Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Quick and Dirty Argument for Behaviorism

1. All the evidence we have as scientific psychologists is publically observable behavioral evidence.

2. The safest epistemic strategy is to limit as much as possible going “beyond” the evidence, an inevitably risky gambit.

3. “Subjectivity”, “mental states”, “cognition”, “representations”, “feelings”, “consciousness”, “awareness”, “experience”, etc. are not publically observable i.e. if you open up someone else’s skull you will not see cognitions or mental states, you will see a pulsating hunk of flesh.

3. If we value epistemic safety above all, we should never leap beyond behavioral evidence to talk about unobservable mental states, unless such talk is self-consciously understood to be an abbreviated paraphrase of a long conjunction of behavior reports. Therefore,

4. The safest epistemological stance in psychology is behaviorism.

But wait! Don’t scientists in other fields go “beyond” raw data by talking about “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms and black holes? If it’s epistemically warranted for physicists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like atoms in order to explain the experimental data, then it should also be okay for psychologists to appeal to “unobservable” theoretical entities like “episodic memory” or “engrams” in order to explain the behavioral data.

Two things can be said in defense of behaviorism.

First, it’s an open question in the philosophy of science whether physicists are in fact epistemically warranted to go “beyond” the data. According to physicist-philosopher-of-science Duhem, theories are only supposed to be tidy and convenient summaries or compressed descriptions of experimental findings, not statements literally describing an unobserved metaphysical reality. On this view, we do not use theoretical entities and equations to explain the data but rather use equations and theories to help us cope with the large and unwieldy collection of facts gathered by experimenters. Duhem argues that if humans didn’t have such finite memories, scientists would not find it necessary to tidily represent messy experimental findings in terms of neat equations and law-like statements.

Consider this: If a theory about domain X is true, then all possible experimental findings relevant to domain X deductively follow from the theory and thus have the same truth-value as a long conjunction of descriptive reports of real scientific experiments. But once you have all the experimental findings on your head, what’s the need for the theory? The need is purely practical, a result of human finitude and our desire for convenience, simplicity, and genuine understanding.

Second, even if we grant physical scientists an epistemic license to go “beyond” the data and talk about theoretical entities, this practice only works well when there are widespread conventions in place for operationalizing theoretical terms (i.e. translating theory into real experimental operations) as well as standards for conducting and verifying results of experimental procedures (measurement verification procedures). It’s not clear to me that cognitive science has reached any widespread consensus on any of these issues.

Compared to “mature” sciences like thermometry with widespread industry standards, there seems to be little if any widespread consensus in the “mind sciences” about theoretical terminology let alone operational criteria for testing theoretical claims or even nailing down what exactly it is we are supposed to be studying in the first place.

Thus, the true problem with psychology is not that it talks about “unobservable” entities or employs theoretical jargon but rather there is no widespread consensus on how to define our concepts and operationalize our methods for getting access to the unobservable phenomena.

The problem facing psychology is two-fold: (1) a lack of consensus on how to pick out the phenomena due to a lack of theoretical consensus in understanding the ostensive definition of a psychological concept and, (2) a lack of consensus on how to interpret the evidence once we have collected it.

 Case in point: recent developments in the “science” of consciousness. First, there is there little to no consensus on where to even look for consciousness to begin the process of measuring it and studying it as a natural phenomena. Can any theorist answer this simple question: should we look for consciousness in insects?

Some theorists think if we looked for it in insects, we will find it because on their definition “consciousness” is not that fancy of a phenomena (e.g. enactivists and neo-panpsychists would both predict a consciousness-meter would register a small amount of consciousness in insects). According to other theorists, if you looked for consciousness in insects you will not find it because on their preferred definition “consciousness” is fancy and thus probably found only in “higher” animals like mammals. Who is right? No appeal to empirical facts will help in this debate because the problem is fundamentally about how to interpret the evidence given all we can go on as psychologists is behavior, which is of course neutral between rival theories of consciousness.

Some might object that I have picked an easy target and that the science of consciousness is a bad example of how psychology in general is done because it is the newest and most immature of the psychological sciences. But in my humble opinion, the science of consciousness is on no worse footing than most other subfields and niches of psychology, which are continually making progress “towards” various grand theories. However, insofar as another subfield of psychology is on firmer ground than consciousness studies, it will be because they have imitated the physical sciences by operationalizing their theoretical concepts in terms that can be directly measured by physical instruments. That is, a subfield of psychology is on firmer epistemic ground insofar as it sticks closer to physical, behavioral evidence, which is all any psychologist has to go on in the end. This is close enough to behaviorism for me.

I have much more to say on this topic, but I promised to be quick and dirty. Remaining questions include: how should we define the observable vs unobservable distinction?


