Thursday, 31 July 2014

Robert R. Provine's Neo-Behaviourism?

Is Spontaneous Laugher an Argument for Behaviourism?

Robert R. Provine seems to make a fallacious inference.

He states, possibly correctly, that laughing isn't under our control. However, he concludes that our explanations for why we laugh are “usually wrong”. He even describes them as “confabulations”. Or “honest but flawed attempts to explain one's actions” (148).

Yet surely if someone says something funny, and I laugh at it, then even if the reaction of laughter were automatic and not under my consciousness control, it doesn't follow that my saying that his joke caused me to laugh is false. Why can't his joke and my automatic response be explained as a reaction to the joke, even if automatic?

Is this a resurrection of extreme behaviourism on Provine's part?

Yes, Provine may be correct to argue that “subjects incorrectly presume that laughing is a choice under conscious control”. Sure. However, why does that mean that saying that I laughed because “She did something funny” (Provine's example) is a “confabulation”? The laugher was automatic; yet still a response to this person saying something funny.

Again, because laughing is automatic, Provine concludes that we can't give a true reason for our laughing.

One reason he gives for this is that when people are asked “to laugh on command, most subjects couldn’t do so”.

I've already accepted that possibility. Nonetheless, why does it follow from this that our giving a reason for laughing is a confabulation? The joke made us laugh; though the laughing wasn't under our control.


All this boils down to Provine emphasising unconscious mechanisms.

Perhaps he isn't a behaviourist. And he is no doubt correct to say that “we vastly overestimate the amount of time we are aware of our actions” (147). Though none of that should lead us to accept his thesis that our reasons for laughing are false. That simply doesn't follow.

I suppose he can't be an old-style behaviourist (or, alternatively, a denier of consciousness) because he limits his claims to the following:

“The argument is not that we lack consciousness but that we overestimate the conscious control of behaviour.”

However, perhaps the old-style behaviourists I alluded to (or some of them) might have put the situation that way too. They too might have said, for example:

Consciousness exists, sure, it's just that it's not needed in science precisely because we overestimate the conscious control of behaviour.

Or, in other words, when we explain our behaviour (as in the laughing example), we don't really know what we're talking about. Only an observer, a third person or a scientist like Provine can know the real sources or causes of our behaviour. Consciousness lies.

Then again, if Provine were to say that “consciousness lies”, that would be a tacit acceptance that consciousness exists. That is, therefore, a step beyond what some old-style behaviourists might have accepted... or perhaps not.

Provine also fleshes out his position by offering a classical scientific position on it.

His theory that we don't know what causes us to laugh, or what causes us to do many of the things we do (because they're out of our “conscious control”), “makes the fewest assumptions”. And, as scientists often tell us, simplicity is a virtue in science.

The complex position, on the other hand, is an example of what Provine calls the “philosopher's disease” of “the inappropriate attribution of rational, conscious control over process that may be irrational and unconscious”.

Well well! What a generalisation about philosophers. He clearly hasn't read many 20th century philosophers though he might well have read many pre-20th century philosophers. However, even in that case, it's still a generalisation.

For example, I've mentioned scientific behaviourism and that some 20th century philosophers were the fiercest adherents of various forms of behaviourism: from Wittgenstein (at least at one time) and Gilbert Ryle to the logical positivists. Indeed many philosophers of the second half of the 20th century were behaviourists too. Not only that: even when they weren't (strictly speaking) behaviourists, some philosophers strong played down consciousness. Indeed other philosophers rejected it entirely. So, being a psychologist and neuroscientist, Provine clearly hasn't had the time to read much – or any - 20th and 21st century philosophy.

Provine carries on with his neo-behaviourist theme (if that's what it is) by saying that the

“complex social order of bees, ants, and termites documents what can be achieved with little if any conscious control".

Yes indeed! Though it depends on what Provine wants his readers to conclude from this: that laughter doesn't need “any conscious control”? What about other aspects of what we take to be conscious action? Are with confabulating about them too? I suppose it will depend on examples. And because in this piece Provine only gives the example of laughing (which he's studied in detail), it's hard to extrapolate from that. Then again, I think he makes mistakes in logical reasoning about laughing even if his science is correct.

Crude Anti-Introspectivism

Another of Provine's arguments - or scientific claims - is that “neurological process that governs human behaviour [are] inaccessible to introspection”. He also makes the obvious point that “we are not conscious of our state of unconsciousness”.

Here again there is a philosophical or logical mistake being made by Provine.

Of course we don't have introspective access to neuronal- or brain-happenings. But it doesn't follow from that that we don't have introspective awareness of our actions. That's like saying that because we aren't fully aware of the internal mechanisms of a coke machine, we can't know that when we put money in and press the correct buttons, a coke can will be delivered.

We don't need to know all or any of the internal mechanisms. Similarly with our own brains. Nonetheless, when we put money in, we know what usually happens. Similarly, when we decide to do something: we can be in control of what we do regardless of our ignorance of the brain- mechanisms which subserve such conscious actions.

All this also depends on what Provine means by the word “introspection”. How strongly does he take that word? Introspection was an important aspect of old-style philosophy of mind in the 18th century and before. Nonetheless, philosophers are much more careful nowadays about using that word.

For example, philosophers since Martin Heidegger and Gilbert Ryle have made a distinction between “knowing how” and “knowing that”. The latter requires conscious linguistic expression; whereas, it's argued, the former simply requires “skill”. Regardless of the intricacies of this distinction, both knowing how and knowing that require conscious awareness.

When you hammer with a hammer (Heidegger's example) you need to be aware of the hammer even if you aren't expressing sentences about that hammering. Now is that hammering the same as Provine's spontaneous laughing? Surely not. There's nothing spontaneous about picking up a hammer to hammer in a nail and even to carry on hammering. It's not “intellectual” (Heidegger), sure. But it's not the equivalent of a spontaneous laugh either. You can't control laughing. Clearing you can and must control your hammering.

Clearly, again, it depends on examples other than the laughing that Provine had in mind. Did he have hammering in mind, just like Heidegger? I doubt it.

*) Since what Provine says seems so obviously wrong, I can't help thinking that it is I who's made a mistake. I am, after all, only reacting to a three-page essay.



This piece is a response to the book What We Believe but Cannot Prove, pages 147 to 149.

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