a lot of 20th-century psychologists made a habit of saying things like 'minds don't exist, only behaviors';

It seems like you might be referring to Eliminativism. If you are, this isn't a fair account of it.

Eliminativism isn't opposed to realism. It's just a rejection of the assumption that the labels we apply to people's mental states (wants, believes, loves, etc) are a reflection of the underlying reality. People have been thinking about minds in terms of those concepts for a really long time, but nobody had bothered to sit down and demonstrate that these are an accurate model.

From wiki:

Proponents of this view, such as B.F. Skinner, often made parallels to previous superseded scientific theories (such as that of the four humours, the phlogiston theory of combustion, and the vital force theory of life) that have all been successfully eliminated in attempting to establish their thesis about the nature of the mental. In these cases, science has not produced more detailed versions or reductions of these theories, but rejected them altogether as obsolete. Radical behaviorists, such as Skinner, argued that folk psychology is already obsolete and should be replaced by descriptions of histories of reinforcement and punishment.
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And now, a substantive response:

When Chalmers claims to have “direct” epistemic access to certain facts, the proper response is to provide the arguments for doubting that claim, not to play a verbal sleight-of-hand like Dennett’s (1991, emphasis added):

You are not authoritative about what is happening in you, but only about what seems to be happening in you, and we are giving you total, dictatorial authority over the account of how it seems to you, about what it is like to be you. And if you complain that some parts of how it seems to you are ineffable

... (read more)
9Said Achmiz7moOk… before I respond with anything else, I want to note that this is hardly a reasonable response. “Indisputably” is a word that has several related usages, and while indeed one of them is something sort of like “you won’t actually win any actual debates if you try to take the opposite position”, do you really think the most plausible way to interpret what I said is to assume that that is the usage I had in mind? Especially after I wrote: So it should be clear that I’m not talking about winning debates, or social acceptability, or any such peripheral nonsense. I am, and have been throughout this discussion, talking about epistemology. Do I really need to scrupulously eschew such (in theory ambiguous but in practice straightforward) turns of phrase like “indisputably”, lest I be treated to a lecture on Bayesian epistemology? If you really don’t like “indisputably”, substitute any of the following, according to preference: * plainly * manifestly * obviously * clearly * certainly * indubitably * incontrovertibly * with nigh-perfect certainty … etc., etc.
2Rob Bensinger7moChalmers' The Conscious Mind was written in 1996, so this is wrong. The wrongness doesn't seem important to me. (Jackson and Nagel were 1979/1982, and Dennett re-endorsed this passage in 2003.)

A simple sketch of how realism became unpopular

by Rob Bensinger 3 min read11th Oct 201953 comments

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[Epistemic status: Sharing current impressions in a quick, simplified way in case others have details to add or have a more illuminating account. Medium-confidence that this is one of the most important parts of the story.]


Here's my current sense of how we ended up in this weird world where:

  • I still intermittently run into people who claim that there's no such thing as reality or truth;
  • a lot of 20th-century psychologists made a habit of saying things like 'minds don't exist, only behaviors';
  • a lot of 20th-century physicists made a habit of saying things like 'quarks don't exist, only minds';
  • there's a big academic split between continental thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) some variant of "everything is culture / perception / discourse / power" and Anglophone thinkers saying (or being rounded off to saying) "no".

Background context:

1. The ancient Greeks wrote down a whole lot of arguments. In many cases, we're missing enough textual fragments or context that we don't really know why they were arguing — what exact propositions were in dispute, or what the stakes were.

2. In any case, most of this is screened off by the fact that Europe's memetic winners were Christianity plus normal unphilosophical beliefs like "the sky is, in fact, blue".

3. Then, in 1521, the Protestant Reformation began.

4. In 1562, the Catholics found a giant list of arguments against everything by the minor Greek skeptic Sextus Empiricus, got very excited, and immediately weaponized them to show that the Protestant arguments fail (because all arguments fail).

5. These soon spread and became a sensation, and not just for being a useful superweapon. Plenty of intellectuals were earnest humanists used to taking arguments at face value, and found Sextus' arguments genuinely upsetting and fascinating.


