Gene Roddenberry. However, as we all know a person’s intentions don’t remain static throughout his life, a person could hold a view x about y over a period of 5 years and hold different views about y over the next 5 years. So after that person has died can we say that view x or view z are his true intentions? In Roddenberry’s case we know that his views about Star Trek changed between The Original Series and The Next Generation (henceforth TOS and TNG). When doing TOS he just viewed it as a television show; but later in life he believed he was selling a way of life. Which is Roddenberry’s true intention? The earlier view and intentional states towards those views or the later ones?

An example of Roddenberry’s different intentional views about Star Trek can be seen in differences between TOS and TNG.  In TOS there was conflict between the crew of the Enterprise which was missing from the first two seasons of TNG. In TOS crabby doctor McCoy and Mr Spock didn’t see eye to eye and had a lot of arguments over the years. But in the first two years of TNG such conflict was minimized by Roddenberry because it conflicted with his vision of the future where humans would have evolved beyond these petty disputes. Now if your argument is that true Trek is the Trek that corresponds to Roddenberry’s intentions then you need to decide which set of his intentions is the one that must be sacrosanct. There seems to be little way of deciding which of Roddenberry’s intentions are his true intentions and hence no way to use Roddenberry’s intentions to pick out the essence of Trek.

But there is a sense in which it doesn’t matter that we can’t pick out Roddenberry’s true intentions re-Trek philosophy. Virtually all Star Trek fans would argue that both TOS and TNG are true Trek despite the divergent philosophies. This divergence disappeared once Roddenberry died and TNG writers allowed tensions between the characters in TNG. Yet very few people would argue that TNG isn’t true Trek today.

There are possible points of disagreement as to whether TOS or TNG are both Star Trek. But it is safe to say that most fans would agree that they are. Few debate the issue today and would include both TOS and TNG in the cannon.  Most fans would agree that DS9 is Trek; but there is less consensus that it belongs there than there is with TNG. Why? Well a number of reasons. Firstly anybody who has watched DS9 will know that is gritty. TNG tried to be more confrontational than it was in its first two seasons, but overall it portrayed humans in a fairly utopian light. DS9 on the other hand portrayed humanity in a darker way than TNG did. Thus in an episode of DS9 called ‘Hard Time’ Chief of Operations Miles O Brien tries to return to normal life after a period of incarceration. The episode culminates with O Brien confessing to (virtually) murdering his cell mate, while incarcerated. O Brien makes the following point: “we in the federation think we are so great and evolved; but take away our creature comforts for a while and we are no different from the Cardassians or the Klingons”. In a later episode ‘In Pale Moonlight’ the Captain of DS9 conspires to trick the Romulans into joining the Dominion-Federation war. The trick results in a Romulan ambassador being murdered. At the end of the episode Sisko notes that the murder had a high moral price but that the price was worth paying if it helped win the war.  In general DS9 blurred the boundaries between the humans and the aliens much more than either TNG or TOS did. DS9 gave us the infamous Section 31, a covert federation intelligence agency which engages in assassinations, destroying of enemy technology, destabilization of governments etc. The introduction of Section 31 into DS9 split a lot of Star Trek fans. A lot of people believed that Section 31 betrayed Roddenberry’s utopian ideals. For these Star Trek fans DS9 had betrayed a key factor that is essential for something to be Trek; viewing the future of humanity as a utopia where we moved beyond our baser instincts.

But the blurring of the boundaries between humans and alien (bad guys) wasn’t the only reason that DS9 is considered less Trek than TNG. Another reason is the origin of DS9. As every nerd knows the classic Scfi show Babylon 5 was originally pitched to Paramount. As folklore has it Paramount gave Babylon 5 a hard pass. They thought it was too much money to create a new franchise. But a clever executive hit upon the idea “we own this Star Trek show; what if we just make Babylon 5 a part of the universe?”. So if you believe the folklore; DS9 was just another show stolen and transplanted into the Trek Universe. Then you have to dismiss it as a Trek show. In his ‘Deep Space 9 and Babylon 5: Remarkably Similar or Similarly Remarkable’ Rich Handley noted a lot of similarities between the two shows. (1) Both were set on space stations with single digit names, (2) Both stations were used to foster peace between former enemies, (3) both were administered by an earth government but were located outside of earth’s territory, (4) both stations had massive weapons upgrade at the midpoint of the shows, and formed an alliance with former enemies to win a battle against a new foe, (5) both shows centred on a deeply religious people who were formerly enslaved and were trying to assert themselves now, (6) Both shows features god like entities who were worshiped by less advanced races, (7) Both shows had a shadow department of earths main government (section 31, and bureau 13), (8) Both shows’ pilots featured an alien shape shifter in its first episode.  Handley goes on to point out many more similarities between the shows, which we don’t need to go into here. The point is that for many fans DS9 was not really Trek, as it was basically a rip off of another show and it featured a much more dystopian philosophy than a typical Star Trek does.  For these reasons a minority of Star Trek fans dismiss DS9 as not true Trek.

But his move has a price. There are causal interactions between the shows. The vast vast majority of Trek fans (maybe 95 percent of fans) will admit that TOS, TNG, and Voyager are in the Trek Universe. But whether they like it or not there have been causal interactions between the characters in those shows and in DS9. Piccard was in DS9 and played a role in the psychological development of the star of DS9 (Captain Sisko) life. Characters from Voyager appeared briefly in the DS9 universe. DS9 had characters who were in TNG; O Brien, and Worf. Major Kera was originally supposed to be a character from TNG Ro Laren, but when the actor who played Laren turned down the role a new character was created instead.  DS9 even had an episode set in TOS where one of the characters (who was also in TNG), commented on the different appearance of the Klingons in TOS, TNG, DS9. Now given these causal interactions between the characters, between the shows it is hard for a fan of TOS and TNG to deny a place for DS9 in the cannon. So even though there are a few hold outs most Trek Fans are on board with DS9 as cannon despite some misgivings about both its underlying philosophy and its alleged nefarious origins.

Predictably as we move further from the original series people diverged further. Star Trek (by Trek here I speak of the company not the essence of the word) has four phases (1) TOS, (2) TNG, DS9, Voyager, (3) Enterprise (4) Discovery, New Picard Series etc. Discovery was explicitly created to be a part of the Trek Universe it was meant to be a prequel to TOS. Now there is very little debate re the first two phases (except DS9).  The show Enterprise was to some degree more Trek than DS9, it wasn’t an idea taken from another series co-opted for Trek. It was created and conceived by Trek people, and they worked their asses off to match the facts of the Trek Universe (conceived as TOS, TNG, DS9, VOYAGER).