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Quote for the Day – C.S. Peirce on How Philosophy Should Imitate the Sciences

Philosophy out to imitate the successful sciences in its methods, so far as to proceed only from tangible premisses which can be subjected to careful scrutiny, and to trust rather to the multitude and variety of its arguments than to the conclusiveness of any one. Its reasoning should not form a chain which is no stronger than its weakest link, but a cable whose fibres maybe ever so slender, provided they are sufficiently numerous and intimately connected.

~C.S. Peirce, “Some Consequences of Our Incapacities”, quoted in The Pragmatic Maxim, by Christopher Hookway

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Quote for the Day – We Live In a Dappled World

This book supposes that, as appearances suggest, we live in a dappled world, a world rich in different things, with different natures, behaving in different ways. The laws that describe this world are a patchwork, not a pyramid. They do not take after the simple, elegant and abstract structure of a system of axioms and theorems.  Rather they look like—and steadfastly stick to looking like—science as we know it: apportioned into disciplines, apparently arbitrarily grown up; governing different sets of properties at different levels of abstraction; pockets of great precision; large parcels of qualitative maxims resisting precise formulation; erratic overlaps; here and there, once in awhile, corners that line up, but mostly ragged edges; and always the cover of law just loosely attached to the jumbled world of material things.

~Nancy Cartwright, The Dappled World, p. 1

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Quote for the Day – Feynman on Religion: “The stage is too big for the drama.”

“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil—which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”

~Richard Feynman, quoted in Genius, by James Gleick


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Quote for the Day – We Are Our Habits, Especially the Bad Ones

It is a significant fact that in order to appreciate the peculiar place of habit in activity we have to betake ourselves to bad habits, foolish idling, gambling, addiction to liquor and drugs. When we think of such habits, the union of habit with desire and with propulsive power is forced upon us. When we think of habits in terms of walking, playing a musical instrument, typewriting, we are much given to thinking of habits as technical abilities existing apart from our likings and as lacking in urgent impulsion. We think of them as passive tools waiting to be called into action from without. A bad habit suggests an inherent tendency to action and also a hold, command over us. It makes us do things we are ashamed of, things which we tell ourselves we prefer not to do. It overrides our formal resolutions, our conscious decisions. When we are honest with ourselves we acknowledge that a habit has this power because it is so intimately a part of ourselves. It has a hold upon us because we are the habit.

~John Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct

For what it’s worth, this quote is relevant to recent debates over Jason Stanley’s defense of intellectualism. Dewey would say Stanley’s arguments apply only to “technical” aspects of skill; the “propulsive power” at the heart of habits is surely not “intellectual” at its core.

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The Privacy of Science and Why We Can Never Get Away From Ourselves

The physicist P.W. Bridgman wrote extensively on the philosophy of science and is best known for his wide-ranging defense of the “operational method” as a means of getting clear on what we mean by our use of scientific concepts. He is also well-known for the controversial claim that science is essentially a private affair.

Such a claim strikes most of us as odd, but Bridgman claims this is a result of socialization, not reality. We are brought up to think that science is ultimately a public affair, a matter of bringing all knowledge into the public domain, making our research transparent and replicable, our methods visible to all, our facts public, etc. Moreover, in the age of “Big Science” where collaboration between huge teams of people is the new norm in science, the individual component of science is downplayed in favor of consensus, team-building, and the public nature of knowledge.

Bridgman disagreed fundamentally with this view. Instead, Bridgman thought of science as an essentially private affair of individual human scientists struggling to understand the world around them. Why? Bridgman placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of operations in science such as the operation of measuring or double-checking a measurement. Moreover, Bridgman thought that operations are private in the sense that operations are carried out by individual scientists.

Anticipating recent developments in the philosophy of peer disagreement, Bridgman asks us to imagine that you have calculated a mathematical problem and arrived at the answer of 173. Suppose your neighbor says, “Oh, you’ve got that all wrong, the actual answer is 170.” Bridgman asks, would we just take this on testimony? Hardly! If we blindly accepted our neighbor’s answer we would be poor scientists. Rather, what a good scientist would do is double-check the methods used by the neighbor and investigate whether they are performing the same mathematical operations in the same way as we are. Any divergence in the answer must be due to a divergence in operational methods and resolution of the issue will only occur if we cross-check our methods. Not until we have verified the operations ourselves and arrived at the correct answer can we say we have really “understood” the problem. And this is the crux of the issue: understanding.

Bridgman uses peer disagreement as an analogy for all of science. The goal of all scientists should not be consensus without personal understanding, but personal understanding of the consensus. Thus, Bridgman thought that there are as many sciences as there are scientists, with the goal of every scientist being the goal of understanding the world around them. As Sam Harris puts it, “The core of science is not controlled experiment or mathematical modeling; it is intellectual honesty.” Or, as Bridgman famously said, “The scientific method, insofar as it is a method, is doing one’s damndest with one’s mind, no holds barred.”

