The Homunculus Fallacy

When a dog is looking out, what’s going on within? Modern behaviorism and ethology claims it leaves that question aside and only considers observable behavior, but a close study of their terminology and usage shows that not to be the case. A discussion of a dominance hierarchy in dogs brings this into view.






In “Incomplete Nature” Terrence Deacon has an important chapter on the problem of the homunculus in explanations of consciousness. He begins the chapter with this quote:

“…..whenever a theory relies on a formulation bearing the logical marks of intentionality, there a little man is concealed. “

Daniel Dennett

In this chapter Deacon conducts a tour of philosophy and science and illustrates how every theory of mind has fallen victim to this intellectual hazard. Pulling back the curtain on behavioral science Deacon reveals that here too is a little man at the controls, hidden by a veil of terminology and authoritarian certitude that there is no such man.

Skinner himself tried to avoid the “homunculus fallacy.” Deacon:

“Skinner’s underlying concern is that attributing behavior to mental constructs sneaks unanalyzed teleological relationships into the science of mind through the backdoor of common sense, when this is precisely what needed explanation. The result of ignoring Skinner’s warning is a science of psychology erected on a foundation that assumes what it sets out to explain…Despite its overly minimalist dogma, behaviorism was one of the first serious efforts to explicitly design a methodology that would systematically avoid what has been termed the homunculus fallacy. The malady that behaviorists identified in the science of mind was real and quite serious. But their cure—pretending that mental experience is irrelevant for explaining behavior—was worse. Nothing is accomplished by attributing our capacity of perception to the perceptive abilities of a little man in the head; but attributing behavior to a simple mechanism for linking input stimuli to motor outputs simply sets the question of mental agency aside, it doesn’t resolve it. Even if I am behaving only because of certain reward contingencies that made one action more probable than another in a given context, I am still unable to explain what constitutes my being aware of perceiving and behaving in this way, and in some cases deciding to act counter to what my immediate emotions dictate. Behaviorism merely pushes the homunculus off center stage. It doesn’t hand him his walking papers.”

As a philosopher, Deacon adheres to the precise meaning of words. Physicists do as well. Dogdom not so much. A Facebook Dog Group recently discussed the notion of dominance. It was occasioned due to confusion within the ranks. I excerpt some of the discussion below so we can sift through it looking for evidence of the homunculus fallacy, which in my view is the source of the confusion in Dogdom. Unfortunately, the discussion thread was terminated before I could develop my point so I’m carrying on herein.

One Facebook participant wrote:

“Most of you here are confusing dominance, hierarchy, dominance hierarchy, aggressiveness (trait) and aggression (behaviour or motivation, depending on who you talk to). A DH is at the base a ranking system, i.e., a mathematical tool. No more, no less. The term “dominance hierarchy” (not dominance) defines a structure. The “state”, quite dynamic (so often changing), of a social group. This is the generally accepted definition in ethology and social psychology. Dominance, is a different issue and can be studied by looking at form, cause, consequence or function (explaining a lot of the confusion out there). You can take a full neurobiological approach to it, to focus on the proximate aspect of it. So a DH is a consequence of agonistic AND affiliative interactions in a group. Dominance needs to be ostensively and/or operationally defined, otherwise we turn in circles…”

Yes, but the “quite dynamic” aspect by which the dominance hierarchy changes is exactly the rub. How does it flux other than by the intentional states of the various interactants? The above assumes what it is trying to explain. It abstracts from the substrate that which needs to be explained, converts it into an objectified “mathematical tool” as if this advances the explanation.

Deacon: “Where homunculi show up in science and philosophy they are almost always smuggled in unnoticed—even by the smuggler—and they are seldom proposed outright. In the cases where homunculi sneak in unnoticed, they aren’t always full man-analogues either, but rather more general teleological faculties and dispositions that are otherwise left unanalyzed. Invoking only fragments of human capacity (rather than all features of intentionality and agency) makes it easier for homunculus assumptions to enter unnoticed. This may even contribute to the misleading impression that it achieves explanatory advance.”

So in the modern conception of a dominance hierarchy, it remains, although perhaps not explicitly stated in some quarters, that individuals are thinking about controlling access to resources relative to other individuals doing the same, and then out of this emerges a supposedly purified abstraction, pulled from the forge as a glowing new object, a dominance hierarchy, but now with no direct relationship to the intentional states of all the sweaty little men jostling down below. In my view, because the word dominance means something, no matter how the term is sliced or diced, no matter how abstractly it is positioned above the shoving and cussing going on underneath, it nevertheless still demands a homunculus because it posits one individual relative to another, or a set of individuals interconnected as self-contained agencies of volitive behavior jostling with each other. There remain a lot of little men doing some kind of mental cogitation.

There are some who who take a full neurological/neurochemical approach arguing that the individual tries to maximize the bath of positive neurochemicals his mind is being bathed in by virtue of attaining a high status in the dominance hierarchy. So in neurology the notion of a dominance hierarchy may push the little man off center stage, but certainly doesn’t deliver him its “walking papers.” The homunculus sneaks right back as the one trying to maximize his neurochemical experience. This is also true of the “context is everything” manner of interpreting why individuals vary in their response to various resources, because it requires that someone is reflecting on its current neurochemical state and how to go about improving upon it and in terms of others.

