The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

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These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


A position that tried to get rid of the mind versus matter debate is “behaviorism”, which deals with mental terms (such as "belief", "hope" and "fear") only to the extent that they are related to behavior.

Following the lead from the US psychologist John Watson, who had already ruled the mental out (“Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it”, 1913), behaviorists reject mental states as unscientific, as an annoyance of our language. What matters is only the relationship between disposition to behavior and actual behavior.

In particular, in the late 1940s the British philosopher Gilbert Ryle argued that the mind is not another substance but simply a domain of discourse. Ryle took issue with words that refer to mental objects as if they were on the same level as physical objects. In his opinion, they are not.  They are merely words used to describe "behavior". The mental vocabulary does not refer to the structure of something, but simply to the way somebody behaves or will behave. The mind "is" the behavior of the body.  Physical objects exist, mental objects are merely vocabulary.

Descartes invented a myth: the myth of the mind inside the body. A myth which Ryle parodied with the famous expression "the ghost in the machine": we assume that we have a mind, we ascribe a life to our mind, and when we can't find mind in nature we decide that mind is a different substance or property. Behaviorism is not interested in discussing the mind, but simply behavior and disposition to behavior. Sentences about mental states become scientific and meaningful only when they are translated into sentences about actual and possible behavior. For a behaviorist, a person in pain is simply a person who cries and does some other things that we associate with the word "pain".

Psychological behaviorism went even further in claiming that all behavior can be explained as stimulus and response relations. Behaviorism therefore rejects the common-sense notion that our mental states cause behavior. That is just an illusion.

Behaviorism was briefly popular but the renewed fight between dualists and materialists quickly eclipsed it.


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