Behaviorism Tutorial


Part 5

Radical Behaviorist Concerns About Mentalism and Methodological Behaviorism

Readers may recall that according to the present argument, the current and mature form of methodological behaviorism has two important conceptual features. The first is that methodological behaviorism allows scientists to invoke mental causes of the behavior of subjects. With regard to this first feature, we can note that methodological behaviorism adheres to a reference theory of language, according to which the essential function of the words used in psychological theories and explanations is to refer to objects or entities in the world at large. The words in question, of course, are the mediating hypothetical constructs deployed in the theories and explanations. The problem is that methodological behaviorism does not adequately specify the referent of the words that are the mediating hypothetical constructs in its explanations of the behavior of subjects. Consequently, there is nothing to prevent methodological behaviorists from proposing all manner of mystical, supernatural entities--including mental entities, as mediating, organismic terms. Historically, when methodological behaviorists have coupled the S-O-R model with the conventional interpretation of operationism, they have turned the mediating variables into fanciful entities that have just the power or force to cause the behavior under consideration. By invoking operationism they hope to make the endeavor legitimate, but the endeavor remains mentalistic nevertheless. Language is not essentially referential, of course, and there are no such mentalistic, mystical, or supernatural entities to which the terms refer. Consequently, these sorts of entities can't occasion the use of such terms. The present view is that such terms are themselves occasioned by naturalistic factors, but extraneous ones that distract attention from relevant naturalistic factors. The present view means that any language called mentalistic needs to be examined to determine how much of it is occasioned by these extraneous factors, and how much by naturalistic factors. In most instances there is shared control from the two sources. The naturalistic factors may even shed some light on relations of importance. However, if the control from the extraneous factors predominates, then the language is justifiably called mentalistic.

The second conceptual feature is that methodological behaviorism conceives of the processes by which scientists are said to acquire and express knowledge in a mentalistic way. With regard to this second feature, we can note that methodological behaviorism adheres to the position referred to in an earlier section of the tutorial as epistemological dualism. Indeed, such matters of prime importance to methodological behaviorism as symbolic reference, logic guaranteeing validity, and operationally defining theoretical concepts from a mental dimension in terms of publicly observable measures in a physical dimension are all regarded as instances of mentalism and epistemological dualism.

To be sure, many behaviorally relevant phenomena are not publicly observable (i.e., many behaviorally relevant phenomena are private). The question is whether they need be regarded as from another dimension just because a second person does not have access to them. Methodological behaviorism argues that they do. Radical behaviorism argues that they do not. Legitimate question may therefore be raised as to whether methodological behaviorism really should be called a behaviorism after all, or whether it is just another form of mentalism, disguised in different clothing, because it entails these dimensional questions.

Can one be a methodological behaviorist without being a mentalist? The answer is yes. One can regard the unobserved as physical and material and without causal efficacy, but just not include the unobservable in any way in psychological explanations and theories. Perhaps some of the early classical S-R behaviorists took this approach. Of course, many current methodological behaviorists say it doesn't matter what the ontological nature of the unobservable is. Nothing that is unobservable can be included, so it doesn't matter whether the unobservable is regarded as part of the mental or physical dimension.

Can one be a methodological behaviorist without appealing to hypothetical constructs in psychological explanations? Again, the answer is yes. One can regard the unobserved as either physical and material, on the one hand, or from another dimension, on the other hand, and then not include the unobservable in psychological explanations, even as a theoretical term such as a hypothetical construct.

However, the actual number of individuals who do either of these two things is relatively limited. To repeat, nearly all current methodological behaviorists are mentalists, and do appeal to hypothetical constructs in psychological explanations. Of course, some mentalists are not methodological behaviorists, preferring to appeal directly to the causal efficacy of mental factors, without the necessity of expressing the mental factors in terms of publicly observable phenomena in some way so that the undertaking is respectable in some conventional way. Some examples here might be humanists and Freudians.

To recapitulate, methodological behaviorism entails in every case a commitment to a mental cause of the observing scientist's behavior, given the way theories, logic, constructs, hypothesis testing, and so on are construed to contribute to predicting and explaining. This is one feature that makes methodological behaviorism mentalistic. In addition, methodological behaviorism often includes an indirect commitment to a mental cause of an observed individual's behavior. When methodological behaviorism does so, this is a second feature that makes it mentalistic.

The whole orientation of radical behaviorism and behavior analysis to the questions of the dimensions of human behavior and the initiation of behavior is entirely different. Only one dimension is assumed: the physical, material, behavioral dimension. Any dimension other than a physical, material dimension, such as a mental dimension, is regarded as a fiction. Radical behaviorists argue that a critical examination of mentalism and methodological behaviorism reveals that mentalism began thousands of years ago, when individuals misinterpreted such phenomena as dreams and perception. Mentalism was then institutionalized as Western culture developed. Much of the modern influence of mentalism is further attributable to an entire series of incorrect assumptions about the nature of verbal behavior, the role of verbal behavior in producing knowledge, and the role of theories in knowledge and explanation. Today, mentalism is strongly entrenched in various societal and cultural institutions that are cherished for extraneous and irrelevant reasons. Our religious and judicial practices are two examples of such institutions. Methodological behaviorism has evolved as the scientific practice that supports mentalism. Methodological behaviorism and mentalism are therefore troublesome because they constitute practices that are instigated and controlled by mistaken assumptions and preconceptions from the history of our culture.

