Against Consciousness

Richard Gregory

  • Pavlov by Jeffrey Gray
    Fontana, 140 pp, £1.25, September 1980, ISBN 0 00 634304 X
  • J.B. Watson: The Founder of Behaviourism by David Cohen
    Routledge, 297 pp, £8.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 7100 0054 5

Jeffrey Gray’s scientific biography of the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov is a worthy member of the distinguished Modern Masters series, which includes excellent semi-technical short books on, among others, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Russell, Freud, Piaget and Chomsky. The author, who lectures in the Department of Psychology at the University of Oxford, writes from first-hand expert knowledge of experimental work in animal behaviour and the relevance of experiments on animals to human neurology and psychology. The book is lively, clear and sophisticated in its arguments, and is without a trace of academic pedantry or unnecessary jargon.

Everybody knows that Pavlov discovered the conditioned reflex. Most people know that there was much previous philosophical speculation on the nature of learning and thinking based on the idea of ‘associative links’. These were discussed in various forms by Hume, both James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, Bain, and most effectively by Hartley. As Jeffrey Gray points out, a major impact of Pavlov’s work was to bring experiments to bear on philosophical notions of mind, rather as the great physicists have, over a much longer period, tested, refined and inspired conceptual accounts of the inanimate world. Somewhat paradoxically, however, the direct descendants of Pavlov – J.B. Watson, B.F. Skinner and almost the entire Behaviourist school – have tended to deny that mind was anything much more than patterns of reflex arcs. Perhaps it is a universal generalisation that great advances, and men of supreme acknowledged achievement from Aristotle onwards, inhibit change and achievement beyond their frontiers of understanding by the awe they cast behind them. Pavlov stressed that conditioning could be anticipatory, that the dog may salivate on the expectation rather than the stimulus of bell or food – and this implies far more active, spontaneously active, processes than reflex arcs.

This book describes Pavlov’s background, though we learn little of his personal life, beyond his relations with the newly-formed Communist government, which accorded favourable treatment to his laboratory despite the fact that his philosophy was a shade too mechanistic for the Bolshevik orthodoxy. Pavlov and his wife received double food rations by special direction from Lenin.

A strength of this book is to extend the horizon beyond Pavlov’s own work so as to include major experimental discoveries of his colleagues and successors in Russia and elsewhere. Much of this can be followed up in the useful bibliography, and the translated works are extensive. I deplore the lack of an index.

Bertrand Russell described J.B. Watson as having made the first major contribution to psychology since Aristotle; and it is often said that logic became stuck where Aristotle left it until Russell’s own insights. What Watson did was to push psychology into becoming an experimental science, after the model of the physical sciences, by rejecting procedures of introspection. He denied that consciousness and conscious states are the subject-matter of psychology, arguing that psychology should be the study of behaviour. For this, he took reflexes as his unit and basis of behaviour, together with a few instincts which, from his observations on infants, he believed to be innate, and he built a theory of learning on the conditioned reflexes of Pavlov. So much any psychology student today knows about John Broadus Watson (1878-1958). He may know also that he was dismissed in mid-career for a divorce scandal in which a student was involved, and that he went on to make his name, and a lot of money, in advertising. Just what he thought about consciousness – did he deny awareness altogether? – is discussed more by philosophers than by psychologists.

The interest of this book is that it explores the experimental researches undertaken by Watson, together with the details of his private life, as well giving a just appraisal of the effect of his ideas on psychology. All this is done clearly and neatly, with moments of drama. Apart from anything else, it is a good story, but it is far more than that, for it reveals many of the famous psychologists of his day, the men behind the names of books still on our shelves, though they do not always appear in roles they would have liked to see exposed. Every one of his academic friends and colleagues deserted Watson in his hour of need, when he was kicked out of Johns Hopkins.

Watson very largely dismissed philosophy, at least as an activity he could or wished to understand, so that the comparative lack of philosophical appreciation here (Ryle’s Concept of Mind is not mentioned) may be appropriate. And yet his influence on philosophy of mind is perhaps greater than that of any philosopher since Descartes. At the same time, he was overtaken, and has been eclipsed for the last twenty years, by B.F. Skinner. Watson not only invented Behaviourism: he also invented behaviour therapy, performed the first detailed studies on infant instinctual reactions since Darwin (though Expression in Man and Animals is not mentioned here), and carried out, with Karl Lashley, the first study of the effects of alcohol on skill. For this study, they obtained gallons of rye whisky during Prohibition, and found that darts playing did not deteriorate even at the point of drunkenness. He was also a pioneer on sex research, on the effects of propaganda, and he largely invented market research. So Watson was a man of remarkable achievement. His eclipse was entirely due to total rejection by the entire academic community, when he fell in love with and married a graduate student. His scientific honesty and business integrity have never been questioned, and there is nothing in this book to begin to make us doubt that Watson was, in his two professions, beyond all such criticism.

He was born in a small town in South Carolina and had a Baptist upbringing, with a strong-minded, somewhat tyrannical mother whose threats of the Evil One in the shadows gave him a life-long fear of the dark. His behaviourist techniques never succeeded in curing him of this fear of the dark. David Cohen makes the most of the limited material available on Watson’s early life, but we get just enough to see him, and his doubts and uncertainties, as a bright ambitious student in an undistinguished college. He moves to Chicago, carries out truly brilliant animal-learning experiments, and very soon gets a chair at what was then as now a university of very high standing, Johns Hopkins, at the remarkably early age of 29. He took over from Stratton, who had quite recently performed the celebrated experiments on inverting vision by wearing reversing lenses. At Johns Hopkins were figures such as H.A. Jennings, the leading expert on single-cell organisms and their behaviour, Knight Dunlap, who was Watson’s at first inefficient assistant, and his friend and most significant colleague – apart perhaps from Lashley – R. Yerkes.