Now most fans of Trek are ambivalent about Enterprise, but they grudgingly accept it as a member of the universe. They just don’t like the show and pretend it didn’t exist (because it was garbage). Ok so given all this history we have a set of shows (TOS, TNG, DS9, Voyager, Enterprise) which 80 percent of fans would agree are members of the Trek Universe. DS9 is the most controversial member of the list of cannon shows but the vast majority of fans would even accept that it is a member of the Trek Universe. With the invention of Discovery things changed. Here again I am pulling numbers out of my ass. But I would think that at least 50 percent of fans argue that Discovery isn’t Trek. In fact these people argue that ‘The Orwell’ is the true heir of Trek.

The owners of Trek define anything as cannon that is either one of their TV shows or one of their films. Thus on their view books written about the show, comics etc are non cannon. By this criterion Discovery is cannon and the Orville being a different franchise isn’t. But whatever the pronouncements of the owners of Trek make; fans will argue the point and a lot of them disagree with the owners pronouncements.

Some fans argue that despite what the current owners may declare about cannon the real way to decide the issue is to go to Roddenberry’s intentions. As we saw above this approach has its problems as Roddenberry being human had shifting intentions throughout his life time. It is impossible to distil essence of Roddenberry’s intentions re- the Star Trek universe. Furthermore, Roddenberry had a cavalier attitude based on his particular likes or dislikes on the day. So, for example, because he recognised that the conflict between the characters on board the enterprise in TOS conflicted with his new philosophy in TNG, Roddenberry at one point declared that TOS wasn’t cannon (Star Trek Cannon Wiki). It would be a hard pill for a Trek fundamentalist to have to follow Roddenberry in this respect and deny that TOS was real Trek.

Roddenberry’s intentions seem too arbitrary to fix the cannon of Star Trek. Similar considerations apply to the decisions of the people who own the legal rights of Star Trek. They can legally define anything they want as Star Trek. But such definitions amount to nothing more than stipulations as to what should or should not count as Star Trek. Such stipulations have no real normative force. If the company which owns Star Trek decides to buy the rights of Marie Kondo’s ‘Tidying Up’, and calls it ‘Star Trek Tidying up’, but in no way connects it with the Star Trek universe very few people would consider it Star Trek cannon no matter what the executives claim.

Based on Roddenberry’s intentions it is difficult to know how he would have viewed The Orwell and Discovery. Though given Roddenberry’s utopian leanings it is probable that he would have considered The Orwell closer to the spirit of Star Trek than Discovery is. The Orwell is basically intended to be a rip off of TNG written to be a bit more comedic than TNG. It shares a similar structure to TNG. Each episode is a self contained story where the characters meet challenges and overcome them in a single story arc of one episode. There are aliens and androids in the show who serve as outsiders who help us look at humanity in a new light. The heroes of the show work according to enlightened rules, which focus on respecting the autonomy of other cultures. They must sometimes bend these enlightened rules but they do so for typically noble reasons. It is hard to watch the show and not be reminded of the TNG.

Discovery is very different in tone and execution than any of the previous Trek shows. In tone it is closest to DS9 because of its much darker take on humanities nature in the future. However, it is much darker than DS9, while DS9 had dark episodes; these episodes were the exception to the general Trek utopian fare. In Discovery, dark episodes are the rule. Furthermore, the structure of the show was changed for Discovery. While all of the previous Star Treks were episodic in nature[1]; Discovery is serialized. Each episode is a link in an overall story arc that spanned the entire season.

However, it wasn’t just Discoveries serialized nature, and its darker tone that led to fans dismissing as not really Trek. Discovery was sold as a prequel to Star Trek set prior to TOS. However, Discovery radically re-designed one of the main species ‘The Klingons’, so that they didn’t even resemble what Klingons originally looked like. Discovery had technology which seemed inconsistent with other Trek shows. Given Discoveries, different tone, different structure, different technology, etc to a lot of fans it just didn’t feel like Trek. The Orwell, on the other hand, was strangely familiar.

Hence you get Trek fans shouting in forums ‘DISCOVERY ISN’T REAL TREK’, or ‘THE ORWELL IS THE REAL TREK SHOW’. These people of course face the same problems that were faced by people who argue that DS9 isn’t real Trek. Discovery has causal interaction with the other Trek series; Spock, Sarek, and Amanda are characters who were in TOS, TNG, and Discovery. Despite the complaints of Trek fans Discovery will be held as cannon by the Trek franchise and it will continue to intermingle with the characters and themes from other Trek shows and films.

A typical response of the Trek fundamentalist will be to say that they don’t care what the execs do; they are not going to view Discovery as real Trek.  The reasons that are typically given to justify those stances are the ones I outlined above. However, these reasons don’t really stand up to critical scrutiny. So, for example, it is true that the Klingons in Discovery look very different than the Klingons we are used to seeing on Trek. But the same could be said about the Klingons in TOS these Klingons were barely distinguishable from humans. It was only in the Star Trek movies that we see the heavily rigged brows of the Klingons that we are familiar with today. TNG, DS9 and Voyager all followed the movies in the way they designed the Klingons. So if a person wanted to argue that change in appearance of Klingons is the reason that Discovery isn’t Trek, then if they are reasoning consistently they will have to argue that all shows (and movies) except TOS aren’t cannon Trek. This is a pretty desperate move but it can be avoided by arguing TOS like Discovery isn’t Trek. It is doubtful any Trek Fundamentalist would place so much weight on the appearance of the Klingons. They would probably just argue that the look of Klingons in Discovery is just a mild irritant and not a reason to block it from being cannon.

A more common reason to doubt whether Discovery is cannon is to argue that its radically different tone doesn’t fit with the Trek universe. But again this reasoning is hard to sustain. The tone of DS9 was much darker than either TOS or TNG. The tone of TOS was different from the early seasons of TNG. So a different tone in the shows shouldn’t necessarily be a justified reason to push something out of the cannon. Now our fundamentalist could argue that the other shows may have had a somewhat different tone from each other at times but the difference was relatively small. Whereas the difference between Discovery and other Treks is very large; so large that this rules out it being considered real Trek. If our fundamentalist used this argument they would need to say how large the gap between a TV show and Trek cannon must be before we can say they don’t belong together. However no such criterion has ever been supplied.

