Philosophic Doubt- When Scientific Inquiry Matters

There are important assumptions, or attitudes of science, which ground scientific study across all disciplines; Determinism, Empiricism, Experimentation, Replication, Parsimony, and Philosophic Doubt. The last one holds a key role in how we deal with the information we gain from science, and what we do with it in the future. Philosophic Doubt is the attitude of science which encourages us to continuously question and doubt the information, rules, and facts that govern our interpretation and understanding of the world (universe, etc). Philosophic Doubt is what has practitioners of science question the underpinnings of their belief, and continually do so, so that their understanding is based on consistently verifiable information. Philosophic Doubt cuts both ways- it can have a scientist test the truthfulness of what others regard as fact, but that means they also must take on the same level of scrutiny and skepticism in their own work. To some, Philosophic Doubt is a gift that has helped them expand on their ideas and shape them beyond the initial first experimental steps. To others, Philosophic Doubt is a detrimental form of skepticism clawing at information or beliefs that they hold dear. These views are not new, and in fact we can find traces of this disagreement going back to the 19th century. Here we will explore the assumption of Philosophic Doubt, including proponents and detractions both old and new.

Why do we need Philosophic Doubt anyway?

Philosophic Doubt is important to science because it has an effect on how the progression of scientific work takes place. It has scientists test their own assumptions, hypotheses, and underlying beliefs, even if those are held precious to them, against replicable evidence and new future findings. Philosophic Doubt drives experimentation, and it precedes replication as well. It is what underlies the empirical drive for seeking evidence. Without philosophic doubt, science can go wrong. A hypothesis could be formed based on inaccurate information which would never be retested. Subjective experience could entrench anecdotes in a study as a broader experience than they are. A scientist could start with what they want to find, and cherry pick only what fits their assumption. These examples are the risks of not taking Philosophic Doubt in to account. Sometimes it can simply boil down to the scientist wanting to be right, against keeping an open mind that they might not be. Holding the assumption that there is a benefit to questioning findings or previously accepted beliefs is not a slight against past experience or belief, but rather a better way of interpreting future information if it were to challenge it. Questioning is a part of science, but not everyone thought so.

“In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”

Authur James Balfour, a 19th century philosopher, debater, and scientist, took this topic head on in “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt”. Unlike today, opponents of Philosophic Doubt at the time were more interested in comparing the empirically-heavy scientific beliefs to a more open metaphysical series of alternatives- that is, they were more interested in comparing science to non-scientific belief systems as the truth of reality. When it came to psychology, there were idealists, and realists, and stoics at each others throats with concepts that could not be observed or proven. As you might already be able to see, comparing metaphysical constructs to an assumption that has them continually question their arguments and points, makes metaphysical assertions all the harder to make. Scientific points, however, make Philosophic Doubt a little easier to withstand:

Under common conditions, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit

Employing Philosophic Doubt, we can continually circle back to this assertion to test it again, and again. Pragmatically, there comes a point where we only question these basic and well founded particulars when we have reason to do so, but the doubt is always present. Sometimes for precision, sometimes to be sure that we are building off of the knowledge correctly, and others to help with the replication and experimentation assertions that grow science. Balfour was a strong proponent of natural sciences, and the use of this kind of questioning. Science founded on observation and experimentation was something truly important to him. Keep in mind, the 19th century was shaped by scientific discovery at a pace never before seen. Balfour kept an even head about this, and believed more in the assumptions of science as the path to understanding the natural world. Propositions which states laws, or which stated facts, had to be built on concrete science and not just personal belief or anecdote. Some of his points we would take as obvious today- for example, when using comparative probability, would we run an experiment or trial just once, or twice? Multiple times? If we ran something like this just once, it wouldn’t be comparative probability, but if we ran it twice and accepted this as the final answer to the question we would miss out on the further replication and experimentation on the subject. The curiosity that Philosophic Doubt embodies would keep the experiment and replication going. Without Philosophic Doubt, we fall into a trap of not questioning initial assumptions or findings.

