Methodological and Metaphysical Behaviorism

Methodological behaviorism does not deny the existence of mind and consciousness. Rather, it holds merely that such things are causally ineffective and irrelevant in psychology. To be scientific, psychology must adopt an empirical, scientific methodology applied to the empirical, physical subject matter of observable human behavior.

Metaphysical behaviorism of the sort espoused by John B. Watson (1878-1958) and his followers makes a much stronger claim. It denies the existence of mind and consciousness and proposes that all mentalistic concepts be properly defined (or redefined) in terms of observable behavior. Watson maintained that behavior can be explained entirely in terms of stimulus and response, without the intervention of mental or conscious events and activities. For Watson, all behavior is environmentally derived and cannot be explained by appeals to heredity, instincts, the unconscious, human nature, or internal predispositions.

Some behaviorists recognize two different kinds of observable behavior: external behavior, which is sometimes characterized as overt, external, or molar (pertaining to the whole); and internal behavior, which is alternatively called covert, implicit, deep, or central behavior. If thinking is defined as "talking" or "speaking," an account must be given of what transpires when people are thinking silently "to themselves." The wife of a philosopher once complained that she could never tell whether he was working or loafing. Many psychological processes and activities seem, at times, to involve no external behavior. Behaviorists may either deny the reality of private events or affirm that they involve internal behaviors or processes. Thus, thinking becomes "motion in the head," as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) put it, or "sub-vocal speech," as Watson suggested.

Behaviorism is usually associated with some form of metaphysical materialism, of which there are many varieties (Foss). When internal behavior is identified with neurophysiological activity, behaviorism becomes central-state materialism, or neuromaterialsim, according to which the reality of mental states and processes is identical with that of physical states and processes in the brain and central nervous system. This theory identifies mental processes with electrical and chemical processes within the central nervous system ("motion in the head"). Modern brain-scanning devices give indirect sensory access to these neurophysiological motions and processes, though not to the mental processes that are supposedly embodied in them. Brain scans can picture structures and electrochemical changes within the brain, but an enormous and highly controversial conceptual leap, or explanation gap, exists when these are designated as thoughts, feelings, volitions, or emotions.

Taking both consciousness and neuroscience seriously need not involve mind-matter dualism, which affirms that matter but not mind has spatial properties. If, contrary to the

Cartesian tradition, people's thoughts, feelings, and volitions are spatially extended, then they can be located within specific regions of the brain. Whether psychological events are identical with or merely correlated with brain events is at present unknown.

This discussion, however, concentrates on the behaviorism of John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and those philosophers of language who focus on observable acts, or on dispositions to behave in observable ways. It raises questions about whether behaviorism is or is not incompatible with presuppositions that are commonplace in ethical theory and bioethics.

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