I trace continental thinkers' "everything is subjective/relative" arguments back to a single 1710 error in George Berkeley:

[...] I am content to put the whole upon this Issue; if you can but conceive it possible for one extended moveable Substance, or in general, for any one Idea or any thing like an Idea, to exist otherwise than in a Mind perceiving it, I shall readily give up the Cause[....]
But say you, surely there is nothing easier than to imagine Trees, for instance, in a Park, or Books existing in a Closet, and no Body by to perceive them. I answer, you may so, there is no difficulty in it: But what is all this, I beseech you, more than framing in your Mind certain Ideas which you call Books and Trees, and the same time omitting to frame the Idea of any one that may perceive them? But do not you your self perceive or think of them all the while? This therefore is nothing to the purpose: It only shews you have the Power of imagining or forming Ideas in your Mind; but it doth not shew that you can conceive it possible, the Objects of your Thought may exist without the Mind: To make out this, it is necessary that you conceive them existing unconceived or unthought of, which is a manifest Repugnancy.

If I can imagine a tree that exists outside of any mind, then I can imagine a tree that is not being imagined. But "an imagined X that is not being imagined" is a contradiction. Therefore everything I can imagine or conceive of must be a mental object.

Berkeley ran with this argument to claim that there could be no unexperienced objects, therefore everything must exist in some mind — if nothing else, the mind of God.

The error here is mixing up what falls inside vs. outside of quotation marks. "I'm conceiving of a not-conceivable object" is a formal contradiction, but "I'm conceiving of the concept 'a not-conceivable object'" isn't, and human brains and natural language make it easy to mix up levels like those.

(I can immediately think of another major milestone in the history of European thought, Anselm's ontological argument for God, that shows the same brain bug.)

Berkeley's view was able to find fertile soil in an environment rife with non-naturalism, skeptical arguments, and competition between epistemic criteria and authorities. Via Kant and Kant's successors (Hegel chief among them), he successfully convinced the main current of 19th-century European philosophy to treat the idea of a "mind-independent world" as something ineffable or mysterious, and to treat experiences or perspectives as fundamental.

(Edit: G.E. Moore seems to think that everyone in the 19th century was making an error along these lines, but I now suspect Kant himself wasn't making this mistake; I think his main error was trying too hard to defeat skepticism.

I also don't think Berkeley's writing would have been sufficient to confuse Europe on its own; it's too lucid and well-articulated. The transition to Kantian and Hegelian versions of these arguments is important because they were much more elaborate and poorly expressed, requiring a lot of intellectual effort in order to spot the inconsistencies.)

My unscholarly surface impression of the turn of the 20th century is that these memes ("the territory is fundamentally mysterious" and "maps are sort of magical and cosmically important") allowed a lot of mysticism and weird metaphysics to creep into intellectual life, but that ideas like those are actually hard to justify in dry academic prose, such that the more memetically fit descendants of idealism in the 20th century ended up being quietist ("let's just run experiments and not talk about all this weird 'world' stuff") or instrumentalist / phenomenalist / skeptic / relativist ("you can't know 'world' stuff, so let's retreat to just discussing impressions; and maybe you can't even know those, so really what's left is power struggles").

Today, the pendulum has long since swung back again in most areas of intellectual life, perhaps because we've more solidly settled around our new central authority (science) and the threats to centralized epistemic authority (religious and philosophical controversy) are more distant memories. Metaphysics and weird arguments are fashionable again in analytic philosophy; behaviorism is long-dead in psychology; and quietism, non-realism, and non-naturalism at least no longer dominate the discussion in QM, though a lot of Copenhagen slogans remain popular.


The above is a very simple picture featuring uneven scholarship, and history tends to be messier than all that. (Ideas get independently rediscovered, movements go one step forward only to retreat two steps back, etc.) Also, I'm not claiming that everyone endorsed the master argument as stated, just that the master argument happened to shift intellectual fashions in this direction in a durable way.

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