There is a resurgence of vulgar Empiricism (E). It’s rampant now, but be patient, it will soon die out as the groundless extravagant claims made on its behalf will soon be seen to, yet again, prove sterile. But it is back and getting airing in the popular press.
Of the above, the only part that is likely difficult to understand is what I intend by ‘vulgar.’ I am not a big fan of the E-weltanschauung, but even within Empiricism there are more and less sophisticated versions. The least sophisticated in the mental sciences is some version of behaviorism (B). What marks it out as particularly vulgar? Its complete repudiation of mental representations (MR). Most of the famous E philosophers (Locke and Hume for example) were not averse to MRs. They had no problem believing that the world, through the senses, produces representations in the mind and that these representations are causally implicated in much of cognitive behavior. What differentiates classical E from classical Rationalism (R) is not MRs but the degree to which MRs are structured by experience alone. For E, the MR structure pretty closely tracks the structure of the environmental input as sampled by the senses. For R, the structure of MRs reflects innate properties of the mind in combination with what the senses provide of the environmental landscape. This is what the debate about blank/wax tablets is all about. Not whether the mind has MRs but whether the properties of the MRs we have reduce to sensory properties (statistical or otherwise) of the environment. Es say ‘yes,’ Rs ‘no.’
Actually this is a bit of a caricature. Everyone believes that the brain/mind brings something to the table. Thus, nobody thinks that the brain/mind is unstructured as such brains/minds cannot generalize and everyone believes that brains/minds that do not generalize cannot acquire/learn anything. The question then is really how structured is the brain/mind. For Es the mind/brain is largely a near perfect absorber of environmental information with some statistical smoothing techniques thrown in. For R extracting useful information from sensory input requires a whole lot of given/innate structure to support the inductions required. Thus, for Es the gap between what you perceive and what you acquire is pretty slim, while for Rs the gap is quite wide and bridging this gap requires a lot of pre-packaged knowledge. So everyone is a nativist. The debate is what kinds of native structure is imputed.
If this is right, the logical conclusion of E is B. In particular, in the limit, the mind brings nothing but the capacity to perfectly reflect environmental input to cognition. And if this is so, then all talk of MRs is just a convenient way of coding environmental input and its statistical regularities. And if so, MRs are actually dispensable and so we can (and should) dump reference to them. This was Skinner’s gambit. B takes all the E talk of MRs as theoretically nugatory given that all MRs do is recapitulate the structure of the environment as sampled by the senses. MRs, on this view, are just summaries of experience and are explanatorily eliminable. The logical conclusion, the one that B endorses, is to dump the representational middlemen (i.e. MRs) that stand between the environment and behavior. All the brain is, on this view, is a way of mapping between stimulus inputs and behavior, all the talk of MRs just being misleading ways of talking about the history of stimuli. Or, we don’t need this talk of minds and the MR talk it suggests, we can just think of the brain as a giant I/O device that “somehow” maps stimuli to behaviors.
Note, that without representations there is no real place for information processing and the computer picture of the mind. Indeed, this is exactly the point that critics of E and B have long made (e.g. Chomsky, Fodor, and Gallistel to name three of my favorites). But, of course the argument can be aimed in the reverse direction (as Jerry Fodor sagely noted someone’s modus ponens can be someone else’s modus tollens): ‘If B then the brain does not process information’ (i.e. the opposite of ‘If the brain processes info then not B’). And this is what I mean by the resurgence of vulgar E. B is back, and getting popular press.
Aeon has a recent piece against the view of the brain as an information processing device (here). The author is Robert Epstein. The view is B through and through. The brain is just a vehicle for pairing inputs with behaviors based on reward (no, I am not kidding). Here is the relevant quote (13) :
As we navigate through the world, we are changed by a variety of experiences. Of special note are experiences of three types: (1) we observe what is happening around us (other people behaving, sounds of music, instructions directed at us, words on pages, images on screens); (2) we are exposed to the pairing of unimportant stimuli (such as sirens) with important stimuli (such as the appearance of police cars); (3) we are punished or rewarded for behaving in certain ways.
No MRs mediate input and output. I/O is all there is.
Misleading headlines notwithstanding, no one really has the slightest idea how the brain changes after we have learned to sing a song or recite a poem. But neither the song nor the poem has been ‘stored’ in it. The brain has simply changed in an orderly way that now allows us to sing the song or recite the poem under certain conditions. When called on to perform, neither the song nor the poem is in any sense ‘retrieved’ from anywhere in the brain, any more than my finger movements are ‘retrieved’ when I tap my finger on my desk. We simply sing or recite – no retrieval necessary (14).
No need for memory banks or MRs. All we need is “the brain to change in an orderly way as a result of our experiences” (17). So sensory inputs, rewards, behavioral outputs. And the brain? That organ that mediates this process. Skinner must be schepping nachas!
Let me end with a couple of references and observations.
First, there are several very good long detailed critiques of this Epstein piece out there (Thx to Bill Idsardi for sending them my way). Here and here are two useful ones. I take heart in these quick replies for it seems that this time around there are a large number of people who appreciate just how vulgar B conceptions of the brain are. Aeon, which published this piece, is, I have concluded, a serious source of scientific disinformation. Anything printed therein should be treated with the utmost care, and, if it is on cog-neuro topics, the presumption must be that it is junk. Recall that Vyvyan Evans found a home here too. And talk about junk!
Second, there is something logically pleasing about articles like Epstein’s; they do take an idea to its logical conclusion. B really is the natural endpoint of E. Intellectually, it’s vulgarity is a virtue for it displays what much E succeeds in hiding. Critics of E (especially Randy and Jerry) have noted its lack of fit with the leading ideas of computational approaches to neuro-cognition. In an odd way, the Epstein piece agrees with these critiques. It agrees that the logical terminus of E (i.e. B) is inimical with the information processing view of the brain. If this is right, the brain has no intrinsic structure. It is “empty,” a mere bit of meat serving as physiological venue for combining experience and reward with an eye towards behavior. Randy and Jerry and Noam (and moi!) could not agree more. On this behaviorist view of things the brain is empty and pretty simple. And that’s the problem with this view. The Epstein piece has the logic right, it just doesn’t recognize a reductio, no matter how glaring.
Third, the piece identifies B’s fellow travellers. So, not surprisingly embodied cognition makes an appearance and the piece is more than a bit redolent of connectionist obfuscation. In the old days, connectionists liked to make holistic pronouncements about the opacity of the inner workings of the neural nets. This gave it a nice anti-reductionist feel and legislated questions about how the innards of the system worked unaskable. It gave the whole theory a kind of new age, post-modern gloss with an Aquarian appeal. Well, the Epstein piece assembles the same cast of characters in roughly the same way.
Last observation: the critiques I linked to above both dwell on how misinformed this piece is. I agree. There is very little argumentation and what there is, is amazingly thin. I am not surprised, really. It is hard to make a good case for E in general and B in particular. Chomsky’s justly famous review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior demonstrated this in detail. Nonetheless, E is back. If this be so, for my money, I prefer the vulgar forms, the ones that flaunt the basic flaws. And if you are looking for a good version of a really bad set of Eish ideas, the Epstein article is the one for you.