Gordon M. Burghardt (1994) Evolution and the Analysis of Private Experience. Psycoloquy: 5(73) Metapsychology (6)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 5(73): Evolution and the Analysis of Private Experience

Book Review of Rakover on Metapsychology

Gordon M. Burghardt
Department of Psychology
University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN 37996-0900



Rakover (1990) raises many important issues but he is unduly pessimistic about the possibilities for scientific knowledge concerning many aspects of the phenomenon of private experience in human and nonhuman animals. His position may reflect the generally conservative stance philosophical analysis attempts to impose on "frontier" natural science.


behavior, causality, experimentation, explanation, introspection, mind-body problem, observation, philosophy, psychology, reductionism, science, theory.


1. METAPSYCHOLOGY (Rakover, 1990, 1993) introduces many aspects of philosophy of science and epistemology to psychologists and relates such issues to venerable areas of psychological research. Since the book was published, there has been a veritable explosion of philosophical, psychological, physiological, neural modeling, and even physical scientific musing and research on the mind-body problem, though most of it limited to consciousness (see Horgan, 1994). The problems addressed are serious and there is certainly no consensus today. Rakover provides a framework combining the philosophy of science, philosophical and methodological issues in psychology, and his own attempt to bring together "missing links in behavior, mind and science." My comments will be limited to some thoughts on two complex topics: the claim that the natural sciences cannot deal with the mind-body problem and the possibility of gaining understanding of private experience in humans and non-humans.

2. Although Rakover may often seem to be concerned with consciousness, his broader emphasis on private events and private experience is salutary. Independently, and from an ethological perspective, I have recently advocated (Burghardt, 1993; in press) that "private experience" be a new "fifth aim" for ethology that adds to the field's concerns with control (causation), function (adaptiveness), evolution, and ontogeny as articulated by Tinbergen (1963) in his much cited paper. I agree with Rakover that cognition does not adequately incorporate these important issues (Burghardt, 1991); in fact, most cognitive psychology has been loath to deal with the issue of "life as experienced". As Tinbergen pointed out when formalizing the four aims, to adequately understand a behavior we need to ask questions about all the aims. Thus, to adequately understand the physiology of a behavior one also needs to consider evolution and ontogeny, for example. Similarly, I argue that to adequately understand courtship, foraging, or problem solving, one also needs to consider an organism's internal stimuli and phenomenological or subjective responses. While Rakover classifies private experience as a subset of private behaviors that are presumably conscious, my use of private experience is broader. The primary issue, however, is whether natural science can address these issues. I think natural science can, Rakover does not, and that is the core disagreement I have amongst the many points with which I agree.


3. The philosophy of science has, for too long, been equated with the philosophy of physical science. This was the unfortunate state of philosophy of science thirty or more years ago, which is why many persons interested in biology and behavior ignored it as rather naive about the complexities of dealing with living systems. METAPSYCHOLOGY is full of statements that equate natural science with physical science. This characterization is also found in the writings of many phenomenologists who railed against a "scientistic" model of psychology by blasting an archaic Newtonian physics. It is as if Darwin and evolution, arguably the most philosophically relevant scientist and field of study, respectively, had never existed. I am afraid that Rakover shows this tendency as well. For example, the four reasons given on pages 107-8 concerning why theory construction in the natural sciences cannot be used by psychology become far less telling if biology and evolution are seriously considered. For example, claim one is that the mind-body problem does not exist in physical science. Perhaps not. But mental phenomena have been important to the study of animal behavior (instinct, habit, intelligence) for centuries; Darwin's notebooks make clear that he considered evolution as essential to understanding the human mind.

4. Rakover claims in METAPSYCHOLOGY and the Precis that natural science is mechanistic and causal. Being causal, it cannot deal with quasiteleological issues. However, both evolution and function have been part of the ethological program from the start, and the integration of these areas with causal and developmental areas is the goal. While much has been accomplished, clearly the integration has but begun. New fields have been spawned by ethology and fostered by Tinbergen's four aims approach including evolutionary psychology, Darwinian anthropology, neuroethology, sociobiology, and behavioral ecology. These fields are necessarily immature, but it concerns me that Rakover considered them completely irrelevant. Thus, I am not convinced by his claims in the Precis that there is a chasm between causal approaches that cannot deal with the "meaning of the act" and teleological approaches that give a name, (such as 'greeting') to an act. Ironically, "greeting" behavior was a favorite topic in early ethological writings!

