William James, B.F. Skinner and the Stream of Consciousness Revisited

Jeff Carreira Blog Posts 8 Comments

In an earlier post I described similarities between the ideas of John Dewey and B.F. Skinner, I now will to do the same with William James. Both James and Skinner dubbed their own philosophies “Radical.” James called his philosophy Radical Empiricism and Skinner called his Radical Behaviorism. And both used the term in part for the same reason – they both came to realize that there was no “self.”

Our common experience is that we are both experiencing life and watching ourselves experience life at the same time. It is like we are living and at the same time looking in a mirror watching ourselves live. For this reason we have a “sense of self;” a sense of being someone who is watching our life unfold. This is commonly the way we talk about ourselves because it is exactly the way we experience ourselves.

In my earlier post “William James and the Stream of Consciousness” I described how James understood the sense of “I” was itself being constantly created by thought. Essentially James felt that there could not be a “self” in the sense of some separate observing being that existed outside of our experience who was watching us have our experience because there was no place for that being to exist. If there was such a self and it existed outside of our experience, then where was it and how did we know about it?

James’s conception of Radical Empiricism stated that the sense of self was created by thoughts of self that appeared in the stream of consciousness along with everything else.

In other words if we were holding a rock in our hand, the experience of the rock would be created from a continuous stream of consciousness. Heaviness – grey(ness) – coldness – hardness – with sparkling crystals(ness) etc. What James said was that amidst all of these sensations and thoughts about the rock would be interspersed some of thoughts and visual images of me in relationship to the rock. Just like the one I found last summer(ness) – I could throw it into the sea(ness) etc. It is this second group of ideas and images that create the sense of continuity in our experience and connects our experience to ourselves rather than to someone else.

 The point is that there is no self that is experiencing the rock – there are only thoughts that describe “our” relationship to the rock. This constant accompanying commentary about ourselves in relation to the world is what creates the experience of being someone – but there is no someone outside of those thoughts. This was the idea that James expressed in his paper “A World of Pure Experience” and it was embraced as a high form of Zen by Suzuki Roshi when he read it. Suzuki felt that it beautifully described the non-dual realization of Zen and sent the paper back to his master in Japan who used it to teach Zen students.

I imagine that Skinner held a similar view. Add to what James described the power of Skinner’s operant conditioning and what you will have is an entire realm of thoughts in which the same basic principles of behaviorism (see my last post) also apply. In this way our thinking becomes conditioned so that certain thoughts arise with certain circumstances and generate certain actions. Behaviorism when applied to thought would allow us to “think” but that thinking would be abiding by the same laws of Behaviorism as applies to our physical actions.

I believe that both James and Skinner are describing reality accurately, but where I still have a question lies in the fact that this view still leaves a question about consciousness in the universe. If the sense of self is just an idea, that means that it only exists (as Brian pointed out in one of his comments) in the brain and perhaps only the human brain. So before the human brain the universe was a thoughtless, consciousless, universe of matter and energy. Only when something as complex as a brain arrived on the scene did intelligence emerge in the universe. So we arrive at the age old problem – is there a God (an intelligence behind the design of the universe) or is the universe a material construct that unfolded do to chance variation and natural selection to create a form as complex as a brain that could create a sense of self and a story about God who had created?

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Carl
11 years ago

I’m not sure, but I think consciousness as we know it is a social phenomenon. That’s where self-referential behavior comes from, I think. I suspect that sea mammals, some of whom have individual “names” for one another, have this experience. Of course I cannot know whether my cat, Simon, who is an incredibly playful, sociable, perceptive, learning creature is “conscious” in the way that I am. It’s easy to think so, but I really don’t know. I don’t know if he “thinks” but it sure looks like it. I wonder what consciousness is without verbal behavior?

Shizuka
Shizuka
11 years ago

As Brian’s point,it’s more likely a brain create a sense of self and story about God by developing more complex relation with object and experience reality.So Free will,self and reality are all illusion(or our brain’s products). Then I come back to the existential question again .What is the first cause of intention?What is the initiation of big bang? What is the intention of the Universe? What is the intention of whole evolution process? what motivate us to evolve,develop and create? Why we think wanting to know the intention of evolution,Universe,want to know the purpose of life are more likely better… Read more »

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
11 years ago

What I am thinking about in relation to both what Carl and Shizuka have stated is I wonder if thinking about consciousness as it may or may not manifest in a particular organizm is misleading. We can’t help imagine consciousness as we as human begins experience consciousness. Then we try to imagine that consciousness in another organism, like Carl’s cat, by examining their behavior and trying to decide if that behavior fits our expereince of consciousness. I am thinking about consciousness more broadly, more generically. In other words as a function of the universe more like gravity. As Skinner points… Read more »

Mette Mollerhoj
Mette Mollerhoj
11 years ago

Wauw, Jeff, I think these two (James and Skinner) is great to compare. I think it also is up to date with Thomas Metzingers neuroscience-philosophy. It is very hard to really grasp with our normal thinking though, but it surely is interesting – and yes, just what zen-buddhism told us. If the selves is not there in the way we normally think, then what is consciousness? I think that is just what you are already talking about, and to me it is quite a puzzle, and it always where something I wasn’ t sure of when it was brought up… Read more »

David Noel Lynch
David Noel Lynch
11 years ago

I think, therefore I am. —> “Will”-ing to change. I BLeave, therefore I am. —> Not “will”-ing to change. Big Bang this, evolution that, exposes one’s position of BLeaf. Thus they have closed their minds to Steady State theory and Emergence theory. Jeff, you do a great job of keeping your mind open. Have you heard of Quantum Communication? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPpY-H_PTm4 Suggesting that consciousness is a force like gravity. A scientist will be quick to reject creation. They cannot set up an experiment and collect data to draw a conclusion. However; they are quick to accept the Big Bang theory, yet… Read more »

Sandra MacDonald
Sandra MacDonald
11 years ago

Wow! I agree – what a conversation!!! I can’t help but go to that space “between the notes” to make out the melody. Is it in the “knowing” we know who and what we are? Or, is it in the “not knowing” that we can even grasp the questions/answers. David, I wonder though, cynicism and projection maybe the death of us all . . . the space that is left open for optimism is Life Positive . . . in that we have all possibilities . . . it maybe that “to question” is Divine . . . and for… Read more »

Frank Luke
Frank Luke
10 years ago

We all know the story of the bunch of blind guys trying to figure out what the elephant was by touching different part of its body. That’s how humanity’s collective teasing out of reality is, each touching different aspects of it. What we humans are also capable of is an overview that allows us to take in a bigger picture to get a more holistic view of what’s what, at least as far as we collectively have come to discover. Technology and science is certainly broadening and expanding this overview but can anyone really encompass Totality? Even the wisest have… Read more »

alejandra del atletis
alejandra del atletis
6 years ago

If the Self is going to be an illusion better tell us then what this illusion reduces itself to; or describe the mechanism just as you would describe the real phenomenon that underlies the illusion of a rainbow, for instance. Simply describing a first person experience that emerges from a physical relationship to otherness is – at best – plain speculative neuroscience. Furthermore, it does not explain how this self is able to push back or comment on thoughts while altering the behavioral dispositions that are related to these thoughts, as it has been demonstrated in recent research with obsessive… Read more »