Monday, 24 March 2014

The Parable of the Strawbehaviorist

My stimulus-response reflex chain is set to "Kill!".

In another time and in another place, giant men made of straw roamed the lands. They were known as 'strawbehaviorists'. Their heads were hollow, like a doughnut made more of hole than doughnut, and upon creation they knew nothing of the world. All of their temperaments and responses were simply the imprints written into them by their experiences in the world, like behavioral Golems whose behaviors are masses of unformed clay waiting to be shaped by their environment.

The people feared the absurdity of these creatures; didn't they know that they are logical impossibilities? A number of heroes came forth over the years to rip their straw bodies apart with ease but somehow the strawbehaviorists would rebuild themselves. Even the great Noah Chumsky, champion of champions, defeated these strawbehaviorists with the power of The Good Book (Review) but still they would not die.

Many theories were constructed to explain the regenerative capabilities of the strawbehaviorist. Some said that their own refusal to accept the incoherence of their existence was in itself enough to keep them alive, and this led to the Dissonance Revolution. This was an attempt to highlight their inconsistencies, like pointing out that they could not possibly learn language without a Learning Ordinary Language (LOL) device in the brain (since they had no brain and barely a head at all), with the hopes that these facts would cause them to crumple in a puff of logic.

However, despite all these fierce attacks and despite their apparently weak frames that should have been easy to dismantle, the strawbehaviorists grew in numbers. They were seemingly unperturbed by the onslaughts, as if they were too arrogant to just accept that they cannot exist. With time though, the people tried a new approach: they simply ignored the strawbehaviorists.

They wrote books about how they were defeated, how society had moved on, and whenever a strawbehaviorist would dare reveal itself to the people, it would be reminded that history tells us that they were beaten and that they no longer exist.

This put the minds of the people at ease and they lived their life as if the strawbehaviorists no longer existed. They told tales to their children of how they were so weak that they stood no chance against the people's greatest heroes. But every now and then, after these stories of horror and adventure have been shared with a child, a strawbehaviorist can be seen peering in through the darkened bedroom window.

The parents will comfort the children, carefully scanning the now empty window, and they'll reassure them with the words that their own parents used to reassure them in days gone by: "Don't worry, you're safe. They're not real".

And then they all lived happily ever after... Until "Strawbehaviorists 2: Rise of the Tin Machines" was released, and then no matter who wins, we lose.

This story was inspired by the recent high profile misrepresentations of behaviorism that described the philosophy as blank slatist or as a black box approach to psychology, and I hope that it will serve as a reminder that those people don't need to be afraid any more. Those behaviorists not only don't exist but they never have.

Some good reading on strawbehaviorism:

Why Pinker Needs Behaviorism: A Critique of The Blank Slate

What Happened to Behaviorism?

On behaviorism in the cognitive revolution: Myth and reactions.

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