Behaviorism

By Nahigian, Kenneth | The Humanist, March-April 2017 | Go to article overview

Behaviorism


Nahigian, Kenneth, The Humanist


BEHAVIORISM is psychology's variant on physicalism, the idea that physical events explain all mental or physiological events. It's the view that all your private thoughts and experiences--moods, dreams, flights of art and fancy, and what philosophers call qualia--are fully reducible to the material activity of your fleshy body (including bio- and electrochemical events within that body).

A strict behaviorist might say "consciousness is an illusion," but this doesn't mean that you have no consciousness, only that it's a subjective view of something better described physically. (Some very extreme behaviorists might deny even the conscious experience, though how this works is somewhat baffling.)

In some circles, any mention of behaviorism is considered fighting words, yet many who decry behaviorism are in fact behaviorists. Are you a behaviorist? Here's a test: ask yourself about philosophical zombies. Logically, can they be?

A philosophical zombie (p-zombie) doesn't shamble around and drool. A p-zombie behaves much like you and me. In fact it behaves exactly like you and me, with the same expressions of belief and desire, same fits and rages, down to the finest nuance. It may roll its eyes or sigh in boredom. But it has no mind, no conscious experience, no point of view, no sentience. It feels no pain (though still cries "ouch" if you poke it). Mentally, it is absent. It is as much a robot as your toaster.

Perhaps a p-zombie is physically or technically impossible, but this isn't the question. Rene Descartes, for example, thought that all animals were p-zombies. They behave as if they suffer or love, he said, but are clockwork mechanisms with no feelings and so cruelty to animals is impossible. Humans are not p-zombies, he said, because God has endowed our bodies with minds and souls. To Descartes, human p-zombies are physically impossible by God's mandate, but not a logical impossibility.

The question is: Does a p-zombie entail a logical contradiction? Is a p-zombie a square circle? If you say yes, you are a behaviorist! Obviously. Because pure logic never creates new information, only transforms it in various ways. The statement "Socrates is mortal" says nothing not already contained in "Socrates is a man" and "All men are mortal." If behavior controverts p-zombism on the grounds of pure logic, subjective consciousness must logically be in that behavior. In short, you've just reduced consciousness to physical states. Congratulations, here's your B.F. Skinner t-shirt.

But what if you say p-zombies are possible in principle? Then you face a deep quandary. Those around you right now might be p-zombies! How do you know they aren't? Is your mind the only mind in the world? Can you ever escape the insidious trap of solipsism? …

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