Chalmers on philosophical progress, part 1.5: behaviorism

In part 1, I talked about Chalmers’ proposed kinds of philosophical progress, and expressed some skepticism about them. I was going to make the next post about the explanations Chalmers considers for why there hasn’t been more progress, but first, I want to deal with a possible response to my first post that’s kind of obvious if you know about the history of philosophy of mind (and totally unobvious otherwise).

The reply is that, whatever progress we’ve failed to make in philosophy of mind over the last century, at least we know that behaviorism is wrong. Now, it’s false to say that there are no, behaviorists left anymore; I had a professor in grad school (Don Howard) who called himself a behaviorist.

But when I heard other people talk about this fact, they regarded it as extremely quaint. My guess is that had behaviorism been an option at some point in the PhilPapers survey, self-described behaviorists would have been even rarer than idealists (who turned out to be 4.3% of the survey’s respondents).

So as Chalmers would put it, it looks like we’ve converged on not-behaviorism. But! What if all we’ve converged on is not calling ourselves behaviorists? Dennett gets accused of behaviorism sometimes, and if you know about Dennett and know about behaviorism, it’s easy to see why. And I did once hear a professor claim that accidental/closeted behaviorism is still fairly widespread in philosophy of mind.

I never heard Don Howard’s full defense of behaviorism, but he did mention that he though Chomsky had totally misunderstood what Skinner was up to in his book Verbal Behavior. I couldn’t say whether Don was right about that, but it strikes me as kinda plausible based on what I’ve seen in other areas of philosophy.

For example, some philosophers are very confident that they’ve got a simple refutation of Locke’s epistemology, but reading Locke’s Essay, it’s not at all clear to me Locke subscribed to the easily-refuted propositions attributed to him. Something similar could explain people ceasing to call themselves “behaviorists,” without the philosophical community as a whole shifting its views much.

Another issue is that behaviorism is often taken to be committed to a kind of implausible blank-slatism. Ignore the just-mentioned worries about what behaviorists actually thought and suppose it is. Then I agree behaviorism is wrong. But it seems like the reasons for rejecting bank-slatism are basically empirical, rather than involving any philosophical argument, so this may be an example of progress coming from outside philosophy.

  • Yvain

    I like behaviorism, but I think the version I like is much less committed to certain dubious philosophical points than the version everyone thinks they’ve proven wrong.

    Anyhow, I think your last paragraph gets it right on: behaviorism wasn’t defeated philosophically, it was defeated by better empirical evidence that proves stuff is going on in the mind. In particular, I think cognitive psychology replaced behaviorism in psychology circles and then the philosophers just followed suit.

    • R. E. Warner

      Coming from psychology, I will say that a very strict interpretation of behaviorism has been disproven, but that there are many cognitive scientists who would still describe themselves as behaviorists to a lesser degree because the brain does not spontaneously generate stimulus. The brain is complex and can engage in all kinds of computation, but that doesn’t mean it does so without stimulus from the world, or utilizing simulated stimulus in memory (that came from the outside world).

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  • Verbose Stoic

    The better example is probably logical positivism, especially since I’m not sure how influential behaviourism was in philosophy. Naturalistic philosophers were attracted to it, but even those found it problematic (see, for example, Betrand Russell and his attacks on Dewey and Watson on that specifc point). Non-naturalistic philosophers, of course, weren’t going to agree with it, and since behaviourism had nothing to say about the traditional problems of mind — dualism, phenomenal experience, etc — it wasn’t even a really good theory of mind philosophically.

    But logical positivism was a view that was indeed defeated, was a philosophical view, and was defeated philosophically, by proving that it was self-defeating: if it was true, since the view itself could not be proven empirically then it itself could not be known to be true, and if it could be proven to be true then you would have at least one proposition that could be known without being justified empirically. There’s a reason why a psychology professor I took a course from pointed out that among philosophers the only question that they say has ever been settled is that of logical positivism.

    • Chris Hallquist

      Your argument as it stands doesn’t work, because you assume that if a view cannot be known to be true on its own terms, it is self-defeating, but you could have a lesser degree of confidence in a view than claiming to know to be true.

      Then there’s the question of whether the logical positivists actually held the view you attribute to them; often when people claim to have a decisive refutation of a philosophical view, they’re attacking a version of the view no one has actually held.

      A logical positivist might also disagree with you about what kind of things can be proven empirically.

      Note that over 1/3 of respondents to the PhilPapers survey said they accept or lean towards “empiricism,” which often faces similar objections, which is reason to be cautious about trumpeting them as decisive.

