Consciousness as Behavior

B. H. Bode

IN a recent issue of this JOURNAL[1] Dr. Henry Rutgers Marshall has stated very clearly and pointedly certain objections to the view that consciousness is to be interpreted as a form of behavior. Dr. Marshall argues, in substance, that a study of behavior leads normally to sciences like neurology and biochemistry, but not to the "something more" that we call consciousness. We may hold, indeed, that a certain special type of behavior is correlated with consciousness, but when we do so we no longer confine ourselves to the facts of behavior pure and simple. The belief of the observer that this behavior is connected with consciousness is "a matter of inference, and not of objective observation; and it is an inference which involves the metaphysical assumption that certain forms of behavior always have corresponding with them certain changes in consciousness such as he notes in his own experience" (p. 259). The view that consciousness is behavior which is guided by future results is obviously only a special form of the doctrine which Dr. Marshall opposes, and so falls under the same condemnation. If consciousness can not be reached except with the aid of a metaphysical assumption, the ease is closed. It can not then be reached "as the result of purely objective observation of the type employed by the behaviorists and other biological students ; although Dr. Bode's treatment seems to imply that it can" (p. 261). To identify consciousness with a form of behavior is "as though, having found that a definite form of crystal refracts light in. a certain way, one should say that this particular kind of refraction is the definite form of the crystal."

The objection is plausible, and it derives additional weight from Dr. Marshall's eminence in the field of science. Certain parts of his criticism, which are directed more particularly against Professor Watson, need not concern us at present, since Professor Watson is entirely capable of hoeing his own row. My purpose is to comment on Dr. Marshall's objections in connection with the view that con-

( 450) -sciousness is behavior that is controlled by the future. If I interpret him correctly, he is of the opinion that the "purely objective observation" of our fellow men would reveal nothing that calls for the use of categories other than those which are used in the physical sciences. We should presumably see them merely as wondrous mechanical contrivances of the sort suggested by James's genial fiction of the "automatic sweetheart," so complete in its verisimilitude as to be "absolutely indistinguishable from a spiritually animated maiden, laughing, talking, blushing, nursing us, and performing all feminine offices as tactfully and sweetly as if a soul were in her.” [2]

This illustration of the automatic sweetheart seems to embody quite tangibly the issue raised by Dr. Marshall. A behaviorist who takes his doctrine seriously could doubtless be quite happy with a sweetheart of this sort. But Dr. Marshall would insist, with James's approval, that something highly important was lacking, as would any average person whose appreciations were not stultified by the preconceptions of behaviorism. If such a person should peradventure find himself in the possession of two sweethearts, one being a "spiritually animated maiden"and the other the automatic sweet-heart of James's exuberant imagination, he would value the two very differently. It is true that both of them would perform the same offices tactfully and sweetly, as is the manner of sweethearts. Yet in the one case the service would be prompted by solicitude for the comfort and happiness of the beloved, while in the other case the behavior would be merely an indication that this thing of joints and muscles and neurones had been set in motion by a molecular vibration in the nervous system. It would wear its heart on its sleeve, so to speak; the recipient of its ministrations would have full assurance that his sweetheart's witticisms or petulance had no more hidden meaning than the behavior of a phonograph or a cuckoo clock. With the other fair charmer everything would he different. He would be obliged to rely on inference, and his footing would be much less secure. In the one case he would be confronted with problems of mechanics, in the other with problems of diplomacy. Itis admitted, of course, that the mechanical problems might have any degree of complexity. Dr. Marshall would doubtless be ready to admit that in the presence of a being so uncertain, coy, and hard to please even his intellectual resources would be painfully inadequate. Yet the fact remains that, in principle, the automatic sweetheart could be understood and explained in mechanical terms as exhaustively 'as a lemon-squeezer or a cider-press; whereas the other sweetheart would make it necessary to have recourse to a "metaphysical assumption."

( 451) And while we might marvel at the perfection of a mechanical device that could serve us so acceptably, our deeper emotions would be left untouched, for, as James says, the outward treatment is valued mainly as an expression, as a manifestation, of the accompanying consciousness."

