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The Comedy of Behaviorism

12 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2008 08:42PM

Followup toHumans in Funny Suits

"Let me see if I understand your thesis.  You think we shouldn't anthropomorphize people?"
        -- Sidney Morgenbesser to B. F. Skinner

Behaviorism was the doctrine that it was unscientific for a psychologist to ascribe emotions, beliefs, thoughts, to a human being.  After all, you can't directly observe anger or an intention to hit someone.  You can only observe the punch.  You may hear someone say "I'm angry!" but that's hearing a verbal behavior, not seeing anger.  Thoughts are not observable, therefore they are unscientific, therefore they do not exist.  Oh, you think you're thinking, but that's just a delusion - or it would be, if there were such things as delusions.

This was before the day of computation, before the concept of information processing, before the "cognitive revolution" that led to the modern era.  If you looked around for an alternative to behaviorism, you didn't find, "We're going to figure out how the mind processes information by scanning the brain, reading neurons, and performing experiments that test our hypotheses about specific algorithms."  You found Freudian psychoanalysis.  This may make behaviorism a bit more sympathetic.

Part of the origin of behaviorism, was in a backlash against substance dualism - the idea that mind is a separate substance from ordinary physical phenomena.  Today we would say, "The apparent specialness comes from the brain doing information-processing; a physical deed to be sure, but one of a different style from smashing a brick with a sledgehammer."  The behaviorists said, "There is no mind."  (John B. Watson, founder of behaviorism, in 1928.)

The behaviorists outlawed not just dualistic mind-substance, but any such things as emotions and beliefs and intentions (unless defined in terms of outward behavior).  After all, science had previously done away with angels, and de-gnomed the haunted mine.  Clearly the method of reason, then, was to say that things didn't exist.  Having thus fathomed the secret of science, the behaviorists proceeded to apply it to the mind.

You might be tempted to say, "What fools!  Obviously, the mind, like the rainbow, does exist; it is to be explained, not explained away.  Saying 'the subject is angry' helps me predict the subject; the belief pays its rent.  The hypothesis of anger is no different from any other scientific hypothesis."

That's mostly right, but not that final sentence.  "The subject is angry, even though I can't read his mind" is not quite the same sort of hypothesis as "this hydrogen atom contains an electron, even though I can't see it with my naked eyes".

Let's say that I have a confederate punch the research subject in the nose.  The research subject punches the confederate back.

The behaviorist says, "Clearly, the subject has been previously conditioned to punch whoever punches him."

But now let's say that the subject's hands are tied behind his back, so that he can't return the punch.  On the hypothesis that the subject becomes angry, and wants to hurt the other person, we might predict that the subject will take any of many possible avenues to revenge - a kick, a trip, a bite, a phone call two months later that leads the confederate's wife and girlfriend to the same hotel...  All of these I can predict by saying, "The subject is angry, and wants revenge."  Even if I offer the subject a new sort of revenge that the subject has never seen before.

You can't account for that by Pavlovian reflex conditioning, without hypothesizing internal states of mind.

And yet - what is "anger"?  How do you know what is the "angry" reaction?  How do you know what tends to cause "anger"?  You're getting good predictions of the subject, but how?

By empathic inference: by configuring your own brain in a similar state to the brain that you want to predict (in a controlled sort of way that doesn't lead you to actually hit anyone).  This may yield good predictions, but that's not the same as understanding.  You can predict angry people by using your own brain in empathy mode.  But could you write an angry computer program?  You don't know how your brain is making the successful predictions.  You can't print out a diagram of the neural circuitry involved.  You can't formalize the hypothesis; you can't make a well-understood physical system that predicts without human intervention; you can't derive the exact predictions of the model; you can't say what you know.

In modern cognitive psychology, there are standard ways of handling this kind of problem in a "scientific" way.  One panel of reviewers rates how much a given stimulus is likely to make a subject "angry", and a second independent panel of reviewers rate how much a given response is "angry"; neither being told the purpose of the experiment.  This is designed to prevent self-favoring judgments of whether the experimental hypothesis has been confirmed.  But it doesn't get you closer to opening the opaque box of anger.

Can you really call a hypothesis like that a model?  Is it really scientific?  Is it even Bayesian - can you talk about it in terms of probability theory?

The less radical behaviorists did not say that the mind unexisted, only that no scientist should ever talk about the mind.  Suppose we now allow all algorithmic hypotheses about the mind, where the hypothesis is framed in terms that can be calculated on a modern computer, so that experimental predictions can be formally made and observationally confirmed.  This gets you a large swathe of modern cognitive science, but not the whole thing.  Is the rest witchcraft?

