Willard Quine described, in his article "Ontological Relativity" (Journal of Philosophy 65(7):185-212), his doctrine of the indeterminability of translation.  Roughly, this says that words are meaningful (a collection of words emitted by an agent can help predict that agent's actions), but don't have meanings (any word taken by itself corresponds to nothing at all; there is no correspondence between the word "rabbit" and the Leporidae).

In Quine's words,

Seen according to the museum myth, the words and sentences of a language have their determinate meanings. To discover the meanings of the native's words we may have to observe his behavior, but still the meanings of the words are supposed to be determinate in the native's mind, his mental museum, even in cases where behavioral criteria are powerless to discover them for us. When on the other hand we recognize with Dewey that "meaning. . . is primarily a property of behavior," we recognize that there are no meanings, nor likenesses nor distinctions of meaning, beyond what are implicit in people's dispositions to overt behavior. For naturalism the question whether two expressions are alike or unlike in meaning has no determinate answer, known or unknown, except insofar as the answer is settled in principle by people's speech dispositions, known or unknown.

Quine got my hackles up by using the word "naturalism" when he meant "behaviorism", implicitly claiming that naturalistic science was synonymous (or would be, if he believed in synonyms) with behaviorism.  But I'll try to remain impartial.  (Quine's timing was curious; Chomsky had demolished behaviorist linguistics in 1959, nine years before Quine's article.)

Quine's basic idea is insightful.  To phrase it in non-behaviorist terms:  If all words are defined in terms of other words, how does meaning get into that web of words?  Can we unambiguously determine the correct mapping between words and meanings?

Quine's response was to deny that that is an empirical question.  He said you should not even talk about meaning; you can only observe behavior.  You must remain agnostic about anything inside the head.

But it is an empirical question.  With math, plus with some reasonable assumptions, you can prove that you can unambiguously determine the correct mapping even from the outside.  In a world where you can tell someone to think of a square, and then use functional magnetic resonance imaging and find a pattern of neurons lit up in a square on his visual cortex, it is difficult to agree with Quine that the word "square" has no meaning.

You may protest that I'm thinking there is a homunculus inside the mind looking at that square.  After all, Quine already knew that the image of a square would be imprinted in some way on the retina of a person looking at a square.  But I am not assuming there is a homunculus inside the brain.  I am just observing a re-presentation inside the brain.  We can continue the behaviorist philosophy of saying that words are ultimately defined by behavior.  But there is no particular reason to stop our analyses when we hit the skull.  Behaviors outside the skull are systematically reflected in physical changes inside the skull, and we can investigate them and reason about them.

The more I tried to figure out what Quine meant - sorry, Quine - the more it puzzled me.  I'm with him as far as asking whether meanings are ambiguous.  But Quine doesn't just say meaning is ambiguous.  He says "there are no meanings... beyond what are implicit in... behavior".  The more I read, the more it seemed Quine was insisting, not that meaning was ambiguous, but that mental states do not exist - or that they are taboo.  And this taboo centered on the skull.

That seemed to come from a religious frame.  So I stopped trying to think of a rational justification for Quine's position, and starting looking for an emotional one.  And I may have found it.

Behaviorists claimed that they forbade reasoning about states that were not observable by behaviors.  But what they forbade, in practice, was reasoning about states that were inside the skull, whether or not they were observable.  They did not say that we did not yet have the technology to study the effects of stimuli on the brain (we did).  They said there were no mental objects inside the brain.

This got me wondering what a behaviorist means by a mental object.  To me, meaning is something that gets more and more definite the more you know about how brain states correspond to environmental states.  "Ambiguity" is not a binary predicate; it's the number of possible solutions, or the variance of a probability distribution.  But to them, meaning is something that is not approximated or approached, but that you either do or do not apprehend.  And, no matter how far back you trace the causal chain, you will never arrive at it.  It's pure, possibly atomic... transcendental.

They mean the soul.

Most religious are closely associated with the idea of the immaterial, and more specifically, an immaterial soul that contains a person's essence.  Modern re-interpretations of this idea, from Descartes to John Searle, seek to locate the soul within the brain.  The soul is a way to protect the human mind, and free will, from reductionism.

