The Life & Mind Seminar Network

The new “behaviorism” in a cognitive science of meaning

Posted in General by Tom Froese on December 6, 2006

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!



2 Responses

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  1. Nathaniel said, on December 7, 2006 at 3:54 pm

    Hi Tom,

    here are some possible arguments against the position you’re taking — I hope you find them helpful :)

    * Why do you want to accept the “pretheoretical certainty” of the existence of other people’s experiences while rejecting (as I know you do) the very similar pretheoretical conviction that there is an objective external world with a ready-packaged ontology? — “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?” sounds very similar to “what does our inability to rationally prove the the existance of an external world actually entail? Do we not already have a pretheoretical understanding that such a world does indeed exist? Why would we otherwise even worry about the possibiliy of having a brain-in-a-box theory?”

    * Even if one does accept this pretheoretical understanding that other experiences exist, it would not tell us very much unless we also accept that these experiences are intimately connected to the way in which people behave: this pretheoretical undertstanding takes the form that people behave as if they have experiences because they have experiences. It would do me no good to believe that other people experienced painful things as pleasurable sensations but could not help but react as if in pain.

    Given this, if I have a mathematical or neurological or some other kind of scientific explanation for why people behave as if they have experiences then we are back to where we were last night: the conceptual leap of faith I have to make in order to say that this is also an explanation of why they have experiences is exactly the same leap of faith as the pretheoretical leap that I had to make in order to connect other people’s behaviour to experiences in the first place.

    * Finally I would like to address the two concerns you brought up about the “behaviourist” position that was being discussed last night. (incidentally, I’m confused about whether it should properly be called “behaviourism” or “functionalism”)

    If we did have a scientific explanation of why some physical systems behave as if they have experiences, and that explanation clearly admitted only a difference in degree between a human being and an inanimate system then I would indeed have to commit myself to a kind of panpsychism. I think it would be right to do this, since I really do believe that this would be a scientific explanation for experience and it really would have told us that inanimate objects really do have experiences. But we don’t currently have such a theory, so it’s difficult to say whether it would say such a thing. For instance, one can imagine such a theory saying that only systems that are in some well-defined sense autonomous can have experiences.

    To answer your other objection, I don’t think that the functionalist/behaviourist point of view does lead to the kind of nihilism in which all people only behave as if they have experiences because the thesis is that behaving as if one has experiences is identically the same as having experiences.

    Most people aren’t happy to entertain the possibility that they might not have experiences, the relevant argument being “but I know that I’m not a zombie because I have direct access to my own experiences!” If you can accept that you might not have subjective experiences then why not go ahead and use Occam’s razor to reject them altogether? If you’re not able to do this then the nihilism possibility disappears.

  2. tomfroese said, on December 7, 2006 at 5:51 pm

    Thanks for your comments, Nathaniel.

    My appeal to pretheoretical understanding does indeed stand in a significant relation to the constructivist/skepticist epistemological stance I have also been advocating, and I haven’t quite put my head around how to put both claims together.

    Just off the top of my head, a response would probably go something like this: while our everyday lived experience of being-in-the-world is indeed phenomenologically (ontologically) more basic than the skeptical theoretical attutide, I can still hold the claim that from within that theoretical attutide there is no way to formalize our pretheoretical understanding of the world.

    To uphold the claim that we can have no theoretical knowledge of an independent world, it is a matter of distinguishing implicit understanding from explicit knowledge.

    You’re right, perhaps I should have called the approach that identifies inner meaning with external behavior “functionalist”, but I called it “behaviorist” in order to emphasize that most people who advocate such a view don’t seem to be too bothered about the kind of inner organization that the agent has, but rather focus on external manifestations only.

    And I also agree with you that without such a qualification of what organization is necessary for inner meaning (e.g. the self-constitution of an identity) the functionalist/behaviorst point of view would end up with a kind of panpsychism.

    However, from seeing inner meaning everywhere, it is only a small step to seeing it nowhere. It appears to me that there is a chance that in such a move the notion of meaning could loose its meaning, and that the danger of nihilism would still remain.


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