I would say "no".  In terms of probability theory, I would see "the subject is angry" as a hypothesis relating the output of two black boxes, one of which happens to be located inside your own brain.  You're supposing that the subject, whatever they do next, will do something similar to this 'anger' black box.  This 'anger' box happens to be located inside you, but is nonetheless opaque, and yet still seems to have a strong, observable correspondence to the other 'anger' box.  If two black boxes often have the same output, this is an observable thing; it can be described by probability theory.

From the perspective of scientific procedure, there are many 'anger' boxes scattered around, so we use other 'anger' boxes instead of the experimenter's.  And since all the black boxes are noisy and have poorly controlled environments, we use multiple 'anger' boxes in calculating our theoretical predictions, and more 'anger' boxes to gather our experimental results.  That may not be as precise as a voltmeter, but it's good enough to do repeatable experimental science.

(Over on the Artificial Intelligence side of things, though, any concept you can't compute is magic.  At best, it's a placeholder for your speculations, a space where you'll put a real theory later.  Marcello and I adopted the rule of explicitly saying 'magical' to describe any cognitive operation that we didn't know exactly how to compute.)

Oh, and by the way, I suspect someone will say:  "But you can account for complex revenges using behaviorism: you just say the subject is conditioned to take revenge when punched!"  Unless you can calculate complex revenges with a computer program, you are using your own mind to determine what constitutes a "complex revenge" or not.  Using the word "conditioned" just disguises the empathic black box - the empathic black box was contained in the concept of revenge, that you can recognize, but which you could not write a program to recognize.

So empathic cognitive hypotheses, as opposed to algorithmic cognitive hypotheses, are indeed special.  They require special handling in experimental procedure; they cannot qualify as final theories.

But for the behaviorists to react to the sins of Freudian psychoanalysis and substance dualism, by saying that the subject matter of empathic inference did not exist...

...okay, I'm sorry, but I think that even without benefit of hindsight, that's a bit silly.  Case in point of reversed stupidity is not intelligence.

Behaviorism stands beside Objectivism as one of the great historical lessons against rationalism.

Now, you do want to be careful when accusing people of "rationalism".  It seems that most of the times I hear someone accused of "rationalism", it is typically a creationist accusing someone of "rationalism" for denying the existence of God, or a psychic believer accusing someone of "rationalism" for denying the special powers of the mind, etcetera.

But reversed stupidity is not intelligence: even if most people who launch accusations of "rationalism" are creationists and the like, this does not mean that no such error as rationalism exists.  There really is a fair amount of historical insanity of various folks who thought of themselves as "rationalists", but who mistook some correlate of rationality for its substance.

And there is a very general problem where rationalists occasionally do a thing, and people assume that this act is the very substance of the Way and you ought to do it as often as possible.

It is not the substance of the Way to reject entities about which others have said stupid things.  Though sometimes, yes, people say stupid things about a thing which does not exist, and a rationalist will say "It does not exist".  It is not the Way to assert the nonexistence of that which is difficult to measure.  Though sometimes, yes, that which is difficult to observe, is not there, and a rationalist will say "It is not there".  But you also have to make equally accurate predictions without the discarded concept.  That part is key.

The part where you cry furiously against ancient and outmoded superstitions, the part where you mock your opponents for believing in magic, is not key.  Not unless you also take care of that accurate predictions thing.

Crying "Superstition!" does play to the audience stereotype of rationality, though.  And indeed real rationalists have been known to thus inveigle - often, indeed - but against gnomes, not rainbows.  Knowing the difference is the difficult part!  You are not automatically more hardheaded as a rationalist, the more things whose existence you deny.  If it is good to deny phlogiston, it is not twice as good to also deny anger.

Added:  I found it difficult to track down primary source material online, but behaviorism-as-denial-of-mental does not seem to be a straw depiction.  I was able to track down at least one major behaviorist (J.B. Watson, founder of behaviorism) saying outright "There is no mind."  See my comment below.

Comments (54)

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Comment author: Per 02 August 2008 09:05:56PM 0 points [-]

This is a straw man representation of behaviorism. No behaviorist claims that thinking is a delusion, just that it is hard to measure.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2008 09:21:25PM 2 points [-]

Per, see the SEP entry or Wikipedia entry on Behaviorism. Skinner, in particular, does appear to have espoused that version from what I can make out.

I don't expect there are many Skinnerian behaviorists left nowadays, but the memes are still floating around in fields outside psychology.

