Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


35th Annual Convention; Phoenix, AZ; 2009

Event Details

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Symposium #405
Causation and Explanation in Radical Behaviorism
Monday, May 25, 2009
10:30 AM–11:50 AM
North 131 BC
Area: TPC/EAB; Domain: Theory
Chair: José E. Burgos (University of Guadalajara - CEIC)
Discussant: M. Jackson Marr (Georgia Tech)
Abstract: This symposium is an exploration of some historical, conceptual, and methodological aspects of causation and explanation in radical behaviorism. The presentations will examine some of the relationships between B. F. Skinner’s proposals and Aristotle’s theory of the four causes, George Berkeley’s idealism, William James’ pragmatist theory of truth, and Ernst Mach’s empiriocriticist positivism. There will also be some criticism towards Skinner’s account of causation and explanation, in particular his adoption of the Machian identification of causal with functional relations. Some of the links between causation and explanation, on the one hand, and truth and method, on the other, will also be discussed.
Explanation and Pragmatism
WILLIAM M. BAUM (University of California, Davis)
Abstract: Although the behavior of organisms is a unique subject matter, the science of behavior shares with other sciences the same ontological and epistemological bases. More than other sciences, however, behavior analysis may point to the advantages of pragmatism as a philosophical framework, as opposed to the assumption of a real world independent of experience. George Berkeley, writing in the eighteenth century, was among the first to cast doubt on the notion of a real world beyond experience. William James and Ernst Mach, writing almost two hundred years later, sought to address truth and explanation in science without assuming the existence of the real world. Mach concluded that explanation consists of description in familiar terms. In advocating data-driven theory, Skinner followed Mach’s lead. This stance is useful for behavior analysis because it avoids the pitfalls of hypothetical and hidden theoretical entities.
A cause, be cause, see cause, the cause
PETER KILLEEN (Arizona State University)
Abstract: All understanding involves finding an appropriate formal cause--that is, mapping phenomena to explanations having a structure similar to the thing explained. Our sense of familiarity with the structure of the model/explanation is transferred to the phenomenon with which it is put in correspondence. This is what we call understanding. Stimulus is a cause; the response an effect, and itself the cause of reinforcement. It may also act as a stimulus/cause of subsequent behavior. The reinforcer changes the causal status of prior events (both stimuli and responses) making them more potent causes. Aristotle’s four becauses may be called causal, reductive, functional and formal, respectively. No one type of cause provides a complete explanation: Comprehension involves getting a handle on all four types. Skinner contributed to such comprehension by embodying a formal causal model as the core concept of his behaviorism, one in which triggers and functions played key roles. But we often focus on the most salient--those which, in replications, account for the most variance in the data. Where we can’t replicate, we rely on generalization gradients. The laws of conditioning--proximity, contiguity and regularity-- are the laws of causal attribution.
On Causation according to Radical Behaviorists, Positivists, and Physicists
JOSÉ E. BURGOS (University of Guadalajara - CEIC)
Abstract: This paper examines critically two aspects of Skinner’s view of causation: his 1953 diagnosis that the terms “cause” and “effect” were not widely used in science, and his conceptual replacement of causal with functional relations. Both aspects can be traced to Ernst Mach’s 1906 concept of causation as functional relation, where causes are conceived as independent variables and effects as dependent variables. The diagnosis had been made by Bertrand Russell in 1913 and Moritz Schlick in 1932, who assumed that Mach’s conceptual replacement had been sufficiently influential among physicists for them to make transition to a terminological replacement. However, the textual evidence proves the diagnosis wrong. The terms were widely used in physics around 1913, 1932, and 1953, increased afterwards, and it is widespread today. Mach’s conceptual replacement was not influential among physicists either, except for an equivalence that Percy Bridgman hesitantly proposed between causation and predictability in 1931. Two other influential physicists, Max Planck and David Bohm, proposed views of causation that are incompatible with Mach’s. Additionally, Mach’s conceptual replacement is incoherent. He admitted that causes qua necessary conditions existed subjectively. However, nothing in a function represents necessity. Hence, causes cannot be functions, even if both exist subjectively.



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