Big On Behaviour [MP1]


A quick editorial note before we get started:

Those who were paying attention last time might have noticed that this is the first post in the series I’ll be referring to as Millennial Philosophy. (‘Series’ might not be quite the right word, come to think of it; it’s more like I’ve got a few regular columns categorised by theme, but I’m not here to get all heavy about the nature of words. Not today, at least.) You can identify which series a post is part of by the helpful logo up near the top and the series’ initials in square brackets after the post’s title. In this case, the Thinker is hanging out – doing some thinking, I imagine – under the title, which is suffixed with [MP].

I’m intending to use Millennial Philosophy as an outlet of sorts for the thoughts I have that fit vaguely into what might be defined as ‘philosophical’ subject matter. I don’t claim to be an expert on philosophy, not least because it’s such an all-encompassing topic that I’m not sure anyone can say they’re an expert in philosophy as a whole. Also not least because I’m dumb and will probably get things wrong from time to time. I do have a degree in philosophy, but I’m liable to make the odd statement that People Who Actually Know This Stuff For Real might call me out on. So consider that a disclaimer, and if you are going to call me out, please be nice about it. I’m very fragile.

Right, on with the stuff.

Today’s topic is behaviourism, which I’m spelling with a U because I’m British and stubborn. There is a field in psychology known as behaviourism, if I’m not mistaken, but my understanding is that psychological behaviourism is not quite the same as philosophical behaviourism. I’ll be going roughly with the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s concept of what behaviourism entails, which you can read for yourself here. (It pains me to spell ‘encyclopaedia’ without the A, but in this case it’s the name of the thing and a proper noun and… suffice to say I’m not happy about it. Nor is my spell-check.)

I’m going to be talking about behaviourism primarily in two subcategories: I’ll be referring to them as ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ behaviourism. That’s how I learned about it back in college, I’m pretty sure, although from looking on the internet it seems that not a lot of people actually use those divisions. Ah, well. I’m hoping to be able to make a few citations in Millennial Philosophy, but I’m more interested in getting down to overthinking the concepts and their applications than spending too long discussing who’s said what about which ideas.

‘Soft’ behaviourism, as I’ll be insisting on calling it, is a sort of mishmash of ideas from what the Stanford article terms ‘methodological’ and ‘psychological’ behaviourism. The essence of the claim is that the mind (I might start referring to it as The Mind, since it’s going to be coming up a lot in this and future posts) can only be known through behaviour. That’s a very simplified way of condensing a few of the points in the paragraphs under section 2 (‘Three Types of Behaviorism’) in the Stanford article. The soft behaviourist claims that the only meaningful reference to a creature’s psychology – and this does concern both humans and non-humans – is a reference to its behaviour; in other words, saying that something is feeling a certain way, that it is experiencing a certain mental state internally, is essentially the same as saying that it is behaving in a certain way. Saying ‘Jim is sad’ is the same as saying ‘Jim is crying’ or any other statement about external, observable activity.

So far, that seems at least to make some sort of intuitive sense. One of the great questions in philosophy is that of the mind in a general, overarching sense: how do we know that anything has a mind? Each individual can say ‘I have a mind’, but your own mind is the only one you’ll ever be able to experience, so how the heck can you be sure that other people have minds too? I’ll look at some of the proposed answers to that question in future, perhaps; suffice to say for now that the soft behaviourist proposes that we can use behaviour as evidence, to the extent that talking about someone else’s mind is essentially the same as talking about their behaviour. It’s almost common-sense, isn’t it? If we can’t see another individual’s behaviour, we’ve got no way of knowing what they’re thinking; soft behaviourism takes that observation and runs with it until that talking about a mental state is pretty much useless and adds nothing to whatever conclusions can be drawn purely from external behaviour. In short, soft behaviourism explains behaviour in terms of the external, and concerns itself only with empirically evident objects of study. That includes outward behaviour, but not internal mental activity.

If soft behaviourism takes the ball and kicks it right into the goal, hard behaviourism runs off with the ball and destroys it in a controlled(ish) explosion. At its most extreme, hard behaviourism’s stance can be summed up as something to the effect of ‘there is no mind except behaviour’. It’s the soft behaviourist argument, except instead of stopping at a reasonable conclusion it just sort of punches everything in its way until it finds itself on a nice little island where it can live on coconuts and misanthropy. This also contains elements of all three types of behaviourism, as Stanford terms them, just taken up to eleven. Psychology should be strict about not concerning itself with anything internal, any sort of conscious experience (thus negating what is sometimes called qualia, the thing-that-it-is-like-to-be-having-an-experience); behaviour should be explained only in terms of external stimuli without reference to internal process; should any theory refer to terms or concepts relating solely to the mental, those terms can and should be eliminated or translated into behavioural concepts, which have the same explanatory power.

Christ, that was an intense sentence. Sorry about that.

There’s definitely some argumentative force in the underlying assertion that our only evidence for the mental states of others is their behaviour. If somebody’s in a coma, for example, and therefore not doing much behaving, we have very little to go on when trying to work out what their mental state might be. We do of course have brain scanning technology these days which can tell us that (again, this is just an example I learned in A-level philosophy and probably not totally accurate) if the area of the brain containing C-fibres is lighting up, then the person might be feeling pain. I think behaviourism as a doctrine probably took off before brain scans were possible, but the modern behaviourist would probably argue that a brain scan is actually just another form of empirical evidence demonstrating the outwards behaviour of the body (the brain being part of the body), even if it’s less easily observable than, say, a gesture or speech. You start heading down a different path if you make that claim, though: you’re heading into materialist monism, the claim that the mind is the brain.

Phew. I think I’d like to get into the whole mind-body question in a future instalment, but it’s such a Big Damn Question that it’ll be a bit of a commitment trying to sort that one out.

In the internet age, I have to wonder what counts as behaviour. There are so many ways of communicating, of exerting some sort of influence on the world these days, that behaviour is no longer restricted to the direct movements of your body. It’s perhaps more true in this circumstance that behaviour is the only evidence you have of someone’s mind – indeed, of their existence – when all you have to go on is a trace of some uploaded text or image that they once created and then transferred to the internet and finally to you. I mean, if you’re reading this, and you don’t know me in real life, then the only evidence you have that I am a living, thinking being are these words, which by the time you read them will probably be long in my past.

There’s also the converse, of course, which is that I might not really exist at all. I might be an AI, so your assumption, inferring from my behaviour that I have a mind, might not actually be correct (again, the bigger question of whether robots can have minds is something I’ll try to speak about at more length in future, but not here, so suffice to say that I might not have the kind of human mind that you probably assume I do).

I think this is why I wanted to look at behaviourism. It’s relevant these days, especially when you look at some of the recent TV and film that touches on the question of consciousness (see, for example, Humans, Westworld, Ex Machina and others which present artificial beings presenting as conscious). It also leads into a lot of bigger questions, a few of which I’ve touched on. Notably, it derives from a particular brand of verificationist empiricism known as logical positivism, which proposes that things can only be understood by reference to empirical observation – in this case, the mind can only be understood in terms of observable output.

I recommend having a read of the Stanford article, which goes into much more detail and refers to a wide library of potential further reading if you’re interested. I hope that I’ve at least raised some questions that you might find it interesting to think about, if nothing else. I should probably mention, by the way, that I’m unlikely to ever claim to offer any actual answers to these problems. I find the problems themselves more interesting, and to be honest I don’t think every question needs an answer anyway. I think some questions are, in themselves, enough.


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