Comment author: DeeElf 19 September 2012 01:16:03AM *  4 points [-]

Really? "Skinnerian" behaviorism (Skinner preferred the term "radical behaviorism") is thriving.

The Perfected Self B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will (The Atlantic Monthly, June 2012).

I personally know several radical behaviorists/applied behavior analysts working in the social services and animal control/training fields, and operant learning is still a staple of educational training and delivery.

Nobody likes to think of themselves as governed by the same laws pigeons in a Skinner box are, but.... Try this thought experiment: think back over the past 24 hrs. of your life. How many levers, buttons, etc..., have you manipulated in that sample? Now, imagine for some reason in that time frame you were restricted from using any levers, buttons, etc.... Like my wife said when I ran it not her, "Makes it virtually impossible to get shit done."

Comment author: poke 02 August 2008 09:32:17PM 0 points [-]

Skinner was correct that mind, intentionality, thought, desire, etc, are unscientific. Where behaviorism went wrong was ascribing behavior to conditioning and underplaying the role of biology (although Skinner never denied the importance of biology; unlike Chomsky and the computationalists). I'd accuse computationalism of being "cryptodualism" except that Chomsky's project was explicitly Cartesian and was only non-dualistic in the sense that he believed the laws of physics would have to change to incorporate non-biological computational models of the mind.

If your view is simply that the brain is performing computations and that it makes sense to talk about them in terms of algorithms then that's fine. I have no problem with that. If you're going to argue, as some philosophers do, that this somehow vindicates "the mind" and the posits of folk psychology then you're making a very different argument altogether. Skinner's belief that intentionality is on par with Aristotelian teleological physics is perfectly compatible with the first view. The notion that calling the brain a computer and talking about algorithms naturalizes dualism (i.e., the algorithms are the mind and the brain is the implementation), on the other hand, is pure mysticism.

Comment author: Caledonian2 02 August 2008 10:31:01PM 6 points [-]

I don't have the exact quote at hand, but there's a section in LeGuin's The Lathe of Heaven that paraphrases something like this: "People say dreams aren't real, but when you've seen as many EEG patterns as I have, you recognize that dreams are real events that have real effects. There's nothing unreal about them."

Psychology had no answer to Skinner's criticisms until 1) behavioral studies were able to show that the time it took for people to answer a question about object identity and rotation was related to the degree of rotation (in a famous experiment Eliezer has previously referenced), establishing that observation of behavior was capable of illuminating interior process, and 2) more-advanced technologies were capable of permitting the observation of interior events not previously accessible.

The notion that calling the brain a computer and talking about algorithms naturalizes dualism (i.e., the algorithms are the mind and the brain is the implementation), on the other hand, is pure mysticism.

No; I rather think that you don't fully understand the implications of the propositions you're discussing. The brain is a computer in the most literal sense of the word, and asserting this fact is neither controversial nor exceptional.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 02 August 2008 10:46:21PM 3 points [-]

poke: Skinner's belief that intentionality is on par with Aristotelian teleological physics is perfectly compatible with the first view.

Whatever views his belief may be compatible with, it is not compatible with reality. That is, it is false. Intentionality is explainable in physical terms. An intention is the reference signal of a control system, and a control system is something that acts so as to maintain a perceptual signal close to its reference signal.

I could expand on that, but not within the confines of a comment on this blog. It might take a few dozen Eliezer-style posts to cover the distance properly.

Comment author: Caledonian2 02 August 2008 10:54:25PM 4 points [-]

It might be more useful to examine Wikipedia's article on Radical Behaviorism, which if memory serves does a moderately good job at presenting Skinner's positions.

It also distinguishes his ideas from various others which they are frequently confused with.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 02 August 2008 11:19:55PM 1 point [-]

Caledonian, interesting. The SEP article on behaviorism seemed to be identifying "radical behaviorism" with the denial of the mental, but perhaps I misinterpreted? In any case I'm inclined to trust Wikipedia here, which indicates that the extreme version of behaviorism should be identified with John B. Watson, an earlier founder.

I do not, however, see any indication that the denial-of-mind version of behaviorism is straw; as far as I can make out, it was seriously advocated.

Comment author: Shmuel 03 August 2008 12:22:11AM 0 points [-]

Q: What does one behaviorist greet another?

A: How am I?

Comment author: Shmuel 03 August 2008 12:24:55AM 5 points [-]

I screwed that up..

The joke goes:

How does one behaviorist greet another?

"How am I doing today?"

