A bastard's take on human behavior, politics, religion, social justice, family, race, pain, free will, and trees
Saturday, July 1, 2017
On Behaving "As If" There Is Free Will
I can't find the quote, but it is as long the lines of "Free will doesn't exist, but we must behave as if it does."
I wonder if this "as if" behavior can be described in a behaviorist account?
In behaviorism, we talk about the concept of stimulus prompts and "rule following". A stimulus prompt is basically a cue for us to engage in certain behavior. Through learning (repeated reinforcement delivered after prompted behavior), the prompt takes on stimulus control: it changes our behavior. Think of a checklist, "wash hands" sign, exit sign, etc. Rule following is much the same, whereas the rule is like a prompt, however the rule doesn't have to have previously been directly reinforced. Rather it can have been inferred, and is generally defined as under stimulus control of previous rule-following behavior. That is, if we have followed similar rules before (and have been reinforced), we will be more likely to follow them in the future.
In this way, thoughts can function as either prompts or rules. In our daily life, we behave according to a mixture of external and internal prompts. Behaviorists call these discriminative stimuli, as they have been followed by either punishment or reinforcement, and are thus defined by our discrimination of them as signals for the availability for reinforcement of punishment ("exit" means leaving behavior will be reinforced; "open" means entering behavior will be reinforced; "poison" means eating behavior will be punished, etc.).
Behaviorists also have a way of describing consciousness (which of course can mean many things) One of the meanings of consciousness though, is the behavior of labeling, via verbal behavior. This is described as operant learning in which certain stimuli take on stimulus control for verbal behavior, either spoken or thought, after having been reinforced in a specific verbal community. For instance, when I see a chair, I can say "chair" or think "chair", because as a child I received reinforcement from the community for emitting that behavior. It could have been direct praise, or conditioned praise in the form of a good grade, or simply the ability to communicate which led to some other kind of reward. We call this "tacting". (We have a different way of describing requests, as their reinforcement is defined as coming directly from the obtaining of the request, i.e. "water" means we directly get that thing. A seemingly minor difference but has important implications for the early acquisition of language). The reverse of this, of course, is listening behavior, in which a stimulus controlling for verbal behavior (tact), is reversed. The chair object controls for the word "chair", but then the word "chair" controls for the object chair.
OK, so I have a hard time describing the behaviorist description of these phenomenon because there are just so many basic concepts that need to be understood to truly appreciate the position! But returning to consciousness, what you might call an active consciousness, in which we are aware that we are conscious, is this process of labeling. When I am thinking about thinking, I am "tacting" my thoughts. Likewise when I am thinking about what someone else has said. However, "tacting" only refers to stimuli that are physically present (chair, desk, apple). We have another level of description for things that are under stimulus control of verbal behavior, but are not in the environment - and may have never been physically contacted. We call this "interverbal" behavior. Most of language involves this type of verbal behavior, as well as abstract thought such as mathematics or literature. This is also the kind of thought we need to engage in for complex thought, such as when planning for future events, or recalling an order of events.
So, what is the implication of this for our thoughts? We can have thoughts that are direct responses to our immediate environment, our distant environment, or responses to words. Our fluency in all of these is determined by a number of factors. First, we have to have been reinforced for the response ("knowing" the verbal behavior), but we also need to have the establishing operation in place. What we mean by this is that there must be a basic desire in place that is being satiated by the behavior. For instance, if you have been reading all of this and trying to understand me (and hats off to you!), you will have to have been motivated to do so. The motivation is maybe generalized social reinforcement, in which you have been previously reinforced for the behavior of engaging in verbal behavior with others. You may also have been previously reinforced for acquiring new ideas and achieving constancy in your thoughts and how they align with the world - truth feels good, right? But maybe I haven't been making sense, and therefore the opposite has occurred, and my words have been extra work for you, in which case you aren't receiving reinforcement from them - they are not rewarding.
The establishing operation - how motivated you are - is not verbal behavior, and largely hidden within the skin. You can learn to tact this behavior, by noticing your heart rate, stiffness, or certain negative thoughts that may arise - "This guy is ridiculous!", and therefore tact your motivation as decreasing for continuing to read my writing. Or, maybe you enjoy arguing and my writing is actually reinforcing, because it is stimulating something else in you - maybe your enjoyment of "tearing down" my argument. In which case, the response I get to this might have been evoked by an establishing operation (EO) for argument, followed by my writing, which was a stimulus (SD) for the availability of reinforcement (R+), which in this case was the satiation of that desire for argument (socially reinforced, of course, by the internet community).
Behaviorists see every behavior (thought or action) as taking place within the 4 term contingency (EO - SD - Bx - R+). Further, this can only be understood as "molar", as opposed to "molecular". That is, as taking place in large chunks, over time. We take place in a continuum of phylogenic (genetic organisms) and ontogenic (life history) interaction.
So, for any given behavior, there is no room for "free will". We are constrained by our past and environment. We will go on behaving no matter what. Even if we were to protest and lay down motionless on the floor, that behavior will have had to have been the function of the four-term contingency.
If we then throw up our hands and say, I must behave "as if" I have free choice, we are basically tacting our behavior, or examining it interverbally, and establishing a rule, or prompt for ourselves. However, as for its effect on our behavior, it will only function as an SD for future behavior's possible reinforcement. That is, the way we behave following having this thought will encounter a consequence in the environment. So it can effect behavior change - you can effect behavior change, but the SD will always be a part of the environment.
In terms of this larger discussion, the way I relate what Garfield is saying about Buddhism and "awareness of the self" and behaviorism, is that the "self" as free actor does not exist, but rather refers to an organism existing within its environment. However the way that we often use the term "self" is as an efficacious agent somehow acting out of time. That incorrect narrative leads both to inaccurate narratives of others, as well as ourselves. How this inaccurate narrative causes problems is interesting, but that it is an incorrect narrative, as a behaviorist, I would say is established science.