I have been reading as much Holt and Skinner as I can find recently as well, and I knew that you were one I could get useful information from. I know that they both insisted that the [mind] is not 'internal' to the organism, that there is no 'internal' - there is only organism as a process over time. But I'm failing to put their interpretations of education into descriptive terms. As animals, we are obviously learning beings, beings that have an innate understanding of our sensorimotor repertoire and how to manipulate the world around us to achieve goals (i.e. affordance perception); but this still seems to fall into the neural network, brain-activation paradigm, which I don't think is the case.
Sure, our nervous system is a decoupled regulatory system in that is not directly involved with conversion of the environment into metabolically-active content, but it is not entirely decoupled. It's derived from the ectoderm of the developing embryo for godsakes (i.e. the part of the embryo that forms the skin - the part that is in direct contact with the world). The nervous system is not decoupled from the body-world interface; nor is the nervous system solely responsible for the organism's understanding of the being in the world. But I still cannot seem to understand how behaviorism completely describes this concept.
I know this is a lot of content in a relatively short email and I don't expect an immediate reply. However, if you would be willing to talk with me about some of this stuff just so I can understand how you interpret it, I would be extraordinarily grateful...
Well, this is one of the big, big questions in psychology right now. I have lots of ways of trying to answer this question, but none I am fully satisfied with.
The easiest answer is to simply say that while, in humans, the brain clearly plays a crucial role in mental processes, it is not the whole story, and we need to develop better ways of articulating what, exactly, the role of the brain is.
Why isn't than fully satisfying?
- First, I think that even saying that the brain plays a 'crucial role' in mental processes is misleading: The brain is only as crucial as every other part of the body that is involved... and if you are Andy Clark, the brain is also only as crucial as every aspect of the environment that is involved in the mental process. So, that is either completely crucial or not, depending on how you want to look at it.
- Second, the throw away "in humans" line bypasses an important point: If we are interested in minds in general, then we are interested in at least some species without brains, and at least some species in which brains and brain-like structures are not nearly as important as they are in humans. In fact, we are likely interested in many species that meet those criterion, and certainly if we are just counting living organisms that psychologists might study to elucidate fundamental principles of the mental processes, then us big-brained humans are in the minority.
- Third, the answer does nothing to make clear that there is a levels-of-analysis problem inherent in the question. If you met a reproductive biologist who was not particularly interested in the nuances of hormonal chemistry, that would seem reasonable, even though we all know that chemical interactions involving hormones are important to reproductive processes. Why would that seem reasonable? Because we understand that biology presents questions that can be answered without knowledge of chemistry. Of course, I am well aware that there is a board discipline of bio-chemistry, populated by scientists who do really great research. To the best of my knowledge, however, both biologists and chemists recognize that biochemistry is a peripheral topic; neither discipline confuses the periphery for the core. Taking that metaphor full circle: I am well aware that there is a field of psychobiology, and that brain research can, and should, play a crucial role in that discipline. But we have to remember that psychobiology is a peripheral discipline, at the border between psychology and biology - it is no way the core of the discipline, and the core issues of psychology can be studied without any knowledge of brain functioning.
Thus, the two cores of Skinnerian behaviorism are a pretty good theory of learning and a pretty good theory of organism-environment interaction. Nothing about either theory requires knowledge about brain-processes, and the entire science can be done at the level of organism-environment interaction. Certainly one could drop down a level of analysis and start talking about how the brain of a given organism changes over the course of learning, in the presence of given stimuli, or, most interestingly, how neural response to a given stimuli changes over the course of exposure to behavioral contingencies reliably present along with that stimuli. But one could just as easily drop down to a physiological level of analysis with an interest in hormonal response, immune response, digestive response, circulatory response, etc. This in not just hand-waving; I have seen very good talks about all the named topics (by researchers who are generally not Skinnerians) at ISDP, and much can be read about in Developmental Psychobiology as well as other venues. For example, there is some insanely good stuff coming out of the Brain-gut initiative at Columbia.
Now, Skinnerian behaviorism does not do a very good job at articulating the cyclical nature of perception-action processes, nor does it do the best job at evaluating what, exactly, organisms are responding to in their environments. On those topics, the ecological approach really shines. Holt is, in some important ways, the fountain-head for both approaches, so he blends together the strengths of both approaches. Alas, he did not have the benefit of the decades of sophisticated research the different traditions have generated, so he has some serious weaknesses as well. But that is a much longer discussion, and hopefully I have done something towards answering your question. There is even a chance, if we are lucky, that some of the readers here will throw additional insights into the mix.
* I suppose that instead of "operant conditioning" I could say that Skinner emphasizes the role of behavioral contingencies in development. For our purposes here, those are interchangeable.
** A discriminative stimuli is a stimuli that reliably indicates that a certain behavioral contingency is in effect. The classic example is a light, where pressing a lever will result in food when the light is on, but not when the light is on - e.g. receiving food is contingent upon lever pressing, but only when the light is on.