Comment author: Romeo_Stevens 03 August 2008 02:09:38AM 0 points [-]

the lack of explicit definitions when it comes to emotion doesn't strike me as a very interesting problem. different behaviors will become associated with different brain states depending on environmental conditioning.

Comment author: Doug_S. 03 August 2008 05:34:02AM 2 points [-]
Comment author: komponisto2 03 August 2008 06:39:32AM 2 points [-]

Eliezer, it's particularly important to make a distinction, as the SEP and Wikipedia articles do to an extent, between "behaviorism" as a methodological stance in the field of psychology (of which Skinner was an advocate), and "(logical) behaviorism" as a position in the philosophy of mind associated with the logical positivists such as Carnap.

Carnap's thesis, as expressed in his 1932/33 article "Psychology in Physical Language", was simply that psychology could (ultimately) be reduced to physics -- a proposition I presume you accept, but which used to be controversial, and still is in some quarters. Because neuroscience was not as advanced in the 1930s as it is now, the examples that Carnap gave of "translations" (e.g. "Mr. A is excited" translates into various propositions about his physical behavior, such as jumping up and down yelling, high blood pressure, etc.) have mislead some later readers (such as Hilary Putnam) into thinking that Carnap was saying mental states just consist of observed macroscopic behavior. In truth, however, there is nothing in Carnap's article to suggest that the "behavior" of which mental states are alleged to consist excludes the microscopic behavior of neurons.

Comment author: Lara_Foster 03 August 2008 01:08:43PM 0 points [-]

I am pleased that you mention that (at present) the human brain is still the best predictor of other humans' behavior, even if we don't understand why (yet). I've always known my intuitions to be very good predictors of what people will do and feel, though it's always been a struggle trying to formalize what I already *know* into some useful model that could be applied by anyone...

However, I was once told my greatest strength in understanding human behavior was *not* my intuitions, but my ability to evaluate intuitions as one piece of evidence among others, not assuming they are tyrranically correct (which they are certainly not), and thus improving accuracy... Maybe instead of throwing the baby out with the bathwater on human intuitions of empathy, we should practice some sort of semi-statistical evaluation of how certain we feel about a conclusion and update it for other factors. Do you do this already, Eliezer? How?

Comment author: poke 03 August 2008 01:17:13PM 3 points [-]

Methodological behaviorism took private mental events to be off limits but (most) behaviorists still believed they existed. Skinner took introspection and self-knowledge to by types of behavior and explicitly denied the mental. Eliezer's analysis is correct insofar as Skinner denied the mental but the passages about not being able to account for complex behavior are wrong. Skinner took behavior to be a product of environmental conditioning and evolved physiology.

Here's Skinner explaining radical behaviorism in the opening of About Behaviorism:

"Mentalism kept attention away from the external antecedent events which might have explained behavior, by seeming to supply an alternative explanation. Methodological behaviorism did just the reverse; by dealing exclusively with external antecedent events it turned attention away from self-observation and self-knowledge. Radical behaviorism restores some kind of balance. ... It does not call these events unobservable, and it does not dismiss them as subjective. It simply questions the nature of the object observed and the reliability of the observations."

(Note how similar the final sentence is to eliminativists like Chruchland and Dennett who emphasize that introspection is fallible.)

"The position can be stated as follows: what is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind or mental life but the observer's own body. ... An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection."

"[W]e can look at those features of behavior which have led people to speak of an act of will, of a sense of purpose, of experience as distinct from reality, of innate or acquired ideas, of memories, meanings, and the personal knowledge of the scientist, and of hundreds of other mentalistic things or events. Some can be 'translated into behavior,' others discarded as unnecessary or meaningless." (Emphasis mine.)

Skinner was essentially an eliminative materialist who relied too heavily on the tools of his time (operant conditioning). He denied that the brain had the structure of folk psychology (what the behaviorists called mentalism) and emphasized conditioning and evolved physiology (he talked about evolution explicitly).

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 03 August 2008 01:27:21PM 0 points [-]

The description of behaviorists does seem a bit cartoonish, but still it's a great post and an interesting thought provoking read. Good to see a commenter of the calibre of Richard Kennaway in the thread, too.

Comment author: poke 03 August 2008 01:51:03PM 0 points [-]

Richard Kennaway,

Whatever views his belief may be compatible with, it is not compatible with reality. That is, it is false. Intentionality is explainable in physical terms. An intention is the reference signal of a control system, and a control system is something that acts so as to maintain a perceptual signal close to its reference signal.