Another interesting thing about Balfour’s work is that it came at a time where there was a great deal of belief in a mechanical universe that followed strict Newtonian laws. At the time, this was compared with more metaphysical alternatives. Balfour cautioned everyone to continually use philosophic doubt and to question both belief systems- even if the “mechanical universe” was winning by a landslide at the time. If we were to take Balfour’s points and stretch them into the future, we might see how he would have found some justification in further development in physics- quantum mechanics for example, where the Newtonian mechanical universe which was seen as sufficient to explain everything, falls a little short. Without that testing of the original tenets of physics, the use of Philosophic Doubt, we might not be where we are now. The analysis of Balfour’s work could go on for entire chapters, but I would like to top it off with an excerpt on the topic of the evolution of beliefs, and the reluctance to test our own personal beliefs:

“If any result of ‘observation and experiment’ is certain, this one is so- that many erroneous beliefs have existed, and do exist in the world; so that whatever causes there may be in operation by which true beliefs are promoted, they must be either limited in their operation, or be counteracted by other causes of an opposite tendency. Have we then any reason to suppose that fundamental beliefs are specially subject to these truth-producing influences, or specially except from causes of error? This question, I apprehend, must be answered in the negative. At first sight, indeed , it would seem as if those beliefs were specially protected from error which are the results of legitimate reasoning. But legitimate reasoning is only a protection against error if it proceeds from true premises, and it is clear that this particular protection the premises of all reasoning never can possess. Have then, then, any other? Except the tendency above mentioned, I must confess myself unable to see that they have; so that our position is this- from certain ultimate beliefs we infer than an order of things exist by which all belief, and therefore all ultimate beliefs, are produced, but according to which any particular ultimate belief must be doubtful. Now this is a position which is self-destructive.

The difficulty only arises, it may be observed, when we are considering our own beliefs. If I am considering the beliefs of some other person, there is no reason why I should regard them as anything but the result of his time and circumstances.” -Arthur James Balfour, “In Defence of Philosophic Doubt” (1879).

Back to Basics- Science and Philosophic Doubt

In “Applied Behavior Analysis ” Cooper, Heron, and Heward begin their first chapter with the basics of what science is, specifically behavioral science, and the assumptions and attitudes of science including Philosophic Doubt. Cooper, et al., consider these foundational concepts in science as a whole and relate their importance to psychology and behavioral science. In their words:

“The attitude of philosophic doubt requires the scientist to continually question the truthfulness of what is regarded as fact. Scientific knowledge must always be viewed as tentative. Scientists must constantly be willing to set aside their most cherished beliefs and findings and replace them with the knowledge derived from new discoveries.

Good scientists maintain a healthy level of skepticism. Although being skeptical of others’ research may be easy, a more difficult but critical characteristic of scientists is that they remain open to the possibility- as well as look for evidence that their own findings and expectations are wrong.” -Cooper, Heron, Heward, “Applied Behavior Analysis”, (2017).

Bonus! B.F Skinner
“Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment.”- B.F Skinner, 1979

The sentiment behind Philosophic Doubt and science is that of openness and humility. Not only is the scientific work we read subject to doubt, but our own as well. The latter is the most difficult part- challenging our own beliefs constantly, challenging our most cherished propositions and reasoning. To some, this is something that expands the horizon of future knowledge infinitely, to others; a hard trail to follow that is no easy task. In either case, perhaps this brought up the importance of Philosophic Doubt, and how it ties in with the other assumptions in science as a challenging but inseparable part of the process.

Comments? Thoughts? Likes? Questions? Leave them below.

References:

1. Balfour, A. J. (1921). A defence of philosophic doubt: being an essay on the foundations of belief. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

2. Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2017). Applied behavior analysis. Hoboken, NJ: Pearson.

3. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior: B.F. Skinner. New York: Macmillan.

Beyond Good, Evil, Freedom, and Dignity

BF.NA comparison of concepts from B.F Skinner’s “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” and Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Beyond Good and Evil”.

 

There was something about these two books that piqued my interest, and it was not until reading them again, together, that I saw that the similarities went beyond the titles. For those who have not been introduced to these individuals and their contributions; Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th-century philosopher known for dealing with topics of existentialism and nihilism, and Burrhus Frederic (B.F) Skinner was a 20th-century psychologist and behaviorist interested in the natural science of behavior. Aside from the similarities in their names, and the names of the titles of their two works, few parallels have been drawn between these figures. I think there is a great deal of overlap, conceptually, between these two books, and although the conclusions of both authors diverge quite differently, the path and observations on the world and history are strikingly alike.

