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

Jeff CarreiraPhilosophy

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?

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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