The break-up of his first marriage, his affair with the beautiful and talented research student, how his wife discovered love letters in the girl’s bedroom in her parent’s house by pretending to have a headache and going upstairs to lie down – these are described in all the detail of a Sunday newspaper in the silly season. It makes, we might admit, an interesting story and is certainly unusual to have so much personal matter combined with technical findings – of, especially, the Chicago experiments. It was these that inspired Behaviourism.

Watson set up rat-maze learning experiments before the techniques of animal experimentation were at all well worked out. He found, for example, that rats could run a maze without the use of sight, or hearing, or smell – or indeed any of these – though it was upset if the alleys were lengthened or shortened. When shortened, they would bump their noses at the end. Watson suggests that the learning is in the patterns of movement of the muscles, and that these patterns are disrupted by changing the length of the alley. But he could equally well have argued that the animal builds up a ‘cognitive map’ of the maze, and that this becomes out of date when the maze is changed. In fact, Watson emphasised the importance of muscles and of internal glands to such an extent that the brain was ignored. But he did take a much broader view of ‘stimuli’ than his successors, and he allowed that the general bodily state of the animal has a large effect on behaviour in a given situation. On this, I think Cohen is quite right. But he could have added that the kind of experiment just referred to was highly important for Lashley’s influential work on localisation of brain function – or rather his reasons for denying localisation in favour of ‘Mass Action’ or ‘Equi-Potentiality’ of the cortex, though this is not now generally accepted. Watson ignored the brain. It is Cohen’s view that Watson ignored the cortex especially as he threw out consciousness and the same seems to apply to Skinner. This rejection, in favour of muscles as the seat of behaviour and learning, may, however, be rather a case of ‘looking for the key under the lamp post, because that’s where the light is’. It led to the motor theory of thought, and particularly to the theory that thinking is movements of the muscles of the tongue and throat, as in speaking. This led to experiments such as thinking about one topic while reading aloud on another – which, as it turns out, is possible. No doubt the work on electrical brain activity (EEG), initiated by Adrian and Matthews and developed by Grey Walter, forced psychologists’ attention away from the easily observed muscles towards the brain and nervous system, where it now lies firmly, with a growing interest in subtle chemical changes which are less easy to record.

For the entire Behaviourist school – which in spite of Watson’s personal eclipse has virtually dominated American psychology for twenty years and has only recently lost its grip – very little was supposed to go on in the organism beyond co-ordinating reflex links giving essentially passive responses, or reactions rather than actions. ‘Reaction’ is indeed Watson’s term. He uses it, for example, to rewrite Freud, whom he admired: ‘The central truth that I think Freud has given us is that youthful, outgrown and partially discarded habit and instinctive systems of reaction can and possibly always do influence the functioning of our adult systems of reactions and influence to a certain extent even the possibility of our forming new habit systems which we must reasonably be expected to form.’ So Watson replaces complexes by habits, and he thinks of organisms as passive, rather than as a curious striving towards new solutions. As Cohen points out, his psychology only partly fits the American view of life, where action is more important than reaction; and Cohen may also be right that Thomas Kuhn’s notion of paradigms (syndromes of scientific assumptions, described in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions of 1962) does not apply neatly to the Behaviourism revolution, or to psychology as a whole. Kuhn would classify psychology as not being a ‘normal’ science. Watson tried to make it much more like a normal natural science by throwing out consciousness: but it remains mysterious just why the extreme Behaviourist accounts of mind without consciousness – a very different thing from Freud’s Unconscious – took such a hold as to become doctrine.

Taken literally, they lead to saying that anaesthetics are unnecessary, except as muscle relaxants. Behaviourist accounts rejecting consciousness lead to nightmare social dreams, such as the use of conditioning for behaviour correction – producing a dislike of flowers, as in Brave New World, or the greater horrors of 1984 and Skinner’s Walden Two. But, of course, ‘horrors’ would have no meaning without an acceptance of consciousness. Watson may well have been right to dispense with the introspective techniques of his time: these had become sterile and could hardly have developed further in the direction set by William James. More profoundly, he may also have been right to think that conscious states do not have causal effects on behaviour, and can for scientific purposes be ignored. He did not in any case deny emotional and other conscious states: what he wished to point out is that, for its experiments to be useful, psychology does not have to justify itself by finding correlations, or causal links in either direction, between conscious states and behaviour. For him, behaviour is what matters for psychology as a science: this is what permits it to be judged as other sciences are judged, and its kinds of explanation are not so different. Since then, other sciences have grown much odder, and the consciousness of the observer is discussed within quantum mechanics. States of awareness (as elicited most dramatically by drugs, which are sometimes defined as ‘chemicals which when injected in rats generate scientific papers’) have taken over, as individually and socially more important than action. One might say that the heroic age has given way to the heroin age. But Behaviourism in its extreme forms, following Watson, allow neither, and reduced much of psychology to absurd triviality from which we are now escaping.

This book brings Watson out of eclipse. At the same time, it makes the morality of his generation of colleagues, of only a few decades past, look like the dark ages. It is a ‘must’ for any psychologist with an atom of interest in the background of his subject. I hope that it heralds, or inspires, a full technical treatment of the history and philosophy of the school Watson founded – before he was driven by his friends to investigate rubber boots, persuade people to change their taste in cigarettes, invent and sell underarm deodorants, and pursue other activities too close to consciousness for comfort.