Everybody has a pet theory of intentionality. The problem isn't intentionality but why anybody would want to explain intentionality in the first place. You're either explaining: (a) a part of what you take to be your experience of the world; or (b) a part of our folk psychological explanations of behavior. Either way, you're not doing science to begin with, so it's unlikely you'd stumble upon science along the way.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 August 2008 02:28:50PM 1 point [-]

Secondary sources were giving me contradictory indications on this, so I went looking for primary sources. The closest thing I could find to a denial of mentalism was this by John B. Watson:

With the advent of behaviorism in 1913 the mind-body problem disappeared — not because ostrich-like its devotees hid their heads in the sand but because they would take no account of phenomena which they could not observe. The behaviorist finds no mind in his laboratory — sees it nowhere in his subjects. Would he not be unscientific if he lingered by the wayside and idly speculated upon it; just as unscientific as the biologists would be if they lingered over the contemplation of entelechies, engrams and the like. Their world and the world of the behaviorist are filled with facts — with data which can be accumulated and verified by observation — with phenomena which can be predicted and controlled.

If the behaviorists are right in their contention that there is no observable mind-body problem and no observable separate entity called mind — then there can be no such thing as consciousness and its subdivision. Freud's concept borrowed from somatic pathology breaks down. There can be no festering spot in the substratum of the mind — in the unconscious — because there is no mind.

-- John B. Watson, The Unconscious of the Behaviorist

Later on in the same document, when Watson says...

May I stop for just one moment to give the behaviorist's view of what most people mean or at least should mean when they say they are conscious or have consciousness? They mean, in my opinion, that they can carry on some kind of brief sub-vocal talk with "themselves" behind the closed doors of the lips.

...he would seem to be referring to actual small movements of the tongue, according to his earlier work Is Thinking Merely the Action of Language Mechanisms?

I had read this earlier work and thought that, while wrong in its reduction, it was not outright eliminative with respect to thinking - thinking was to be explained in terms of subvocal tongue movements(!) but still explained. However, I get the impression that Watson grew more extreme over time (a common phenomenon).

I am unable to find online the referenced text of his 1930 attack on the mind as an "old wives' tale".

But I don't think that "major behaviorists denied the existence of the mind" is straw.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 03 August 2008 02:40:07PM 2 points [-]

poke: Your argument applies to any mental phenomena whatsoever, a position which I consider sufficiently silly to not trouble with further. The problem is intentionality, which can be explained as rainbows are explained, not as kobolds are explained away. Operant conditioning is insufficient even for the latter.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 03 August 2008 03:33:35PM 6 points [-]

Eliezer: I am unable to find online the referenced text of his 1930 attack on the mind as an "old wives' tale".

The text is Watson's book "Behaviorism", to which there is limited access on Google Books. The phrase occurs exactly once, on p.118, but not in close connection with the mind. However, searching the text for "mind" provides ample evidence that he claimed there was no such thing. A few examples:

"X. Talking and thinking. Which, when rightly understood, goes far in breaking down the fiction that there is any such thing as 'mental' life." (Table of contents)

"How do you suppose Patou builds a new gown? Has he any "picture in his mind" of what the gown is to look like when it is finished? He has not, or he would not waste his time making it up; he would make a rough sketch of it or he would tell his assistant how to make it." (p.198)

"If 'mind' acts on body, then all physical laws are invalid." (p.243, emphasis in the original)

The second quote is particularly interesting, because at that point Watson is face to face with the truth, then turns 180 degrees away from it. A picture in his mind of the finished gown is precisely what the dressmaker has. He intends to perceive a gown of such and such a form, and the actions he takes in making it are chosen to produce that perception. The actions stop when he sees before him the gown that he conceived.

The last quote suggests an explanation, if not a justification, for his position. He could not solve the question "what is mind?", and hit the Ignore button.

Comment author: ScentOfViolets 03 August 2008 03:53:48PM 0 points [-]

No doubt there is also a privileged historical reference as well. Angels? Disembodied souls? Positively medieval. Dualism? A bit dressier, but still discredited. Free will? That's something still being disputed, but the free will of modernists is not the free will bandied about half a millenia ago. That seems to be yet another convenient myth. So how about consciousness and 'internal' states? I could see quite easily a future where the 'consciousness' of the late 22nd century is not the consciousness of today. This is not too far from modern consciousness being a relatively new historical phenomenon ala Jaynes, btw. And points to the difficulty of acquiring evidence that such is the case; the absence of fossilized remains being something of a hindrance.

