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Are We Automata


Notwithstanding the fact that we can make our subjects think aloud and thereby can observe a large part of the process of thinking, Titchener some years ago raised against an early paper of mine the objection: 'How does the behaviourist know there is any such process as thinking since he cannot directly observe it?' Titchener kindly answered this question, to the effect that the behaviourist -- qua behaviourist -- doesn't know that there is any such thing as thinking. The introspectionist claims that the behaviourist first uses the good old-fashioned method of introspection to find thinking and having once found it shuts his eyes and turns his back upon his original method and begins to externalise the process and to put it in the universal language of science. In other words, he describes it merely as the functioning of laryngeal or other motor processes.

Before coming to closer terms with this question, the behaviourist would like to posit the assumption, without discussing its many metaphysical implications, that in no physical or biological science is the fact called into question that the investigator can make an observation; for example, that he can note that his galvanometer needle has swung two degrees to the right, that when sodium is burned on the end of a glass rod the bright visual stimulus in the spectroscope will be located on the scale at 5800mm: that the physiologist can observe that when such and such a thing is done to an animal whose heart rate is being recorded the rate has decreased or increased. He can also make the same observations on the changes in his own heart rate due to the use of different types of drugs. He can do this either by counting his own pulse or better by attaching himself to some form of recording device. In each of these sciences the observer goes on in his care-free way, accumulating a series of systematic observations. He does not do this in any hit-or-miss way. A definite stimulus starts him upon his work -- the words of the professor over him, or the written or spoken word of an antagonist, or finally some inward organization exerts its pressure. He works, for example, with the effects of strychnine upon human or animal organisms, because he has had some initial stimulus to drive him to that work. Once started, the changing results he obtains serve as a stimulus for further work. Finally he groups his facts and a bit of organized science is the result, namely a monograph upon the effects of strychnine upon living organisms. If you ask him, or the physicist who has worked up a monograph [p. 94] in a wholly similar way upon the spectroscopic analysis of certain compound substances, 'Did you realise that there was an observer implied during all your manipulations?' he would probably not know what you meant and he would certainly be mildly angered if you happened to interfere during his working moments with such a question. In other words he gets along without discussing or even being interested in the fact that there is an implied observer at every moment in science and that a thousand interesting metaphysical points lie behind an individual's ability to make observations.

The behaviourist likewise shuts his eyes to the same metaphysical question and asks only to be allowed to make observations upon what his subjects are doing under given stimulating conditions. On the metaphysical side he asks merely to be put into the same basket with other natural scientists. The introspectionist has never made this plea to the metaphysician. He has assumed that the question of the observer is a psychological one and that he has the answer to it. The behaviourist is not so bold. He is engaged in studying, among other things, the process of observing as it appears in others, where the activity is not complicated by the demands of introspection. He must, as must the introspectionist also, assume that his own process of observing is the same as that of the subject whom he is studying. He hopes ultimately to give an adequate account of the process in this subject, an account which will show how even those phenomena which the introspectionist describes as his 'consciousness' result from the complexities of behaviour.

The introspectionist hopes for a solution of the metaphysical problem through some mystic self knowledge. The behaviourist believes in no such transcendental human power. He himself is only a complex of reacting systems and must be content to carry out his analysis with the same tools which he observes his subject using. I cannot, therefore, agree with Mr. Thomson that there is a mind-body problem in behaviourism. It is a serious misunderstanding of the behaviouristic position to say, as Mr. Thomson does -- 'And of course a behaviourist does not deny that mental states exist. He merely prefers to ignore them.' He 'ignores' them in the same sense that chemistry ignores alchemy, astronomy horoscopy, and psychology telepathy and psychic manifestations. The behaviourist does not concern himself with them because as the stream of his science broadens and deepens such older concepts are sucked under, never to reappear.

Granting then that the behaviourist is a natural scientist and makes his observations upon his fellow man rather than upon himself, utilising [p. 95] the aid of instruments whenever possible or necessary, like any other scientist -- how does he arrive at the concept of implicit thinking? The answer is that he can at present arrive at it only by making use of a logical inference. In those cases where the response to the stimulus is not immediate but where it finally occurs in some form of explicit verbal or manual behaviour, it is safe to say that something does go on, and that that something is surely not different in essence from that which goes on when his behaviour is explicit. Let us glance for a moment at a manual illustration. I hand a friend a gold cigarette case which can be opened only by pressing a secret spring. I tell him that he can keep the case if he can open it without violence. I watch him for two minutes, noting his rambling trial manipulatory movements. He fails to open it in this period of time. I then place him in a room alone, and tell him to come out when he has opened it. At the end of thirty minutes he emerges smiling and with the case open. Since there are no marks of violence on the case, the behaviourist, utilising logic, has a right to assume that the subject continued to work at the problem as he had been trained to work at such problems and that his behaviour in the empty room was essentially the same as that exhibited by him when he was under direct observation. Merely because observation of his behaviour could not take place so long as he was hidden from the observer gives no one the right to assume that any different or unusual process went on. I should not hesitate to call this behaviour on the part of our subject manual thinking or non-language thinking. There is no necessity for it, however, since our categories of trial-and-error learning, functioning of habit, etc. are adequate. I suggest manual thinking here to show its complete homology with that type of behaviour described below which is more universally called thinking.

