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The “problem” of consciousness
Posted: 23 October 2011 05:05 PM   [ Ignore ]
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The notion of the mind, of consciousness, etc., seems a difficult thing for many people to address. However, from a Skinnerian verbal behavior perspective, the general “problem” of consciousness does not appear to be too difficult.

Let me lay out the general problem and what the simple steps are to understanding how we develop ongoing consciousness.

We tend to go through developmental stages, acquiring different abilities and skills, without noticing what is happening to us. And then suddenly! we are suddenly aware that we are aware, and it seems that a sudden dualism has come upon us. This state of consciousness has been used by many to justify the existence of God, to exhort us to different practices – including war, etc.

However what is actually happening is that we are not tracking very well the internal changes we are experiencing, the skills we are acquiring, etc.

Psychology B. F. Skinner in his 1957 work, Verbal Behavior (see http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=skinner+verbal+behavior&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart for descriptions of it), laid out his basic premises of the development of verbal behavior in humans.

The following is a simplification of some of the variables, but the basic process is this:

For humans, language works rather like a radio repeater system does. From http://en.wikipedia.org/: “A radio repeater is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a weak or low-level signal and retransmits it at a higher level or higher power, so that the signal can cover longer distances without degradation.” The way language works in humans is for us to replay internally —that is – to “echo”—the language stimuli we are hearing outside of us.

For infants, this involves subvocalizations of the words infants hear. That is, the infant reproduces with their vocal cords, tongue, etc., the language sounds they hear. At first this is quite overt, but over time subvocalization becomes more and more subtle. (This is rather like the evolution of reading skills with first readers subvocalization quite overtly but skilled readers subvocalizing much less.)

Ever listened to a person with a cough and had to clear your throat too because of how they were speaking? This is an example of your own tendency to subvocalize what others are saying.

At any rate, if one thinks about it, the progression from hearing to subvocalization to internal recreation of the words one hears – this is the only way that language acquisition can work. It’s not magic, but it sure is magnificent!

Skinner discusses a variety of aspects of language that are really, really interesting, including probes (a probe is an open-ended question, such as: “Where do I want to travel this summer? Going to the mountains is nice but maybe I’d rather visit my parents.” Etc. etc.), prompts (a prompt is a question which has as its solution the item being sought – “What was that movie with Holden and the river? Oh, Yes – The Bridge over the River Kwai.”—- a prompt can have strength within us for many years), mands (a mand indicates the thing desired – e.g., say “ice cream” if you want “ice cream), tacts (tacts describe things around us), etc. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbal_Behavior for more descriptions of Skinner’s approach.)

The reason we suddenly become aware of our internal language behaviors as adults is because generally children, I think,  are not as sophisticated in their language – internal and external – as adults. That is, children tend to be more easily bored if they don’t have something external to amuse them than are adults, I believe, as they do not have an ongoing web of internal and external dialog. Adults will assign themselves probes, prompts, use memory to stimulate other internal dialogs, etc. Everything else being equal, I think it is clear that children are less likely to have ongoing sophisticated verbal behavior than are adults.

At any rate, it seems clear to me that at some point we are suddenly aware that we have useful internal dialogues, chains of verbal behaviors, can use internal speech to generate hypotheses about the world, to help us be more effective around ourselves and others, etc.

This sudden awareness is because we are not tracking the skills we are acquiring, etc. But rather like an corn plant that starts out as a small shoot, suddenly the corn is over our heads and we never saw it growing because the changes are— day by day – too small to see.

By the way, the Skinnerian approach is now hailed as the most effective approach in dealing with autistic youngsters and is termed – ABA, Applied Behavioral Analysis. Look on YouTube and other places for examples of how this approach is being used.

The above romp through language acquisition does not begin to address other issues in this process, including: successive approximations to phoneme utterances, babbling sound selections, etc.

However, the basic progression of behaviors – from external stimuli to subvocalization to further elaboration with subvocalization being more and more subtle, and sometimes no longer required – is clear.

“We are such stuff as words are made on,” Prospero might have said.

Yours,

Caleb Burns, PhD
Psychologist
Portland, Oregon
10-23-11

[ Edited: 23 October 2011 09:08 PM by Caleb ]
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Posted: 23 October 2011 11:01 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I’m sure someone will post a much fuller examination of the issues raised than I will here, but it strikes me that what some people find unsatisfying about the behaviourist/operationalist approach to consciousness is that it treats the mind a ‘black box’.  Skinner classifies the ‘inputs’ to the box as ‘stimuli’ and ‘reinforcements’ and the outputs as ‘responses’ etc and he has something to say about how the outputs relate to the inputs, but he says very little about the internals of the black box itself. 