Comment author: false_vacuum 26 September 2010 12:51:57PM 0 points [-]

This presumably refers to Julian Jaynes and The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. (I haven't read it; I was sure until I checked that Dennett discussed it extensively in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but I can't find such a discussion now, and thus have no idea why I know about it.)

Comment author: Morendil 26 September 2010 01:21:01PM 0 points [-]

Dennett touches on it (IIRC) in Consciousness Explained, maybe that's where you remember it from...

Comment author: false_vacuum 26 September 2010 02:25:39PM 0 points [-]

Jaynes is first mentioned on p. 221 of Consciousness Explained, and I haven't got that far yet. I'm really rather perplexed about this; I have a distinct memory of reading about Jaynes' bicameral mind, in some detail, in something by Dennett (around the same time I was reading Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, oddly enough--which was late last fall, I think). The slight reference in DDI that I can find almost certainly wouldn't have been enough to prompt me to look it up (although I looked up and learned about a lot of things as a result of reading that book).

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 September 2010 04:13:30PM 0 points [-]

Jaynes also gets a mention in Breaking the Spell.

Comment author: gwern 26 September 2010 02:08:06PM 0 points [-]

Would you like to read it? I have a (not too great) scan of it.

Comment author: false_vacuum 27 September 2010 05:49:54AM *  0 points [-]

Sorry, didn't see this right away for some reason. Yeah, I think I'd like to read it at some point. And I don't see it on the internet, so I'll take you up on your offer. Could you send a copy to [email address redacted]?

Comment author: gwern 27 September 2010 12:59:17PM 1 point [-]
Comment author: false_vacuum 28 September 2010 08:16:48AM 0 points [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: Ian_Maxwell 03 August 2008 03:57:23PM 1 point [-]

I agree that this post's introduction to behaviorism is no more than a common mischaracterization. It is the sort of mischaracterization that has spread farther than the original idea, to the point that psychology textbooks (which are more often than not terribly inaccurate) repeat the error and psychology graduates write Wikipedia articles saying that "Behaviorists believe consciousness does not exist".

Behaviorism is a methodology, not a hypothesis. It is the methodology that attempts to explain behavior without recourse to internal mental states. The basis for this approach is that internal mental states can only be inferred from behavior in the first place, so that they offer no additional predictive power. That said, it may turn out that a certain class of behaviors tend to lump together, and there would be no problem in labelling these "angry behaviors" or "vengeful behaviors" and describing an organism as "angry" when it exhibits angry behaviors. A behaviorist will not hypothesize that there is an internal angry feeling corresponding to this angry state. He will not hypothesize that there is not an internal angry feeling corresponding to this angry state. He will not hypothesize about internal feelings at all, because he has no way of testing his hypothesis if he does.

It may be that modern neuroscience makes certain "internal explanations" testable after all. This does not make behaviorism a bad methodology! It works quite well if you don't happen to have an MRI scanner on hand. It works a lot better than ascribing a subject's lashing out to "rage" and, when asking how you know he's enraged, saying, "Because he's lashing out."

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 August 2008 04:08:43PM 2 points [-]

Ian, Watson specifically said:

"If the behaviorists are right in their contention that there is no observable mind-body problem and no observable separate entity called mind — then there can be no such thing as consciousness and its subdivision. Freud's concept borrowed from somatic pathology breaks down. There can be no festering spot in the substratum of the mind — in the unconscious — because there is no mind."

I do not see how this can reasonably be interpreted as a methodological prohibition against talking about minds. Watson would have it that Freud's theories about mental disease are prohibited of being correct, because there is nothing there to be diseased.

Comment author: Q_the_Enchanter 03 August 2008 04:20:26PM -1 points [-]

The redefinition of folk concepts or archaic philosophical coinages so that they denote things that are real (per our current understanding) is a fun game. 'God exists' is true, for example, if God is (say) the whole of reality. 'We have free will' is true, for example, if free will is reasons-responsiveness. 'The mind exists' is true, for example, if minds are what brains do.

I'm sure 'intentionality' exists too. In some sense.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight3 03 August 2008 05:47:16PM 0 points [-]

I think this post contains too little context about why we should care. Is the behaviorist doctrine sillier than other scientists' descriptions of their methodologies? Did it damage their research? I imagine that it played a bigger role in status games than most descriptions of methodology, but a lot of inappropriate things play such roles. Maybe this one had more collateral damage than usual, but I see no reason to conclude that.

