On Baars, “The double life of B.F. Skinner. . . “ forthcoming in JCS.

June 10, 2002


Daniel C. Dennett

Center for Cognitive Studies

Tufts University



Look out for the dirty baby


                Back and forth swings the pendulum. It is remarkable that Baars can claim that “many scientists now feel that radical behaviorists tossed out the baby with the bathwater” while not being able to see that his own efforts threaten to be an instance of the complementary overshooting–what we might call covering a nice clean baby with dualistic dirt.  Yes indeed, radical behaviorism of Skinner’s variety fell from grace some years ago, with the so-called cognitive revolution, to be replaced by a sort of cognitivistic behaviorism that has plenty of room for inner processes, for talking to yourself, for mental imagery, for hunches, feelings, pains, dreams,  beliefs and hopes and expectations, but only so long as these are understood to be physical (“informational” or “computational”) processes that could be accomplished by the machinery of the brain. It is an interesting speculative question whether William James would have been a wholehearted cognitivist, or whether he would have insisted that what he meant by the stream of consciousness had to be sharply distinguished from the streams of mere information-manipulation discernible in the activities of cortical subsystems, etc., etc.  Making a home for consciousness in the brain, for a distinction between unconscious information-transformations and conscious ones, for instance, is now the work of many hands in many fields (See, e.g., Dennett, 2001, and the other essays in the special issue of Cognition devoted to the cognitive neuroscience of consciousness).  The main methodological principle of this research is one shared with the radical behaviorists: only intersubjectively accessible data are to be admitted in this natural science of consciousness. If that allegiance, by itself, counts as ‘behaviorism,” then we should all be behaviorists, and indeed the very researchers Baars cites (Singer, Ericsson and Simon, Hilgard, Crick, and Edelman) scrupulously and unapologetically are behaviorists in this minimal sense. They interview their subjects, under controlled conditions, and take their reports seriously–but not as infallible guides to their subjects’ subjectivity. They practice heterophenomenology, to use my awkward but precise term (1982, 1991, 2001) for this third-person way of taking the first-person point of view as seriously as science can–or should–take it.


                As Baars notes, Skinner himself was too smart and self-observant not to be ambivalent about his own too-radical behaviorism, but he was not quite adroit enough to see his way clear to cognitivism. He knew that “the skin is not that important as a boundary,” as he often put it, and he tried his hand at various formulations that would have permitted him to speak in good behavioristic conscience about covert, genuinely internal episodes of behavior that were kosher topics for science because they could be at least indirectly observed. Unfortunately, he was misled away from the main chances in this endeavor by his quite appropriate rejection of the unabashedly Cartesian formulations of his most virulent critic, Noam Chomsky, and those of his followers who vied to be the chief ideologues of cognitive science.  If that was what cognitivism licensed, then it was better to be a radical behaviorist after all! The irony is that if Chomsky and others hadn’t overstated the flight from radical behaviorism, Skinner himself might have been able to join the cognitive revolution, because he recognized, as Baars shows, the central importance for a science of psychology of making sense of the Jamesian stream of consciousness.


                When Baars says that philosophers Georges Rey and Kathleen Wilkes are “fighting the good fight after all these years”–as if they were trying to return us to Skinnerian behaviorism–he is overlooking a more charitable, and more plausible reading. Neither Rey nor Wilkes is a radical behaviorist of the Skinnerian or any other sort, so what on earth can they be doing? They are pushing the pendulum from the opposite side from Baars, to be sure, but they are trying to hold it in the sane middle ground. They are attempting to stop the pendulum from once again swinging too far in the Cartesian direction. Their denials of consciousness look daft only if you forget what some people think consciousness is! Is consciousness real? Of course it is–as long as you don’t understand it as magic, but for some people, consciousness is magic or it is nothing at all. For them, Rey and Wilkes provide a worthy antidote: science isn’t going to find room for that kind of consciousness, in spite of first appearances.  Are there really such people? Yes, many. Speaking for them, for instance, is Robert Wright:


Of course the problem here is with the claim that consciousness is ‘identical’ to physical brain states. The more Dennett et al. try to explain to me what they mean by this, the more convinced I become that what they really mean is that consciousness doesn’t exist. (Wright, 2000, fn. 14, ch.21)


                In his fascinating book on the history of Indian street magic,  Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, (Univ. of  Chicago Press, 1991) Lee Siegel writes:


“I’m writing a book on magic,” I explain, and I’m asked, “Real magic?” By real magic people mean miracles, thaumaturgical acts, and supernatural powers.  “No,” I answer: “Conjuring tricks, not real magic.”  Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic.  (p425)


                Those who think that the demise of “behaviorism” is either the triumph of mystery over science, or else the rebirth of a full-fledged “first person science of consciousness” are mistaken. If Baars is calling for a return to a dualistic vision of consciousness, he is seriously misreading the lessons of recent scientific work on the phenomena, and if he is asking for a natural science of consciousness (or whatever we call the stage magic that happens in the brain), he is on the same team as Rey and Wilkes (and me).  Baars asks rhetorically “What would a science of human beings be like if it had no place for love and hate? If it blotted out pain and pleasure?”  Skinner’s response to this challenge was flawed, but on the right track: step one is to block the move that insists that real pain and pleasure, real love and hate, are phenomena that lie outside the scope of the natural sciences altogether. To some folks, this step smacks of behaviorism. So it does, and is the better for it.




Dennett, Daniel,  1982, "How to Study Consciousness Empirically: or Nothing Comes to Mind," Synthese, 53, 159‑80.


Dennett, Daniel, 1991, Consciousness Explained, Boston and New York: Little, Brown.


Dennett, Daniel, 2001,  “Are we explaining consciousness yet?” Cognition 79 pp221‑237.


Siegel, Lee, 1991, Net of Magic: Wonders and Deceptions in India, Univ. of Chicago Press.


Wright, Robert, 2000, Nonzero: the Logic of Human Destiny, New York: Pantheon.