The other piece of evidence that is offered to demonstrate that Discovery isn’t Trek is the massive continuity errors that exist between Discovery and the other Trek shows. However, this argument doesn’t really work either as these continuity errors also exist between all of the various different Trek shows; the Q continuum cannot reproduce in TNG but can in Voyager, First contact with the Borg was supposed to have occurred in TNG as a result of Q’s intervention, but the Borg are in the prequel Enterprise, and in Voyager we are told of humans encountering the Borg years before first contact was supposed to have occurred. In TNG Scotty asks about Kirks health but in ‘Generations’ we are shown Scotty witnessing Kirks death. There are countless other continuity errors between the various shows and films so it would be arbitrary to exclude Discovery as real Trek because of continuity errors but give the other shows a free pass.

In all of these debates about whether Discovery is real Trek or not it isn’t it is never made clear what could possibly count as an answer. The execs just stipulate what is or isn’t cannon as it suits their interests. While the fans seem to just rely on lose intuitions about what is or isn’t cannon. From a metaphysical perspective there seems to be no sensible way of making the distinction.

Since at least the time of Plato over two thousand years ago philosophers have been active in the search for the essence of our various different concepts such as Justice, Truth, etc. While Plato’s famous student Aristotle was sceptical about a lot of Plato’s philosophy he accepted the position that our concepts are like containers with which something was either a member of or wasn’t a member of. This view about the nature of concepts has been implicitly accepted by most scientists and philosophers over the last two thousand years.

However in the middle of the twentieth century Aristotle’s concept of concept came under pressure by the work of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein argued that we should view concepts interms of family resemblances:

“Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to all of them? Don’t say: “they must have something in common, or they would not be called games”- but look and see whether they have anything common to all of them-for if you look at them, you won’t see something that is common to all, but similarities, affinities, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don’t think, but look!-look, for example, at board games, with their various affinities. Now pass to card-games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball-games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all entertaining? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between the players? Think of patience. In ball-games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of singing and dancing games; here we have the element of entertainment, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many other groups of games in the same way, can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the upshot of these considerations is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: similarities in the large and the small.” (Wittgenstein ‘Philosophical Investigations p. 36)

This understanding of the nature of concepts has been empirically supported over the last 70 years with the work of Lakoff 1987, Hofstadter 2016 etc. And adopting this perspective allows the us to dismiss the type of debates that occur in internet forums. There is no such thing as Star Trek cannon. Just a series of stories held together by shared themes, and a roughly drawn shared history which is somewhat inconsistent at places. Instead of saying ‘Discovery is not Trek’, a better thing to say would be ‘Discovery doesn’t share most of the key features that I liked in the other trek series; in many ways The Orville resembles the Trek shows I liked more than Discovery’. This type of language may make online debates less vicious because people will no longer think that they are arguing for the essence of Trek. Rather they are just noting what series of properties within the various loosely connected series of shows and films appeals to them.

So there you have it. One Wittgenstein quote and I have brokered world peace between warring Trek Factions. I will be expecting my Nobel Prize in the post anytime soon 😀

[1] DS9 was a bit of a hybrid. While technically it was episodic; the Dominion war in the last few seasons was kind of serialized.

John Horne Tooke’s influence on Quine and Skinner

“For the perfections of Language, not properly understood, have been one of the chief causes of the imperfections of our philosophy.” (John Horne Tooke ‘The Diversions of Purley’ p. 19)

The above quote, taken from ‘The Diversions of Purley[1]’, demonstrate John Horne Tooke’s views on language and its relation to philosophical thinking; and anticipate views which would become prominent in twentieth century analytic philosophy. In particular the above quote would put one in mind of the work of the later Wittgenstein. There is no evidence that Tooke’s work in anyway influenced Wittgenstein’s philosophy. However, we do know that Tooke’s work influenced the philosopher and logician Willard Quine and psychologist B.F. Skinner.

Skinner came across Tooke’s work in the early thirties when he was a junior fellow at Harvard:

“Henderson urged me to look at John Horne Tooke’s ‘Diversions of Purley’…the book was out of print but I advertised, and several booksellers sent me quotations. I brought two and gave one to Van Quine inscribed Verbum Sat.” ( Skinner “The Shaping of a Behaviourist” p. 158) (ibid p. 282)

In his autobiography ‘The Time of My Life’, Quine recalled Skinner giving him a copy of Tooke’s book:

“It was particularly in language theory, rather, that Fred opened doors for me. My linguistic interest had run to etymological detail; he put me onto Bloomfield and Jesperson and gave me an American first edition of John Horne Tooke.” (Quine: The Time of My Life p. 110)

In this blog-post I will discuss the influence that Horne Tooke’s book had on both Quine and Skinner, and what their respective reactions to Tooke, reveals about their different behaviourist philosophies.

Quine and John Horne Tooke

In 1946 Quine gave a series of lectures on the philosophy of David Hume. In the lecture series he obviously related Hume to the other empiricists and rationalists who were contemporaries and near contemporaries of Hume. During these lectures Quine discussed the work of John Horne Tooke, who Quine believed, had made an advance over the British Empiricists. When discussing the British Empiricists Quine noted that they were all wedded to the idea idea conception of epistemology. Tooke’s ‘Diversions’ was an attempt to move away from this idea centric epistemology. Tooke considered and critiqued the work of John Locke but didn’t discuss either David Hume or George Berkeley’s work.

Tooke argued you could translate Locke’s talk of ‘ideas’ with talk of ‘words’ and you would increase the clarity and correctness of Locke’s philosophy. Quine agreed with Tooke’s assessment of Locke’s philosophy, and thirty years later in his paper ‘Five Milestones of Empiricism’ argued that Tooke’s move away from idea centric philosophy to an emphasis on words was one of the key milestones in the development of empiricist philosophy.

Tooke’s philosophy reduced all discourse to two main categories; nouns and verbs. He argued that one could explain other linguistic phrases such as ‘prepositions’, ‘adjectives’ etc by analysing them. Upon analysis he claimed that such words contained a hidden complexity. Thus, for example, Tooke analysed the preposition ‘for’ interms of the underlying notion of ‘cause’. He did this by analysing an incredible amount of sentences containing the word ‘for’ and showing how the sentences could all be correctly analysed by treating ‘for’ as meaning ‘cause’. Thus Tooke was satisfied that he could analyse away the preposition ‘for’ and treat it as a verb. He used similar processes of analysis on a variety of other prepositions, and on adverbs, conjunctions etc. As well as analysing various different parts of written language to reveal its function; Tooke also tried to explain how these words evolved over time by examining their etymology.