Historically, I was taught, behaviorism arose as a response to intuitionism, which took people's thoughts about their thoughts as evidence.  It was a methodology designed to rule out errors caused by intuitionism.

But behaviorists went much farther than that.  They didn't try to delimit the situations where intuitions were useful, or where one could talk about mental structure or content.  They insisted that all talk of mental representations or computations were taboo.  They were at odds even with the science that already existed at the time.  It was already known, though not with much precision, that damage to particular parts of the brain caused particular mental malfunctions; as did brain diseases with different histopathologies.

So perhaps this original, good methodological idea fell victim to a nearby, stronger attractor:  Behaviorism became the flip side of the concept of the soul.  You can try to protect the mind from reductionism by encapsulating it in a soul.  Or you can protect the mind from reductionism by denying that it exists.  (You can talk about my behaviors all you want; just don't look inside my skull.)

I wouldn't say that everyone who called themselves a behaviorist had religious motivations.  But perhaps there was a dangerous synergy between his rationalist doctrine, and a parasitic religious one.

But B.F. Skinner, not the earliest but the most well-known evangelist of behaviorism, does not strike me as a religious man.  And Skinner denied the existence of free will, which is the opposite of what I expect people trying to protect the mind from scrutiny to say.

So here is an alternative theory:  Behaviorists were religious cynics.

A cynic promulgates views that sound sociopathic.  Yet a cynic is not a sociopath.  Sociopaths are not bitter about failing to find cosmic meaning in the world around them.  Cynics are idealists who want too much from their ideals - realists longing for the transcendantal.

Seen through this analogy, behaviorism is a defense of the soul by people who don't really believe it exists; a denial of free will that doesn't solve the tough philosophical problem, but tells people to look away: "Move along, nothing to see here".  Like religion, it justifies not thinking about threatening philosophical questions.

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Phil, your last sentence is correct but as for the rest... it's as if you can't believe that these people simply meant what they said (there is no such thing as meaning or mind). Questions about meaning and mind were not threatening to philosophical behaviorists because they feared cognitive reductionism; those questions were threatening because the obvious answers led towards dualism and religion.

Remember that you are the beneficiary of many decades' worth of extra ideas and knowledge. OK, Kant talked about representation back in the 18th century, but Kant was seen in the English-speaking world as obtuse German metaphysics. Also, the localization of brain function was not seen in terms of representational function. The cognitive revolution of the 1970s, and the adoption within neuroscience of information processing concepts, were really big breakthroughs. It's like biology before and after Darwin: Before the idea of natural selection, it was a rare person who could look at the intricacies of biology and not think in terms of design. Similarly, before the idea of neural computation, it was really hard to think about the mind in a materialistic way. For example, Chomsky couldn't have written his critique without having the concept of a state machine.

As a result, materialist psychologists in the first half of the 20th century just didn't have the option of cognitive reductionism. Though I think the psychologists were less extreme about behaviorism than the philosophers. It really was a methodological choice for the psychologists, but the philosophers turned it into an ideology, and provided the sophisticated rationales for propositions like: there are no mental states, only words about mental states; and, words don't have meanings, they're just sounds which are produced within certain behavioral contexts.

In a comment you write "even a scientific theory can be hijacked by what we want to believe". This is quite true, but again, if I understand you correctly, what's at work here is the opposite of crypto-religiosity - it is determined denial of anything which might give non-materialistic entities a chance to reenter the conversation. A scorched-earth policy for materialist ontology. I believe this outlook is still at work, by the way, regarding qualia, the self, and so on. They do not fit naturally within the physical ontology we have, therefore they can't be real - so say some. These days there's a lot more belief in the harmony of science and subjectivity, to the point that people espouse views (the qualia are the computational states) which suffer from a different problem, crypto-dualism. (See Bertrand Russell for a materialistic thinker who was nonetheless good enough to realize that there is a problem in just identifying material states and mental states - thus his adventures in "neutral monism" and in various forms of aspect dualism.) But there remains a chronic tendency for people who love their favorite scientific ontology to sacrifice any aspect of consciousness - the flow of time, for example - if it doesn't fit.