I think the problems of consciousness that someone like David ‘Hard problem’ Chalmers is interested in is most clearly shown in the context where there is no observable input or output - when we think about thinking, or when we introspect.  Behaviourism is a very ‘objectivist’ worldview.  A behaviourist would not distinguish between a ‘person’ and a ‘philosophical zombie’, while to someone interested in the subjectivity of consciousness that distinction is critical. 

Viewed as device that maps stimuli to responses a person or a pigeon is not fundamentally ‘mysterious’ - merely complicated.  Viewed as a centre of subjectivity, of a ‘self’ people (and perhaps pigeons) are totally unexplained.

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Posted: 24 October 2011 05:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Actually, Skinner says quite a bit about the constituent parts of speech in his “Verbal Behavior” text. Quite tough sledding on its own, but the implications are far reaching and it’s certainly been a fruitful approach for the most part. (Some things I would disagree with—such as Skinner’s view of the necessity of social reinforcement to maintain language behavior. I think once we get good at language, it is punishing not to engage in it. Minor point, though.)

If you do not think that behaviorists consider language and thinking at all, I do invite you to look at YouTube videos for ABA treatment of those with autism. Certainly the ABA trainers—and other behaviorists employing his verbal behavior methods—know the difference between a “person” and a “philosophical zombie.”

In the time of Skinner’s 1957 “Verbal Behavior”, methodological behaviorism helped many researchers to skirt many possible problems by avoiding discussion of inner states, etc. This was before the newer, non-invasive techniques which now include brain imaging methods, such as positron emission tomography, also FRMI, transcranial magnetic stimulation, etc.

Regarding a “sense of self,” once we are able to generate fairly ongoing and fairly independent verbal behavior (such as for those with autism and for unimpaired people as well), then the verbal behavior can be seen to control in part other aspects of our total set of responses. Does it always finally come down to a deterministic framework? I would argue that it does, but the variables are far too complex for us to predict with certainty the thoughts and subsequent effects of sophisticated language users who have a large fund of knowledge and who have a variety of interests, as well as waxing and waning interests, who have differences with attention and concentration, energy level, maturity, external conditions, etc., etc.

Several years ago I saw a TV show on youngsters in Japan learning to use an abacus in an expert fashion. The youngsters get more and more adroit at using it and, at the end, they do not need the abacus to perform the mathematical calculations—simply moving their fingers as though they had an abacus in their hands will allow them to compute their answers. I think speech behaviors grow more subtle and sophisticated in a somewhat similar fashion as well.

For me, a short-hand definition for consciousness is that it seems to be the main string of meaningful (at least at times) verbal behavior to which we are attending—and which we are generating. This doesn’t encompass the whole range of consciousness but certainly the bulk of what we call consciousness in sophisticated thinkers requires and depends upon an ongoing language string. If we could reliably create such a language string in youngsters with autism, that would be of immense help to them.

Thank you for your thoughts! I find the topic very, very interesting and have never seen discussed before how the sudden awareness of one’s language sophistication might bring about the sudden belief of the mind as miraculous.

Yours,

Caleb

[ Edited: 24 October 2011 05:32 PM by Caleb ]
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Posted: 04 November 2011 04:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Caleb - 23 October 2011 05:05 PM

The notion of the mind, of consciousness, etc., seems a difficult thing for many people to address. However, from a Skinnerian verbal behavior perspective, the general “problem” of consciousness does not appear to be too difficult.

Let me lay out the general problem and what the simple steps are to understanding how we develop ongoing consciousness.

We tend to go through developmental stages, acquiring different abilities and skills, without noticing what is happening to us. And then suddenly! we are suddenly aware that we are aware, and it seems that a sudden dualism has come upon us. This state of consciousness has been used by many to justify the existence of God, to exhort us to different practices – including war, etc.

However what is actually happening is that we are not tracking very well the internal changes we are experiencing, the skills we are acquiring, etc.

Psychology B. F. Skinner in his 1957 work, Verbal Behavior (see http://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=skinner+verbal+behavior&hl=en&as_sdt=0&as_vis=1&oi=scholart for descriptions of it), laid out his basic premises of the development of verbal behavior in humans.

The following is a simplification of some of the variables, but the basic process is this:

For humans, language works rather like a radio repeater system does. From http://en.wikipedia.org/: “A radio repeater is a combination of a radio receiver and a radio transmitter that receives a weak or low-level signal and retransmits it at a higher level or higher power, so that the signal can cover longer distances without degradation.” The way language works in humans is for us to replay internally —that is – to “echo”—the language stimuli we are hearing outside of us.

For infants, this involves subvocalizations of the words infants hear. That is, the infant reproduces with their vocal cords, tongue, etc., the language sounds they hear. At first this is quite overt, but over time subvocalization becomes more and more subtle. (This is rather like the evolution of reading skills with first readers subvocalization quite overtly but skilled readers subvocalizing much less.)

