“The behaviorist is knowingly & cheerfully up to his neck in innate mechanisms of learning-readiness. The very reinforcement and extinction of responses, so central to behaviorism, depends on prior inequalities in the subject’s qualitative spacing, so to speak, of stimulations….” W. Quine in Linguistics & Philosophy as quoted in “The Cambridge companion to Quine, Cambridge University Press 2004, p. 190.
“Science settles for partial criteria and for partial explanation in terms of other partially explained notions.” W. Quine in Comment on Parsons, ibid, p.191.
[Re-posted from The Old Site, original dd. 09-03-2008. The original noted at the end (to be redone) & I will have done my best but as I am too tired to even consider posting anything original: so probably again to no avail. In other words: there’s some seriously heavy, and mainly long, stuff ahead!]
Science is becoming suspect. Again. Behaviorism is worse than suspect. It is itself already for a long time under attack, even from within science. ‘There just has to be more than what can be detected on the surface’ one can almost hear the post-post-modern people thinking. Behaviorism is criminal. There just has to be another valid point of view; one that allows for some real depth.
A familar perspectivist or relativist move is to contend that a scientific method is based on an absolute assumption. This is to be expected since it is a particular weakness of non-scientific claims that they are based on such absolutes, on things that have to be taken ‘on faith’. If it is indeed established that science is no different in this respect (and that axioms and dogma are interchangeable, for instance) one might as well give relativism a shot. Even if it doesn’t give an explanation it seems to fit the facts that people just happen to have this or that particular point of view based on this or that particular absolute.
But the move does not stand scrutiny. Just try the discussion: it will take just a couple of answers before your relativist counterpart will use one out of the set of words “all”, “everything”, “always” or “nothing” in relation to what are the typical claims of science. The scientific method on the other hand is just that: a method. It does not contend anything about “all things” positively. It is not positivism or scientism. It merely consists in looking at something in a way that opens up the prospect of critical discussion, of progressive insight.
The scientific method is the only way one can look at something whilst allowing any sensible discussion on it. Even in pre-scientific times or in, so called, points of view that reject science’s claim as the universal method it is the scientific method that was and is used to advance or arbitrate in any particular subject.
It is an unavoidable consequence of being a universal, it is a logical entailment that the scientific method is effectively inescapable if one is to make a point. In order to enforce that point one will need to use the scientific method as there’s simply no non-scientific way of making a point.
[Note while re-posting: I am still on this line. However, to be clear, I do not think that the only valuable thing we do is to make points. We can also illustrate them or point to them or suggest them or … and science is of no help in this place which is at bottom the place of art. But whatever the value of art – and I’m as far as possibly can be from denying the value of art -, in order to demonstrate or make or prove or establish it finally for everybody to see one needs to get to the science of it.]
In fact, embracing the scientific method means that, eventually, the point will enforce itself; because, if true, the truth of it will be found, given enough time and resources committed to finding truths.
Now, it is not very different with behaviorism. From within science it is criticized for assuming that all can be reduced to behaviour. But behaviorism, strictly spoken, doesn’t do anything of the kind. It merely starts from the observation that in looking at something one only can look at what can be observed. A typical format of answer in the attack on behaviorism reverts to sensations, qualia and other subjectives that, supposedly, cannot be observed externally and at the same time are needed in any worthwhile explanation. It is an emotional point starting from the dogma of depth: “if we do not want to stoop so low as to claim we are merely carbon-rich automata we need to assume some first person – some particularist – perspective.”
This move, now within ‘science’, is, indeed, not very different from the relativist one. It is not behavorism that is being attacked but a sufficiently deformed caricature of behaviorism that’s more or less as mysterious as the ‘traditional’ points of view. Once the caricature has been set up, this straw man can be pointed to, laughed at so anything goes and everybody can remain at ease in their traditional woolliness.
But when we resisting the easy refuge of the parody it is clear that the behavioristic point of view is the universal point of view. The only way of looking at something allowing a critical discussion is to refer to things that can be observed. When a group of subjects have the same taste the investigation starts from an observation of behaviour. Even when a single person is said to have a certain taste, that is an assertion that can only be made by virtue of previously observed (and shared) observations of external behaviour.
[comment while re-posting: this really is just a rough outline of what could maybe be an interesting argument!]
The fact that a certain taste is provoked in a certain individual by an innate mechanism proper to that individual that is itself not ‘external’ (in a sufficiently superficial understanding of the word ‘superficial’) is still a fact that can only be established by first observing external behaviour. More: this fact can’t be established by reference to only a single individual, it requires a statistical weighting of observations across many individuals who are, more or less, alike as regards that taste provoking that behaviour.
[comment while re-posting: in fact it is by now my firm belief that the ‘feeling’ we subjectively feel or the taste we taste is nothing else but the product of such a statistical process of associating certain behaviours with certain stimuli – such as stimuli of our sense of taste. This is Hume.]
The fear that has been making a come-back is that science is too cold and behaviorism unbearably light compared to more grandiose positions. Maybe one can be sympathetic to this kind of nostalgia – I am not – but nostalgia can never take the place of reason. Whether unbearably cold or light, we only have the form of our universal methods to be able to cope with life and this quite regardless of the instinctive ambition we may have to make substantive claims about its content or the meaning of it.
The alternative is simply to regress to the beastly state of using physical strength to force our way ahead and the semi-beastly state of reducing language to semi-poetic ungrammatical babble in propagandaic support of what happens to be your preferred position. To use language in order to destroy the proper use of language is the most universal crime against humanity. To use mathematics & logic to destroy the proper use of mathematics & logic is intellectual suicide.
Unfortunately, we’re not very bothered by either the crime or the suicide, as long as our position is the one to prevail, in the end.
But it remains – contra Quine – that there is something like mathematics, that that something is precise & that neither science nor language can be seen as independent from it. That is a mystery, all attempts to ground mathematics in a psychological or empirical way are self-defeating. The truth is that in order to do science or to speak a language one is to presuppose something pure & precise that permeates the form of every argument without ever contending anything at all as to the substantial content of anything. In this sense, maybe, there is something absolute assumed prior to science and which cannot be in its turn be approached with the method of science nor can be illuminated by observing external behavour. But if so relativists haven’t gained a lot unless they want to get rid of mathematics and of logic alltogether in defence of their own point of view (that’s the way of the mystics – but there is yet to be spotted a mystic that remains consistent – and hence splendidly alone – for a long time; if there would be such a one, we would not know him or her).
[comment while re-posting: it was a pity that I closed on this rant instead of pointing out that behaviorism does not go counter depth or art or meaning or purpose; it merely contends that all of that is constructed out of things that are on the surface (cfr. something I wrote on Carnap’s Eigenpsychisches/Fremdpsychisches, cfr. also my thesis as linked on one of these pages).]