If you push most scientists, they will start reciting Popper, but this recitation has very little to do with what they actually do. I think it would be better if they could verbally describe what they're doing and verbally reason about it, but I think most discussions (eg, this post) of what scientists do and should do are too trusting of the verbalizations. What they need is more behaviorism.

Richard Kennaway, the denial of visualization predates behaviorism, FWIW. see, eg, the pro-visualization F Galton, Statistics of mental imagery, Mind 5 (1880) 301-18, jstor

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 03 August 2008 06:06:02PM -2 points [-]

Watson is simply expressing materialistic monism:

All psychology except behaviourism is dualistic. That is to say we have both a mind (soul) and a body. - John Watson, Behaviourism, page 4.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 03 August 2008 06:26:19PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, I think you've given ample proof that Watson has written some things as cartoonish as your OP suggests. I don't think this has been shown to be generalizable across all of the behaviorist scientists of his era. Ian Maxwell's description of Behaviorists sounds like a reasonable way for science to be done pre-MRI's, etc. But your criticism, in you OP, of Watson's approach (or at least his rhetoric) hits the bulls eye and is a perfect contribution to the mission of this blog.

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 03 August 2008 08:24:29PM -1 points [-]

"If 'mind' acts on body, then all physical laws are invalid." [...]

The last quote suggests an explanation, if not a justification, for his position. He could not solve the question "what is mind?", and hit the Ignore button.

Again, this seems to be simply an expression of materialism. What Watson was saying was that there's no mystical mental essence that intervenes in violation of physical laws to control the body. Just so.

When Watson says "mind" we should usually translate that as "spirit" or "soul" - if we actually want to understand what he meant. 'Mind', 'consciousness' and 'soul' were all words from the dualistic psychology he was trying to administer a death blow to. The point he was making was that that stuff isn't real, it's all actually down to physiology.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 03 August 2008 08:33:39PM 0 points [-]

Tim, that wouldn't argue against Freud.

Comment author: komponisto2 03 August 2008 08:56:59PM 0 points [-]

Tom Tyler: The point [Watson] was making was that that stuff isn't real, it's all actually down to physiology

Eliezer: Tim, that wouldn't argue against Freud.

It's hard to see how any philosophy of mind (whether physicalist, dualist, or idealist) could directly argue against Freud, whose important claims were about psychology itself, not what psychology reduces to.

Comment author: komponisto2 03 August 2008 09:00:11PM 0 points [-]

(Correction: "Tom Tyler" above is a typo for "Tim Tyler")

Comment author: Tim_Tyler 03 August 2008 09:14:54PM 0 points [-]

Watson - on Freudian vitalism:

I am convinced of the truth of Freud's work, but as I teach the Freudian movement to my classes I drop out the crude vitalistic and psychological terminology, and stick to what I believe to be the biological factors involved in his theories (Freud himself admits the possibility of this).

Here was part of the problem:

Perhaps more than any other area of science, psychology has been rich in vitalist concepts, particularly through the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud was a student of the notable anti-vitalist Hermann von Helmholtz, and initially struggled to express his concepts in strictly neurological terms. Abandoning this effort as fruitless, he became famous for his theory that behaviour is determined by an unconscious mind, of which the waking mind is unaware. In 1923, in The Ego and the Id, he developed the concept of "psychic energy" as the energy by which the work of the personality is performed.

Comment author: Caledonian2 03 August 2008 09:19:15PM 0 points [-]

Watson used 'mind' in the same way that the people who talk about the mind surviving the death of the body use it.

There's no such thing. The computational properties of the brain could be duplicated (generally speaking) in another system, but they would no more survive the destruction of the brain than the seventy-miles-an-hour survives a car crash.

There are many, many reasons to reject Freud. To the degree that Watson and Skinner were trying to make psychology a science, their positions were incompatible with Freud's, who considered his work to be a form of art and despised attempts to make his psychoanalysis part of medicine.

Comment author: Hopefully_Anonymous 03 August 2008 10:20:32PM 0 points [-]

Caledonian, you make some good posts, but here I think your lates post fall in the category of anti-knowledge. I recommend trying to stay away from heroic narratives and morality plays (Watson, Skinner GOOD, Freud BAD) and easy targets, like those that express the wish-fulfilling belief that the mind mystically survives the death of the body.

Whether the mind does survive the death of the body in a sufficiently large universe/multiverse (with multiple "exact" iterations of us) is a more complicated question, in that black box/"magic" area of why our internal narrative sense of personal identity apparently survives over a punctuated swath of timespace configurations, in a changing variety of material compositions/blobs of amplitude probability distribution in the first place.