This is one area where we are repeating the old mistake - of refusing to see what's in front of us, for the sake of a higher truth - in a new way. It's ontological tunnel vision: I have a private reductionism, at the level of my ontological categories - perhaps I reduce everything to computation, or to configurations - and can't imagine new categories or see the need for them. Everything that people say gets translated into my existing ontological language, or rejected. It's a very difficult barrier to overcome, because as with Darwin, and as with the cognitive revolution, the third way only becomes accessible to everyone after pioneers map it and domesticate it a little. Until that happens, talking about it is like trying to point into the fourth dimension.

I am puzzled that my post is at -3; and Mitchell's comment here is at 12; and they say nearly the same thing. They only start to differ when suggesting what motivated behaviorists; and they don't differ much even then - disappointment in religion vs. antagonism towards religion.

User:Mitchell_Porter's post differs from User:PhilGoetz's post in that the former does not heavily overextrapolate from the uncontroversial points which the two Users agree about.

This is quite true, but again, if I understand you correctly, what's at work here is the opposite of crypto-religiosity - it is determined denial of anything which might give non-materialistic entities a chance to reenter the conversation. A scorched-earth policy for materialist ontology.

I like that theory even better. It should encompass a superset of the behaviorists encompassed by my "religious cynic" theory - many militant atheists are former faithful gone cynical. But some are not; some learn animosity to the doctrine of the soul only from observing its bad effects.

Chomsky had demolished behaviorist linguistics in 1959, nine years before Quine's article.

Presumably you are talking about his critique of Skinner's book: Verbal Behavior - which was mainly focussed on the emphasis on operant conditioning, arguing instead for innate elements. AFAICS, Skinner never denied a role for genetics in the first place:

Skinner argued that verbal behavior is a function of the speaker's current environment and his past behavioral and genetic history.

The article also says:

Chomsky's review has been further noted to misrepresent the work of Skinner and others, including by taking quotes out of context.

In a world where you can tell someone to think of a square, and then use functional magnetic resonance imaging and find a pattern of neurons lit up in a square on his visual cortex,

Wait, is that literally true? Is it true in general that, when you think about a shape S, an actual S-shaped region of your brain lights up?

Wait, is that literally true? Is it true in general that, when you think about a shape S, an actual S-shaped region of your brain lights up?

No. Even in the lowest visual region (where there literally is one incoming neuron for each cone in the retina) the image is very badly distorted, as though by a fisheye lens. And when you respond to a high level instruction like "think of a square" I would bet against there being any activation at all in this region, it is all abstract representations where the patterns of activation are unrelated to the shape of a square.

This is ingenious but seems like speculation largely detached from evidence. In particular, if you want to be believed then you might do well to offer better grounds for saying ...

... that Quine's attitude to meanings or mental states resembles taboos in some actually religious sense (AIUI, the common colloquial use of "taboo" is by no means the same as the phenomena that go by that name in Polynesian societies)

... that when behaviourists said that only external behaviour should be looked at and didn't mention the possibility of looking inside people's skulls, the reason wasn't simply that they hadn't thought of doing that, or didn't realise that the available techniques were sufficient to tell them anything useful, or thought those techniques were too seldom practical to be relevant, or something

... that any behaviourists were trying to "protect the mind from reductionism by denying that it exists"

And you might also do well to say more explicitly what you think this "parasitic religious doctrine" actually was, and who you think believed it, and what reasons you have for thinking that other than that it might explain the fact that Quine didn't consider using brain scans or EEGs to resolve the problem of radical translation.

(AIUI, the common colloquial use of "taboo" is by no means the same as the phenomena that go by that name in Polynesian societies)

Indeed not. The English word "taboo" is from Fijian or Tongan, which I can't speak to; but the Hawaiian cognate is "kapu" which means more or less "restricted" or "forbidden".