Ever listened to a person with a cough and had to clear your throat too because of how they were speaking? This is an example of your own tendency to subvocalize what others are saying.

At any rate, if one thinks about it, the progression from hearing to subvocalization to internal recreation of the words one hears – this is the only way that language acquisition can work. It’s not magic, but it sure is magnificent!

Skinner discusses a variety of aspects of language that are really, really interesting, including probes (a probe is an open-ended question, such as: “Where do I want to travel this summer? Going to the mountains is nice but maybe I’d rather visit my parents.” Etc. etc.), prompts (a prompt is a question which has as its solution the item being sought – “What was that movie with Holden and the river? Oh, Yes – The Bridge over the River Kwai.”—- a prompt can have strength within us for many years), mands (a mand indicates the thing desired – e.g., say “ice cream” if you want “ice cream), tacts (tacts describe things around us), etc. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbal_Behavior for more descriptions of Skinner’s approach.)

The reason we suddenly become aware of our internal language behaviors as adults is because generally children, I think,  are not as sophisticated in their language – internal and external – as adults. That is, children tend to be more easily bored if they don’t have something external to amuse them than are adults, I believe, as they do not have an ongoing web of internal and external dialog. Adults will assign themselves probes, prompts, use memory to stimulate other internal dialogs, etc. Everything else being equal, I think it is clear that children are less likely to have ongoing sophisticated verbal behavior than are adults.

At any rate, it seems clear to me that at some point we are suddenly aware that we have useful internal dialogues, chains of verbal behaviors, can use internal speech to generate hypotheses about the world, to help us be more effective around ourselves and others, etc.

This sudden awareness is because we are not tracking the skills we are acquiring, etc. But rather like an corn plant that starts out as a small shoot, suddenly the corn is over our heads and we never saw it growing because the changes are— day by day – too small to see.

By the way, the Skinnerian approach is now hailed as the most effective approach in dealing with autistic youngsters and is termed – ABA, Applied Behavioral Analysis. Look on YouTube and other places for examples of how this approach is being used.

The above romp through language acquisition does not begin to address other issues in this process, including: successive approximations to phoneme utterances, babbling sound selections, etc.

However, the basic progression of behaviors – from external stimuli to subvocalization to further elaboration with subvocalization being more and more subtle, and sometimes no longer required – is clear.

“We are such stuff as words are made on,” Prospero might have said.

Yours,

Caleb Burns, PhD
Psychologist
Portland, Oregon
10-23-11

Is Skinnerian behaviourism still practiced? Has it not been consigned to the rubbish heap of flawed and incomplete theories of human existence?

Aside from the superficiality of Skinnerian behaviourism, your main problem is equating consciousness with language. Language depends on space and time, on what is available to the five senses and consists of content. Consciousness is independent of content, although it may have content. Consciousness uses other modes of data acquisition beyond that normally available to senses and is not necessarily dependent on space/time.

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Posted: 04 November 2011 09:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Caleb, you are so right!  The quote “I think therefore I am.” comes to mind.  More correctly, it may be “I think therfore I am aware of myself.”  Most thinking is covert self talk, aka verbal behavior in which the listener is one’s self.  Without verbal behavior the phenomena that we speak of as consciousness does not exist. 

The problem with this straightforward explanation of consciousness is not that it is incorrect.  It is that it is unbelievable to most people.  One would need to be subject to reinforcement by empirical facts to believe something like this.  You see believing is a behavior also and is subject to operant influences as is any other behavior.  Most people find mystical explanations much more reinforcing.  In fact, facts are often aversive to many whether they are aware of it or not.

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 14 November 2011 03:19 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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jon athan - 14 November 2011 02:32 AM

Hey….That’s really an amazing post. I really like this post. Keep it up.

A spammer with a sense of humour. grin

Stephen

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Posted: 14 November 2011 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Caleb, I find everything in your post both reasonable and illuminating—except for the linkage to consciousness. Why do we need this construct? It seems to me that ‘consciousness’ is merely the secular term for ‘soul’. Everything you write makes perfect sense on its own without any recourse to the idea of consciousness. Is there anything about consciousness that is not equally well expressed in the term ‘self-awareness’?

Here’s an interesting thought regarding the evolutionary development of self-awareness: we know that many simians possess the cognitive ability to ‘place themselves in somebody else’s shoes’—they show behaviors that demonstrate that they are making social calculations based on their calculation of what they would do in another’s position. This process requires what in computer science is called ‘recursion’—performing nested computations. You replace “If the fruit looks tasty, then I will eat it” with a higher level of abstraction: “If the fruit looks tasty, then X will eat it.” Once you’ve developed this cognitive capability, the next step is to turn the recursion inward. “I don’t like Joe because he hit Mary” moves up to “If I hit Jane, Mary will not like me”. From there, it’s just a matter of expansion to erect a panoply of rules and perceptions that point inwards. Those rules and perceptions constitute self-awareness.