    • Ray

      But logical positivism was a view that was indeed defeated, was a
      philosophical view, and was defeated philosophically, by proving that it
      was self-defeating

      This appears to be a persistent myth. While Logical positivism, pretty much from the beginning was accused of being self-refuting, this isn’t what killed it (to the extent rumours of its death haven’t been exaggerated in the first place.)

      To quote from : (on the issue of the verification principle being self-undercutting.)

      This sounds more compelling than it is. Ayer understood the
      principle to be a definition, defining a technical term,
      ‘meaning’. If so, then the sentence expressing the
      principle would indeed be analytic. So the self-undercutting
      charge strictly fails. But so construed and with nothing else
      said about it the principle would not have the same punch as
      before. Why should a metaphysician care whether his or her
      utterances lack some technical feature?

      Carnap explicitly takes up the “self-undercutting”
      charge against verifiability in Philosophy and Logical Syntax
      (1935), and Carnap is not interested in introducing a new technical
      term, ‘meaning’, so as to deny this technical property to
      unverifiable sentences. Carnap is careful to distinguish the
      language for which the verifiability principle is given from the
      meta-language in which we talk about that language. This
      meta-language would be the language in which the principle would be
      expressed. This may seem to offer another strategy against the
      “self-undercutting” charge because the principle applies to
      a different language than that in which it is expressed. This is not
      Carnap’s strategy. Carnap fully understands that if the
      general verificationist strategy is followed, there will also be a
      verificationist principle expressed in the meta-meta-language governing
      the meta-language.

      Carnap’s real defense of the principle is achieved by changing the
      nature of the discussion. By 1935 Carnap had introduced an important
      new element into his philosophy called the Principle of
      Tolerance. Tolerance is a radical idea. There is no uniquely correct
      logic (1934/1937 xiv–xv). Empiricism is a convention (Carnap,
      1936/1937 33). Perhaps more precisely each of the various versions of
      empiricism (including some sort of verificationism) is best understood
      as a proposal for structuring the language of science. Before
      tolerance, both empiricism and verificationism are announced as if
      they are simply correct. Correspondingly, what Carnap called
      metaphysics is then treated as though it is, as a matter of brute
      fact, unintelligible. But what is announced thus dogmatically can be
      rejected equally dogmatically. Once tolerance is in place, alternative
      philosophic positions, including metaphysical ones, are construed as
      alternative proposals for structuring the language of science.

      If you listen to people like Ayer talk about why they abandoned logical positivism e.g. here:

      you see nothing about logical positivism being self-refuting. Rather, you see examples where strict application of the principle, that statements must be phrased in terms of their logical consequences, becomes cumbersome: e.g. Mach’s principle never turned out to be that useful for formulating a physical theory, and speaking about the past by appealing to future observational consequences, while possible, is hopelessly awkward.

      • Chris Hallquist

        Thanks Ray. I suspected something like that was the case, but hadn’t looked into this particular area closely.

      • Verbose Stoic

        I made a long reply to this … and Discus ate it when I tried to log in.

        I hate Discus.

        Anyway, that at least some of the logical positivists didn’t accept that their view had been refuted and so abandoned it for other reasons isn’t all that meaningful if you have read Kuhn, since that’s also pretty common in science. You can always add epicycles, but at some point the view ends up being abandoned as being unworkable for various reasons. And this is even worse in philosophy because it more than science is attached to trying to prove certain views or systems true, and if your patch-ups end up making it useless for that purpose at the very least the people arguing with you will see no need to take the view seriously anymore.

        And we can see that in your examples. Recall that this was part of a push to make philosophy scientific, and to allow it to make progress by filtering out the problems that can’t be solved and to use the successful methods of science to make progress (making it incredibly relevant to this discussion, as it turns out). The main goal of the logical positivists and the logical empiricists was to use empirical data for this, and filter out those that couldn’t be based on empirical data and observation. However, there was opposition from those who thought that not all knowledge could be grounded that way.

        In light of this, we can see where the replies fail. Carnap basically outlines a way of talking about these things that are useful for doing science, but one can accept that without accepting that it is also useful in philosophy. So, he’s doing philosophy of science when we wanted epistemology, and so we can allow his weaker project without settling the debate (because it’s a different one).

        For Ayer, he runs into similar problems depending on how strong a position he takes. If he takes the weak position of it being a technical term to describe his project, then that’s fine but no one else should take it as being in any way indicative; he can certainly define his technical terms all he wants as long as he doesn’t expect anyone else to accept it. On the other hand, if he wants to claim that that is just what “meaning” means and so everyone else must accept that, it will not be accepted just because he stipulates it … especially since it rather conveniently supports his position. This is what I meant in the other thread by saying that you can’t just pick a definition to settle the issue: if you pick one that supports your position and proves it true by stipulation, no one on the other side will accept it without being convinced that it’s true. But if Ayer tries to justify it, he runs the risk of having THAT justification be equally self-defeating.

