Tag Archives: operationalism

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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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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The Distressing Swiftness of Contemporary Philosophical Argumentation

David Chalmers recently posted a paper about panpsychism to his blog. Like an addict returning to the source of their troubles, I can’t help but read almost everything Chalmers writes when it comes to consciousness. He calls his argument for panpsychism “Hegelian” because it works using a thesis, antithesis, and synthesis structure. The thesis is materialism, the antithesis is the conceivability argument against materialism, and the synthesis is panpsychism. Because the paper is focused on panpsychism, Chalmers sets up the thesis and antithesis quickly. Using his finely honed but slightly worn stock pile of arguments against materialism, Chalmers is deftly able to dismiss his opponents in a single sentence! Consider this paragraph after presenting the antithesis:

Materialists do not just curl up and die when confronted with the conceivability argument and its cousins. Type-A materialists reject the epistemic premise, holding for example that zombies are not conceivable. Type-B materialists reject the step from an epistemic premise to an ontological conclusion, holding for example that conceivability does not entail possibility. Still, there are significant costs to both of these views. Type-A materialism seems to require something akin to an analytic functionalist view of consciousness, which most philosophers find too deflationary to be plausible.

For those not acquainted with Chalmers neat taxonomy of everyone who disagrees with him, “Type-A materialism” is that view that zombies are not conceivable. Chalmers created the Type-A concept basically as an honorary category reserved especially for Dan Dennett’s writings on qualia. Crudely stated, Dennett’s Type-A materialism amounts to the view that serious scientific (or philosophical) theorizing about qualia is misguided and confused for innumerable reasons and that people who use the term in the way Chalmers does generally don’t know what they are talking about, or if they do they can’t explain it to anyone else, and that we’re better off denying qualia exist or replacing the qualia concept with some better, more fruitful way of thinking about minds.

But notice the incredibly swiftness of Chalmers dismissal of Type-A materialism as high-lighted by the above bolded statement. He says Type-A materialism is not worth our time because “most philosophers find it too deflationary to be plausible.” However, Type-A materialists are a minority position in consciousness studies precisely because they are equivalent to the phlogiston naysayers who argued that the concept “phlogiston” is an empty symbol, like “the present king of France”. So of course most philosophers are going to “find it too deflationary”! But that’s not an argument! That’s just citing a sociological fact that as a matter of course most people who study qualia disagree with the people who say it’s a bad idea to try and study qualia! The dismissal amounts to nothing more than doing philosophy by survey. Because “most philosophers” find it implausible, it can be dismissed in a single sentence, which is equivalent to saying “A minority view is not held by a majority of philosophers, therefore the minority view is not worth our time.”

This curtness of dialectical engagement with critics who are skeptical of the basic presuppositions surrounding talk of qualia highlights what I see as a critical weakness in the “normal science” of qualia studies: insufficiently precise definitions of concepts. For example, look at how Chalmers sets up the theory of panpsychism:

I will understand panpsychism as the thesis that some fundamental physical entities are conscious: that is, that there is something it is like to be a quark or a photon or a member of some other fundamental physical type.

In defining what it means to call protons conscious he appeals to another concept: what-it-is-likeness, which is left completely undefined under the tacit assumption we know perfectly what it means. But, what exactly does it mean? I have no idea. No one who seriously uses the concept has ever given me a satisfactory answer when I press them to define it without appeal to concepts that are equally mysterious e.g. “awareness”, “experience”, “phenomenal”, etc. At this point my interlocutors will just try to get me to sound “weird” and ask “C’mon Gary, are you seriously denying there is something it is like to drink that beer you’re sipping?” And yes,  I will deny it but only because I am unclear what that term means and don’t wish to say nonsensical things and thumping the table and appealing to crass intuitions is unlikely to convince me that our discussion is on firm ground.

P.W. Bridgman anticipated this problem when he wrote in his 1927 book The Logic of Modern Physics that:

It is a task for experiment to discover whether concepts so defined correspond to anything in nature, and we must always be prepared to find that the concepts correspond to nothing or only partially correspond. In particular, if we examine the definition of absolute time in the light of experiment, we find nothing of absolute time in the light of experiment, we find nothing in nature with such properties.

Bridgman’s diagnosis is that these “empty concepts” are often not defined  in a sufficiently operational manner in order to be amenable to empirical inquiry, the heart and soul of science. If you cannot devise or imagine an experiment that would determine if there is anything in nature corresponding to your proposed theoretical entity, then your theoretical concept is unfruitful to scientific progress in the highest degree. Bridgman cites the following as a good example of a “meaningless” question i.e. a question that cannot be operationally defined so as to be resolvable by means of the physical measurement instruments used in science to conduct experimentation:

Is the sensation which I call blue really the same as that which my neighbor calls blue? Is it possible that a blue object may arouse in him the same sensation a red object does in me and vice versa? 

Bridgman doesn’t actually claim this question is meaningless, but suggests “The reader may amuse himself by finding whether [it has] meaning or not”. My guess would be no.

Bridgman’s work is like a breathe of fresh air after wading through the foggy mires of qualia studies. I am intent on studying Bridgman more, so don’t be surprised to see his name being mentioned on this blog more frequently henceforth.

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Book notice – Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature

Hasok Chang’s book Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress (OUP, 2004) is a brilliant  example of how to do history and philosophy of science in a rigorous but endlessly fascinating fashion. Chang’s discussion of operationalism, coherentism, and epistemic iteration have had a huge impact on my recent thinking in regards to how to evaluate the prospects for current and future scientific approaches to consciousness.

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