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Posted: 15 November 2011 01:53 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Chris Crawford - 14 November 2011 09:46 AM

Caleb, I find everything in your post both reasonable and illuminating—except for the linkage to consciousness. Why do we need this construct? It seems to me that ‘consciousness’ is merely the secular term for ‘soul’. Everything you write makes perfect sense on its own without any recourse to the idea of consciousness. Is there anything about consciousness that is not equally well expressed in the term ‘self-awareness’?

Here’s an interesting thought regarding the evolutionary development of self-awareness: we know that many simians possess the cognitive ability to ‘place themselves in somebody else’s shoes’—they show behaviors that demonstrate that they are making social calculations based on their calculation of what they would do in another’s position. This process requires what in computer science is called ‘recursion’—performing nested computations. You replace “If the fruit looks tasty, then I will eat it” with a higher level of abstraction: “If the fruit looks tasty, then X will eat it.” Once you’ve developed this cognitive capability, the next step is to turn the recursion inward. “I don’t like Joe because he hit Mary” moves up to “If I hit Jane, Mary will not like me”. From there, it’s just a matter of expansion to erect a panoply of rules and perceptions that point inwards. Those rules and perceptions constitute self-awareness.

Primates have mirror neurons which fire off neurological correlates for the behavior that they observe another doing.  This, no doubt is an evolutionary development selected within the social species, by providing for the philogenic survival to reproduction of members who had the “best” mirror neurons. In humans, our development of verbal behavior, has no doubt given us an evolutionary advantage over all other species.  The capacity for developing increasingly complex verbal behavior within our species has no doubt, to a great extent, selected out those of us who live today. Subsequent to one’s development of verbal behavior, one can develop relatively complex rule governed behavior.  I think that behaviors of self awareness can include 1)the behaviors of attending to one’s perception of one’s self and others within a contextual environment 2) covert verbal behavior with one’s self as the listener, aka thinking 3) remembering behaviors.  I am not sure whether a “panopaly” of rule governed behavior must be established for us to have behaviors of “self awareness” or whether a process of recursion is necessary.  I suspect that bringing in the concept of recursion is either off the mark or a matter for someone who is a standard deviation or two beyond me in IQ.

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 17 November 2011 03:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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TimB - 15 November 2011 01:53 PM
Chris Crawford - 14 November 2011 09:46 AM

Caleb, I find everything in your post both reasonable and illuminating—except for the linkage to consciousness. Why do we need this construct? It seems to me that ‘consciousness’ is merely the secular term for ‘soul’. Everything you write makes perfect sense on its own without any recourse to the idea of consciousness. Is there anything about consciousness that is not equally well expressed in the term ‘self-awareness’?

Here’s an interesting thought regarding the evolutionary development of self-awareness: we know that many simians possess the cognitive ability to ‘place themselves in somebody else’s shoes’—they show behaviors that demonstrate that they are making social calculations based on their calculation of what they would do in another’s position. This process requires what in computer science is called ‘recursion’—performing nested computations. You replace “If the fruit looks tasty, then I will eat it” with a higher level of abstraction: “If the fruit looks tasty, then X will eat it.” Once you’ve developed this cognitive capability, the next step is to turn the recursion inward. “I don’t like Joe because he hit Mary” moves up to “If I hit Jane, Mary will not like me”. From there, it’s just a matter of expansion to erect a panoply of rules and perceptions that point inwards. Those rules and perceptions constitute self-awareness.

Primates have mirror neurons which fire off neurological correlates for the behavior that they observe another doing.  This, no doubt is an evolutionary development selected within the social species, by providing for the philogenic survival to reproduction of members who had the “best” mirror neurons. In humans, our development of verbal behavior, has no doubt given us an evolutionary advantage over all other species.  The capacity for developing increasingly complex verbal behavior within our species has no doubt, to a great extent, selected out those of us who live today. Subsequent to one’s development of verbal behavior, one can develop relatively complex rule governed behavior.  I think that behaviors of self awareness can include 1)the behaviors of attending to one’s perception of one’s self and others within a contextual environment 2) covert verbal behavior with one’s self as the listener, aka thinking 3) remembering behaviors.  I am not sure whether a “panopaly” of rule governed behavior must be established for us to have behaviors of “self awareness” or whether a process of recursion is necessary.  I suspect that bringing in the concept of recursion is either off the mark or a matter for someone who is a standard deviation or two beyond me in IQ.

