Radical Behaviorism and the Clarification of Causality, Constructs, and Confusions: A Reply to Hayes, Adams, and Dixon

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In a recent article entitled "Causal Constructs and Conceptual Confusions," Hayes, Adams, and Dixon (1997) proposed and described a number of conceptual and philosophical problems that they contended were derivable from radical behaviorism as a scientific system. The authors have carefully considered a number of extraordinarily complex issues in their critique of radical behaviorism, and their efforts constitute a welcome contribution to the growing literature of this important and productive variation of psychological science (e.g., Chiesa, 1994; Leigland, 1992, 1997; Smith, 1986; Todd & Morris, 1995). The purpose of this commentary is to examine the principal issues and problems in the context of their presentation in the Hayes et al. (1997) paper, as well as in the context of the literature of radical behaviorism.

Essentially, the argument of Hayes et al. (1997; all page numbers given below without citation are taken from this source) is that an important problem arises in science when observed events become confused with the verbal constructions used in the description of those events, and that this is a problem which occurs in radical behaviorism as a system of science. A salient example is offered by the authors in the radical behaviorist interpretation of causality, where causal powers or forces are said to be implied which are not included in the observed events themselves.

The starting point for Hayes et al. (1997) is with a discussion of the goals of science. In the second sentence of the paper, Kantor's (1953) view of science is described as follows: "Science is an enterprise directed at increasing our knowledge of the world and such is accomplished by describing confrontable events and elaborating upon our descriptions so as to produce what we may call explanations for the forms and operations of those events" (p. 97). This characterization was presented in contrast to that of Skinner (e.g., 1953), who was said to assume that the goals of science are prediction and control.

Although it is certainly true that there are a number of instances in Skinner's writings in which prediction and control are emphasized or identified with the goals of science, the picture becomes more complex when viewed in the larger context of Skinner's scientific system. For example, few scientists would disagree with a general statement that a major goal of science is to increase our knowledge and understanding of the world, but depending upon the given meanings of such key terms as "knowledge," "understanding," and "world," there is no doubt that many, perhaps most, philosophers and theologians would not only join with the scientist in signing on to such a statement, but would also vigorously defend the relevant events in their own fields as fully "confrontable."

Given that "knowledge" and "understanding" may be identified in different ways and with respect to different goals, how are we to characterize the knowledge that is produced by science? Skinner (1957) has described this issue in the context of the analysis of verbal behavior in the following way:

The "understanding" of verbal behavior is something more than the use of a consistent vocabulary with which specific instances may be described. It is not to be confused with the confirmation of any set of theoretical principles. The criteria are more demanding than that. The extent to which we understand verbal behavior in a "causal" analysis is to be assessed from the extent to which we can predict the occurrence of specific instances and, eventually, from the extent to which we can produce or control such behavior by altering the conditions under which it occurs. (Skinner, 1957, p. 3; emphasis added)

Generally speaking, the language of "criteria" and "assessment" are being used in the sense of identifying the conditions under which the radical behaviorist is likely to say that the analysis provides scientific "understanding," where the latter term is simply being used in its mundane, everyday language sense, rather than as a special psychological or mental state, and so forth. …