Linguistics and Philosophy

“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.

Forget it!

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).]



15 responses to “Linguistics and Philosophy

  1. Aljas de Paljas

    While certainly not an expert in this area, in my simplistic view, the biggest flaw with behaviouralism is that statistics will not necessarily lead to a fundamental logic analysis. If you can determine that the entity State is logically inconsistent and immoral, it does not really matter that 56,8% have the perception that the State should perform so-and-such task.

  2. Marlombrando68

    I’m not expert at all in anything here (as well as elsewhere).

    Just a copule of (most probably boring) reactions.

    On observation.
    I fully agree the only way of looking at something allowing a critical discussion is to refer to things that can be observed. But reality is definitely not defined in itself, in what we can observe. Reality is “sign” to something else behind it. “per visibilia ad invisibilia”

    On relativism.

    Intellectual and moral relativism is a serious menace for the founding bricks of contemporary society. Man do exist to know the truth and find in it freedom and fulfillment of human aspirations. Relativism is, in it’s essence, the ultimate consequence of human beings not being able to know the truth; without this, all becomes relative and questionable.
    Sic 😦

  3. Nice! Now I have a man of faith with mild sumpathies for anarchism as well as a man of anarchism with an allergy for anything religious 😉

    (I hope neither of you is offended!)

    Anyway, statistics comes before logic (see my thesis, you just have to find a link to it somewhere on these pages), so there are no absolute claims. There is no claim to why man exists. There is no claim to inconsistency or “evility” of what happens to exist, such as the state. Us wanting to have the former & us seeing the many faults in the latter does not provide sufficiently absolute certainty to conclude towards its absolute counterparts.

    This does not mean that relativism or fatalism is the only option. Far from it even. Both relativism and fatalism presuppose absolutely in a way that can’t be supported by observable facts, however many they are.

    The elites are becoming far too rationalist. For scientific people – Hume has been forgotten. For religious people – Kant & Kierkegaard have never been adequately recognized. It’s all still Hegel, in a way. All definite pronouns, & no indefinites allowed.

    Sorry to go all foggy on you – but ‘fundamental logic analysis’ is contradictio in terminis: logical analysis is limited to the superficial testing of what made itself visible to us. Even if it is the only thing we can conclusively do, it’s still fundamentally limited with respect to the far reaching conclusions we want to have.

    Impatience is, maybe, a sin.

    Now I’m boring you, I might just as well recycle a thought for which I never found a quote:

    “Moral relativists are bastards but one has to respect their reaction to what is the bigger problem: moral absolutism. Sadly enough, they’re right against absolutism but wind up believing persons cannot help believing in absolutes so they decide not to help the persons deal with the wrong belief but instead to help the doctrines these persons are a victim of.”

    I guess both religion and anarchy qualify as moral absolutism (which is why so many anarchists in substance degrade into petty, & conservative, ethical belief systems).

  4. marlombrando68

    not offended, at all.
    I think anarchism is, from an anthropologic point of view, one of the most fascinating temptations of human thought.
    I am a man of faith (better, a religious man).
    And I think we have two kind of men preserving the height of human being: anarchists and authentically religious.
    Because the nature of man relationship with the infinite; the anarchist affirms himself over everything (at the infinite), religious men accepts the infinite as the significance of himself

    I would have one question: what’s “moral” for you??

  5. Aljas de Paljas

    Being anarchist myself is only a consequence of trying to be a rational being (that does not mean that there is no room for creativity). Being rational and observing what happens in societies that deny or severely damage property rights (e.g. communism), you can only start to understand that property rights have to be an absolute.
    If property rights are not an absolute, then tomorrow I might not find back my underwear, coat or car to go to work and it looks a very unpractical society to live in. When certain goods are shared, you effectively cannot rely on them being there or being in good shape. I suppose you are familiar with the notion of the “Tragedy of the Commons”.
    Being rational and observing what happens in societies with religion becoming an important part of culture, it is clear that religions are each striving for a hegemony in this world. This desire leads to unnecessary violence and wars, all in devotion towards a “Sky-Ghost” that is unobservable and hence irrational to believe in. Once you believe in irrational creatures, trying to be rational on other topics is like trying to be a good schizophrenic – not exactly an appealing alternative.

