Private Events and the Mind-Body Problem

Anyone who has taken a history of psychology course will no doubt remember an early lecture by their professor on the mind-body problem. If you were a behaviorist back then, you were probably asking yourself “why am I here?” But, then the professor gets to the part about behaviorism embracing physical monism (the idea that there is no mind and everything is physical or material in nature), and you were (no doubt) relieved to learn that within the mind-body problem there was at least an intellectual foundation/home for behaviorism.

Then in some later class, maybe in a senior seminar or graduate school, you bumped into the knotty issue of private events in a science of behavior. I have commented in an earlier piece about the differing points of view of card-carrying behavior analysts on the status of private events in behavior analysis and won’t address them further here. What I would like to do here is point to what I think are interesting parallels between the mind-body problem and differing views of behavior analysts on private events.

There are two broad points of view on the mind-body problem: Monism and Dualism. Monism says basically that there is only one reality: some monists say it is mind and others say it is body. Dualists assert that both mind and body exist, and there are a variety of different ways in which they relate (or don’t relate) to one another.

Now, let me be clear, no behavior analyst considers private events to be mental entities. If they exist, they are physical entities, just like any other behavior or aspect of behavior. Most reasonable people, including behavior analysts, acknowledge that people have private experiences that others can’t observe. If one were to deny the existence of private events altogether, one would take a position analogous to the physical monism point of view on the mind-body problem: everything important is observable behavior, its antecedents, and its consequences. There is no place for mind in physical monism and, from this point of view, there is no place for unobservable private events in scientific considerations of behavior.

Those behavior analysts who accord private events some kind of a place in relation to behavior take a position analogous to a dualist position on the mind-body problem (please note that I am not saying that people who acknowledge or seek a role for private events in behavior analysis are dualists). Behavior analysts adopting this point of view note that there are two kinds of events with which we must contend in our science: public and private ones. Then the question becomes one of how the two relate to one another.

One possibility is that private events occur, but they do not influence behavior (this is analogous to the position that mind and body operate in parallel, but do not “talk to each other”- psychophysical parallelism). A second possibility is that private events exist, but they don’t affect behavior. This is analogous to what is called an epiphenomenalistic position with respect to the mind-body problem. A third, analogous to mind-body interactionism, is that private events influence behavior and vice versa. And a fourth possibility is that we can’t separate private and public events – the organism is a unity that simultaneously is influenced by private and public events, analogous to the philosophical position of double aspectism. There are other mind-body positions, but these seem to be the four analogous to the most commonly held views of how private events do or do not relate to overt behavior.   

Please note, again, that I am not suggesting here that acknowledging private events or a role for them in behavior is a mentalistic or a dualistic position. Private events are an issue of considerable interest to many contemporary behavior analysts, in no small part because their handling by us often creates a chiasm between behavior analysis and much of the rest of psychology. I would like to think that we could turn to philosophy for ideas about how to communicate our various views of private events to nonbehaviorists and for ways to better understand possible relations between the two. Alas, I am not optimistic on this point. Philosophy has survived for thousands of years without resolving the mind-body problem. Maybe the best we can do is commensurate with philosophers about our analogous conceptual issues concerning the nature of human behavior.


Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.