Upon further review… I am thinking something like recursion may well be involved, as for learning to take place there needs to be a large set of potential behaviors that could occur, and in behavior as complex as verbal behavior, an infinite set of behaviors would seem to be available.

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 25 November 2011 04:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Thanks for responding! Please let me address several of your issues here.

You wrote: Is Skinnerian behaviourism still practiced? Has it not been consigned to the rubbish heap of flawed and incomplete theories of human existence?

Yes, Skinnerian behaviorism is still practiced. And it is flourishing in many, many areas. One of the most important and current of topics is that of teaching language to autistic youngsters. Go on YOUTUBE and enter “ABA” and “autism” as search words. (ABA is short for Applied Behavior Analysis.)

Skinnerian approaches to positive reinforcement have taken over classrooms, stimulus control properties are enormously important in understanding and improving behaviors, etc., etc.

You wrote: Aside from the superficiality of Skinnerian behaviourism, your main problem is equating consciousness with language. Language depends on space and time, on what is available to the five senses and consists of content. Consciousness is independent of content, although it may have content. Consciousness uses other modes of data acquisition beyond that normally available to senses and is not necessarily dependent on space/time.

Seems to me that the above paragraph expresses your particular perspective on the issue of consciousness. You might be partially or completely correct, but perhaps not. I do think that I am making an argument for the centrality of language behaviors in what we think of as consciousness, and further that the Skinnerian analysis of verbal language is a very useful way to approach the idea of consciousness. I may or may not be correct about this.

Seems to me, though, that many of the aspects of language that Skinner talks about are able to generate strings of language/thought/reactions/etc., and these together with other aspects of consciousness—e.g., memories of past events, our abilities to certain aspects of current circumstances to previous circumstances, etc.—can lead on to chains of verbal behavior and that over time we are more and more aware of the apparently independent nature of this kind of activity. After a while, we are aware that we are doing it effortlessly and that sudden “Ah ha!” moment is when we are suddenly made more aware of the semi-independence of the thinking process. It seems marvelous to us—and indeed it is wonderful.

Our verbal behaviors—according to Skinner—track many aspects of the world around us, as well as (among other things) our motivational states. (“Tacts” are bits of verbal behavior associated with environmental/personal stimuli— “Mands” relate to demand states, etc. Please see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Verbal_Behavior for more information of the classes of Verbal Behavior Skinner described.)

From my perspective, to get to the state of an apparently semi-independently functioning mind—kind of like learning to ride a bicycle without thinking about it and then suddenly discovering “YOU ARE DOING IT WITHOUT TRAINING WHEELS AND ISN’T IT GREAT?”—sophisticated language skills are required. Poor Bonobos don’t have the vocal musculature to allow subvocal responses to allow them to make maximal use of the wonderful intelligence they do have. There may be be other ways to achieve fairly effortless language other than the ways humans have achieved it, but there are no examples of it that I can see.

Just my two cents.

Yours,

Caleb

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Posted: 25 November 2011 05:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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TimB - 04 November 2011 09:20 PM

Caleb, you are so right!  The quote “I think therefore I am.” comes to mind.  More correctly, it may be “I think therfore I am aware of myself.”  Most thinking is covert self talk, aka verbal behavior in which the listener is one’s self.  Without verbal behavior the phenomena that we speak of as consciousness does not exist. 

The problem with this straightforward explanation of consciousness is not that it is incorrect.  It is that it is unbelievable to most people.  One would need to be subject to reinforcement by empirical facts to believe something like this.  You see believing is a behavior also and is subject to operant influences as is any other behavior.  Most people find mystical explanations much more reinforcing.  In fact, facts are often aversive to many whether they are aware of it or not.

********************
Tim—

Thank you for the above! I do think you are emphasizing a very important aspect of what I am suggesting—that suddenly we are aware that we are aware, and in a way that a rock, a stone, a dog or cat, etc., are not aware. Over the many years of speech, perhaps millions of us wondered how this apparently magical thing was possible, and the idea that there is a supernatural explanation is almost inescapable. What else could it be?

Seems to me that the processes involved in consciousness have been used to justify very bad behaviors at times, as people have claimed that this “God-given ability” has told them to hurt others, etc. (One major “proof” for the existence of God that people still use time and again are the issues of mind and consciousness.)

I sure agree with you about facts often being aversive to others, such as people not finding my humor funny. I know that if I just YELL the joke the next time, they will laugh at it! smile  But maybe I’m wrong about this.  Hmmm…..

Yours,

Caleb

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Posted: 25 November 2011 05:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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Chris Crawford - 14 November 2011 09:46 AM

Caleb, I find everything in your post both reasonable and illuminating—except for the linkage to consciousness. Why do we need this construct? It seems to me that ‘consciousness’ is merely the secular term for ‘soul’. Everything you write makes perfect sense on its own without any recourse to the idea of consciousness. Is there anything about consciousness that is not equally well expressed in the term ‘self-awareness’?

