Wednesday, 28 March 2012


B F Skinner was a lifelong opponent of what he called mentalism, where unobservable mental events are used to explain or describe human behaviour. In other words, mental states cause action. Basically, Skinner’s take on these unobservable mental events was that they are merely words or metaphors which explain nothing, simply because they are unobservable.

Take the word concept as an example.

We might say that someone worries about apocalyptic climate change because they misunderstand the uncertainty of certain key concepts. Somehow they have the concept wrongly configured inside their heads and that causes climate silliness.

Yet a concept, although useful as a term, is a metaphor for some rather vague assumptions about unobserved and unobservable mental events. How, as Skinner might have asked, do we observe this wrongly configured concept except via silly behaviour - mostly verbal behaviour. What else is there to analyse but the silly behaviour?

So it may be better to root out concepts and simply describe behaviour. What do people do when they worry about apocalyptic climate change? Well in the vast majority of cases, the answer seems to be not much.

They may respond in a broadly predictable way to certain verbal cues and make some minor lifestyle adjustments which are quite likely to be both fashionable and mildly ostentatious. But that’s it – minor behavioural changes. Observable behaviours though.

The real problem arises when multi-billion projects such as wind power arise because of these behaviours. Note that wind turbines don’t get built because of concepts. The minister giving approval for them has no concepts inside his or her head - whatever concepts might be. He or she doesn’t even understand why the wind turbines are being built in any technical sense. The minister merely grinds out some imitative political behaviour.

It is not necessary to assume that anything at all is going on inside the minister's head. There will be some fiendishly complex neurological processes of course, but we don't know much about those and neither does the minister.

The minister is showing symptoms of a contagious imitative behaviour, because behaviour is often contagious. That’s why we get epidemics of it. We don’t get epidemics of concepts. Most people worry about apocalyptic climate change with no discernible mental activity at all - let alone concepts.


James Higham said...

So it may be better to root out concepts and simply describe behaviour.

Only a Skinner devotee would dare suggest such a thing as a model. ;-)

A K Haart said...

James - absolutely.