5. The claim is made (p. 428) that most "psychological approaches ... do not progress like the natural sciences, since they focus on the mind-body problem, despite adopting methodologies developed in the natural sciences." Only radical behaviorism and psychophysics are not focused on mind-body issues and instead "concentrate... on the discovery of lawful relationships between stimulus and response (or input and output)" (p. 429). But, since for Rakover the mind-body problem is the central issue in psychology, ignoring it will not do. Yet it is not clear to me why radical behaviorism and psychophysics incorporated into the four (or five) aims of ethology cannot be the start of the solution. Is it a coincidence that Fechner founded psychophysics as a means of solving the relation between mind and body?

6. Rakover thus claims repeatedly, and in different ways throughout the book, that what differentiates psychology as a non-natural science is the inevitable "manifestation of the insoluble mind-body problem" (p. 309). Elsewhere he writes that "unlike the natural science, psychology is burdened by the unsolvable problem of the nature of mental phenomena and their various relationships to behavior" (p.26). An illustrative example (pp. 10-11) is the patient named John who has a compulsion to jump from tall places and one day actually does so and is killed. Rakover claims that there are two different kinds of explanations. One is based on nerves and muscles (physiology), the other on feelings and thoughts (psychology). These differ ontologically, epistemologically, and logically. Rather than trying to bridge this gap, Rakover spends much of the book supporting his position that they are unbridgeable, maintaining an empirical dualism.

7. The claim is that there is an impenetrable barrier that will forever repel the onslaught of scientific materialists. Yet it is this Maginot line for mentality that is the problem, not the mind-body problem. The otherwise excellent glossary does not define psychology. Is this because psychology is being reduced to the study of the mind-body problem? This kind of reductionism is more problematic to me than the neurophysiological reductionism Rakover finds unsatisfying in chapter 10. Perhaps the real problem is trying to reduce any subject matter to only one level of analysis. Although it is clear that much is still unknown, to imply that we know nothing about the relationship of mental phenomena to behavior is just plain wrong. I recognize that Rakover may not mean these words as I read them, which is that the nature of mental phenomena of others can only be known if they can be experienced by the scientist directly, clearly an impossibility today. But we can and do know much about the possible worlds of other people and other species. It is to bring this issue out in the open that I have advocated formal recognition of the fifth aim.

8. There are two other moves to make here. One is to emphasize that scientific knowledge is always partial, incomplete, and probabilistic; arguments about all crows being black notwithstanding. (I had a white gray squirrel in my yard a few years back. Does this make the label gray squirrel wrong, or tell us something about the genetics of color and the rarity of variations from "gray?") A typological view of mental events is no more valid than the typological view of species. Without developing arguments made elsewhere (Burghardt, in press), it is clear that we can have considerable understanding of phenomena we cannot (or previously could not) directly "see" such as electrons, molecules, and genes. And we know quite a bit about topics such as life and death and learn more every day, although definitions are still matters of considerable debate.


9. The second move is to go beyond correlation/causation polemics by seriously considering the great advances being made in understanding the neural basis of mental events and the less developed, but promising, endeavor to understand their evolution and function. Understanding the perceptual world of organisms, internal (Gegenwelt) and external (Umwelt) is growing as the delayed rediscovery of the insights of Jacob von Uexkull (1909/1985) indicates. Examples are Timberlake and Delameter (1991) and Thompson and Derr (1993), as well as the experiments by Lubinski and Thompson (1993) showing that pigeons can discriminate and report their drug states. Discovering that some species or even conspecifics are able to perceive things we cannot (ultraviolet light, odors, internal states) certainly adds to our understanding of their mentality and thus their "mind-body" relations.

10. Rakover briefly summarizes Russow's (1982) response to Nagel's (1974) classic paper but does not evaluate her claims that it is possible to get some understanding of the private experience of a bat. More recently, Akins (1993 a, b) has extended the analysis further by seriously considering scientific findings. The point is that setting topics as off limits to science has repeatedly proven to be as erroneous for conservative philosophical interdiction as for fundamentalist theology. And it is neither original nor churlish to point out that failed claims of the past are not the best guide to the future. Knowing about the perceptual and neural bases of behavior in animals and using a critical anthropomorphism can be good starting points for developing testable inferences about their private experiences (Burghardt, 1985; 1991). That we may sometimes be wrong, even about people -- as when we are deceived by con artists or thrilled by brilliant acting in the theater -- does not negate the point. It does appear to place limits on the degree of understanding we can attain. Our current concern with animal treatment and care is largely an acknowledgment that animals have experiences, that these matter, and that scientific knowledge is necessary (e.g., Bekoff, 1994).