***********
Chris—Your point has merit, but I do think there is something different about the set of behaviors that lead to consciousness that is somewhat unique. Most sophisticated adult speakers do have ongoing thought processes going on at times that are fairly independent of immediate stimuli—although it is remarkable how many of our decisions are made by factors we are not aware of, and which we might omit in justifying how we made certain choices. At any rate, are there important differences between the notion of “soul” and “consciousness”?  I believe there are, and, among other things, I believe that “consciousness” and “mind” are totally reliant on the brain (and other things, such as training experiences, motivational states, etc., etc.). The “soul” generally refers to an immaterial phenomenon, and one which many people think outlives the body, etc.  I think the materialistic explanations possible through a behavioristic/Skinnerian viewpoint indicate that the concept of the “soul” is not needed, and that the development of Verbal Behavior can be fairly well demonstrated—no supernatural features necessary!

**************************
You wrote:

Here’s an interesting thought regarding the evolutionary development of self-awareness: we know that many simians possess the cognitive ability to ‘place themselves in somebody else’s shoes’—they show behaviors that demonstrate that they are making social calculations based on their calculation of what they would do in another’s position. This process requires what in computer science is called ‘recursion’—performing nested computations. You replace “If the fruit looks tasty, then I will eat it” with a higher level of abstraction: “If the fruit looks tasty, then X will eat it.” Once you’ve developed this cognitive capability, the next step is to turn the recursion inward. “I don’t like Joe because he hit Mary” moves up to “If I hit Jane, Mary will not like me”. From there, it’s just a matter of expansion to erect a panoply of rules and perceptions that point inwards. Those rules and perceptions constitute self-awareness.

************************
Yes, but part of my reason for posting on this general issue was the idea that is sophisticated speakers (adults, for the most part) have ongoing verbal behavior of some kind for most of our waking hours with much of this verbal behavior apparently not under the control of antecedent stimuli. I say apparently, because I do believe this is a deterministic universe and that if we could know all the preceding causes, we could see how the past led to the current conditions. (However, totally accurate predicting to future conditions may not be possible because of quantum variations creeping in.)

I guess I’m emphasizing the importance of examining the apparently somewhat independent and meandering thread of thought, of speech, although I am sure a believer in the importance of rule-governed behavior and the difference that the awareness of how many different arrangements will affect our behavior. (E.G., “Don’t drink the water—it’s polluted!” “Don’t play poker with that guy—his cards are marked!” “Don’t listen to Caleb’s jokes—he wants you to laugh but his jokes are NOT funny!”)

Thanks for your insights!

Yours,

Caleb

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Posted: 25 November 2011 06:03 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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TimB - 15 November 2011 01:53 PM
Chris Crawford - 14 November 2011 09:46 AM

Caleb, I find everything in your post both reasonable and illuminating—except for the linkage to consciousness. Why do we need this construct? It seems to me that ‘consciousness’ is merely the secular term for ‘soul’. Everything you write makes perfect sense on its own without any recourse to the idea of consciousness. Is there anything about consciousness that is not equally well expressed in the term ‘self-awareness’?

Here’s an interesting thought regarding the evolutionary development of self-awareness: we know that many simians possess the cognitive ability to ‘place themselves in somebody else’s shoes’—they show behaviors that demonstrate that they are making social calculations based on their calculation of what they would do in another’s position. This process requires what in computer science is called ‘recursion’—performing nested computations. You replace “If the fruit looks tasty, then I will eat it” with a higher level of abstraction: “If the fruit looks tasty, then X will eat it.” Once you’ve developed this cognitive capability, the next step is to turn the recursion inward. “I don’t like Joe because he hit Mary” moves up to “If I hit Jane, Mary will not like me”. From there, it’s just a matter of expansion to erect a panoply of rules and perceptions that point inwards. Those rules and perceptions constitute self-awareness.

Primates have mirror neurons which fire off neurological correlates for the behavior that they observe another doing.  This, no doubt is an evolutionary development selected within the social species, by providing for the philogenic survival to reproduction of members who had the “best” mirror neurons. In humans, our development of verbal behavior, has no doubt given us an evolutionary advantage over all other species.  The capacity for developing increasingly complex verbal behavior within our species has no doubt, to a great extent, selected out those of us who live today. Subsequent to one’s development of verbal behavior, one can develop relatively complex rule governed behavior.  I think that behaviors of self awareness can include 1)the behaviors of attending to one’s perception of one’s self and others within a contextual environment 2) covert verbal behavior with one’s self as the listener, aka thinking 3) remembering behaviors.  I am not sure whether a “panopaly” of rule governed behavior must be established for us to have behaviors of “self awareness” or whether a process of recursion is necessary.  I suspect that bringing in the concept of recursion is either off the mark or a matter for someone who is a standard deviation or two beyond me in IQ.