Why then are mentalism and methodological behaviorism of such concern? Radical behaviorists object to mentalism and methodological behaviorism primarily on pragmatic grounds. That is, on the radical behaviorist view, the problem with mentalism and methodological behaviorism is that the misinterpretations and incorrect assumptions referred to above ultimately lead people to search for the wrong causes of, and to accept incorrect answers about, the causes of behavior. Radical behaviorists argue that mentalism and methodological behaviorism exert these harmful effects because they obscure important details, they misrepresent the facts to be accounted for, they impede the search for genuinely relevant variables, they allay curiosity by getting us to accept the postulation of fictitious entities as explanations, and they generally give us false assurances about the state of our knowledge. Moreover, they lead to the continued use of scientific techniques that should be abandoned, for example, because they are wasteful and ineffective. Humans then needlessly suffer from many conditions that can be corrected. In short, radical behaviorists are concerned about mentalism and methodological behaviorism because those positions interfere with the effective prediction, control, and explanation of behavior.

Radical behaviorist concerns about the way methodological behaviorism focuses on publicly observable behavior should not be taken to mean that radical behaviorism is in any way opposed to studying publicly observable behavior. As a matter of fact, radical behaviorists typically do focus on publicly observable behavior. That form of behavior is usually what is of greatest practical importance. The concerns also should not be taken to imply that radical behaviorism is in any way opposed to empiricalness, objectivity, and agreement. To the contrary, radical behaviorism is focally interested in securing an empirical, objective causal explanation of publicly observable behavior, using terms that are effective and agreed upon by the members of the scientific community. However, radical behaviorism does not seek an objective, empirical explanation of publicly observable behavior in the same way as does methodological behaviorism. For example, radical behaviorism does not distinguish between "observational terms" and "theoretical terms" in its causal explanations. In addition, radical behaviorism may include private events in its explanations. Such events are accessible only to one person, and as suggested above, are identified in everyday language by such terms as "thinking" and "recalling." These events occur at the behavioral level. They are not mental, and they are not given the status of inferred phenomena from another dimension. They are not necessarily part of every behavioral event, but may become so, for example by exerting discriminative control, given the right antecedent conditions. Thus, the subject matter, independent variables, and dependent variables for radical behaviorism are not restricted to publicly observable phenomena.

An important point is that radical behaviorist concerns about mentalism and methodological behaviorism do not turn simply on the extent to which an approach is deemed "theoretical." Theories are verbal behavior. They are occasioned by certain antecedent conditions, and reinforced by certain other conditions. They are important as a form of discriminative stimulation that guides future action through either (a) direct manipulation and control of environmental events or (b) collateral action limited to prediction when direct manipulation and control is not feasible.

Radical behaviorism is not opposed to logic and theories in principle. Rather, radical behaviorism rejects the sorts of mentalistic theories that appeal to events and entities that are somewhere else, at some other level of observation, in a different dimension (neural, psychic, "mental," subjective, conceptual, hypothetical), which must be described in different terms. It further rejects the viewpoint that causal explanation in psychology, and psychological knowledge in general, consists in framing such theories, testing them, and reaching logically valid conclusions about any acts, states, mechanisms, entities, or processes from a different dimension that such theories include. Indeed, radical behaviorism argues that the belief such theories are necessary to psychological knowledge, and the belief that if logic is properly observed the whole enterprise is scientifically acceptable, are but further illustrations of the same mentalistic problem. In this regard, radical behaviorism holds that conventional courses teaching experimental or research methods may yield useful information, but not necessarily because those methods are fundamentally sound. Rather, the traditional methods may yield useful information for a different reason. Specifically, traditional methods may be useful to the extent that they reveal information about controlling contingencies. In any case, radical behaviorism argues that the most efficient means of securing knowledge is to bypass the canons of orthodox methodology and analyze those contingencies directly.

In brief, radical behaviorism advocates theories and causal explanations that entail a description of the functional relation, or the contingency, between behavior and its controlling variables. This theory would describe uniformities in those contingencies across many different circumstances, using a minimum number of terms. Appeals to events and entities in a different dimension are not a part of the process.

Radical behaviorist concerns about the way methodological behaviorism views experimentation should not be taken to mean that radical behaviorism is opposed to experimentation. To the contrary, radical behaviorism strongly supports experimentation because it is an important way to sharpen an understanding of how behavioral processes come to function in our lives. However, radical behaviorism is opposed to taking the outcome of an experiment as support for a purported cause from another dimension, which is what mentalism and methodological behaviorism typically do.

Finally, radical behaviorism points out that many forms of scientific knowledge entail "interpretation." Interpretation is the use of scientific terms and principles in talking about facts when too little is known to make prediction and control possible, or when precise manipulation is not feasible. That is, radical behaviorists believe they do not need to remain silent because a given statement cannot be made or a concept cannot be applied on the basis of precisely controlled laboratory conditions. Two examples of interpretation are (a) the theory of evolution and (b) the theory of plate tectonics. These theories are interpretations of a vast number of facts, in one case about the origin of species and in another about the nature of the earth's crust. The theories use terms and principles taken from much more accessible material and from experimental analyses and their technological applications. The basic principles of variation, selection, and retention can be studied in the laboratory under controlled conditions, but their role in explanations of the evolution of species is interpretation. Similarly, the basic principles governing the behavior of material under high pressure and high temperature can be studied in the laboratory under controlled conditions, but their role in explanations of the formation of the surface features of the earth is interpretation.

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