When it comes to B.F Skinner, I have been interested in the academic and philosophic lineage of his work, and existentialist philosophers have never been a reference or topic I’ve noticed before. Pragmatism, yes, and Roy A. Moxley (2004) did an amazing piece on the influences of Charles Sanders Pierce & John Dewey on Skinner’s conceptualization of the three-term contingency and broader behavioral selectionist theory. No Nietzsche. Not even once as far as I could tell. It raises some questions with me, then, in how these two books are so similarly constructed. Both seem to tackle a very similar topic, broad as it is, the actions of people, and their morality (which comes very close to dignity, in Skinner’s usage, in my estimation). They start with Western history and philosophy and even reference the same ancient Greek precepts as foundations to build their arguments and points from. Both appear to lead up to their current history and take into account their contemporary issues when presenting their philosophical conclusions. I am not a professional book reviewer or a literary scholar, so this process of literature exploration is outside of my wheelhouse, but I would like to lay out some pieces from both of these works to open the door comparatively. Both of these authors picked the right word “Beyond”. Both works present a series of presuppositions in their contemporary times and aim to progress past them rationally.

Skinner and Nietzsche: The Problems of Their Times

Context is important when reading and interpreting both of these authors. They were both big thinkers. Brilliant. Both wildly controversial. That tends to mean they had opinions, unpopular ones, but ones that they put out into the world rigorously supported by the assertions in their work.

Nietzsche was born in 1844, in Germany, and served in the Franco-Prussian war where he received grievous injuries that he never recovered from. “Beyond Good and Evil” was written after that. After the war, he wrote on the contemporary topics that he believed were essential to human progress and critiqued entrenched falsehoods that he believed were subverting people’s potential and lives. Morality was a big subject for him. Unlike other existentialist philosophers of his time, he was not so backseat and uncertain about it. He proposed that morality was separate from the Western religious belief systems and structures that were entrenched in society, and believed that willpower had the power to transcend these societal limitations. Traditional morality (societal and religious), to him, was making people weak. They needed to improve themselves, with their own morality and their own will, to be strong. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Nietzsche suggests that the words “Good” and “Evil” were malleable concepts that change over time, and were not fixed. Fear was a motivator for morality, he proposed, and that there was a mistake in believing that “mass morality” or the moral beliefs of the groups/society had any higher importance than an individual’s personal morality. Hold onto that thought.

Skinner’s work in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1972) came from a very different time historically. In the 1970’s, the Cold War raised probabilities of worldwide escalation and catastrophe. In the first chapter alone, Skinner broached the topics of overpopulation, global starvation, nuclear war, and disease. Skinner did some philosophical work himself, but his main focus was as a psychologist and behaviorist interested in focusing on psychology as a natural science, to see human behavior as measurable and observable, and aim scientific pursuit as a “technology of behavior” to solve the problems of our time. In many ways, it was a utopian idea, and he expands on that vision in his fictional work “Walden Two”. Engineering society with this science was within humanity’s grasp. Skinner looked broadly at the ills of the world, and believed that there were some pieces of cultural and societal misunderstanding that was holding it back. Like Nietzsche, his observations strayed away from metaphysical interpretation. Skinner believed that natural sciences like physics and biology had made the leaps that psychology had not. People were still hung up on antiquated interpretations of human behavior. To Skinner, it was the environment and history of reinforcement/punishment that could be used to describe human action. He believed that mentalistic concepts such as “inner capacities” were circular, and lead to no useful distinction of a phenomenon or process that could benefit scientific discovery. Human behavior could be shaped by environment, and act on the environment as an operant. His work aimed to remove the ideas of absolute human freedom, and dignity in the sense of viewing the human being as the “fully autonomous man”; these were not practical representations of human behavior to Skinner. Full autonomy, free choice, with no input from the environment was nonsensical, which begged the question as to how free will was actually free when it was under the control of environmental stimuli, to begin with. Conceptualizing human behavior under the contingencies that Skinner proposed, including reinforcement and punishment, removes those antiquated and pre-scientific distinctions, and by removing them, people would no longer be under any false illusions and could take control of their behavior.

 

Where They Come Together, and Where They Differ

Both Nietzsche and Skinner’s line of thought come from a disagreement with the broader idea of humanity by contemporary society. For Nietzsche, it was a societal and religious misunderstanding of morality. For Skinner, it was a societal and historical pre-scientific misunderstanding of human behavior. Both “Beyond Good and Evil” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” do touch on similar points by their end: human behavior and morality. Both authors hit the same nail in two very different ways, both using historical context to do so and their own interpretation and findings from their own work and lives. There are some interesting divergences too, mainly on the topic of science and empirical materialism. B.F Skinner was very much interested in the material world and observable findings, which nearly 100 years prior, Nietzsche also had to deal with. In Nietzsche’s time, the late 19th century, these concepts were still budding, but rational observation of the world and the field of psychology was relatively recent in the form of psychoanalysis. He describes some of his ideas on the topic of science and the metaphysical soul in “Beyond Good and Evil”:

“Between ourselves, it is not at all necessary to get rid of “the soul” thereby, and thus renounce one of the oldest and most venerated hypotheses—as happens frequently to the clumsiness of naturalists, who can hardly touch on the soul without immediately losing it. But the way is open for new acceptations and refinements of the soul-hypothesis; and such conceptions as “mortal soul,” and “soul of subjective multiplicity,” and “soul as social structure of the instincts and passions,” want henceforth to have legitimate rights in science. In that the NEW psychologist is about to put an end to the superstitions which have hitherto flourished with almost tropical luxuriance around the idea of the soul, he is really, as it were, thrusting himself into a new desert and a new distrust—it is possible that the older psychologists had a merrier and more comfortable time of it; eventually, however, he finds that precisely thereby he is also condemned to INVENT—and, who knows? perhaps to DISCOVER the new.

Psychologists should bethink themselves before putting down the instinct of self-preservation as the cardinal instinct of an organic being. A living thing seeks above all to DISCHARGE its strength—life itself is WILL TO POWER; self-preservation is only one of the indirect and most frequent RESULTS thereof. “- Nietzsche (1886)

You can see here that Nietzsche is still strongly proposing that even in the area of science, psychology, and the soul, that willpower is an overlooked and undeniably important factor. I do find an interesting subpoint in there, in the process of invention and discovery by new psychologists, which nearly a century later would include Skinner himself. Although Nietzsche was strongly against the idea of science reducing everything to material reality, and I believe would take strong opposition to Skinner’s ideas on mentalistic representations of “soul” and morality, there is a great deal they share in their ways of tackling broader problems of their time, and interpretations of humanity as open to the future and unfixed. Humanity, to them, was not something that is and always will be the same. For very different reasons, Skinner and Nietzsche had a strange optimism of humanity in the wide and open possibility that either willpower, for Nietzsche, or contingencies for Skinner, could do for humanity as a whole.

B.F Skinner took a look at human morality himself in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” when exploring the concept of cultural control, or behavioral control from the contingencies of a broader group, which included cultural, or rule-governed behavior and walked the line of evolution in both cultural and biological aspects both effecting one another to form a morality that was also “created” in a sense by evolution and sensitivity to cultural factors of control. Biological evolution making us sensitive to the evolution of cultural contingency. It’s a point that packs a punch.

“The practical question, which we have already considered, is how remote consequences can be made effective. Without help a person acquires very little moral or ethical behaviour under either natural or social contingencies. The group supplies supporting contingencies when it describes its practices in codes or rules which tell the individual how to behave and when it enforces those rules with supplementary contingencies. Maxims, proverbs, and other forms of folk wisdom give a person reasons for obeying rules. Governments and religions formulate the contingencies they maintain somewhat more explicitly, and education imparts rules which make it possible to satisfy both natural and social contingencies without being directly exposed to them.

This is all part of the social environment called a culture, and the main effect, as we have seen, is to bring the individual under the control of the remoter consequences of his behaviour. The effect has had survival value in the process of cultural evolution, since practices evolve because those who practise them are as a result better off. There is a kind of natural morality in both biological and cultural evolution. Biological evolution has made the human species more sensitive to its environment and more skilful in dealing with it. Cultural evolution was made possible by biological evolution, and it has brought the human organism under a much more sweeping control of the environment.”-Skinner (1972)

Two very different views, both denying a common cultural interpretation or framework for psychology, human behavior, and morality, but leaving a wide berth for future change, that in a sense is within humanity’s realm of control. I found those two shades of interpretation to be incredibly interesting, especially in morality. Remember that Nietzsche was well aware of the impact of “group morality”, and advised against its importance over the individual’s morality. Skinner also makes a nod to group forms of morality and seems to believe we are uniquely and biologically sensitive to it. I would love to have heard a conversation between the two of them on that. This is just the tip of the iceberg too. I suggest anyone who found their interest piqued to read both works and come to conclusions of your own.

By Christian Sawyer, M.Ed., BCBA

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Leave them below!

 

References:

Moxley, R. A. (2004). Pragmatic selectionism: The philosophy of behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst Today, 5(1), 108-125.

Nietzsche, F. N. (2007). Beyond good and evil. Place of publication not identified: Filiquarian Pub.

Ozmon, H. (2012). Philosophical foundations of education. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.

 

Image Credits: Wikipedia