Quine admired what he called Tooke’s the method of abbreviations (Quine ‘Lectures on the Philosophy of David Hume’ p. 62). In his ‘Divergence’ Tooke argued that when trying to understand speech we need to conceive of it as words which are necessary to communicate our thoughts and abbreviations which help with expressing these thoughts clearly. Tooke argued that there are two sorts of words necessary to the communicating of our thoughts; nouns and verbs. Everything else he conceived of as being abbreviations which when analysed closely will be shown to be either nouns or verbs. His analysis of the word ‘for’ above is a good example of his understanding his method of abbreviation. In his 1951 ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ Quine related this method of abbreviations to the verification theory of meaning:

“Radical reductionism, in one form or another, well antedates the verification theory of meaning explicitly so called. Thus Locke and Hume held that every idea must either originate directly in sense experience or else be compounded of ideas thus originating; and taking a hint from Tooke we might rephrase this doctrine in semantical jargon by saying that a term, to be significant at all, must be either a name of a sense datum or a compound of such names or an abbreviation of such a compound. So stated the doctrine remains ambiguous as between sense data as sensory events and sense data as sensory qualities; and it remains vague as to the admissible ways of compounding. ( Quine ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’ p. 38)

John Locke believed that we begin with simple ideas derived from perception and combine them (somehow) to form complex ideas when thinking. Locke further argued that the words in our language got their meanings by referring to these ideas. What Quine admired about Tooke’s work was that he cut out the middle man so to speak. Tooke was emphasising the fact that our words got their meanings in by picking out things and events in the environment. On Tooke’s picture ‘ideas’ were a theoretically superfluous posit:

“Every purpose for which the composition of Ideas was imagined being more easily and naturally answered by the composition of Terms: whilst at the same time it does likewise clear up many difficulties in which the supposed composition of Ideas necessarily involves us.” (Hooke ‘Divergences’ p. 20)

Quine asks us to note that we shouldn’t read Tooke’s criticism of complex ideas as denying the importance of mental activity, nor should one think that the concept of complex definitions (abbreviations) don’t involve mental activity. Rather, Tooke was just pointing out that ideas as explanatory posits don’t do much work in clarifying how we connect stimulation with discourse (Quine ‘Lectures in the philosophy of Hume p. 63). In his 1977 paper ‘Facts of the Matter’ Quine made the point as follows:

“Let us therefore recognize that the whole idea idea, abstract and concrete, is a frail reed indeed. We must seek a firm footing rather in words. The point was urged by John Horne Tooke only shortly after Hume’s time, in 1786. Tooke held that Locke’s essay could be much improved by substituting the word ‘word’ everywhere for the word ‘idea’. What is thereby gained in firmness is attended by no appreciable loss in scope, since ideas without words would have come to little in any event. We think mostly in words, and we report our thoughts wholly in words. Let us then take one leaf from the old-time philosophy and another from John Horne Tooke. Philosophical inquiry should begin with the clear, yes; but with clear words. (‘Facts of the Matter’ p. 271)

In Quine’s ‘Five milestones of Empiricism’ (1978), he again, credits Tooke with emphasising the importance of words over ideas, arguing that this move was a key milestone in the development of empiricism. The other four milestones Quine discusses are Bentham’s emphasis of the sentence having semantic primacy in language over words, Duhem emphasis of the primacy of systems of belief over sentences, his dissolution of the analytic/synthetic distinction which he argues this leads to methodological monism, and his demonstration that there is no first philosophy.

I won’t here speak of his last four milestones of empiricism, given that the subject matter of the blog is John Horne Tooke, I will focus on Quine’s first milestone of empiricism. Quine noted the following:

The first was the shift of attention from Ideas to words. This was the adoption of the policy, in epistemology, of talking about linguistic expressions where possible instead of ideas…I think of it as entering modern empiricism only in 1786, when…John Horne Tooke wrote as follows: “the greatest part of Mr. Locke’s essay, that is.  All which relates to what he calls the abstraction, complexity, generalization, relation etc., of ideas, does indeed merely concern language.” British empiricism was dedicated to the proposition that only sense makes sense. Ideas were acceptable only if based on sense impressions. But Tooke appreciated that the idea idea measures up poorly to empiricist standards. Translated into Tooke’s terms, then, the basic proposition of British Empiricism would seem to say that words make sense only insofar as they are definable in sensory terms” (“Five Milestones of Empiricism” p. 68)

Quine notes that this approach of Tooke’s leads instantly to problems. The grammatical particles which we use to organise our concepts don’t easily reduce to sensory experiences. As we saw above Tooke tried to avoid this problem by saying that sentences could be reduced to two functions ‘nouns’ and ‘verbs’; thus nouns refer to sensory experiences while verbs say things about these experiences. To work within this austere empiricist frame work Tooke had to explain away grammatical concepts such as ‘if, and, but, there’ etc interms of nouns and verbs. Tooke justified this approach by giving unpersuasive etymological definitions of these grammatical concepts.

Quine was pretty dismissive of Tooke’s attempts to explain the grammatical concepts interms of nouns and verbs. He argued cogently that Tooke didn’t realise that these concepts were syncategorematic; they couldn’t be defined in isolation but only in context.

Quine was largely correct in his argument that grammatical concepts are not definable in isolation. But he didn’t sufficiently appreciate the possibility that grammar may be an innate imposition on how we group words together. Quine was working in the logical positivist tradition which worked to reduce our theories to sensory experiences and logical constructions based on sensory experience. While he was correct that grammatical concepts cannot be defined in terms of sensory experience and are syncategorematic; he seems to entirely ignore the possibility that grammatical concepts be indefinable (by which he means they cannot be explained interms of sensory experience), because they are innate and are used in helping us interpret sensory experience. In short in his discussion of the five milestones of empiricism Quine was guilty of underplaying the role of non-empirical Kantian (or at least Chomskian type knowledge). I am not arguing that the Kantian/Chomskian alternative is the correct explanation of the grammatical particles. I am just noting that his empiricism is blinding him to an alternative explanation. And this blindness is particularly interesting to note given that Quine noted many times in his interactions with Chomsky that he had no difficulty with explanations which appealed to innateness.

