The new “behaviorism” in a cognitive science of meaning
Following a discussion after today’s seminars I thought it might be useful to make a few comments in this blog. I’m just curious whether I can make any sense out of the position I currently seem to be defending, and so I just want to write this out for some reflection.
It appears to me that there is a kind of “behaviorist” position with regard to the question of the consitution of meaning, which is currently popular in the cognitive sciences, and it usually goes something like this: “wether we can say that a particular system has a meaningful perspective on the world or not, depends in some manner upon what kind of external behavior it displays”. In this manner subjective meaning for the other is deduced from the observation of objective evidence.
Such a position often seems to be motivated by the following consideration: we cannot rationally prove whether a particular system that we encounter (such as another person) is a philosophical zombie, or whether it also has a meaningful existence like our own, all we can observe is its external, objective behavior.
It follows that if we accept this fundamental epistemological uncertainty with regard to the meaningful existence of the other, and we at the same time reject the behaviorist position, then this necessarily commits us to the theoretically unrefutable possibility of solipsisim.
This evidently seems to be an undesirable outcome, but there are also some other worries to be considered:
– on the one hand, adopting the behaviorist position could commit us to a kind of panpsychism: any system will have a particular meaningful existence in correspondance with its behavioral competences.
– or, on the other hand, since we cannot even rationally prove that we ourselves experience meaningful existences (i.e. that we ourselves are not philosophical zombies), adopting such a position could also commit us to a kind of universal nihilism: all systems behave only “as if” they had meaningful existences.
There are some responses with which we might begin to resolve this dilemma:
– the problematic solipsist worry could be questioned: what does our inability to rationally prove the concerned existence of other subjects actually entail? Do we not already have a pretheoretical understanding that such subjects do indeed exist? Why would we otherwise even worry about the possibiliy of solipsism??
– thus, we have a phenomenological response: before even undertaking any theoretical reflections, we always find ourselves already sharing a meaningful world with other concerned existences.
This is not to say that the theoretical possibiliy of solipsism cannot be avoided by reducing the existence of concernful dealings to the observable external behavior of a system. The point is simply that such an approach entails some undesirable consequences which perhaps can be avoided if we adopt a different perspective, namely if we:
– distinguish between our everyday pretheoretical certainty of being-with-others, and the apparent solitude of the theoretical attitude.
– accept the fundamental theoretical uncertainty with regard to the question of solipsism.
It is a question of not rejecting our pretheoretical understanding of the concerned existence of the other in response to the theoretical problem that such an understanding cannot be formalized.
I hope this makes any sense!