On the Alleged Failure of Behaviorism, a Defense of Gilbert Ryle

After having heard so much about Gilbert Ryle’s magnum opus The Concept of Mind, but having never read it myself, I was very much pleased to find a used copy in a bookstore for $5. I have of course heard other people’s comments on The Concept of Mind, but I have only recently come to realize that I have been hearing strawmen. To my estimation, most people think that Ryle gave the best defense of philosophical behaviorism possible, but that the book is still a failure because e.g. it fails to account for subjectivity, phenomenal consciousness, etc. It seems to me that many philosophers are liable to write Ryle off as being a simple minded behaviorist who likened all mental activity to dispositional properties like “the glass is brittle because it will shatter in the right conditions”. Likewise, the accusation against Ryle is that he fails to capture the “inner life” of phenomenal consciousness because everything “mental” is just a behavioral disposition and talk of “inner life” is but a category mistake.

This criticism of Ryle seems to be misguided in that Ryle was far from denying the reality of inner conscious mentality. Indeed, Ryle spends a great amount of time talking about silent monologues “in the head”, imaginings, fancies, conjuring images in the “mind’s eye”, episodic remembering, etc. It seems then that Ryle has a good grasp on the explanandum of consciousness, namely, the internal processes which generate the illusion of having a “mind space” in the head wherein one can carry out activities like silent speech, imagination, rumination, etc. Where Ryle differs from the dualist is not so much in his denying that “inner activity” happens (which would be absurd), but rather, in denying that the “inner mind space” refers to a literal place in the head that is somehow nonphysical. When dualists claim that imagining goes on “in the mind”, they are usually unconsciously adopting the “in the head” metaphor. Ryle is ahead of his time in pointing out the metaphorical character of expressions like “I am having a silent monologue in my head or in my mind”. So the difference between Ryle and the dualist is that whereas the dualists thinks that mental activity literally takes places in a nonphysical “location” (the mind), Ryle recognizes that when someone is having an inner monologue there is only one activity happening, namely, the inner monologue, which is a skill.

So although many philosophers are liable to lump Ryle in with elimativists who deny that mental activity takes place at all, Ryle fully concedes that we do sometimes do things “in our heads” (such as daydream), but he argues that this does not mean that there is a “ghost in the machine”, a secret theater of consciousness that is fully private, inaccessible to others, and wholly mysterious. Ryle claims that we only metaphorically think that there is such a secret theater. We are deluded and misled by inside/outside metaphors into thinking that when we perform inner monologues there is both physical activity (brain processing, etc.) and happenings “in the mind”, which is nonphysical. Instead of two processes happening (one physical, one mental), there is only one process, but it is explainable in multiple ways.

To show this is the case, let’s borrow an example from Wittgenstein and imagine an experimenter who hooked himself up to an fMRI machine so that he could look at his brain activity in realtime as he is thinking various thoughts. Let’s say he has an inner speech thought T, namely, “This is so cool that I can see my brain”. The critical question is, how many things are happening when thought T happens? Is there just one thing? Or two? The dualist is forced to say there are two things: the thought T and the brain activity correlated with the thought. The physicalist says there is only one thing. In concluding that there is only one thing, does the physicalist then deny that thought T happened? Hardly. As Wittgenstein claims, it is legitimate to conclude to both the brain activity and the actual thought T can seen as “expressions of thought”.

Are we then justified in claiming that thought takes place “in the head”? Yes, but only as an hypothesis. The dualist wants to claim that we are justified in claiming that conscious thought happens “in the head” because it seems that their thinking is happening in an “internal mindspace”. The physicalists claims that we are justified in claiming that conscious thought happens “in the head” because the hypothesis “thought takes place in the head” is testable through the fMRI in principle. So what is the superior position? I think the Rylean physicalist is in better shape because the claim about thinking happening in the head/brain is not made on the basis of infallible first-person knowledge, but is arrived at through a public process of reasoning about publicly available data, and is falsifiable (we could, for example, discover that thought actually is beemed into our brains from an alien overlord hovering over Earth).

