Thorndyke etc.

[From Bill Powers (951101.1450 MST)]

Bruce Abbott (951101.1535 EST) --

     The essay presented Thorndike's classic experiment and his analysis
     of it for the purpose of debating whether Thorndike's approach did
     or did not fall within acceptible scientific practice. I don't
     mind debating how Thorndike _should_ have interpreted his
     observations, but that is another issue. It is quite possible to
     draw incorrect inferences while following accepted scientific
     practice.

Behind my proposals, I'm sure you know, was a framework of theory that
includes means of testing propositions. Just about everything I guessed
could, in principle, be subjected to test within this framework. So I
was not in the position of asserting that my guesses were right, take
them or leave them. I was trying to show a contrast with the way
Thorndyke offered his proposals. What framework would Thorndyke have
fallen back upon if someone had claimed that consequences do not have
any particular effects on the actions of the organism that produces
them?

     So not only didn't Thorndike attempt to infer what the cat was
     doing in the puzzle-box, he deliberately avoided doing so, because
     he wanted to avoid the trap of ascribing his own intellectual
     abilities to the cat.

Yes, this was the style of the time and in some quarters still is the
style. But the antidote was no better than the disease: ascribing to the
"situation" the causal properties which Thorndyke found subjectively
plausible.

Avoiding this "trap" is a good idea only to the extent that is is really
a trap and not a route to valid insights. The problem is that in
avoiding attributing _all_ his own capabilities to the cat, Thorndyke
was asserting that the cat had _none_ of his own capabilities. You know,
either horses can count or they are just bundles of reflexes. By ruling
out intentional behavior, for example, Thorndyke was left with nothing
but external causation as an explanation, which to my mind is far worse
than giving too much credit to the cat's brain.

But that would have been all right if Thorndyke had laid out his own
framework in detail and shown how his interpretation of the cat's
behavior followed from that framework. Presumably, he would have had
experimental evidence to help persuade us that he was using the right
framework, so we would be willing to go along with its application to
these experiments.

     I think we have to be careful not to attribute too much to the
     cat's reasoning ability. The cat may have wanted to get out, and
     this in turn may have altered certain references so as to produce
     actions that had succeeded in getting the cat past similar
     obstructions in the past, but (with Thorndike) I rather doubt that
     the cat was systematically developing and testing hypotheses, and
     would want to see evidence on the question.

I agree completely. With the starting point of how _I_ would solve the
problem, we can gradually peel away all the things that a human being
can do that are probably beyond the cat, each time producing a simpler
explanation more applicable to a real cat. At some point we'd have a
theory we'd be willing to subject to test.

     By saying this you make Thorndike sound silly, but it is not what
     Thorndike said or implied. It is the cat, not the behavior, that
     is confronted with a particular situation, and different situations
     tend to be associated with a particular mix of behaviors that
     appear and reappear with a given frequency, as the observer sees
     them.

Then why did you say that the behaviors were confronted with the
situation, and so on (as you did)? Every time I take what you or some
other psychologist said literally, I'm told that this is not what they
believe. Why do they keep saying things they don't really mean? If they
don't believe that the environment intelligently pushes organisms around
to make them behave in certain ways, why do they keep talking as if that
is exactly what they believe? Do they have a language problem?

I think I'll pass on the rest of the stuff about probability and so
forth.

···

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From post to Bruce Nevin:

     If the word "control" had not already existed as a label for the
     process/outcome to which it refers, I wonder what term Bill P.
     would have chosen.

I tell people now and then that when they really understand PCT, they
can explain it without using any of the technical words like control,
reference signal, perceptual signal, etc. What we study are living
systems that can specify an outcome of their behavior in advance, and
then act to bring that outcome into existence, even when changes in
environmental conditions require a different kind of action each time
they do this. What do other people call systems that can do this?

Bill Pronzini, in his "Nameless Detective" series, has written many
murder mysteries in which the first-person protagonist's name is never
revealed. A rose without any name at all would still smell as sweet.
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Shannon Williams (951101)
Shannon Williams (951101) --

I much appreciate your incisive comments. Will you tell us more about
who you are and what you do? Do you talk with other people about PCT?
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Best,

Bill P.