Yet the behaviorist is constrained to disagree. He finds it difficult to believe that our hero would keep himself constantly reminded that one of his sweethearts ministers to his wants merely as if prompted by a concern for his well-being, whereas the other is motivated by a concern that is not simulated but real. Since the outward acts would be the same, this distinction would make it necessary to maintain an attitude of meditation not wholly in keeping with the spirit of courtship, to say nothing of the masculine tendency towards the view that all women are alike. Moreover, if he could be induced to reflect an the nature of the distinction, his reward in all likelihood would be, not a heightened appreciation of its significance, but rather much weariness and vexation of spirit. Since the outward acts are alike, what real ground is there for attributing the conduct of the one to motives and purposes, and that of the other to soulless mechanism? If the acts of the latter are entirely explicable on the basis of mechanism, the same must be true of the other, unless we assume that there is a difference between them which is open to purely objective observation. If there is no difference, then the consciousness of the spiritually animated maiden plainly makes no difference in the behavior; it is a mere concomitant or epiphenomenon. Diplomacy, in that ease, is as much out of place with the one as with the other; mechanism becomes the last word of explanation, and the mystery of the eternally feminine takes on much the same quality as the mystery of higher mathematics. Or he might approach the matter from the opposite side and inquire into the reasons why the automatic sweetheart should be denied the attribute of consciousness. Her powers of adaptation are admittedly unique. She is clearly capable of utilizing the results of previous happenings in such a way as to bring about the recurrence or the avoidance of these results, according to the needs of adaptation. What else can be the meaning of her reminder to him that the front steps are covered with ice, or that he had better consult a physician about his cough? The purposive relationship, or control by future results, is suggested at least as directly by observation as is the relationship of the magnetic needle to its pole or the gravitational relationship of the moon to the earth. Yet these latter cases are not supposed to warrant an inference to something occult and metaphysical called "magnetism!' or "gravitation." Nor would there be much "sense" in the supposition of a needle that behaved in every ascertainable respect like a

( 452) magnetic needle, the only difference being that it had nothing to do with magnetism. To behave in that way is to be a magnetic needle. Is there any antecedent necessity why a purposive relationship, control by the future, should occupy a radically different status from the relationship of magnetism or gravitation?

The plausibility of Dr. Marshall's contention is the result, as I venture to think, of an underlying assumption regarding the relation of observation to hypotheses or interpretation. As Dr. Marshall presents the matter, observation does its work in entire independence of interpretation. We take note of what the body does; and after the facts have thus been secured, the inference to a correlated consciousness is foisted upon them. This is the meaning, I take it, of the statement that the existence of consciousness is "a matter of inference and not of objective observation." The facts are, of course, in no position to protect themselves against this treatment, but they are relieved of all responsibility in the matter by the declaration that the inference rests altogether on a "metaphysical assumption." But if we proceed in this way, we are playing with fire. Why not say in precisely analogous fashion that purely objective observation presents us with a moving outline of dingy white, which, by virtue of metaphysical license, we then interpret as a baseball that is propelled by the force imparted to it from the impact of the bat In fact we do not first observe and then supply a context, but we observe by seeing things as existing in a certain context. Or, if the statement be preferred, the inferences of earlier situations are the flesh and bone of our present observations. In so far as inference is uncertain, the observation is likewise uncertain. The man who suspects that his sweetheart is out of temper is not indulging in a passion for metaphysics; he is making use of his misgivings as a guide to observation. And similarly the tendency of primitive man to interpret all sorts of occurrences as acts that are done "on purpose" for his weal or woe is not due to an innate fondness for the metaphysics of consciousness, but rather to his poverty of resources in the matter of interpretation. The observation of purposive behavior is the same in kind as any other observation, and is subject to correction by the discovery of facts that suggest alternative explanations, such as gravity, magnetism, reflex action or instinct.

If this be a defensible position, it follows that inquiries into the existence of consciousness must rely on methods of investigation such as are embodied in the procedure of comparative psychology. They do not depend upon neurology or biochemistry, which Dr. Marshall takes as representative of purely objective observation in this field, because these subjects address themselves to other problems, although it is true that their results may lend themselves to a variety of ap-

( 453) -plications. When the observer construes certain of these results as characteristic of conscious behavior, he is not just supplementing gratuitously a set of facts that are already complete and self-sufficient, but is attempting to interpret these facts in their relation to other facts, viz., the ends that are achieved by conscious behavior. So long as this state of affairs is overlooked, consciousness is able to maintain itself in a state of metaphysical isolation, and the attempts to reduce it to a form of behavior become just the oddities of persons who "glory in their logical shame." But the traditional conception of consciousness has proved its egregious unfitness on so many occasions that it is scarcely in a position to be disdainful of a humbler rival, who fraternizes with science and who, can claim no lineage that entitles it to the protection of metaphysics.



  1. Vol. XV., No. 10, p. 258.
  2. The Meaning of Truth, p. 189, note.

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