But what about phenomenal consciousness? Isn’t Rylean behaviorism missing something? I think Ryle has plenty of means to account for the subjective experience of animals, including humans. Since Ryle claims the seat of confusion regarding “inner life” is the mistake of taking metaphorical expressions literally, it seems like we could develop a psychological account of how metaphorical cognition generates feelings of qualia for “insideness”. This would be similar to Julian Jaynes’ approach to consciousness, which sees it has a function operating on the basis of lexical metaphors that generates conscious experiences of “mind space”. When we have an inner speech episode and conclude that because we have such experience there is a literal space inside our heads where such speech takes place, we are being fooled by the illusion of insideness generated by inside/outside metaphors. The illusion persists even once you are aware of it being an illusion.

Consequently, “phenomenal consciousness” can be understood in two ways. The first way is in terms of “what it is like” to be an organism in general. The “who” of this subjectivity is the unconscious self (which might be better thought of as a bundle of selves). The unconscious self is simply that self which reacts to incoming stimuli in such a way as to maintain the autonomy of organismic life. This is why the unconscious is called the adaptive unconscious. It helps all animals stay alive. I believe that the unconscious self is not a special emergent feature of brain activity, but can be found even in organisms who lack a nervous system. The nervous system is merely an evolutionary development of the reactive mind which allows for increasingly adaptive behavior. Of course, the development of the nervous system gives rise to “new phenomenal feels” but I don’t believe these feels are enough to make any sharp evolutionary cut-off point for when “phenomenal consciousness” arose. So in the first sense of phenomenal consciousness, if you are a living organism with a body, then you are phenomenally conscious insofar as there is “something it is like” to react to stimuli an such a way as to maintain your metabolism.

The second sense of phenomenal consciousness can be understood in terms of the “phenomenal difference” of human-specific cognition e.g. rumination, articulation, inner speech, contemplation, imagining, mental time travel, propositional reasoning, full blown theory of mind, etc. I thus claim that “what it is like” to be human is radically different from “what it is like” to be a bat, and that the phenomenal difference is so great as to necessitate a new, evolutionarily recent sense of “phenomenal consciousness” specific to humans. Why is this distinction needed? Because part of the functional-profile of human-specific cognition is to form meta-cognitive acts of amplification and modulation on first-order sensory networks. In essence, human-specific consciousness (which I have called “Jaynesian consciousness”) operates on the information embedded in the adaptive unconscious and generates “higher order” mental states that give rise to new forms of subjective feeling. We can now make distinctions between things like pain and suffering, where pain is a first-order adaptive process and suffering is the conscious rumination on pain. One of the most interesting “side effects” of higher-order phenomenal consciousness is the generation of “sensations”. Conscious sensations are different from the classic psychological distinction between sensation and perception, where sensation is the mere transduction of energy at receptor sites and perception is extracting meaning from the stimulation. On my account, “conscious sensation” is closer to perception than it is sensation. In other words, conscious sensation is the meta-cognitive act of introspecting on first-order perceptual activitiy. This meta-cognitive act generates “feelings” of privacy, inwardness, ineffability, wonder, magic, etc. To introspect on your sensory stream is more than just paying attention to something. It is to experience your own sensations in terms of various mental constructs that are evolutionary recent and socially mediated. Following Dennett and Jaynes, I claim that one cannot have experiences of “inwardness” until there is a social construct available which makes an inside/outside psychological distinction. Such a distinction is evolutionary recent (perhaps less than 10,000 years old). Once the metaphor of inside-outside is available in the community, the brain is able to use it to generate new experiences, such as the phenomenal sensation that you are peering out at the world from behind your eyes. Of course, in ancient times, the “inside” metaphor located the mind inside the heart, not the head. It is only with the advent of neurological science that the social construction of “inside the mind” has come to mean “inside the head”.


1 Comment

Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology

One response to “On the Alleged Failure of Behaviorism, a Defense of Gilbert Ryle

  1. Very interesting article. I found it looking for comments on Ryle’s work. One thing I do disagree with is human consciousness being in a clearly distinct category to other animals, a boundary I’ve always believed was artificial. The recent science shows that most of what we’ve regarded as being purely human traits are present in other animals to a greater or lesser extent, so it’s really a question of degree rather than fundamental difference. I wrote about that here http://www.theideastring.com/a-breed-apart/

    Instead I’ve always believed the difference between human and animal consciousness should be viewed as a collection of ‘modules’ (that’s descriptive not neurological!).

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