        So, if you try to avoid a strict refutation by tweaking the view, you run the risk of having a principle that isn’t defeated, but that can’t do the work you introduced it to do in the first place.

        • Ray

          Yeah. I hate Disqus too.

          Regarding your substantive points. It seems you have shifted your position, from, “the logical positivists have been soundly refuted,” to “the logical positivists have failed to soundly refute their opponents.” While the first position would refute Chris’s original claim, the second is required in order for his claim to be true. So your discussion at this point is counterproductive, if you wish to refute the claim that there is no progress in philosophy.

          Arguably, you could do much better by assuming that the self-undercutting refutation fails, and accepting Ayer et al’s reasons for abandoning logical positivism — namely that formulations of the verification principle that allow “metaphysics” as defined by the original logical positivists better describe successful scientific practice (e.g. treating past and future in the same terms, despite the fact that they are observed in radically different ways.) This would of course allow philosophy to succeed in the same way that science does — by providing a more accurate description of the observable facts of the world.

          As for whether your can preserve the efficacy of your refutation by appealing to Kuhn: Note first that we already have at least one current mainstream philosopher, Richard Creath, (the author of the Stanford Encyclopedia article I linked last time) who believes your refutation does work. Further if you look to people who thinks the refutation does work e.g. Peter Van Inwagen in

          • Verbose Stoic

            This would of course allow philosophy to succeed in the same way that science does — by providing a more accurate description of the observable facts of the world.

            I think this suggestion here highlights what my actual objection is. Logical positivism tried to use the verification principle to promote philosophy working a certain way, by saying that by that principle philosophy should toss out the questions that aren’t about observable facts about the world, where observable basically meant “empirical”. But the verification principle is not, in fact, one of those observable facts, and so using it as a filter fails miserably. But when logical positivists try to save the verification principle, they have to make sure that they save it in a way that it can still fulfill that purpose. If their opponent can accept their modified principle but still deny that philosophy should take on that definition of success or use that method to succeed, the logical positivists will have lost.

            And we can see this clearly in Carnap. He turns it into a useful language for science, which no one objects to in principle … but as such has no real relevance for philosophy as a while. He weakens the principle and the project to save it, but then makes it a project that really can’t address what the debate was really over.

            For Ayer, he makes a reasonable move, by accepting analytic statements as well as empirical ones. But the principle itself does not seem to be analytic. Ayer can try to do it by definition and make it analytic, but has given no one any reason to accept it unless they do so just to make positivism reasonable. So, as Van inwagen says:

            And, therefore, if the statement is true it is meaningless; or, what is the same thing, if it is meaningful, it is false.

            And you analysis of “seems to” is reading in far too much into the debate. And note that my point about Kuhn was entirely to show that just because some people didn’t reject the theory because of the refutation doesn’t mean the refutation wasn’t, in fact, the refutation.

          • Ray

            On Van Inwagen:

            My point in referencing this is not to endorse the argument, or to claim that it is endorsed by mainstream philosophy as a whole. Van Inwagen is a mainstream philosopher, but he represents a controversial position (indeed a rather extreme one by the standards of mainstream philosophy) — Confessional Christianity. As a matter of fact, I feel Van Inwagen’s argument fails for a number of reasons:

            1) It assumes that unambiguously true, unambiguously false, and meaningless (in the ordinary language sense), are an exhaustive set of possibilities. This is by no means obvious.

            2) It assumes that empirical evidence cannot bear on whether a statement is meaningful in the ordinary language sense. (This is problematic, for any number of reasons — for example infants with no prior language knowledge are routinely capable of learning which statements are and aren’t meaningful English sentences, merely by observing the lingusitic behavior of their English speaking parents.)

            3) It assumes that the truth value of analytic statements phrased in ordinary language terms (but referencing rather complex logical or mathematical concepts) must be immediately obvious. (c.f. there is no largest prime number, there is no way to tell in general whether a computer program will terminate or run forever.) Suffice it to say, this one isn’t obvious either.

            By pointing out Van Inwagen’s weasel wording, I am merely giving him enough credit to know when he’s voicing a controversial position.

            As for the rest:

            I find it interesting that you are willing to accept that, as Carnap believed, a language which follows some form of the verification principle is useful for science, but somehow don’t accept that those same pragmatic reasons should be persuasive to philosophers. Of course there is no logical contradiction in refusing to care about those pragmatic considerations, but it seems to me that a scientist would also be able to reject those pragmatic considerations without logical contradiction. If the philosopher need not be persuaded, why the scientist?

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