I jotted it off messy, but I think the point remains that although in principle our existence as minds may be perfectly normal since it's part of reality, it seems pretty damn weird compared to our evolved intuitions.

Comment author: Caledonian2 03 August 2008 10:37:47PM 0 points [-]

that the mind mystically survives the death of the body.

That's not helpful here, in a discussion about how different meanings of the word mind were expressed in doctrinal positions of the distant past.

(Watson, Skinner GOOD, Freud BAD)

That has more to do with your preconceptions than anything I've said. My actual positions did not contribute to my posts; if they had, and were they to be stated the crude way you used, they would be (Watson, Skinner BAD, Freud MONSTROUS).

Comment author: Shmuel 04 August 2008 12:45:12AM 0 points [-]

"All psychology except behaviourism is dualistic."

May I recommend "The Reflex Arc Concept in Psychology" by John Dewey (1896). Very underrated:

http://evans-experientialism.freewebspace.com/dewey03.htm

Comment author: GeniusNZ2 04 August 2008 02:27:28AM 0 points [-]

I think those trying to prohibit bad methodology easily fall into talking about it as being by its nature always useless. that people naturally do that doesn't damn their position entirely.

Comment author: RichardKennaway 04 August 2008 08:21:05AM 0 points [-]

Q the Enchanter: The redefinition of folk concepts or archaic philosophical coinages so that they denote things that are real (per our current understanding) is a fun game.

So is the game of reinterpreting words from the past to reconcile them with their historical successors. One might as well search Newton for special relativity, as search Watson for later developments in behaviourism. The procedure, if practised more seriously than as an entertaining game, is what religious innovators are forced to, to demonstrate that they are saying nothing that cannot already be found in the holy books -- rightly interpreted.

Comment author: Ian_Maxwell 04 August 2008 01:59:57PM 1 point [-]

Eliezer, to steal one of your phrases: You know, you're right.

That said, I was already quite willing to call Watson mistaken. He was mistaken about other things---in particular, he latched onto classical conditioning and treated it as the One Simple Principle That Can Explain All Behavior---so it's not terrifically surprising. One gets the impression that he was primarily interested in making a name for himself.

Amusingly, Skinner gets most of the flak for the sort of ridiculosity that Watson espoused, even though he explicitly stated in his monographs that internal mental life exists (in particular, he stated that it is a type of behavior, not an explanation for behavior).

Comment author: DeeElf 19 September 2012 12:51:20AM *  1 point [-]

Eliezer_Yudkowsky (EY) said (above):

Let me see if I understand your thesis. You think we shouldn't anthropomorphize people?" -- Sidney Morgenbesser to B. F. Skinner

  • As far as I've I can tell, this never happened.
  • Perhaps your understanding of "anthropomorphic" is too narrow?

EY said (above):

Behaviorism was the doctrine that it was unscientific for a psychologist to ascribe emotions, beliefs, thoughts, to a human being.

This is the basic myth. Skinner fought very hard to demonstrate that this was a gross mischaracterization of behaviorism.

EY said (above):

But for the behaviorists to react to the sins of Freudian psychoanalysis and substance dualism, by saying that the subject matter of empathic inference did not exist... Which behaviorist? Where? When?

Added: I found it difficult to track down primary source material online, but behaviorism-as-denial-of-mental does not seem to be a straw depiction. I was able to track down at least one major behaviorist (J.B. Watson, founder of behaviorism) saying outright "There is no mind."

This should make plain why Watson was never behaviorist poster boy material. I wouldn't even call him a "major" behaviorist.

Comment author: Ben_Welchner 19 September 2012 12:56:10AM 1 point [-]

As a psychology student, I can say with some certainty that Watson is a behaviorist poster boy.

Comment author: Benito 30 May 2013 06:17:27PM 0 points [-]

On the hypothesis that the subject becomes angry, and wants to hurt the other person, we might predict that the subject will > take any of many possible avenues to revenge - a kick, a trip, a bite, a phone call two months later that leads the confederate's wife and girlfriend to the same hotel... All of these I can predict by saying, "The subject is angry, and wants revenge."

Is it not fake causality to show a variety of different outcomes, all for the exact same reason?

Or perhaps is the point that saying 'angry' increases the probability of certain responses to other?

Comment author: [deleted] 13 June 2014 09:23:09AM -1 points [-]

Let's naturalise some of your epistemology. Why do you think empathetic inference is a useful term. It sounds dumb and it models empathy as a conscious computational process rather than the human psychological process that is a-priori to formal logic.