Suppose instead of giving him a problem which can be learned by manual trial-and-error manipulation I say, 'What would be the result on your social and vocational life if through some accident you suddenly had both arms removed?' Assuming, as would be safe in most instances, that such a problem had not hitherto been faced and formulated, he would be unable to give any adequate statement. Suppose we insisted upon a formulation. At the end of an hour he would probably be able to return a fairly comprehensive reply. Surely I have the right to assume, even as a 'despised' behaviourist, that implicit language activity, sensori-motor in character, has been taking place during the hour on as grand a scale as overt bodily movements would have been taking place had I left him in a room from which there was no obvious exit and suddenly [p. 96] yelled 'Fire!' from the outside. I infer that language activity from infancy onward has been developed just to meet such situations; hence that during the period of his apparent immobility he was using implicit language processes. Such processes are the only available types of organization which we have any objective right to assume can be used in such a situation.[5]

Some unpublished results of experiments by my colleague, Dr Lashley, begin to approach a scientific proof that essentially the same type of responses goes on in implicit thinking as goes on in more explicit types of verbal response. With a delicate apparatus which recorded the tongue movements in two dimensions he was enabled to show that the overt but whispered repetition of a sentence produced a tracing on the smoked drum which was wholly similar except for amplitude to that obtained when he told the subject to think the same thing without making overt movements. He was enabled to verify this again and again. On the other hand if he obtained a standard tracing to a whispered sentence and then gave the subject other work to do and later came back and asked him to think the sentence, there was no obvious correspondence in the two tracings (the original motor set had changed). This is not an argument against our point for I have already shown elsewhere how varied is the musculature of the larynx and the throat. We can write the same word by a dozen different combinations in the holding of the pen. We can speak or think the same word by many different muscular combinations.

I am not afraid, furthermore, of yielding too much to our friendly enemies the introspectionists when I say that the subject himself could observe during the apparent immobile period that he used words and sentences (and that for a part of the time he did not know what he was using!). I am no more afraid to admit this than I am to admit that a person can observe that he himself is laying bricks or playing a piano. I have elsewhere admitted a verbal report method but at the same time I have insisted upon its untrustworthiness for scientific purposes. To know anything worth while for science about my brick-laying I must get a Gilbreth or some other observer to record by motion pictures or otherwise my every act while laying bricks. In other words, scientific [p. 97] conclusions demand instrumentation. I can observe roughly that I have raised a wall four feet high by my day's work, but I cannot determine how many millions of useless movements I have made or how these useless movements could be eliminated by a change in my method of work. Now I hold that the same thing is true of thinking. The subject can observe that he is using words in thinking. But how much word material is used, how much his final formulation is influenced by implicit factors which are not put in words and which he cannot himself observe, cannot be stated by the subject himself.

The behaviourist, as well as the psychoanalyst, holds that there are hundreds of such factors involved, some of which require a minute search into the subject's biography as far back as infancy before any adequate answer can be returned. Now two or three years' training in introspection on the observation of thought processes will take our subject no further. It has been abundantly demonstrated, both by the failure of psychologists to get anywhere in the problem of thinking and by psychoanalysts, that such methods simply will not yield results. Such training merely makes him pedantic and insufferably prolix and descriptive of his inward processes. The point I am headed toward here is that if we are ever to learn scientifically any more about the intimate nature of thought other than that which can be obtained by observing the end results -- that is, by observing the overt verbally expressed behaviour or the overt ensuing bodily actions -- we shall have to resort to instrumentation. The time seems far off when such a thing is possible. While awaiting it the behaviourist has ample with which to occupy himself. Furthermore he is not in such bad straits after all. The physiologists in many cases have to be content with their observations of end results. We know many factors which affect the functioning of the parotid gland. We count the drops of saliva which issue from it under varying conditions of stimulation. We analyse the chemical changes occurring, etc. But what goes on in the gland itself we cannot say. But no one would have the temerity to assume that for this reason there is no physiology of the gland. We can speculate about what goes on inside of the gland, what the function of the unstriped muscular tissue is, why the solution is now thick, now thin, whether the gland would secrete if this or that were done. But those speculations to be of any value must be couched in some kind of terms which will lead not to metaphysical fancies but to some kind of experimental attack. If they do not lead to an experimental attack, no physiologist will long entertain them. I feel that we are in exactly this same position with regard to thinking.

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