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Posts Tagged ‘operant conditioning

“Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way”*…

Some scientists, when looking at the ladder of nature, find no clear line between mind and no-mind…

Last year, the cover of New Scientist ran the headline, “Is the Universe Conscious?” Mathematician and physicist Johannes Kleiner, at the Munich Center for Mathematical Philosophy in Germany, told author Michael Brooks that a mathematically precise definition of consciousness could mean that the cosmos is suffused with subjective experience. “This could be the beginning of a scientific revolution,” Kleiner said, referring to research he and others have been conducting. 

Kleiner and his colleagues are focused on the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness, one of the more prominent theories of consciousness today. As Kleiner notes, IIT (as the theory is known) is thoroughly panpsychist because all integrated information has at least one bit of consciousness.

You might see the rise of panpsychism as part of a Copernican trend—the idea that we’re not special. The Earth is not the center of the universe. Humans are not a treasured creation, or even the pinnacle of evolution. So why should we think that creatures with brains, like us, are the sole bearers of consciousness? In fact, panpsychism has been around for thousands of years as one of various solutions to the mind-body problem. David Skrbina’s 2007 book, Panpsychism in the West, provides an excellent history of this intellectual tradition.

While there are many versions of panpsychism, the version I find appealing is known as constitutive panpsychism. It states, to put it simply, that all matter has some associated mind or consciousness, and vice versa. Where there is mind there is matter and where there is matter there is mind. They go together. As modern panpsychists like Alfred North Whitehead, David Ray Griffin, Galen Strawson, and others have argued, all matter has some capacity for feeling, albeit highly rudimentary feeling in most configurations of matter. 

While inanimate matter doesn’t evolve like animate matter, inanimate matter does behave. It does things. It responds to forces. Electrons move in certain ways that differ under different experimental conditions. These types of behaviors have prompted respected physicists to suggest that electrons may have some type of extremely rudimentary mind. For example the late Freeman Dyson, the well-known American physicist, stated in his 1979 book, Disturbing the Universe, that “the processes of human consciousness differ only in degree but not in kind from the processes of choice between quantum states which we call ‘chance’ when made by electrons.” Quantum chance is better framed as quantum choice—choice, not chance, at every level of nature. David Bohm, another well-known American physicist, argued similarly: “The ability of form to be active is the most characteristic feature of mind, and we have something that is mind-like already with the electron.”

Many biologists and philosophers have recognized that there is no hard line between animate and inanimate. J.B.S. Haldane, the eminent British biologist, supported the view that there is no clear demarcation line between what is alive and what is not: “We do not find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter…; but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary form, all through the universe.”…

Electrons May Very Well Be Conscious“: Tam Hunt (@TamHunt) explains.

* Kingsley Amis


As we challenge (chauvinistic?) conventions, we might spare a thought for a man who was no great respecter of consciousness, B. F. Skinner; he died on this date in 1990. A psychologist, he was the pioneer and champion of what he called “radical behaviorism,” the assumption that behavior is a consequence of environmental histories of “reinforcement” (reactions to positive and negative stimuli):

What is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life but the observer’s own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection.

About Behaviorism

Building on the work of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson, Skinner used operant conditioning to strengthen behavior, considering the rate of response to be the most effective measure of response strength. To study operant conditioning, he invented the operant conditioning chamber (aka the Skinner box).

C.F. also: Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow.


“Talkin’ ’bout my generation”*…




“The competition between paradigms is not the sort of battle that can be resolved by proofs”  – Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

As recently as the late 1980s, most Americans thought gay sex was not only immoral but also something that ought to be illegal. Yet by 2015, when the Supreme Court legalised same-sex marriage, there were only faint murmurs of protest. Today two-thirds of Americans support it, and even those who frown on it make no serious effort to criminalise it.

This surge in tolerance illustrates how fast public opinion can shift. The change occurred because two trends reinforced each other. First, many socially conservative old people have died, and their places in the polling samples have been taken by liberal millennials. In addition, people have changed their minds. Support for gay marriage has risen by some 30 percentage points within each generation since 2004, from 20% to 49% among those born in 1928-45 and from 45% to 78% among those born after 1980.

However, this shift in opinion makes gay marriage an exception among political issues. Since 1972 the University of Chicago has run a General Social Survey every year or two, which asks Americans their views on a wide range of topics. Over time, public opinion has grown more liberal. But this is mostly the result of generational replacement, not of changes of heart.

For example, in 1972, 42% of Americans said communist books should be banned from public libraries. Views varied widely by age: 55% of people born before 1928 (who were 45 or older at the time) supported a ban, compared with 37% of people aged 27-44 and just 25% of those 26 or younger. Today, only a quarter of Americans favour this policy. However, within each of these birth cohorts, views today are almost identical to those from 47 years ago. The change was caused entirely by the share of respondents born before 1928 falling from 49% to nil, and that of millennials—who were not born until at least 1981, and staunchly oppose such a ban—rising from zero to 36%.

Not every issue is as extreme as these two. But on six of the eight questions we examined—all save gay marriage and marijuana legalisation—demographic shifts accounted for a bigger share of overall movement in public opinion than changes in beliefs within cohorts. On average, their impact was about twice as large.

Social activists devote themselves to changing people’s views, and sometimes succeed. In general, however, battles for hearts and minds are won by grinding attrition more often than by rapid conquest.

The Economist illustrates the way in which generational change is the driver of changes in public opinion: “Societies change their minds faster than people do.”

Paul Graham has tips on how to anticipate and navigate, even to lead, this change: “What you can’t say.”

“The proliferation of competing articulations, the willingness to try anything, the expression of explicit discontent, the recourse to philosophy and to debate over fundamentals, all these are symptoms of a transition from normal to extraordinary research. It is upon their existence more than upon that of revolutions that the notion of normal science depends… though the world does not change with a change of paradigm, the scientist afterward works in a different world.”

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions

* The Who


As we go with the flow, we might send responsive birthday greetings to John Broadus Watson; he was born on this date in 1878.  A psychologist inspired by the (then recent) work of Ivan Pavlov, Watson established the psychological school of behaviorism, most dramatically through his address Psychology as the Behaviorist Views it, at Columbia University in 1913.  Watson studied the biology, physiology, and behavior of animals, viewing them as extremely complex machines that responded to situations according to their “wiring,” or nerve pathways, which were conditioned by experience.  When he continued with studies of the behavior of children, his conclusion was that humans, while more complicated than animals, operated on the same principles; he was particularly interested in the conditioning of emotions.  Watson’s behaviorism dominated psychology in the U.S. in the 1920s and ’30s (and got a second wind with the ascendence of B.F. Skinner).


Ironically, it is also the birthday (1886) of one of Watson’s contemporaries and antagonists, Edwin Ray Guthrie.  Guthrie was also a behaviorist, but argued against of Watson’s theory of classical conditioning and Skinner’s related theory of operant conditioning.  Guthie’s focus was the psychology of learning and the role that association plays.  In his Law of Contiguity, he held that “a combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement, will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” He held that all learning is based on a stimulus- response association; movements are small stimulus- response combinations.  These movements make up an act.  A learned behavior is a series of movements, and it takes time for the movements to develop into an act. Which is to say that he believed that learning is incremental, and that many acquired behaviors involve repetition of movements– because what is learned are movements, not behaviors.

200px-Edwin_Ray_Guthrie source


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