Chris—

I really, really, really like the notion of mirror neurons. Turns out they are very important. I was interested a while ago (in thinking about them) about whether they tend to show up more in the language areas of the brain.

Turns out that they DO turn up more in language centers of the brain, such as Broca’s area. The following is from a Wikipedia.org entry on mirror neurons:

“In humans, functional MRI studies have reported finding areas homologous to the monkey mirror neuron system in the inferior frontal cortex, close to Broca’s area, one of the hypothesized language regions of the brain. This has led to suggestions that human language evolved from a gesture performance/understanding system implemented in mirror neurons. Mirror neurons have been said to have the potential to provide a mechanism for action-understanding, imitation-learning, and the simulation of other people’s behaviour.[56] This hypothesis is supported by some cytoarchitectonic homologies between monkey premotor area F5 and human Broca’s area.[57] Rates of vocabulary expansion link to the ability of children to vocally mirror non-words and so to acquire the new word pronunciations. Such speech repetition occurs automatically, fast[58] and separately in the brain to speech perception.” (From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mirror_neuron)

I sure don’t understand all the implications of mirror neurons but they might be the key to understanding empathy, group activities, as well as vicarious learning and speech and many other important things that make us human.

But to return to speech—my first posting above noted that we learn to speak by becoming “repeater stations”, for the most part, repeating inwardly the vocal stimuli we are hearing. How wonderful that our vocal tracts developed the way they did and could therefore serve as a platform for our acquiring functional speech, and then allowing our speech to go underground (to be less and less overt, unless, perhaps, we are in a noisy place and we find ourselves emphasizing inwardly what someone is saying so we can better track what they are saying).

How much easier for the speech to be copied by our vocal cords with mirror neurons involved with the procedure! Marvelous, marvelous stuff!

To once again paraphrase King Prospero from Shakespeare’s, The Tempest, who wrote: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”—I really believe: “We are such stuff as words—and sentences and language, etc.—are made on!” I think consciousness is mostly a wonderful and perhaps unexpected outcome to the systematic steps of acquiring human language behavior.

Yours,

Caleb

[ Edited: 25 November 2011 07:29 PM by Caleb ]
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Posted: 01 December 2011 02:59 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Caleb - 25 November 2011 05:09 PM
TimB - 04 November 2011 09:20 PM

Caleb, you are so right!  The quote “I think therefore I am.” comes to mind.  More correctly, it may be “I think therfore I am aware of myself.”  Most thinking is covert self talk, aka verbal behavior in which the listener is one’s self.  Without verbal behavior the phenomena that we speak of as consciousness does not exist. 

The problem with this straightforward explanation of consciousness is not that it is incorrect.  It is that it is unbelievable to most people.  One would need to be subject to reinforcement by empirical facts to believe something like this.  You see believing is a behavior also and is subject to operant influences as is any other behavior.  Most people find mystical explanations much more reinforcing.  In fact, facts are often aversive to many whether they are aware of it or not.

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Tim—

Thank you for the above! I do think you are emphasizing a very important aspect of what I am suggesting—that suddenly we are aware that we are aware, and in a way that a rock, a stone, a dog or cat, etc., are not aware. Over the many years of speech, perhaps millions of us wondered how this apparently magical thing was possible, and the idea that there is a supernatural explanation is almost inescapable. What else could it be?

Seems to me that the processes involved in consciousness have been used to justify very bad behaviors at times, as people have claimed that this “God-given ability” has told them to hurt others, etc. (One major “proof” for the existence of God that people still use time and again are the issues of mind and consciousness.)

I sure agree with you about facts often being aversive to others, such as people not finding my humor funny. I know that if I just YELL the joke the next time, they will laugh at it! smile  But maybe I’m wrong about this.  Hmmm…..

Yours,

Caleb

Depending on your audience, yelling a joke might be funnier than the joke itself…  smile

Re: your assertion that (One major “proof” for the existence of God that people still use time and again are the issues of mind and consciousness.) You are probably correct about this.  I think that constructs such as mind, consciousness, and God, have become integral to us humans making some kind of sense of our reality.  However, I also think that, those constructs, left unexamined and accepted as beyond our understanding, ultimately misleads us.

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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Posted: 03 December 2011 01:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Tim—you wrote:

Depending on your audience, yelling a joke might be funnier than the joke itself…  smile  <My response—I agree with you. My jokes are usually pathetic.>

Re: your assertion that (One major “proof” for the existence of God that people still use time and again are the issues of mind and consciousness.) You are probably correct about this.  I think that constructs such as mind, consciousness, and God, have become integral to us humans making some kind of sense of our reality.  However, I also think that, those constructs, left unexamined and accepted as beyond our understanding, ultimately misleads us.