Deacon: — “We are taught that Galileo and Newton slew the Aristotelean homunculus of a prime mover, Darwin slew the homunculus of a divine watchmaker, Alan Turing slew the homunculus of disembodied thought, and that Watson and Crick slew the homunculus of the élan vital, the invisible essence of life. Still, the specter of homunculus assumptions casts its shadow over even the most technologically sophisticated and materialistically framed scientific enterprises. It waits at the door of the cosmological Big Bang. It lurks behind the biological concepts of information, signal, design, and function. And it bars access to the workings of consciousness.”

Facebook: “Maybe there is no concise formulation for canine social structure because the natural process has been affected by domestication or selective breeding, or by dogs living as solitary animals with people or in multiple dog households of varying numbers, breeds and conditions;, because there are free ranging dogs that are feral and some that are house dogs let out for the day – that is where dogs can ‘range free’….so anyone can be as concise as they like with a definition, just make it really flexible.”

But here saying that domestication changed the dog is inserting a homunculus, however in this case not a little one but one hidden by the vastness of his size, the “hand of man” agency.

Facebook: “I agree we often cognitivize animal social behaviour more than needed, but “resources” are at the centre of behavioural ecology conceptually, without a cognitive ecology/ethology/psychology necessarily being evoked.”

Facebook: “Dominant isn’t a personality trait, it’s a position in a social construct. No dog is dominant in a household unless they’re the one in control of the resources.”

Deacon: “I will define a homunculus argument as one in which an intentional property is presumed to be ‘explained’ by postulating the existence of a faculty, disposition, or module that produces it, and in which this property is not also fully understood in terms of non-intentional processes and relationships.”

As soon as the term resource is added, the motive to control access to it is ascribed to the individual, and the dominance hierarchy supposedly emerges and is explained, when it is not. It rests on states of intention and remains homuncular. It is intrinsically incomplete while at the same time claiming to have advanced our understanding in terms of that which remains incomplete.

In contrast, how does NDT theory avoid the homunculus? First, by concentrating on the How rather than the Why. This may not prove a total firewall but it is an extremely helpful guardrail. Second, the method is in the moment, the ends is in the means, there’s no teleology because the feeling of flow is the same in the simple as it is in the complex. It’s a universal constant, nothing has changed even though everything might have been shuffled and reordered into a new configuration. From beginning to end, the current (emotion) remains the same: the feeling of flow remains the same. Likewise, no matter how much electrical activity may go on in the universe, the net electrical charge always remains the same, and this can account for the How of chemical interactions. So in NDT behavior is purposive without being purposeful. When the adult dog is affiliating with other dogs in complex expressions of cooperation, altruism, problem solving, this is the recapitulation of its earliest litter hood physical memories. It’s not new from each dog’s point of view, or from emotion’s “point of view.” In other words, when an animal learns something new, this more complex expression of behavior isn’t really learned, in reality, the complex array of stimuli that strikes us as novel and the treatment of it by the dog strikes us as creative, is nonetheless construed in a way so that the past is recapitulated or rather, relived. The animal doesn’t learn, it remembers by reducing the complex back to the simple. Third, there is no intention in NDT, only attraction. In this manner the nature of information can be extracted, value is added by an individual’s contribution to the configuration conducting the current without leaning on psychological motives and intentional states, both of which require a little man. Fourth, a systems logic is a bottom up rather than trickle down process, which is the homunculi in all its various guises. The guiding self-referencing principle in NDT is a feeling of flow, one without a difference between human and animal. It has an inherent principle of conductivity and this is what’s going on in the mind of the dog and furthermore this is consistent with the hierarchy which emerges from it. Complex social relations are the principles and property of emotion as energy that reflects back upon itself, a process of elaboration going on within the individual, mirrored in the interaction between individuals, between the social structure that emerges and the ecosystem into which it is ensconced through its evolution by this process of elaboration, i.e. emotion reflecting back on itself. No little man sneaks in under the tent to make the model work because the improvement of flow is what adds value and is the basis of information. In NDT emotion isn’t human, it’s animal energy. It also isn’t individuated, but universal and uniform to all. From example, the laws of motion and a universal field of attraction holds our solar system of planets together in a coherent configuration so that every revolution of every orb is coherent with all others. A universal field of attraction  harnesses the momentum of a system thereby held in a state of steady motion. We’re not asking Why is there a universal state of attraction—-Why is there a steady motion—-We’re simply asking How is a dog attracted, How is he set in motion. This advances the explanation of behavior by allowing one to build a model and so far as best as I can see, there’s no little man watching a screen with his hands on the controls. The immediate-moment manner of analysis is a tool of inquiry into the animal mind, not an explanation for the existence of the animal mind.

There is only one motive one can ascribe to an animal without invoking a homunculus: the motive TO MOVE. This is enough to open wide a window into the animal mind. This statement routes us into physics and keeps psychology and a horde of little men at bay. When an individual moves, his body generates momentum.


That projected point becomes the most important aspect of the animal’s mind. The animal mind projects a feeling of its physical center-of-gravity (p-cog) to a point above which its center mass must then reconfigure, i.e. the emotional center-of-gravity (e-cog). NDT is the story of how these points become connected through complex behavior and learning, i.e. the elaboration of a wave. These two points allow us to build a model for the mind on a basic, architectural level. There is no little man looking at an object, there is an object arising in the mind from the confluence of the need to move and a state of attraction. The object is a function of motion, emotion is a function of motion, life is a function of motion. Consciousness is movement that proceeds according to the laws of motion and persists according to the principles of thermodynamics.


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Published July 14, 2015 by Kevin Behan
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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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