Arguments for and against Behaviorism

Arguments for Behaviorism

  1. The substance dualist thinks of the soul as a kind of ghostly engine, animating the body. But ¥¥as we've seen, it's mysterious how this ghostly engine could causally affect the body. The behaviorist postulates no mental substance, whose interactions with the physical world are mysterious and problematic. Behaviorism is a materialist theory. It only requires there to be physical substances, that are disposed to move (behave) in certain physical ways.

  2. Pre-philosophically, we think we know a lot, or at least have many justified beliefs about, other people's mental life. For instance, sometimes I know that my sister is angry. The behaviorist has an easier time than the dualist explaining how this could be so. We just have to figure out how people are disposed to behave. That's no more difficult, in principle, than figuring out whether some glass is fragile.

Arguments against Behaviorism

  1. The behaviorist accounts nicely for our knowledge of other people's mental states, but he seems to tell the wrong sort of story about how we know about our own mental states. We seem to have direct access to our own minds. We don't need to observe our behavior to know how we're feeling.

    This problem becomes especially acute when we consider qualitative states like pain and sensory experiences. Whether I'm in pain, or having the "reddish" kind of visual experience I normally have when I look at a ripe tomato, seems to a matter of what's going on in me right now, which I can be directly aware of. It doesn't seem to be a matter of how I would act in certain hypothetical situations. (Putnam's Super-Spartans and X-Worlders also illustrate this point. It is bizarre to think of a qualitative state like pain in terms of how one is disposed to act.)

  2. ¥¥As we said before, we ordinarily think that your behavior is caused by your mental states. It is not the mental state itself. Your behavior is only a sign or piece of evidence for what mental state you're in--in the same way that smoke is only a sign that there is a fire. This is why we think it's possible for someone (like Putnam's Super-Spartans and X-Worlders) to be in pain without engaging in pain behavior. Sometimes the effect can be brought about by different causes.

    The behaviorist likes it that his theory doesn't appeal to any hidden states of some non-physical substance, to explain why people behave the way they do. But his theory also prevents him from letting mental states play any causal role at all in producing our behavior. Mental states can't be inner states of the brain, either.

  3. How one behaves depends on all the mental states one has. There's no such thing as the distinctive behavior associated with a single mental state in isolation. Any plausible connection between mental states and behavior will have to invoke many mental states in explaining the behavior.

    Consider the behaviorist's account of wanting a Caribbean vacation:

    X wants a Caribbean vacation iff:
    1. X is disposed to read the Caribbean brochures first, if you give him a bunch of holiday brochures--this assumes that X is not already bored of Caribbean brochures.
    2. X is disposed to pack his bags when you give him a ticket to Jamaica--this depends on whether he believes the flight will be canceled, whether he can afford to miss work, etc.
    It is difficult for the behaviorist to say what sorts of behavior one mental state will dispose a person towards, without making assumptions about what other mental states the person has. This raises a threat of regress or circularity: it seems impossible for the behaviorist to define any one mental state until he has already defined lots of other mental states. So the behaviorist's account will never get off the ground.

    Note: We will return to this problem later, when we consider functionalist accounts of the mind. Like the behaviorist, the functionalist also thinks there are important and intimate connections between mental states and dispositions to behavior. However, the functionalist wants to improve on behaviorism by making a person's mental states internal states which cause the person's behavior. The functionalist also wants to allow that a person's behavior is typically produced by several mental states working in conjunction. So there is no one-to-one correspondence between what one's mental state is, and how one behaves. Like the behaviorist, then, the functionalist also faces a threat of regress or circularity: it will seem impossible for him to describe the connections between any one mental state and behavior, until he has already defined lots of other mental states. We will see how the functionalist responds to this circularity problem later.

  4. Let's look more closely at the notion of behavior the behaviorist is employing.

    One the one hand, is there some one specific kind of physical behavior which all pain-feeling organisms engage in (humans, cats, snakes, Martians, etc.)? No. Is there some one specific kind of physical noise which everyone who believes that Harvard is in MA makes, when asked where Harvard is located? No. (Behaviorists could be accused of a kind of chauvinism, if they assumed that all creatures will express themselves in the same physical ways that we do.)

    On the other hand, just because you utter the sounds "I want to go to the Caribbean," does that mean you want to go to the Caribbean? Perhaps you're being deceptive. Or perhaps you didn't even mean to be asserting anything: perhaps you made those noises as the result of a complicated hiccough.

    The upshot of these observations seems to be that we can't find any behavior described in purely physical terms which is associated with any mental state. For instance, the behavior associated with the desire to go to the Caribbean can't just be making certain noises. It has to be making those noises intentionally and sincerely.

    But if the behaviorist says this, then he's no longer talking about purely physical behavior! Contrast:

    1. raising one's arm (this is mentalistic behavior)
    2. one's arm moving in such-and-such ways (this is purely physical behavior)
    3. intentionally saying "I want to go to the Caribbean" (this is mentalistic behavior)
    4. one's mouth opening and certain noises coming out (this is purely physical behavior)
    What we've just said raises doubts about whether there are any necessary connections between mental states and behavior of types (ii) and (iv).

    Could the behaviorist appeal to mentalistic behavior, then? Well, if he does that, then he hasn't shown us how to understand mental talk just in terms of physical talk. He hasn't succeeded in reducing facts about our mental life to purely physical facts about us. He's covertly re-introducing mental facts when he talks of mentalistic behavior.

    Hence, the behaviorist faces a dilemma. Either he says:

    • Creatures with mental state M are disposed to engage in such-and-such purely physical behavior.

    But if he says that, then the claims he makes won't be plausible. There is no single physical way in which all creatures who are in pain behave. Alternatively, the behaviorist can say:

    • Creatures with mental state M are disposed to engage in such-and-such mentalistic behavior.

    But if the behaviorist says this, then he hasn't succeeded in reducing mental facts to purely physical facts.


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