My response to the above:

I sure agree with you! There is something amazing about our thought processes and the usefulness of certain kinds of thought.

As do many other apologists, William Lane Craig oftentimes in his debates mentions the importance of intelligence and the creator having a unique ability to create things out of his mind. Craig uses is the nearest example to God’s mind the mind of humans. However, if “mind”, “thinking”, can be explained as an extension of observable and specifiable behavioral processes, then the uniqueness of mind, etc.,  loses the status of being something unique and supernatural.

In taking two Skinner books from my shelf—

Skinner wrote in “About Behaviorism” (1974; Alfred A. Knopf, NY) about thinking: “4. Human beings attend to or disregard the world in which they live. They search for things in the world. They generalize from one thing to another. They discriminate. They respond to single features or special sets of features as “abstractions” or “concepts.” They solve problems by assembling, classifying, arranging, and rearranging things. They describe things and respond to their descriptions, as well as to descriptions made by others. They analyze the contingencies of reinforcement in the world and extract plans and rules which enable them to respond appropriately without direct exposure to the contingencies. They discover and use rules for deriving new rules from old. In all of this, and much more, they are simply behaving, and that is true even when they are behaving covertly.…” (p. 223)

In terms of solving problems, Skinner (in the same work) wrote: “… A person has a problem when some condition will be reinforcing but he lacks a response that will produce it. He will solve the problem when he emits such a response. For example, introducing someone whose name one has forgotten is a problem which is solved by recalling or otherwise learning the name. An algebraic equation is solved by finding the value of X. The problem of a stalled car is solved by starting the car. The problem of an illness is solved by finding an effective treatment. Solving a problem is, however, more than emitting the response which is a solution; it is a matter of taking steps to make that response more probable, usually by changing the environment. Thus, if the problem is to say whether two things are the same or different, we may put them side-by-side to facilitate a comparison; if it is to make sure that that we shall treat them as different, we separate them. We group similar things in classes in order to treat them in the same way. We put things in order if the solution requires a series of steps. We restate a verbal response by translating it from words into symbols. We represent the premises of a syllogism with overlapping circles. We clarify quantities by counting and measuring. We confirm a solution by solving a problem the second time, possibly in a different way.

“We learn some of the strategies from the problematic contingencies to which we are exposed, but not much can be learned in a single lifetime, and an important function of a culture is to transmit what others have learned. Whether problem solving arises from raw contingencies or from instruction by others, it is acquired in overt form (with the possible exception of the strategy learned at the covert level from private consequences) and can always be carried out at the overt level. The covert case, to which the term “thinking” is most likely to be applied, enjoys no special advantage beyond that of speed or confidentiality…” (pp. 111-112)

Skinner starts the final chapter of this work with a summing up of statements about behaviorism, including this: “Stimulation arising inside the human body plays an important part in behavior.” (p 219)

To cite from another work, “Reflections on Behaviorism and Society” (Prentice-Hall, Inc.: NJ, 1978), Skinner wrote: “… As I have argued elsewhere, self-knowledge, consciousness, or awareness became possible only when the species acquired verbal behavior, and that was very late in its history.” (p. 111)

I strongly believe that B.F, Skinner followed in many ways the footsteps of Galileo and Darwin, explaining more and more fully many of the small steps we have taken from our beginnings to where we are now. I sure think he is immensely relevant to many of the most important questions facing us today.

Thanks for responding to my posting! I’ll keep trying to tell jokes, no matter how poor the audience reception is! smile

Yours,

Caleb

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Posted: 05 December 2011 04:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Caleb - 03 December 2011 01:19 PM

Tim—you wrote:

I strongly believe that B.F, Skinner followed in many ways the footsteps of Galileo and Darwin, explaining more and more fully many of the small steps we have taken from our beginnings to where we are now. I sure think he is immensely relevant to many of the most important questions facing us today.

Thanks for responding to my posting! I’ll keep trying to tell jokes, no matter how poor the audience reception is! smile

Yours,

Caleb

Thanks for the Bhurrus Frederick Skinner quotes.  I shouldn’t struggle so to formulate my thoughts in these areas, when I could just re-read his thoughts.  His perspectives have not been widely accepted or utilized in other fields of study.  Chomsky was effective to a great degree in quashing more general acceptance of what may have been his most important work, “Verbal Behavior”.

TimB

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As a fabrication of our own consciousness, our assignations of meaning are no less “real”, but since humans and the fabrications of our consciousness are routinely fraught with error, it makes sense, to me, to, sometimes, question such fabrications.

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