Feeling Our Way

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Consciousness Explained

Even though thoughts seem immaterial, they are not.

Whenever I read Darwinians and atheists, I find myself in agreement with their arguments. As Galileo liked to quote, the role of religion should be to determine how to go to heaven and not how the heavens go. Put differently (and in a way that doesn’t presume there is a heaven), only critical thinking will help us discern the nature of reality so that we can base our conduct on actuality rather than fantasy, but the question of values and how we should behave is separate from that.

What I cannot understand is the Darwinians’ and atheists’ confusion about consciousness, a problem that B. F. Skinner solved 75 years ago. What is especially perplexing is the fact that Skinner’s account of consciousness is a perfect analogy to the Darwinian account of life. I don’t know why E.O. Wilson calls Skinner (but not Darwin) a “greedy reductionist” for believing that all operant behavior evolves under contingencies of what works just as anatomy, physiology, and instinctive behavior evolve under contingencies of survival and reproduction.

Skinner called his behaviorism “radical,” (i.e., thorough or complete) because he rejected then-behaviorism’s lack of interest in private events. Just as Galileo insisted that the laws of physics would apply in the sky just as much as on the ground, Skinner insisted that the laws of psychology would apply just as much to the psychologist’s inner life as to the rat’s observable life.

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Consciousness has nothing to do with the so-called and now-solved philosophical problem of mind-body duality, or in current terms, how the physical brain can give rise to immaterial thought. The answer to this pseudo-problem is that even though thought seems to be immaterial, it is not. Thought is no more immaterial than sound, light, or odor. Even educated people used to believe, a long time ago, that these things were immaterial, but now we know that sound requires a material medium to transmit waves, light is made up of photons, and odor consists of molecules. Thus, hearing, seeing, and smelling are not immaterial activities, and there is nothing in so-called consciousness besides hearing, seeing, and smelling (and tasting and feeling). Once you learn how to see and hear things that are there, you can also see and hear things that are not there, just as you can kick a ball that is not there once you have learned to kick a ball that is there. Engaging in the behavior of seeing and hearing things that are not there is called imagination. Its survival value is obvious, since it allows trial and error learning in the safe space of imagination. There is nothing in so-called consciousness that is not some version of the five senses operating on their own. Once you have learned to hear words spoken in a way that makes sense, you can have thoughts; thinking is hearing yourself make language; it is verbal behavior and nothing more. It’s not private speech, as once was believed; thinking is private hearing.

What would really be startling and, in turn, would make me question my scientific worldview would be if the mind were capable of doing even one thing that the senses can’t. If we could, for example, smell things in our imagination even though our bodies were incapable of smelling, that would change everything. If there were a sixth sense that was not merely an example of the five senses, I’d believe in a mind that was different from “private behavior.” But there isn’t.

In my imagination, you are disappointed by the simplicity of Skinner’s explanation of consciousness. You intuit something beyond or beneath hearing, seeing, etc., in your own consciousness. Your intuition is wrong, but your disappointment is real. I think one of the main reasons people resent science is that people think about complicated things long and hard, sometimes for centuries or millennia, and then science’s explanation is ludicrously simple. How the stars go? The earth is spinning. When the thing explained is you or something you care about, a simple explanation can irritate.

Michael Karson, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at the University of Denver.

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