Tag Archives: behaviorism

Can the Clinical Diagnosis of Disorders of Consciousness Avoid Behaviorism?


The “standard approach” in clinical neurology has been accused of suffering from an implicit “behaviorist epistemology” because disorders of consciousness are typically diagnosed on the basis of a lack of behavior. All the gold standard diagnostic assessment programs such as the JFK-Coma Recovery Scale are behavioral in nature insofar as they are expressly looking for behavior or the lack of behavior, either motor behavior or verbal behavior. If the behavior occurs appropriately in response to the command or stimulus then they get points that accumulate towards “normal” consciousness. If no behavior is observable in response to the cue then they don’t get points and are said to have a “disorder of consciousness”.

The problem with this approach is both conceptual and empirical. Conceptually, there is no necessary link between behavior and consciousness because unless you are Gilbert Ryle or Wittgenstein you don’t want to define consciousness in terms of behavior. That is, we don’t want to define “pain” as simply the behavior of your limbs whenever your cells are damaged, or the disposition to say “ouch”. The reason we don’t want to do this is because pain is supposed to be a feeling, painfulness, not a behavior.

Empirically, we know of many cases where behavior and consciousness can be decoupled such as in the total locked-in state where someone’s mind is more-or-less normal but they are completely paralyzed, looking for all intents and purposes like someone in a deep coma or vegetative state yet retaining normal brain function. From the outside they would fail these behavioral assessment techniques yet from the inside have full consciousness. Furthermore we know that in some cases of general anesthesia there can be a complete lack of motor response to stimulation while the person maintains their conscious awareness.

Another problem with the behaviorist epistemology of clinical diagnosis is that the standard assessment scales require a certain level of human expertise in making the diagnostic judgment. Although for most scales there is high inter-rater reliability it nevertheless ultimately comes down to a fallible human making a judgment about someone’s consciousness on the basis of subtle differences between “random” and “meaningful” behavior. A random behavior is just that: a random, reflexive movement that signifies no higher purpose or goal. But if I ask someone to squeeze my hand and they squeeze it, this is a meaningful sign because it suggests that they can listen to language and translate a verbal command to a willed response. But what if the verbal command to squeeze just triggers an unconscious response to squeeze? Sure, it’s possible. No one should rule it out. But what if they do it 5 times in a row? Or what if I say “don’t squeeze my hand” and they don’t squeeze it? Now we are getting into what clinicians call “unambiguous signs of consciousness” because the behavior is expressive of a meaningful purpose and shows what they call “contingency”, which is just another way of saying “appropriate”.

But what does it mean for a behavior to really be meaningful? Just that there is a goal-structure behind it? Or that it is willed? Again, we don’t want to define “meaning” or “appropriateness” in terms of outward behavior because when you are sleepwalking your behavior is goal-structured yet you are not conscious. Or consider the case of automatic writing. In automatic writing one of your hands is capable of having a written conversation and writing meaningful linguistic statements without “you” being in control at all. So clearly there is a possible dissociation between “meaningful” behavior and consciousness. All we can say is that for normal people in normal circumstances meaningful behavior is a good indicator of normal consciousness. But notice how vacuous that statement is. It tells us nothing about the hard cases. 

So in a nutshell the diagnosis of disorders of consciousness has an inescapable element of human subjectivity in it. Which is precisely why researchers are trying to move to brain-based diagnostic tools such as fMRI or EEG, which are supposed to be more “objective” because they skip right over the question of meaningful behavior and look at the “source” of the behavior: the brain itself. But I want to argue such measures can never bypass the subjectivity of diagnosis without going full behaviorist. The reason why brain-based measures of disorders of consciousness are behaviorist is simply because you are looking at the behavior of neurons. You can’t see the “feelings” of neurons from a brain scanner anymore than you can see the “feeling” of pain from watching someone’s limb move. Looking at the brain does not grant you special powers to see consciousness more directly. It is still an indirect measure of consciousness and it will always require the human judgment of the clinician to say “Ok, this brain activity is going to count as a measure towards “normal” consciousness”. It might be slightly more objective but it will never be any less subjective unless you want to define normal consciousness in terms of neural behavior. But how is that any different from standard behaviorism? The only difference is that we are relying on the assumption that neural behavior is the substrate of consciousness. This might be true from a metaphysical perspective. But it’s no help in the epistemology of diagnosis because as an outside observer you don’t see the consciousness. You just see the squishy brain or some representation on a computer screen. I believe there is a circularity here that cannot be escaped but I won’t go into it here (I talk about it in this post).



Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy of science, Psychology, Uncategorized

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?


Filed under Philosophy, Philosophy of science, Psychology

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”.

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Filed under Consciousness, Philosophy, Psychology