However, it is not within the scope of this particular blog-post to discuss the evidence for innate syntax so I will not pursue the above criticism of Quine here. The key point to note is that while Quine agreed with Horne Tooke’s movement from explanations in terms of ideas to explanations in terms of terms; Quine didn’t agree with Tooke’s analysis of grammatical particles. In the next section I will explore how Skinner deals with Tooke’s analysis of grammar and Tooke’s criticisms of idea centric philosophy.

Skinner and John Horne Tooke

 “The French novel of the nineteenth century was possibly close to what I wanted, and I reread Stendhal and Balzac. I was caught up in a renewal of interest in George Eliot and tried rewriting parts of ‘Middlemarch’ and ‘Daniel Deronda’, replacing references to feelings with references to the actions from which feelings were inferred. It did not work. Mentalistic terms were like the “abbreviations” of John Horne Tooke; they were the products. Accurate reports of the same contingencies ran to much greater length.” (B.F. Skinner ‘A Matter of Consequences’ p. 245)

  1. F. Skinner began working on whether language could be explained behaviouristically in the mid-nineteen thirties after a challenge set to him by the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. For over fifty years after his discussion with Whitehead, Skinner at various times in his career worked on the nature of language. Throughout this fifty year period whenever he discussed language the name of John Horne Tooke came up. In his 1947 lectures on language (later called the Hefferline notes), Skinner briefly spoke approvingly of Horne Tooke’s work:

John Horne Tooke, Englishman of the 18th century, wasn’t liked and was popped into jail once or twice by the government. He had one trial which hinged on the interpretation of the word ‘that’. This got him going and he wrote a book…He was a good behaviourist although he didn’t know it.” (Skinner ‘The Hefferline Lectures’ p. 21)

Unfortunately despite speaking approvingly of Horne Tooke in ‘The Hefferline Lectures’ Skinner didn’t expand on what it was about Horne Tooke’s work that he found impressive. Forty years later when discussing the evolution of ‘Verbal Behaviour’, Skinner again mentioned Horne Tooke’s work:

“An early effort by John Horne Tooke in the ‘Diversions of Purley’ (1776) has not been fully appreciated. That Tooke was not always right as an etymologist was not as important as his efforts to explain how English speakers could have come to say such words as ‘if’, ‘but’, or ‘and’.” (‘The Evolution of Verbal Behaviour’ p. 120)

It is no coincidence that Skinner’s interest in Horne Tooke centred on his analysis of concepts such ‘if’, ‘but’, ‘that’, ‘and’ etc. Skinner was also impressed with Quine’s analysis of similar concepts in his ‘Elementary Logic’. In fact in ‘Verbal Behaviour’ where Skinner discussed Horne Tooke in most detail he notes that Horne Tooke’s analysis of language was similar to Quine’s analysis in ‘Elementary logic’ (Verbal Behaviour p.342).

It was in his ‘Verbal Behaviour’, that Skinner discussed John Horne Tooke in most detail. Interestingly Skinner’s discussion of the Tooke was along the same lines as Quines. Skinner, like Quine, discussed Horne Tooke’s criticism of Locke’s ‘Inquiry into Human Understanding’ for being better thought of as being concerned with words rather than ideas. Skinner even cites the same passages from Horne Tooke re-John Locke that Quine did. However, while Quine was careful to note that Tooke was primarily speaking about language over ideas because ideas were non-explanations, he also noted that we shouldn’t read Tooke as denying that mental activity underlay verbal behaviour. Skinner on the other hand read Horne Tooke as arguing that all thinking involved verbal behaviour; Skinner then goes on to argue that Tooke is incorrect in arguing thusly and points to things such as mental imagery, and spatio temporal reasoning as a refutation of Tooke’s purported views (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p.449).

Skinner and Quine’s different readings of Horne Tooke are understandable. Horne-Tooke is very articulate on what he sees as the problems with idea-centric philosophy. He also has skilled arguments for using terms and their analysis and historical development to make our philosophy more objective. But he says little (either positive or negative) about whether he thinks that there is cognitive apparatus underling the ability to use verbal behaviour. So there is scope for both Quine and Skinner to differ in their interpretations of Horne Tooke on this issue and little textual data to settle the matter conclusively.

Another area where Skinner and Quine discussed Horne Tooke was in relation to his treatment of grammar. Skinner was particularly interested in Horne Tooke in relation to what he called autoclitics. Before proceeding to discuss Skinner’s take on Horne Tooke re-autoclitics I will need to briefly discuss Skinner’s explication of the various different functional units that make up ‘Verbal Behaviour’. A Mand is a Verbal Operant in which the response is reinforced by a particular consequence; and hence is under the functional control of relevant conditions of deprivation or aversive stimulation (‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 36). In other words the mand is a type of response that is under the control of and singled out by certain controlling variables. A paradigm of a mand is saying ‘water’ when thirsty and receiving water in return (being reinforced for saying ‘water’).

A tact is a verbal operant that is controlled by non-verbal stimulus. The child says ‘doll’ in the presence of a doll and is reinforced. Used as a mand the word ‘doll’ would result in the child being handed a doll. But as a tact the child says the word ‘doll’ in the presence of a doll and is reinforced by his peers (through praise, attention etc).

An echoic is Verbal Behaviour that is controlled by other Verbal Behaviour. Thus the child repeats the word ‘doll’ upon hearing the word ‘doll’ spoken. Intraverbal Behaviour is behaviour where Verbal Behaviour is controlled by other Verbal Behaviour; but where the there isn’t a formal correspondence between the stimulus and response product (Verbal Behaviour p. 71). An example of echoic behaviour would be one person saying ‘the wheels on the bus’ and the other person saying ‘the wheels on the bus’. Whereas, an example of an Intraverbal behaviour; would be one person saying, ‘The wheels on the bus’, and the other person saying ‘go round and round’. Skinner uses Intraverbal behaviour to explain analytic truths. ‘Thus 2 plus 2’ ‘equals 4’ would be explained as an Intraverbal where 4 is under the control of 2 plus 2.

The autoclitic is a form of Verbal Behaviour that modifies other verbal operants such as the mand, the tact etc. Skinner notes that there are different types of autoclitics. One type is the descriptive autoclitic which says something about the particular verbal operant that is used; so if you take the word ‘heads’ this can be modified by a descriptive autoclitic as follows (I said (heads)), (I will say (heads)) etc. There are many different sub-types of descriptive autoclitics such an autoclitics with indicate my strength of belief in a verbal operant I have emitted; thus I could modify the tact ‘the cat is black’ with the autoclitic of weakness (I hesitate to say (the cat is black).