  6. hey mb, that’s what this site is about I guess. I mean, what “morals” is for me. I think morality or ‘doing the right thing’ is not something which points to something else or is done because of somebody else. Morality needs to be its own reward, i.e. morality cannot be done in order to achieve a reward. I’m looking for a rational foundation there (as are many). But not rational in the sense of 2+2, not in the sense of ‘one always has to do this way because of that and the other’ but more in the sense of reasonable. That’s why I am attracted to common sense because somehow doing the right thing is something everybody more or less knows, it’s in a certain statistical way inescapable. That does not mean we do it or even that it is easy to do (certainly not when we see others getting away with not doing it, and proclaiming themselves as the winners) but that it is almost always clear what ought to be done. Starting from Hume and avoiding to go where Kant said not to go but then with a non-woolly basis; a basis in the structure of language and communication, a touch of Davidson.

    Yes, I guess that that is what I’m doing here. Thanks for asking the question.

  7. Now I ask you, think tomorrow of all of the things you do and then tell me whether more than 10% involved things you had full and exclusive ownership of.

    I sure hope you don’t drive a public road, take a bus or even just use a cable (or worse: the radio spectrum) to work from home. And even putting all of that aside, I do hope that if you sit on your work chair on your work desk you can proudly say that you paid for both and that it isn’t something the company put there for you to use (and for others to use when, god forbid, they fire you and replace you with the next guy that doesn’t work on the boss’ nerves).

    You have to do better than this. These are just slogans. I know you can do better because that is what you have been doing here for weeks.

  8. Aljas de Paljas

    I have been a little sloppy in my explanation, but I don´t see how your counterargument leads anywhere: to take one example, if the chair that I sit on at work would not be subject to property law, somebody might as well take it at night and then I (and my employer) have the same issue. Obviously the fact that I have a chair is due to a contract that my employer and myself have signed. The contract simply leads to a series of obligations, but that usually does not transfer the property right to me; nor does even 1 out of 10,000 employees claim that he has any sort of property right over the chair he sits own during the working hours – at least I have never met such a person, and if I met one, he might very well be deranged.
    Even with an Evil Entity controlling the public roads, the principles still apply, as long as the person who owns something agrees with other people using it. Of course, there is little choice to accept, just as you have no choice refusing certain criminal organizations the entrance to your home if you want to continue to live.
    I think you can elaborate your arguments a little more, since I don´t get it, honestly.

  9. Come on, AdP, if you concede that you have a ‘contract’ with your government your argument fails. Not even I would go that far. You don’t get to put religion and taxes in one big Tea pot and extract the magical potion where you can get away with blaming everything on everybody else whilst you Party on indefinitely.

  10. Aljas de Paljas

    The point is not whether I have a contract or not with my government, it is that I don´t have voluntary interactions with them. Why would I not blame an Evil Entity that forces me into a relation like a rapist forces his victim into an involuntary act?
    Of course, even being continuously raped, does not drive all people into suicide. There are many psychological defense mechanisms that can make life enjoyable even under such circumstances; only continuously blaming someone else is indeed not the most productive; having said that, you did provoke me into these statements.

  11. marlombrando68

    English does not support me here…apologize for that!
    “morality or doing the right things”…to me, this is relativism in it’s embrionic stage, if not further developed….I mean, what are those right things? “tot capita, tot sententia”, i.e. a number of answers equal to the number of ringing bells. Without any chance to answer the question what’s the right amonngs all those? is there any?? Based on what one could say this is better than the other?
    But agree morality cannot be done to achieve a reward.
    I rather think morale sets a link, a relation between what we do and what we think IS the right thing (which is therefore a prerequisite for being moral). An act is moral when coherent to this. For a religious men, when refelcts belonging (and availability) to Destiny (which is far from being fatalists).
    Moralism is instead to adhere (in a forced way and voluntaristically emphasised) to (utopian) ideals of “dominant culture”. With two main consequencies: fariseism (self-justification) or hate and condamn of others.

