Behaviorism and Idealism
In presenting the mind-body problem in the previous section, we have been assuming that there really are two fundamentally different kinds of properties which are possessed by human beings. If we accept this as a fact, then the task of explaining how and why it is a fact is a formidable one. But what if it is not a fact after all? What if one kind of property, when rightly understood, turns out to be simply a special case, a subclass, of the other kind of property? In this case the mind-body problem might be easily resolved or perhaps shown not to be a problem at all.
We shall now examine two philosophical theories which attempt this kind of resolution of the problem. Philosophical behaviorism states, in effect, that mental properties are really a special category of physical properties; they are, to be specific, behavioral properties of living organisms. Idealism, on the other hand, holds that what we have termed physical properties are really properties of “ideas,” thoughts or “sense data” which exist only in the minds of some person or persons. Either way, the mind-body problem is in effect eliminated by getting rid of one group of properties.
First, behaviorism, which may be stated as follows: When we describe the mental states, attributes and actions of a person, we are really describing the person’s behavior, and whatever can be said by talking about such mental properties can also be expressed by talking directly about behavior. For example, there can be no doubt that Lucy (in the comic strip Peanuts) is very conceited. If we were asked what Lucy’s conceit is, we should probably be inclined to say that it is a mental property of Lucy. It is a state of Lucy’s mind, part of the way she thinks about herself. But if we were asked how we know that Lucy is conceited, we would have to point to her behavior—her actions in setting herself up as a “sidewalk psychiatrist,” her constant disparagement of Charlie Brown and so on. Now, the behaviorist takes the apparently simple step of saying that this pattern of behavior just is Lucy’s conceit. So, too, with Charlie Brown’s inferiority complex, Schroeder’s love of music and the rest. In each case, the supposed mental attribute is really a highly complex pattern of behavior. Normally, to be sure, we don’t trouble to spell out the behavior in detail; rather, we just say “Lucy is conceited” as a sort of shorthand for the whole complex pattern. But the point is that we could spell it out, and if we could not—if we had no idea how Lucy’s “conceit” would translate into behavior—then there would be no sense in our assertion that she is conceited.
At least one further qualification must be added in order to protect behaviorism from obvious counterexamples. It sometimes happens that we think about something, have some feeling or make a decision without ever having the opportunity to express our thoughts in actual behavior. For example, I may have thought about what I would do in the event of an atomic attack, but if (as I devoutly hope) no such attack ever comes I may never do anything about it or even tell anyone about my thoughts. So, what is the behavior-statement equivalent to “Hasker has planned to do so-and-so in the case of an atomic attack”? In order to answer this and to handle many similar examples, the behaviorist speaks of actual and potential behavior; my plan means that if there were an attack I would respond in certain ways. Similarly, a full spelling out of Lucy’s conceit would include statements about how Lucy would respond to this or that situation, even though many of these situations may never actually arise.
The arguments in support of behaviorism are complex and include many criticisms of other mind-body theories which cannot be gone into here. But one major benefit should be readily apparent from what has already been said: It eliminates the mindbody problem. The problem of why human beings have both mental and physical properties resolves itself into the question of why certain material objects, namely, human bodies, exhibit such complex and fascinating forms of behavior. To be sure, that question is not an easy one and may keep scientists busy for some little time, but their concerns as they wrestle with it need not include the mind-body problem.
The other view to be considered in this section, a view first clearly presented by Berkeley, is idealism. According to this view material objects, as we ordinarily think of them, have no real existence. “To be is to be perceived” was Berkeley’s motto—the very existence of a tree, a stone, a building, consists in the fact that it is perceived, now by this mind, now by that one. The existence of such “sensible objects,” as Berkeley called them, is thus entirely relative to the minds which perceive them.
Does this mean that, for example, if no one is looking at a tree, the tree ceases to exist, only to pop back into existence the moment someone else looks in its direction? Berkeley did not say this; what he said, rather, was that no tree ever is completely unobserved, for all that exists is continually present to the mind of God. God, furthermore, is also needed to coordinate the various perceptions which human beings have of the tree. If you observe a tree, for example, your perceptions are continually changing with the wind, the sunlight and so on. If I am viewing the same tree from the other side, then I am getting a different view of it, consistent with my position, the state of my eyesight, and so on. So what guarantees that we are seeing the same thing? There is no direct connection between the idea or image of the tree in my mind and the one in your mind. Nor is there (as we might ordinarily suppose) the tree “in itself,” existing separately from both of us and operating as a common causal factor in our perceptions of it. What guarantees that when you see a tree I also see a tree, and indeed the very same tree? The answer, according to Berkeley, is that God guarantees this. He alone is able to give each of us the perceptions that we need to have, in order that we should all perceive the world as a single, unified and orderly whole. What better demonstration could there be of his power, wisdom and goodness? Berkeley in fact felt it to be a great merit of his theory that abolishing “material substance” made all things directly dependent on God and so put an end to materialism and atheism. But also, and not incidentally, idealism resolves the mind-body problem by making physical properties, as we have termed them, attributes of images or “ideas” which exist only as perceived by a mind.
So we have two opposite methods of resolving the mind-body problem: Behaviorism claims that the “ultimate constituents” of mental states and processes are bits of behavior, while idealism states that the ultimate constituents of physical objects such as trees, stones and skyscrapers are mental images, thoughts in the mind. Obviously both cannot be correct, but is either?
It is fair to say that most philosophers have now become convinced that behaviorism is not satisfactory as a philosophical theory of the mind. It is true that the connection between inner, mental experiences and overt behavior is both intimate and important, and the behaviorists deserve credit for calling attention to this fact and developing it through detailed analysis. But the further claim that mental experiences just are behavior does not seem to be justified, and attempts to show that our mental life can be completely described by talking only about behavior have run into seemingly insuperable difficulties. Only two points will be mentioned here.
First, some experiences by their very nature do not allow expression in overt behavior. Dreaming, for example, is by definition done while one is asleep; the actions “experienced” in the dream are never physically performed, nor can one narrate a dream while having it. The only behavior that can be fixed on as the expression of the dream is the dreamer’s behavior of retelling the dream after awakening. But the dream itself, we think, happens during sleep, when there is no behavior at all. And what of dreams which are forgotten and never recalled? But more fundamentally, is it not obvious that certain experiences (pain, elation, tasting pistachio ice cream and so on) contain elements which, whether or not they are expressed in behavior, are clearly different from overt behavior of any kind? These “raw feels,” as they have been called, seem to be an insurmountable problem for a behavioristic philosophy of mind.
But what of idealism? About this I will say here only two things. First, it is very difficult, if not impossible, to give a direct refutation of idealism—to show that it is logically inconsistent or contradicts established facts. But, second, in spite of this the theory seems immensely implausible; it runs so much against the grain of our normal beliefs about the world that only a really overwhelming case in its favor could make us accept it. A bit more will be said about it in the next chapter. In the meantime, let us turn to some solutions which begin by accepting the real existence of the physical body.