As well as descriptive autoclitics Skinner also discusses qualifying autoclitics, quantifying autoclitics and manipulative autoclitics. It was in relation to autoclitics that Skinner discussed John Horne Tooke’s work.

As we saw above Horne Tooke was concerned with explicating language in terms of nouns and verbs. Tooke believed that he could explain away the other aspects of language by analysing them as being abbreviations which ultimately were nouns or verbs. Horne Tooke’s method was drawing out the terms meanings through analysis, and explain how the terms had the form they did by tracing their etymology. Thus when analysing the preposition ‘through’ Horne Tooke analyses it as deriving from the nouns ‘door’/ ‘gate’/ ‘passage’; his justification is dual. He shows how he can analyse common uses of ‘through’ interms of ‘door’/’gate’/’passage’ and he traces the etymology of the term ‘through’ to justify his analysis (‘Divergence’ pp.180-183).

Tooke’s analysis is interesting and puts one in mind of the work of Lakoff and Johnson who analyse our language as deriving from embodied experiences to more abstract realms. Thus a common physical object  such as  a door or a gate that we have an embodied relation to are used in more abstract senses to think about more complex objects. It is not within the remit of this blog-post to evaluate the truth of Tooke’s analysis rather I just want to trace what Skinner and Quine made of Tooke’s views.

Skinner admired Tooke’s analysis of language, however he didn’t agree with Tooke’s contention that all language could be reduced to verbs and nouns. As we saw above Skinner didn’t analyse language interms of traditional grammatical categories; rather he argued that the key to understanding language was to analyse it in terms of various type of behavioural functions (mands, tacts etc). Skinner noted that Tooke’s analysis was hindered by the fact that Tooke had no real understanding of the fact that some words were used to deal with other parts of language. According to Skinner, Tooke’s abbreviations were just words which were used to manipulate nouns and verbs, and not grasping this fact held back Tooke’s analysis of language (Verbal Behaviour p. 341):

“What Tooke lacked was a conception of behaviour as such. He was still under the influence of British empiricism and, in spite of an heroic declaration of independence…Struggling against an enormous weight of tradition, Tooke is talking about verbal behaviour. He has “disabbreviated” the puzzling terms which cannot be accounted for as object words or by appeal to images-terms which we would classify here as autoclitics- and  has found that they are verbs. This leads him to an important generalization which we could paraphrase in this way: some verbal responses are evoked by external state of affairs. These Tooke wants to call nouns. Other responses are communication itself. They affect the listener and have no function aside from that effect. Tooke wants the listener to have no function aside from that effect. Tooke wants to call them verbs. Writing more than a hundred and fifty years ago, he had no alternative, but a fresh formulation is possible today.” ( Skinner ‘Verbal Behaviour’ p. 343)

Skinner was impressed with Tooke’s recognition that language had a dual function; referring to objects in the external world; and communicating about these objects via verbs. However, Skinner noted that as a thinker of his time Tooke didn’t have a sufficient grasp of the various different functions of language and the social reinforcement controlling these behavioural functions.

Both Skinner and Quine were impressed with Tooke’s move away from Locke’s idea idea epistemology. Though they interpreted Tooke’s move in different ways; Quine seemed to believe that Tooke’s views were compatible with a mild form of cognitivism though not of the sort that would vindicate folk-psychology. While Skinner read Tooke as overplaying the linguistic nature of thinking. When it came to grammar both Quine and Skinner, while impressed with Tooke’s work, had some reservations. Quine argued that Tooke didn’t appreciate the contextual nature of grammar and erroneously tried to reduce them to sensory impressions and judgements about these impressions. Skinner on the other hand disagreed with Tooke’s grammar because he didn’t think that Tooke sufficiently appreciated the various different functions of language; nor the reinforcing contingencies that shaped these functions.

Skinner and Quine’s different criticisms of Tooke aren’t necessarily incompatible but they do illustrate their divergent interests. Quine the great critic the idea that our epistemic contact with the world can be purely cashed out in sensory terms; railing against Tooke’s attempt to explain our linguistic capacities in terms of sensory experiences. And Skinner attempting to explain language behaviourally and functionally, admiring Tooke’s attempts to step out of the Cartesian Tradition he was trained in, but lacking an account of behaviour powerful to complete the job.

[1] Henceforth I will refer to ‘The Diversions of Purley’ as ‘Diversions’.

Quine Skinner: Behavioural Laws and Reductionism

“Yet, Skinner and Quine do not have only different aims. If one examines Quine’s views about causal explanation in psychology, their behaviouristic theories turn out to be in fact incompatible…Even if the physiological variables between stimulus and response were to be completely specified, Skinner maintains, the laws are to be found on a behavioural level; physiologists and neuroscientists can at best fill the temporal and spatial gap between a stimulus and a response. Quine, on the other hand, defends the opposite view. He believes that behaviour ultimately requires a physiological (or better, a neurological) explanation instead.” (Verhaegh ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ pp.36-38)


In his ‘The Behaviourisms of Skinner and Quine’ Verhaegh argued that Skinner and Quine held diametrically opposed views on the relation of behaviour to neuroscience. On Verhaegh’s picture; Quine believed that a true explanation is at the neuroscientific level, while the behavioural explanation is just a shallow stop gap, whereas Skinner believed that there are behavioural laws independent of what we discover in neuroscience. There is a lot to recommend Verhaegh’s interpretation of the data. Skinner did sometimes argue that neuroscientific explanations can only serve to plug up some gaps in behavioural knowledge, but that the functional laws were the most important thing:

“The physiologist of the future will tell us all that can be known about what is happening inside the behaving organism. His account will be an important advance over a behavioural analysis, because the latter is necessarily “historical”-that is to say, it is confined to functional relations showing temporal gaps. Something is done today which affects the behaviour of an organism tomorrow. No matter how clearly that fact can be established, a step is missing, and we must wait for the physiologist to supply it. He will be able to show how an organism is changed when exposed to contingencies of reinforcement and why the changed organism then behaves in a different way, possibly at a much later date. What he discovers cannot invalidate the laws of a science of behaviour, but it will make the picture of human action more nearly complete.” (‘About Behaviourism’ p. 237)

The above quote from Skinner’s 1974 ‘About Behaviourism’ is an interesting perspective on Skinner’s take on the relation between neuroscience and behavioural science. Skinner is arguing future neuroscientists will make important advances over behavioural science. This indicates that for Skinner; behavioural science isn’t entirely autonomous, and that behaviourists can learn something from neuroscientific studies. Skinner is arguing that behavioural science, like the science of natural selection is necessarily historical. If you want to establish a behavioural law you will need to do experiments that are historical in nature. These experiments will typically involve studying the three term contingency (antecedent, behaviour, consequence), to pick out a behavioural law. But with a sufficiently advanced neuroscience we may be able to discover the chemical laws that underlie the causal regularities discovered by the behavioural scientist. These discoveries in neuroscience won’t refute the discovered behavioural regularities but they will be an advance on our overall picture of the behaviour of organisms.

