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Archive for February 28th, 2008

Here’s a set of insights from John Bryant.  They are particularly potent considering the upheaval in media, news, politics and pop culture.  We often appeal to mentalistic terminology to understand and explain the complexity of behavior at play on our sites, in our classes, in our cities and at the polls.

Here’s what John has to say:

The explanatory emptiness of much of our ordinary talk involving mental events is not evidence that mentalistic notions have no place in a scientific account of human behavior.  It is evidence of the power of conditioning of behavior and a lack of understanding of what it means to be ‘scientific’.

As humans, we often explain each other’s behaviors by alluding to mental states such as intentions, beliefs, and desires. These are all non-observable. That is not the science part.  Using idiomatic terms allows people to communicate, albeit, in non-scientific or empirical ways.  Mental mechanics are inferred from watching other people’s behaviour and making analogies with their own mental world. Pointedly, they are all that is available to the citizen to understand behavior when metaphysics, superstition and agency get reinforced more than data-based science of behavior.

Partly because of this un-observability of private or mental events, behaviorists hold that to use these notions in explanations of behavior is un-real. When it is done we are basically using explanatory fictions which refer to a homunculus, a sort of inner person, i.e., a metaphysical inner agent which, of course, is no explanation at all.  Besides being un-scientific, these explanatory fictions confuse what we learn about our behavior and the behavior of the people around us that we care about.  Trouble is that their use in common communication has leaked over to scientific communication and for over the last 100 years a lack of a science of behavior has grown too slowly to push for keeping them separate. One of the reasons is that it is hard to tease the two types of communication apart when a scientific approach is a major threat to many would have built their value on pop science, intolerance and “science is for geeks” logic.

For the most part, we don’t understand how the behavior came to be, how or why it changed, why it goes away when it does or anything else.  That approach would take it out of the laboratory and into the streets where we, as a culture, can ill afford not to understand what is going on out there that created 9/11, Columbine, Virginia Tech and a 100,000 other senseless events that are not welcome.

Almost all of human behavior can be seen in terms of
* Learned Stimulus cues
* History of conditioning
* Current status or state
* Potential consequences for actions

Yes, behavior may start with reflexes and instincts with fixed action patterns but contingency management and combinations of rules that impact an organism are responsible for creating and maintaining who we are.

It is paradoxical to think of reinforcement as a simple mechanism as many, like Daniel Dennett, have surmised when it is just such simple rule-based operations that Conway’s Game of Life is based on and that generates anything but ‘simple’ behavior.

However, it occasioned me to compare Dennett and others with his reinforcement history are today [2008] in a similar predicament as was seen in 1920s.

In the 1920s things were changing and American social patterns were in chaos. [sound familiar?] Traditionalists, gentry of the nation were worried that everything valuable to them was ending. Woman’s suffrage and the right to vote was a brick around the neck of the established order. Young modernists struck out in other ways and no longer asked whether society would approve of their behavior and challenged everything. [As an aside: Polite society was not seen as reinforcing] Intellectual and social experimentation flourished. American’s danced to Jazz, showed their contempt for alcoholic prohibition, the social caste order, and debated abstract art and Freudian theories [topically more reinforcing even today than plotting schedules of reinforcement] . In a response to the new social patterns a wave of revivalism [now called fundamentalism] developed, becoming especially strong in the American cities and in the South.

Looking back, tensions evolved where the traditionalists had to make a stand on many fronts and one of those occurred in a Dayton, Tennessee courtroom over a high school biology teacher, John Scopes, who was charged with illegally teaching that crazy theory of evolution. The Bible was at stake!  If the traditionalists didn’t make a stand they would lose yet another hallmark of their world.  For sure, integration of colored and whites would come soon. Guilt and the law mattered little as this trail was really a stand for traditional vs. relativist intellectual values.  The results that could never have been imagined would impact American society and foreign entanglements for generations to come.

More and more, the same can and has been said for the position of mentalists vs. the behaviorists.  People are interested in what’s going on.  They get cranky when anyone or thing says don’t look into that proverbial telescope.  Today things aren’t right with so many institutions like the family, business, governments, immigration, etc.  People are aware that there are a lot of different groups contending for each citizen’s attention, commitment and allegiance. For sure, if some of these contemporary ideas were not oppressed some groups could lose everything they had worked to acquire.

Be clear that one of those radical ideas is: “If we can explain behavior of organisms without invoking metaphysics, divine intervention, illusions of the spirit world or internal agents, maybe we’d be better off.”

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