11. But perhaps Rakover means precisely what I alluded to earlier, that we still cannot directly experience another organism's private events. Maybe so. But I can see no way in which any conceivable "nonnatural" science of psychology could do any better. In the future we may be able to even go beyond the limits noted above. Consider the rapid advances in virtual reality and neural imaging technology. We are now able to monitor specific neural activity in animal and human brains during cognitive and emotional events (Posner & Raichle, 1994). This can certainly help in delving behind overt responding to the underlying neural processing involved. Consider a person claiming to be depressed. Let us assume that we know what area of the brain is active during certain activities and that it is possible to assess whether the physiological correlates of depression are present. Now, if the brain activity can be yoked to another person or replicated with drugs, is it not conceivable that one person may actually be able to experience the state of the other person insofar as it is reflected in that brain activity? Admittedly this may seem completely outrageous. But it is not impossible in principle and if we can do this, the process of making private behavior accessible to natural science will move forward considerably. And that is much more important than only focusing on the next bit that cannot yet be known.

12. I am reminded of the continuing change in criteria for what distinguished human from nonhuman behavior. Remember when it was tool use? then tool making? then using tools to make tools? then symbolic communication? and then... Is there not a pattern here that we should recognize. Our own research this year has allowed me to "see" the inside of the minuscule brain of 10 g live snakes and we hope to eventually monitor chemical changes in their brains as a function of brief experiences that have greatly varying effects on individual animals. I am far from convinced that the mind-body problem is an obstacle to understanding either snakes or people. For many students of human and nonhuman behavior, trying to gain some understanding of what it is like to be another is a prime motivating factor. Is this any different from the notion that scientists search for "truth" knowing they will never attain it. Let us focus on the process and the steps to understanding, rather than on assertions that, if taken seriously, stop research in its tracks.

13. Rakover's chapters 6 and 7, concerning where the problems lie, are a most useful tour de force that I will recommend highly. Here he acknowledges the important role of analogical inference. These can be classified as subjective analogical inference and neural analogical inference (Burghardt, 1985). As suggested above, I now think that the two can be combined in gaining a multi-dimensional scientific understanding of private behavior in its many guises by seriously incorporating all the ethological aims. Rakover, in chapter 10, discusses various proposals to reduce private behavior to neurophysiology (one component of but one ethological aim). He also discusses types of bridging laws, and problems with reductionism, which he rejects. But I reject as hopelessly incomplete any analysis that does not consider evolutionary, ecological, and developmental aspects of private behavior. Perhaps I have been too pessimistic about Rakover's pessimism, which may not be as absolute it often seems. For early on (p. 25) he states that the "values and rules of the game of science are never determined finally, and they change as science develops." Exactly.

14. Why Rakover and so many others are pessimistic is, I suggest, symptomatic of the sad history of so many of the philosophically thoughtful being trapped by a philosophy of science which is too self conscious and closed to be fully open to state-of-the-art science and its power and potential. We may be wary of, and even fear, new knowledge. The debate over the role of genetics in human behavior is an example. To tie progress in a field to solving some "problem" that may disappear, or at least hibernate for a while, is Luddite. Sometimes I feel that reading and thinking about philosophy of science too much harms, rather than helps, one's science. Vitamins are important and necessary, but be wary of the ads and the fads! Science is a continuing process and it might be best to get on with observation and experimentation of behavior, brain, and subjective events in creatures great and small. Let's avoid the risk that contemplating the big picture will thwart taking the small steps on which science builds. We should not forget the liberating momentum behind the break with natural philosophy and natural theology. It is evolution that drove the latter break, and evolutionary approaches are needed for the small steps to move in the right direction as we pare away the mystery behind the age-old questions.


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Uexkull, J. von (1909/1985) Environment [Umwelt] and inner world of animals (C.J. Mellor & D. Gove, Trans.) In G.M. Burghardt (Ed.), The Foundations of Comparative Ethology (pp. 222-245). New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold. (reprinted from Umwelt und Innenwelt der Tiere, 1909, Berlin, Jena).

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