It doesn't mean something that can't be discussed, or is shameful or unthinkable. It was typically used to refer to food prohibitions, structurally rather similar to kosher, halal, or for that matter hippie vegetarianism; but also for places that are off-limits to commoners, or are "private" to the chief or the gods (or someone else important) and not to be trespassed upon.

The English sense of "taboo" is a projection onto foreign cultures of a very Western notion of shame and the unspeakable. It reminds me of the expression "sacred cow", which projects onto Hinduism the notion of an impractical but unquestionably revered thing, which is not at all what Hindus mean by protecting cattle.

This is ingenious but seems like speculation largely detached from evidence. In particular, if you want to be believed then you might do well to offer better grounds for saying ...

It is speculation, and I don't want to be believed. I want to float the idea that this is one aspect of behaviorism, and that even a scientific theory can be hijacked by what we want to believe.

OK, I'll strengthen it: If you want to be taken seriously then you should consider doing those things. Because on the face of it, it seems like (1) you've got this frankly rather crazy theory suggesting that behaviourist ideas are commonly motivated by a quasi-religious horror of the idea that mental states might be reducible, (2) typical behaviourists' thinking was pretty much the opposite of that, and (3) you've given no actual reason why your crazy-looking theory is at all likely to be right.

I've given enough reasons to suggest the ideas are plausible, which is all that is needed for a discussion, which is what we do in the DIscussion section.

I agree that it should be acceptable to pose hypotheses that one thinks are more likely to be false than to be true. There are ways to make it clearer that that is what one is doing.

Is my memory playing tricks, or has the end of this been substantially edited since it was first posted? (If it's the latter, then I suggest it would have been polite to say so, especially since some critical comments were posted before the edit. If the former, please accept my apologies.)

Yes, the end has been edited - but I don't think there were any comments up yet when I edited it.

Oh, OK. My first comment was definitely written in response to the original version, but perhaps it changed while I was writing that.

You should probably edit the post to mention your exchange with Mitchell Porter, and maybe say 'one might think that' when you start describing views you do not hold. I'd also like to second Tyrrell McAllister's question, because your reductionist view of consciousness seems much less process-based than my own reductionist view of consciousness and I'd like to know where this difference comes from.

But I don't think the OP deserves these downvotes. The quote from Quine does seem wrong in a way that calls for explanation. In fact, it seems worse than what Alfred 'Kook' Korzybski said in 1933. Korzybski located meaning in chiefly non-verbal reactions to symbols or events in general. Hence he might say that if you want to teach someone what "red" means, you should try to create a reaction linking the word with something non-verbal. But as you might guess from his influence on Hayakawa, he included neurological reactions and not just "overt behavior" or observed tendencies to the same.

"But it is an empirical question. With math, plus with some reasonable assumptions, you can prove that you can unambiguously determine the correct mapping even from the outside. In a world where you can tell someone to think of a square, and then use functional magnetic resonance imaging and find a pattern of neurons lit up in a square on his visual cortex, it is difficult to agree with Quine that the word "square" has no meaning."

Of course the word "square" has meaning, but that meaning may be different from our meaning. In a world where society told this individual all the time that an "square" is really a triangle with an X in it, and then you do that experiment, you'll see what that individual thinks a square is...and he'd be right, going off the definitions and meanings that society have told him about a square. Doesn't help the researcher who is trying desperately convince said research subject what a square is "supposed" to be.

That's not the angle Quine was taking. He was saying words don't have meanings. There are behaviors, and streams of words correlated with behaviors, but nothing inside a head that is a "meaning". Quine was not talking about cases where one person would point to a square and say "square", and another person would point to a triangle and say "square". He was talking about cases where two people both point to an equilateral triangle and say "equilateral triangle", but one meant "triangle with all three sides the same" and the other meant "all three angles the same". That's not a great example, but it is a short example. Or where you ask them to raise their right hand, and they both raise their right hand, but one person unknowingly has the perception of raising his left hand, and "feels" left the way others feel right. Quine argues that these are not singular examples, but that all language is undermined by indeterminacy like this.

I understand the example. Thanks. Helps me to understand why you object to it.