However it is difficult to see how Skinner’s above approach is incompatible with Quine’s approach. Consider the following statement of Quine’s (which Verhaegh quotes):

“An explanation, not the deepest one, but of a shallower kind, is possible at the purest behavioural level. One can hope to find, and I think one does find, behavioural regularities.” (Quine 2008 pp. 69-81)

On the face of it Quine and Skinner seem to be singing from the same hymn sheet; we can discover behavioural laws; but ultimately we should be able to discover more fundamental neuroscientific laws.

The obvious rejoinder to this is that while the above quote may indicate that Quine and Skinner were in agreement on this topic, a closer look at Quine indicates that he held views which are much stronger than the above quote indicates, in numerous different places he argued that behaviour is not the explanation, but something that must be explained by more fundamental sources e.g. physiology (Quine 1998 p. 94).

However, even the above claim by Quine finds resonance in the writings of Skinner:

Eventually, we may assume, the facts and principles of psychology will be reducible not only to physiology but through biochemistry to physics and subatomic physics.” (Skinner: Cumulative Record p. 302)

It should be noted that Skinner wasn’t always consistent in his views on this topic. As we saw above Skinner sometimes argued that behavioural laws are independent of neural discoveries (though they may be enriched by them). But above he is arguing that behavioural laws can ultimately be reduced to neuroscientific laws. The same inconsistency seems to dog Quine’s explanations of behavioural regularities. In some places he is arguing that behavioural regularities exist, but in other places he seems to think that such regularities are unimportant other than as pointers as to what is going on in the brain. There is obviously no contradiction in believing that ‘regularities occur’ and also believing that ‘such regularities are unimportant’. But there is a tension in the two beliefs.

There many behavioural laws that have been experimentally and observationally studied over the last few decades. An extinction burst is a clear behavioural regularity. Applied Behavioural Analysis is the most effective scientific treatment that currently exists for managing challenging behaviour. In a hospital setting, where some patients with severe learning difficulties exhibit dangerous challenging behaviour, such as, a child punching themselves repeatedly in the head; analysts must try to discover what reinforcements are maintaining such behaviours. To do this Skinner’s three term contingency is typically applied. The analyst will carefully record the instants before the behaviour occurred, the behaviour itself, and the consequences which immediately follow the behaviour. Through this process he can discover which procedures are reinforcing the behaviour.  By removing these reinforcers the analyst can extinguish the behaviour.

The process of functional extinction has been verified in many studies and across many species (‘Applied Behaviour Analysis’ p. 473). By removing the reinforcers controlling the behaviour, the analyst can make the behaviour extinct. However, prior to extinction there is an increase in the said behaviour occurring, and this is called an extinction burst (Lerman, Iwata and Wallace (1999), Goh and Iwata (1994). The occurrence of extinction bursts are well established in basic behavioural research.

When Quine says that there are behavioural regularities but that the fundamental regularities occur at the physiological level it is hard to parse what he means. In the case of extinction bursts we have clear regularities; understanding the physiology better would add to our knowledge of what is going on. But it is hard to see how the underlying physiology is any more real than the behavioural regularity which has been discovered, and which can be predicted and controlled using behavioural science. When we discover behavioural laws, as Quine admits that we do, then these laws are real patterns that have been discovered, we can learn more about the underlying causal sequences that make these patterns occur, but such real patterns are more than just pointers towards the underlying physiology they are law like facts in their own right.

Thus far we have seen that Quine and Skinner are both a bit inconsistent in their views on the relation of relation of behaviour to physiology. There is a side of Skinner, and of Quine, which comes close to endorsing a kind of crude reductionism; where the ultimate explanation is at the physiological level; with the eventual aim being to give our explanations in terms of basic physics. However, this preference for the underlying physiology as the real explanation is much more prominent in Quine’s philosophy than in Skinner’s. The general thrust of Skinner’s philosophy is that there are real behavioural laws and while neuroscientific data enrich our behavioural laws; they cannot supplant them.

Quine seems to acknowledge that we have behavioural laws but argues that these laws are just pointers we can use to get at the real data; the neuroscientific data. Quine’s position on this subject isn’t entirely inconsistent with Skinners. Both admit that behavioural laws exist, and both admit that the underlying physiology can enrich our behavioural laws. To the extent that they disagree it is on the status of the behavioural laws; Skinner takes the importance of these behavioural laws seriously, while Quine argues they are mere pointers to the real data; the underlying physiological facts.

Where Quine and Skinner’s views diverge it is pretty obvious that Skinner’s views on the nature of laws of behaviour are more accurate than Quine’s are. The laws of behaviour that are studied by behavioural scientists do much more than merely point towards underlying physiological states they are tools that are useful in the prediction and control of the behaviour of both human and non-human animals.  The success of disciplines such as Applied Behavioural Analysis are clear evidence that Quine’s dismissal of behavioural laws as mere pointers towards underlying physiology is very wrong headed.

Aside from Behavioural Analysts using and discovering behavioural laws; behavioural laws have proven to be useful tools for neuroscientists to use. In the years since Quine and Skinner were writing, conditioning has become a vital tool which neuroscientists use to understand the circuitry of the brain. Classical conditioning has proven more useful than operant conditioning in these experiments:

And work by my laboratory and the laboratories of colleagues using Pavlovian fear conditioning was very successful in achieving, in a few short years, what instrumental avoidance conditioning had failed to do- identification of the brain areas and connections between them that constituted what came to be known as the brain’s fear system.” (Le Doux: Anxiety p. 31)

While classical conditioning has proven a useful tool for neuroscientists to use when trying to understand how the brain works, these studies have also revealed some useful information about the neuroscientific basis of types of classical conditioning. In his lab, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux has done some ground breaking work on the neuroscience of fear and has used classical conditioning as a tool. His research not only helps us understand fear but also helps us understand the circuitry of fear conditioning:

“One of the targets suggested by the tracing studies was the amygdala. When we lesioned this area, or disconnected it from the auditory system, the fear conditioned responses were eliminated. Within the amygdala, we also found an area that receives auditory CS input (the lateral amygdala, LA) and connects with an area (the central amygdala, CeA) that sends outputs to downstream targets that separately control freezing and blood pressure conditioned responses. Further, we were able to locate cells in the LA input region that received both the auditory CS and the shock US. This was an especially important discovery because the integration of the CS and the US at the cellular level was thought to be required for fear conditioning to occur. After the circuit and cellular changes involved in the process was identified, we turned to the molecular mechanisms in the LA that underlie the learning and expression of conditioned fear, many of which were the same as those discovered by Kandel and others invertebrates.” ( Le Doux: ‘Anxious’ p. 30)

Research like this is important because it provided experimental evidence of the underlying circuitry involved in fear conditioning. This is only a small piece of the puzzle; classical conditioning is a much more general process than the conditioning that occurs in fear conditioning. There is more research needed into how general the neural processes are which underlie classical conditioning in general. But research is proceeding at break neck speed and we can only hope that these general problems will eventually be solved:

“Numerous studies by my laboratory and others have confirmed that when the CS is paired with an aversive US, LA neurons do respond more strongly to the CS. Further, we and others have identified many molecules that contribute to the induction of these changes during learning and the stabilization of these changes in the storage of memory. Once the associative memory has been formed, the CS can, on its own, strongly activate LA neurons.” (ibid p. 95)

Why Classical Conditioning is more useful than Operant Conditioning is not entirely clear. In general classical conditioning is a type of learning that is useful in helping an animal passively learn from environmental experiences, and operant conditioning is more suitable for an animal to learn as it actively moves about its environment. The different functions of classical conditioning and operant conditioning may explain their relative uses for neuroscientists. A passive form of learning would obviously be more useful to in studies involving neuroscientific instruments.

                                     The Evolution of Conditioning

When discussing the work of the Le Doux lab he made a distinction between Classical and Operant conditioning in terms of their utility for neuroscientific research. This distinction is well established in the literature; since about Skinner’s time. But there is some evidence that while Operant and Classical Conditioning are not identical they may both rely on the same underlying neural architecture. In their recent paper; ‘Classical and Operant Conditioning: Evolutionary Distinct Strategies’ Bronfmann et all argue that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are different facets of the same underlying associative learning system (Bronfmann et al. p. 34). They suggest three criteria to use to help discover whether operant and classical conditioning are separate capacities or if they rely on the same underlying architecture; (1) Functional Distinctiveness, which can be inferred by double dissociations, (2) Taxonomic distinctiveness: members of one animal taxa will have one system (CC), while members of another animal taxa will have another system (OC), (3) Adaptive evolutionary distinctiveness:  distinct forms of learning should have distinct evolutionary rationales (ibid p.35)

In answer to their first question they note that there has been some experimental research indicating dissociation where through brain damage a creature can learn through operant conditioning and not classical conditioning (Brembs et al 2008, Lorenzetti 2006, Ostland, et al 2007). However they note that there are only a few experiments indicating this dissociation is possible and that these studies haven’t been replicated. So before drawing any large scale conclusions more research is needed. On question two they claim that there no evidence of any animal who possesses one type of conditioning but not the other. Again research is in its infancy and more research is recommended. On the third question they argue that given that OC and CC are paradigm domain general learning processes it is unlikely that theorists will be able to construct a plausible evolutionary rationale of them being selected for in different way.

On the whole then a theorist who wanted to argue for two distinctive processes underlying OC and CC could appeal to the few experiments indicating that dissociation of the  OT and CC is possible. But overall there would be very little evidence to support their views on the topic. So Bronfmann et al argue that despite the consensus in behavioural science there is little evidence to suggest that we should adopt an absolute distinction between classical and operant conditioning.

With new evidence chipping away at the neuroscientific nature of conditioning, with cross comparative and experimental data being use to discover if classical conditioning and operant conditioning use similar underlying neural circuitry, and even some data on the evolution of conditioning we are learning much more about conditioning than either Quine or Skinner knew. And so far everything we have learned seems to support the less reductive position than the one Quine proposed. We are learning more and more about conditioning and its neural basis; but this hasn’t come close to reducing the behavioural regularities to mere pointers to underlying states. Rather despite what we have learned behavioural analysts are today are still using behavioural laws (some of which were discovered by Skinner), to shape the behaviour of human and non human animals. There is no reason at present to follow Quine in treating behavioural laws as some kind of shallow explanation.

The sense of fundamental Quine typically appeals to is one that relies on a strong sense of physicalism:

“Nothing happens in the world, not a flutter of an eylid, not the flicker of a thought, without some redistribution of micro-physical states. (Quine ‘Goodman’s Ways of World Making’ p. 98)

Quine’s above statement that all forms of behaviour depend on some kind of underlying microphysical process is relatively uncontroversial. It is hard to imagine a behavioural scientist who would object to the claim that any behavioural laws discovered will have an explanation in terms of underlying physical processes. Likewise, it is hard to imagine an evolutionary scientist who would deny that all examples of natural selection have underlying physical causes. But it obviously doesn’t follow that because a process is causally dependent on underlying physical states that the process is shallow piece of information that will ultimately be explained away.

There are real patterns that exist in the world that will be missed out on if we try to understand something at the wrong level of abstraction. If we stick to just understanding a portion of the world in terms of subatomic particles and forces acting on them then our explanation will be incomplete; such an explanation will be entirely blind to things like sexual selection. The fact that sticking entirely too fundamental physics will blind one real patterns at the evolutionary level obviously doesn’t mean that physics is irrelevant to evolutionary theory.

Physics can provide constraints to what type of creatures can be built by natural selection; see for example work on scaling laws and invariants in animal locomotion Bejan and Marden (2006), and Trevisian et al. (2006) on the physics of bird songs. Now suppose one adopts the Quinean approach to evolutionary explanations of the origins of life, and argues that explanations interms of natural selection are shallow, the real explanation is at the level of basic physics or chemistry. As we saw above if we adopted this approach in its reductionistic sense we would be ignoring real patterns in the world and explaining away patently real phenomena. A less radical approach would be to accept that physics can constrain, and inform explanations in evolutionary science but not supplant.

When it comes to behavioural science and biology things are similar. The degree to which Quine and Skinner disagree on the status behavioural laws and their relation to neuroscience; isn’t always clear. But it is clear that any radical reductionism that tries to reduce behavioural laws to mere pointers to underlying neural states is untenable.