    To the question on ownership (not clear to me the example).
    I do not care about property, at all.
    Ownership is different, and I care a lot.
    The ownership that comes from not-ownership, from a distance. It may seem a paradox, but it’s not at all.
    Recognizing that all is given to me, and for me, even myself (I’m a gift to me right now), gives me the ownership on everything, meaning I can judge (and use, as a consequence) all in every given day as functional to what I’m in this world for, i.e. my happyness (or Destiny).

  12. Marlom, you give the answer yourself, I think. You say: “a relation between what we do and what we think IS the right thing” and see this as a prerequisite for being moral. You think this is too arbitrary but a. it is not arbitrary to the extent you think it is and b. something ‘deeper’ is always relative to this beginning.

    On b. to be religious seems less arbitrary because it seems to be more absolute but it actually starts from being moralistic; Such is one of the truths of Kierkegaard whose religion is very far away from that entertained by many.

    On a. (and that’s what I was saying the site is about) one cannot consistently think that something is the right thing and try to discuss it with others when it is manifestly a bad thing; The categorical imperative is a prototypical example: on reflection one cannot think it is right to do unto others what one would think is wrong when done to one’s self.

    I don’t care too much about property either.

  13. Aljas de Paljas

    So now we have Guido and Marlom aligning on a restricted view of property rights. Obviously, myself caring about property rights, if you don´t care about property, tell me what I can get from yours and I will do the travel if it is worthwhile.
    I am very curious to see where you see the limits and boundaries for property rights? Can those limits be defined? Do you expect someone from the State or the Religion to know better how to use your properties, if so, do you still consider them as your properties? If the limits are not defined, then who will solve the conflicts when they arrive? For those items that are not yours, how do you expect to share them? Do you expect shared items to be handled more or less carefully given that there is no owner that has any stake in them?
    Sorry for so many questions, these are the ones I could come up with in just 2 minutes, I will close for now…

  14. Aljas de Paljas

    On morality, for me the “right” things coincide with “rational” things. If you also assume that “right” things ought to be universally applicable (across all people that have lived across all times), then pure rationality can give some basic rules. This does not require sticking to “dominant culture” especially if dominant culture includes things such as believing in the “goodness of the state”. For me the dominant culture smells rotten.

    So if we define morality in a set of rules, you can try and reason in a rational way if this seems a plausible rule. E.g. if you try to define a universal moral rule that says that you ought to kill the person next to you, you then get into a situation that everyone in all times has to try and kill someone else. This would mean that the society would instantly collapse, so it can be hardly assumed this would be valid for a society spanning various generations.
    On the other hand, to say that you should not kill anyone else, that is a more rationally and universally applicable rule (not that is has been applied in real history, but at least it does not lead to a rational contradiction).
    For me morality is about a minimalistic, internally consistent set of rules that are far removed from the sorry state that our society is in right now.

  15. Don’t be so paranoid. (Also: don’t take for granted that we’re all a bunch of morons eagerly awaiting your pontifical truths.)

    That being said: yes, morality is minimalistic. So minimalistic that it only makes sense in formalisms. So formalist that it’s immoral to draw grand conclusions applying in all cases. But take an example that is less sloganesque about the big bad world that blocks you from expressing your true genius …

    It would be irrational to not show compassion because if nobody would show compassion everybody would be shit out of luck all of the time.

    The misapplication of Darwin’s theory to society is the greatest intellectual crime of post-Darwinian times. It’s a crime against Darwin. This comes from a convinced Malthusian (i.e. somebody who is convinced society has to actively intervene to break the dynamics holding humans back in a beastly state).

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