I wonder if this point of view has been considered before and which role it does play in the discussion of consciousness:

Consider a typical Skinner box experiment: A rat is exposed to some pleasant and unpleasant unconditioned stimuli (food, electric shock) depending on doing something to be learned (e.g. pressing a button under specific circumstances).

Such an experiment and its outcomes seem trivial when we take into account the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the reward or punishment: Of course, the rat will learn to do this and that, because it wants food and wants to avoid electric shocks = pain (because it feels hunger, an urge to eat, pain, or an urge to avoid bodily damage - all kinds of unpleasant experiences which the rat wants to diminish).

But how would we understand the experiment if subjective experiences (feels of hunger and pain) were lacking and not part of the explanation? We would have to tell very long and complicated stories - about the need to have food and to avoid bodily damage, how these needs are coded, represented, and effective, how appropriate behaviour evolved during biological evolution, and so on and on.)

Having subjective feelings at hand makes explanations very much easier - every child can understand Skinner box experiments, presumably.

What's possibly wrong with this line of argument? Does it help to "understand" consciousness and subjective experience? Or do I rotate in argumentative circles?


Skinner didn't deny that qualia as such exist (though I don't know if he ever explicitly used the concept). Skinner merely tried to downplay the importance of subjective experience. He wanted to treat the mind as a black box: e.g., if we look at the stimulus going into the black box of the mind, and connect that stimulus with the response that comes out of the black box, then we don't need to worry about what happens inside the black box at all. Mental process can remain a mystery — a curiosity for the indolent, perhaps — because we've done the proper scientific job of connecting inputs to outputs.

I imagine a child could grasp Skinner's paradigm if it were put in terms of subjective experience, But Skinner himself would dismiss that as a childish understanding of his work. He would think it was a bit like invoking Santa Clause to explain why presents appear under the tree on Christmas morning. To his mind, Christmas arrives and presents appear: input/output, stimulus/response. Why presents appear — the specific mechanisms — is irrelevant, as long as we're confident that the one causes the other.

It's worth pointing out that one of the preliminaries to Skinner-type experimentation is to reduce the test-subject's body mass by as much as a third. To my mind, that was a kind of data fudging: it reduces the complexities of a thinking mind to the single-dimensional pursuit of food that comes from starvation.

  • @Hans-Peter Stricker- Any thought which comes to mind which questions anything whatsoever about Skinner's absurd behavior reduction is a good first step. There is no comparison to be made between the actions and behaviors of a rat and those of a human being. In Six Sigma Math before undergoing any experiment a research phase is completed. The variables are plotted on x,y axes and any points of conjunction or intersection are noted. If there is no intersection, the variables are deemed irreconcilable and the process begins again. No such process occurs in any social science experiment. CMS – user37981 Jan 8 '20 at 17:45
  • @CharlesMSaunders: Do you mean this Six Sigma: de.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_Sigma?wprov=sfla1 ? – Hans-Peter Stricker Jan 10 '20 at 12:56
  • 1
    Yes, if you look within the DMAIC you will find the research phase. I only achieved a Green Belt, but the mathematics, in particular the diversity and excellence of the graphs and charts holds a sophistication not found in too many disciplines. My purpose in pointing to intersection and/or conjunction is that even though rats and humans have 'similar' internal organs and systems, this in no way qualifies any comparison when it comes to self-consciousness, life-styles, and a host of other disparities. Can we be compared to a rodent that can digest a coin or rotted poisonous garbage? – user37981 Jan 11 '20 at 21:10

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