Why did Bridgman care about the privacy of science so much? It’s because he thought that his peers had not sufficiently appreciated the distinction between the “private level of meanings” and the “public level of meanings”. For example, take the imperative “Verify whether X is 10 meters long.” This imperative can be fulfilled by any scientist so long as they use the conventional operational methods e.g. a meter-stick. Nothing private about that. Now, in contrast, take the imperative “Verify whether X has a toothache.” Crucially, the methods used to carry out this imperative vary drastically depending on who the X is. If the X refers to myself, I can hardly communicate how it is that I “know” I have a toothache. I just introspect it “directly”. In contrast, if the X refers to my neighbor, the method of verification is going to be extremely indirect. It becomes even more difficult when the X refers to a non-verbal animal, like cat or rat.

Bridgman took this all as incontrovertible evidence that psychologistic terms have a “dual meaning”. The concept of a “toothache” has both a private and a public meaning according to the method of operationalism. The private level is due to the fact that the method I use to verify my own toothache is very different from how I verify if anyone else has a toothache. But the public level comes from the fact that everyone understands what I mean when I say “My toothache”. They are understanding the public level. On the public level we are allowed to say “My neighbor’s toothache” even though the methods of verification are radically different. But when you examine the issue carefully, there are really two concepts at work: “Toothaches-for-me” and “Toothaches-for-you”.

Bridgman thought this duality of meaning is rampant but not well-appreciated. Once we realize that there are some operations that are essentially private, we come to the realization that, as Bridgman says, “We can never get away from ourselves.” Even science, the most “public” of all activities, is going to have some concepts that have the private/public duality. This is particularly true for psychological sciences, where the problem of operationalism is most striking. When a psychologist studies “consciousness”, the methods of study will look drastically different depending on whether they are studying themselves, other humans, or non-human animals. “Introspectional” words like “consciousness” or “pain” have a private nature, but scientists must study them in other creatures using only the public-level of meaning.

The mistake though is to completely ignore the private level and act like everything has been accounted for if we have the complete account in behavioral terms. However, this is not to say that Bridgman endorses dualism, or that a recognition of the private level of meaning is due to the fact that physicalism is false. As Bridgman notes, the privacy of meanings can be explained by the fact that my brain is in my skull and your brain is in your skull. If we were born with fused brains, or a clever neuroscientists managed to splice us together, the “essential” privacy of introspectional terms would lose some of essentialness. Thus, privacy is a contingent fact about organisms, not a fundamental fact of how the universe works.

But nevertheless, privacy of introspectional terminology is a fact of life that everyone must eventually come to grips with. One worry is that the emphasis of privacy leads to a kind of solipsism where we are alone in the universe of our own minds. But so what? Maybe this is true. So long as solipsism is not taken to be the view that only my mind exists, the thesis of solipsism has an element of truth if it is stated only in terms of privacy, not existence.

I can be perfectly happy claiming that other minds exist, but I must resolve myself to the fact that the method of verifying other minds feel pain in the way I do is essentially different from the way I verify my own feelings of pain. And the  same applies to every other kind of mental phenomena, including perceptions, feelings, meanings, etc. The method I use to determine if you perceive the same thing as I do is different from the method I use to determine what I perceive. The method I use to know what I mean by a certain word is essentially different from the method I use to know what anyone else means by the term, and I can never be sure we mean exactly the same thing unless there is agreement about operational methods. But as we have seen, some operations are essentially private and we must learn to live with that.


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Quote for the Day – The Hunch That Killed Pluto

By now it seemed to me inevitable that, whether anyone realized it or not, astronomers were on an unstoppable march that would eventually lead to a tenth planet. It seemed to me obvious that it was there, slowly circling the sun, just waiting for the moment when someone somewhere pointed a telescope at the right spot, noticed something that hadn’t been there earlier, and suddenly announced to an unsuspecting world that our solar system had more than nine planets.

Sitting beneath the massive Hale Telescope that foggy night, ever the scientist, Sabine asked, “What evidence do you have?”

I told her about all of the recent astronomical discoveries. But when pressed for evidence, I had to admit: I had none whatsoever. I had a hunch. Officially, scientists don’t work on hunches. We work on hypotheses and observations and plenty of evidence. Hunches don’t get you research funding, tenure at your university, or access to the world’s largest telescopes. But a hunch was all I had. No one had systematically looked across the sky for a new planet since the 1930s, when Pluto itself was found, and even though astronomers knew of almost five hundred bodies in the Kuiper belt, the searches had been, of necessity, piecemeal, and no one had yet mounted a careful search like the one that had uncovered Pluto. Now, seventy years after the discovery of Pluto, telescopes were bigger and better, computers made searches vastly more powerful, and astronomers simply knew more about what they were looking for. How could it be that if someone went and looked again for a new planet they wouldn’t find something that had been just beyond the reach of the telescopes in the 1930s? There had to be a tenth planet. The possibility that Pluto was a unique planetary oddball out at the edge of the solar system seemed absurd to me.

~Mike Brown, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming

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