The inner life of behaviourists

I’ve often wondered about the inner life of those who deny the inner life of others. This extract from Ian McEwan’s Atonement (pg 36) captures my own experience in childhood of realising others must experience inwardness as well, even if not everyone experiences this in the same way:

[W]as everyone else really as alive as she was? For example, did her sister really matter to herself, was she as valuable to herself as Briony was? Was being Cecilia just as vivid an affair as being Briony? Did her sister also have a real self concealed behind a breaking wave, and did she spend time thinking about it, with a finger held up to her face. Did everybody, including her father, Betty, Hardman? If the answer as yes, then the world, the social world, was unbearably complicated, with two billion voices, and everyone’s thoughts striving in equal importance and everyone’s claim on life as intense, and everyone thinking they were unique, when o one was. One could drown in irrelevance. But if the answer as no, then, Briony was surrounded by machines, intelligent and pleasant enough on the outside, but lacking the bright and private inside feeling she had. This was sinister and lonely, as well as unlikely.

Talking about the social world in a way which denies inwardness feels sinister and lonely to me. Is there a discrepancy between how the people who do this experience their own existence and what they ascribe to others?

4 responses to “The inner life of behaviourists”

  1. That assumes a philosophy of mind based on qualia, if you don’t start from there, the question is different.

  2. Obviously my suggestion is a contentious one but I think this misses my point slightly. Leaving aside philosophical questions is there an inconsistency between how behaviourists (as a crude placeholder) experience their own existence and how they intellectually characterise the experience of others? I mean this as an empirical question rather than a philosophical one. It’s a question prompted by a recent book in which a machine learning scientist described how a near death experience led him to realise he’d lived his life to that point as he was an algorithm and had learned how to live in a more fully human way.

  3. I like this post… I often wonder the same thing! It reminds of something Douglas Porpora wrote in his book on “Reconstructing Sociology”, page 10, where he says: “Like the economists with their fabled homo economicus, we are often content with the pretend people our theories offer instead of the real persons that as non-professionals we know we are”.

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